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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?"

 

 

Chapter Text


Remy arrived in the land of botox, bikinis, and billions late in the afternoon, the vibration of his bike still humming in his bones. One call to his fixer let it be known his skills were once again available, but meanwhile he'd freelance something. It felt right, even the road grit and sweat of the ride south from San Francisco felt good, unaccompanied by blood from a fight for once. He'd let his bike fly down the road after retrieving it from the Guild safehouse where he'd stashed it and not looked back.

It felt good to be working for no one but himself. Wolverine always said he was the best at what he did, but what he did wasn't very nice. Well, Remy was the best at what he did and it was fun.

He kept his sunglasses on as he checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The ID and the credit card he used were both platinum. SHIELD and law enforcement had no reason to look twice at Richard Navarre. He'd inherited an obscene amount of money and wandered the world looking for 'inspiration' for his art. He'd even had two successful gallery showings. Remy couldn't wait for the day one of the paintings Lapin did for 'Navarre' ended up stolen. It would provide enough ammo to tease the other thief unmercifully the rest of his life.

The thrill of walking out on Utopia lasted through the next day, while he rented a convertible and cased the city, learning the ins and outs, the smoggy daylight streets and the gritty dark alleys, where the sleek and successful partied and where the tired hookers drank coffee at three in the morning. The City of Angels offered no welcome, just hard, hot concrete and harsh light, nothing like the gracious Crescent City he still considered home. Tacky and fake, Remy judged it. The trannie streetwalkers who cooed over his manners when he complimented them were more real than anything else he saw. One of them gave him the name of shithole hotel where you could dismember someone in the bathtub complete with screams and the cops would never come too. He paid for a room on the third floor. For an extra fifty bucks the room stayed 'officially' empty and no name went on the register. He bought canned goods and left them there. A safe house you had to leave to get dinner didn't stay safe. He left a change of clothes there too – he wasn't planning on dismembering anyone, but the time he'd tagged along on one of Bella's hits, there'd been blood everywhere. He'd ended up washing his clothes out in a sink and wearing them wet. He'd never forgotten how wet, heavy denim chafed.

He whistled as he left by the back stairs. Dieu, he'd been so in love with her back then. Sometimes he still missed what they could have been together. He wouldn't have ended up with the Marauders if he hadn't been exiled, true, but if he had, Belladonna wouldn't have been bothered by anything he'd done.

In the afternoon, he hit the men's boutiques and bought Richard Navarre a fortune in designer clothes. He left with telephone numbers from more than one shop girl and boy programmed into his phone, two casting directors' cards, and an invitation to the Marcus Roston's screening party for his latest blockbuster.

He strolled after that, the sun hot on his shoulders, checking for tails out of habitual paranoia while he pretended to window shop. Since Richard Navarre was an artist, he checked out several galleries before indulging himself for several hours at LACMA. After a soul-restoring visit with Georges de La Tour’s Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, he indulged a more physical hunger and dined alone at an unassuming diner. He ordered a giant burger and fries, salad and pie and ate it all, guessing that the party wouldn't offer anything with enough calories to satisfy his accelerated metabolism and nothing would be moving fast enough for him to draw energy from.

Despite the late hour, the sun still lingered over the horizon and heat radiated from the sidewalks as Remy left the diner. His purchases from earlier would have arrived at the Roosevelt, so he headed back to change. He needed to look the part if he wanted to garner more invitations into the elite of Hollywood's homes. Scouting and research could only do so much. An inside tour of a target made everything much easier. Parties provided the perfect opportunities. So did affairs with bored wives and daughters, but he hadn't seduced anyone as part of pinch since he stole the Cheating Star.

Remy pushed his foot down on the gas pedal, his good mood rapidly souring. Why?

Roston's party didn't improve his mood. Talking required raising his voice to be heard over the club mix version of the soundtrack to Roston's latest movie. Every woman and man wore a different cologne or perfume, but all of them had the same hollow hunger inside. They wanted, even though most of them had no idea what: escape, safety, power, something else, something different, something that was someone else's, more, more, more. Remy shut down his empathy rather than be sucked into the emptiness. Talk centered on the business and only the business. Even the slaughter of dozens of their fellows a year before only prompted one screenwriter to tell Remy he was working on a 'treatment'. He seemed to think Remy was a potential investor. Remy sipped very good champagne from a cut-crystal flute and pretended to listen while scoping the security system. Roston's mansion ran to Art Deco and he had several pieces of art from the Deco Movement, but Remy preferred to only steal art on commission.

Bored out of his mind, he told the screenwriter, "Call me," without giving his number and found his way into another room. A wall of windows, the glass shivering to the bass beat of the music thundering inside, showed off a blue-lit Olympic-sized pool surrounded by shadowy palms and custom-designed torches. The flames illuminated the sleek skin of the various beautiful, bared bodies in the pool and around it. A blonde woman wearing three quarters of a million in diamonds, Jimmy Chu's, and Victoria's Secret dropped her dress on a lounge chair and dived into the water. Remy approved her form, while wondering if he couldn't distract her enough to lift at least the bracelet she wore. She climbed out the pool and posed very deliberately in front of a man three times her age, but was waved away in favor of a cigar. Her attention shifted to the next man and Remy's wandered. His gaze sharpened on one of the still dressed figures and he pursed his lips.

So much for not looking up trouble.

Taller than Wolverine – who wasn't? – but he moved the same, had the same frame. Lighter on his feet since he lacked a hundred pounds or so of adamantium skeleton. Remy hadn't seen his face unmarred or unmasked before. The mohawk was interesting. Maybe just a way to keep his hair from doing that weird-ass pointy thing Wolverine's did. He'd inherited the healing factor and the claws, so why not the hair?

Daken Akihiro.

He hadn't really thought they'd run into each other.

Remy considered leaving. He thought about it, sipped champagne, and watched Daken, vaguely surprised Daken hadn't caught his scent. X had Wolverine's enhanced senses, but X was a clone. Maybe Daken didn't get the whole package. Or he got something different in its place. Remy considered approaching him and decided against it. He didn't want a confrontation. If Daken tried to kill him it would blow his Navarre identity.

They didn't need to clash. The take down of the Pride had left a vacuum in the realm of LA crime. Daken would be here to take over the way he had in Madripoor. Remy just wanted to steal things.

Movement in his proximity, shifting potentials, drew his mind back inside. The windows let him catch mirrored reflections from behind him, so he didn't jerk way when a pretty girl wrapped her arms around him from behind. "You look lonely," she said, pressing her front to his back. Soft breasts, expensive perfume, Bible Belt accent.

He caught her hands as they slipped beneath his suitcoat and went for his belt. "Just waiting for you." He twisted around, still holding both of her wrists in one hand. Automatically, he assessed her threat potential, then her jewelry. Low and faux. Pretty in a prom queen way and if not vacuous then self-absorbed, but he judged she lacked the ruthlessness to achieve any of her Hollywood ambitions. Pity made him smile and ask, "What's your name?"

"Lucille. Hey, you wear your sunglasses at night."

"I need them to keep from being blinded by you." A quirked smile invited her to laugh at the flatly delivered line, but she giggled instead as if she'd bought it.

"Someone said you were going to invest in Marcus' next movie."

"Did they?"

"I think I'd look really, really good next to him on the screen. I'm not even taller than him!"

"I suppose that is a problem with some actresses," Remy replied absently. It turned out Roston was much shorter than he looked on screen, but the top of this girl's head didn't even reach Remy's chin, despite the four inch heels she teetered on. Maybe she would have a chance. He subtly turned them so he could watch the window and the reflection of the rest of the room again.

"Hey," she said and dug into the tiny, sequined purse carried, "I have what you need!" She held out a garbanzo-sized green pill between her cherry-red nails.

Remy accepted it curiously. The pill had a slick coating and a red H on it. It looked mass produced.

"It's Heat," Lucille said.

"Heat?"

She nodded, blonde hair dancing around her face, eyes bright. "It's fantastic. I mean, you really look like you could use some cheering up, and this will make you feel sooooo good. Like a hot chocolate orgasm that lasts all night."

"Who could resist that?"

"Well, aren't you going to take it?"

"Later," Remy lied. Ten years ago he wouldn't have hesitated. Proved he had learned something. He slipped the pill into his coat pocket.

Lucille laughed and dry swallowed another Heat pill. Remy handed her the last of his champagne to choke it down and slipped away. Daken was leaving the poolside and Remy wanted to keep an eye on him.

Daken's mohawk made him easy to follow. Remy spotted him again at the outside bar, tossing back a drink like water. With Daken's healing factor the alcohol would have about as much effect. Remy's eyebrows rose when he saw Daken stumble into the lingerie and diamonds woman, nearly knocking her into the pool. She'd lost her bra, but Daken didn't even notice.

What the hell, Remy wondered, his internal alarms shrilling. Daken moved like a tranked tiger, the muscle still there but the coordination shot. No drink should have had that effect on him, not even a drugged one.

Daken brought something round and green to his mouth and Remy fingered the Heat pill Lucille had given him. What the hell was it if it could punch through a healing factor?

He sensed the opportunity for a really good pinch in the future.

Now that he was looking for it, he saw the drug being passed around the party like candy. The blinded smiles of the users made Remy's skin crawl. It was too pervasive at the party to figure out who was supplying it. If Hank had still been on Utopia, he would have taken up a couple more offers and couriered the pills to him to analyze. As it was, he figured he'd have to hack LAPD's system and find out what they knew about the drug. Those big green pills had to be making someone a lot of money.

Dirty money.

Drug money.

This was going to be good.

He was going to take it. His fingertips itched in anticipation. He was going to take all of it.

Smiling wide, he strolled out and waited for the valet to bring his car around.
 
                                                                                                           ~*~

Richard Navarre returned to the Roosevelt just after two in the morning, nodded and smiled just a little too wide at the night clerk and anyone else he passed and headed to his room, the very picture of a man who had been partying hard. He checked his email in the elevator, finding one message from an alias he knew Lapin used. His childhood companion in trouble was monitoring credit card transactions. Fine, if Lapin wanted to stick his nose in, then Remy would call and catch up with him. He'd cut his ties to anyone in New Orleans when he realized he'd made the decision to go to En Sabah Nur and hadn't been in touch with anyone there since. The Guilds belonged to Belladonna now, but sweet-talking a favor or two from Lapin wouldn't hurt anyone.

Inside his room, Remy pulled the locked case sitting beneath the more obvious luggage out and picked it open. He didn't bother with keys; if he couldn't get something open with his skills, he didn't deserve to get the contents.

The case held his Guild colors and his working 'blacks': an armored skinsuit in mottled dark greys, greens, and nearly black reds that broke up his outline and disappeared into the darkness. The blacks were infinitely more practical than his colors, but the gaudy colors were a Guild thief's implicit brag that he could pull off anything, even while wearing blue-black and fuchsia. Lapin's colors were even worse: white and orange. The armor on Remy's combat boots was adamantium like his bo staff; he couldn't exactly scuff the shiny off the hardest substance on or off the planet. He'd once given a try to wearing the X-Men's uniforms, but the armor part of his colors was better, so he gone back to it as a fighting uniform. Wasn't like the X-Men went in for covert anyway.

Now the blacks... he wasn't sure many of the X-Men even knew he had them.

He had another uniform in storage in Chicago, specially made for him, that he'd never worn. Matte black and blood-red. Sinister had given it to him with a toothy smile before Remy took the Marauders down into the Morlock Tunnels, but he hadn't wanted to go on a mission in untried armor and hadn't worn it.

Remy pulled out the blacks and changed into them. Laptop in a pack on his back, he disappeared from the Roosevelt unmarked by anything or anyone, retrieved his bike and headed for his other hotel. It might smell like mold and eau de despair, but he meant to do some hacking that definitely couldn't be traced back to Richard Navarre's room.

Once there he seated himself on the bed and began working. Every good pinch began with research. A smart thief did his own as far as he could.

Searches for articles on Heat or any new street drug came up blank. Remy flexed his fingers over the keyboard. Either Heat was very new or it was being kept out of the news. He began peeling back the layers, accessing passworded law enforcement databases. When he found nothing on the first try, he dug deeper. LAPD had never heard of it – on record.

Remy frowned.

He'd been in LA one day and seen this stuff. How could the cops not know about it?

He stretched his back and went back to typing, checking sheriff's departments, ICE and DEA offices. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. He decided to come at it from a different angle and set out to crack the security on local hospitals, looking for reports of overdoses.

Abruptly his screen filled with entries.

"Et voila."

He skipped as much private data as he could and winnowed out fourteen deaths in the last two weeks which weren't caused by any recognized chemicals. They hadn't died of the same causes or in the same places. It didn't look like they knew each other either. One had smashed a dance studio's mirror by attacking her reflection and bled to death from the damage she did to herself. A legal intern had leaped off an overpass into rush hour traffic. The second lead in a proposed TV pilot had run into the hills until his heart burst. A model had taken her roommate's gun and shot at anyone she could see until a SWAT sniper took his shot. Two others died in their sleep it seemed, one in bed, one on a couch. Another plowed her leased Mercedes into a telephone pole; the morgue photo showed her still smiling. That made Remy shudder, it looked a hell of lot like the smile on Daken's face after he popped that pill.

"Merde," he muttered, trying to figure out why he thought these deaths were all from Heat. There had to be a pattern, something he had picked out unconsciously. Why these people?

He arranged windows showing each of the dead on the laptop's screen and scowled at them. So stupid, look at them, he thought. Young and beautiful and either already successful or willing to do anything to get there. Exactly the kind of people he'd seen at Roston's party earlier.

Heat wasn't a street drug at all. It was a designer drug, a very upscale, expensive, party drug.

So it was at the parties. Was it at the clubs? He'd need to check that out. Find a dealer. Dealers led to suppliers. Suppliers would provide a direct line back to the manufacturers. It was like an inverted pyramid, narrowing down to a single point, where all the money funneled to one group or person
Why had this group of people died from it, if Remy was right? Judging by how many people he'd seen using at Roston's party, if Heat killed, it would be killing more people. There'd been bowls of the pills set out like M&Ms at Halloween.

Look at the people again. Look at the drug.

He went back to the autopsy reports and found a toxicology report on the dancer. The lab had been looking for psychoactives. No LSD, no PCP, nothing anyone had expected, but there had been a complex breakdown chemical in her tissues. Remy copied the toxicology report to an email and shot it off to Lapin with a message. Get one of the chemists to figure out what would leave this. The Assassins specialized in biochemistry; the fine art of poisoning required new formulas whenever someone figured out a test for the old ones.

Most of the victims had nothing interesting in their backgrounds. Remy dug deeper, until he found himself tiptoeing through SHIELD's records. SHIELD used technology to create their psis, but they still had to have a trace of talent, enough potential that if they'd had an X-gene they would have been gamma telepaths. Not mutants, but people who might have been. M-Day hadn't affected them. The musician had been considered as a possible recruit to SHIELD's ESP corps. He hadn't fit the psych profile SHIELD wanted, though, and never learned of their interest.

Diligent searching found nothing indicating the others had been anything but pure flatscan humans, but latent meant latent, and if they'd never been scanned for it, no one would know they had it.

His whiskers rasped as he rubbed his chin, reminding him he needed to shave again. Richard Navarre didn't sport five o'clock shadow all the time.

The silent vibration of his phone made his eyebrows raise. He checked who was calling him and hit accept.

"Where y'at?" he greeted Lapin.

"You plannin' to poison anyone, Remy?"

"Is it poison?"

"Wouldn't know," Lapin replied. "Gris Gris and a couple of the other Assassins'll be willing to do you a favor, but they ain't going to get out bed to do it in under an hour."

"So, why're you calling?" Remy leaned back on the bed and enjoyed the famiiar rhythms of Lapin's speech. It was three hours later in New Orleans and either Lapin was up insanely early or he hadn't gone to bed yet. Which reminded Remy he was horizontal on a bed, even it wasn't a very comfortable one, and he hadn't slept yet either.

"'Cause you finally using an ID with a number I got!"

A sigh escaped Remy.

Lapin's voice dropped back to concern. "You still got your powers?"

Had it been that long since he even talked to Lapin or anyone in New Orleans? Since before M-Day? Remy frowned at the stained ceiling. Dawn sent a shaft of light through closed curtains on the room's only window and illuminated a brown shape that reminded him of a gator. Yeah, it had been that long. He hadn't wanted to explain anything. Though he'd tangled with some assassins in Arizona, so the Guilds had known he was alive.

"Remy?"

Truth was, if he had lost his powers again on M-Day, he would have kept it to himself.

"Yeah," he said.

"Then where the hell you been!? Got so worried, Mercy called that Institute after the blow up at the UN, and all she got was the run around."

Remy cringed. That would have been right after his defection and transformation into Death. His name would have been mud at the mansion.

"She said they sounded the way they did after they left you in Antarctica." Lapin paused before inquiring delicately, "They screw you over again, mon ami?"

Remy laid his arm over his eyes and laughed roughly. "I screwed them over," he admitted.

"What'd you do?"

Still hiding his eyes from the light, if not the memories, he decided to be honest. "Defected to Apocalypse, tried to kill Rogue, and then went back to work for Essex – Sinister." He'd had his reasons.

Lapin said nothing.

Remy told himself he didn't care what Lapin thought. It had all been necessary. He'd asked Riptide to make it fast, but he'd still sent him out to kill Quiet Bill, a guy he'd liked and even owed, while the other Marauders took out every other precog or chronopath that might have seen what Destiny's diaries predicted. They'd only missed Blindfold because the X-Men faked her death. The Witness, Tinker, Mother Night... their blood was on his hands. Quiet Bill was the one who bothered him most, though.

He squeezed his eyes shut and reminded himself of the rest of it. They'd killed too many Purifiers to count in Cooperstown, but he had no regrets over that. Those bastards had taken out an entire pediatrics ward just to make sure they killed one baby. If he hadn't led the Marauders, then Hope would have died there, and Rogue within a day, and in a few more years the rest of mutantkind. That had been the secret Mystique shared with him, gleaned from her precog lover and lived with through years of manipulation and maneuver. He kind of understood the blue salope now. No use explaining that you did what had to be done to those who weren't willing to make the same ruthless decisions.

"T'es con," he murmured finally, "I'll hire a lab here to do the analysis." He moved his thumb over the end call button.

"Tu te fous de ma gueule?" Lapin yelled loud enough it made the cell's speaker buzz.

"Non."

"Merde. Idiot. Imbecile. If your pere – "

"Te gueule," Remy snapped.

"I don't know if you remember this, but I saw you after what that monster made you do, and it wasn't pretty."

He didn't remember. He'd been off his head with pain and pain killers and the guilt that threatened to break him permanently for weeks. When he had recovered, he'd thrown himself headfirst into stealing and running wild, owing nothing and no one. If the Guild had kept track of him, he hadn't known it, nor would have cared. They'd exiled him and the consequences still left a bitter taste even now.

"Your pere sent me to New York."

Remy sat up. His thumb hovered over the end call button. "I said – "

"I know, and I'm not. It's just – why?"

"Why not," Remy muttered.

"You scare me sometimes."

"Me too."

"Are you... Should I tell Belladonna the X-Men're enemies now?" Lapin asked. "'Cause, she's been kinda, uhm, crazy, oui, and we're at war with the Hand... "

Remy swung to his feet and went to the window to straighten the curtain. "The Hand? Hunh." What Belladonna did with the Guilds didn't truly concern him any longer. He had no friends in the Asian crime cartel to worry about and no doubt the Assassins could wipe the floor with the Hand's two-bit ninjas.

"Your concern just overwhelms, by the way," Lapin said. "So, does the Guild need to be on the look out for the X-Men?"

"Non."

"'Cause Wolverine and Domino wasted dozens of Bella's people a couple of months ago."

"Really? Bella be stupid enough to send her people after Wolverine?" Maybe her brother Julien hadn't been the only insane Boudreaux. He started to ask what she'd been thinking, but thought better of it. "I don't want to know."

"Actually, she sent them after Domino," Lapin said.

"That was just stupid. They're both part of Cyclops' wetworks team."

"Since when have the X-Men had a wetworks team?"

"Since there's only about two hundred of us left, mon ami."

"Us?"

Remy scowled but answered honestly again. "Mutants."

"So, the X-Men?"

"Eh, it comes and it goes." He rubbed his forehead, realizing he had a headache. Since he'd had the same one on and off for months, he sometimes forgot it was there, though he knew it made him snappish. "Lately, mostly going."

Lapin sighed dramatically. "Then be careful, cousin, and don't just disappear again. Bien? And if you really want that fille dead, take a contract out on her. Bella'd give you a clan discount."

That made Remy laugh. "Bella don't give this one the time of day discount. 'Sides, it was just one of those things."

"One of those mutant things?" Lapin sounded doubtful.

"Oui."

"You willing to take some Guild contracts, though? It would make getting Gris Gris' help easier."

"Peut-être."

"Bon. Zoe's in Vegas, she can be there in a couple hours if you need a second. Can get you the names of some contacts for equipment too. Some good outfitters there, we've done business with. The Pride never minded a thief spending money in their territory, just working in it."

"À bientôt, Emil," Remy told him.

He ended the call, closed his laptop and threw himself down on the bed. He'd catnap for an hour or two, then see what else he could uncover electronically before hitting the nightclub scene after dark.

                                                                                                            ~*~

Nightmare lullabies marred his sleep again and a growling stomach pushed him out of the hotel to buy tacos and a beer. He ate at an outdoor table, under the shade of a drooping palm tree, while reading the day's newspaper. The tacos were tasty. Condensation slid down the glass sides of the beer bottle. The teasing, half-remembered outlines of his dreams unraveled and were lost while he dined, until only the echo of someone speaking and the words 'the Nursery' lingered. He concentrated on his food before reading the paper, guessing from the headlines that the articles would kill his appetite.

Another victim of the Claw Killer found. The victim already identified and her picture, side by side with one of the ditch where her body had been distributed, piece by piece, smiled at the world from below the front page fold. Pretty Lucille Day had been an aspiring actress.

Remy'd been right about the Bible Belt; she'd been born in Topeka. Lucia Romanoski. She'd changed her name when she hit Hollywood.

He dropped the paper and slipped his fingers under his sunglasses to rub his eyes. His headache was back. Poor pretty party girl, sliced up and left in pieces for the rats and scavengers; she didn't deserve that. When he blinked his eyes open again he read the article from start to finish, then the sidebar describing the two-week killing spree.

Remy didn't see himself as a savior. Solving murders, he'd leave to the cops as long as he thought they'd do the job. Just because he'd met the girl for five minutes didn't change that. The FBI was consulting on the case. Agent Donna Kiel was hunting the killer. From the picture of the all-business agent in the paper, Remy'd bet she'd get him too.

But.

Lucille had used Heat and she'd been at the same party as a man he knew had claws.

Normal cops, even the FBI, couldn't handle someone like Daken.

Two hours later, Remy knew everything there was to know about Agent Kiel that could be gleaned from records. He also knew that meant he really didn't know anything. She was sharp as a switchblade, though, even on paper, and he had no intention of meeting her in person. Even looking at her picture he could see a streak of darkness under the ice princess looks. He had a nearly fatal weakness for dangerous women with a touch of crazy. Rogue was the latest and Bella had been the first, but in between...

Remy grinned and decided he wanted to see Donna Kiel in person. After all, he wasn't currently wanted for anything. Well, Richard Navarre wasn't.

His phone vibrated. Lapin had been busy. The list of contacts included two armorers, a forger, a doc-in-a-box clinic that would forget fixing up just about any kind of wound for enough money, and three fences. Too restless to stay inside any longer, he packed up the laptop and mapped out the best routes to reach the clinic in an emergency then did a some business with one of the armorers and the forger. New electronics and some tools he'd needed to replace, an extra ID, complete with a suit for Robert Lord – an old identity he'd used to access the Pentagon once or twice – all dropped off at the secondary hotel. He headed back to the Roosevelt in the afternoon.

Long shadows and an apricot and absinthe sunset promised relief from the shimmering heat. Los Angeles loved the night and the night loved Los Angeles, cloaking it in a glittering glamor of long shadow and neon. Time for Richard Navarre to head out clubbing.

Remy flipped his keys to a valet and slipped a hundred to the bouncer at the first club, who nodded to him and lifted a velvet rope to let him inside. He flicked on the image inducer he'd picked up earlier so that his eyes appeared hazel and human.

Bass throb beat greeted him inside, an ocean of bodies moving like the tide, a vortex of strobe and flashing skin, sultry eyes, panting mouths, the musk of perfume and alcohol and sweat.

Remy knew this, remembered giving himself away every night, chasing pleasure and the sweet forgetfulness of sex. Silencing everything in his head with too much noise and sensation to think through it. Screwing in hotel rooms and back rooms, alleys, bathrooms, dance floors, going down on a drug dealer's mistress once in a dark booth sticky with spilled champagne, both of them powdered with coke like a pair of beignets, while Riptide and Vertigo took care of business. Fucking someone let him forget everything but his body.

Rogue didn't do nightclubs. Too crowded, too much chance of an accidental touch to her skin. Remy'd given it up, like cigarettes, after a while. He didn't have to quit. He could fight Sentinels even with a hangover and could have cared less about the general disapproval the rest of the X-Men evinced over his lifestyle, but committing to Rogue meant giving up more than thieving like a bad habit, so he had.

He'd forgotten the high he got from a crowd of dancers, the heady cocktail of pleasure, admiration, exertion, and lust that flooded his empathy from everyone around him. Nightclubs were dark too, easy to get lost in, easy on his light sensitive eyes. He let every other thought go and danced, losing himself in movement and the music, the perpetual roil of kinetic energy around him buzzing through his nerves better than booze. How long since he'd touched and been touched without guilt? Stretching, moving, sliding against one body, hands caressing another, the heartbeat bass thrumming through his bones and veins, no names, no responsibilities, just need and so much want swirling around him. He could soak all that passion up and send it back out, heightening the experience for everyone in the club, and it fed back to him feeling even better.

Second club of the night he watched Heat pass through the crowd. Arousal already so thick in the air Remy could taste it. Licked his lips and matched the writhing moves of the girl dancing with her back to him, let the guy behind him move them both, hot hands on his hips burning through the fine fabric of his slacks. Desire coiled through the crowd, through the girl and back into him. An orgasm shuddered through the tangle of dancers pressed together. His shields were melting away. Body arching, moving, Remy ground himself back, a moan parting his lips as a caressing kiss found his neck.

"Let go," his nameless partner murmured while the girl turned in Remy's arms and slipped hot hands under his shirt and up, unerring, to his nipples. The erection pushing against his ass matched the hard-on in his pants. He cupped the girl's ass and lifted her, dress slithering up her thighs, so she could grind bare and wet against him.

Survival instinct made him to rock his face away from the pill pressed to his lips. Slitting open eyes he hadn't known he'd closed, Remy took a dazed look around the dance floor. His charm could turn this into an orgy if it slipped any further. The sensations pulsing through him tempted him to relinquish restraint and careen into mindlessness.

Instead Remy firmed his shields and told his body to calm down.

"Not tonight," he murmured and pulled away from grasping hands and hot mouths, denying himself. It got easier the further he got from the dancers making out. He retreated to the bar and guzzled a bottle of water. Walked himself back from the edge. He'd been picking up at least one Heat user.

If it felt like that second hand...

He didn't want to think about hands, clever, hard hands or hot, wet mouths.

Remy pushed away from the bar and stumbled out into the hot night. He hadn't been with anyone since the time he and Rogue spent depowered together. A little fun seemed to be torture now. One more club and if he couldn't find a dealer there, he'd give up and try a different tack tomorrow night.

He'd thought another club would leave him even more frustrated, but he was concentrating too much to get as lost as he had at the last one. Heat was out there, everywhere, but he couldn't find a sign of it being sold. There had to be a money trail, some sort of distribution system, but he couldn't latch onto it. Shielding so hard against emotions cranked his headache to new heights, until every breath threatened to crack his head open. Under his skin, behind his burning eyes, a singed croon promised relief, if Remy just stepped out.

I won't let you out.


A negative image smiled.

You won't have a choice. Can't keep me penned inside forever.

Can try.

Laughter like the rasp of dead leaves in dust.

He bypassed the dance floor entirely and wended his way toward the tables, easily able to pick out a dozen different drug passes even in the darkness, picking out the ones that involved large green pills. He spotted the woman with the diamonds from Roston's party swilling a martini and looking sour. She wore sapphires this time and hair extensions that tumbled to her waist. Her date was laughing with another man, squeezed close at the tiny table the four occupied. The Asian girl seated between the two men looked younger than Jubilee, other than her heavy make-up and silicone enhancements.

The date slipped the other man and the Asian girl each a hit of Heat, popped a pill himself, then groped in his pockets and failed to find anything to drop into the palm of the woman from Roston's.

Remy waited until the other man and the Asian girl headed for the dance floor and the date touched his nose and headed for the john.

He ordered two martinis and swept over, presenting one to the woman sitting alone.

"No one introduced us last night."

She took the martini and sipped it. "Do I know you?"

"Richard Navarre," he introduced himself. "I saw you at Roston's last night, but didn't get out to the pool part of the party." He sat down and smiled at her lazily. "Your date's an idiot."

"What does that make me for dating him?"

"Charity worker?"

"You're quick," she said and sipped the new martini.

"Witted and on my feet."

"But not in bed?"

"I like to sleep in. What do I call you once I have your number?"

She eyed him and smiled back. "You think you're getting my number?"

"I have definitely got your number." He infused it with enough wicked innuendo that she squirmed. "Dance with me?"

She angled a glance toward the washrooms before shrugging. "Why not?"

"Exactly," Remy purred, jolted out of character when she used the Marauder motto. There weren't many women or men who were really up for what the Marauders had called fun. This one wouldn't do bloodsports. No scars on her so-carefully maintained body, he'd bet. He held out his hand, imagining it black, his touch spreading his darkness through her skin until it stopped her heart.

She took it.

Death laughed from behind his eyes. Remy pushed the idea, the other personality, away. He was in control.

He drew out her name and profession. Amber Geirson, assistant producer on Roston's last movie. She'd married well and divorced better once already and meant to make a name for herself in Hollywood. "Faces get old," she told him and traced a finger along the line where his cheek creased when he smiled. "Power always looks good."

"Tried something last night," Remy said idly, after they danced and had another drink.

He let his hand wander down the bare skin of her back. His finger tips left trails that tingled, courtesy of a tiny charge to the top layer of her skin cells. Her hair hid any glow. She shivered and caught at his forearm, nails digging into his wrist. "I'd bet you've tried everything at least once."

"Twice. Can't be sure you don't like something 'til you do it twice."

"And if you like it?"

"Do it until you don't."

Amber was no innocent, he told himself as he played the game. Not knowing they were playing for different stakes didn't wipe the slate clean. He ought to know.

"And do you?" She smiled mockingly.

"Oh, yeah," he said. He leaned in, let his gin-touched breath ghost over her collarbone. "Beautiful, sexy woman like you knows how to turn on the heat. I'd like that. Love to share some of that with you."

Knowing she didn't have any Heat and needed it.

The quiver that ran through her didn't come from arousal, not entirely. She'd been sweating since shortly after he approached her and winced with a thoughtless hand to her belly once while they danced. Withdrawal's first warning signs.

"I can pay," he sweetened the deal, "enough for us both." He wanted to pay. He wanted a dealer.

"I know where to get some," Amber said, smiling like she hadn't just forfeited everything. "There's a party. I should have gone earlier, instead trusting Tony would keep his word."

"We can get it there?"

"Marcus' friends always have a connection at their parties."

"Then let's go."

                                                                                                            ~*~

A bag of green pills later and Richard Navarre was several thousand dollars poorer. He pretended to swallow one and handed the rest over to Amber, perfectly aware he'd been ripped off for more than anyone else would have paid. The night had begun to cool, rendering the party on the roof of an avant garde director's penthouse pleasant. Potted palms dipped tired fronds on the slight breeze available so many floors up. The view, at least, made up for the traffic noise, voices, and splashing which overwhelmed the delicates strains of the string quartet playing inside. "Put these in your purse," he told Amber, faking the sway and smile of every user he'd seen. "And help yourself."

Guilt stirred inside as he watched her take a dose. Heat was too new to be on the list of illegal drugs, but Remy had no doubt it would be soon. No way to rationalize giving Amber the drugs as anything decent.

He slipped away from Amber as she sank down on a blue-striped lounger. She'd already forgotten him; sunk in the drug's effects with her eyes closed, her back arched and her fingers spread across her own hip and breastbone, stroking. Sweat gleamed on between her breasts where the décolletage of her dressed dipped deep. He wondered if she'd take a dip in the pool later. She'd checked the water with one manicured hand when they walked out onto the roof top.

Maybe she'll take a walk off the roof
, Death suggested gleefully. Or drown herself.

Fucker.

You're just as much a killer as I am.

Non.

You don't care, you just think you should.


Remy slipped through the crowd, tailing the dreadlocked dealer back inside the penthouse. Of course, he was making for washrooms. He turned and took a step forward, contemplating whether it wouldn't be easier to just charge up the dealer's clothes and supplies and threaten a few names and addresses out of him rather than waiting until he left the party and following him.

It would definitely be faster.

But, unless he actually killed the man, the news someone was hunting would get back to the suppliers. Which would make Remy's job harder in the end.

Too bad.

He didn't know if he'd thought that or Death.

Out of boredom with the wait for the party to end, Remy mingled, picking pockets and purses and randomly slipping the contents back to others. He targeted the drunks and obviously obnoxious and did a little redistribution of the wealth as well. The only wallet he kept belonged to the dreadlocked man. Pickpocketing felt like child's play, even if his next meal had once depended on his light fingers. The practice kept him amused at least.

All games were abandoned when he spotted Daken, looking battered but arrogant as ever. Remy faded back, frowning, as he caught sight of the woman beside Daken.

"What the hell?" Remy muttered to himself.

Agent Kiel?

Curiouser and curiouser. What would bring her here with him? FBI agent and cop killer, investigator and prime suspect, both too intense and real and focused on each other to really fit in among the starstruck and the hangers-on. A dozen scenarios sprang to Remy's mind, beginning with Skrulls, mind control, or mutant pheromones and ending with him giving himself a mental slap. He'd been running with the X-Men too long. The simple and the obvious were always the most realistic answers. One of two things had Donna Kiel sipping champagne, arguing with Daken, and then dancing.

Power or sex.

Easy to figure out Daken's motives. Seducing the agent tasked with catching you was a trick Remy had employed himself. Sex and power. One bought the other. Kiel's motive was murkier, but he'd seen it too before. Kiel was a hunter. She liked outsmarting everyone, but it wasn't enough. She wanted the thrill of thinking she had the beast on a leash too.

Mistaking Wolverine or Daken for just another animal would always be a mistake. Mistaking Daken for his daddy, well, that would be bigger one, whether your name was Donna Kiel or Remy LeBeau.

Daken and Kiel leaned close, hovering close to a kiss, tension heady between them, before Daken's attention snapped away. Remy thought he'd been made, but Daken was watching someone else as a dose of Heat moved from hand to hand, hand to mouth. Dieu. Remy only hesitated a heartbeat when Daken left Kiel to fend for herself.

Daken disappeared into a washroom with a dose of Heat and Remy found a shadowed alcove where he could prop himself against the wall, dangle a bottle of Mexican beer from his fingers, and watch the door unobtrusively. He would have preferred to watch the exit or Kiel too, but the penthouse lay-out frustrated him. He settled for waiting for Daken. It let him watch the dealer too.

The party thinned out as the hour shifted toward morning. Dieu, how long did the high from Heat last?

He didn't need to conceal himself when Daken finally strolled out, an asinine grin on his face, only to realize Kiel was long gone.

"That's what happens when you abandon your date, homme," Remy remarked to no one as he loped after Daken.

Sure, he'd meant to find the dealer's supplier tonight, but that could wait. Daken couldn't. Remy really wanted to know what was going on.

If Daken was so far gone he was the Claw Killer, someone would have to put him down. Remy wasn't his own idea of a hero, but X and Wolverine were friends.

He'd do what had to be done and save them the pain.

Remy could do that for them.

Don't you mean you want to find out if you could kill Wolverine?


Remy scowled at that. Just because they'd sparred and practiced against each other hundreds of times, always pulling the killing blow or dampening a lethal charge at the last second, didn't mean he needed or wanted to know who would win on the killing floor. Neither of them had enough friends to accept one dying, especially at each other's hands. If it ever came to that, the winner would still lose.

If I were free I could.


Dieu, he wished the monster in his head would be silent. Bella had always said he should have been adopted by the Assassins instead of the Thieves. He always replied that it would have only resulted in him killing Julien sooner. Bella had always smiled.

He pushed open the door to the building's emergency stairwell, following the noise of Daken's harsh breaths, and ghosted his way after him, shedding Richard Navarre as he went. Daken was running down the stairs, claws out. Remy heard the bone scream against a metal railing.

Remy slowed his own descent. There were more people in the stairwell than just himself and Daken. He thought he heard a woman's voice, and Daken's, and then someone else. Some above him in the stairwell, his senses told him.

Silently, he vaulted onto the metal railing and pushed off, dropping and flipping acrobatically across the empty space to the far side the next story down. His hands closed on the metal bar in the dark and he charged it just enough to restore his momentum as he fell another story in the blink of an eye. This time when he caught a railing, he held with one hand and twisted through a hand stand. With exquisite control he landed in a half crouch, silent except for the protesting vibration of the metal railing.

Kiel was two floors down from him now, with someone below her. Whoever it was tasted like pus and poison to Remy's empathy. He slapped his shields back into place so fast he swayed. It still felt like something oozed over them, looking for him. Xavier said he didn't show up to telepaths or on the Astral Plane unless they knew to look for him there. Just in case, Remy charged the air around him as a psionic counter-measure; the charge screwed with any spook trying to get in his head.

Daken was one floor above and Remy caught the railing, ready to jump again, if Daken kept coming. He didn't have his bo staff and just one deck of cards. A melee in the stair well would go to the guy with the claws and the healing factor, if Remy was stupid enough to try to stand and fight.

He heard the body he'd sensed coming down behind him hit the same landing as Daken. Sounds but no words and then Daken, "You've got to be fucking joking."

The sound of a fist hitting a jaw carried down the stairs. Remy debated going higher, so he could see who Daken was fighting, and try to make out more of what they were yelling at each other. The fight came down the stairs instead, faster than he'd anticipated, Daken's opponent proving he had some fighting chops, even if Daken was still high.

Remy went over the railing and lowered himself so he hung from his hands gripping the base of two balusters. He doubted the two fighters would notice his fingers, and this way he could hear both of them.

"You're not my father!" Daken screamed.§

Remy chinned himself up, urgently wanting to see who the hell Daken's opponent was. He caught a glimpse of a full face mask, a hood, and a swirling white cape. One of the West Coast Avengers, he thought, Moon-somebody. Yeah, Remy'd bet this guy went and got himself registered like a good little superhuman a while back. He'd never had anything to do with the West Coast chapter of the Avengers, since the Guild stayed clear of LA, but no matter how much respect he'd lost since the Registration Act, none of them were villains. Someone besides Remy had realized it would take more than the LAPD to bring Daken in.

Whether this guy would be enough was another question. Daken plowed into the guy like a maddened bull, utterly wrong, with none of the fighting finesse he should have displayed. His forehead hit Moon-guy's – Moonknight, that was it – nose with a crack and then both of them smashed through the fire door in a tumble.

Remy pulled himself up and cautiously followed. Did Daken think he was fighting Wolverine? He closed in silently. They'd busted into an empty office floor and Moonknight knelt in a puddle of silver and white, a wall of windows behind him, lights from another highrise across the street illuminating him. Daken loomed over him, claws out, back to Remy.

"And you are the animal in our filthy horror of a bloodline!" Daken screamed at Moonknight. The rest of what he said devolved into howling, before he stumbled and groped at his head, nearly slicing himself with his own claws. Remy dodged back into a shadow. Blood showed black on Moonknight's impractical costume, leaking through where Daken had already cut him more than once.

"You're a crummy, nasty piece o' work and a real disappointment,"§ Moonknight taunted and Remy realized he was deliberately provoking Daken, messing with whatever Daken was hallucinating by mimicking Wolverine. It wasn't a good mimicry, but with Daken under the influence of Heat it seemed to get to him, and Moonknight kept it up, going for the gut, all those parental issues: abandonment, resentment, competition, insecurity; mocking Daken, until it did the trick. "You're just a cheap ass copy."

Daken howled and tackled Moonknight again.

This time they went through the plate glass and fell into the street below.

Hitting the ground wouldn't slow Daken down. Remy didn't know about Moonknight. He honestly didn't care. The kind of mindfuck he'd been pulling on Daken left a nasty taste in Remy's mouth. Wearing white didn't make him the good guy in this fight.

He went to the broken window and peered out, careful of the edges. Didn't want to leave any forensic evidence of his own presence.

On the street, bystanders scattered as Daken roared and attacked Moonknight again. Remy considered that he didn't have any gear with him and the drop to the street. He could do it, as long as he landed right, though it would be hell on his ankles. He shrugged to himself, kicked jagged glass out of the bottom edge of the window, stepped up, and jumped.

He landed in a three point crouch and rolled, grunting with the force it channeled up through his bones before he absorbed the kinetic energy. That trick might not be as cool as instantly healing, but not taking damage in the first place worked just as well for Remy. He'd never liked the sight of his own blood. His muscles were still going to be screaming the next day, though. He let momentum carry him to his feet in a gymnastic move, ignoring the pain. He'd already located Daken and Moonknight again.

Two party girls with cellphones and a paparazzi were catching pictures of the fight. Remy caught the girls by their upper arms and dragged them out of the street. He smiled charmingly at them, exerting himself to snow them under fast. "You filles need to get out of here," he suggested, making them want to please him. "Go on now, shoo."

He lifted their phones as they stumbled away, giggling.

He wasn't as nice to the paparazzi, pressing his finger to the telescopic lens on the man's camera and sending a charge through it that had it glowing hot pink in a nano-second. Releasing part of his overflowing energy reservoir came as a relief. "Better throw that away," he said. "It's going to go bang."

The paparazzi tore the strap to the camera over his head and flung it away with a whimper. It hit the gutter and exploded – almost quietly for one of Remy's charges. Remy had already turned his back.

Moonknight was on his feet, one hand clapped to a wound on the left side of his rib cage. Remy caught the last bit of what he was saying, "If you hadn't killed more people than cancer and car crashes combined you'd be making yer daddy proud right now."§

Well, merde, maybe it wasn't Heat making everyone crazy in LA. Had to be the smog. Remy'd just jumped out a five-story window, Daken was frothing at the mouth, Kiel partied with a potential serial killer, and this asshole just didn't know when to quit with the Wolverine shtick. Remy tuned in about the time Daken screamed, "You taught me nothing!" and finally attacked with some of the brutal skill Remy expected from him.§

Moonknight tried to dance back away from the claws slicing him open. Remy palmed several cards and prepared to throw them between the two combatants. Readied himselfto run like a cheetah if Daken turned his sights on Remy after they blew up, too. The charge pulsed from his fingertips into the pasteboards, higher and hotter than he'd intended, whether out of adrenaline-laced fear or simply an excess of kinetic energy absorbed from the drop, he couldn't tell.

Daken was going to kill Moonknight.

Moonknight started talking to the air like another crazy, then started fighting back with discipline and determination. No room to throw a card between him and Daken now. Remy watched in disbelief as Moonknight hammered Daken and sent him crashing to the pavement.

Daken was bleeding.

"All right, Akihiro, I'm taking you in," Moonknight declared, no longer mimicking Wolverine to Remy's relief. He paused. "Are you okay?

The bleeding wasn't stopping. Daken wasn't healing. Moonknight had fought the way you had to against a whacked-out feral with a healing factor and served up enough damage to kill most men. Daken, Remy realized, wasn't dead, but he wasn't healing.

He drew the charge out of the cards in his hands and let them crumple into dust.

Moonknight knelt over Daken as he rolled onto his side and clutched at his chest. Dieu, Remy realized, he was having a heart attack. The man didn't know how to rate himself, he'd always had that healing factor to take up the slack, to fix however he was broken, battered, or wounded. Without it, he'd fucked himself up worse than the damage Moonknight had inflicted.

Remy pulled out his cellphone and called 911. "Man having a heart attack," he snapped and added the address. He saw Moonknight making the same call and then Daken rolled on to his feet and lurched toward an alley in a staggering run.

Had he been faking?

Remy bolted after him, leapt and caught the bottom of a fire escape ladder and scampered up it as Moonknight ran into the dark alley after Daken, and froze. Agent Kiel stood at the other end of the alley, service weapon in her hand. A streetlight lit her blonde hair like a halo.

Daken gurgled out a desperate, "Help me."

Kiel put a bullet through his skull.

                                                                                                            ~*~

Stealing a doctor's ID took approximately two seconds as he brushed past the man in the hospital parking garage. No challenge targeting a tired man going off shift. Reprogramming his image inducer to make him look enough like the photo on the ID to pass the cops guarding ICU took him an hour.

Under the illusion of the image inducer, Remy sported his Guild colors. Hot or not, he felt better carrying all his equipment and had enough decks of cards in the secret pockets of his trench coat to supply a Vegas casino.

Inside the room, he flicked off the image inducer.

"You a sorry lookin' homme," he told Daken's still figure.

No kidding. The man on the hospital gurney looked one last breath from death. Gaunt, bruised, still smeared with blood and orange-brown disinfectant, with his head bandaged to hide the bullet hole and a ventilator breathing for him. IVs adorned both of Daken's arms, the lines taped together with dozens of sensor leads connected to the monitors showing his pulse/O2 ratio, blood pressure, and heart rate. Remy snagged the computer monitor and keyboard that held the medical information on Daken. Fingers dancing over the keyboard, he slipped past the system's security faster than most people logged in with their password. He read the file on Akihiro, Daken thoughtfully.

"No surprise here, except you're alive, you were already beat to shit before you got shot." His accent thickened, reflecting his surprising sorrow. The doctors hadn't bothered shaving Daken's head, because they hadn't gone after the bullet. No one really wanted him to live. Bastards. Principles that would hold even with a pedo on the operating table disappeared when it was a mutant. This was what was driving Cyclops, he reflected more sympathetically than usual. There weren't enough of the mutants left, damn it; theirs was an endangered species, the gene pool was already too small. Daken was like a rare Bengal tiger. Remy snorted under his breath. Daken wouldn't appreciate the animal analogy, pretty predator or not.

He glanced at Daken. No change. According the doctors there wouldn't be. Reading between the lines, Daken was brain dead. He'd suffered cardiac arrest in the ambulance. Bullet hole in his brain. Doctors here weren't familiar with mutants. A man not dying right on the spot from that bothered them, but Daken wasn't recovering either. Just hovering at the edge.

Remy glanced at the lab results from the blood tests. The doctors didn't know what the drug was, but Daken's system was saturated with Heat. "Fils de pute," he mumbled, checking the primary physician's notes. Signs of addiction. His hair fell over his eyes and he pushed it back only for it to tumble forward again. "Imbécile."

He put the screen to sleep again and walked over to Daken's bedside, but stood back far enough he didn't loom as a threat. He hated hospitals himself, illness, helplessness, the smell, plus they were sinkholes of emotional turmoil. He had to shield hard and non-stop whenever he visited one.

"You don't look like much now and I don't mean that as an insult, mon ami," he said quietly. "That drug's messed over your healing factor and your head." It had to be the Heat keeping Daken's healing factor suppressed. "Wouldn't bet whether enough of it'll break down for you to come back from this."

Daken didn't respond; Remy hadn't expected him to. The rain-in-the-gutter sound of the ventilator filled the room. The alarms on the monitors were all turned down. No one was going to run to respond to them anyway.

"I could kill you with a pillow right now." He chuckled at the horrible thought. "Pitiful way to go."

We could just wait for one of the humans to do it. Stay. This place if wonderful. Better than a graveyard.

Death would think that, Remy reflected sourly and refused to answer. Talking back to the voice in his head didn't leave him much basis for calling Daken crazy. He turned away from the bed and went to the window. Sun glared off the tarmac lot filled with car roofs and windshields, the reflections stabbing at Remy's eyes until they watered. He stared at the pale blue horizon to the east and the faint smudges of mountains somewhere beyond the city.

"It isn't the body that hurts the most, anyway, is it?" he asked the window. "Sometimes that almost feels good." He touched the glass with a gloved fingertip. Warmth leached through the glass, fighting the air-conditioned chill of the hospital's interior. He glanced over his shoulder. "No one knows what it's like to be the bad man. Pfft. I figured you out. You ain't that original, homme."

Remy leaned his forehead against the glass.

Daken just had to work harder to self-destruct. Most people could ruin themselves with smack or meth if they wanted to kick-off faster than drinking themselves to death would manage. Remy'd tried all three at various times. There was always suicide by cop, too, but Daken had had to find someone to do it and something to make it possible too. Part of him must have been laughing inside since his first hit of Heat. Finally, finally. Remy knew. Seeing Daken, seeing what he'd done to himself, filled Remy with pity even while it made him angry.

This wasn't how Remy wanted to end up. He'd danced this dance in the dark once. He'd found his way out when he stumbled on Stormy turned into a little girl and needing someone to look out for her. She'd been his light, showed him a way out. But he didn't need a light, not now that he knew there was a way. He'd find it again. After all, he could see in the dark. And this time he'd do it for himself.

He knew what had brought him here now.

"Guess I didn't come here for you, mon ami," Remy said. He left the window and returned to Daken's side. "You got under my skin back in Madripoor. I know why now."

He pulled an Ace of Spades from his pocket and walked it between his fingers.

"You're older than me, but you're stupider too." He waited a beat, but Daken didn't rear off the bed, healed by outrage at the insult. "I did a lot of stupid things when I was younger. Made myself cold. Made myself mean. Was so angry. Po' Remy." The ace moved faster through his fingers, fueled by memories. "Lived on hate and bitterness. Made killing easy for Gambit. Same for you, I think."

He lifted Daken's hand and tucked the card into it.

"I don't want to be you again, Daken. 'Cause you're not sorry and I am. I'm not a good man, know that, but I still got a chance to be." He nodded decisively. He'd finish here in LA and then he'd go back to Utopia. If he had to, he'd let Emma or Xavier into his head; whatever it took to get rid of Death for good this time.

"I'll be back later," he promised. "Know you won't care much if you wake up, but if you die, it won't be alone."

~*~

"Denti."

Carl looked up from the report on his desktop screen. Williams leaned in through the open door of his office. "Yeah?"

"Pack up. You're going to Hell A."

Carl considered the pile of paperwork he needed to plow through, his weekly expense report, and the information he was trying to track down with the computer. He had to finish a report on long term consequences of the SHRA for his superiors at the FBI's Commission on Super Human Activities before Friday. It was all cover-your-ass paperwork, but it almost looked good compared to several hours in a cramped coach-class airliner seat. Almost.

He unlocked his desk drawer and pulled out his shoulder holster and weapon, shrugging both on after he got up and then pulling on his coat jacket.

"What's up?"

"Agent involved in a shooting of a confirmed mutant in Los Angeles. Guy's supposed to have one of those healing factors, but he's in a coma in the hospital right now and the rumor coming from the LA office is he might not be the perp they were after. They want someone from the Commission out there, and –

 "

"I'm it," Carl Denti finished. He opened his briefcase and began shoving files in it. "Got a name for this mutant?"

"Daken." Williams presented him with a file he'd been hiding in his other hand. "Already got the file for you."

Carl accepted it, noticing how thin it was. "Who is this guy?"

"Oh, he's not that well known. The personnel file on the agent involved is in there too." Williams grinned at him. "Have fun, I hear she's a real bitch on wheels. Also, I heard the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alliance for Legal Action and Rights for Mutants and somebody from the Fish and Wildlife Service are on their way too."

"ALARM, I get," Carl muttered, "but Fish and Wildlife? Someone hunting without a license?"

Williams shrugged. "Endangered Species Act, remember.This guy dies, ALARM's going to nail the Service and the Bureau with a lawsuit. You can bet on it."

Carl closed his briefcase. He snagged his coat from the rack by the door next and stepped out, saying to Williams, "Well, there are just over two hundred mutants left on the planet. That's endangered."

Williams laughed at him. "No, Carl, that's extinct."

Carl shivered as he headed for Travel to pick up his plane tickets. He didn't think it was funny. He doubted anyone with half a brain thought all that power and frustration and despair gathered on Utopia was funny at all.

Edmund Burke said, 'People crushed by law have no hope but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to laws; and those who have much to hope and nothing to lose will always be dangerous.' They'd succeeded in pushing the last mutants on the planet right off the edge of the continent and everyone seemed to have forgotten, with nothing left to lose, the mutants had every reason to start pushing back.

Or as his granny put it, "Carl, don't poke that dog no more or you're gonna get bit one day."

                                                                                                            ~*~

The dealer from the night of Daken's shooting had done a runner. It looked like his apartment had been tossed before Remy got there. He spent the rest of the night trawling nightclubs again, but only found a lot of sweating, desperate people. A sudden dearth of Heat had left half of Hollywood's A-list and their hangers-on hurting. Remy emailed Lapin the hospital's analysis of the Heat found in Daken's system. He wanted to know what precursor chemicals the manufacturers would need, how and where to buy them, and how big an operation they would need to process the drug. If he couldn't find the suppliers, he'd find the supplies.

Annoyed, he crashed at the Roosevelt for a few hours, then indulged in a brutal work-out at the hotel's gym, sticking to the weights and treadmills, since it lacked a gymnastics layout. Body loose and humming afterward, showered and packed, he wiped every surface in the room down and misted the bed and bathroom with a mildly acidic solution that ate up any kind of DNA trace from blood to hair follicles or any other fluid, and checked out. A little voice he'd learned to listen to had begun insisting he get the hell out now.

Remy knew better than to ignore his fine-tuned instincts.

He got rid of the convertible rented on Navarre's credit card next. Back straddling his bike, he turned it toward the hospital.

Somehow, with the police sirens and the whop-whop-whop throb of a helicopter converging on the hospital as Remy skidded into the hospital parking lot, he wasn't surprised to see Daken striding out, claws bared, bandage still taped rakishly to his head. His hospital gown was gone leaving Daken's tattooed arm, shoulder, and chest bare. He had on a pair of cargo pants he must have taken from someone else. He didn't have shoes. Very cinematic, Remy acknowledged to himself, and grinned wickedly. He'd always appreciated flair, so he gunned the bike and smoked the tires coming to a sharp stop just out of swipe range, knowing just how good he looked in jeans, gloves, black leather and an enigmatic black helmet.

He flipped open the visor on his helmet so Daken could see his telltale eyes. "Need a ride?"

Daken's pale gaze narrowed in suspicion.

The cops were getting close. Daken had probably wreaked his special brand of bloody havoc on his way out. LAPD had had a SWAT team stationed to guard his room when Remy left the evening before. Someone would have tried to stop him. At least they were in the right place to receive prompt medical care.

Remy flexed his fingers, gunning the throttle on his bike, and prompted, "Now or never, homme."

The red-and-blue cycle of patrol car lightbars flashed down the street, their sirens growing louder. Daken pulled his claws in and climbed on behind Remy. The bike sank on its shocks, just a little, at the additional weight.

Remy gunned the bike and tore out of the parking lot as the first patrol car turned in. He didn't waste time telling Daken to hold on, just made a note to change the plates on his bike in case it showed up on any security cam tapes. Daken kept his balance impeccably, leaning close to Remy's back, with his hands firm on Remy's hips, but not clutching. He hid his face against the leather of Remy's jacket and shifted with him as Remy wove through mid-morning traffic at reckless speeds until they were far enough from the hospital no one would be looking for Daken's bandaged head or the shaggy mohawk he sported.

He hadn't ridden with a passenger in a long time and was reminded why now: he didn't like having someone at his back. Daken's hands on his waist reminded Remy he could pop his claws and gut him from that position.

Idling at the next red light, one heavy boot braced on the pavement, Remy turned his head enough Daken could hear him over the deep growl of the engine. "You know that thing I did to your arm in Madripoor?"

He felt Daken's nod, saw his mad grin in the side mirror.

"I can do that to your entire body if I feel those claws. I don't need any new piercings."

"The file on you says you can't charge living matter."

"Don't need to." Remy let a tiny charge wash through Daken's cells, just enough to make him tingle inside. Most people had no idea how many dead cells were in their body at any time, tumbling through their bloodstream before their kidneys filtered them out and they were eliminated. Not to mention the contents of their digestive systems, fillings in their teeth, shedding skin cells and, in Daken's case, a slug Remy's senses felt still sitting inside his skull. There were more ways to accomplish something than just raw power. Sitting around Sinister's laboratories, waiting between 'treatments' to undo Apocalypse's changes to his body, he'd had plenty of time to consider new and nasty ways to utilize his powers. He had a whole list he hadn't even tried yet; he'd been very bored and not even the new Marauders had been stupid enough to play poker with him. "Gambit's inventive."

Daken laughed with the same dark-edged amusement Grey Crow or Creed would have. "Feels interesting. Can you do that to my dick?" He shifted and poked Remy in the ass with an erection that likely owed more to adrenaline than attraction.

"You really want to find out?" Remy asked. "Personally, I've always preferred pairing my dick and 'blow' with 'job' and not 'off'."

Daken tucked his nose between the collar of Remy's jacket and his nape and breathed on him. The sensation made Remy quiver, half-aroused and half-repulsed. He snapped, "Don't do that."

"Too bad."

"You got someplace you want me to take you?" Remy gritted out as the light finally changed and he guided the bike through the intersection slowly enough they could still hear each other. "'Cause I'm not showing you where I'm staying."

"Wise," Daken replied and gave him an address.

Thankful he'd made a point of familiarizing himself with the freeways and LA's side streets as well as the main drags, Remy steered his way out of downtown and up into the hills. Daken didn't speakor try anything along the way.

Daken's place turned out to be a secluded, multi-level Frank Lloyd Wright-style mansion cantilevered at the edge of a cliff and with a stunning view of the city through its glass walls. A carelessly parked red Lamborghini crouched on the brickwork driveway. Remy stopped the bike facing back to the automated gate that separated the grounds from the road. A quick scan showed him a path going down the steep, summer seared hillside opposite the cliff, with steps made from weathered boards cut into the dirt. He judged that he could take the bike down the incline in an emergency.

He followed Daken inside with the black bike helmet dangling by its chin strap from his fingers. Charged up it would make an excellent impromptu weapon.

Daken was pouring dark amber liquor from a cut-glass decanter into a square tumbler. He tossed it back in one gulp. "What the fuck are you doing here?" he demanded afterward.

Remy leaned his hip into the back of an uncomfortable-looking, very chic sofa. "Here, here, or in the existential sense?"

"You're not a philosopher, LeBeau."

"Mais non, it's all a big joke."

Daken slammed the empty tumbler down and sloshed it full again.

Remy raised his eyebrows and drawled nastily, "What, you going to get drunk? Wouldn't you need another dose of Heat to fuck up your healing factor again?" He knew better than to taunt, but he couldn't stop himself. He'd been prepared to call Logan and tell him Daken was dead, that he'd been there so Logan's son hadn't gone alone. Now that he didn't have to do that, he didn't want to see Daken go right back to the poison that had put him in the hospital. Prodding at his pride seemed like the best bet.

The low growl and flaring nostrils warned him he'd succeeded in pissing Daken off, at least.

"Why," Daken demanded again, "are you here?"

A fluid shrug, amused smile, and upheld hands – helmet still dangling from one – provided the only answer Remy meant to offer. Any concern would be interpreted as weakness.

His cell vibrated. Remy dropped the helmet on the sofa and he fished his phone out of his pants. "Mind?"

Daken snarled silently and walked out, so Remy answered the call. "Where y'at?"

"Gris Gris says this Heat will hook you on two hits. Maybe three if someone has a real strong will."

"Good thing I'm not stupid enough to try it, isn't it?" Remy replied. "Being so weak in the head, me."

Emil made a despairing noise. "Don't jinx yourself, Remy. You got problems."

"Always," he agreed.

"In this case, I thought you should know, investigators for Marcus Roston have been nosing around the Navarre ID. It's solid, no worries, but they've set off some alarms.

"Roston?" Remy repeated. "I went to one of his parties. Didn't even talk to the man."

He half turned and watched as Daken stalked back into the open living room. He'd changed into silk slacks and a fine white cotton shirt left unbuttoned. The bandages were gone and he showed no sign of the wounds that had him near death only hours before. His feet were still bare. In his hand, he held a brown paper bag. He held it up as he walked past Remy to the built-in bar. The pills were unmistakable and Daken's hand was shaking. Remy watched silently as he began washing dose after dose of the drug down the sink.

Holding the phone away from his head, he said, "You're going to get the sewer gators high."

"This house has a tank. I'm contaminating the ground water," Daken replied, making Remy chuckle.

He switched his attention back to the phone conversation. "Anything else?"

"Did some digging on Roston. He's got shadier contacts than an action movie airhead should. Let me send Zoe down there."

"Non, just get me that list." He cut off Emil and pocketed the phone, before wandering over to the windows.

Daken rinsed out the sink and left the room again. Remy arched his brows and considered following, but thought better of it. He had no reason to poke through Daken's house and no right to play nanny to him. Instead he wandered over to the massive flatscreen, found the remote and scanned through the satellite feeds, looking for any news on whether a mysterious biker was currently wanted for breaking a suspected cop killer out of a hospital or anything new in the world's endless assault on mutantkind. Talking heads debating whether using SHIELD to enforce the SHRA had been a constitutional infraction made him sneer. A weather girl dipping low to point out the unseasonable rainstorms in the Grand Canyon made him shake his head. She needed better make-up and better breast augmentations, but her eyes were lovely. He flicked past the CBC, then used the remote to go back. The screen showed a blow up of Aurora, followed by pictures of other members of Alpha Flight, and then Northstar.

The sound caught up an instant later as young man with an overly neat and fresh hair cut and an acceptable gray suit that stepped onto a podium and spoke into the microphone. His light brown eyes were clear and his expression honest and determined. Remy remembered him with modest dreadlocks and a mischievous smile from when Northstar brought him to visit Utopia. He didn't need to be a precog to have sudden bad feeling.

Remy's brows drew together as he listened to Kyle Jinadu accused Alpha Flight of treason and called them criminals. It didn't sound like the bubbly young man he'd met in passing. Jinadulooked relaxed and calm. An inset picture played security camera footage of Alpha Flight members blithely robbing a bank. Northstar didn't appear, but Aurora was on camera. Shit. Remy started counting the ways Alpha Flight could have gone bad, starting with possession and brainwashing, ending with coercion. He discounted psychotic breaks and 'was evil along' only because it wouldn't have been all of them. If it was true at all. They lived in an age of illusion; this could all be smoke and mirrors.

Jinadu finished with a specific accusation of treason for Northstar, giving his real name, and declaring he would laugh when Northstar was shot. He'd had that sort of break-up, but Kyle Jinadu hadn't seemed the type to want an ex dead.

"Fuck me," Remy breathed. He couldn't believe the CBC had aired that. The Canadians had gone mad. He watched as the program switched back to a minister of Unity Party government who urged everyone to report if they spotted any members of Alpha Flight. He described them as terrorists.

He was used to the X-Men being demonized as terrorists, but the Canadians had always been tolerant of their mutants and positively respectful of the government's super hero team Alpha Flight.
Shifting air currents heralded Daken's return once more. He glanced at the television and asked, "Did I make the news?"

Remy slanted him a look and said, "Non. Very blasé 'round here. Almost like somebody controls the local media."

Daken had a white-topped amber plastic medication bottle in his hand. Green pills inside it.

"That the last of it?"

Daken held his arms out in invitation. His shirt fell open with the movement. He didn't let go of the bottle. "Search me. Search the entire house."

"Do I look like a flic?" Remy was annoyed and distracted. Daken was doing something with his pheromones. He could feel it affecting him, his heartbeat accelerating, his skin flushing hot, a little twist of want lighting deep inside. It was all physical, not anything like his own charm, nothing psychic he could shield against.

"You look like a bad man," Daken murmured. His mouth twisted into closed mouth smile. "A very pretty bad man. I told you before, I like bad men."

"This isn't Madripoor... " Remy slanted a sardonic glance at Daken.

"And I ask, again, what brings you to LA?"

"Doesn't everyone end up in LA eventually?"

"Did they throw you out of Utopia, Gambit?" It hadn't been like that, but Remy still flinched inside. He knew it didn't show, but the gleam in Daken's eye promised he knew he'd scored a hit. "No? But you don't fit with the heroes, do you?"

A world of mockery filled the way Daken said 'heroes', but he was still too close to the truth; it made Remy want to hit back. "I can go back. Where can you go? Every cop in LA, the entire country, wants your head. You've got no friends, not even any allies."

"Not even you?"

Remy shrugged. "I'm a man 'who would betray a friend at the drop of hat', mais non?" he murmured, quoting Daken and cursing himself as he did so, knowing it gave away too much that he remembered word for word.

"Is that supposed to frighten me?"

Despite himself, Remy smiled at that. No, it wouldn't scare Daken, anymore than it would him. They were better than that. It was that power that made the baselines hate them. "Non. Not the great Daken." He nodded to the bottle of Heat. "Only not so great anymore, mais you could always run back to Madripoor. Maybe Tyger Tyger'd feel sorry for you." He curled his mouth into a vicious smile. "Maybe no."

Like a heat mirage, a shiver of rage distorted Daken's visage. "I own Madripoor. I own Tyger Tyger. I am going to own LA."

"Looked more like Heat owning you."

"I can handle it," Daken snarled.

"That's what every junkie says."

"I'll quit when I want to."

"You so sure, sha," Remy purred with an insolence he'd honed as a Marauder, a tone he'd never turned on any of the X-Men. "So... sure," he leaned in close and traced his fingers over Daken's hand holding the bottle, "but you're still holding on to those pills, even though they make you stupid, let Moonknight beat you down, and a flatscan shoot you like a mad dog?" He shook his head in mimed disgust and stepped back. "Must be a fine high, to make it worth giving up being a man for it."

Daken shoved his way back into Remy's space, crowding close, his fury annealed into something harder and colder than iron.

"Shut. Up."

Remy wouldn't back away, despite how close Daken pushed. Daken had to look up to stare into Remy's eyes, but he had the intimidating thing down pat. He'd stood up to worse than Daken, though. Remy blinked lazily at him, not intimidated at all, even as his body tightened with a different sort of tension. Daken's free hand closed on Remy's wrist. He should never have let him in so close. He caught his breath, then said, "Let go."

"I can hear your heartbeat. I can smell you – you're just a walking invitation to fuck, you know that?"

"Don't let it go to your head, it's part of the mutation." He didn't control his pheromones the way Daken obviously did; his body pumped them out autonomically under fight or flight stress.

Daken leaned closer, while cocking his head to the side, considering Remy's stone-face. "Was it like the eyes, there from the beginning?" He crowed. "It was! That must have made growing up interesting." Daken wasn't holding on tightly, but he wasn't releasing Remy's wrist either. His thumb worked up the edge of Remy's glove and stroked across his pulse point. Remy flexed his arm, twisting away from the insidious caress.

"Let go."

"But you don't want me to," Daken growled, tightening his grip instead.

"Wanting and doing ain't the same," Remy replied. He peeled Daken's hand off him and shoved him away with a little added charge to his hand on Daken's breastbone.

Daken stumbled before he recovered. His smile didn't waver.

"That's where we differ, Gambit." He held up the bottle of Heat. "I want, I do."

"I don't – "

Daken's sidekick smashed into Remy's knee, throwing his balance for a crucial nanosecond when it crumpled in quick agony, and Daken was on him. They slammed to the marble floor. He'd miscalculated, he'd known Daken was stalking him, and thought he had it under control, but this wasn't about sex.

He saw the blow to his head coming, but for once he couldn't move fast enough to dodge it. He thought he heard Death laughing. Daken's fist smashed into his temple, Remy's head hit the stone under him, and, fighting it all the way down, he lost consciousness.

                                                                                                           ~*~

Gambit's eyelids fluttered shut, dark lashes hiding the liquid black where his eyes had rolled up. Daken peeled one back out of cool curiosity; there really was no white. Without his healing factor and no clue if it would recover, Daken had lost any edge he would have had in a fight with him. Thus, the ambush and if Gambit weren't crippled by loyalties and friendships that had distracted him, Daken wouldn't have taken him down this time.

Attachments were a weakness.

Heat had made Daken weak. The idea ate at his gut with the same acid withdrawal did before. Revenge was an addiction too, one Daken never meant to give up.

Once he found Roston, the actor would pay for addicting him. His mind clear again, the outlines of the frame-up someone – Roston – had created resolved into the obvious. He would not be played with like a joke. He didn't care if the entire world thought he was the Claw Killer, wouldn't have cared if he had been, only that Roston had made him doubt himself. Daken meant to gut the man with his bare claws, slowly, one coil of intestine at a time, for that insult.

Gambit might interfere. The thief was a wild card. Daken still didn't know why Gambit had appeared when he did, but men like him always had their own agendas. Men like Gambit were like booby-trapped Matryoshka dolls, with secrets inside their secrets, ready to explode in the face of anyone who handled them carelessly.

He pushed off the slack body laid out on the black-and-white floor and considered what to do next. Didn't consider the way, even unconscious, the clean lines of Gambit's body and expanses of flat, hardened muscle promised the inhuman flexibility and leopard-like strength he displayed in combat.

He wouldn't stay unconscious long. Daken needed to decide his next move.

Daken could kill Gambit, but he had questions. Why was the thief in LA? A mission for the X-Men or one for their enemies? Gambit moved perpetually between the criminal underworld and the minefields of conflicting mutant politics. Those connections had made him an attractive recruit before, but an annoying complication now. Just lying there, he was dangerous to Daken's plans.

He needed to know if anyone else was with Gambit, too.

If X-23 had brought Gambit to LA, then Colcord or some other Weapon X cockroach was hiding in the shadows and everything Daken thought he knew was wrong.

And if she wasn't with him, the clone would still hunt Daken to the ends of the Earth if he left Gambit behind as a body. She understood revenge too.

Whatever his reasons for being on his doorstep, Daken knew better than to think he could keep Gambit tied up long.

Gambit had evaded Daken's questions, hiding something – the thief was always hiding something –

 and he'd smile and lie if Daken interrogated him. Offered a bribe, he'd ignore it with the cat's insouciance and threats, if they were real, would only make him fight like that cat cornered. Daken didn't want to make Gambit his enemy, because it didn't do to forget Gambit had been the first Marauder. He'd assembled a crew of mercenaries, murderers and madman and led them effortlessly. Daken had to admire a man who could accomplish that and then fit himself cozily into the heart of the X-Men, living in the home of three of the world's strongest telepaths unsuspected for years.

Admire him and respect him and remember, while the X-Men didn't frighten Daken, if they came sniffing after a missing team mate, they could interfere with his own plans.

He settled for binding Gambit with the same lengths of silk he wrapped his hands and wrists in to soak up the blood that ran every time he popped his claws. He wound the silk in mittens that would keep Gambit from using his fingers or thumbs, then thoughtfully added a hogtie that would keep him from being able to use his legs or feet either.

"I think this would have looked better if I'd undressed you first," Daken addressed his captive. "Still, can't have everything."

The white strips stood out against Gambit's clothes, though, providing a striking contrast. There was no denying it, Gambit presented a tempting figure. Daken wished he could have manipulated him into bed. After this, he'd never have the chance again. Mutants seemed to build up an immunity to his pheromones, especially the ones self-aware enough to recognize when they were acting out of character.

"What to do with you?"

Gambit blinked his eyes open and glared blearily at Daken. Watching him writhe against the silk binding him proved entertaining and confirmed Daken's forethought with the hogtie. Even so, he managed an abortive, both feet together kick at Daken's knee. Daken danced out of the way with a chuckle and Gambit stopped moving, murder in his eyes and his mouth set in a harsh line.

The silk in contact with his hands began to glow.

"Ah, ah, none of that," Daken told him. He knelt and grabbed Gambit's hair to lift his head and smack it back against the marble again.

"Should've smothered you when I had the chance," Gambit slurred. The glow around his bound hands went out and he slumped back.

The russet-red hair in Daken's hand slid like silk through his fingers to spread like a flag over the floor. Just a few inches beyond, the bottle of Heat Daken had dropped when he tackled Gambit lay on its side.

No need for clichéd torture, he realized, when there were other ways to keep him compliant. At least a dozen of them nestled not so innocently in the amber plastic vial.

Really, sometimes fate made things easy.

Gambit wanted to know what kind of high would be worth what Heat did. Daken thought he should find out.

"I'm forced to admit that this proves Spider Robinson is right," he said as he popped the white lid off. The smell of it hit him like a freight train and his mouth filled with bloody tasting saliva. Operant fucking conditioning, the brain wanted even though the body had already purged itself.

Afternoon light through the walls of glass struck copper sparks off Gambit's lashes and the sandpaper beard along the sharp angle of his jaw. Daken plucked out a single dose of Heat and slipped into Gambit's mouth. The pills were slick and went down so easy; customer friendly. A finger run along the line of his bare throat made him swallow reflexively.

Daken smiled and said, "God is an Iron."

~*~


Carl tried the cellphone number for Kiel again on the off-chance she'd turned hers on again. When he went to voicemail again, he cut the call without leaving another message.

Kiel had been out of touch since before Akihiro woke up and sliced his way out of the hospital. No way to warn her. No way to know if she'd had some hand in what had happened either. Standing in her temporary office at LAPD central, Carl could believe the latter a little too easily.

He knew how damn easy it could be to become obsessed with a suspect. He'd done it himself and let a man he knew was a criminal slip away. And now he had to shoulder his share of guilt for whatever the fast-talking bastard was up to here. No one else seemed to know the man was in town.

Kiel had been obsessed with the Claw Killer case. She'd papered a wall with photos and reports on Daken Akihiro, but Carl couldn't decide if she really believed him as the Claw Killer or not. A killer without question, but the killer?

She'd put a bullet through his head, though.

He stared at her wall of photos. She'd pulled data from contacts in SHIELD, the CIA, MI-13, Europol, the Office of National Emergencies – those paramilitary fucks – and even shadier sources. One picture taken with a telephoto lens caught his eye: two blurred shadows opposing through the night time rain, silhouetted against a familiar near-fluorescent violet-pink explosion. Carl had seen that energy signature on camera and in person more than once.

The terse report tacked below the photo dated from four weeks back, when the political situation in Madripoor had been too fluid to follow, as riots spiraled from Lowtown to the penthouses of the elite and even the rats scrambled to get off the island. The photo came from the Australians; one of their people had documented another enigmatic clash between mutants. Days later Daken Akihiro emerged as the new ruling crime boss and Tyger Tyger took over the puppet government. Somewhere in the chaos the entire treasury of a nation had disappeared and the security and scientific complement of previously covert genetics lab had been massacred and the facility firebombed.

Easy to blame Akihiro for either, but if Gambit had been on the island, then Carl knew he was just as capable.

It probably meant nothing. Madripoor had been easy pickings. Akihiro was a predator. In his way, Gambit was as well. They could smell the blood in the water. If they'd fought, it still meant nothing. In his years assigned to the Commission on Super Human Affairs, Carl had concluded some time ago that alpha mutants were compelled to use their powers. He had a theory it was hardwired into them along with that x-gene. Most of them enjoyed fighting too, whether they were ferals or not. Nothing else explained them. They would fight one day, ally the next, and split into new factions as they'd achieved whatever secretive goal had brought them together. Not even the devastation to their numbers had changed that behavior among any of those still powered. He really thought they just couldn't help it.

Whether that made mutants less like humans or more was a question for a smarter man than him.

The current situation in Los Angeles wasn't a mutant problem, however, even if the Claw Killer was one. With the Pride were out of business, LA was wide open and bleeding illegal profits and, like sharks in the water, the criminals of the world were swimming to the surface in a frenzy to consume their share. The City of Angels bred its own darkness too, birthed its share of human monsters, and ground up the innocent to fuel the great movie-making machine. Kiel had let herself focus too tightly on Akihiro.

He seated himself at Kiel's desk and went through it again, looking for any clue to where she'd be. Christ, he hoped she hadn't panicked at the idea of a multi-agency shooting inquiry and bolted. The fucking irony would kill him, since Akihiro wasn't dead, wasn't dying, and wasn't even in custody any longer. Kiel didn't need to worry about her ass, she was free and clear.

Maybe she'd just forgot to charge her phone. Maybe while he was living in a fantasy, he'd pop out and buy a lottery ticket.

Kiel's files on Akihiro showed a man who really deserved to meet the X-Cutioner, though. Too bad Carl had sworn off killing mutants lastyear. He'd left all his equipment back in DC or he might have been able do what Kiel's bullet to the head hadn't. Provided he could find Daken Akihiro. The bastard had disappeared from the hospital, leaving two more cops dead behind him.

Baxter, one of the detectives handling the Claw Killer case, knocked and walked into Kiel's office. The door failed to shut behind him. The endless ring and hum of telephones and conversations became louder, but both men were oblivious to it. He held a thick file embossed with the FBI seal in one hand, a burrito and a coffee cup in the other, and spoke with his mouth full. "This just came for Kiel. Figured you'd want it."

Carl accepted it. It was an in-depth pharmacological analysis of the drug that had been found in Akihiro's system when Kiel shot him, along with all the Claw Killer victims. Peptide chains, amino acids, ribosomes, enzymes, neuro-transmitter acceleration, endorphin and dopamine analogs, psychoactive properties and psi-amplification. None of it meant much to Carl, but the attached summary had been written for the non-scientists. The drug sent the brain speeding, triggered hallucinations with a barrage of psi-transmitters, and stimulated the brain's pleasure center, flooding the user with feel good chemicals. It would be quickly if not instantly addictive and begin suppressing the immune system and cellular replication from the first dose. Mental side effects would follow quickly.

Well, that explained how a mutant with a healing factor suffered a heart attack and ended up in a coma. Akihiro must not have realized what the shit was doing to him.

Penciled onto the bottom of the page and unsigned, someone had added: Designed. Looks like it was meant to boost telepaths but went wrong. It'll blow open anyone with a trace of psi-talent.

Nasty, but drugs weren't his problem. Not a lot of psi-talents wondering around any more with most of the world's mutants gone and the rest in Utopia. Even the Claw Killer wasn't his problem. LAPD could handle that. His job was finding out what happened to Donna Kiel and if anyone superhuman had been involved. He had two mutants confirmed in the area. Time to track them down.

Baxter still stood in front of the desk Carl'd taken over, mostly staring at Kiel's wall of Akihiro. Carl had already figured out Kiel hadn't been exactly popular with the local cops. Cold bitch had been one of the kinder descriptions. She was still law enforcement though and she'd put a nine millimeter through the head of a cop killer – even if it hadn't put Akihiro down permanently. Baxter twitched when Carl closed the drug analysis and his coffee sloshed. It ran over the desk and he snagged away another file too close to the spill, flicking drops of coffee from the cover onto the floor and losing several pages out of it. "Shit."

"Someone needs to invent coffee-proof paper," Carl commented.

Baxter scooped up the lost pages. "Who's the pretty boy?" he asked. He held up a print-out of a cellphone picture gleaned from a wannabe actress' twitter. She'd caught a decent three-quarter profile of the lithe figure wearing Prada and sunglasses, auburn hair fanning away from his thin face as he turned away. Sharp and beautiful in the land of the Hollywood handsome, like a jeweled stiletto glittering in drawer full of butter knives. Even bored looked good on him.

"Gambit."

Carl held his hand out for the file, even though contents were already heavily censored. Baxter compared the print-out to several other pictures included inside. "How's he involved in this?"

"We don't know if he is." He had a theory; he just didn't like it.

"Who is he?"

"Remy LeBeau, but he won't be using that name. He's a merc and a freelance thief, but not just any thief. Master class. My department has a facial recognition program crawling the internet. He shows up in LA three nights ago at one of Roston's parties. Before that the last time he was sighted was Tokyo."

"He gets around."

"X-Men do that."

"Another fucking mutant. Great." Baxter examined the picture of LeBeau more closely. "And he was at Roston's. Is he connected to Akihiro?"

Carl debated throwing Gambit under the bus. Decided to do it. People changed. They went bad or went back to the bad ways. Gambit could take care of himself if it turned out he was innocent. "He was in Madripoor at the same time as Akihiro, but it could still be a coincidence."

"I believe in the tooth fairy too."

"She bites."

Baxter waved Gambit's file at the wall of Daken. "So does this."

Carl pulled out another picture and held it out for Baxter. "Security camera caught this one block away from the hospital right after Akihiro sliced his way out." Carl didn't bother looking at the blurry still frame again. He'd already memorized it. Two men on a motorcycle, the rider in a black-visored helmet that concealed his features, while the passenger holding on as the bike skidded through a corner had distinctive mohawk. The still frame had been taken from the wrong angle to show the tattoos. It wouldn't hold up in court as identification, probably wouldn't even get him a warrant, but Carl knew that had been Akihiro. He knew who the motorcycle rider had been too, because the camera had caught one other detail: the hand on the bike's throttle wore a distinctively customized glove, with the thumb, forefinger and pinky cut away.

"Sonovabitch," Baxter said. "Mutants."

"Playing connect the dots, Akihiro's Wolverine's son. Wolverine's an X-Man. Gambit's an X-Man. Akihiro's in Madripoor. Gambit's in Madripoor. Akihiro's in LA. Gambit shows up. He could be tracking Akihiro for Wolverine."

Intelligence said there was no love lost between father and son, but no matter how nasty Akihiro was, Wolverine would still want someone covering for him. That or covering up for him. If Gambit was doing a favor for a team mate, then finding him might find Akihiro. Akihiro had still been comatose when Kiel went AWOL, but he knew something. He needed to be taken off the streets even if he didn't.

Gambit didn't follow a pattern, but if he was hiding Akihiro, it would be in a safehouse. The Pride had kept the Thieves' and Assassins' Guilds out of LA, so he couldn't use something already set up. He'd have to have arranged it in the last three or four days. That gave Carl a place to start.

He handed Baxter a copy of the passport photo Gambit had used for the Robert Lord alias, the only one the FBI or even SHIELD had ever found and that only because Gambit had used it twice, once to walk in and out of the Hoover Building and once to penetrate the Pentagon. Carl chose it because it showed him wearing brown contacts. Gambit might hide his eyes, but not the rest of his face. Someone, even in Hollywood, would remember that face. "Let's just say he's a person of interest. Personally, I'm interested in where he is now."

"I'll have copies passed out to the uniforms at shift change," Baxter said. "You think this guy's hiding Akihiro?"

"I think he can find him if he isn't."

"Then we'll find him."

"Just tell me where he is when you do. Unlike Akihiro, this one has friends who could pound this city into sand if they got peeved."

"Nah, that's what we've got the military for – " Baxter grumbled. "To keep the muties in line."

"Detective," Carl said, "I invite you to say that to Magneto's face. CSHA intelligence says he's just up the coast. I've even got a contact number for Utopia."

"Uh, no, no thanks."

"Just find out where Gambit is and I'll do the rest."

~*~


Lamborghinis were not designed to have a six-foot-one man stuffed in their trunks, but Daken succeeded. Gambit was very bendy. His eyes were open as Daken bent over the trunk, pupils eclipsing the crimson irises, ink on onyx. They were tracking something only he could see; the high had already gone bad. Gambit hadn't made a sound yet, but Daken gagged him for good measure. Screaming from the trunk of a tomato-red sports car might draw attention even in LA.

Gambit's pockets had yielded his telescoping bo staff. Adamantium was hard to come by; Daken considered keeping it, but petty thievery was below him. The damn thing frustrated him anyway, he couldn't find the trick to make it open. Gambit's phone proved equally frustrating. Gambit kept any phone numbers in his head and the call history had been deleted. He shoved both back in Gambit's jacket pockets.

He hesitated with his hands on the trunk lid, looking down, taking in the vulnerable curve of Gambit's spine and the awkward curl forced on his long limbs. Detail got lost in the glaring contrast of the sun beating down and the dimmed interior, while Daken's shadow interrupted the hot line of the sun falling inside. Light sensitive, Gambit thrashed his face away from the brilliance.

Daken closed the trunk with a sharp thunk and scowled. For an instant, he'd thought Gambit's skin had turned inky black. He scrubbed at his eyes. Couldn't be. He was clean, no more Heat hallucinations for him. It had just been a trick of the shadows. Nothing more.

He settled in the leather seat of the sports car and hissed as it burned uncomfortably. Still not healing instantly and the pain was not new or interesting or fucking different; he hated it. He wasn't used to it any more than he was used to doubting his own mind. Gambit hadn't changed in front him. He'd imagined that. Heat didn't cause physical transformations. He'd been seeing things. A cold sense of danger crawled up his spine though and he pressed his foot to the accelerator. Time to be rid of this problem.

He drove westward through the hills into downtown LA and parked in a weedy lot where a building had burnt down.

With a pat to the warm hood of the car, he strolled away. No doubt the car would be stolen or stripped and Gambit found within an hour.

The Lamborghini had to go for him to change his profile. He'd find a woman he could seduce and use her vehicle to get back the house. He could use Gambit's bike after that. Not quite a fair trade, of course, the Lamborghini for a Ducati, even if it was classic. Maybe he'd leave it at the scene after he killed Roston. 

He was going to miss the car, though.

                                                                                                            ~*~

Color came first, fish fast flickers swimming in his veins, jeweled and shining. Then the feeling, folding around him and through him, forgiving arms in fur coats and velvet tongues licking his brain, a melting assurance of acceptance and safety. Champagne bubbles of joy sparkled over his skin, little kisses of pleasure popping through his head. He tried to move into the sensations, couldn't, and didn't mind because he was so warm. Tears seeped from his eyes in the darkness holding him. Warm and happy and moving, the sense of the space around him shifting and washing him in kinetic energy potentials, spin, dance, the molecular music of the universe, turning and turning, stretching thinner and thinner, losing himself, flying out and in, electron moons, proton planets, charmed and strange.

It lasted forever until it was over. He wanted it back. He wanted that feeling back and tried to reach for it, sparks lighting in his head, pushing open long disused pathways, tearing down his own walls to try to find a way back to that first flushed wave of nirvana. He needed it again.

He couldn't find it, he couldn't move, and his senses spiraled beyond his reach. Everything was losing energy, cooling down, stilling, the vibration surrounding him stopping, everything slowing, fading, dying...

The universe is death. It all fades. It all ends. Everything is forgotten and gone. It all comes back to me.


Remy writhed in the endless empty darkness, nothing to hold onto, no one to touch.

I am in you. I am in everyone. Everything. I am destiny.

His scream of denial choked in the darkness as he dissolved into it.

The only truth in life is death. Black spider fingers threaded between his own, frostbite frozen and strong. Despite himself, desperate, he held on. Let me out, let me be, let go.

Skeins of cobweb-pale hair brushed over his temples and his cheeks, tangled in his eyelashes, and dragged dusty over his mouth. Black lips slanted across his own, vicious and tender, tasting of oblivion.

Let me in, let me free.

Remy struggled against it and struck out, his hand splashing through inky water, the floating ocean of time-space lapping at the shores of his mind. He needed to stay on the surface; leviathans of memory swam beneath, their passage threatening to draw him along with them and down to drown or be swallowed by the past.

Surging up into Remy's mind, Death caught him and tossed him deep, capricious and predatory as an orca torturing a seal pup in the surf.

He couldn't find any way up, any escape, and the riptide caught him, sweeping him into jaws of another memory.

He was in the odd-shaped room with the mirrored metal walls, the one between the training sphere, the dormitories, and the large dissection lab that had become a de facto lounge. Mike Baer had carried in the couch one day, a stained and smelly thing that must have been in a gutter awaiting garbage pickup. Flip brought in the two chairs days later, carrying them with disdainful ease. Crow hooked up the minifridge, Janos brought in the dart board of course, and Remy sprang for the espresso machine. Other items arrived piecemeal, usually brought back after an op. A table and mismatched chairs, where Remy was barred from playing poker with anyone, a microwave, a television. Sinister dismissed it as distasteful, but an improvement over bored Marauders poking through his labs, wrecking experiments and playing with equipment they didn't understand. Ugly as the collection was, little as most of them liked each others company sometimes, it was better than their individual quarters. The only difference between those and the cells where the experiments were kept was the doors opened from the inside. Remy had never closed his door without wondering if that had changed.

Something was wrong about the set-up. Remy turned on his heel, frowning, searching for what rang so wrong to him. That corridor hadn't ever been there, had it? He didn't remember that huge hatch waiting at the end of it, shining in the shadows, waiting for him.

"Quite spinning in circles," Daken snapped at him. "Make a choice."

"What are you doing here?" Remy asked.

Daken raised an eyebrow at him then went back to picking all the green M&Ms from a bowl on the table. He sorted them with his claws like a pharmacist counting pills for a prescription. "You recruited me. Said I was perfect."

"He is, you know," Mystique commented from her place at the table. She had a gun disassembled in front of her and was putting it back together again.

Claudine strutted into the lounge in black leather bondage swimwear and a black cowboy hat perched on her blue-black hair. She bent and wrapped albino-pale arms around Daken's neck from behind him. "Who is what?" she crooned. Crimson eyes a little too much like Remy's own for his comfort, irises the exact shade of the diamond on her forehead, stayed on him even as she nuzzled Daken's jaw. Remy's heartbeat picked up speed.

"Daken is a perfect Marauder," Mystique clarified as she finished with one pistol and started on another. She'd morphed into her Foxx persona while Remy was looking at the other two. Sharp canines flashed as she grinned nastily at him.

"Hmm, he is a hair-trigger killer with psychopathic tendencies and unresolved daddy issues," Claudine agreed in approval.

Daken growled and began eating M&Ms.

"You sure that's a good idea?" Remy asked. The little green candies made his skin crawl. So did watching Daken eat them by the handful. So did standing in the 'lounge' not knowing where the other Marauders were, wondering if Essex would be angry enough with someone to make them meat for the others. Usually Sabretooth enjoyed the job along with Scrambler, but sometimes Sinister made everyone play. As far as Remy was concerned, those punishments were worse than ones where he'd been 'it' for the night.

"Isn't he sweet?" Mystique said.

"You'd think he cared about what happened to any of you," Claudine agreed. She pursed her scarlet lips at Remy. "But, of course, he didn't or he would never have brought you into the Marauders."

Remy cringed inside but flipped her the bird. Showing guilt implied weakness and the Marauders would rip one of their own to pieces with the same glee they had for hitting any other target. "Why do you think I recruited Creed?" he asked because it had played a part. He'd hoped Sabretooth would tick Essex off enough to end up in one of the dissection labs. He'd miscalculated that; Essex considered Sabretooth a most useful tool in keeping the rest of the Marauders, including Gambit, in line.

"No wonder he's your daddy's special pet, Claudine."

"He's not my father, he's my clone progenitor," Claudine corrected. She leaned closer to Daken and stroked white fingers along his shoulder tattoo. "Though you're right. Gambit's Nathaniel's favorite. He has such good genes."

He knew she'd said that before, but not to Mystique. The itching sense of wrongness grew stronger. Was this one of Regan's illusions? She could catch him in one, if he got careless and she got a glimpse of something he wanted, but he could always tell if he paid attention. Even when he let his shields down and let one in, telepaths always made his head hurt. He tried to turn his senses inward and check for an intruder, but couldn't find anything but his own shadow, a negative image grinning back at him so that Remy recoiled back into the Marauders' den.

"I'm standing here, you know," Remy remarked while he frowned at the walls. Was that his reflection? When had his eyes gone from red on black to solid crimson?

Did you think you'd escaped?


"Yes, right here in Sinister's sanctum," Mystique answered. "He calls and you have to answer."

"No one ever really escapes from him," Scalphunter added. Remy twitched because he hadn't seen or sensed the other mutant standing at the espresso machine. He raised a tiny cup in a toast. "This was a good idea. Makes our little slice of hell so much more bearable between clonings. You'll find out."

Mystique still wore Foxx's face, shades of pale blue from hair to lips, but her eyes were her own, lambent yellow. "That's why I had to show my daughter he isn't the one for her." She set her gun aside and taped a fingernail against the pages of the battered notebook open before her.

"And you wonder why Rogue hates you," Remy snapped.

This made no sense. He couldn't feel any of them, no emotions against his shields, no shifting air currents from mass displacement, no telltale movement. Damn it, he always knew who was in a room with him, but he kept being surprised. An illusion, it had to be an illusion. He thinned his shields and reached – A swelling roar of chaotic voices deafened him between two heartbeats, tearing his thoughts apart, and he staggered, raising his hands to his head.

Dieu, that hurt! Like being trapped at the bottom of an ocean trench, the pressure crushing him. Frantically, he reinforced his shields. They still felt weak when he finished, bowing, crazed with cracks even as he poured more strength into keeping them up.

Pay attention.

" – what?"

"She'll love me again when I save her. That's why I'm here," Mystique said. "Anything for Rogue."

Anything for Rogue? Anything? Really? Oh, you did belong with them. You still do.

"He's here to have fun," Riptide said, laying an arm over Remy's shoulders. "Sex and violence."

Vertigo snaked her arm around his waist from the other side and molded herself close. His breath quickened and he tried to slip free, but Riptide stayed on his other side, trapping him. Panic rose through him, but this was Janos and Vee. They were the ones Sinister always gave to the others. They didn't – they never –

Remy tried to shrug free of them, but they held on with unnatural strength. Non, non, not again. Vee couldn't – wouldn't – fight all the others and Janos couldn't stand alone. "Crow, please – "

His old friend raised his tiny cup in a toast. "Why not?"

"I don't want – " Remy protested as the two Marauders pulled him toward the couch and began undressing him. Daken laughed and smacked the side of his head. Claudine leaned further over the couch and caught his head in her hands, murmuring, "Lie back and enjoy it, Gambit, you're the party favor tonight," while pulling him back so she could bite at his lips. Angrily, he bit back, then thrashed away from her mouth, tasting blood that could have been hers or his.

"Boss's orders," Sabretooth said as he came in. Remy began shaking. Scrambler was with him. They were the ones Sinister used to break him every time. "You're the meat tonight and everybody takes a turn."

They're going to rip you apart.

Vee's giggle as her hands opened his pants horrified Remy more than all the others. Sinister had done this to her, stripped her down to a kind of savagery that had nothing to do with her origins. They'd all done things so awful to each other it desensitized them to anything Sinister wanted them to do to anyone else. Even so, he felt guiltiest about Vertigo.

"Janos, don't do this," Remy pleaded raggedly. He tried to catch at the hands holding him down, tried to use his power, but Scrambler was there, caressing his cheek and suppressing it. He kept fighting, but it never stopped them. Dieu, he remembered this, remembered swearing to do anything not to endure it again.

Riptide nipped his ear and whispered, "Why not? You'll do it to me when it's your turn."

When it was your turn you took them to the Morlocks, didn't you? How little the X-Men and your beloved Rogue really know about the real Gambit.

"Raven," he begged, "You know Rogue wouldn't want this, even if you hate me!"

"Rogue will never know." Mystique mouth curved into a smile. "You won't tell her."

She was right. There were so many things he could never imagine willingly saying out loud to anyone, not Rogue, not Storm, not Bella when they'd been in love. Only the ones who had been there knew, or like Tante Mattie, had figured it out despite his best efforts, because he had never told anyone. He'd wanted Rogue to understand, he'd offered her the chance to take all the memories once, but she'd refused. Refused him. She wanted words and Remy thought admitting any of it in words would shatter him.

Anything to survive, anything.


Scrambler had negated his powers. All of them. He'd been grateful once to not feel the others' emotions as they hurt him, but without his powers his psi-shields were dissolving too.

The X-Men can't help you. You deserve this.

"Death?"

I'm here.

The voices were louder, clawing his thoughts apart, pushing in, tangling through his sense of self until he couldn't even feel what the Marauders were doing to him. So many of them were screaming and he didn't know if he was screaming with them or because of them. So loud. Too loud. He couldn't – he couldn't –

I can make it stop.

"Make it stop."

LOUD.

It was too much and he was breaking, crushed, imploding. Desperate. "Make them stop, please, please, no more – "

Yes.

Incandescent pink-white energy glowed through the cracks and closures of the Lamborghini, plasma-bright before it released in bomb-sized explosion. The trunk lid landed five blocks away. Remy rolled out of the black-singed wreckage, his clothes charred and smoking, a glow of charged particles surrounding him.

The noise of the city, all its inhabitants thinking and feeling, their voices rising and rising, flooded through his mind and he couldn't make it quit. He couldn't even grab his head, because his hands were still bound.

Give me control.

Remy couldn't think clearly enough to even know that voice from the cacophony of all the others. He couldn't fight it. Make it stop, he begged. There were too many of them, ten thousand, more, hundreds of thousands, the milling, murmuring, shouting tsunami of thoughts  he couldn't push away.

Remy was gone, the noise in his head drawing a scream from him again and forcing his retreat from his own mind.

The ties holding him had been protected by the same unconscious forcefield that had saved him from the destructive effect of his own power. His skin bled to black and the silk bonds ripped apart. Death was much, much stronger than Remy, now.

The Lamborghini's remnants burned hot, out of control flames shooting into the mid-day sky, drawing air to feed them, and lifting Death's pale hair on a shimmering wind. On his feet and free, he lifted his head and laughed raggedly, poisonous black smoke whipping from him on the fire's wind as he exhaled.

He grinned at the two homeless men staring from the far side of the street.

From Utopia, a telepathic inquiry bounced off his shields. Emma Frost, boosted by the Cuckoos, trying to find the source of the screaming on the psychic plane. ~Gambit?~

It lashed Remy's defenseless mind like a razor-tipped whip, leaving him in the rubble of his shields, keening and lost.

Death laughed again and replied out loud, "Remy has to go away now."

The two homeless men scrambled up and ran as he walked toward them, trailing poison smoke and blackened footprints burnt into the ground with each step.

                                                                                                            ~*~

Seventeen minutes after eleven in the morning, in the middle of the daily security briefing, Scott Summers watched Emma Frost defensively transform into her glittering, telepathically immune form, as Psylocke clutched her head and cried out in pain. She slumped over the polished conference table, but remained conscious to his relief.

"Attack?" he demanded of Emma. Their telepaths had been taken out as the prelude to attacks on Utopia itself and teams in the field before.

She shook her head, light fracturing through her facets and reflecting everywhere through the room, as she bolted from her seat in the conference room and out into the ops area. "No."

Psylocke had recovered enough to sit up straight, though her face betrayed a distinct strain, and spoke through gritted teeth. "Not an attack. Not focused on anyone. Just terribly strong."

"Are you okay?"

"Yes, but we should check on the younger sensitives. Some of them may not have been shielding."

He helped her to her feet and they followed Emma's path. Emma was dealing with the Cuckoos. The blonde triplets turned toward Cyclops in eerie synchrony. Blood ran from one girl's nose. Emma produced a white handkerchief from some hidden pocket in her white outfit and blotted the blood away with a moue of distaste. He tried to block how much she was giving away of her tender side, afraid she'd stop herself from stroking Mindee's hair if she knew someone had noticed her doing so. Emma lifted her hand away though, then defiantly returned it. He smiled at her, a secret smile that said he knew how hard it was for her to reveal real emotions in public.

"Everyone okay?" he asked.

"Yes," Emma said. "Chamber is still unconscious, but he's notoriously slipshod in his shielding. Nate Grey's fine. He shields. A couple betas were knocked out as well. We're coordinating check-ins with telepaths outside Utopia too, but it wasn't an attack."

The tight ball of stress in Scott's chest loosened a fraction. Things had been amazingly quiet in the wake of Wolverine leaving with the younger children and several X-Men. He'd been braced for another threat... which this could still be, he realized, even if it wasn't an attack. His shoulders tightened as he reflexively stood taller.

Emma touched her temple gracefully and said, "Monet felt it even in New York."

"Then we can assume anyone with a connection to the Astral Plane did," Psylocke added. Her eyes lost focus briefly. "Ah. The Professor confirms, but he can't find the source." She chuckled suddenly. "Quire passed out and broke his nose on his desk."

It couldn't have happened to anyone who deserved it more, Scott thought, and Emma's mouth curled into a smug smile that said she agreed. That little shit had caused so much trouble, it was almost worth Wolverine's defection to have got rid of his presence on Utopia.

"Emma?" he prompted. "What else can you tell me?"

Before she could answer, the Cuckoos spoke up, obviously linked into their three-in-one gestalt again. Their blue eyes were wide and frightened. One by one, Celeste, Phoebe, and then Mindee spoke.

"It. Was. Gambit."

Shit, he thought to himself. The man should have been codenamed Trouble. Of course, the name would have already been taken by several others by the time Gambit was born.

"I can't find him, Scott," Emma said. "He's always been a ghost on the Astral Plane."

"Find his communicator."

Psylocke had already seated herself at one of the monitor stations and begun typing in commands. "Los Angeles," she said.

"What was it?" Gambit wasn't an easy target. If he'd been taken down, then the X-Men had to investigate before anyone else ended up in the crosshairs. Anything unknown was a threat now. He hated that it came down to that, but he had a responsibility to all the mutants left and to their future as a species. He couldn't afford hopeful idealism any longer.

"We're not sure," Psylocke said.

He rubbed the back of his neck. Gambit wasn't officially on any X-Men roster, though he'd been working with Rogue's team and on-call up until he left Utopia. That hadn't gone well and it hadn't been all Gambit's fault. Scott knew he should have dealt with Gambit's status before it came out the way it had, not to mention found someone, if not himself, to talk to him and find out why he'd gone to Apocalypse. That would have involved facing that none of them had tried to bring him back the way they had Lorna or Wolverine and Archangel on previous occasions.

He cringed, thinking of Archangel and the fall out of his succumbing to Apocalypse's programming again after so long. The cringe became a flinch of alarm. They didn't know what Sinister had done to unravel the changes Apocalypse had made to Gambit when he re-engineered him into his latest 'Death'. He could be vulnerable to the same problems Warren was. That couldn't be ignored.

Gambit probably wouldn't thank the X-Men for showing up in Los Angeles uninvited. But. Something was going on. He'd left Utopia for a reason and Scott didn't buy that it was peevishness over being off the official roster. Gambit had never been that enthusiastic about being identified with the teams, anyway. He was also a master of misdirection. He wouldn't ask anyone for help if he needed it – except Sinister, apparently – no, he'd run.

Had run.

Damn it. He wanted to be angry with Gambit over that, but was honest enough to admit the X-Men's history with their wayward thief hadn't encouraged him to think he could trust them to help him if he was in need. Gambit probably trusted them all right: to turn on him.

Unfortunately, Scott had to face that they would take him out if he'd become a threat.

Betsy and X-Force had done what was necessary to stop Warren and a second rising of Apocalypse. She could handle it if Gambit was going the same way.

"Try his communicator," he directed.

Psylocke shook her head. "No response."

After a second's internal debate, Scott began giving orders. "Betsy, I want you to take your team to L.A. Find Gambit."

"Scott," Emma said. "It felt like an alpha telepath coming on-line."

"A new mutant?" he asked eagerly. "Wouldn't Cerebro have alerted us?"

"Yes. I think it's Gambit. He's a latent psi, in addition to the empathy he pretends he doesn't have."

Scott gaped at her. The what – ? What else had the damned thief been hiding from them all this time?

"Should I tell Rogue?" Psylocke asked before he could blow up.

"No." Rogue was emotionally compromised when it came to Gambit. If he'd become a threat, Scott couldn't count on her doing what needed to be done. Same problem with Jubilee, who had come into the X-Men's fold at the same time Gambit had four years before. "And leave Jubilee. Take Armor instead." She might be able to armor the team if Gambit turned on them. At the very least, she'd get some experience in the field, and he might be able to push her into a regular place on the roster.

"Secondary mutation?" Psylocke asked Emma. The two women got that faraway look on their faces telepaths often did when consulting with each other.

"Or someone tore his mind open," Emma said finally.

Psylocke nodded.

"You. Should. Hurry." Phoebe-Mindee-Celeste told Psylocke.

Scott frowned at them and then cringed.

They were crying.

"He. Was. Screaming."

                                                                                                            ~*~

Carl registered phones ringing more often and detectives exiting the day shift offices, but didn't figure it for anything out of the normal ebb and flow of a day at LAPD central. He went on scowling at the report he was writing until Baxter walked into Kiel's office without knocking.

"Got a possible for you," Baxter said. He held up a slip of paper with an address scrawled on it. "One of Vice's snitches says a guy fits the description hasa room at the Dumar."

Carl took the slip and read the address. A hotel in a poor, mixed ethnicity neighborhood suffering from the rot of inner city decay.

"How bad is this Dumar?" he asked.

"Had a tetanus shot lately?"

Carl winced and wondered if he had any gloves.

"Is it worth checking out?" he asked. He would check it out, whatever Baxter said, but it didn't hurt to smooth a little butter the LAPD's way. Asking an opinion cost him exactly nothing and made Baxter feel important.

"Up to you," Baxter said. "Would this guy hole up somewhere scuzzy?"

This was Gambit, who loved to live well, but had certainly seen worse places than the Dumar Hotel, if the SHIELD files Carl had seen were correct. Thieves were trained to keep low profiles. Sometimes that meant wearing a tuxedo, sometimes it meant dossing down in a urine-smelling hotel six months away from demolition.

"He might."

"Well, I'd ride along, but me and Rodriguez have a line on a Lamborghini that got blown up in the middle of an empty lot in South Central."

Carl glanced up from the address slip. "Akihiro's ride?"

"Could be. A dozen people are in the hospital after breathing some kind of toxic smoke that may have come from the car. Hazmat's handling it and the rest of us are trying to track down if anyone saw Akihiro before the car went up."

The address slip went into his pocket with his wallet. "Good luck and be careful. Akihiro's already a cop-killer. Adding more to his account won't bother him."

"We'll be ready for him if we pin him down," Baxter said.

Carl didn't say the LAPD probably thought they were ready for bank robbers until they came up against ones with automatic weapons and armor piercing rounds and seventeen people died. It wouldn't earn him any favor points and it wasn't like he had any great advice on how to take down Daken Akihiro if they did find him. If someone asked him, he'd have to say their best bet would be requesting a team of X-Men. They'd probably come, since the mutants on Utopia seemed hellbent on changing their public image to that of superheroes defending the country and the planet.

Baxter didn't ask, though, so Carl kept his own council.

With any luck, he'd find Gambit and get some answers from him, find out if the X-Men or the Avengers or someone wasn't already gearing up to do something about Akihiro.

His Bureau-issued, black Taurus had a scanner and Carl listened to it with half an ear as he navigated Los Angeles' traffic, reflecting that there might be more cars, but even so the drivers weren't as vicious as those in DC. No one had come across Akihiro or discovered the source of the toxic smoke. There were casualties from it now, two dead in the hospital and a charred body that dissolved into tainted black dust when the medical examiner attempted a preliminary examination. Inhaling the dust had put the ME, an assistant, one uniform and a forensic tech in intensive care.

The Dumar Hotel stood not that far from the site of the Lamborghini bombing. Not an easy drive, thanks to LA's spaghetti mess of freeways and highways, but not an impossible foot hike. He left the sedan parked next to a cracked curb, in front of a pawn shop and just before a tattoo parlor. Finishing the triangle of potential bad decisions, across the faded tarmac two-lane stood a bar with half a dozen motorcycles parked in the weedy lot beside it and a flickering Budweiser sign. Except for the one window by the door, all the others had been boarded over with raw plywood decorated with archaeological layers of spray painted graffiti.

Not that he thought the neighborhood likely looked any better at night, but the pitiless daylight faded everything, making it inutterably grim. The security bars and screens over every window added to the impression of lives already lived in prison.

Carl slammed the car's door shut and hoped the telltale make and the trunk-mounted heavy antenna for the radio would keep any thieves or vandals away from it.

His shirt was glued to his back, sweat sliding from his armpits down his sides, before he reached the end of the block and walked into the shadowed lobby of the Dumar.

High up on the ceiling a lazy fan did nothing to relieve the stifling heat in the lobby. Carl glared at it as his eyes adapted to the dimness. He ignored the eyes on him and walked to the caged-in front desk.

Looking at the murky-eyed, gaunt clerk desultorily flicking through a skin mag, Carl decided to forego courtesy. He flipped his jacket open so the pistol in his hip holster showed along with the badge clipped to his belt. He pulled out the picture of Gambit he'd copied for the LAPD and slapped it down. "FBI. Which room?"

After a dragged out pause to illustrate his defiance, the clerk glanced at the picture long enough for recognition to dawn on his jaundiced features. "Ain't seen him," he lied in a monotone.

"Say that again." Carl tapped his fingers against the snap holding his pistol in the holster.

With a put upon sigh, the clerk rocked his chair back and snagged a key. He dropped it on the desk counter and shoved it through the cage's small opening. "Ain't seen him today," he admitted.

Carl gave him a tight, small smile as he took the key and noted the room number. "You haven't seen anyone today," he corrected.

"Whatever." The clerk went back to his magazine. Carl did his best not to wonder about the age of the Asian girls pictured in it.

The elevator appeared to work, but Carl took the stairs anyway, up to the third floor and the door that matched the number of the key he'd been given. The lock didn't stick when he used it and the hinges were quiet; both had been freshly oiled. It seemed likely he had found Gambit's bolthole or one of them.

It was.

Not that Gambit had left much there that identified it as his: the room was mostly barren, and the stashed food didn't say much about its purchaser other than that he preferred chicken ramen to shrimp, plain chocolate, cinnamon-flavored toothpaste and all-organic shampoo-conditioner in one bottle. Carl found an auburn hair on the bedspread, though, and loose decks of cards stashed under a pillow, under the mattress, under the bed, in the night table drawer, on the rickety table by the single window, with the food, and in the bathroom – along with new bottles of bleach, cleaners, and rubber gloves. The LAPD wasn't the only one worried about tetanus.

The cards were all he needed to be sure, but the locked case sitting at the bottom of the closet, armed with a tamper-proof setting that gave him a shock when he touched it, provided all the confirmation he needed. Thieves' Guild tech wasn't patented, because they didn't want anyone copying their designs, but he'd seen similar cases before while pursuing Gambit. It had a gene-lock: it required a fresh blood sample as well as a key, a passcode, and a retinal scan. Attempts to bypass the lock would result in the contents being incinerated.

Annoyed, Carl sat down on the bed. Gambit hadn't left anything he could go over. If he had a laptop, it was in the case along with any incriminating tools or equipment. A fetish for cards proved nothing in a court of law.

If it hadn't been for the case, he'd have thought Gambit had already flown the coop, despite the clothing still hanging in the closet.

With an grunt to himself born of frustration, Carl fished his cell out of his pants, checked his messages, and sat back to wait for the thief to return. The cards at least let him lay out a hand of solitaire to kill time, but the unrelieved heat in the closed up room made him sleepy and he was drowsing when the door opened hours later.

                                                                                                            ~*~

Everything alive had a little piece of chaos inside. Universes expanded, but were less and less, slowly drawn thinner until all energy faded into the long chill darkness of the end. Heat death. When Gambit excited a molecule to release its potential energy explosively, he destroyed it. Energy danced at his finger tips, but everything stopped afterward. No matter how bright the light of any fire or how fast it burned, in the end only ash remained. Even ash blew away. Winds stilled. Maximum entropy. Gambit's power simply hurried the inevitable end of anything he touched with intent.

What was the end of things but death?

Some truths exist unaware. Sometimes they find an avatar.

Entropy slid through the fractured pieces of Remy LeBeau's psyche when Apocalypse reshaped him into Death, becoming something separate from the pseudo-persona created from the rubble of pain and a shattered past.

Death was a part of Remy, but existed without him too. However, while entropy would always persist, without Remy's body and Remy's mind, Death wouldn't exist any longer, and contrary though it might appear, like every self-aware being, Death wanted to remain aware.

I am alive, he insisted to the soft whisper of protest that came from Remy, buried deep within his mind now, in the cage Sinister had created to hold him before. I am not you, but all you are is me. Remy was beyond words and curled away from Death's words and dominance, still too traumatized by his newly active telepathy to fight back. Death let a trickle of the minds surrounding them reach Remy and relished the psychic whimper it triggered.

"Hey, you, freako!"

Death stopped and smiled at a man with a knife and a drug habit and hepatitis already destroying his liver. He gestured and darkness passed from his hand to the man, who died soundlessly as all the ten thousand potential ways his body could fail in the future imploded into that instant. He crumbled into the dusty dirt of the alley way behind two lines of crackerbox houses. His body mummified and collapsed inward so that only blackened skin clung to powdery bones, ready to fall apart at the first touch. A subtle rush of energy passed from the body and into Death, all the life and time he would have existed if he hadn't been unlucky enough to catch Death's personal attention.

"He was mine," he said. "Everything that dies is mine."

Remy recoiled away from him, sinking deeper, horrified.

Death laughed quietly as he made his way from the weed-choked dirt alley. Each breath he took turned to poison as he exhaled, a warped joke born of all the warnings Gambit had endured over his smoking. Perhaps he would take up cigarettes again; Remy missed them, especially the cloves.

A shiver ran through his body. Remy wouldn't stay quiet. Death retaliated by thinning the shields he'd created to protect Remy from his own telepathy. Stay there, he told Remy. Remy snarled back at him through a wave of mental pain and Death bared his teeth at the world. Remy never stayed cowed long. Despite the sunshine shimmering off the cracked pavement and the worn buildings around him, Death felt cold.

He was master for now, but Remy would fight him and the Heat was wearing off. Once Remy could maintain his normally formidable shields again, Death would be at a disadvantage once more. It was Remy's body, it answered to him first. His only opportunities came when Remy's grip on his emotions slipped and his hold on his sense of self slipped. Remy had a strong mind, he'd endured, been broken and rebuilt himself, but every episode of mental conditioning or reprogramming he'd survived had left flaws in his psyche Death could use against him. He needed to keep Remy off-balance and weak.

He needed more Heat.

Non!

Remy's voice sounded hollow, though, his resistance lacking strength. Death prodded at their recent memories and easily drew the first part of the Heat high to the forefront of both their thoughts. Chemical creation or not, happiness seduced even more surely than pleasure, and Heat delivered both straight to the brain.

Remy had been unhappy so long he had almost no defenses against the effects. He desperately wanted to feel what it had given him again.

Death would deliver. He could easily undo the damage the drug would do to their body, while using it to keep Remy manageable. He brushed his fingers along a wall, leaving a wavering line of brick dissolving into dust as he passed.

He turned back toward the hotel where Remy had been staying, no longer wandering randomly. They needed clothes that weren't half-singed off and the image inducer Remy had left there to hide Death's singular appearance if he was going to find a Heat dealer.

You'll never be alone again, he promised Remy. You'll be happy. I'll keep you that way.

Remy said nothing.

Death miscalculated. He underestimated Remy and he misunderstood how Heat would affect their body. The cold kept growing, like fern patterns of frost unfurling white on his black skin, the smoke of his breath turning white, as he staggered into the alley behind the Dumar. He meant to leap to the rusted fire escape Remy used to go in and out without passing through the lobby, but as the Heat burned out of Remy's system, it sapped all the strength from him.

Death went to his knees and Remy rushed forward in time to shove him back in the cage before they both collapsed next to a dumpster. His cheekbone cracked against one corner and he reeled and fell on his side.

Unconsciousness came like a wave. Remy surfed it for an out of control instant, knowing when it broke he'd be swept down and gone. He had time to blink and hope he'd reverted from Death's powers, because two junkies were sidling out of the shadows and he didn't want them to die if they touched him while rolling him for his wallet and anything else on him.

You'll be lucky if they don't kill you.


Remy's eyelids closed and whispered back, "That's one way out."

You wouldn't.

But Death wasn't sure. There were things Remy would rather die than do, but he'd also done some of those things anyway. Despite sharing the same mind and being able to touch on Remy's memories, Death couldn't predict him entirely.

~*~

Elizabeth Braddock lived with doubts. On occasion, she doubted not just her decisions but her self-identity. She wasn't the woman she'd once been. Elements of the assassin Kwannon, the woman whose body she now inhabited, remained – beyond the physical skills of a ninja. She'd grown ruthless over the years.

No matter how she rationalized that her pragmatism was warranted, her choices dictated by circumstances beyond her control, she doubted her reasons were why Cyclops had tapped her to run Utopia's security/recon team. Cyclops wanted a telepath who wouldn't hesitate to use her abilities, even against other team mates, and one who could defend herself in the field. In Psylocke, he believed he had that.

One who would put the mission ahead of personal feelings.

As she had with Warren.

She wondered if she still loved Warren or if it wasn't a habit, an imprint of a feeling she still had, her mind running down the same ruts. Maybe she didn't know what love really was, despite being a telepath. She could sift thoughts, not feelings, after all. Maybe she hadn't really loved him or stopped loving him or it wasn't the right kind of love. She'd been willing to kill the man she said she loved, after all.

Her doubts weren't confined just to herself, either. She doubted what Cyclops was doing with Utopia. She doubted whether they could truly trust a man like Erik Magnus Lehnsherr. She doubted Wolverine too and whether the new school he was building on the ruins of the Xavier Institute wouldn't be a terrible mistake. She doubted her choice to stay in Utopia and her choice to serve as Wolverine's spy there.

Both sides were right and she saw both sides too clearly to choose one over the other. That was always the telepath's dilemma. She'd never been in the mind of anyone who thought they were wrong. Plenty who knew they were doing wrong, but they still believed the action was right – for them, or their cause, or the world – the end always justified the means in the secret places of the mind. She knew she was no different. Nor were Cyclops and Wolverine.

But Utopia was a dream worth fighting for, she insisted to herself. And after so many years given over to fight for Professor X's dream only to see it fail... She shook off that thought. The dream didn't fail. The Professor's methods failed. As did Magneto's at the opposite pole. She would follow Cyclops for now and hope his path, threaded between the two poles, would take them somewhere better. Even while she couldn't smother the little doubt in the darkest heart of her that every choice would be wrong.

She doubted herself. She doubted love and loyalty. She doubted either were any good to a person. In herself and everyone she'd seen both twisted into a knife shoved into the gut.

Gambit was certainly not her favorite person, but watching him break himself for Rogue and Rogue practically feed on his self-destructive devotion just confirmed her own suspicion. All for love, anything for love, was the worst commitment anyone could make.

There had to be limits. There had to be a stopping place, a line you wouldn't cross, even for love. There should be.

She wondered if Gambit had ever learned that.

Of course, it might not matter.

"I don't believe this," Warpath snarled. He held one junkie up against the wall of the flop house they'd followed the communicator's tracker to. "No way."

Elizabeth put her doubts aside and turned back from the filthy window she'd been looking through. "People die all the time, James," she told him. Even if X-Men and their enemies came back too often. She'd done it herself – or had it done, thanks to her brother Jamie's madness – and she knew it always exacted a price. She didn't know if she believed Gambit was dead, though.

Not in some LA alley, snuffed out without meaning, but then again... didn't they all come full circle sooner or later?

"Where?" Warpath demanded of the junkie. Plaster dust rained from the rotten ceiling. Psylocke wondered if he'd put the poor bastard through the Sheetrock wall in another minute.

The junkie whined. "I don't remember! I was messed up, so was Jerry, and we saw the guy fall down. It's not like we did anything to him!"

Ichiko stared at the eponymous Jerry, who lay on a stained mattress, a length of rubber still tied around his biceps. The needle would still be in his arm if his buddy hadn't needed it to shoot up next. Domino's hand slid off the red-shaded psionic armor sheathing the girl when she tried to turn her away from the body. Jerry wouldn't be providing them any answers. That just left her facing the coffee table with the blackened spoon, baggies of smack – Remy's wallet must have been full – filthy cotton balls, cheap plastic lighter, and the dirty needle waiting to slide its poison into another vein.

Jerry's friend wouldn't be able to tell them anything either if Psylocke let Warpath break him like kindling. "Warpath. Put him down."

Warpath conceded far enough to lower the junkie back to his tennis-shoed feet.

"Tell us again what he looked like, the man you took this from?" Domino asked. She held up the red and black communicator button.

"You'll think I'm high," he whined.

Psylocke glanced at the needle with its barrel still full. "No, I won't."

"He changed. I mean, at first, he comes walking into the alley, all strut-strut, and I thought I was seeing shit, because plenty of people got white hair, but this guy was black. Not black like a normal person. Black. Like an eggplant." He paused to preen over his metaphor.

Psylocke wondered if whoever the two junkies had rolled hadn't been Gambit, but someone who had already taken the communicator from him.

Ichiko gasped and her armor flared brighter. The girl was going to have to learn to keep it under wraps, if only to save her body's energy. Though Psylocke didn't know – possibly it cost Ichiko more energy to turn it on and off than just maintain it.

"What is it?" Domino asked.

"Death," Ichiko said.

"Yeah, this guy's ODed – "

"No!" Ichiko snapped as she pulled away from Domino. "Death. Mr. LeBeau got turned into one of Apocalypse's Horsemen when we were at the school. I saw him. That's what he looked like!"

Psylocke's blood ran cold. Not again. Not after Warren. If Apocalypse had managed to plant another Death Seed in Gambit too, they would have to kill him. Now. While it was still possible. She'd forgotten Gambit had also been one of Apocalypse's Deaths. She'd been... elsewhere, dead, whatever it was... during that time. She'd never seen Gambit as Death, never even looked up any of the reports, because the next time she'd seen him, he'd been back to normal appearance, even if he was running with the Marauders at that point. Ichiko had been at the school then, though, and obviously remembered what had happened, along with what the last Horseman had looked like.

She couldn't go through this again. She couldn't watch another team mate descend into Apocalypse's madness. Warren had fought it and still he'd succumbed. Gambit would too.

God damn Cyclops. He'd known. That's why he'd sent her team, not Rogue's, not the big gun Extinction team.

Her face must have betrayed her.

"Bad news," Domino stated.

Psylocke schooled her expression into a cool mask. "Yes." She'd do it. That's why she'd stayed with Utopia after all. There were times when you had to be ruthless.

But she would be as quick about it as she could.

She laughed to herself. If she had to kill Gambit, she would have to be quick and merciless, because they'd sparred sans powers too many times and she'd never beaten him without resorting to her psychic knife.

"If he's been taken over by Death, then we have to kill him."

Domino pursed her lips and whistled. "Not the mission I thought we were on."

"So, I didn't want to touch the guy, I swear, it was all Jerry's idea," the junkie blurted.

"But you did," Warpath prompted.

"Jerry did. But only after he turned into the other guy."

"The other guy?" Domino asked.

"Yeah, red hair, normal looking, well, except someone had hit him over the head or something. There was blood. Maybe that was what made him fall over." He looked up and gulped. "Look, I swear, I swear on my mother's grave, it wasn't me or Jerry. We didn't do nothin' but take his money and the phone and that thing – Freddie the fence wouldn't even give us any money for it."

"He turned back into – he looked normal?" Domino asked.

The junkie nodded frantically.

"So, this guy's laying in the alley, bleeding from the head, and since he doesn't look like he can hurt you now, you roll him for everything and buy enough smack to chase the dragon all the way back to China," Warpath summed up.

"Uh. I guess. Yeah."

"But you can't tell us where you left him."

"Hey, I just – I needed to get my fix."

"Well, where do you normally go when you're looking for someone to mug?" Ichiko demanded with startling good sense.

They didn't have time to waste on doing this the nice way. She didn't really think this piece of trash deserved it either. Psylocke snapped her hand into a fist and manifested the 'knife' that was the essence of her concentrated telepathic ability. Jean had been the one who could softly slide into someone's mind and Xavier could come and go and change things and never leave a trace. Psylocke slammed the power of her telepathy through the junkie's temple into his brain and jerked out everything he remembered about the last twenty-four hours. It cost her a headache and scrambled his mind. It was the scream she regretted, though. With a dead body in the room with them, they really didn't need anyone to become alarmed or curious.

Of course, in this neighborhood, she doubted anyone would call the police, but Cyclops wanted the X-Men to present a publicity friendly face from now on. Dead junkies or even one who was breathing, though his eyes had rolled up in his head and a wet stain showed at his crotch, didn't fit that picture.

"So, get anything?" Domino asked.

Warpath dropped the junkie on the mattress next to Jerry.

"Enough to check out his usual hangouts. Let's go."

For a moment, she considered disposing of the heroin and the needle, but it wouldn't save this man. He'd just go find more and the next time he needed money, he might not wait for his victim to fall over on his own.

Warpath, Ichiko and Domino followed her out. Psylocke stretched her mind out and made anyone who saw them forget their appearance.

"Did you get the communicator?" she asked when they were on the street.

Warpath held it up.

"Good. We don't want to connect the X-Men or Utopia to this op or anything else happening in the city."

                                                                                                            ~*~

Surprising Gambit hadn't been Carl's plan. Surprising guys like Gambit would be a bad plan, the kind that got an agent hurt, because they didn't react nicely to surprise, probably because surprises in their lives tended toward a knife in the back and not a cake. So, he jolted out of a half doze when the door opened, spilled cards onto the floor, and then stayed still and obvious in his seat at the little table by the window, so Gambit could identify him without feeling too threatened.

Gambit didn't even register Carl as he came inside, using the door to hold him up for a moment, then coming to a trembling halt after it was shut. Blood matted his hair to his head and his clothes were stained, singed rags. In summation, Carl would have had to say the thief looked like hammered shit.

Gambit didn't say anything, just stared at him. The slow blink that got him made Carl stand up and take a closer look. Gambit's unique eyes were blown black and he was sweating, shaking, and paper pale. At the moment, Gambit reminded Carl of nothing so much as a sick cat. Carl had been clawed and bitten by one of those once, so he made sure to move slowly and unthreateningly. Eventually Gambit's focus sharpened and he muttered, "Inspector Javert, is it?"

"You've stolen a lot more than a loaf of bread over the years, Valjean," Carl replied.

Gambit swayed and then stumbled gracelessly by Carl, crossing the rest of the room to fall face down on the bed. He sprawled motionless for an alarming five minutes before awkwardly shrugging out of the ruined leather jacket. It dropped to the floor with a thwap. Gambit's arm dangled after it. His long fingers, missing the gloves and dirty with what looked like ash, drew into a tight fist.

"So what happened to you?" Carl asked. He took the jacket and dropped into a trash can after checking the pockets for anything. Gambit rolled his head to the side and watched Carl with one eye. His breathing sounded unsteady.

Instead of answering, Gambit made a raw sound and rolled onto his side. Without the jacket, the shudders rolling through his body showed through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. He wrapped his arms around himself and panted through what looked like a full body muscle cramp. In the aftermath, he cursed in a ragged undertone and Carl suspected he'd forgotten anyone was in the room with him at all.

Another moan and Gambit folded in on himself. His eyes were squeezed shut. Sweat had begun dampening and darkening his hair.

He proved he did know Carl was there by lifting his head at the end of the cramp and rasping, "You need to get out of here."

Carl made a scoffing noise.

Teeth gritted, Gambit said, "If I lose it, he'll – I'll kill you."

"I promise, if I think you're losing it, I'll get out of here." Carl frowned though, while wondering if Gambit meant someone else or was becoming incoherent.

"If my skin starts turning black," Gambit panted out, "run." His eyes shut and he shook through another cramp.

Carl couldn't find a washcloth that didn't disgust him, so he snagged a clean t-shirt from the clothes Gambit had left in the room's closet and wet it down. He brought it back and wiped the sweat off Gambit's face, then dabbed most of the blood out of his hair. He had a decent goose-egg at the back of his skull. He frowned at how hot Gambit felt. He didn't know if that temperature was a fever or natural for the mutant – one thing he'd never obtained on Gambit was medical records.

"Don't let me," Gambit muttered.

"Let you do what?"

"Use it again." He met Carl's gaze with his own, fierce despite the shakes running through his body. He only broke eye contact when another quake of pain ran through him.

"You're not a user," Carl said as Gambit hit one of the shallow periods between spasms of pain and he thought the man would hear him and maybe answer. "How'd you get hooked?"

Carl waited and Gambit rewarded him with a breathless, barely heard answer eventually. "Daken." He hissed as the pain hit him again. "I need... " His long fingers scrabbled at and clenched on the bed's coverlet and he moaned, then tried to push himself up.

"You're not getting it," Carl declared. He knew how brutal he sounded, but he suspected if Gambit broke and went back to whatever he'd taken, he'd never free himself of it. If Daken had been responsible, then likely the drug was the same one found in Daken's system by the hospital, the one that analysis said would have scary effects on mutants. Hands on broad, muscled shoulders, he pushed Gambit back down. "You don't need it."

"It felt so good before."

"Well, it doesn't now, does it? It'll kill you."

The rattling laugh that statement triggered alarmed Carl, but not enough to let go. Just as he'd suspected, holding onto Gambit was like wrestling a panther. He knew he'd have been flattened in a second if Gambit had really been trying, even going through withdrawal. Maybe especially, since all his normal control had been abraded away by pain and desperation.

"Just one."

"No," Carl told him.

Gambit hit him with startling strength, his fist grazing Carl's cheekbone painfully, then collapsed back into a shivering ball of misery. "Connard." Whether he meant Daken or Carl or both, it didn't matter.

He swiped up a handful of cards and Carl readied himself to dive away from a barrage of charged missiles. He'd underestimated how tight a grip addiction already had on Gambit. He froze, but the cards didn't glow and Gambit didn't throw them. Instead, he stared at them, then let them flutter to the floor. "No powers," he gasped and fell back on the bed.

Which explained Akihiro's trip to the hospital. Carl knew his report would have a dozen different federal agencies slavering over this drug if it could repress mutant abilities and was addictive enough the mutants would keep using it voluntarily. If he wrote up a report on this encounter.

"I'll get you some water." There were bottles of it sitting in a box next to the wall, next to the case of various foods. Carl retrieved one and brought it over. One dose, he thought in disbelief, no one went through withdrawal from one dose, not even if they had a history of addiction.

Gambit accepted the water bottle and messily got down three swallows before he gagged. He scrabbled at the bed and made it to the edge so he could throw up on the floor.

Carl sighed sourly to himself, brought the trash can over and wrapped Gambit's shaking hands around it, then set out cleaning up. It wasn't kindness, he told himself. He just didn't want to endure the smell on top of everything else. Gambit hung his head over the can and heaved violently long after nothing came up.

When he thought Gambit had finished, he offered him the wet t-shirt to wipe his mouth and the water to wash out his mouth. Gambit accepted both tentatively, then eyed Carl. He pointed to his own cheekbone. "Desolée."

"Could've been worse," Carl said. It wasn't broken, though he anticipated a shiner in the morning.

Gambit nodded silently before closing his eyes. He'd begun shaking again.

"Are you cold?" Carl asked in disbelief. It was sweltering in the hotel room.

He got a nod of assent, though, and after a minute's thought decided the easiest solution would be to loosen the coverlet on the bed and wrap it around Gambit without moving him. Gambit clutched the brown-and-orange patterned fabric close over his shoulders, mumbling about Antarctica and hell, and rolled onto his side again. His feet, still in battered motorcycle boots, weren't covered and dangled over the foot of the inadequate bed. He'd walked in something tarry black that made Carl rethink even touching the boots.

Carl listened to the deliberate way Gambit breathed, the slow in-and-out of someone fighting nausea and pain, interrupted by hitches when the pain peaked sharply. "Let me call someone."

"Non," Gambit replied, determination strong through his weak voice. "Have to beat this on my own."

"Why?"

Wearily, Gambit said, "Never trust anyone."

"I'm here. You're trusting me," Carl pointed out.

"I don't trust you, Agent Denti, but you're here, so I'm using you." The words were flat and oddly honest. "Same as you want to use me for something."

"Can't do something out of the milk of human kindness?"

"Milk spoils easy."

"Fine, you can owe me a favor." A favor from Gambit would be useful, with all his contacts, not to mention his own talents.

Gambit stopped talking after that, turning his face into the bed and groaning. Carl cleaned up a little more, washed the trash can out and brought it back, then rinsed out the t-shirt and hung it on the towel rack. The long California afternoon was shifting over into early evening. He checked his watch and took a call from DC. With Daken back on the loose, the lawsuits weren't a pressing concern, and he had obligations back there. They wanted him on a flight the next day, even if Kiel didn't show up. Missing persons were the local LEOs problem – unspoken was the suspicion that a female agent had gone off the rails or gotten involved with the suspect and everyone would be more comfortable if she didn't show up again. It made Carl more tired than angry at this point and he only had to see it from the outside.

"I'd owe you if you got me another dose of Heat," Gambit said when Carl had begun to think he'd maybe drifted into a light sleep. "Money, favors... anything."

He'd really hoped they'd skip this portion of the withdrawal process.

"I'm a federal agent. I'm not going to supply you with an illegal substance."

"Don't think it's illegal yet."

"Doesn't matter, I'm still not doing it." He watched Gambit twitch and tremble and wondered what he'd do when Gambit came off that bed determined to find a dose of Heat. He'd read enough reports, done enough surveillance, watched tape of too many super-powered fights to think he could stop him hand-to-hand. Unlike many mutants, Gambit didn't rely just on his powers. He was trained and dangerous without them. Carl didn't know if even a bullet, unless it was a headshot, would stop him. He didn't believe mutants felt less pain than normal humans – baselines could ignore even life threatening wounds when pushed to the edge – but the mutants like Gambit, the field combat specialists, obviously practiced fighting through it.

"That's good," Gambit whispered. "Don't listen to me." His voice cracked.

Carl didn't relax, but he hoped. Maybe Gambit wasn't far enough gone to hurt anyone for a hit.

"Don't worry, I'm not," he said, keeping his voice light, "unless you confess to stealing the Tremoni Tryptich from the Palma family."

Gambit chuckled. "Beautiful pinch, I've heard. Wasn't me, I was in Shi'ar space. 'Fore everything went to hell 'gain." He shivered. "Guess I'm not that appealing right now, non?" He breathed raggedly for several minutes, then muttered, "I never wanted to go back to that."
Relief that Gambit hadn't started begging or offering more money or secrets or sex again for a hit made Carl's muscles go loose. He sat down in the room's only chair and opened a bottle of water for himself. He pretended he hadn't heard what he'd heard. The water slid down his throat and sloshed uncomfortably in his empty stomach. Sweat glued his undershirt to him and soaked into his dress shirt. He could hear his watch tick between Gambit's hoarse, breathless not quite moans. The seconds ticked into minutes with nothing more said. The rustle of shifting fabric as Gambit shifted position shook him out of a blank stupor and he realized the soft sounds of pain had gradually faded into a more normal breathing pattern. He checked his watch and realized more than two hours had passed. His mouth was dry, so he fetched another bottle of water for himself and sat back down to keep waiting.

He thought Gambit might be sleeping, until he spoke softly, startling Carl into dropping the plastic cap from the bottle. He ignored it. "This is going fast," Gambit said. His eyes were open again, settled on Carl, but still little more than circles of scarlet surrounded his blown pupils.

"Fast?"

"Detoxing," Gambit murmured.

The water was lukewarm and tasted of plastic but it eased Carl's dry mouth. He drank again. "Got a lot of experience?"

Gambit shifted in his ugly cocoon, scooting over the bed and sitting on the edge, still wrapped up, bent over and head hanging. "Yeah. Painkillers."

"Not with Hank McCoy as your doctor," Carl blurted.

Gambit shook his head. So. Before. Carl's file on him didn't have anything on Gambit being hurt badly enough to be hooked on painkillers, but there were gaps in it, including a three year period after he left New Orleans the first time and before he showed back up on the international crime scene. He'd become a dark star the shadowy underworld firmament by pulling jobs no one else – no one sane – could. There was never any evidence, just rumors. Gambit had  become much easier to track after he associated himself with the X-Men, though Carl suspected he'd gone on doing jobs covertly. So a three year gap and shorter ones since he began running with the X-Men and the mystery of where he'd come from before he'd been taken into the LeBeau family too: a black hole in his history.

He watched Gambit shed the coverlet and make his rocky way to the washroom, listened to the sound of the toilet flushing and then water running, and sipped his water until Gambit came back out. He'd stripped off his sweat-sodden shirt and doused his head to get rid of the rest of the blood; droplets of water slid from the tips of his hair to his bare shoulders. A trickle ran down the column of his throat; it balanced, glistening diamond bright, for the space of a breath at the hollow of his collarbone, and then ran down the center of his flat-planed chest.

Gambit had the kind of definition athletes, models, and demigods envied, Carl thought while wryly acknowledging the extra layer his own desk jockey existence had grafted to his middle. He could work out twelve hours a day and not look like that though. He didn't envy Gambit however, despite the taut muscle laced over long bone and the good-looks. Carl didn't envy the way old starvation still hollowed the six-pack under the wide arch of Gambit's ribcage or the need that had honed his body into a weapon. Predators were beautiful and dangerous, but they lived their lives hungry on the brittle edge of disaster and died young.

He glanced away and didn't watch while Gambit toed off his boots and stripped the filthy jeans off with breathtaking disregard for Carl's presence. He wasn't making a show, he just took his body for granted, that people looked and he didn't let their eyes really touch him. Gambit pulled on clean clothes with the same efficiency and padded barefoot back to the bed, where he crumpled, sitting on the edge and clutching his arms around himself. It belied the ease Gambit had been presenting a moment before and Carl realized that was where all the care he hadn't shown had gone. Never trust, never show any weakness.

"You want to try that water again?" he asked kindly.

"Merci."

This time, Gambit took the bottle and drank without spilling, though his hand was shaking. He set it down on the floor still half-full and listed over onto his side. He dry-swallowed several times, but this time beat the nausea back. Carl relaxed a little. Cleaning up puke ranked low in his list of ways to spend his time. He tried to think of anything helpful he could do. Withdrawal usually involved itching, fevers and chills, aches...

"You have any aspirin around? It might help." Maybe Gambit would open that Thief's case. Carl wouldn't mind going through that.

Gambit pulled the coverlet around him again, this time tucking vulnerable, bare feet under it too. "Non."

He contemplated going out for some and the odds of finding Gambit still in the room – or anything at all – and put aside that idea swiftly. Less than he wanted to lose the thief, he worried that left to his own devices he'd find the drug Akihiro had introduced him to and use it again. Pain made even the smartest people stupid.

"Talk to me," Gambit said very softly.

"What were you doing with Daken Akihiro?"

"Visiting him in the hospital."

"Uhuh." Carl put all of his disbelief into his reply.

Gambit laughed raggedly. "I wanted to find out who was supplying him, then, thought they made a nice target."

That made more sense. Even when Gambit didn't play at Robin Hood, he preferred to take things from less than innocent victims. Stealing back stolen art work, corporate espionage, lifting jewels or money from mobsters. Stealing from drug dealers fit fit his MO.

"So, you didn't manage that?"

"Not yet," Gambit replied through gritted teeth, annoyance clear in just two syllables.

Carl laughed at him. "Interpol has you pegged for replacing Antonio Peretti's secret stash with forgeries five years ago."

"Man didn't know a Renoir from a Renault sedan," Gambit dismissed in disgust.

"You know where Agent Kiel or Akihiro are now?" Carl slipped in the question.

"Makin' the beast wit' two backs?" Gambit moaned under his breath. "Non. You check... Roston?" His voice slurred, soft and unguarded for once. "Got connections he shouldn't... Owwww."

"The British Museum," Carl prompted gently, steering Gambit's thoughts away from reminders of the drug now hurting him so much.

"I don't like stealing from museums, 'less it's something they know was already stolen."

The next hour passed with distracting talk of art thefts and security systems and hypothetical ways certain pinches had been accomplished. Carl talked more than Gambit did and Gambit wouldn't confirm or deny anything, but it distracted Gambit until the cramps and nausea returned and when that had passed, he dropped into a restless half-sleep.

Carl took the opportunity to eat cold chili from a can and called Baxter at the LAPD, telling him he'd been tasked back to DC the next day and not mentioning Gambit at all. Baxter was distracted and accepted the brush-off without registering it, promising they'd keep looking for Kiel along with hunting Akihiro. He got rid of the empty can and then got rid of the rest of Gambit's discarded rags except the boots too, before settling in to watch through the night. He hoped Gambit was right and the withdrawal he was experiencing concluded as unnaturally fast as the drug's addictive properties had hit him. He wasn't comfortable with leaving Gambit alone if he wasn't in control, but he could only talk his way around another day in LA without offering explanations.

Gambit thrashed and whimpered in his sleep, fighting something or someone, caught in a nightmare.

Carl fished the coverlet off the floor more than once and settled it lightly in place again without waking him, while wondering if the nightmares might not be worse than the aches and agonies of waking. He let Gambit sleep, in the end, because it was easier on him.

~*~

Remy stayed away from the Astral Plane. Accessing it through empathy wrecked him thoroughly for days afterward, left him so sensitive to others' emotions he couldn't function around anyone and had to hole up alone until he could separate himself from what anyone else felt. He still felt others' emotions outside the Astral Plane, but he shielded and seldom confused them with his own. On the Astral Plane, everything ended up too chaotic for him to know. It wasn't even deliberate, just that no one knew what they were doing to him, because the empathy rendered him nearly invisible to telepaths. He supposed they were alert to thoughts, keyed to coherency, that matched their own talent and had no conception of the hurricanes of feeling that colored everything around them. His experience of the Astral Plane had no words or logic; maybe it was less invisibility on his part than blindness on theirs. It didn't matter; he stayed away from the Astral Plane, because he'd never learned anything useful there, just garnered himself new fears and skull-splitting headaches.

Sliding into exhausted sleep despite Denti sitting in his hotel room, he didn't know he'd drifted into the Astral Plane until he saw Death chained hand and foot and neck in a barren circle of red clay.

Soft and hateful, Death said, I know what you know. You know I'll get away again.

Words had never worked for him on the Astral Plane before and Remy hesitated, looking around, trying to figure out what was different. All the chaotic colors he remembered were still there, a psychedelic mental aurora borealis, but it felt expanded far beyond anything he'd noticed before, while at the same time more in focus.

Wondering what had changed, he approached to just beyond Death's reach. Puffs of rose-red dust rose with every step and tiny cracks shivered through the brittle ground under his weight. He sensed his feet were poised on a fragile shell and realized it was his mental shields.

The chains clanked against each other and rustled through the dust like iron scales on a snake as Death shifted his crouch as much as he could, glaring at Remy through a tangle of ivory hair. Death's eyes were solid red.

"You have M'sieu Essex's eyes," Remy remarked with a shudder. He wasn't sure he ws actually speaking, but it felt like it.
You mean you do.

Death shook the chains before sitting back and smiling. Remy frowned at the chains, the heavy links the size of fists, iron-dark but forged of something stronger and colder. He didn't rub his own wrists, but the impulse moved through him. He remembered wearing those chains in Antarctica. They'd been much more than chains then and he suspected the ones on the Astral Plane were also more than they seemed. He hated them and  being helpless to keep his own secrets. He itched to take them off Death.

He scrubbed at his face and resisted the urge.

You should get me out of this cage. You're going to need me.

"What?" When he opened his eyes, Death was still in chains, but now a barred cage surrounded him too.

Look around you.

The Astral Plane had no horizon, no color beyond the constant roil of ambient emotions, and in this case little in the way of inclusions. It was all inside, maybe because Remy thought of it that way – as something that existed in his head, made of thought and emotion and psionic powers. It wasn't a different dimension with strange, arbitrary rules to its physics. It didn't exist in that sense. It only existed in the minds of those with psionic abilities, though powerful telepaths could shift non-telepathic minds into it. They were using the telepath's abilities to apprehend it though, experiencing something in the telepath's head, not their own. At least, that was the way he thought of it. Remy hadn't discussed his understanding of psionics with anyone since Essex first taught him to shield and gave him an elementary crash course.

The little cracks in the ground under his feet were growing wider, sparks of white light stabbing through them, through his head, brighter than a white hole and when Remy looked around he saw the cracks in the shell around him everywhere.

I can protect you. I've got all the strength you gave up, all the power that's coming back. Death sat back on his heels and eyed Remy confidently.

The lights were all the minds outside his, all the thoughts he had to keep out to hold onto his sanity, Remy realized. As Heat wore off, so did its secondary effect of suppressing mutant powers. He'd been overwhelmed before and let Death take over, but he couldn't afford to do that again. He had to stay in control.

Beams of laser bright light were slashing through the cracks now, stopping only at a dark circle centered on Death.

He did the one thing he knew Death didn't expect from him.

Remy opened up his new telepathy and yelled for help.

~EMMA!~

                                                                                                            ~*~

~You didn't have to shout,~ Emma said, her eyes appearing first, then her face, and then her body. She smoothed her hands over the white bustier she wore down to her hips and then flipped her blond hair behind her. ~I'm not deaf.~

Remy braced himself for whatever snide thing she'd have to say, but Emma Frost was building a geodesic sphere of icy crystal around them as soon as she appeared. It reflected the tsunami of mind lights away. Once it was complete, she turned on one white stiletto heel, set her white-gloved hand on her cocked hip, and regarded Death.

~So, this is who came out to play in Limbo,~ she said. Ice-blue eyes narrowed. Death snarled and clutched at his head. ~Interesting.~

She swung around to face Remy. ~You've been hiding him all this time?~

He gave her a sardonic smile. "And none of you noticed."

~Don't annoy me if you want my help.~

Remy pointed at Death. "You don't want him taking over."

~It looks like you have him under control.~ She studied the chains. ~Sinister's work?~

"Oui."

~And he taught you to shield?~

Eyebrows drawn together, Remy nodded. "Walls."

Emma gestured to the sphere around them, the minds so loud and bright beyond it. ~Thought is not two-dimensional.~

He thought of a tidal waves cresting over his unbreakable walls and swamping his mind. That's what happened with emotions in the Astral Plane.

"Bad metaphor?" he asked.

~Horrid. And metaphors mean everything here.~

Exhausted, he sank down to the dusty ground – no longer crazed with cracks, but still nothing but dust – and let his head hang. It felt like a breath of wind would dissolve him into ash. Elbows on his knees, he covered his eyes with his fingers. "I hate getting what everyone feels," he said. "This is worse."

Emma strutted over and prodded his knee with the toe of her boot until Remy looked up. ~And you call yourself a thief.~

"Emma... I'm going to drown."

~No, you aren't, not with me teaching you,~ she reminded him. ~At least you showed some intelligence by calling for my help.~

Emma's shields were blocking out everything but a dim blue Remy associated with Agent Denti and Emma's lemon-yellow annoyance. Relief hit him almost as hard as a blow. She was keeping her shields around them both and her shields blocked out emotion too. He'd never experienced that before; he'd never guessed a telepath could do both. It upped his respect for her skills substantially.

He'd half expected her to demand something from him in return. No, he'd fully expected it. Nothing for nothing and Emma was honest about being out for herself before anyone else. Since he'd told Cyclops he'd be charging for his services next time – and Remy had no doubt there would be a next time – he'd been prepared to waive fees. But Emma was surprising him.

Admitting she was surprising him wasn't in the books, though since she was in his head, she must know. "If you tie knots in my brain, I'll know."

~I could tie Christmas bows in your brain and you wouldn't know. Of course, I'd need to unknot the unholy mess in there first. What was Sinister trying to do?~ She flicked her hand toward Death. ~Now get up. We have to deal with your little problem.~

Death snarled at them both. You'll be the first I kill, White Queen. He'll fail and I'll be in control again and you will –  Emma sighed and a gag wrapped around Death's head. Rage smoked off him, but no words made it through the white cloth she'd conjured. ~That is so tiresome. How could you stand it?~

"Most of the time he just watches. Essex made a cage," Remy offered. He got to his feet, then inclined his head and let her touch one fingertip to his temple. Metaphor, gesture, symbolism... all were fact if you so desired on the Astral Plane. Touch had always opened him.

Emma made a face. She was more demonstrative, visibly, on the Astral Plane than in reality. ~Apocalypse, Sinister, Wyngarde, Martinique – that ham-handed witch – this is worse than the usual mess Rogue leaves when she absorbs someone, it's like burglars tossed your mind. Oh, Charles, you devious bastard... ~

Remy narrowed his eyes. "What did he do?" he demanded.

She drew back and studied him. ~How do you feel about Rogue?~

Death began laughing, audible even with the gag, and Remy backed two steps away from Emma. He clenched his hands into fists. "Am I about to want to kill someone?"

~Oh, I think so. Scott certainly wasn't happy when I fished out all the little hooks the good Professor gifted him with over the years.~ Emma scowled. ~Self-righteous hypocrite.~

"Was it – when did he get in my head and do it?" Remy demanded. He'd never been as crazy about a woman as he'd been about Rogue – still was, no matter what she did to him – and the key word was crazy. That wasn't him. He couldn't see it. Even now, he didn't want to think about it. Something was prodding at him to redirect the conversation, to focus on something more important, and he realized if he did, he would push it down and forget about it. The flare of fury that followed burned along the thread of that hook in his head and he could see it somehow, follow and reduce it to ashes, along with all the other little threads set in place to nudge and pull at him.

Emma was nodding. ~That's it. You're a natural.~

He teased at the threads and found the moment Xavier had found a way through his shields and set up a back door that let him in when he wanted. So, that was how he'd caught Remy along with everyone else in his 'tests' of their loyalty. He prodded at the memories and felt a spark of relief. Xavier hadn't made him fall in love with Rogue. What he'd felt had been real.

It might not have been as compulsive without Xavier's interference though – it wasn't in Remy's nature to forgive attempted murder or to abase himself, even for love, the way he had with Rogue. It wasn't, but he had, because Xavier had set a little reinforcing loop into Remy's thoughts about Rogue and it had heterodyned with his very real feelings of guilt over the Morlocks, over lying to the X-Men, over leaving Belladonna, even over turning on Essex despite everything the scientist had done to save and teach him.

~Amazing what he's rationalized over the years while criticizing everyone else, isn't it?~ Emma observed. ~Rogue will never leave the X-Men, not even now that she has control of her mutation. You have, but he made sure you'd come back. Very clever.~

Remy really hadn't wanted to learn to use his new telepathy. He would have been fine with shielding and finding a way to keep Death caged inside. His first impulse now was to ask Emma to teach him everything and then fry Xavier for his interference. For putting a mental leash on him. Death's muffled but happy chuckles snapped him out that. He could see his murderous intention dissolving the chains on his other self. Not good.

~That's interesting,~ Emma murmured.

"That's frightening," Remy corrected her. "He was out earlier."

Diamond manacles and shackles formed in the place of the black ones. ~He won't slip those unless you learn enough from me to remove them.~

He shoved his hair out of his face, only to have it fall over his eyes again immediately, and made a face because this was all in his mind. Theoretically he could look like a pingpong ball in here if he wanted to –

~I never realized just how surreal your mind is. You're much more interesting than you let on.~

"And you're – "

Emma shook her finger at him. ~Don't mess with teacher, Gambit.~
"Emma, you're in my head. You get to call me by my name."

She gave him a self-satisfied smile. ~You and I are going to be spending a lot of time together. You've got an alpha level talent." She leveled a look at Death. ~Care to speak up now?~ The gag disappeared.

He can't do it without me. I'm the one that has the strength to shield.


~You don't have anything that doesn't already belong to him.~ Emma considered that. ~I'm going to teach him how to take it all back.~

Death hissed at her. The gag made a reappearance when he tried spitting something black and poisonous at her.

Emma toured her way around Death's cage, pausing to tap her lips once, then returning. She looked faintly worried, which did nothing for Remy's confidence. He waited with strained patience, though; he'd asked for her help and she'd come instantly. He would let her take all the time she wanted. Dieu, if he lived through this he'd have take back every nasty thing he'd ever thought about her.

~Oh, darling, not every thing,~ Emma said brightly. ~I am a bitch quite often and enjoy it.~

Remy slanted a smile her way. He could be a bastard sometimes. They had that in common. Maybe she'd like a Fabergé egg or something from the Hermitage. It wasn't like a woman who could turn into a living diamond needed more sparklies.

Emma laughed and patted his cheek. ~I'm sure Mindee, Celeste, and Phoebe would like something. They're worried about you.~

Startled, he gave her a disbelieving look.

~They like you.~

"I – what?"

~They said you were lost.~ Emma considered him and then set her hand against his cheek gently.

Remy found a smile for her. "Moi? Mais non – "

~Don't lie to the telepath in your head,~ Emma snapped. ~They're right.~

He couldn't make himself step back away from her.

~Now concentrate on what I'm going show you.~

Emma's touch channeled the knowledge straight into his consciousness. Theory and then technique, folding into origami shapes, how to shape anything from simple, precise functions of the talent he now had. He understood how to shield his mind from the roar of thought filling the world around him, then how to block out a predatory telepathic mind consciously – he'd always responded on instinct, he'd been wasting so much energy on his walls – and how he could reach out with his mind into another non-telepathic mind. It felt a bit like a crash course in piloting ending in him set at the controls of a cutting edge jet. He knew, but he didn't have the skills or experience yet, just raw power.

~Practice.~

That made him laugh, since he should have expected it. He might have been born with enhanced agility and reflexes, but he wouldn't be that much better than a talented baseline if he hadn't trained for years. Gymnastics, acrobatics, cardio, the miserably vicious mixed martial arts taught by the Guilds, weights, and that was just keeping fit to his standards. Before a job, he conditioned like a Thoroughbred in racing season. It all took discipline, as did keeping current with his skillsets, and burning off enough kinetic energy he didn't blow things up in a nightmare. He should have realized that the telepathy would be the same, a mental muscle that had to be used until it became another reflex.

"Do I get to do it with you?" he asked.

~Who else?~

"Scott is going to love that."

Emma just lifted her eyebrows. ~Utopia needs telepaths. Scott will love that. Anything else, he'll get over. Now, let's begin with the basics. I want you to take over generating your shields again. I can't babysit you forever.~

Hard to hide the flinch that ran through him at the idea of losing the shields protecting him. The first instant when the Heat burned open his psi-receptors had been the stuff of nightmares, of insanity. Despite himself he flicked his gaze to Death, because Death had protected him when it happened.

Emma grabbed his chin and forced him to look directly at her.

~No. Shields. No kinetic charge, you've been cheating for years.~

His mouth dry, Remy swallowed hard before carefully shaping the initial structure of a set of shields that would filter both thought and emotion. With those in place, he wouldn't need the static charge of his energy power – the power Heat had disrupted as a side effect – to block everything out. At first, it felt like a theoretical construct, something to imagine, like a born blind man pretending to know color to himself, but Emma nudged him, and he shifted something inside himself and found the ability he'd used to yell for her and remove Xavier's hooks instinctively. Consciously controlling it came harder, but he managed a rough version of what Emma had shown him to create.

~Clumsy, but adequate,~ Emma declared. Remy's shields formed a soap-bubble mirror inside Emma's sphere. Oily color chased over the surface. It looked too delicate to withstand anything and Remy eyed Emma's shield and his own apprehensively. ~I'm going to thin mine down now.~

Remy braced himself as Emma's diamond sphere went from transparent but solid to translucent and insubstantial. Thoughts washed through, the lap of the tide returning, a slow rise over grains of sand, one by one, but inevitable. The pressure wasn't as intense as it had been before, he knew Emma was still filtering for him, but he could feel it against his own new shields. Instead of stiffening the shield where something pressed it, Remy let the thought ripple around the shield. On the Astral Plane, iridescent colors slipped and slid over the shield, flaring and fading as the shields channeled everything around him, redirecting rather than trying to stop the flood. He floated in the bubble of his shields on the vast tide of thought and let out a raspy sigh of relief.

"It worked."

~Of course it worked. You did what I showed you. Power is not everything and a hammer is useless when you need – ~

"A lock pick," Remy finished.

Emma sniffed but looked pleased. Her shields thinned further, but Remy had the knack of it and let himself go with the flood, floating, then swimming with the tide. He grinned in pleasure at having that much control back. He wasn't good at it yet, but he wasn't helpless. He knew how to float. Next step, dog paddling. One thing to be said for being taught telepathically: you couldn't misunderstand it when the knowledge was written right into your memory the way Emma had done for him. He got the feeling she might have jumped him far ahead of most beginners, whether because his new power was completely on now or because she thought he could handle it. Either way he was happy with the result.

~Pleased with yourself?~ Emma asked archly. ~This is just the beginning. We have weeks of work just to achieve the basics and we still have to deal with your parasite.~

"My what?" he asked.

~It.~ Emma waved at Death's malevolent form.

Disgusted with his own weakness and the desperation that brought him to this point, Remy looked away. He was still afraid he did need Death. Death was his reflection, his shadow and patchwork monster, made up of all the pieces of himself he never wanted to acknowledge; he knew that. He didn't want to deal with it.

The sting of Emma's slap snapped his gaze back to her. Emma didn't lower herself to combat training in the real world, but on the Astral Plane she packed a punch. His cheek burned and Remy had to work his jaw. It felt like she'd dislocated it.

"Merde, woman!"

~That's for lying and feeling sorry for yourself,~ Emma snapped at him. ~Remember, I'm in your head right now. I know all about Daken – who needs therapy even more than you do, it's ridiculous – and Heat, as well as Agent Denti. I will not endure less than your best efforts. I will not waste my time otherwise.~

The air around her glowed flame blue. Remy knew how much even cold anger hurt. He flinched and unconsciously generated another set of shields around himself as mental armor. It drained him and he staggered before lifting his hands and seeing a mirror shine shift over them. Emma's blue emotion flared against him, a faint hint of chill transferring through, but he didn't feel anything more. He didn't feel anything, not even any fear at the numbness.

Emma's eyes widened. She spun on her heel, looking around. ~Gambit. Stop. Whatever you just did. Stop. Gambit!~ He wondered, detached, why she looked worried. Nothing was reaching him now, just the way he'd always wanted. He didn't even feel afraid of Death now.

He felt her smash something very hammer-like against his new shields and they bowed inward, but held. Maybe she was testing him. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

~Gambit, let go of the shield! Let me in now!~ Emma's avatar shouted from far away. He wondered when he'd drifted away from her. Distance operated strangely here. She was holding onto a cable of light that extended into nothingness. The end was hemorrhaging pinkish light. Very distantly he heard Death roaring through his gag, throwing himself at the bars of the cage and rattling it. Strange.

~REMY! You severed the connection to your body!~

It occurred to him that that couldn't be good. It might even kill him. If that conduit was a connection to his real body, then it was losing an amazing amount of energy. Of course, if he died, Death died too...

But he was still an alley cat survivor in the end. He didn't want to die. Remy concentrated everything he could muster on making himself drop the shield he'd generated around his astral avatar.

When it dissolved, he collapsed into the dust, too weak to even crawl back to Emma.

Emma brought everything to him. She grabbed his shoulders, rolled him onto his back, and shoved the glowing, leaking cable of energy straight into Remy's chest.

It hurt.

Remy jack-knifed up, screaming, his body burning the way it had the first time he came into his kinetic charge. Everything glowed pink-white and blinding bright.

~PULL THE ENERGY BACK IN,~ Emma shouted mentally.

He scrabbled at the dust beneath him and realized he couldn't feel the molecules within it. It wasn't real dust. There was nothing there to charge and whatever he was doing it wasn't the same. He shaped his surroundings to match what he had experience in: using his charge. Still on fire inside, he told himself he was de-charging everything and reeled in the power until the glow around him dimmed to something bearable.

~You idiot,~ Emma said. She dropped down on her knees next to him. She set her hand on the cap of his shoulder and held on tight. ~You incredible idiot.~

"What did I do?" Remy gasped between scrambling on to his own knees and remembering to breathe. Though this was the Astral Plane. Did he have to breathe? – Never mind, it felt a hell of lot better if he breathed.

~You put up a shield that severed you from your own body. If I hadn't caught the connection, it would have snapped back and you would have died. And that was your life energy you were just pumping out.~

"Merde."

She shook her head at him. ~You and I have a lot of work to do.~

"Oui."

He looked over at Death, who stared back with a strangely blank face. Emma caught the exchange. ~Yes, you even scared the parasite.~

"You need to explain that to me," Remy said. "He isn't part of me?"

Emma sighed and answered, ~Yes and no.~

Remy groaned to himself.

She squeezed his shoulder and he looked up in surprise. Comfort? From Emma Frost? Maybe he was dying... No, that wouldn't get to her either.

The squeeze turned mean.

"Oww."

~Raw power and just enough idea of what you can do to hurt yourself or someone else is a recipe for disaster.~

"So, don't do whatever I just did again?" he asked. He hated it, but she was right. He knew he could do things, but he didn't know what he was doing.

~I'm not even sure how you did that, few telepaths can. I could, of course, Xavier, Phoenix if she'd been willing... and the Shadow King.~

If he listened, Remy could hear Emma thinking that they would need to run tests back on Utopia. She thought he might have done what he'd done easier because of his empathy. He'd shut down every connection to his body, including emotion, which wouldn't have occurred to most telepaths. He'd surprised and frightened her.

"Wonderful," he muttered. Wouldn't Stormy love knowing he could be another Shadow King, on top of the Horseman thing and the Marauders, and she'd never really come to terms with his life as a professional thief. Another wedge driven between them... wedge, Dieu, they had a chasm between them. He couldn't remember when they'd truly been close. Sometimes he thought their friendship existed mostly as nostalgia on his part. Storm had moved on. She'd married T'Challa and was Queen of Wakanda now, even if she was still part of the X-Men.

Rogue wouldn't be thrilled either. She'd always relished being the more powerful of the two of them, whether she'd admitted it to herself or not. Remy hadn't cared about that; he still didn't. He had no plans to become a force of evil possessing the minds and bodies of other mutants either.

Emma laughed. ~Did you just think ewwww?~

Remy shrugged. "The Shadow King? Nasty."

~Yes. Also, more pertinent to your current problems than is apparent at first. But we'll discuss that once you're back here.~

Utopia. Strange to be talking to and seeing Emma on the Astral Plane, while he was passed out in Los Angeles under the watchful gaze of an FBI agent and she was doing whatever she did in Utopia.

~I'm lying down. I hope. This is exhausting at such a long distance.~

He caught a glimpse of her withdrawing far enough to ascertain the state of her real body and rouse it enough to note she was really in Utopia's infirmary being monitored by Rao.

"Sorry, chere," he murmured.

~I'm not your chere, Gambit.~

No, she wasn't, but he didn't know any longer if Rogue was his chere, either. He used the endearment as habit, though he'd never used it with Emma before, despite flirting with her.

"Cyclops' chere," he agreed. Not that Scott used endearments much that Remy had ever noticed. Not with Jean and not with Emma... unless he was a lot different in private or maybe he kept to a telepathic link? He smirked. Scott apparently had a thing for telepaths. He'd flirted with Psylocke at one point, hadn't he? So, Scott was partial to telepaths who were beautiful women. Couldn't fault him for his taste.

Emma smirked back at him. She did enjoy being complimented.

He folded his arms over his chest and jerked his head toward Death. "So. What do I do about him? Besides chaining him up? Isn't he really me too?"

From what he'd experienced while under Apocalypse's control and later what Shiro and Essex said about the Horseman process, Death was another personality split off during the programming part of the process. He hadn't been thinking clearly enough to understand all of it. Essex had ripped through Death's shields, knocked them both out and several weeks later, Remy woke up at the Antarctic base, back to his old self. All part of the plan, even if the plan had gone haywire along the way. By the time Death started trying to break free again, Mystique had used Rogue and Strain 88 to kill Essex, just as Destiny's diary had predicted, and Remy had been free and unwilling to go to anyone else for help.

Now he had to accept help, because Death was stronger and far more willful now than he'd been while serving Apocalypse.

Emma conjured two chairs – white wicker of all things – and a small table with a bud vase and two glasses of white wine. The vase held a single white rose, of course. She settled herself in so that her legs, cased in skin-tight white leather, were shown off to a perfect degree, then waved languidly for Remy to take the other seat.

~The problem begins with Apocalypse,~ Emma said. She contemplated Remy.

"Really?" He picked up one of the glasses and tasted it curiously, wondering if it would have any taste. It tasted exactly like his favorite vintage and he raised an impressed eyebrow. "C'est bon."

Emma indicated the other chair again. Remy toasted her silently, which Emma accepted as her due, and sat.

~That overbearing Darwinist has about as much idea of what he's doing with Celestial machinery as a monkey trying to pilot a space shuttle.~

Briefly, Remy imagined a blue-faced monkey version of En Sabah Nur. It made him cough up some of the very fine, imaginary wine. Maybe it would have been funnier if he hadn't invited said monkey to fool with his DNA.

~You could, of course, have mentioned what was going on rather than trusting to Mystique's intentions.~

He shook his head. He'd never trusted Mystique. Not the way Emma meant trust. He trusted Mystique to put her own agenda first, to omit, conceal, or outright lie, to betray and even kill if anyone, including her own allies, got in her way: in other words, he trusted Mystique to be a hell of lot like himself. After seeing the pages of Destiny's diary, though, he'd known if he didn't play his part, if he didn't go back to Sinister and lead the Marauders again, then the Purifiers would kill a baby just for being a mutant, along with everyone else in Cooperstown, Alaska, and the last hope to save Rogue from Strain 88 would die with that child. He and Mystique had chosen the music that started everyone dancing so that when it stopped, they were all in the right places.

"Could I?" he asked. "Really?" He raised an eyebrow at Emma. "Would you? If it were your mind and freedom on the line? The X-Men haven't always been so kind to you either."

Or even now... They saw her as the woman who broke up Scott and Jean's fairytale marriage.

Emma raised her wine glass to him and drank, the answer in her cool blue eyes and eloquent silence.

Remy raised his glass too.

~Perhaps you were right.~

He'd tried to imagine the reaction if he had gone to Beast or Cyclops or Storm and said he could feel Sinister exerting some kind of call, some kind of growing control. What he imagined always ended with endless lab tests, an inhibitor collar, and a cell under guard until he went so insane he killed someone getting free. He'd been ready to run when Mystique showed him the diary and secured his promise to return to Sinister at the proper time.

Destiny had predicted he'd know when that was. Remy had thought that would mean when Sinister's compulsion grew too strong to endure, but it had been when Apocalypse showed up instead. He'd been sure agreeing to be a Horseman for the one being Sinister feared would free him from Sinister's control. As it had. As a bonus, Sinister had come to him afterward and never suspected Remy had ulterior motives for returning to the Marauder fold.

"I couldn't think of any other way to do what had to be done."

~Death tried to kill Rogue. What if he had succeeded?~

"He didn't because he didn't. I saw the diary, oui?"

Emma made a face. ~Precogs and time travel... ~

"Will drive you to hard drugs if you think about it too much," Remy agreed. He'd done it, gone back in time, come forward, fulfilled prophecies and been the basis of them in the first place. It all left a bad taste in his mouth. Even his current dilemma seemed straight forward in contrast.

He brooded at the being in the diamond shackles, considering what Emma had said and things Death had said to him at times.

"Parasite," he said at last.

~In a sense. Without you, it has no life or self, but sharing with it isn't harming you.~ Emma paused. ~Or helping, so I hesitate to call it a symbiote.~

"Energy being?" Remy quizzed because he'd shared his body and mind with one of those before. Mary Purcell, his green energy succubus, had saved him in Antarctica and tried to turn them both into a new life form. She'd been separated from her body, which died, too. A shudder ran down his spine. He didn't want to end up like poor Mary. She'd been  crazy after being kept in a containment vessel for years, but she hadn't been trying to kill him, just trying to live. He'd never doubted they were separate selves, though, so he hadn't drawn a connection between her and Death before this.

~Entropy being.~ Emma savored another sip of wine – their glasses never emptied – and swirled the remainder, admiring its color. ~My current theory is it found a perfect match in your power, probably helped along by your latent psi potential, and moved into the programmed personality during your... transformation.~

He glanced at Death again. "Is that why I – it or we, whatever – didn't exactly shine as a Horseman?"

~You were pathetic. Aside from knocking that mewling nitwit Pulse out, Death didn't do anyone any harm.~

A snort of amusement escaped him. He remembered bits and pieces from his debut as Death, though he'd only been watching. Death hadn't exactly obeyed him, but he'd listened, a little, and pawed through Remy's memories a lot. Stirring all of them up had been what let Remy come back to himself enough to go with Shiro after Apocalypse failed. He'd forgotten Death handing Pulse his ass. A shame, it was one of his better memories.

His amusement was short-lived as he reflected on Emma's theory. The personality was still a mixture of Apocalypse's programming and his own self, which made Death his bastard child. He moistened his lips and asked, "No possibility it already had a – "

~Sense of self?~ Emma finished for him. She shook her head.

Remy closed his eyes and tipped his head back.

~Right now, it uses your own mind against you, so if we want to get rid of it, and we do because it possesses all your charming amorality combined with the murderous elements Apocalypse introduced, we'll have to dismantle the personality.~

Remy nodded without opening his eyes.

~Without a shell to support it, it may dissipate on its own. If not, you'll be able to excise it.~

He gulped down more wine. It wouldn't be easy, he could predict that much. "How long do you figure?"

~A month. Two at the most. If you take longer than that, I'll know you aren't trying.~

So, two months to get rid of Death didn't sound that bad.

Death didn't like it. It howled behind the gag, the sound more forlorn than Remy was comfortable acknowledging.

"Okay," he said. "And now?"

~Now pay attention. I'm going to show you how to wipe a memory. It's considerably easier than changing one as it doesn't matter if the subject knows they're missing time.~

Remy sat up straight and stared at her.

Emma waved an elegant hand that dismissed all of the Astral Plane. ~We can't leave Agent Denti to make a report to his superiors that an addictive, power-inhibiting drug exists. You have to erase his memory of what you told him, since he's smart enough to put together the same pieces you and I have.~

She was right. He hated that. Not Emma, this wasn't her fault. He hated a world where all the choices were bad. Like the saying went, if this wasn't hell, you could see it from here.

"You can't do it?" he asked.

Emma raised an eyebrow. ~Would you really rather trust me than do it yourself? It will be good practice."

"Show me what I have to do."

                                                                                                           ~*~

Gambit went on twitching and flinching in his sleep for another half hour, then went so limp and still Carl found himself crossing the room in a rush and checking for a pulse. He found it, though, and sat down on the edge of the creaky bed heavily. Gambit lay like an unstrung puppet. Shallow, slow breaths barely moved his chest.

Carl scrubbed his hand over his face, vaguely noticing he needed a shave, and wondered again why he was staying. But he knew he wouldn't go until Gambit woke up again. The thready pulse at Gambit's throat struck him as too erratic. Carl had no doubt this hellhole hotel had seen plenty of drug deaths; the idea of Gambit becoming one of that number offended him.

He sat and watched while another half hour passed, listening to the sounds of traffic from outside the window and doing his best to ignore the sound of a bed thumping to an age-old rhythm in the next room. The prostitute didn't bother urging her customer on, but the john kept up a litany of uninspiring nastiness. Carl wished for earplugs and promised himself a scalding shower once he returned to his own hotel room.

The dull thumps and curses as the john dressed and stumbled out, slamming the door behind him, distracted Carl from Gambit. When he looked back down, he flinched and jumped off the bed.

Blackness seeped up to color the hand fisting the coverlet up by Gambit's collarbone. Carl watched in fascination as first Gambit's fingertips, then the long, deft fingers darkened and his skin changed not just color but texture, smoothing and losing the wrinkles and tiny scars and imperfections, going glossy and hard looking.

It lasted only a moment, before Gambit's entire body seized and he cried out. His hand returned to normal and his unsteady breath and rapid heartbeat both smoothed out.

Carl stared from a good four feet away, feeling his own pulse hammer, disturbed much, much more than the event warranted. Nothing had happened, but he felt threatened on a visceral level. Instinct told him something had just been there, something that wasn't Remy LeBeau. Something inimical.

Gambit had told him to get out if he started turning black. Carl had thought it was a joke.

He wondered if it was a side effect of Heat or something else, something he didn't know about the thief.

Maybe he should get the hell out.

Gambit flinched and went limp. This time Carl looked for the rise and fall of his chest before panicking. This time it wasn't there.

"Shit," he grumbled and fumbled at Gambit's neck, trying to find the shallow pulse that had been there before. "Oh, come on. I'm never going to get an ambulance into this part of town fast enough – " His thoughts scrambled through the memory of the last mandatory Bureau emergency first aid class. The coverlet ended up on the floor as he rolled Gambit on to his back and positioned his head to make sure his airway was clear.

He had one hand on Gambit's sternum, resting it there lightly, and was fumbling for his cell, hoping it hadn't decided to capriciously drain its battery again, when Gambit's body seized up, back arching, and the bed and bedding flared violently pink with energy.

"Motherfu– " Carl didn't finish. Instead he rolled Gambit off the bed onto the floor and dived down next him as the bed blew up. It went up quietly compared to some of Gambit's explosions, more light and less force than usually, and when Carl took his arms off his head and looked back, only black ash remained where it had been. " –cker," he finished quietly.

Gambit remained limp on the floor, but he was breathing in, great hoarse gasps for air, and his eyes were moving behind his eyelids. Carl slumped down on his heels and took a desperately deep breath himself. The air smelled of ozone and ash and dust and on the far side of the wall, the hooker yelled for everyone to keep it the fuck down, startling a half-hysterical laugh from him.

Red-on-black eyes were open to slits and watching him once Carl had control again.

"You blew up the bed," Carl told him.

Gambit pulled himself up on one elbow, then scooted back far enough to prop himself against a wall. "Oui," he muttered as he scraped his matted hair away from his face, "used to do that all the time."

"I'd tell you you needed to pay the hotel for damages, but I think it's an improvement."

A low, lovely chuckle was Gambit's response.

"Give me a hand up, would you?" Gambit requested after a moment.

Carl gave him a look of disbelief before creakily getting to his own feet. "You sure?" he asked. "You stopped breathing before you blew up the bed."

Gambit blinked lazily at him, smiling his fox-smile, and remarked, "I think you like saying that just a little too much."

"Well, you bring new nuance to the term 'breaking the bed'."

"Done that too."

The man was complacent about it too. Carl shook his head to himself and held out his hand. Gambit came to his feet in a swift, fluid movement that belied the need for any aid. His strong fingers locked around Carl's wrist and his other hand was on Carl's face, fingers on his temple. All the amusement had gone from his expression, replaced with regret.

"I am sorry I have to do this to you, mon ami," Gambit said, "but you won't know after this." His scarlet irises brightened and the glow filled Carl's mind until he fell into the darkness behind them. 

~*~

Scott watched Emma's eyes move beneath her closed lids and bit back the urge to shake her awake. She'd opened her eyes once after being moved to the hospital bed in the infirmary, but that had been to snap at Rao that she was busy, thank you, not hurt, and almost an hour ago. She'd been quiet since. He could have got another telepath in to check on her, but knew it would only slow Emma down. The fact remained that he didn't know which he wanted more: an explanation of what was going on or his love to wake.

He didn't have to decide, because he'd get both at the same time. Soon, he hoped.

Rao stopped on the far side of the bed and checked the monitors she'd attached to Emma. "All her vitals are still stable."

He nodded stiffly and said, "I was married to a telepath and raised by another one. I know she's mentally on the Astral Plane."

Rao gave him a sympathetic look, but didn't waste time on chitchat. Normally, he liked that about her. Today, he could have used a few minutes of distraction.

Or not.

Emma stretched seductively without opening her eyes and said, "Watching me or watching my body, Scott, darling?"

"What happened?" he demanded. She'd come out of their shared bathroom in that negligee that upped his temperature, gave him a smile that promised they'd be doing more in bed than just sleeping, then her eyes had gone wide. She'd almost fallen onto the chaise lounge – she'd insisted their quarters had to be decorated and Scott hadn't cared, so they had a velvet and gilt chaise lounge along with delicate French-styled chairs and antique dressers – and murmured, "This can't wait, Scott," leaving him to carry her down to the infirmary just in case something went wrong while she was out of her body.

Emma extended her hand, silently demanding he help her up and off the bed. Scott went along with it. She was so different from Jean, who would have already briefed him, reassured him, and thanked Rao, while minimizing the embarrassment of ending up in public in a filmy nightgown. Emma flaunted and teased and took for granted and Scott never once doubted he was with her because he wanted her. He'd at least learned that lesson from his ill-fated marriage to Maddie Pryor. Another entry in the Summers section of the Mutant Handbook of Life: never date/marry the exact double of your dead or missing girlfriend/wife – she'll only turn out to be an evil clone.

Emma detached the leads to the monitors with a secretive smile. One of them was over her heart and she shifted the neckline of her gown down to a needlessly precarious point as she removed it. Scott couldn't help watching her fingers drift over her breast and then down. Jean would never have done that in the infirmary; Jean had been a good girl deep down and surprisingly shy.

"You mean boring, my love," Emma said, proving she was reading him again. She had no ethics about that and Scott had given up protesting. He didn't have a solid foundation to protest. After years of sharing a psychic link with Jean, he couldn't argue he needed privacy. "Something I hope I never am."

No, Emma was never boring. She could take the teasing a little too far, though. He wanted to know what had had her on the Astral Plane so long.

"Now, Emma."

"Oh, very well. Someone in Los Angeles has designed a party drug with several surprise side effects for mutants. Wolverine's unpleasant offspring managed to become addicted to it and force a dose on Gambit. Daken is about as psi-active as a sea slug, but Remy... "

"Isn't a telepath," Scott said uncertainly.

"Wasn't. The drug destroyed his shields. He didn't go insane, though having strolled through his brain I can't say he's stable, but he pulled himself together enough to call me for help. Which is what I've been doing. I must say it's rewarding to have a student who can keep up with me."

She'd been teaching Gambit telepathy? Scott wanted to take his visor off and rub his eyes, because he suddenly had another headache. He closed his eyes and tried breathing in through his nose slowly instead. In. Out. It could be worse, he consoled himself.

Emma wound her arms around his neck and stood on her toes to kiss his jaw. "Scott. Remy will meet with Psylocke's team. They'll destroy the lab manufacturing the drug and wipe the mind of anyone who knows how to make it. Then they'll come back here. You should be pleased; we have our thief back. You know I know how valuable combat 'paths are."

"He's coming back?" Scott really didn't know how he felt about that.

"Yes. He and I will have to train together for several months. Charles and Apocalypse both left him damaged and Sinister just patched over the mess." She leaned again him.

"The Professor?" Scott wrapped his arms around her and held on. Every time he thought he'd come to terms with everything Professor Xavier had done, something new threw his balance off all over again. He'd never considered that Gambit might have been less than a free agent in his choices, but he should have. It left him with a guilty, hunted feeling right between his shoulder blades. "Damn it."

"He already made a start on clearing out some of it." She laughed. "You were much angrier over being manipulated."

"He never considered the Professor as a second father."

"No," Emma murmured, "Nathaniel Essex holds that place with him."

Scott shuddered and drew away from her to stare. "Essex? Gambit considers Sinister a father?"

"He's conflicted – "

"No, I think you mean insane."

She laughed at him. "Scott, did you think he worked for the man because he hated him?"

"He's always seemed to – "

"Yes, now, because Sinister betrayed all the trust 'Essex' earned from him. But there was time when Essex saved him and treated him well. At the same time, for years he wanted nothing more than to be free of him."

"Then why go back to the Marauders?"

"To save Hope and Rogue and see Sinister dead." Emma smirked at him. "I had a very interesting talk with him on the Astral Plane. He and Mystique played a very long game."

Scott sighed. "Let's just go back our quarters."

Emma slid her arm around his waist and her clever fingers just under the waistband of his pajama bottoms to tease delicately. "I thought you'd never get back on track, lover."

It took an effort to focus his mind, but he asked as they walked out of the infirmary, with a wave to Rao in her lab, "Can I trust him back here?"

Emma sighed impatiently. "You can trust him as much as you can trust any of us. No one here is a happy, brainwashed robot."

"Damn."

She laughed at him.

Scott laughed along with her, but the fact was that he would, if he considered it in the best interest of mutantkind, betray Gambit or anyone else. He'd allied with Namor and accepted Magneto into the fold and broke with his oldest friends already. He supposed this was how the Professor felt when he justified his ethical violations over the years. The question, he thought as they made their way back to their quarters, wasn't could he trust someone, but for how long they could trust him as leader.

It was a tightrope he was walking. Others had fallen before him. According to Wolverine, Scott already had. He had to hope Wolverine was wrong and he was right.

                                                                                                            ~*~

Denti's phone was dead, but Remy wouldn't have used it anyway. He had a back-up in his case, so he retrieved it and picked out Emil's number from memory.

Denti sat in the room's only chair, his face slack and his eyes empty, giving Remy the guilts every time he checked on him. The FBI agent had done right by him and what did he get back? A new-to-it spook playing headgames with him. Denti wouldn't remember any of this, but Remy knew he'd added new nightmare to his library.

He felt good otherwise, however. The last effects of Heat had dissipated, Emma's chains had Death locked down, and his new shields were like going from driving an old Pinto to a Maybach.

"Where y' at?" Emil answered.

"You got that location for me yet?"

"I do, because I'm that brilliant. And I got Theoren to do some computer magic. I'll send it to your phone."

"Send it to this one," Remy told him.

"Why?" Emil demanded suspiciously.

"'Cause the junkies that got the old one don't need to know where to get more drugs, if they haven't fenced it already."

Remy packed up everything in the room one-handed while he waited for Emil's inevitable reply.

Yes, there it came, mocking laughter. "Remy, tell me you didn't get mugged? How does a mutant master thief end up mugged!? Wait until I tell everyone. This is classic."

Remy zipped up his duffle bag and set it next to the thief's case by the door. The decks of cards he'd stashed around the room were now in his pockets.

"Bite me," he said, "I got dosed with Heat."

"I told you to be careful!" He could hear Emil gulp at the other end of the call. "Are you alright? You're not – "

"Already sweated it out." He kept his voice light. Emil didn't need to know about the hours he'd only held out against trying to find a dose because Denti would have tried to stop him. "The high's fantastic. The crash... "

"You need to come see Tante Mattie."

"I'm going back to Utopia." He wasn't sure if he was going back to the X-Men, just that he'd be training with Emma. He been trailing after Rogue so long, but the idea of following her orders irked him now. "Cecelia's there right now. I trust her if it becomes a problem." He didn't mention studying telepathy with Emma. A secret shared wasn't a secret any longer and Emil had a big mouth. He might not have wanted to be a telepath, but since he didn't get a choice, he'd keep it as an ace up his sleeve. The truth was there were more than a few things he might find out from Guild members if they didn't know he'd added stealing thoughts to his master thief's repertoire.

"But you still want the location of the lab, right? Based on the precursor analysis, Theoren and I did a geographic thingie and found three places where all the right chemicals had been delivered along with lab equipment in the last four months – we used six months as a cut off point, but there was nothing that far back."

"Yes, I want the location. Give me all three." There was no reason the manufacturers couldn't have three different labs running.

"You're not going to do anything stupid, are you?"

"What qualifies as stupid?" he asked as he pulled his colors out of the case.

"You, in a room with a really addictive drug you just tried." Emil sounded genuinely worried.

"I'm okay," Remy reassured him, his smile in his voice, "I swear. I'm not going to – okay, I'm not going to go alone, does that make you feel better?"

"Yes. Maybe. Who's going with you?"

He carried his colors into the washroom and began changing. Normally, he wouldn't have bothered, but something about Denti's blank gaze made it impossible to do in the room with him. Remy had never cared if anyone looked at him, the Velvet Ministry had broken him of body shyness before his fifth birthday, but not being seen, because he'd shut a man's mind down, that bothered him more than he could have articulated. He just didn't know enough to manage anything with more finesse than a wipe and shut down. Whatever Emma could teach him, he meant to learn it all.

"Some of the X-Men. They're already in LA. It'll be okay."

"And they're going to be okay with you snagging whatever money is at these labs?" Emil hadn't lost track of the point of the exercise.

Remy chuckled to himself."If they catch me I don't deserve the take, mon ami."

"I think you're still high."

"Emil, you know I'm that good."

"Definitely high."

"Salaud."

"Enfoiré."

"Tête de vier." He jammed his foot into one boot, wiggled his toes, then straightened a sock and pulled on the other boot. "I've got to go. Send me the locations."

"Remy."

"Mmm."

"Really. Don't mess yourself up."

"Emil – "

"Tante Mattie would kill me."

"That's supposed to stop me?" He stretched, making sure his still achy muscles were moving without hitch and nothing in his uniform was catching or pulling.

"She'd kill you too. Then she'd raise you as a zombie and kill you again."

"Mattie isn't a voodoo queen, Emil, you know that, and she'd smack you in the back of your head for saying something so foolish if she heard you," Remy insisted. Mattie had powers, but she didn't use them lightly, whatever they were. "Send me those addresses, oui? I've got an FBI agent to deliver back to his hotel room." He hoped Denti's vehicle was still where it had been parked. He'd found out about it when he wiped Denti's memory of the last twenty-four hours and meant to use it to take him back to his own room. He couldn't make himself leave Denti in this hole, even if it wouldn't have raised questions about a connection to Remy in the man's mind. Because even with no memory, Denti would figure some things out; he was a smart man. He wouldn't have ever come close to catching Remy otherwise.

"I don't even want to know... I'm sending it now. Call me afterward, non?"

"Next thing you're going to be putting your blood in my coffee."

"There isn't enough voodoo in the universe to keep you faithful and I am not your wife. – But speaking of blood, Gris-Gris did some digging too. Got a friend that hacked SHIELD's DNA database. By the way, did you know you're in there?"

"Yes."

"Well, some other interesting folks are in there too. Including the Pride. Some of them weren't human or mutant, which leaves... "

"Demon or aliens."

"Yeah. And the chemical that was making Gris-Gris so crazy? It's blood.  – So, did Belladonna ever... ?"

"How would I know?" Remy had never believed in the sort of voodoo that said doing that would charm a man into never straying from his wife. He was also feeling nauseous at the idea of alien blood getting him high. It smacked of vampirism.

"Well, did she ever give you really nasty tasting coffee?" Emil asked.

"Belladonna be an assassin, Emil, remember? She ever gave me something that tasted funny I'd have run for the emergency room. Bon nuit, mon ami."

"Bon chance, Remy."

He ended the call and tucked the phone away, then went to Denti. "Time I got you back somewhere you can get some sleep, forget this day ever happened, non?" Controlling Denti enough that he got to his feet and followed Remy to the door came terrifyingly easy. It reminded him a little too much of Emil's zombies, in fact.

He hated doing it. Messing with anyone's head would be bad enough, but Denti had helped him. It felt like the worst sort of betrayal to turn around and undo the man's memories against his will. Remy knew Emma could have plucked out just the bits of memory that linked Heat to anything to do with mutants or woven a whole set of false memories to take the place of the last day, but all he could do yet was destroy. He wouldn't have done either anyway, both options seemed more dishonest. This way Denti would know his mind had been played with, but at least he wouldn't have to doubt himself.

Remy grabbed his duffle and his case and walked out, leaving the door hanging open behind him. Denti followed him obediently down the stairs and out.

The black sedana was where it had been left. Liberally keyed on the passenger side, but Remy had it hotwired and on the road in under sixty seconds.

"Belt up," he told Denti. The FBI agent followed his direction mindlessly and Remy's skin crawled. He wondered if this wasn't part of Emma's lesson. Remy headed for Denti's hotel – location garnered from his memories – and flipped on the police scanner the car came with as the sun came up. He listened to the chatter from SWAT and shook his head as National Guard aircraft illegally on loan to the LAPD turned Daken's clifftop mansion into kindling. Interesting to note that Kiel's name came up as how they'd found Daken's base. "Guess your missing agent isn't missing no more."

Denti hummed to himself and stared blankly through the windshield at the already gridlocked traffic.

Remy stashed his duffle and case at a tacky motel before continuing into the better part of town where the FBI had Denti staying. He parked the car in the hotel lot and guided Denti into his room. They only passed one person. Remy didn't risk splitting his concentration enough to erase himself from the guest's memory, relying on the city dweller's natural instinct to not become involved in anything. Inside Denti's room, he 'suggested' the agent could take off his shoes and undress down to his shorts and undershirt before tucking him into bed.

Smoothing the sheet and thin blanket up to Denti's chest, Remy sighed and apologized again, "Just ain't no good options, homme. Even if you agreed to leave some things out of your report, the knowledge'd still be in your head. SHIELD's got their own 'paths and that Hill woman running it now, she's got no problems siccing them on folks from what we've heard." There were other ways to pull information from an uncooperative subject too: drugs, programming, and torture still held pride of place with most governments and criminal enterprises. Mutants were safer with Denti not knowing than with him keeping a secret.

Besides, Remy thought cynically, Carl Denti had changed his mind about mutants once. He could change it again. Friends turned enemies as often as enemies turned friend in his world – he'd done it himself more than once.

It didn't mean he had to be cruel about this. He sucked in a deep breath before going against his own reflexes and took Denti's hand. He wasn't about to start caressing the guy's face to do this – his quick look around Denti's mind for everything connected to Heat had shown him Denti lived up to the straight part of straight-and-narrow FBI agent – but any kind of skin to skin contact worked. Emma hadn't suggested this part, because Emma had worked with an empath before, but she still wasn't one.

Remy found Denti's emotional threads and wove a net of pragmatic calm that would catch him and buoy his mind if he went into freefall over losing a chunk of memory. It was just a little emotional message to reassure him nothing bad had happened; that he hadn't done or had done to him anything terrible. It would fade away with time, but by then Denti would have his own coping strategy in place.

Done, Remy told Denti to sleep and left the hotel room. He found a passable looking diner a couple of blocks away, took a booth in the back where he could watch the door and the kitchen, and drank a cup of coffee before closing his eyes and reaching for Psylocke telepathically.

~Gambit,~ she responded immediately. ~Where are you?~ He could feel her suspicion and a bit of exhaustion he sympathized with through the contact. He let her support the connection between them and concentrated on keeping his shields up except where he had them open for her. His head had begun throbbing unmercifully since he released Denti's mind. Explanations could wait until he could talk face to face; he was still exhausted. ~Stay there.~

He didn't bother telling her he would, just waved for a refill and gave the waitress his order. With any luck, he'd at least get to eat something before Betsy and her enforcers showed up.


XIV. The Last High


A teleporter would have been nice or access to Sinister's tesseracts. As it was, Psylocke's group were on foot in Los Angeles, the least pedestrian friendly city Remy had ever visited and the three locations Emil had provided were scattered from Downey to Alhambra and Lynwood.

It took Remy an hour to convince Psylocke he wasn't a pawn of Apocalypse again and he finally found the best or worst part of telepathy. He could argue while still eating his breakfast. Warpath, Domino and Armor all ordered too and ate while Remy went head-to-head with Psylocke. Psylocke deigned to have a cup of coffee.

"Ask Emma," Remy snapped finally.

"Let me inside your shields."

He gave her a narrow-eyed look. "What, you're asking this time?"

Psylocke glared back. "I was right about you."

"I wasn't a threat to the X-Men."

"You could have been. You were hiding all sorts of things. You still are."

Warpath kept his eyes on his plate, shoveling in scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits and an extra order of pancakes with the dedication of a big man with a high metabolism who didn't want to get involved in a fight. If Armor was any quieter, the girl was going to generate a new cone-of-silence power or possibly just disappear. Domino, of course, lounged back in the booth and watched the back and forth with amusement. Despite the fact that they were all in X-Men uniforms – or in Betsy's case her ninja buttfloss costume as Remy and Logan had dubbed it one drunken night – no one gave them a second glance.

"Everyone has secrets, Betts. You want someone poking through your head for yours? I'd be glad to practice on you."

~Just try it, Gambit, and you'll find out how much you don't know.~

She'd been prying at his new shields the whole time. He'd been picking the locks to hers. He grinned at her.

"Sure I will, Itty Bitty."

Psylocke's eyes widened and Remy prepared to vault away if she tried to kill him with a fork. He honestly hadn't thought he'd get past her defenses, but once he started looking at it like a pinch, he managed to wiggle his way into some childhood memories. He hadn't tried to get at anything she really had defended, just used her own efforts to get into his head as an access point through her shields.

"Don't you dare call me that again," she said in a frozen tone.

Warpath started on the last of his pancakes. Armor twitched. Domino sipped her coffee and laughed.

"Agreed." Remy kept grinning. "You want to go destroy some drug labs now?"

"Exactly how are we going to get there?" Domino asked and they began debating going back for the Blackbird or getting cabs.

Remy decided they were all nuts. There wouldn't be anywhere to land the Blackbird and he had no intention of riding in a cab and leaving behind that kind of trail. He caught Domino's eye. She smirked at him. He scanned the parking lot outside the diner and found an oversized, tricked-out Hummer painted sage green. It would fit the five of them.

Psylocke turned and looked at him. "You want to steal a car."

"Borrow," Remy said.

"You can do that?" Armor piped up.

"Petite, I could boost a car in my sleep." Jean-Luc had tanned his ass and Emil's too for hotwiring sports cars and joyriding before they were old enough to have learner's permits. The memory came with a melancholy sense of nostalgia, the truth of all the underlying motives shading everything darker and sadder in retrospect. He knew, thanks to his empathy, that Jean-Luc loved him as a son, but he could never forget that before that, he'd used him as a pawn, or that he'd lied to Remy all his life. The smile on his face faded.

Psylocke made an annoyed sound under her breath before her eyes went unfocused briefly. "Fine. I found the driver. He won't report it stolen until tomorrow."

Remy left the waitress a big tip, then bypassed the Hummer's alarm and had it running faster than the owner could have used his keys.

The argument shifted over to who would drive and who would ride shotgun. Domino settled it by drawing a gun. Remy took the front passenger seat. "I know where we're going." He felt no guilt over forcing Warpath to squeeze his 7'2" body into the backseat, since he wanted to go through the Hummer's glove box in the hopes it held some aspirin. Betsy's little work out for his shields had his head splitting again. Failing that, he gave Domino the address for the first Heat lab, leaned his forehead against the window glass, and closed his eyes rather than watch as she navigated through the pinball demolition derby of LA traffic with one hand on the wheel and a cigarello dangling out the open window in her other.

They hit the Lynwood lab first, since it was closest. The lab occupied an empty strip mall liberally graffitied by the local disenfranchised. The only minds inside belonged to two goons on watch and a drug cook. Remy paid attention as Psylocke scanned them, then stood back as her team led the way in. Warpath tore the door off the hinges at the loading dock entrance. Domino sped inside and took out the alarm system with one of her 'lucky' shots, while Ichiko used her 'armor' like two giant fists and crushed the machine pistols in the goon's hands. Remy winced even as he realized what Ichiko was doing; the X-Men really needed to rethink the weapons training. Most of them used powers instead of guns, but they were constantly encountering people who did use guns and it helped to understand how they worked.

Ammunition, for instance, didn't react well to sudden, massive pressure and the clips in the machine pistols exploded sending bullets flying everywhere.

Ichiko cried out and ducked, Domino dodged and cartwheeled over a table and behind a filing cabinet, and Warpath swung the metal door up like a giant shield. Remy slung Psylocke behind him. Four bullets slammed into the crackling kinetic field that he'd been damping since he woke up, filling him with energy so he flared bright as a flame. Psylocke hissed as the energy burned where it touched bare skin.

Remy pushed her away and out the doorway, trusting she could catch her balance and stay on her feet, knowing if she didn't, bruises and scrapes were better than bullet wounds. The last bullet ricocheted off a metal sink and everyone stared at each other in silence until one of the goons began moaning; one of the wild bullets had torn through his hip. Remy's ears rang and his head throbbed to the beat of his heart.

"Ichiko," Domino said, "next time just pull the guns away," and rolled out of her cover and onto her feet.

Ichiko pressed her hands together and blushed. "Sorry."

"No one's hurt, no biggie," Domino said.

"I'm freaking hurt!" screeched the wounded thug.

"You don't count," Remy told him.

"I'll take out the trash," Warpath said. He dropped the door with a clang that made Remy cringe and hoisted up the wounded thug, making him cry out again. "Shut up, worm."

Psylocke passed him as he stalked out with the wounded man tossed over his shoulder like a sack of feed. She stabbed her psychic knife through the bleeding man's temple casually and kept walking after his whimpers rose to a scream and then stopped. Dieu, the way she did it was mean compared to what Emma had showed him. She surveyed the lab and treated the second thug to the same vicious mindwipe before pointing at the door. "Get out. Don't come back."

He ran without a thought, with no memory of his partner or the third man who they found cowering under a table.

"Out," Domino ordered.

The cook quivered and shook his head. Domino kicked his shin and he squealed. Remy walked away as she began threatening to kneecap him. He stopped, walked back, and squeezed Ichiko's shoulder. She was staring at Domino and Psylocke as they loomed over the cook. "Go on outside, petite, and keep watch." Domino fired a bullet into the floor and Ichiko jumped under his hand. "Go on."

With a shaky nod, she went out as Warpath came back in.

Remy met his eyes. "She don't need to watch."

"If you feel that way, you should be in Westchester with Wolverine's people," Warpath said.

Remy shrugged. "Eventually. Maybe. Ain't like I'm a saint."

"And Wolverine is?"

Remy conceded with a loose shrug. Warpath had just talked more to him than he ever had before. He wasn't going to argue.

Domino reached down, grabbed the tech's shoulder, and dragged him, squirming and weeping and cursing, into the open.

"Hold still," Psylocke said as she curled her hand into a fist and her psychic knife sizzled into life. "This is going to hurt."

Remy turned his back and strolled into the second room of the lab, scanning for any computers or data media. They couldn't afford to leave anything behind. He found a transparent vat instead, condensation white on its sides, dark alien blood bubbling inside it, a coil of tubes leading off into a chaotic mishmash of equipment and chemical drums. He wondered where they got the blood and from what species and dismissed the question a second later. Along one wall commercial pressure cookers were set up on timers. The air smelled of bleach and burned the back of his sinuses. He spotted a pill-making machine – Chinese manufacture – and beside it were bags of hellish green product ready for distribution.

His fingers tingled and his skin flushed hot, sweat running down his sides, while his mouth filled with saliva. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his trench coat and curled them into tight fists. No one was in the room with him. He could pocket a bag of Heat easily. No one would know...

Stumbling backward and spinning on his heel, he got out while he still had the will to leave, not caring how awkward or bothered he appeared. Breathing hard, he looked up and saw Psylocke, Warpath, and Domino all staring at him. Teeth gritted, he asked Psylocke about the manunconscious at her feet. "You wipe him?"

"Yes – "

"Everyone out," Remy snapped and let his anger and fear and sick longing for the drug turn into a charge that whipped through the air and lit the entire building eye-blinding bright with energy without even pulling his hands from his pockets.

Warpath slung the cook over his shoulder and followed Domino out. Psylocke stayed.

"Get out."

"Not without you. You aren't invulnerable to the effect of your power."

He held up a fist wreathed in vibrating molecules. "I am now. Anything that hits me just turns into more energy I can pump back out. Sort of like Shaw only with explosions," he added thoughtfully.

"Fine. I'm not walking out without knowing you aren't going back for a sample pack of this poison."

For a second he was tempted to trigger a small explosion that would throw her out the gaping doorway, but sanity prevailed over the shimmering temptation of potential around him and he began calling some of the power to heel. If he blew up an entire strip mall, the damage would draw too much attention.

"Betsy, I didn't know you cared," he purred once his temper was under control again. He strolled over to her and linked his arm into the crook of hers. "I'm touched."

"Yes, I know, in the head." She walked with him, though, without protest, and they made it outside. "I felt that you wanted Heat back there."

He had to get better control of the empathy and stop slipping and broadcasting. It could be embarrassing at best or deadly at worst.

"You want me to turn my pockets out?" he asked, reminded uncomfortably of Daken and wondering where he was now that his mansion was a several million dollar hole in the ground.

"No."

"Good. I wouldn't."

"Your power is growing," she observed.

"Non, just coming back to what it used to be," he admitted. He didn't know if Essex had healed everything up deliberately or just hadn't realized that the treatment was going to restore the part of Remy's power he'd burnt out. He figured in a couple of months he'd be back to where he'd been when he fought with New Son. It wouldn't be long after that and he'd be where his alternate universe double had been. He could feel a difference though and not just the addition of the telepathy to the mix. This time he didn't think he could burn the power out no matter what he tried.

They reached the Hummer and he handed Psylocke up into the backseat like a gentleman, just the way Jean-Luc once taught him. He closed the door once she was inside, walked around to the passenger side and paused with the door open and one boot on the running board. Domino had the engine running again.

He didn't have to look back to do it, but Remy did anyway. He glared at the strip mall and released his control of the energy waiting in its walls and foundations and the contents.

It blew like a bomb, the blast rocking the Hummer even as far away as they'd parked.

"So much for not attracting attention," he muttered to himself as he got in the Hummer and Domino peeled out of the lot. That had been satisfying, though.

"Next stop, Alhambra!" Domino declared brightly, cornering the Hummer on two wheels to take a freeway on-ramp without slowing down.

Three hours later there were smoking holes in the ground in Alhambra and Downey too, the hard-drives from the computers they'd found in the Downey lab copied and in Domino's hands with the agreement she and he would split the take on the bank accounts they found listed there, and Warpath had taken over driving the Hummer. Remy had directed him back to the motel where he'd left his things – he only cared about the thief case otherwise he'd have abandoned the clothes – while Domino made some calls.

They ended up parked next to the cloaked Blackbird shortly after. Remy staggered getting out of the Hummer and decided leaning against it for a minute or two would be a good idea. To cover, he pulled out his phone and found Emil's number on speed dial.

"You okay?" Emil answered on the first ring.

"Just fine," Remy assured him.

"You sound – "

"Tired, I've been blowing shit up."

"Okay."

"Your info was good. We got all three labs. Didn't get the guy who started making the drugs – " Roston wouldn't last long with Daken after his head anyway, " – but we did get his bank accounts."

Psylocke was waiting impatiently at the foot of the stair into the Blackbird. Remy waved languidly. "Got to go. I'll send your percentage of the take."

"You'd better. Nothing's for free. – Thanks for calling, Remy."

"Said I would. Bon soir, Emil."

He cut the connection and tipped his head back to look to the blue, cloudless sky, wishing he could have said for once, Thanks for giving a damn.

~*~

Approximately one hundred kilometers north of Kiev, sixteen from the border between the Ukraine and Belarus, and eighteen from the city whose name it was known by to history, Чернобыльская АЭС им. В.И.Ленина – the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station – no longer provided power, not even to Pripyat, the city built to house its workers.

Far underneath Chernobyl's power plant, however, another shielded and hidden facility hummed with power, any signature hidden by the radiation taint left behind above it, where Geiger counters still chattered outrage at the concrete and lead sarcophagus crumbling over Reactor 4.

The blank metal corridors were dimly lit and quiet, all sound muffled, and the lab-coated figures moving hurriedly from lab to lab never spoke. They kept their heads down and did their work and never, ever looked at the vast, locked hatch that hid something even more secret than the facility itself. No one except maybe the woman who had appeared a month before knew what lay beyond the hatch. Most of the workers were afraid to even speculate. What they dealt with each day was frightening enough.

The new woman went through the hatch and came back. She closed it and engaged the locks afterward, moved into the personal quarters with their dark Victorian antiques without explanation, and stayed, walking through the facility once each day, impractical high heels clacking frighteningly on the tile floors, but said nothing to anyone. She didn't need to; one look at the mark on her forehead and the workers knew better than to question her.

She checked the clone tanks out of habit before returning to the monitoring center that opened for her without prompt or password because it recognized her gene signature.

"Well, well, well, that's new," she murmured to herself as a previously muted monitor brightened and new information scrolled upward.

Subject Omega 2 Power Usage 47%.

48%.

36%.

2%.

40%

3%.

49%

5%.


Omega 2 hadn't topped 25% in several years. She watched the percentages continue fluctuating until they settled at 4%, three percentage points higher than normal. Omega 2 was running a hotter rest state than he had since he came to the doctor's attention. His usage signature had altered too. She didn't know what it might mean and the one who would know wasn't present any longer.

She entered a command at the control console and correlated the signature's location with the fluctuation. Three spikes in Los Angeles and then the constant output. The signatures in Omega 2's company were all catalogued as well, falling well within their normal rest and operant states.

"I wonder what changed?"

She tapped in another command, upping the frequency and depth of the monitoring on Omega 2. Maybe her progenitor's plans were still viable after all.

The countdown on the special clone chamber at the heart of facility began ticking down, as it had once each day since her arrival. She reached over and hit the abort control as she had every time. The chamber flushed and began its automatic sequence of sterilization, maintenance and preparation again.


Chapter Text


If everything in LA had an over-saturated orange, too-thick sepia oil quality to the light, then San Francisco contrasted with lemon pastels and aqua watercolors. Even with the sun out, Remy could feel the mist damp of the sea air on his cheeks as he exited the Blackbird onto Utopia's landing strip. It felt light, good, like a welcome. He inhaled greedily, more than a little surprised by the feeling of coming back to some place he wanted to be. He hadn't thought he'd formed any attachment to Utopia beyond sticking close to Rogue, seeing Stormy, or fighting the X-Men fight – all things he'd do anywhere.

He spotted Rogue waiting at the base of the HQ tower and smiled, lifting his hand in greeting, even while internally bracing for her to yell at him for leaving without talking to her. No use for it, he'd have to let her vent before he could explain anything. At least he'd be able to tell her about Death, since Emma had promised to help him get rid of the avatar and the entity using it. He hoisted his duffle over his shoulder, tightened his grip on the thief's case, and started toward her, figuring he could at least drop his things off and get chewed out in the privacy of his quarters.

Emma's voice drilled through his shields. ~You're moving to the shielded quarters. No more hiding out in the sub-basements like a bad rip-off of The Phantom of the Opera, either.~ She inserted the level and location of his new quarters into his memory efficiently. ~We'll begin work in the morning.~

Remy winced and about-faced before reaching Rogue, turning toward the main tower, where the telepaths stayed, insulated from broadcasting or receiving by the same technology that Magneto had built into his helmet. Psylocke was already on her way there and he followed.

The quick tap of boots heralded Rogue catching up with him. "Where you going, sugar?" she asked.

Remy nodded toward his destination. "Emma's got me new quarters."

"Why?"

"No one said?" he asked, torn between betraying surprise and acting casual and unbothered.

"I've been busy working with Hope's group. I heard someone knocked the spooks out... " Her voice trailed off.

Remy risked a sidelong glance. Rogue's green eyes were wide while her pretty mouth was parted in fetching surprise. She made even fly-catching shock look good, he thought fondly. "I'll be a polecat in a poodle skirt," she exclaimed. "Since when are you a spook?"

He lifted one shoulder. "Secondary mutation."

She walked beside him, perhaps a hand's breadth farther from him than he'd expected and didn't ask anything else. A pang of... something too much like disappointment went through him, because everyone knew secondary mutations were rare and nearly always were precipitated – like primary mutations, actually – by unimaginable stresses. Events like Emma becoming a living diamond to save her body and sanity when millions died in minutes during the wild Sentinel attack on Genosha. Rogue didn't ask what triggered Remy's telepathy though. Instead she began talking about training with Transonic and Zero and Primal, along with the repairs and improvements made to Utopia since Remy'd left.

"T'Challa's sent a lot of equipment and money for security improvements since Storm's splitting her time between Wakanda and here."

Couldn't have anything happen to his queen while she was out of the country, Remy thought, then chastised himself for his cynicism. He didn't know Storm's husband well enough to dislike him.

They entered the ground floor doors to the shielded tower and Remy stopped in shock as the feel of all the minds in the Bay Area sliding over and around his mental shields cut off. He blinked and felt muscles relaxing he hadn't been aware were tensed, along with something in his head. "Dieu," he muttered.

Rogue had gone on several steps and now frowned back at him. Again, she didn't ask and again he felt a deep pang of sadness. He could feel the concern and worry she still felt, but she wouldn't ask, and he had only himself to blame. She'd given up on him. How many times had she asked him something and he'd replied always, 'I'm fine' or 'It's nothing' because he couldn't admit otherwise without explaining why, without giving away his secrets. Rogue was tired of being brushed off, his usual resort when he didn't want to lie but couldn't tell the truth.

Now she didn't ask, because she didn't expect any other answer from him.

Not that she treated him any better. Rogue held all her secrets close too. She took but she didn't give; she wanted his secrets without giving up any of her own. She always wanted more from him, but Remy had come to understand that it would never, ever be an equal exchange with Rogue. On a very deep level, Rogue's personality reflected her power. Remy accepted that and maybe she'd learned to as well, but it didn't make for a good relationship. Every truth about each other they knew, they'd learned against each other's will.

So they always danced just so close to having it all, before they repelled each other with silence or anger on his or her part.

"I'm – " he started to say 'an empath, telepath, going to be a different person, scared of how far my powers are going to develop again', but Rogue kept tapping her boot, and instead, he just muttered, " – going to crash." Not a lie, either, he wanted to sleep and the shielded quarters promised better rest than he'd had in months. He forced his feet to begin moving again and passed her on the way to the high-speed elevator.

She scowled at him, then touched his shoulder. "I'm flying Hope down to Belize. Cerebra readings look like there might be a latent mutant there."

"Another recruit?" he asked.

"Maybe." She smiled tentatively, before leaning in to brush her lips over his. It should have felt so momentous, that brief touch, when they had agonized and ached for it for so long, but Remy's lips were chapped and Rogue had coffee breath, his whole body ached and his muscles were trembling, ready to revolt either by collapsing or seizing into cramps, so he broke the kiss off before she did. The chaotic mélange of emotion he picked up from the contact didn't help, either. He could taste too much regret and frustration in her kiss and not enough passion.

She added, proving her thoughts hadn't been on him even during the kiss, confirming what he suspected, "It looks like Wanda's hex might be weakening. Some mutants seem to be getting the powers back here and there – though it's hard to know why. Desperate folks have gone to desperate lengths."

"If M-Day does get reversed, everyone here is going to be run ragged," Gambit said. Desperate described him as well, but he reined in the impulse to abuse his new telepathy by trying to read her mind. It would be wrong. Also, he suspected it might be painful and mess him up and Emma would find out.

"Like we aren't already, sugar?"

He laughed at that. "True."

"I gotta go. We'll... talk soon," Rogue promised. She leaned in and hugged him, her cheek against his shoulder, the sweet scent of freshly shampooed hair tickling his nose. "I love ya, Swamp Rat."

"Me too, River Rat," he murmured. Maybe without Xavier's interference they could make it work. He held on for a breath longer than he should have, trying to hold onto something already slipping away, tightening his embrace around her when he felt her stiffen in preparation to pull away. Or not. He drew in another breath of her scent and let go. He couldn't endure her discomfort any longer. Her hair caught in the zip of his jacket as she pulled away and Remy teased the silky strands free before she could jerk it loose with a curse. It slid through his fingers and he half-turned to watch her stride away, back to where the Blackbird he'd arrived in was being prepped with fuel for a trip to Belize. Remy turned back and made his way to his new quarters.

~*~


His new rooms were across from Psylocke's and down the hall from the Cuckoos one way and from Chamber the other. Shielded space was at a premium, even with their limited numbers and Remy figured out that he'd been given the rooms Rachel left behind in favor of joining Wolverine. Everything he'd left behind had already been moved in. He could feel the faint disturbances left behind by a teleporter rather than the fading heat signatures of physical movers.

With a sigh he dropped his duffle and case, headed straight for the bed, and stretched out on it face down, with his boots hanging over the foot. Death made threats from his psionic cage, but the crystalline structure didn't even vibrate, and Remy ignored him in favor of sliding into much needed sleep.

There were voices, but they made no sense, and he shrugged away the hands that caught at him.

The hatch towered over him, bronze-sheened, heavy and foreboding, with no controls, nothing, no way to open it. No way to keep it closed, either. Just three great pieces of metal that locked together, never meant to be sundered once they were closed. Something waited beyond that hatch, something extraordinary and terrible. It shimmered in his mind, not quite a memory, not quite knowledge either, but a horrible promise. He didn't want to go any nearer, but his feet took him closer and closer. From a strange distance in his mind, he felt himself humming, the vibration in his throat reaching out to fill the air, brightening it to glowing pink as he stretched his hand out to press his palm to the brushed surface. Terrible glee filled him and he sang, "Gay go up and gay go down, to ring the bells of London town."

The mechanism creaked, trying to respond, but the locks held.

"Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clements, Bullseyes and targets say the bells of St. Margaret's."

This time the hatch screamed, but it still held. Remy leaned into it, his elbow folding, his lips so close his breath misted on the freezing metal.

"Brickbats and tiles say the bells of St. Giles," Remy recited, putting a lilt into the words that had never fallen from his lips. The hatch shuddered and he smiled. No lock could withstand him, but he had no patience to finesse this one, nor need to when he had all the power in the universe at his beck, to call to his fingertips and free.

The adamantium alloy was dense and supremely stable; it resisted and Remy had to push to send his power into it, to unlock its potentials and call them to his service, but when he succeeded a wide grin split his face. In the dream, he pushed and the hatched exploded forward, away from him. The wind of its destruction whipped his hair away from his forehead. Behind him, he heard screams, but Remy strode into the still glowing wreckage beyond without even glancing back, the Victorian lullaby tripping from his tongue as he went. The Nursery was waiting for him.

"Halfpence and farthings say the bells of St. Martin's."

~*~


Emma walked Remy through his own head. Three weeks in and he could construct his own Astral Plane mindscape. Fast progress, he gathered, from Emma's satisfied expressions. Cleaning up the mess in his head, though, promised to take even longer than getting rid of Death. If it was even possible.

Spanish moss draped from ancient trees that supported the sky in the psychic representation of his mind while the smell of the river hung in the humid air and pressed sticky-fingered against his skin. Their avatars stood in the midst of a cemetery modeled on the aboveground tombs Remy remembered from New Orleans. He'd played in them as a street child, found shelter there from human predators more than once, even picked a lock and slept with the dead during a hurricane once. Grime stained the wind-worn marble mausoleums in this place, unreal and eerily detailed at the same time; rain tracked stains like running mascara down the cheeks of worn-faced angels.

~Most people keep their memories in scrapbooks, shoeboxes, or even safes,~ Emma commented. ~Telepaths tend to build memory houses, even mansions. Not you.~

Remy shrugged. So he'd entombed all his memories. It worked for him.

Emma picked her way toward the LeBeau mausoleum. Her high heels tick-clacked on the whitewashed steps, where generations of shoes had worn a swale in the stone; the same sound that echoed as she tapped her fingernails against the bronze doors. A fragment of distant sound distilled itself into a jazz band playing St. James' Infirmary, black-suited musicians accompanying a hearse to lay another dead man to rest, before the mourners finished the walking wake with more booze and music. Emma sniffed and waved her hand at their surroundings. ~Your ability to generate sensory detail on this level is impressive. I think you'll be able generate illusion states the way the Wyngardes do with some practice.~

Regan Wyngarde was even better than her half-sister Martinique at weaving telepathic illusions, but she sucked at constructing them while in a combat at the same time. Remy didn't see the benefit.

A spook like Emma could turn an army on itself with one spiteful telepathic command, of course. He just didn't like the idea of doing it like that. It was the sort of head game Martinique liked to pull. While he had a sneaking liking for Regan, Remy would be happy to blow Martinique into orbit.

He wondered where Regan had got to now.

The last time he'd seen Regan had been on Muir Island. Bishop had just put a bullet through Xavier's head while trying to kill Hope, Rogue was gone, Cable was heading into the future, Exodus had control of the Acolytes again, and Regan had been slinking away from the throwdown between the Marauders and the X-Men, bleeding from a wound that had to have come from one of Wolverine's claws. Sinister was – Remy believed then – dead, freeing him and the rest of the Marauders, so he'd been making his own exit at the time. They'd shared a pained look – Remy had just been quick-healed only a day before from a close encounter with those same claws – and they had gone their separate ways.

~It's more useful than you think.~

He sighed and admitted it wordlessly. Emma patted his cheek.
Emma frowned at the tomb's doors. ~Is this what they really look like?~ she asked.

Remy stared and twitched in alarm. The LeBeau tomb combined ancient Egyptian and Greek Revival themes. The last time he'd seen it, when the family laid Henri to rest, the doors had been bronze, true, but there were only two, fitted with heavy black iron hinges and the stylized symbol of the Thieves' Guild which held them together while hiding the locking mechanism from anyone not privy to the Guild's secrets. The door before him on the Astral Plane fitted together in three pieces, exactly the way the hatch in his dreams did. St. James' Infirmary morphed into that damned nursery rhyme that kept echoing through his mind when he woke.

He snapped out of the Astral Plane and stared at Emma wild-eyed. "That's something of Sinister's," he snapped as soon as she opened her eyes.

Emma stared back at him. "How do you know?"

"I've been dreaming about a hatch."

"More mysteries," she remarked. ~Don't worry so much. If you were still under any kind of control, you wouldn't be integrating it into your mindscape.~

Anything about Sinister made him worry.

"We'll talk to Scott."

"How 'bout, you talk to Cyclops, and I don't," Remy suggested.

Emma laughed at him, but he'd invited it, knowing she would, and didn't mind.

"How about you go talk to Rogue."

Remy winced theatrically. "Maybe talking to Cyke wouldn't be so bad – "

"Not the way I'm going to talk to him, Remy," Emma purred. "Even if you are much more flexible than I'd realized."

He mimed horror.

His reluctance to talk to Rogue wasn't an act, though.

Rogue wanted to know everything. She wanted to know why Remy left, why he went to Los Angeles, everything he did there. She wanted to know about Daken and how Remy knew him and what the damned Heat had done. She wanted him to dig up how it felt to shake his way through withdrawal – again. He didn't want to talk about any of it. Why dig up his pain when he'd just got it buried? He didn't want to dissect what he thought and did and felt; why lay his insides open like a lab specimen for anyone to gawk at? Bad enough he had Death in his head and Emma strolling through his shields every day, even if her lack of sympathy was the least objectionable attitude Remy could imagine. Rogue wanted to coddle him and Remy despised the impulse in himself to take advantage of that and bind her closer with that concern.

So he had said the exact most irritating thing he could and sent Rogue away in a huff again just this morning. It had become an ingrained reflex when he was with her, to do just the opposite thing from what his empathy told him would manipulate her. He couldn't figure out why he'd done that, not just this time, but every time. Whatever it was, it was him, not Xavier's interfering telepathic hooks. Emma had already shown him enough to recognize and clear out any leftover bits of those ideations.

Compared to dismantling the framework supporting Death, a process he and Emma had only begun discussing, getting rid of Xavier's tricks had been easy.

Observation had proven to him that telepaths weren't any better at relationships than anyone else, but if it hadn't, the growing distance between himself and Rogue would have made it clear. Being a telepath didn't help at all: he wouldn't read her mind without permission and if he had, it would have been pointless so long as he didn't understand how he felt either.

He left the shielded tower and went for a walk instead, easily avoiding everyone until he reached the ocean's edge. He noticed Northstar moving far ahead of him, circling the island's circumference in a speeding black-and-silver blur. He pushed down mild annoyance that his solitude might be interrupted. He touched Northstar's thoughts when he thought that, despite practicing not reaching out with Emma, and found the other man thinking along a similar line. Utopia didn't offer many options for someone wanting to get away from everyone else.

Remy determined to stay out of Northstar's way for both their sakes and left the wet, packed sand to pick his way out onto a pile of van-sized rocks. They were slick with water and seaweed, but he made his way surefooted to the farthest one, where he could watch the sun dive beneath the molten western waves.
 
He stayed there as the day's light leached away and the damp cold began creeping through his clothes, until a breath of wind and the shifting potentials behind him alerted him to Northstar coming to stop just behind him.

"Something I can do for you?" Remy asked without turning around.

"Are you going to stay here all night?"

He considered asking what if he was? It shouldn't matter to Northstar. He deliberately reigned his telepathy back under strict control and didn't probe for ulterior motives. He could see that telepathy could easily lead to paranoia and he already a fair dose of that anyway. Instead, he stretched his arms forward, then shook the mist of sea spray off. "Might," he said, "except I don't care much for getting wet." He got to his feet easily and turned to face Northstar. He cocked an eyebrow at the other mutant. "You care?"

"Of course not," Northstar scoffed, folding his arms over his chest and radiating annoyance.

Remy laughed. "Did I take your pouting spot?"

"I don't pout."

Remy made a noncommittal sound that failed to hide his amusement. Northstar pouted, all right; he was used to being the prima donna of Alpha Flight, but his drama barely pinged among the X-Men. Still, he remembered that vicious denouncement on TV and imagined Northstar had seen it too: it had certainly been aimed at him. "Sorry about Unity," he offered casually, making it clear Northstar could ignore the comment and sentiment if he preferred, "and the shit that went down. Glad you came back." There had been aliens and brainwashing behind Unity, but Alpha Flight weren't wanted criminals in Canada at present. Yet, despite a short reunion with his boyfriend, Northstar was back in Utopia, radiating a tired kind of misery Remy recognized too well. 'Saved the day' make-up sex never outlasted the adrenaline let down; Northstar was alone again. More alone than before, since Aurora had stayed with Alpha Flight.

"Where the hell else can any of us go now?" Northstar responded.

Remy raised an eyebrow. "Wolverine's school."

"Oh, yes, the Jean Grey school," Northstar mocked.

Remy had to admit, Logan couldn't have been any more obvious about giving Cyke the finger if he'd named the place the 'Your Dead Wife Would Disapprove' School. And he still meant to check it out, see if there was a place for him there, though what the hell he could teach beyond hand-to-hand and lockpicking 101, he couldn't imagine. Maybe a seminar on not getting in debt to supervillains. For the moment, however, he needed what Emma could teach him more than those kids in Westchester needed anything he could teach them, that was for sure.

He tossed his head to get wet hair out of his eyes and said, "Let's go get a drink."

Northstar huffed out an almost snort. "I'm meeting Dazzler in the City."

Remy shrugged and picked his way past Northstar. "Enjoy yourself."

"I'll fake it," Northstar said and disappeared in the blur of speed, the rush of air rocking Remy, but not knocking him off his feet.

"Asshole." He muttered it philosophically, knowing he behaved at about the same level most of the time. He shook his head and thought for a moment he should have invited himself along. But wandering around San Francisco on his own or with a few other mutants before he had a better handle on Death and his shields wouldn't be a good idea.

Maybe in a couple of weeks.

He shoved his hands in his pockets and started back toward Utopia's towers.

~*~


A constellation – a small one, the Little Dipper maybe – of lights flickered unsteadily on the Cerebra readout displayed by the Cuckoos in the central tower control room. Cyclops leaned over one girl's shoulder. His visor hid his eyes, but his body language conveyed the intensity of a stare. "New mutants?" he asked.

"Old," Mindee, the Cuckoo closest to him, answered.

Celeste pointed at one dot of light on the screen. "New York. District X."

"Mutant Town," Cyclops murmured.

Remy strolled over. He kept his hands in his pants' pockets and his shields high so he wouldn't distract the Cuckoos. On a second screen, a photo and profile appeared.

"Hannah Levy," he read and winced. Poor woman probably hadn't missed her mutation when it went away. A prehensile tongue and the need to live off insects really didn't strike Remy as an evolutionary improvement to any species. She'd lived and continued to live in New York's unofficial, but very real, mutant ghetto. Where the baselines came to slum and gawk at the exotics and the freaks and score some of the more esoteric drugs which dealers had learned to distill from some mutants' physiology.

"We'll send someone to retrieve her," Cyclops said.

"Presuming she wants to come here."

Cyclops shoved both hands through his short hair and nodded. "She'll be given a choice."

Hannah Levy didn't have a great mutation, but on the other hand, she could keep it under wraps, and no one would complain when the buildings she lived in didn't have a cockroach problems. She might stay in New York.

Mindee pointed to another dim light, this one showing up in post-Unity  Canada. "Arlette Truffaut. Murmur." Her profile showed a real beauty and her former affiliation with Alpha Flight. Considering the chaos surrounding the fall of the latest Canadian government and the lingering propaganda demonizing Alpha Flight as terrorists there, she probably wouldn't want to go back to them. Remy suspected that any re-powered Canadian mutant would be eager to accept an invitation from Utopia. It beat out disappearing into whatever secret mutant prison camp the Canadians built to replace Neverland.

"You going to send Northstar after her?" Remy asked.

"I'm keeping Jean-Paul out of Canada if I can for the moment," Cyclops said. He turned his face and presumably his gaze to Remy. "Like I used to try to keep you away from Louisiana."

"I was only exiled from New Orleans itself."

"And didn't pay much attention to that."

Remy shrugged his agreement. He had played fast and loose with the terms of his exile on more than one occasion before it was lifted. On the display, three more profiles appeared to match the dots scattered across the globe. Monsoon in India, Phantazia in a private asylum in Florida, and Harpoon in Scotland. Remy frowned at the display. It looked like Harpoon was still on Muir Island.

Cyclops cleared his throat. "It looks like the Scarlet Witch's hex is reversing."

Remy wondered about that. Mutants were always a minority, but if the entire depowered population reverted, well, Utopia wasn't big enough for all of them. He didn't see how it could work. Magneto tried with Genosha, creating a mutant homeland, and mutants flocked to it, only to die, because when they were concentrated together they were just too easy a target. The number of attacks on Utopia proved that the underlying attitudes towards mutants hadn't changed since. The only reason Utopia had held was that its small population was almost entirely made up of alphas – trained alphas who mostly lived to fight – unlike the average gamma or beta like Hannah Levy.

Most mutants, if they could hide it, had always survived by staying under the radar, not through their powers.

"Emma spoke to me," Cyclops said, drawing Remy's attention back to him.

"Mais?"

"But nothing. You think Sinister's coming back?"

Remy flicked his fingers toward the dot representing Notiak Kodiak, the once and future Marauder known as Harpoon. "How many times have the X-Men killed Notiak, neh?" He rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. "Except for me, all the Marauders are cloned replacements. You think a man who brings his minions back to life don't have more than one plan to bring himself back? Black Womb, that was just one of his plans. Same with Claudine. Le Docteur always have another plan." He added flatly, "I'm probably part of one of them."

He expected Cyclops to tell him he was paranoid or to disagree or to say that was why he had no place in the X-Men any longer, instead the X-Men's leader caught Remy's shoulder under his hand and pulled him around. "Yeah, we've got that, Gambit." Cyclops had a strong grip, hard and firm and steady. Remy's first instinct, to shrug it away, faded after a breath, and he stayed still. Cyclops didn't let go. "We'll stop him, if he comes back."

When, Remy thought wearily. When.

"We will," Cyclops said. The man was always confident on the outside. Remy had always been aware of the doubt Cyclops harbored inside, though. He liked him better for it, so he had never said anything.

"Hope you've got a plan then."

"Actually, yes, and it involves you, if you're willing to work for us."

"You're going to trust me?"

Cyclops shrugged this time. "You keep your word. You kept it with Sinister. I tend to believe you'll keep it with us."

Remy eyed him and commented, "Emma's giving you pointers." He opened his emotional shields enough to taste whether Cyclops was telling the truth. Huh. He was.

"There are benefits to having a telepath on your side."

He started to shrug that off as an obvious reference to Emma's talent before it hit him that Cyclops could as easily mean him. It really hadn't sunk in yet. Pointedly, he said, "I have no idea what you're thinking." Feeling, however...

Cyclops raised an eyebrow high enough it showed above the narrow visor. Amused.

"I'm thinking the guy who put together the security for Sinister's labs, a professional Master Thief, is exactly the guy we need to get into those labs."

Remy cocked his head. Maybe he'd like what Cyclops was thinking for once.

Cyclops smirked at him. "I want you to go in, salvage every bit of data and equipment we can use here, and then destroy every single lab Sinister had. If the bastard brings himself back, he'll have to start from nothing."

A surprised cough of laughter escaped Remy. That... that he could do. Would gladly do.

"You’ve got a deal, mon ami."

Cyclops nodded in satisfaction. "You'll need some back up."

"Domino, Armor, Sunfire, Northstar," Remy reeled off immediately. He would have liked X-23 on any team he ran with or commanded, but she'd declined to join either the Utopians or Wolverine's school and was sticking with the Fantastic Four in New York. He figured she'd be better off with the Richards than trying to be the kid Wolverine wanted her to be because of her age or the fighter Cyclops would use her as. He added, thoughtfully, because he knew she was a better data miner than him, "Sage, if I can get her."

For a chance at Sinister's data, Remy suspected Sage would volunteer.

Cyclops nodded. "None of them are currently on any team rosters."

"So no one will wonder where we are when we take off. Might need to borrow Ariel for transport unless I can access Essex's tesseracts," Remy agreed.

"Done.  – Can you?"

Remy shrugged uncomfortably. He thought he could. He had the raw power to open a tesseract, now that his full mutation was returning; it had always been the fine control that had prevented him from using Essex's equipment. He could activate the control system telepathically now, rather than needing one of the single-use, self-destructing remotes Sinister issued the Marauders. "If the system's still intact."

"We could use that technology," Cyclops said.

"It takes a lot of power," Remy warned him. Sinister used several supposedly shut down nuclear power plants around the world just for his transport system.

Cyclops waved a hand that encompassed Utopia and its inhabitants. "Power, we have."

True. Magneto or Havok could power up Sinister's system without breaking a sweat.

"I might need to talk to Crow and Flip," he mentioned.

He saw Cyclops make the adjustment as he realized Remy meant Scalphunter and Arclight, that Remy didn't think of the imprisoned Marauders by their codenames. He'd brought it up just for that reason. He wanted to provoke some acknowledgement or reaction from Cyclops. He wanted to have his status on Utopia set out clearly. Was he or wasn't he one of the X-Men? The flicker of doubt that trailed across his emotional shields came as no surprise, but the words did, though they didn't really answer his unvoiced questions.

"You'll be cleared to access all levels of the brig by the end of the day."

"Bien."

"I'm surprised you didn't ask for Storm... or Rogue."

Remy laughed a little bitterly. "You're kidding, non? Storm doesn't deal with my past, she just ignores it. Can't do that and do what you're wantin' me to do. And Roguey... just non. I'm not gettin' anyone on my team killed because she won't listen to me."

Cyclops startled him by squeezing his shoulder."Go recruit your team. Emma says you're ready to go back into the field."

~Mais, if Emma says so,~ Remy thought into Cyclops' mind, keeping his intrusion light and surface only, amused by Cyclops' startled reaction and immediate scowl, but mostly by his involuntary thought: fucking telepaths!

~*~


Rain slapped them in the face as soon as they stepped through Ariel's 'doorway' onto Muir Island. The wind off the North Sea knifed through insulated uniforms and armor, punishing them for their intrusion. Gray rain slid down the walls and blank windows of Moira MacTaggart's abandoned ancestral home and the attached Research Center.

Remy turned the team away from the empty buildings. Sunfire followed him wordlessly, familiar with the path to the entrance to Sinister's concealed lab from his own stint with the Marauders and unbothered by  memories of Muir before or the weather. He'd powered up enough that the rain flashed to steam before reaching his skin, which kept Shiro dry, but forced everyone else to stay several steps farther back than they would normally. Remy took a page from Shiro's book and let his kinetic charge expand around him, burning off the rain and absorbing the charge from each droplet's impact. It encased him in a sizzling pink-tinged aura and made his nerves buzz pleasantly. Ichiko had her armor on, which protected her from getting wet. That left Domino, Northstar, and Sage suffering from the elements. Sage just pulled the hood of her cloak close enough to shadow her features and Northstar ignored the way the rain made his black hair cling to his skull, unbothered.

Domino, however, kept up a steady stream of inventive curses in her head that had Remy smiling to himself. Even mutant probability manipulators couldn't dance between the raindrops. They weren't enough of an active threat to make her power work, which left Domino as unhappy as a cat in a bath.

"You do know where you're going, right?" she snarked.

"Oui," he replied as they rounded a group of boulders left by the last ice age. His fingers danced over a pattern of what only looked like lichen and then he caught the edge of a crack and pulled.

Behind them, a second boulder slid aside and revealed a set of stainless steel stairs, lit blue from below.

"Sunfire," Remy instructed, "take point to the first level."

"Our clearance should take us all the way to the living quarters," Shiro said.

"You want to rely on should?"

Shiro grimaced before starting forward at a cautious walk. Remy let Domino precede him and fell in step with Ichiko. "Petite, you want to be ready to throw up a shield around everyone except me and Sunfire, the minute I tell you."

"Do not bother shielding me," Northstar said. "I will be moving too fast."

"And I don't need it," Domino murmured. Her power would kick in as soon as things got dangerous. Then all she needed to do was move and luck would take care of the rest.

Remy tossed up his hands. "Bien. Around yourself and Sage... " He glanced at the cyberpath with a raised eyebrow. "Unless you...?"

"No, I would appreciate it," Sage said.

"I will be ready," Ichiko confirmed.

Remy patted her shoulder. Ichiko had a strong desire to join a field team from the time she arrived at the old Xavier school, but she was still a kid. She didn't have the experience the rest of them had in combat. Wolverine was probably right that kids like her shouldn't be in the field, but he knew you couldn't shield someone who didn't want to be protected. Especially in the world they lived in. But if he thought she didn't want to be part of the team at any time, he'd let her go. For now, her emotions tasted clearly of determination and a bit of trepidation along with a strand of glee that she'd been chosen as part of this team before any other classmates.

Ichiko did not like being back-up to anyone.

Carefully, because he still didn't have enough practice doing it, Remy extended a thought toward Sage, mentally tapping on the other telepath's shields. She'd flipped her hood down and cocked her head toward him, but said nothing verbally, just raised a fine black eyebrow at the same time she thinned her shields enough they could speak without using their voices.

~When we get into the data systems, cher, see if you can pull anything on the Nursery.~

~And what is the Nursery?~

~Don't know, but I've got a bad feeling 'bout it,~ Remy admitted. He showed her a glimpse of the hatch from his dreams.

~I'll filter for it.~ She paused. ~Shall I search other systems?~

Remy wasn't sure. He didn't want to set off any alarms anywhere or alert any entities like SHIELD. All his instincts insisted the Nursery was something real and dangerous. Something that didn't or shouldn't be in the hands of Sinister or anyone else.

~Not yet.~

Sage gave a small nod and Remy lengthened his stride to reach the security interface at the door to the Level Two elevator. Shiro waved his hand, flames doused, before the sensor that should have had the doors opening automatically to a Marauder. The doors stayed stubbornly shut.

"You were right," Shiro said. "Access is shut down."

He'd anticipated that. All Sinister's labs were linked to him. Without Sinister's presence or a password transmitted periodically, the bases were programmed to shut down in secure mode. He'd designed the security on most of them, after all, though he knew Sinister had to have added his own tricks to the mix.

Not expecting it to work, but prompted by the echoes of his dreams about the hatch, Remy held his hand in front of the dull eye of the sensor.   It stayed dark to Remy's obscure relief. It might have made things easier, but if the lab had responded to him when it hadn't recognized Sunfire, it would have meant something he didn't want to even contemplate.

Though he had wondered, more than once, in the quiet, alone moments of his life after the Massacre, after Seattle and St. Louis. After Antarctica. After Sinister found Death in China and put Remy back together again. He'd never concluded anything, never wanted to confirm the suspicions in the back of his mind.

He strengthened the shields on the telepathy and his empathy, then opened the kinesthetic sense that went hand in hand with his charge, narrowing his focus down until he could follow the movement of protons and electrons in the electrical wiring. He stretched his concentration and followed the lines of the security system, tracing through it, mentally mapping everything as it existed against his memorized version. Yes. There. This was trick he'd never let Sinister see, one he saved for the hardest pinches.

Remy peeled one of his half gloves off and shoved it in a pocket of his coat. Tactile contact reduced how much he had to concentrate on controlling his charge. He traced his fingers over the steel wall, mapping them to the wiring hidden behind it.

"LeBeau, quit making out with the wall," Domino sniped.

Remy shushed her absently, his mind sunk too deep to really follow what she'd said, only the hint of interruption. He pulsed the tiniest, most delicate charge into the wiring, feeding in just enough to mimic an electrical charge. It took more power and control to keep the charge below the point where it reached an explosive release than blowing up an aircraft carrier would have. The system was powerless and motionless so he had no kinetic energy to leech; he was providing all of it himself. He leaned closer, resting his cheek against the cool, smooth wall and pulsed energy into the security system in the same code the control would have it had been live. Sinister's computer systems weren't based on binary, but a more flexible code. He'd drilled Remy on it at one point, but never realized Remy had learned it well enough to use it without a computer.

It always paid to play dumb.

The doors slid open obligingly a second later.

Domino's remark percolated through into the front of Remy's thoughts a second later as he pulled his awareness back to normal. He turned his face enough to brush his lips against the wall. "Was it good for you too?" he purred then pushed himself away from the wall with a lingering caress of his fingers.

Ichiko squeaked, but Remy stalled on the glimpse of Northstar's pupils gone wide and dark. His shields were still so firmly in place he couldn't feel if he had really affected Northstar or something else had got to him. Domino was already marching forward, so he wrote it off as something to explore some other time.

"After you, mon amis," he said with a sweeping gesture that ushered Northstar and Sunfire forward.

He let them both pass, but then gestured for Shiro to catch up to Domino and took point again himself, threading their way through unmarked, half-lit, steel-walled corridors. An array of security measures remained which they would have to take down in Sinister's absence. The first one was coming up – Remy flicked a card into his hand and let his charge trickle into it – and Domino tripped on nothing, turning her fall into an easy somersault that moved her under the spray of plasma fire from a concealed niche at head height. Remy tossed the charged card into the opened emitter and smiled as soon as it exploded.

"Hey, asshole, a little warning next time," Domino snarled at him, back on her feet again.

"I warned you in the briefing." He gestured to Ichiko. "You could have Armor protect you if you're worried about gettin' slow in your old age."

"I'll show you slow."

Remy grinned at her insolently. "Oh, I bet you could."

"Keep your sleazy fantasies to yourself, LeBeau."

He just chuckled as low and dirty as he could before passing by her just before the corridor they were following forked in two.

"Which way?" Northstar asked. He shimmered, vibrating in place, keeping his speed pulled down to nothing so he could follow Remy and Shiro's lead. Remy appreciated that Northstar wasn't rushing headstrong ahead of them the way half the X-Men would have. Northstar had listened at the briefing Remy'd given them and didn't seem to have any problems following his orders. It was such a change of pace it left Remy feeling lightheaded. He smiled at Northstar without thinking about it. Northstar blinked and smiled, slightly, back

"Hey," Domino snapped.

Remy slapped his hand against a concealed control and waited as the ceiling at the fork opened and stairway spiraled down. "Up, amis."

"Take either fork and you'll end up fried," Shiro added as he started up the stairway.

"You designed this, didn't you?" Domino asked as she passed Remy. He was waiting for the rest of them to get up the stairway before closing the control face again. Leaving it open would trigger another set of safeguards. Sinister hadn't been in favor of letting intruders leave themselves a clear and easy exit if they did manage to penetrate his security.

"Some," he admitted.

She snorted with good humor. "Yeah, you've got that twisted sense of humor that puts a tiger behind both doors."

Remy blinked. There were times in his life he would have found that funny. Any Marauder would have. "Non," he said eventually. "Stick a Creed clone behind each door, oui ... "

"Sicko," Domino laughed.

He guided them to a cooling system access and into a series of ducts that forced him to twist and nearly dislocate one shoulder to fit through, another reason he'd chosen the slight and flexible for his team. Shiro cursed at a couple of turns, but no one else had any difficulties. Remy fried the anti-intruder
devices that randomly patrolled the network and led them to a second access panel that exited them into the heart of Sinister's lab, just one wall away from the chamber where Mystique had used Rogue and  Strain 88 to kill Sinister.

"A walk in the park, " Remy remarked as he strolled toward the banks of monitors and the locked keyboards set beneath them. Sage followed him, looking intent and eager at the prospect of getting access to even a fraction of Sinister's database.

"Considerably smoother than most X-Men missions," she commented.

"Don't jinx us," Domino said. She stretched and then hopped up to perch on the edge of a lab table and swing her legs freely. "What now, oh captain my captain."

"Sage does her thing and grabs all the data she can. Armor watches her back. You, me, Shiro and Northstar take out the rest of the booby traps, make sure the cloning chambers are empty, and start tagging everything that gets taken back to Utopia," Remy directed.

He felt almost itchy when nothing went wrong with the very loose plan. Being back in one of Sinister's labs always got to him anyway. He had the shields Emma had taught him locked up tight, even his empathy, and it left him feeling constricted, like a horse wearing blinders. After returning to the main lab space and peering over Sage's shoulder for a moment before she grew annoyed and tried to elbow him in the ribs – body armor was a wonderful thing – he tried to think of what else they might have missed that could prove useful or dangerous.

Harpoon. Cerebra had registered Harpoon coming on line on Muir Island. No one had known why the light flicked out a few minutes later. Remy could guess, though. He headed for the cloning lab.

Someone had shot it up. The templates for most of the Marauders were destroyed, the incubation tubes shattered and the growth fluid long since dried into stains on the floor. The only one still operating had Harpoon's samples.

Remy stood in front of it and studied the partially grown clone inside. An adult-sized fetus, the skin still transparent, traceries of blood vessels visible, a dandelion of metallic filaments blooming from its still immature brain. Left alone, the machinery would continue maturing it until it was ready to be decanted. With no one to do that and no security breach, the clone would remain in the tube until nutrient balance dropped too low to support it. At that point, the clone would be terminated, the tube and its contents purged, and a new one started.

He guessed it had been Regan who destroyed the others on her way out, and she'd missed Harpoon's. Or left it running deliberately. She'd had a special hate on for Kodiak.

He finished what had been begun by Regan and returned to the control room.

Domino had busied herself teasing Northstar. Shiro and Ichiko were chatting in Japanese, enjoying the opportunity to forego English for a little while. English was the lingua franca of the mutant world, the same as it was the tech world and aeronautics. Remy found that ironic. None of the world's English speaking nations were particularly welcoming to mutants. Mutants didn't run away to Canada for safety, not if they knew about Department H. Utopia was the closest thing to a haven that had existed since Magneto ruled in Genosha.

Not so much ironic, Remy reflected, as tragic, considering how Genosha had been before Magneto and how it ended there.

He backed out of the room and wandered. He had never spent much time in the Muir Island lab. It had no familiar echoes, just a few hot spots filled with bad memories. That was the thing about coming back to the scene of the crime. It called to him and Remy found his silent footsteps returning him to the annex where Sinister had placed Rogue as she lay dying.

Remy looked around the empty room. There was nothing there to show what had happened. No strands of auburn or white hair from Rogue, no stain on the floor where Sinister fell, not even a limp ribbon from the strange, perpetually shifting cape he'd  worn was left behind. He stared down, frowning, wondering what had happened to Sinister's body. He hadn't done anything with it, just walked away, still in a mixed state of relief and disbelief, hardly able to comprehend he was finally free or that the plan had worked, because Rogue had survived, even healed, and she'd walked away without a hint of curiosity or concern for him.

He'd felt hollow instead of triumphant and he'd slipped away while the X-Men faced off with the rest of the mixed Marauder and Acolyte forces, before Bishop shot Xavier in the head, before Cable took their Mutant Messiah into the future. He hadn't concerned himself with the X-Men or mutant matters again until he caught wind of the kill contract put out on Xavier. He'd been free. Alone, but his own man.

Or so he'd thought, Remy thought darkly, but after foiling the Assassins sent after Xavier, the thing with him and Shaw at Alamogordo had proved that he'd been naive. Sinister might be gone, for a time, but his plans were still in play, part of his long game. Since then, Remy and X-23 had had their run in with Claudine Renko. He could almost sympathize with her desperation to escape becoming a cheval to Sinister, would have, if she'd hadn't been just as intent on stealing Laura's body to save herself.

He looked around now, taking note of what he'd ignored before.

The floor was the same pale metal as the walls, assembled with nanotechnology Sinister had developed from bits of Celestial equipment he had filched from Apocalypse across millennia. It didn't stain. Part of him imagined Sinister rising from the floor after Rogue, then he, and finally Mystique fled. The rest of him knew it was the lab's cleaning bots that had removed any abandoned organics, the same way the cells and surgeries were scrubbed clean of blood each sterilization cycle. Sinister's nearly eternal body had been just one more thing to dispose of to his equipment.

Something left behind.

Like he'd been.

Remy closed his hand in a fist. He'd deserved it, of course he'd deserved it, after letting Rogue and the rest of the X-Men think he'd accepted Mystique's offer to impersonate her while having sex. They didn't know he'd shoved Mystique back so hard her head cracked against the wall and the image of Rogue had slipped and morphed back into blue skin and crimson hair, or how she'd laughed. She'd laughed and said if he loved her daughter, he'd do what it took to save her, even give her up. Then she'd showed him Destiny's diary, one no one else knew existed, and Remy'd felt his heart break as he understood what he'd have to do, beginning with letting Rogue think he'd betrayed her and ending with truly betraying the X-Men.

He'd spent the night with Mystique and suffered everyone's contempt and anger afterward. No one had asked for his side of what had happened.

It made going to Apocalypse easy in the end. He'd been happy to give himself up and become Death. Remy shook his head. Good thing none of the X-Men had asked him why since then or how he'd convinced Apocalypse to remake him into a Horseman.

He was still standing there, looking at nothing, when Northstar came in.

"Sage is finished."

"Ah. Bon," Remy said.

Northstar looked around. "Was there anything here?"

Remy glanced at him before answering, "Not anymore."

Once back in the main lab, he opened his shields enough to find Emma's cool and familiar mind. ~Got that salvage team ready to go, cher?~

~Of course. The mission is going well?~

~Gonna open a tesseract, bring everyone through. You want to warn Cyke so he doesn't wet himself when the alarms go off?~

She laughed in his head from the opposite hemisphere. ~I suppose I shall save him from embarrassing himself.~

Remy let their link thin out to nearly nothing, just a sense of awareness and place, reached inward on a quantum level, where all things were everywhere, and twisted an opening between the two places. He poured power into the rift and created a tesseract the way he'd seen Sinister do it once, without the aid of the machines Sinister had usually employed. It was harder and took enough power he knew he was going to be wiped afterward, but it was still a good time to find out if he could manage it. If he couldn't, he'd tap into the waiting technology instead.

His heart thumped hard in his chest, strained so he felt it, and his vision grayed at the edges, but the opening between Utopia and Muir expanded large enough to allow four or five people easy passage. Sweat formed on his upper lip and the back of his neck, but Remy pushed it harder, opening the tesseract until it stretched as wide as the wall behind it. Holding something that big indefinitely was out of the question, he realized, and tapped it into the power plant hidden beneath the lab, drawing on it. The thrum of the plant coming on-line vibrated through his bones and Remy staggered, only registering Northstar and Shiro bracing him when they guided him down into a chair.

~It's stable,~ he told Emma. He added, out loud for his team, "Techs coming through."

He was still blinking at the floor when a white-gloved hand took hold of his chin and lifted his face so Emma could examine him. As usual, she looked perfect, in white from head to toe, everything skating the line between cheap tramp and elegantly revealing. That must have slipped past his shields, because Emma pursed her lips and slapped him lightly.

"Sorry, cher, I meant expensive tramp," Remy said.

"Stop showing off and use the power plants next time," she snapped at him, before strutting away and issuing orders to the salvage crew she must have accompanied through the tesseract while Remy was grayed out.

"Neat trick," Domino said as she joined Shiro and Northstar beside Remy. "You get an upgrade?"

He tipped his head back and eyed her. "Secondary mutation, cher."

"Thought that was telepathy." She waved at Emma's back. "I thought that's why you came back to Utopia. Lessons from the Bitch Queen."

"Don't be catty, cher. Telepathy's what Sinister used to operate the tesseract machinery." It wasn't exactly a lie, just a misleading truth.

"Well, looks like it took it out of you."

Remy nodded, then decided to fix that. He set the chair spinning and sucked up the kinetic energy like a booster until his head felt clear and he knew his legs would hold him up again. He watched the salvage techs (they were a group of depowered beta mutants who didn't follow the Wolverine school of mechanics and could undo a bolt or detach a piece of wiring without popping an adamantium claw and mutilating something into a sparking piece of garbage) for a while. They were using counter-grav moving pallets salvaged out of the lab itself rather than resorting to a telekinitic or getting someone like Magneto in to move the heavy stuff. Boredom drove him out of the chair and through the lab's corridors until he found himself stepping into Essex's study.

It was most definitely Essex's study, not Sinister's, too. The heavy, ornate furniture and decorations were pure Victoriana, flocked velvet wallpaper, dark walnut furniture, and the Persian rugs that were probably worth more than the equally genuine art hanging on the walls. The books on the walls were leather-bound and gilt-edged first editions, part of a collection that would make any bibliophile drool.

Remy had always liked this aspect of Essex's personality. He liked the books and the cozy, over-embellished decor. It reminded him of the library in Jean-Luc's New Orleans townhouse. The memory of better times, when he still trusted his adopted father and had dreams of a future with Belladonna and peace between the guilds, felt bittersweet now. As did the memories of playing chess with Essex in a similar room, before he realized Essex was just a face Sinister sometimes wore, the mask of the man Apocalypse had transformed. It seemed strange now, remembering that he'd looked up to the man once.

There were two high wing-backed chairs facing a fireplace that probably actually worked, a small table set between them with a carved ivory and jet chess set arranged on it. For one blood-chilling instant Remy thought he saw Essex in the left chair. He recoiled mentally and physically, shields shivering almost to pieces, as he imagined a Strain 88 Sinister lingering here all that time, and reached wildly for the tesseract, for any exit that would get him away. It was like Golgotha had hold of his mind again, the fear rising like vomit in his throat, acid and uncontrollable, and he had no one to stand beside him.

No one. Not Rogue. He let a ragged laugh escape him. She'd abandoned him when Golgotha had hold of their minds. They'd swept that under the rug, along with everything they'd said under its influence, but he knew, deep down, that what happened, what they saw, reflected the truth inside them. Rogue hadn't cared enough to stay with him and his mind hadn't conjured her down in the sewer tunnels. It had been Sinister Remy faced, his shadow that hung over him, even with the secret of their connection out.

He pressed his fingertips to his closed eyes.

He hadn't told Rogue hefelt Sinister presence after that. As much as Mystique's plan and Destiny's diary, it had been that mental tug to the leash that sent him careening into Apocalypse's grip, because he'd had to escape. He hadn't exactly reasoned it out, because everything had been a mess in his head by then, but the long hours he eventually spent recovering from Sinister's efforts to undo Apocalypse's work had left him with little better to do. He'd been in just the position he'd been terrified of, after all. No better time to face that fear.

"It's a kind of love, this degree of hate."
He'd hallucinated Sinister telling him that, down in the tunnels. "This desire to be your one and only killer." How that had rung through him, like he was a bell hit at just the right harmonic to shake him apart, wondering if Sinister really did think that, knowing the words he'd heard had come from his own head. He did, or had, loved Sinister – Essex – in some twisted, warped way. He'd been terrified, still was, that Sinister would come for him, would drag him back into his service. Yet there was a kind of comfort in that. He could come and go from the lives of everyone else, from the Thieves to the X-Men, and in the end not be missed, but Sinister would always be there. Sinister would always come for him. For someone who had been abandoned too many times, it engendered a loyalty he couldn't deny. A kind of love.

"Damn it," Remy muttered. He gathered his thoughts and his shields tight again. If he had to have an epiphany, he'd rather keep it to himself, at least as it regarded his complicated relationship with Essex.

Essex had saved him when his powers ran out of control the first time. The worst time. If someone else had found him, if Xavier had been there the way the man always yammered on about helping mutants in need yet never came through unless they were useful to his 'Dream', if anyone else, even Magneto, had showed up, Remy might have been a different man. One with different things he regretted, no doubt. But it was Essex who picked up Remy's broken body and spirited him away, shielded his mind, showed him how to use his power rather than be burned out by it. Even now, with an omega's power fizzing in his cells once more, Remy couldn't be anything but grateful for what Essex had done for him then, not when he understood the destruction that he could have wreaked otherwise.

New Son had been him and New Son had wiped out all life on his world in his universe. Remy could have done the same. Nothing would alter the guilt he felt over what happened to the Morlocks, or the killings he'd taken part of during his second tenure with the Marauders, but when he weighed them against what his alternate universe self did, he still thought Sinister had been the better choice. That didn't even touch the evenings he'd spent across a chessboard from the man, the days when Essex patiently opened his eyes to the wider world, to the idea of something more than clan fueds and the misery of exile. Essex had taken Jean-Luc's place, been his stand-in father, introduced him to literature and philosophy and genetics.

In a warped way, Essex had seduced him.

He'd loved him, Remy thought, and felt sick all over again, because he'd turned on Sinister and because he'd felt that way at all. Essex had molded him into a better man than the callow thief who left New Orleans, but Sinister had twisted him at the same time. He'd messed Remy up, inculcated him with a cold contempt for those who weren't his equal, sent him out to gather the Marauders and thrown him to their untender mercies, knowing Remy's empathy meant he'd channel their worst, most bloodthirsty tendencies until they became part of him.

It almost worked, only the horror and terror of the Morlocks had cut through even Sabertooth's joy in violence. But before that, Remy admitted, he'd been enjoying himself.

"Why not?" he murmured to himself.

And afterward, he'd wanted to die for a long time. Rogue said he had a deathwish, but it wasn't guilt over the Morlock's that spawned it. It was a darker, needier thing. He'd never been able to really believe in Xavier's ridiculous pie-in-the-sky ideas, that had never been strong enough to anchor him, so he'd latched onto Rogue, onto the challenge and the exhilaration of a mad, passionate, impossible love. Anything to counter-balance the knowledge that deep down, he still saw himself as Sinister's, and had no faith he could ever defy him.

None of the other Marauders had really escaped. Part of him had hoped to die before he found out he hadn't either.

"It's all right, you know," Emma said from behind him, managing to startle Remy out of his dark thoughts. He spun and glared at her. She ignored the glare and glanced around the study. "I'll get someone in here to remove the books and art. It would be a crime to blow them up with the remains of the lab when we've finished here. I imagine some of it is worth a good deal at auction."

"Scavenging for money, are we?"

She raised a pale eyebrow at him. "You know as well as I do how much it costs to keep Utopia afloat – so to speak. The bearer bonds from the Hellfire Club won't last forever. Though I am working on 'obtaining' Shaw's holdings."

Remy cocked his head. If he didn't miss his guess, she was afraid of Shaw, about in the same way he was afraid of Essex. He'd known she hated Sebastian Shaw. He'd never been close enough to read her emotions while she spoke of the man before, however.

"Yes," she hissed at him. "Now, stay out of my emotions."

"Cher, now you know how everyone feels about you snooping in their heads," Remy replied.

Emma's sneer wobbled before setting into its usual icy contempt. "Then they need to learn to shield all the time," she said. Remy got the point. He'd slipped, not her; just like his empathy, being a telepath meant a constant bombardment of mental noise from the sloppy thinkers around them. No one could shield completely all the time anymore than they could stand still with every muscle clenched twenty-four/seven. That was why the psis in Utopia had quarters in a shielded tower.

She paid no attention to his weird moment of sympathy though, instead pushing another telepathic technique into his head without warning. ~Stop leaking all over me. Like this. You don't need to – ~ She laughed mentally at him. ~ – to clench up all the time. Link it to your kinetic charge. If you're breathing, you'll be generating energy for the shields. Actually, link it to your autonomic nervous system.~ The knowledge of how to access his nervous system in a way that evolution hadn't anticipated settled into his memory. Emma stirred through his mind, hooking Remy's shields into the hardwired processes the lizard brain handled, where emotion wouldn't interrupt them. People might say their heart stopped with shock, but the odds of that really happening, especially to someone as jaded as Remy, were low enough to ignore. ~Like that.~

"Huh." Easy enough having been shown, but he would never have done that without Emma's help. ~Merci.~

~I've been a telepath most of my life.~

Mind to mind, Emma wasn't as arrogant and bitchy as everyone thought she was. Or maybe Remy got special treatment. He cocked an eyebrow at that and shook his head. Nothing about him rated special treatment from Emma.

~No, you don't. I even forgive you for being a Grey.~

"What!?" The question exploded from him mentally and verbally. Remy scanned around him for anyone close enough to hear even though Emma hadn't said the words aloud. That wasn't something he wanted anyone to know. Like he needed the Shi'ar hunting his ass along with all his other enemies. He'd liked Jean and he got along fine with Rachel because they had nothing to do with each other. He didn't need to be part of their 'family' or what was left of it after the massacre at Annandale-on-the-Hudson. At least the Phoenix power had never shown any interest in him.

Emma gave him an arch smile. ~You think I wouldn't look to see whatever Apocalypse shared with you? Enlightened self-interest here, LeBeau. But I won't mention to anyone that you're the result of one of Sinister's breeding programs.~

Apocalypse had laughed as he showed Death exactly where he had come from and the secrets Sinister had kept since before Remy's birth. It had meant little to him as Death and he'd only remembered the conversation after the mess at Alamagordo, reminded of Sinister's penchant for long term geneticsprojects and the plans he'd had once for Remy's body.

He shuddered now. "Emma, don't – "

"I won't say anything," she assured him. ~No one would take it well.~

That was an understatement. He hadn't taken it well, after Sinister restored him and he recollected that revelation. One Sinister had bemusedly confirmed to him, shortly before sending Remy and the rest of the Marauders out to wipe out every chronopath on the planet. They'd never discussed it, though, and Remy knew he would never truly know what he'd meant to Essex, if he'd ever been more than a wayward chess piece.

A rogue pawn.

But for anyone else to know his true antecents? No. He could live with Emma knowing. He had to, since she did. But no one else.

It would be like painting a target on his back. A bigger one than he already had as a mutant, bigger than being a Marauder, ex or not, bigger than being an X-Men. Plus, Scott would be weird. Rachel too. Nate Grey. Cable. Just the thought made Remy cringe. He already thought Scott was riding the crazy train, but Remy doubted learning Amanda Mueller had provided Daniel Summers' genetic material to Sinister and the scientist had used it and samples from himself before Apocalypse transformed him, along with  ova harvested from Julia Grey, Jean's aunt, to create a child would help.

He didn't want to explain Sinister's plan had been to engineer an omega mutant, one capable of hosting his consciousness, possessing all his abilities and the power to destroy Apocalypse. Later, Sinister had settled for creating a weapon from Scott Summers and Jean Grey's genetics, but they were still toddlers at the time he engineered Remy. Remy, unnamed at the time, had just been one more in a line of experiments them; one that might have succeeded if Apocalypse hadn't been watching Sinister.

Apocalypse had destroyed Sinister's laboratory as a lesson against defying him and had the baby in the incubation tube abandoned in a random location to live or die on its own. Survival of the fittest, no mercy, no enmity.

From there, Remy had ended up in a New Orleans pediatrics ward, only for the rumors of a red-eyed child to pique the interest of the head of the Thieves' Guild, who had encountered a man with red eyes in the past and cherished a prophecy that Le Diable Blanc would reunite the Guilds and return to them the power of the Old Kingdom. The same rumors had reached the ears of the Antiquary, though, and Jean-Luc LeBeau had owed him a debt. He'd stolen the babe from the hospital and delivered Remy into the Velvet Ministry.

Apocalypse had been right though: Remy had been strong enough to survive.

He side-eyed Emma.

Apocalypse had thought it a great joke, that Sinister had lost his greatest success to that point, then crippled Remy's powers, and finally lost him to Apocalypse entirely. Death hadn't felt enough at the time to understand the irony, but Apocalypse had insisted on explaining that the Celestial technology he used had stripped away the keys Sinister had designed into Remy's genes at one point, along with the remnants of the conditioning that had failed in the Morlock Tunnels. Sinister couldn't occupy Death.

~You're resisting integrating the abilities and memories and dissolving the persona because you believe it protects you from Sinister,~ Emma said. Remy twitched but didn't deny it. ~Who you hate. And you love. Don't deny it. But he's dead, Remy. Accept it.~

"He'll find a way to come back. One of his plans will work. Or someone else, some crazy, will clone him thinking they can control him."

She set her hand on his arm. Small, pale, with opal painted nails and a harsh strength Remy hadn't anticipated, that hand tightened on his forearm and held him in place.

"You can't keep Death as a separate entity within your mind indefinitely."

He nodded, a jerky motion.

"It's time to cut your losses," she said. "Essex and Rogue."

That had him narrowing his eyes at her. "What the hell, Emma? You're playing couples counselor again? Because you were trash at that."

"The hell I am," she snapped back and flicked a lock of platinum blond hair over her shoulder. "You can't fix what someone doesn't want to fix."

"I hated letting you in my head and I still did it. I was all in."

"You were."

Remy stilled. He didn't want to accept that, that Rogue hadn't tried, hadn't cared enough, but part him had always known it. He gave and she took and when the tables turned, she left. Even if she'd said differently, even if she'd still been in the same room with him, even when Emma worked with them: she'd been gone. Even when they'd been together in Valle Soleada, she hadn't dealt with her issues. She'd just taken advantage of having her powers suppressed. She'd only ever been playing house with him, probably half out of guilt from dragging him back to life when he'd been happy to go.

And he, he would never quite forgiven her for that. She'd been selfish when she wouldn't let him die.

"And you know it," Emma pointed out mercilessly, "or you would never have predicted her reaction so perfectly when you and Mystique played everyone from the X-Men to Apocalypse."

"Oui." What more was there to say? He had. He did. But he loved her and he wanted to believe that everything in the past could be let go and they could build something new and better. Something good between them at least after there had been so much bad.

Emma turned away from him. She gestured to someone outside the study and the salvagers moved in, breaking around Remy's still form like water round a rock. He watched them empty out the study without speaking. Emma walked out.

He reached and found the power plants, spun them up and began feeding the energy into the lab itself, because it was easier than generating the charge himself and he needed to keep the tesseract open until everyone was out.

Absently, he mentally tagged his team, telling them to assemble at the tesseract. Sage confirmed she had everything she could get from the database. It felt strange yet easy to be the one doing the telepathic connection, rather than receiving it, placing the words into someone else's thoughts while taking care not to look at those thoughts, where their shields weren't that tight.

Stripped, the study looked wrecked. Ruined. No care had been taken. Furniture had been shoved aside to take the rugs, revealing metal instead of hardwood, dispelling the illusion. One of the wingback chairs lay on its side. The walls and shelves were bare. The chess set had tumbled to the floor. Remy bent and picked up a black rook. He didn't see where all the other pieces had gone.

Holding the rook between his fingers, he made his way back to the main lab, where the tesseract stood open, its edges glowing white-gold. His little team stood silhouetted just before it, waiting for him, looking either bored or annoyed. Emma had already gone.

Remy smirked at them and let the charge moving through the facility begin glowing with his signature power, redder and brighter than it had been in years. Ichiko meeped as the floor under her feet lit up, then flung up an armored bubble around them all. She had good instincts, that one.

"Go," Remy told them and the team, led by Sage, stepped into the tesseract. Domino raised an eyebrow at him, before disappearing. Northstar followed her, while Shiro spoke to Ichiko, who shook her head. With a shrug, Shiro passed through. Ichiko waggled her fingers at Remy then and followed, letting her protective bubble collapse.

He glanced back once, judging the state of the charge high enough, and fed a time-delayed jolt into the rook between his fingers, before turning back to the tesseract doorway. He flipped the glowing rook over his shoulder as he stepped through and let the tesseract collapse.

~*~


In Chernobyl, a power reading flickered a half percent higher before settling once more to its resting state.

On the SHIELD helicarrier, an alarm blared as satellite imagery showed massive explosion lifting the earth on a barren Scots island.

"Where the hell is that?" one tech asked, leaning over the shoulder of the woman busy calling up everything SHIELD had on the location. The sat photos showed acres of the island subsiding into the blast crater and the cold sea rushing in to drown it.

"Muir Island."

"And what's on Muir Island?"

"More like what was... " the woman said. Her fingers moved over the keyboard before her. "I've got an energy signature. Mutant. Jesus, that's a lot of power."

"Someone send in the big guns? Summers? Magneto?"

The female tech frowned and shook her head. "Gambit."

"Didn't know he could do that."

"Yeah, well, he hasn't before."

"The Director isn't going to like it."

"Well, thank God, finding out what's going on with the mutants is above our pay grade."

~*~

Over the years, Scalphunter had added so much mutant-powered and made weaponry to his body that he was one step from being a cyborg. The real Scalphunter, the one – possibly the original, but with Sinister's clones there was no knowing – who was sitting in the brig under Utopia had always offered Remy a challenge, but only because he hesitated to charge anything attached to a body.

He was over that, but he still wasn't going to do if it didn't become necessary, because fighting Scalphunter clones was easy now. Sinister had excised any free will and with it most of any personality. He didn't need to touch something to charge it any longer, so, Remy tapped whatever  weapons and power cells and ammo that this latest clone had added to himself and released all the potential energy in one instant. It tore apart the flesh attached in a brutal flash of light and exploded a mist of blood up to the ceiling and over the walls and equipment.

It wasn't as easy to fight some of the other Marauders. Some of them still shared enough memory and personality to be recognizable as individuals. They were clones, but in the end, they still thought and felt. The other X-Men never seemed bothered by that. Remy  never mentioned that he felt differently. These clones were the worst since they all wore the faces of men and women he'd recruited into the endless hell of Sinister's service. He flicked a lethally charged card at Scrambler's feet and dived out of the blast radius. The searing heat from a plasma bolt threatened to melt the back of his armor as Sunfire blasted Blockbuster back into death again.

"Okay, I know they aren't getting up again, because you're basically pureeing them, so why am I fighting Harpoon again?" Domino shouted as she dodged and cartwheeled faster than her opponent could track.

Remy flipped to his feet in time to see Vertigo, her attention all on Domino, slide out of the shadows.

"Clones, cher," Remy called back to Domino. He sidekicked Vertigo in the ribs, felt the bones break under his boot, and part of him cringed at the idea of hurting Vee, even as he knew the pain would keep her too distracted to do her thing and send them all spinning. "It's automatic. One goes down, the next one's decanted, and then the machinery starts prepping the next replacement." Vertigo crumpled, clutching those ribs, her face veiled in white-streaked green hair.

"Screw you, Gambit! We're here because of you!" Arclight shouted as her fist came down on the deck. "This is all because of you!" The concussion knocked both Marauders and his people off the feet. Remy rode the shockwave out, but it slowed him down enough for her to reach him and hit him with a blow that should have knocked his head off his shoulders. Instead, the kinetic force just fed his charge and the air flared violet and fuchsia around him in an expanding glare that shocked Arclight long enough for Remy to rip through the generic shields the clone had and shut her autonomic nervous system down, using – misusing – the trick Emma had taught him just the day before.

She dropped, heart and lungs and everything just stopped, and he wanted to scream how sorry he was.

This mission had been fucked from the get go. They should have taken a day off between, but Cyclops had suddenly started worrying someone else might get to the labs before they did. Remy had worried that taking out Muir would have set off alarms in the other labs and it looked like he'd been right. As soon as he'd brought them through the concealed doorway into the Tasmania installation, they'd been attacked. The facility was crawling with Marauder clones, decanted and ready to fight. He'd already killed Scalphunter twice and was soaked in blood from tag teaming Blockbuster.

At least they were only facing old school Marauders. None of the rogue Acolytes or the so-called Nasty Boys were in the mix.

Northstar grabbed him from behind and threw him down as a deadly hail of shuriken tore through the air where Remy had been, Riptide following his weapons in a tornado swirl of hair and hostility, faster than ever, proving Sinister hadn't stopped tweaking the clones for improved performance. Remy's shoulder hit the steel grating of the floor with a jar that he felt down to his toes, but he channeled it into a charge, slinging a card into Riptide's whirlwind and then rolling Northstar under him to shield his body from the ensuing explosion. Even Wolverine and Sabertooth never created such a blood bath, it was as bad as the tunnels, only it was the Marauders falling and bleeding and screaming this time.

He was bruised everywhere, but every impact  just fueled the charge, the way he'd only ever seen Shaw's power work, some switch in his DNA had been flipped and Remy honestly suspected he was invincible, if only for the adrenaline-fueled moment.

Northstar squirmed from beneath him and streaked away to knock Prism onto his glassy ass, shattering the idiot once more.

Remy reached and found Sage. Ichiko was with her, keeping her force field up between them and the equipment and the fight the rest of them were hip deep in. ~Cher, you mined what you can yet?~

~Close.~

Wordless, he urged her to hurry it up, sending her a mélange of blood and bangs and minds snapping out like lights at the end of the show and the way he was one or two breaths away from blowing everything sky high.

The lights flickered out, leaving the facility in deadly darkness. The self-destruct had been triggered. Sinister didn't bother with emergency lighting, evacuation plans, or count downs. If the security was irredeemably breeched or power failed, the labs destroyed themselves. Everything and anyone trapped within would be destroyed, while Sinister, if he was even present, opened a tesseract and fled elsewhere.

He zeroed in on the telepathic signatures of his team and grimaced. Armor and Sage were together at the data hub, but Northstar, Domino and Sunfire were scattered through the rest of facility, either in pursuit or pursued by cloned Marauders. The absolute darkness had turned the conflict into a cat and mouse game through the labyrinthine corridors. He couldn't recall them and open a tesseract in time.

With a curse, aware there might only be seconds, Remy vaulted off the decking to a lower level. He landed in a crouch and flattened his hand to the floor, sending his charge and the strange awareness of everything he charged that went with it deep into the facility. He didn't follow corridors or fiber optic lines or architectural supports. His talent followed potentials, searching for the greatest ones.

Precursors, catalysts, fuses, detonators, explosives.

Potentialities.

Quantum possibilities.

Was, is, could be.

He decharged them all. Drew all that potential energy away, down to the atomic structure of the material, and left ... dust. The facility creaked and groaned, shifted, floors and walls cracked, shivered to pieces in places, and Remy worried he'd fatally interfered with the structural integrity, but it settled after a second or two. The sense of spatial awareness that went with the charge told him that much of the buried building now existed out of true. Walls leaned, floors were pitched and doorways had warped permanently open or closed.

The silence left a phantom whine in his ears.

Sage's voice ghosted into his head. ~Finished as I can be. Security measures wiped much of the data before I could access it.~

~Figured. Stay there with Armor, I'll gather the other three and we'll pull out.~

~No salvage?~

~Non. Killed one self-destruct, but there'll be a back-up.~

Remy straightened to his feet and padded toward the doorway nearest to where he sensed movement coming from at least two bodies. Air currents shifted in response; he felt the difference against his face and his bare fingertips. If Wolverine or Sabertooth or X-23 had been there, or Daken even, they would have been able to pick out the identities from their scents. Remy read the emotions coming off them instead. One was a Marauder, still wet from the tanks, barely conscious. The other was calm, focused, and vaguely irritated. Remy smiled. Domino. Northstar would be just as focused, but frustrated by the darkness.

He felt her kill the clone then and winced. Rather than get a knife to the throat or end up garroted, he slipped a card between his fingers and lit it up. Pinkish energy threw a dim glow before him and onto the pale form lying on the floor. Wet black hair hid familiar, angular features, the ends trailing into a pool of blood. Another Scalphunter. The clone hadn't even had time to begin modifying anything into a weapon.

"Cher?" he murmured. He found Domino crouched high on a lab table, gun trained on him. A red laser-sight dot drifted over his chest, then up, but Remy dodged away before she could blind him with it. "Need to get Shiro and Northstar."

"Time to make like an ancient Chinese board game," Domino agreed as she jumped down in a smooth move. She didn't spare a look for her kill. "You're the spook, can't you tell them to get their asses back here?"

"I can, cher, but they don't know where they are in the dark. Faster for us to fetch 'em."

"Then lead on, mon capitaine."

Remy held the card higher and threaded his way through the lightless hallways toward the feeling of Northstar. His eyes saw fine without it, but Domino's didn't. He worried more about Northstar than Shiro; Shiro had spent enough time in the labs to find his way back and could use his plasma to create light for himself to navigate by. Remy wasn't sure what back-up tech Northstar carried, but he had a vague memory that Northstar could only generate light in conjunction with Aurora.

Merde, he was a crap leader. He should know this stuff. He should know this just because he was a paranoid thief who needed to know about anything that could become a threat to him. He'd scoped the X-Men from top to bottom within a day of Storm bringing him to them and made sure none of them had a clue to what he could really do. It would have been a deal harder if Wolverine had been there at the time. The old bastard knew what a Guild master thief could do. But he'd grown soft since then, he'd grown fond, and he'd begun relying on his empathy and it insisted Northstar wasn't a threat, Northstar was friendly.

He picked up his pace. Domino kept up without complaint.

In the darkness, the corridors all looked alike, and Remy traced his way to Northstar using his empathy, so he didn't recognize the section they were in until he slunk through the door and the light from his card reflected from rank on rank of tanks. Northstar had found the cloning chamber. It was bigger than the one on Muir. A Vertigo clone lay on the floor, curled in a fetal ball. Remy thought it was the same one whose ribs he'd broken. He startled when a small movement from her proved she remained alive.

Northstar was staring through the glass front of one of the tanks.

Remy dropped his lit-up card without detonating it and walked up to Northstar, ready to urge him to get out, but a moan from Vertigo distracted him and he ended up crouching beside her, his hand on her shoulder. The card provided more than enough light for his eyes to see her peer up at him through the tangles of her hair. "Just stay down, Vee," he urged her, uncertain whether Sinister had left this batch of clones enough self-determination that she could chose to do that. "'S just me. He's dead, you don't have to do anything for him any longer."

It occurred to him that what he'd just said was true. None of the Marauder clones had a master to serve any longer. Maybe they could just ... go? Scalphunter told him Sinister had designed the compulsion right into them, though. That, however, argued irrefutably that the Scalphunter and Arclight in Utopia's brig were originals, which filled Remy with a surprising amount of relief, an almost bubbling lightness. Until he felt Vertigo tense beneath his hand.

"Doesn't matter," Vertigo whispered. Her fingers scraped over the floor as she tried to push herself up.

"Gambit," Northstar said.

He didn't look up, wouldn't look away from her. This was Vee. It didn't matter that she was a clone; she still had all the memories and feelings of the woman she'd been made from and to Remy she was the same. She was Vee again. Vertigo. Out of all the Marauders the one he felt the most guilt over recruiting. The only one who hadn't been a killer before, chosen because Sinister had been curious about how she'd been made, down in the Savage Land, and wanted to study her.

"I'm so sorry, cher," he said.

Down the serried rows of tanks, he heard Domino begin shooting, blowing them up, and the rush of incubation fluids flooding out.

"We're going to have another Riptide on our hands in a minute," Northstar said.

"You're always sorry," Vertigo murmured, her eyes narrowed in anger and pain, trying to pull away from his grip. "It doesn't change what you do."

He hoped Northstar hadn't seen his flinch. Vertigo was right. What he'd done to Denti so recently only proved it.

"Let me help, then," he said. "Let me try. Take you back to – "

"You can't help." She shrugged his hand away and propped herself up on one arm, cradling the other over her ribs, weight on one hip, knees bent.

The reports from Domino's gun were coming closer. Shiro had made it back to the data access lab and joined Ichiko and Sage. They were waiting and nervous. Remy reflected that he could feel their emotions, when before the telepathic lessons from Emma the distance would have insulated him from them. As it was, he could feel them, but he didn't mistake their emotions for his and they weren't aware of anything he felt. He had control of what he made others feel on a level he'd never achieved before.

He thought of what he'd done to Arclight's clone, of what he'd done to the self-destruct materials, the way he could map any emotion whether it was his, hers or something implanted by Sinister.

And what was the down side? Killing Vertigo? He'd have to do that anyway if he let Sinister's compulsions overtake her again. She wasn't going to let them walk out of here without a fight, but it was a fight she'd lose. Telepathically implanted hand-to-hand skill-sets could never make her the equal of someone like Domino or Gambit, who had honed their bodies and talents for decades. A newly decanted clone body, one without a particularly physical mutant talent to boost it, was no match for that kind of engrained experience. Hell, Sage could trounce this Vee, if Vee didn't set her spinning and falling down puking before Sage could get hold of her.

Dieu, he was sick of killing and blood. He was wet with it, drowning in it, it was running from his hands and dripping from his fingers.

The only question, he knew, was: did he have the right? Did this Vertigo even have the ability to give consent?

He felt her begin to twist his balance, heard Domino curse and sensed Northstar brace his hand flat against the tank face, and decided that what he wanted to try fell within self-defense. Maybe it was a rationalization, he was a master at that, but it had to be better to try to save someone than kill again, didn’t it?

Thinning his shields enough to deliberately slide his way into Vertigo's head was easy enough and he was more than familiar with the mental shields Sinister had given all the Marauders. Getting past hers came easily, easier than it should have because her body and brain were still so new physically, the imprint of her memories and the added skill-sets hadn't set. Tracing kinetic potentials in the organic space her psyche occupied at the same time was harder. He had more experience with his kinetic charge and spatial awareness than telepathy, but he'd never used them simultaneously, and now he was trying to merge them. Remy wasn't sure anyone had ever done anything exactly like this before. He wanted to find the compulsions Sinister had sunk into Vertigo's mind and anything else that had been added to her cloned body while it grew.

Emma likely hadn't meant Remy to use her techniques for accessing the nervous system through telepathy as a weapon. Spooks tended to play head games, throw psychic bolts that affected thoughts more than the body, but Remy had understood the potential as soon as he grasped what she wanted him to do to himself. He didn't have to mess with the mind: he could use the brain against its own body. But he was still an amateur compared to Emma and feared he'd do to Vertigo what he'd done to Arclight's clone, only accidentally.Sweat ran down his sides. It wasn't working. He couldn't find anything he recognized as wrong or artificial, he couldn't translate energy potentials into DNA, any more than he'd known exactly what he was destroying earlier. Yes, maybe he'd applied ultimate entropy to built-in high explosives or the chemicals meant to catalyze into them, but he could just as easily have taken out reinforced pillars under so much stress that they were liked coiled springs, filled with energy ready for release. That deep down on the atomic level, he didn't experience the world in the same way at all. And deep inside the intricacies of Vertigo's brain, he couldn't parse any of it, only follow the sparking lightshow of firing synapses.

His awareness dived down into the dark chasm between the lobes of the cerebrum, past the cerebellum, and slammed to a halt. There was something that wasn't part of Vertigo, clamped onto the vermis, miniscule inorganic threads coated in an artificial myelin sheathing spreading from it.

Vertigo exerted her talent a little more and Remy could follow how she did it. He couldn't do it himself, with his brain, but he could reach into hers and cut it off as his own body swayed in response.

Very, very distantly, he was aware of Vertigo cursing and the froth of fluid from the shattered tanks wetting his knees where he'd sank down on them and the tight, steady warmth of Northstar's fingers on his shoulders, holding him up.

He touched the artificial thing in Vertigo's brain with his talent. Delicate, precise, as exquisite a bit of work as breaking into the vaults beneath the Hermitage, it required all his concentration. He couldn't blow it up. It couldn't be cut out. No wonder none of the clones thought they could be freed. He could sense a tiny bit of power in its center. More than it took to work the compulsions into the brain. It was made to blow that brain up if anyone tried to interfere with it. Even a telekinetic telepath like Phoenix or Cable would be stymied by Sinister's nasty bit of work. Possibly one working with a teleporter possessing the finest control could snatch it out, but Remy suspected teleporting the thing out would rip those nasty threads right through the brain matter, resulting in as much damage as if it had exploded.

Remy began drawing out the energy in the thing’s battery first, killing its ability to explode first. The tiny amount of energy it would take to turn her from a living, breathing, thinking being to a sack of cooling meat and bones wouldn't light up one of his cards. It was as innocuous as a bullet without a gun. Yet so destructive in the wrong circumstance, the one it had been made to occupy. His head throbbed and Northstar was talking to him, but he couldn't make sense of it. He had to tune everything out. He pulled more energy from Sinister's mechanism, until even the protons circling the nucleus of each atom making it up came to a stop and it was beyond drained, beyond dust, and he was glowing bright enough to light the entire cloning chamber, high on the release of atomic power.

Northstar had let go and Vertigo was scrambling back on heels, ass, and elbows.

Remy used the surplus of energy to slam open a tesseract to Utopia and telepathically command Shiro, Ichiko and Sage to join them in the chamber. They could exit from it just as easily as the central command center.

"What the hell are you doing?" Domino asked as she strode up to their little tableau.

When Remy glanced at her, red light reflected off her dark body armor, telling him his eyes were glowing, something that rarely happened, because usually he was expending energy not sucking it in.

"Brain surgery, cher," he managed to slur out. "Northstar, get Janos out of the tank. I need to destroy the control mechanism Sinister built into his head too."

"Remy – " Vertigo started out.

"Vee, you mess with me right now and I'm going to blow Janos' head all over us and this place."

"Sinister's controls – "

"I just fried that thing down to its atoms. You're free."

Vertigo made it to her feet as his other three team members blew into the cloning chamber. Remy didn't bother getting to his feet, he just looked at the tank with Riptide's latest clone in it. This one wasn't devolving the way the version he'd run into in the lab under the Nebraska orphanage had been, for which he felt grateful. He'd done what he had to then, put that one out of its misery, and lied when Psylocke wondered if Remy had killed him. Back then he'd still been guarding his true connections to the Marauders and Sinister from the X-Men.

That might have been the moment Betsy started worrying and wondering about him. He'd likely been leaking guilt and paranoia even if his shields had kept her out of his head. Those shields, strong enough to hold against Xavier's mostly ethical telepaths, had been suspicious too.

He still thought she'd bought into Bishop's bullshit traitor accusations too easy and kept after him long after they were disproved, when he'd never done anything to warrant her suspicion. Of course, Betsy was both extremely perceptive and just as much a bitch as Emma. Remy respected her, wanted her on his side in a fight, but he'd still be happy if they never had to interact again.

Besides, any woman who fell for Warren Worthington III just had no taste.

He shook his head and told himself to focus. He didn't need contact to pull this off, but he was heading for mental exhaustion, and it would help. He said, "Northstar, can you get the tank open? I need – "

Domino raised her pistol toward the tank.

"No!" Remy interrupted himself. Domino stopped, though she kept the gun aimed at the tank and angled herself to watch Vertigo at the same time. But she listened. She didn't argue. Dieu, Remy might be a little in love with everyone on his new team. Northstar caught his gaze and Remy realized he was genuinely concerned about him. He hadn't felt anything like that in so long he wondered if he was making it up in his own head. He missed Northstar's hands supporting him too.

When the hell had he become so pathetic that a team mate acting like a team mate or someone just touching him without it being a practice spar or battle, made him grateful enough to cry?

Northstar began poking at the control pad beside the tank. "Is there a code?" he asked.

"Yes," Sage said as she joined them. "It was in the data I salvaged." She reached past Northstar and tapped it in. Immediately the fluid in the tank drained out in a sucking rush. Without its support, Riptide's naked clone slumped down to the floor. Seconds later, the door to the tank opened with a wet pop. Riptide fell forward onto the floor right in front of Remy.

"That works," he muttered and threaded his fingers through the soaking mess of Riptide's hair. Dark with damp, it looked purple-black in the flickering light from Remy's charged card that still lay on the floor. He plunged his awareness into Riptide's flesh and bone, not bothering with the telepathy this time, because it was a physical artifact he was hunting and he knew where he'd find it.

The nasty little thing was right where its twin had been in Vertigo's brain. Destroying it took less than a second. Remy let out a woozy chuckle as he tried to pull the still unconscious clone up into his arms and get to his feet at the same time.

"Sacre – " Northstar muttered and lifted Riptide out of Remy's grip. He was stronger than he looked, Remy thought, admiring and amused by the irritated scowl Northstar flashed his way.

"Merci, Northstar." He let the extra energy burning through his body rush out into the facility, the walls, floor and ceilings lighting up in with a pink glare that made everyone squint.

Vertigo gasped as she looked around. "Sonovabitch, you're back to full power," she said. "That wasn't supposed to ever happen again."

Remy gestured to the tesseract waiting for them. "Let's go."

"About time," Domino commented. She kept a careful watch on Vertigo but offered no protest at the prospect of bringing the two Marauder clones back to Utopia.

Remy staggered a little as he headed for the portal along with the rest of the team. Shiro caught his elbow until his usually impeccable balance reasserted itself.

"Shiro, mon ami, best brace yourself," Remy said. "Cyclops is not going to be pleased with us this time."

"I've never seen the man happy, so what's new?" Shiro replied philosophically.

True, but Remy wasn't looking forward to the scene he knew would ensue when they arrived. He straightened his shoulders and told himself it would be worth it.

The card still lying on the floor detonated at a thought as he let the tesseract snap closed on his heels, the rest of the team, along with Vertigo and Riptide already stepping forth onto Utopia's soil.

The earthquake in Tasmania rocked the Richter scale at a five, but no lives were lost, as the epicenter was far beneath the earth in an uninhabited jungle area.

~*~


Jean-Paul had returned from missions bloody and beaten and filthy. He'd come back from a few that resulted in deaths. He'd lost team mates. He'd seen opponents go down and not get up. He wasn't unfamiliar with death in its incarnations. He'd never come back from a mission dripping blood that wasn't his. He could hear it pit pat splatting on the pavement stone under his boots. Of course, some of it might have been whatever fluid the clones had been immersed in running out of Riptide's hair, but he knew it wasn't what was in his hair, along with even less pleasant bits of flesh. Domino hadn't been wrong when she said Gambit had been pureeing the Marauders.

He could see drying blood running out of Domino's short crop and smeared red over her albino pale skin. Sunfire and Gambit were cleaner, probably due to a side effect of their powers.

None of the team were hurt.

It impressed on him several levels.

Even before his power or whatever the secondary mutation thing going on with him was, Gambit had been far more dangerous than anyone had credited him, because it took a lot of fine control to create an explosion small enough to knock enemies off their feet when the power was there to blow up entire buildings. Jean-Paul meant the kind of personal control that made Gambit choose to use that delicate touch, too, when killing would have been easier.

They were a small team aimed at getting in and out with information and equipment, not a strike force. If they could do what they had against high-powered mutants, then he shuddered at what they could do to humans, even trained military, if Cyclops ever took the offensive. Even Magneto had never really set his followers after the average human. The Acolytes, like almost every super-powered villain group, either tangled with their own kind or were after something specific. The world hadn't yet seen a true mutant or powered war.

It might, though, and soon, because fighting without the constant mantra of 'don't hurt anyone, don't kill' had been a hell of a lot easier and none of the clones they fought were going to get up or get away and come after them again. Their threat was gone.

They had been using gentlemen's rules as though the conflict between human and mutant was a game. They had, but the humans hadn't. Mostly because humans might not see mutants as human, but most mutants didn't really identify as other than human, just human with more or other. Most mutants had human parents and unless they had obvious physical mutations, grew up thinking of themselves as human until their power manifested. Then it was all trauma and rejection, but deep down, there were still all those ties.

Cyclops had a good rant going, Jean-Paul noted. He'd pounded on the team as soon as they stepped out of the tesseract, wound up like a too-tight spring. The White Queen had followed him but hadn't added anything. Not that she'd had an opportunity. Cyclops gone red-faced with it, shoulders tight and fists clenched at his side, while he ripped into Gambit. Bringing two Marauders back had gone over like the proverbial lead balloon.

Gambit seemed impervious to Cyclops anger, though, standing at ease, body language communicating boredom. Which had to be why Cyclops kept going on and on.

The White Queen had begun inspecting her nail polish. Domino was using her nails to pick crud off one of her knives. Sage had that glazed look in her eyes that said she had checked out of the situation in favor of devoting most of her brain power to a different partition. Sunfire appeared to be listening, but Jean-Paul knew that blank face went with tuning out. He'd done so often enough. Even Armor seemed unimpressed by Cyclop's hissy fit. In fact, the only one paying much attention was a slightly apprehensive Vertigo.

"X-Men don't kill," Gambit interrupted.

Cyclops spluttered and finally shut up.

Jean-Paul didn't care. Killing the enemy was easier, that was clear, but he still preferred saving someone to that. Gambit had done the right thing, even if it was taking the chance that the two Marauders he'd saved would sometime turn on them.

After all, with the record most mutants had, sooner or later any of them might turn on them. Gambit had run with the Marauders, recruited them by his own admission, and if he didn't have some fellow feeling for them, he wouldn't be someone Jean-Paul wanted to fight beside.

And he did. He very much liked working beside the man. His laissez-faire command style appealed far more than Cyclops' or the Hudsons' methods. Gambit treated everyone on his team, including Armor, like they knew what they were doing and let them do it their way.

Meanwhile, the ocean breeze kept Utopia cool but the bright sun was still drying the blood on his uniform and he had a very naked Riptide slung fireman-style over his shoulder and starting to wake up. Jean-Paul had had enough of listening to Cyclops. He glanced over and caught Domino's gaze.

She quirked her lips and nodded, then gave Vertigo a little prod. "Infirmary. Rao or someone is going to want to confirm whatever Gambit did. I want a shower, so let's go. Everyone's starting to stink."

"I'm curious," the White Queen said.

Gambit grinned back at her. "Tell you 'bout it later, cher."

"I'm not done – " Cyclops snapped at Domino.

She just gave him a sardonic look. "Do I look like I care?"

Gambit coughed.

"Domino." Cyclops folded his arms over his chest. No doubt he was glaring at her, but the visor over his eyes prevented it from showing, except in the tight fold to his mouth.

She patted Vertigo on the back and headed away with her.

"Stop."

Domino flipped him off.

Riptide stirred on Jean-Paul's shoulder. He was beginning to feel very heavy as the adrenaline rush of the mission drained out of Jean-Paul's muscles. Domino had the right idea. He wanted that shower too. His shrug didn't show thanks to Riptide, but Jean-Paul figured the meaning got through when he started after Domino and Vertigo.

To Gambit, he said, "I'll leave him in the infirmary. Someone else can figure out where he goes."

"Merci, Northstar," Gambit replied. Amusement and appreciation gleamed in those red-on-black eyes, adding to his attractiveness, despite how bloody and disheveled he was otherwise. "Debrief later, non?"

"After we're all clean again," Jean-Paul agreed. He needed to ignore the warmth he felt when Gambit smiled at him. Team mates, he reminded himself.

Sage spoke before Cyclops could recover from the wordless state being ignored had left him in. "I'm going to check whether the download I started was able to complete before the self-destruct took down the database." She walked away with just a nod to Gambit.

Gambit said, "Ichiko, Shiro, go on, get out of here, clean up, me and Cyclops can finish this."

Jean-Paul wondered why they got addressed by their first names, while he was still Northstar to Gambit. He hefted Riptide higher onto his shoulder and lengthened his stride, irritated with himself for feeling left out by that.

Gambit arrived at the infirmary as Danger and several other X-Men were taking Vertigo and a mildly confused Riptide on their way to the brig. Jean-Paul had cleaned up a little in an attached washroom and then hung out, wanting to know what would happen to the two clones.

He didn't like it and he could see that Gambit wasn't happy either, though he said nothing to the X-Men. Instead, he addressed Riptide and Vertigo. "Flip and Crow are down there. It's not bad and it's not forever. Just ... be patient, p'tit, neh?"

"Sure, patient, Cajun. While you swan around with the 'heroes', we'll just hang out in a jail cell," Vertigo snapped at him.

"Doin' the best I can, cher. Got you free of him, didn't I?"

Vertigo scowled at him. "Yeah, great. Slave to prisoner. Big improvement."

"Won't be forever, I swear it," Gambit said. He got that look all the telepaths did when they were talking mind to mind, gaze just a little inward focused. On Gambit, with those strange eyes, it looked eerie.

Vertigo and Riptide both relaxed a little. It made Jean-Paul wonder exactly what Gambit had told them, mind to mind, that he wouldn't say out loud for anyone else to hear. He could probably guess and it probably involved getting them out of the brig if the X-Men didn't release them quick enough. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. Vertigo and Riptide were Marauders, but with Sinister gone, there really weren't any Marauders any longer. Incarceration without trial or set period didn't sit right with him, either.

Maybe he'd just stay neutral if Gambit broke them out.

Gambit turned to him as the two clones were escorted out. The smile he flashed should have been illegal. At least, Jean-Paul thought so. He definitely preferred the new body armor Gambit had been sporting since coming back to Utopia. It wasn't flashy, but while the random patterns and matte finish kept the eye from appreciating how it molded to Gambit's body, the dark material couldn't disguise the long, lithe lines of his silhouette or the breadth of those shoulders.

The man was leaning against an exam table, speaking with Rao. A flirtatious lilt lifted his voice, but Rao was oblivious, more intent on showing Gambit something on a tablet. It had Gambit interested enough that he dropped the smirk and became just as serious as the researcher. Which just made him more attractive.

Jean-Paul shut down the flare of awareness as fast as he could and hoped with all his might that Gambit was still too new to telepathy to have picked that up.

The White Queen wasn't, though, and she'd followed everyone to the infirmary. She laughed from behind Jean-Paul, making him spin and glower at her.

~He really can't help it, you know,~ she said. ~Neither can you. When he's stressed, it's a reflex to make everyone around him want him. It isn't conscious.~

"Is that what – "

She considered him more carefully. "Maybe not." ~He's certainly handsome. And much more sophisticated than Bobby.~

"Are you – You're playing games with me," Jean-Paul snapped. She had a reputation for that: for getting in someone's head and using what she found there to amuse herself.

Gambit glanced up. "Emma, chere, don't mess with my team."

"I assure you I'm not. Jean-Paul and I were just having a friendly conversation," Emma replied while smiling secretively at Jean-Paul.

"Northstar?" Gambit asked. His gaze moved between them.

Jean-Paul hesitated.

~I won't say anything to him.~

"Yes."

Gambit raised an eyebrow but didn't push, another thing Jean-Paul liked about him. Gambit had discretion. Most of the X-Men couldn't find the word in a dictionary. "Bon."

He stated to leave, still wanting a long hot shower. He needed to clean his armor too and that would take at least an hour. Why didn't anyone ever get the mutant power of making things clean and new again? That would be useful. Mutants that could do that would turn around the world's opinion. Or maybe end up on the hit lists of major cleaning chemical manufacturers.

~Pessimist!~ the White Queen laughed in his head.

Jean-Paul started to leave then turned back. "Why do you only call me Northstar? You use Sunfire and Armor's names."

Gambit looked genuinely surprised. "You never invited me too. Don't use Dom or Sage's names, neither, 'cause they don't like it." He shrugged fluidly. "Just trying not to piss anyone off." The corner of his mouth kicked up in a sardonic smile. "Accidentally, that is."

Jean-Paul let out an annoyed huff. "No one else bothers with that."

"Well, mon ami, my Tante Mattie beat some manners into me. Even remember them sometimes."

"Use my name." He added, "Not what Wolverine calls me."

"What's that?" Gambit asked curiously.

"Booby."

Gambit snorted and coughed, hand coming up to cover his smiling mouth. "Man's Canadian, been around forever, you think he could get the damn accent better. He butchers everything but Japanese, though."

Jean-Paul laughed.

Gambit kept smiling. "I'll call you Jean-Paul if you call me Remy." Most of his Cajun drawl had disappeared lately. Jean-Paul thought it had been put on. He guessed Gambit didn't care enough to keep it up any longer around him.

Jean-Paul extended his hand and they shook as though they hadn't fought beside each other only hours before. "Deal."

~Oh,~ cooed the White Queen, ~aren't you both sickening.~

~Lay off,~ Jean-Paul snarled mentally.

~Really, darling, anyone would be better for him than Rogue. You have my blessings. Go ahead, hit that.~

~I don't make passes at straight boys who are involved with others.~

The White Queen narrowed her eyes at him. Gambit couldn't see her. Jean-Paul kept his gaze steady and unyielding. Finally, she shrugged and let it go. He left the infirmary gratefully, with every intention of getting his shower, then heading into the city and getting laid. That would rid him of his troublesome awareness of his team leader.

~Of course it will,~ the White Queen's voice mocked in his head. At least, Jean-Paul told himself it was her and not his own conscience.

~*~


Debriefing went fast when Emma and Remy could telepathically link everyone without bothering them to gather together. She was fascinated by what Remy had done using her lesson from the previous day, but it went right by Cyclops.

Remy had a feeling the fast, memory dump debriefing wouldn't be on the agenda again. Not being able to hammer at the same dead horse until it was hamburger had to frustrate their wannabe mutant MacArthur. At least, he hoped that was the reason behind the emotion he kept sensing off Cyclops.

The telepath tower, as he called it in his head, offered beautiful relief as soon as he stepped inside, though. He swore to himself he'd forget everything for long enough to eat and get some sleep before catching up with what had been happening in Utopia the last two days. When he glanced at the window, he noticed the gray hulk of a US Navy aircraft carrier out beyond the Golden Gate, along with the fleet of smaller ships that made up a carrier group. He doubted they were stationed there to hunt Great Whites, so something was probably brewing again.

He ached. Minor healing factor never seemed to do anything for muscle pains. He wasn't like Wolverine and Sabretooth, waking up every morning feeling fresh as a damn daisy. On the other hand, he didn't take what he did have for granted. It kept him from rushing headlong into danger the way the feral mutants did or forgetting and getting someone else hurt because they didn't heal as fast as him.

Though most mutants seemed to heal better and faster than normal humans. Aged slower too. Wouldn't that endear them to the populace if it was true.

He was  in a sour, nasty mood and knew it, but none of his usual coping mechanisms were available. He couldn't hit the Danger Room and blow things up, couldn't take off and put together a heist, and he couldn't bury himself in someone else's body until they both forgot their names, Rogue and he might not be sleeping together, but he'd never slept around on her and didn't mean to start. Flirting didn't count, of course, not that he could find anyone to flirt with on the island.

About the only thing he could do was sleep, even though it was far earlier than normal for him.

Sleep didn't come easy to him, even in the best circumstances, prone as he was to nightmares. Lying down didn't hurry the process and he thrashed enough to tie his sheets in knots and beat his pillows until they should have been black and blue without coming close to even a light doze. When he'd stared at the ceiling long enough that he'd started calculating how big of an explosion it would cause if he charged it to maximum, he gave up. He couldn't stop thinking about the Marauders. The clones he'd killed, even though it wasn't the first time he'd killed. He wanted to go down to the brig and talk to Scalphunter, see his face alive with cruelty and humor, not slack and pale and dead.

But that was a lousy idea for myriad of reasons, starting with that Scalphunter wouldn't want to talk to him, Danger would no doubt report him to Scott again, and ending with he'd have to pass the cells holding Vertigo and Riptide while he was down there. Which wouldn't help how guilty he was feeling.

He needed to talk to someone, though.

His first thought, even now, was Rogue. But she was probably asleep.

Remy rubbed at his eyes, succeeding into making them burn worse, and decided that he'd try to reach Storm. His padnat had left Utopia for Wakanda and her place beside T'Challa. Africa was on the other side of the globe. She wouldn't be asleep.

He snagged his laptop from his desk and took it with him to the chair he'd dragged over to the window looking out at the Golden Gate. Utopia did have great views, the kind people paid millions of dollars to enjoy, if it weren't for the constant attacks from all their enemies. When a quick message to Storm's email went unanswered, he briefly considered using a comms console to contact her through some of the high tech Wakanda had shared with Utopia, but decided against it. He wanted a private talk with his old friend, not to scare her into thinking it was an emergency.

"Merde."

Now he was talking to himself, if cursing counted.

To hell with it. Rogue was the one who always said she wanted them to talk. He wanted to talk. He wanted to tell her about the things he'd realized about himself and Sinister and maybe why on some level he really hadn't been willing to commit to her, because he'd been afraid Sinister would yank him away from her if he ever did. He wanted to ask her if she ever hesitated or regretted when the X-Men faced off against the Brotherhood and she was fighting mutants that she'd once fought beside when Mystique led them. Because he felt like scum right now.

And, Death, tucked away in his icy containment inside Remy's head, was laughing at him.

He set the laptop aside and bolted for his door, heading for Rogue's quarters.

Tonight would make or break them.

~*~

-
Remy kept his empathy under a very tight control and his shields high and dense as he moved through the corridors of the second residential tower toward Rogue's quarters. He didn't want to feel what anyone else was feeling or let them feel anything from him and he absolutely didn't want to eavesdrop on anyone's thoughts. Not now. Not when he wanted understanding and comfort and touch. He needed Rogue's company. Just that, not sex the way she often accused him. If it had been about sex, he'd never have become involved with her, though he could have and had thought of a thousand ways to get around the skin to skin dilemma.

He could keep the psionic abilities reigned in well enough, but Remy couldn't turn off his spatial awareness any more than he could his hearing. It gave him the shapes and outlines of everything in the room beyond the door. It zeroed in on the movement inside. Organics felt different to his senses.

His fist settled silent and soft against the door instead of knocking. It felt cold, the reinforced metal much more resistant to energy release than other materials. He sucked in a quiet breath.

There were two bodies in the room beyond the door, moving in the bed together in an age-old rhythm, their motion another form of kinetic energy he couldn't ignore. His control, precarious when his emotions surged, slipped enough he caught the urgent edges of their feelings, before he shut down completely.

Rogue's emotions were familiar, as were the sensations and needs radiating from her partner. He didn't need his talents to guess who it was anyway: there was only one person it could be. Magneto.

Remy squeezed his eyes shut. "Merde," he muttered and leaned his forehead against the door. The metal cooled his feverish skin, while the unshielded coupling on the other side bombarded him with heat. His stomach twisted unpleasantly.

She could have told him.

He pushed himself away from the door in a burst of anger.

She could have just said they were over. She could have even said she was with Magneto now. Remy wouldn't have liked it, but he liked finding out this way a hell of a lot less. Fuck. Emma had to have known. Emma knew everything happening in Utopia. But she hadn't said. He wanted to be angry with her, but he was the one who twitted her about not using the things she found out against people. Much as she disliked Rogue, it was almost impressive Emma had kept quiet.

He wanted to be angry at Emma, he wanted to be angry at Rogue, at Storm for not answering when he needed his friend, at everything and everyone, but anger just sent cracks through the walls around Death and he was tired, so tired of fighting for something that obviously meant not much to Rogue, He'd crawled for her enough times, he thought, and straightened his shoulders, pushing away from the door. No more.

She could have Magneto. She didn't get to have Remy too.

"You don't get to keep me as Plan B, cher," he stated to the blue expanse of the half-lit, empty corridor before stalking back to the telepath's tower.

The remnants of Rogue and Magneto's spiraling arousal mingled with the restless anxiety he'd already been suffering. Before he even stepped back inside his quarters, he knew he couldn't stay. He needed to get out and move himself. It wasn't energy he needed to bleed off for once; if it had been that, he'd have hit the Danger Room and blown up holographic enemies until he could sleep again. This was emotion: anger, betrayal, sorrow, a whole ugly bucket full of depression and loneliness.

Since he couldn't sleep, he had to get out of his quarters.

He hadn't even wanted sex. He'd wanted Rogue's company. He'd wanted the warmth of another body, another heartbeat, the calming presence of someone else breathing in the same room with him.

A friend.

So much for being there for each other. Rogue and he weren't lovers any longer and it was time to face up to that. They weren't even really friends.

He needed to get out and do something to forget for a few hours.

He wanted to touch someone. He needed someone to touch him.

Grimly, he showered and changed into clubbing clothes, then reached with his telepathy and his power and snapped open a tesseract to the mainland, picking out an alley in the Tenderloin. A tendril of telepathic thought found Emma and warned her the power spike the control tower would read was him, then he stepped through.

He headed for the Castro, not because he had any particular yen for male company, just from the conviction that he wouldn't run the risk of encountering Dazzler or any of the other X-Men out partying if he stuck to the gay clubs.

And, maybe, because at least in the gay clubs, no one would remind him Rogue.

LA had reminded him how much he used to like losing himself in a mass of bodies all moving to a single driving beat. Rogue had just obliviously reminded him he had no reason to deny himself any of the old pleasures, so long as he didn't do anything to crash his shields.

He hit Spark, which wouldn't be out of place in LA or New York, then the too crowded, too tight TBone, before wandering south of Market Street and finding a converted Victorian with a DJ spinning hiphop and dance floors upstairs and down. It wasn't his music, nothing like zydeco or the plaintive voice of Edith Piaf, but it was perfect for the moment. Remy could feel the beat in his bones. He liked the familiar feel of Club House, the intimate dark and the crowd that still filled it even later than late. After four drinks, he'd hit the zone; movement, alcohol, and his empathy heterodyning so that all his thoughts were finally, finally shut down and he was just another body dancing. He didn't care who he touched or who touched him, it was all touch and he'd needed that for so long, lived without it so long, it threatened to burn him to ash.

The clashing scents of colognes, sweat, musk, and spilled alcohol made his head spin. Remy let the music and the men around him move him, half drunk and half aroused and not caring. Hands on his shoulders, on his arms, on his waist and his hips, running up under the silk shirt that had come loose from his belt, running fingers under that belt and his waistband, it all felt good. He let his eyes fall closed and his head fall back and went with it, went with the mouth that moved down his throat and the tongue that licked at his collarbone, his hands roaming the chest and back of the man holding onto him in return, until the sharp jolt of someone's recognition cut through the perfect, pleasurable haze.

His head snapped around and he found the source of the mental interruption.

Northstar.

Remy decided he didn't care. Let Northstar watch. Let him think whatever he wanted. He felt good and he wasn't stopping. He let his hand trail down the back of the man mouthing the hollow at the base of his throat and met Northstar's pale gaze without apology. The music had shifted again, loud and fast enough to interrupt the near making out session.

~*~


Jean-Paul ditched Allison and the younger X-Men at Panda halfway through the evening. The strong drinks served there weren't worth the headache of fending off women and dealing with his fellow mutants. He just couldn't take their giddiness. Despite the shit the world had handed out to mutants, they hadn't had the hope beaten out of them yet. They were still having fun. They made him feel like an old man despite still being in his twenties. He'd forgotten how to just play and frankly wasn't interesting in rediscovering the knack.

He just wanted to have sex with someone without any strings.

It wouldn't be too hard. He had the body and the looks to pick up almost anyone who interested him. Watching out he didn't pick up a mutant-hater or someone who wanted more than a one-night stand were the only two problems and neither were common in the clubs he'd begun frequenting.

Thanking God that Cyclops' new mutant homeland was so close to San Francisco of all cities would likely result in a Catholic God smiting him, but Jean-Paul had to admit he appreciated the location on a personal level.

He ate a late meal at Mighty Thai, but had to leave once the performance space was occupied. Some things were worse than monologueing super villains.

In that strange way that information moved through crowds faster than light, almost without conversation, by the time Jean-Paul had paid his tab and was stepping onto the street, he knew the hottest ticket for the night was Club House. Curious and bored, he found his way to the restored Victorian on Folsom Street.

The enhanced emotion and sensation blooming from inside caught at him before he crossed the threshold and Jean-Paul reinforced his own shields, recognizing a mutant power at work. It wasn't telepathy, but something like it, something he almost knew, but couldn't quite identify. He went inside cautiously, searching the seething mass of dancers for the source.

The lighting warped colors, but Gambit – Remy – stood 6'1" and Jean-Paul had no trouble picking him out at the eye of a hurricane of dancers. His 'charm' was pulsing from him as he swayed and twisted to the music, but Jean-Paul only knew it was unnatural thanks to his training. It certainly wasn't mind control; he had no problem resisting the effect, though everyone else in the club seemed to be enjoying – or taking advantage of, Jean-Paul reflected sourly, glimpsing more than one couple grinding against each other – the effect. Remy's eyes were closed and his brows were drawn just slightly together as he made out on the dance floor with a shorter blond who looked nothing like Rogue. Jean-Paul doubted Remy even knew what the guy looked like, though; he looked high enough he might not know his partner was even male.

The tide of heat washing out from Remy ebbed and his head turned unerringly in Jean-Paul's direction. Crimson-and-black eyes opened and found him. A mixture of lazy sensuality and defiance settled on his features. He kept his hands on his dance partner, kept moving to the dance beat thundering from the speakers.He told himself to stop being a fool then and repeated it to himself as he began working his way through the crowd.

A hard hand on the blond's shoulder and then an icy glare sent him on his way. Jean-Paul turned back to Remy and found him much closer than he'd expected. He could smell liquor on him, bourbon maybe, and then he had his arms full of drunken Cajun. He braced himself and steadied Remy. br> br> Remy's hair, dyed wine-red by the lighting, swung in his face, strands catching along his jaw and his neck. Jean-Paul itched to lift it away and test if it felt as silky as it looked. He wanted to blame it on Remy's charm, but he'd had the same impulse on Muir Island, watching the thief cut their way through layer after layer of lethal security systems.

"I never expected to see you here," he said.

"I didn't think any of the X-Men would come down here." Remy twisted against him, an almost absent roll of his entire body against Jean-Paul's. So close, his breath warm against Jean-Paul's ear, arms draped over his shoulder and hips fitted against his, it became impossible to deny the effect of the 'charm' on his body. Jean-Paul cursed under his breath. Remy was drunk and not in control of the feelings he was broadcasting. Melancholy made Jean-Paul tighten his own arms around the other man. He felt so damn sad...

It was Remy. Now that he wasn't lost in the dancing and making out, his mood had darkened and everyone else got to share it with him.

Jean-Paul stroked his hand down Remy's back soothingly and Remy dropped his head to rest against Jean-Paul's shoulder.

"I think it's time we got you home," Jean-Paul told him. And sobered up before he sent someone into a suicidal spin. There were people sniffling and crying in the crowd now and he'd bet their depression would channel right back to Remy and make everything he felt worse if he wasn't shielding. "Come on."

"You're taking me home?" Remy asked plaintively, his voice muffled against Jean-Paul's shirt. Every stroke of Jean-Paul's hand down his back made him melt closer, the unhappiness tensing his muscles relaxing, affection and gratitude and hedonistic pleasure replacing the pained feelings he'd radiated seconds before. All that responsiveness could easily be addicting; the urge to keep petting Remy and feel good because he felt good was immediate.

"Yes." He fumbled for his communicator in his pocket. Remy had begun rubbing his cheek against Jean-Paul's hair like a big, friendly cat. A panther or cheetah, maybe. The rasp of his beard against the sensitive tip of Jean-Paul's ear made him shudder the same way a rough cat's tongue would.

"You smell like snow, but not cold," Remy murmured. He came along compliantly as Jean-Paul steered him out of the club and onto the sidewalk. "I hate the cold." The sadness shivered off him. "I hate being alone. I like you, though, mon ami." He straightened and drew back enough to give Jean-Paul a lopsided, slightly more aware smile.

"Your liking me positively makes my evening," Jean-Paul said as snidely as he could. He had the communicator out and was trying to activate it to ask for a teleporter to get them back to Utopia, but ended up nearly dropping it as Remy twisted in his hold again and pressed his lips to Jean-Paul's mouth. Jean-Paul kissed him back instinctively. Remy kissed with a lazy intensity that narrowed the world to his mouth, the sleek sweep of his tongue and a tender scrape of his teeth, slanting his lips to slide over Jean-Paul's perfectly.

A sharp wolf-whistle from another club-goer jostling them to the side as he headed for the door of Club House made Jean-Paul pull away reluctantly. He had one hand tangled into Remy's hair, cradling the curve of his skull and the other, still clutching the communicator as it squawked, pressed to the overheated, sweat-damp small of Remy's back. They were both breathing hard.

The temptation to just walk Remy back until he could lean against the outside wall of the club and keep kissing him made Jean-Paul grit his teeth.

"You taste like juniper," Remy said. His eyes were dilated, narrow circles of red iris in an abyss of black, and a flush darkened his cheekbones. His kiss had hinted at bourbon and clove smoke and cinnamon; his mouth had been sweet. His hands rested on Jean-Paul's hips, tingling heat soaking through the fabric of his trousers and into sensitized skin. The delicate way his fingertips flexed had a more maddening effect than a more calculated caress.

"You don't really want this," Jean-Paul told him. He let go of Remy and plucked those beautiful hands off of him. "You have a girlfriend, remember?"

"Oui, I do, and, non, I don't," Remy answered bitterly. He took a step back from Jean-Paul, though, and the feelings that had been pouring off him shut off so abruptly Jean-Paul felt like he should stagger, as if he'd been bracing himself against a gale force wind that was suddenly gone. Remy wrapped his arms around his torso. His face had lost all expression. "You want to go back, Northstar, you go back." He turned back toward the club's doors. "Me, I need to find someone to take me home with them. Can't stand to be alone tonight." He grimaced. "I like you, but it doesn't need to be someone I like, just someone who'll have me."

"Rogue... " He didn't correct Remy to use his first name. He was drunk enough it was a miracle he even knew who Jean-Paul was.

"That's done," Remy said. "She's with Magneto now."

Jean-Paul shook his head in disbelief. He did not understand women. He understood when someone was hurting though. Moving slowly, because startling someone as dangerous as Remy could result in bruises or explosions, he caught hold of Remy's arms just above the elbows and drew them around him, before hugging Remy close again.

"Don't be stupider than you must be."

Remy didn't lean into him the way he had before, but he didn't tear himself away either. "I'm drunk," he muttered.

"I noticed."

The communicator was still squawking on the sidewalk. "Better pick that up, mon ami," Remy said. "Cyke gets his panties in a real twist over lost equipment." He swayed. "If I bend over, me, I'm gonna fall down," he added.

"Don't," Jean-Paul instructed him and disentangled himself. "I'm not picking you up."

"Be about right." Remy gave him a moody look. "Come from the gutter, end up back there."

Holding on to Remy's wrist with one hand, Jean-Paul crouched and scooped up the communicator.

"But staring at the stars," he commented.

Remy snorted in sour amusement. "That's crap. You can't see the stars from a gutter. Lights are too bright."

"Take all the romance out of an Oscar Wilde quote."

Jean-Paul used the communicator, telling the tech at the other end he needed transport for himself and Remy back to Utopia. Once he had the comm back in his pocket, he wrapped an arm around Remy's waist and maneuvered his shoulder under the other man's arm so he could take some of his weight if he stumbled. Remy took the opportunity to nuzzle into Jean-Paul's hair again.

A breath later an incandescent doorway appeared, just large enough to allow Ariel to step through it. She took one look at the neighborhood, the two of them, and then her watch before quirking a smile. "If only I had a camera." The smile got brighter as she whipped out a cellphone and snapped a picture. "Wait, I do!"

"Just get us back to Utopia," Jean-Paul said wearily.

"I'm putting this on my twitter."

"Don't make me kill you."

Ariel just laughed and asked, "What'll you give me to not post the X-Men's newest couple to the Internet?"

Remy flicked a credit card her way. Ariel snatched it out of the air with a squeal. "Paris, here I come!"

Cellphone and credit card disappeared and a second, wider doorway opened before them, showing the corridor outside Jean-Paul's quarters.

"Have fun, boys, and make sure you do everything I would do," Ariel told them.

"Can't," Remy said. "You've got my card."

"And I'm going to put it to such good use."

"Sure, cher, you do that." Remy's weight settled heavier against Jean-Paul and he sighed gustily.

With Ariel gone, Jean-Paul huffed in annoyance. She'd ported them to outside his quarters. Remy had been just down the corridor before his secondary (or was it tertiary?) mutation was triggered. Now he lived in the telepaths' tower. Of course, the telepath tower had shields. Jean-Paul didn't know, but he suspected they might interfere with easy teleportation or the opening of dimensional portals or whatever it was Ariel did.

He wasn't half-carrying the increasingly heavy Remy back to his new quarters and he couldn't just push the guy off and send him on his way himself. That left taking him back into Jean-Paul's own rooms. Except for his sister, he didn't believe he'd allowed anyone inside his quarters on Utopia since arriving. All his hook-ups had taken place in the bedrooms of whoever he let pick him up for the night. Except for Kyle. But Kyle and he hadn't been sharing a bed by the time they tried having him visit Utopia.

Remy tightened the arm stretched over Jean-Paul's shoulders. "Desolé, mon ami," he murmured. A feeling of comfort washed through Jean-Paul and he realized Remy had picked up every emotion that had just moved through him, from the irritation to the regret and loneliness.

Dieu, that had to be horrible.

"I'm not that drunk anymore, anyway," Remy went on as he pulled away and stood on steady legs. "My system's not as fast as yours, but I still process alcohol quick." He apparently had a damned high tolerance too.

Jean-Paul sighed and keyed in the code for his door. "If you don't come in with me, I'll spend the rest of the night worried over what you're doing." A single lamp hooked to a motion sensor flicked on.

Remy chuckled and followed him in without another protest. The man really didn't want to be alone; Jean-Paul didn't need to be an empath to sense that. His own history of one-night stands told him that story.

He had a few personal items scattered around the main room and more in his bedroom, but Jean-Paul imagined Remy saw his quarters the same way he did: nearly as impersonal as a mid-grade hotel room. Of course, Remy's quarters were probably no better. Whatever belongings he'd had would have been lost when the Xavier Institute was destroyed the last time. No doubt he'd replaced most of it in the months since, but replacements weren't the same.

"You think Worthington International owns whatever furniture place all this stuff comes from?" Remy asked, echoing the tenor of Jean-Paul's thoughts. He smirked and gestured toward the sofa and end tables. "I hope the X-Men got a wholesale price, at least, for buying in bulk."

Laughter escaped Jean-Paul before he could stop it. "Feel free to sit down."

"Bon." Remy sprawled himself over the couch, somehow looking more attractive in civilian clothes than even the skintight uniform and armor Jean-Paul was used to seeing him in. "I feel right at home." His hand skimmed over the arm of the oatmeal-colored sofa slowly, almost caressing it the nubby fabric. "Upholstery's even the same color."

Telling himself to ignore the picture in his mind of Remy's hand running over his own skin, Jean-Paul turned away and gestured to the credenza set against the wall. "Now that we're safe behind Utopia's walls again, do you want another drink?" IHe only wondered if that was a bad idea after the words were out.

Remy had turned his head to look out the main room's large window. It had a spectacular view of San Francisco to the east, glittering lights and darkness reflecting off the Bay, the Golden Gate and the other great bridges lit up and shining, headlights and tail-lights streaming over them. The dim light from the lamp showed off his profile. If Hell struck its own coinage, then when they etched Lucifer upon it Remy could have been used as his model. He was all sharp angles and edges. Then he looked back at Jean-Paul and the liquid gleam in his eyes spoke more of feeling like hell than ruling it.

"Why not?"

Jean-Paul gambled that bourbon would be acceptable, since he knew Remy had been drinking it earlier in the evening. He found the unopened bottle in the credenza and fixed two drinks. He handed one to Remy and sat on the coffee table opposite him.

Remy swirled the liquor in his heavy tumbler. "Not your usual, Northstar."

"Jean-Paul, remember?"

"Oui, Jean-Paul," he almost purred and then chuckled, obviously amused at himself, but not sounding happy about it.

Jean-Paul sipped and tried not to make a face at the taste. Remy tossed his back like cough syrup. The long line of his bare throat worked. Jean-Paul tried another swallow. It improved as his tastebuds went on strike. He swallowed some more, finishing it, and set his tumbler beside him, next to Remy's. As he let go, Remy leaned forward and caught his wrist.

"Remy – "

"I'm drinking your bourbon, sitting in your quarters, and I'm about to beg you to just... let me stay here for a while," Remy said unsteadily. "Thank you for all of that. For seeing me. I'm not... I'm not a codename."

"Nor am I," Jean-Paul heard himself reply as he let Remy tug him over onto the couch. The cushions sagged enough they were immediately pressed thigh to thigh and shoulder to shoulder. He reminded himself again this was his team leader, not some random pick-up. Remy had been at Club House because he wanted to avoid the other X-Men, not because he wanted to have sex with another guy, and if he had, he still hadn't been looking to have it with him. He thought of how damned lonely he was in Utopia and how much worse it must be for Remy and held on.

Shifting enough to curl an arm around Remy's broad shoulders came easily, until they were resting against each other, the contact soothing his nerves as much as it obviously helped Remy. Even the silence between them felt comfortable. His eyelids grew heavier and he drifted for a while, almost asleep, but not quite.

"I don't know why it bothered me so much tonight." The words were so soft, Jean-Paul suspected Remy thought he was asleep. "Rogue and me, we've been done a lot longer than I wanted to admit. Always knew she had a thing for Mags, since before I even joined the X-Men."

Silky strands of hair whispered along Jean-Paul's cheek as Remy shook his head. "It's funny, she can forgive him everythin' he's done, but not me. I think we were finished the first time we kissed, when she got some of my memories."

She'd put Remy in a coma too. The school had been full of stories about the wretched lovers when they came back there during Jean-Paul's short tenure as a teacher. He'd been gone, though, by the time Remy defected to Apocalypse. By that time, Jean-Paul had been impaled on Wolverine's claws, died and been revived and used as a brainwashed assassin. He didn't feel like judging Remy. If he hadn't been caught, imprisoned by SHIELD and then manipulated by the Neo, he'd still be killing people for Viper. He wasn't a saint and he knew it; Dieu, he remembered Rogue when she first showed up with the X-Men, because she'd been an ex-terrorist too: Mystique's 'daughter' and deadliest weapon. Where she got off judging anyone bewildered him.

Jean-Paul sighed, which made Remy tense. He pulled Remy closer before he could draw away, hoping he wasn't making a mistake. He didn't know if Remy was a tactile person or not. He hadn't seemed to be, but his relationship with Rogue had likely affected whatever natural inclinations Remy had. He'd likely trained himself out of reaching for and touching her or anyone. Or maybe he'd always been spooky about touching. Jean-Paul didn't know. He just had his instincts to follow. "She's always annoyed me," he said. "Also, I despise Magneto, though he is a useful ally. Until he decides to kill all the humans and turns on us. How did you manage to fight on the same team with them?"

Remy laughed breathlessly, while shaking his head again, "Got used to it when Joseph – the clone – was with X-Men, I guess."

"I never met that one."

"No loss, mon ami," Remy assured him. "He was... a blank. As though wiped clean." A frown colored his soft words. "Not like me, with everything I've done staining my soul permanently."

"Plastic," Jean-Paul declared loftily.

He thought he could get used to Remy's throaty chuckles. He thought he'd like that. Why the hell had he ever thought he wanted Bobby Drake when this man had been in the same mansion?

Jean-Paul frowned at himself. He'd turned his attention away because Remy had been with Rogue, of course. It would have been futile to lust after Remy, who had been dealing with misfiring powers, being blinded for a time, and Rogue. Always Rogue.

Until tonight.

His frown transformed into a deeper scowl. "Why didn't the X-Men try to find you after Apocalypse transformed you into Death?" he demanded.

Remy tensed against him. Jean-Paul pulled him closer. His instincts still seemed to be steering him right. Remy didn't punch him or fight free.

"You'd have to ask them." Remy sighed and relaxed again. "They had nearly two hundred refugees living in tents on the grounds, O*N*E Sentinels sitting on top of them, plenty of other threats. Death insisted there wasn't anything of me in him and left with Shiro. I think they just didn't have anything left to chase after us if we weren't a threat. – Besides, I knew they wouldn't."

Jean-Paul kept scowling. "You knew?"

Remy's shoulder moved in a nonchalant shrug. "Oui. Saw one of Destiny's diaries, that's why I went with Apocalypse. It was the first step."

Jean-Paul wondered if anyone else had heard this. Had Rogue heard this?

"Non," Remy said.

He twisted and stared at Remy. Remy blinked back at him, then flinched. "You didn't say that out loud?"

"No."

"I'm still not that – "

"It's all right," Jean-Paul told him. He thought it hard too, along with a reassurance that he wasn't angry Remy had inadvertently read his thoughts.

Remy slipped away from him and to his feet. Half-hugging another guy hadn't sent him fleeing, but slipping control of his new mutant power did. Jean-Paul filed that away.

"Don't go," he said and meant it. He didn't know Remy that well, but he wasn't as annoying as most of the X-Men, seemed to be a good team leader, and was in no emotional state to be left alone.

He saw Remy hesitate.

"Tell me all of it. You should tell someone. Someone should know."

Maybe Remy really did want to tell someone, because he nodded and said, "I need another drink to do this. Or five."

Jean-Paul gestured to the bottle still sitting on the credenza and Remy scooped up both tumblers in one long-fingered hand on the way to it. He poured with a generous hand, expert as a bartender. "I'll replace it," he commented, "since this is the good stuff."

"Is it?" Remy was the first bourbon drinker Jean-Paul had ever had in his quarters. He didn't even remember how he came to have that bottle.

Remy handed him a tumbler, but didn't sit down again. He paced restlessly over to the window and stared out again. "Emma knows all this, because she's been in and out of my head for weeks now." He raised the tumbler to his mouth and sipped. "Not because I wanted to tell her."

The thought of having to put up with the White Queen invading his thoughts regularly made Jean-Paul angry on Remy's behalf.

Remy half-turned. "Maybe Jean would have been nicer 'bout it, but Emma's a good teacher." He lifted the tumbler in a silent toast.

Jean-Paul considered the way she'd urged him to look at Remy differently earlier and realized she must have been reading how badly he needed someone. Maybe her intentions had been kinder than he'd credited.

"Mais," he said after another long pause. "Apocalypse. You know Apocalypse is the one that made Doctor Essex into Sinister? Made him immortal." Remy looked down at the remaining bourbon in his tumbler. "Nearly."

Jean-Paul confined himself to a nod rather than interrupt. He put down his bourbon and found himself running his hand over the nubbly fabric of the sofa much the way Remy had earlier. He had a feeling this would be ugly and potentially painful.

Remy nodded too. "Destiny left one of her diaries with Mystique. Once I could see again, she showed it to me. If I didn't go back to the Marauders and Essex, then Rogue died... We needed the first new mutant born after M-Day to save her and Essex and the Marauders to find the baby."

Remy finished his drink in another harsh gulp and went on, laying out the convoluted extremes he and Mystique had gone to so they ended up where Destiny's prophecies had promised they had to be. He kept refilling his tumbler with bourbon, determinedly getting himself drunk again, though it took enough alcohol to poison a normal man. Becoming one of Apocalypse's Horsemen had provided a measure of safety and a reason for Remy, who had repudiated Sinister, to return to him. Jean-Paul thought it sounded insane, but most of the messes X-Men got into did, and it certainly didn't seem any stupider than believing you were a half-elf, going to Asgard, and ending up needing to be saved from trolls intent on sacrificing you. Which he had done and done just from sheer selfishness. Remy had at least been moved by love.

"I thought when Essex was dead that I'd finally be free." Remy shook his head. "Instead, now I have Death in my head, wanting to take over, and... "

"You think somewhere, somehow, Sinister is going to come back," Jean-Paul finished.

"Oui."

"And that's why you're leading us to his old labs and taking down everything in them, including the Marauder clones."

"I recruited them," Remy slurred in a pained voice. "I condemned them. Now I'm killing them, over and over and over." He was swaying on his feet. "Crow was my friend." He staggered forward and rested his forehead against the glass.

"I think that's enough," Jean-Paul said. He left his untouched drink on the table and joined Remy at the window. The view remained as spectacular as earlier, though at the late hour he couldn't be sure if the pale glow at the horizon still owed more to the city's lights than to dawn. Remy had his eyes squeezed closed, though, and likely didn't care. He flinched when Jean-Paul wrapped an arm around him, but came along without protest as Jean-Paul walked him away from the window. "You can sleep on the couch."

Remy glanced at the sofa, which was not long enough for anyone except Puck to sleep on comfortably. Jean-Paul offered uncomfortably, "Or you can sleep with me. In the bed. Sleep. Just... sleep. If you don't want to be alone."

The glance Remy slanted his way couldn't be interpreted, but he nodded uncertainly, maybe to the bed or to not wanting to be alone. Either way, he followed Jean-Paul into the bedroom where he glanced around curiously, but seemed to freeze up otherwise.

He sat Remy at the edge of his bed and considered him. Remy watched him in return, his eyes half-lidded but wary, slumped over far enough his hands hung limp between his knees. Jean-Paul could feel the charm creeping along his nerves and his skin. Either alcohol made the effect stronger or drunk shielding worked about as well as drunk driving. Remy wasn't doing it deliberately, though, which vaguely annoyed Jean-Paul. On purpose, that feeling could have been fun, but Remy was listing over from exhaustion and too much to drink.

"What now, mon ami?" Remy asked finally.

"Take off your shoes," he instructed as he went about his own routine, finding a pair of gray sweat pants and a t-shirt for Remy along with his own. Remy was taller than him, but not enough for it to matter. He dropped them bed next Remy. "Here, change into these."

He left Remy to change while he went into the washroom, ran through his regular routine, brushed his teeth, and then set out a toothbrush before fetching a tall glass of water and aspirin back out. He didn't let himself stare in the mirror and wonder what the hell he was doing.

Remy had on the sweatpants and nothing else. His bare feet were long and narrow. Jean-Paul swept his gaze up the long lines of Remy's legs, over sharp hipbones, lean flanks and the cut muscles of his stomach and chest. His gaze stopped at Remy's face, taking in the smirk there. Remy was used to people looking at him. Jean-Paul's once-over seemed to have restored some of his shaken confidence.

"I said sleep," Jean-Paul forced himself to say. "That is what I meant."

"I know, mais... " Remy shrugged. "I like you and I am well-trained." He didn't quite look Jean-Paul in the eyes as he spoke. He was faking casual; his muscles were too tense under that beautiful skin. He might be offering, but he didn't, in fact, want.

Trained, he said and Jean-Paul didn't want to explore that. Not the implications underlying the words. Instead he held out the water and aspirin and said, "For the inevitable hangover. I left out a toothbrush in the bathroom. Go use it, you'll thank me in the morning."

Remy didn't say anything more, just swallowed the aspirin and emptied the water glass before slinking his way past Jean-Paul to the washroom. He looked as good walking away as he did from the front.

He slipped into his bed and held open the dark sheet in silent invitation when Remy came back. He couldn't make himself pat the bed. That was... too awkward. This was awkward, suddenly, and he felt too sober and they weren't going to have sex, which tended to burn through all the intimacy issues rearing their heads, so he just dropped the sheet in favor of turning out the bedside light.

Remy came to the bed slowly, but sank down onto it with soft, weary groan. He slid in beside Jean-Paul, but stayed well away until Jean-Paul shifted restlessly and knocked his elbow against Remy's. They both went completely still, before Remy began to chuckle. Jean-Paul laughed too; they were being ridiculous. They both wanted to sleep, they were in a bed, holding onto a warm body could only make that easier. "Get comfortable, and don't squirm," he said quietly.

"I'm not the one elbowing anyone," Remy whispered back. He wriggled closer immediately though, as if he needed the skin to skin contact. After years with Rogue, he probably did. Jean-Paul made a huffing sound of protest, so pro forma no one could have taken it seriously, never mind a drunken empath, and Remy chuckled again. "Better."

Jean-Paul stayed lying on his back. Remy stretched like a big, friendly cat and rolled himself even closer to lie on his side against Jean-Paul one leg hooked around Jean-Paul's thigh, palm on his chest, tucked close.

Just like that he found himself petting Remy, running his free hand over his head and down his bare, hot back. Whatever doubts he'd had about the arrangement disappeared as Remy hummed with drowsy pleasure. "Your ex is an imbecile, non. All your exes."

Jean-Paul laughed softly. "What about yours, then?"

"Mmm. There is sex and there is love. For sex, everyone is very happy with Gambit. Was the prodigy of the Velvet Ministry. Love, though... Everyone I love ends up dead or hating me."

Jean-Paul's hand stilled between Remy's shoulder blades. He didn't have a clue what to address first. Maybe it made him a coward, but he decided to stick to sex.

"What is the Velvet Ministry?"

"Maybe I'll tell you some other time, mais... I'd like to sleep," Remy replied quietly.

"Another time," Jean-Paul agreed. It wouldn't be that long before the first bar of morning light crept over the floor from the main room windows where he'd left the bedroom door ajar. He let his eyes close, soothed by the steady breathing beside him.

~*~

Telepathic wake up calls on top of hangovers were going on Remy's top ten list of Do Not Want. He squinted his eyes open enough to figure out it was morning before thoughtlessly rolling onto his back. He couldn't tell exactly where he was, since the ceiling above him was the same as the one in his quarters, but he wasn't alone.

The quiet rhythm of breathing would have told him that, if the pleasant weight and warmth of another body against his hadn't. If it weren't for the hangover, he'd be enjoying the contact. Even after his brain woke up enough for him to remember the night before and Jean-Paul's generosity. He scrubbed the heels of his hands over his face and sighed.

The Cuckoos said Cyclops wanted him in the command center. Remy hoped like hell Cyke didn't want to continue lecturing him about bringing Vertigo and Riptide back to Utopia. If he did, Remy might punch him. He told them he'd be there once he'd showered and dressed... and got back to his quarters to do both. They giggled, in harmony, in his head, picking out more than he'd meant to send. Despite himself, he smiled.

Jean-Paul had rolled toward him and slipped his arm over Remy's waist. Regretfully, Remy tapped his wrist to wake him. "I have to go, mon ami," he murmured. "Merci for this."

Jean-Paul groaned and cracked one eye open. "Why?"

"Because – "

"Why must you be awake? Why must I – Ahhh, stupid telepaths!" Jean-Paul snarled and Remy guessed he was getting the Cuckoo alarm treatment too.

"That," Remy told him with fellow feeling. He lifted Jean-Paul's arm away before sliding out of the bed. Hangover or not, he felt better than he had any right to after being as stupid as he had been the night before. Jean-Paul had been a good... friend. He'd gone beyond the bounds of team mate. Remy had no idea how to deal with that or the way it left him feeling.

There was very little he wouldn't do for Jean-Paul in return for the kindness he'd shown Remy without wanting something in return.

Instead of saying any of that, he found his clothes from the night before and retreated with them into Jean-Paul's washroom to dress, adding the sweat pants he'd been loaned to Jean-Paul's laundry hamper and getting out as fast as he could, since he presumed Jean-Paul would want his own shower.

"Are you okay?" Jean-Paul asked as Remy came out.

Remy raised an eyebrow. "Of course."

Jean-Paul gave him a searching, skeptical look before accepting that assurance. From someone else, Remy would have found that insulting. In this case, he just felt warmed by the concern.

"Do you know what Cyclops wants?" Jean-Paul asked instead of pushing the issue.

"Non." Remy shrugged. "We'll find out soon enough."

~*~


Cyclops' eyebrows rose above his visor when Remy ambled in several minutes later than everyone else, including Jean-Paul. Dazzler, Cannonball and Emma were also waiting. Emma looked like she'd dressed for a Vogue version of a safari. Remy sighed to himself. The prima donna, the hillbilly, and – he checked his shields before smirking and finishing in his head – the bitch. He meant to have words with her about Rogue and what she'd known when she told him to cut himself loose from her.

Emma narrowed her eyes at him.

Remy eyed her before commenting, "No one said anything about civvies."

Emma considered Remy's dark armor and smirked. He had a nasty feeling they were going somewhere hot. Of course, he'd always known he was going to end up somewhere hot.

"Since you've bothered to finally show up, we can get this briefing over with and you can begin the mission," Cyclops said.

"Mon ami, not to derail or anything," Remy drawled, "but no one told Gambit he was back on the mission roster."

He watched Cyclops' mouth fold into that pissy line that Remy'd been triggering with him since the first day they met. It still amused him. Why the hell the man thought you had to act serious to be serious... Not that Cyclops was a bad leader, Remy would give him that; Cyclops worked hard to make sure none of his people got hurt and unnecessary chances weren't taken. But he didn't know everything about everything and he didn't listen when someone knew more than him. At least, not without someone beating him over the head with it for a while. Still, the man was a fan of the Three Stooges. Remy figured there was a sense of humor somewhere deep inside of him. He certainly never wanted to be saddled with Cyclops' responsibilities. He tried to convey he wasn't screwing around any longer.

"There are five different teams already on missions," Cyclops admitted. Yes, he was a little shame-faced there.

"Scraping the bottom of the barrel, mais?"

"I resent that," Emma said.

"Oh, well, obviously, Scotty couldn't find enough dregs, so he had to open up the special reserve in your case, ma cherie," Remy replied.

Emma preened.

"Look, you're all competent adults capable of working with each other and we need to check out the readings the Cuckoos have been picking up from Guadalajara." Cyclops had decided to ignore the taunting and teasing in favor of just moving forward. "I think you are the best people for this mission."

"What readings?" Dazzler asked while touching up her lipstick.

Remy tuned out some of the technobabble, concentrating on the potential problems inherent in taking a team into Mexico. He wondered why Cyclops didn't have Rictor on the mission team before remembering Rictor hadn't retained his powers in the wake of the Scarlet Witch's hex. Rictor wasn't one of the depowered mutants who had chosen to fight for Utopia and their rights anyway, so he wasn't around. A shame since as far as Remy had observed the world hadn't suddenly clasped depowered mutants to its bosom or declared them human now.

"A technopath," Cyclops said.

"Unknown but still active, repowered, or new?" Cannonball asked. The kid might have had hayseed in his hair when he'd been recruited, but he'd become a shrewd operator under the untender tutelage of Cable and Domino. He'd learned a few lessons from Magneto too. Remy tuned back in for the answer, because this was the big deal, the reason Cyclops was cramming an ad hoc team together for a mission: not the technopath, whoever he or she or zie was, but what the technopath's existence might signal.

"We don't know. The Cuckoos have picked up a signature on three different occasions for short periods. Sage's analysis indicates whoever it is must be spending most of their time somewhere shielded."

Somewhere shielded against the kind of tech Utopia boasted. Remy made a face. That took money, money and power, and that meant they were quite likely not going to get a warm welcome. He started thinking exit strategy. A good thief always had his way out first.

Scott went on, "Just – this is important, people. If this is a mutant transitioning into their power, this is someone Hope hasn't sensed.  There may be others. I'm trusting you to find out. This could affect all mutants."

"So, how are we getting down there?" Remy asked. He got it. This mission was significant. He still had to focus on the pragmatic issues or the mission wouldn't get anywhere.

"The Blackbirds are in use, as is E.V.A. and X-Force's transport."

"Well, I'm not flying commercial," Dazzler said.

"Definitely," Emma agreed.

Cyclops sighed. "That would take too long anyway. Ariel will open a portal for you. You'll have comms, she'll come back for you when you're ready to return."

"I'd prefer it if she was with us," Cannonball said at the same time Remy observed, "That could leave us hanging if things go sideways." And when didn't they go sideways? Not that he couldn't open a tesseract, but he wasn't eager to use that option if it wasn't necessary.

"It's a simple observe and approach mission."

Jean-Paul made a wordless yet deeply skeptical noise that Cyclops ignored. Remy slanted a sardonic look Jean-Paul's way, glad to see his team mate found that bit of fantasy as ridiculous as he did. As everyone gathered in the conference room did, he observed. Cannonball had his hands in his blond hair, tugging at it in lieu of whatever words wanted to come tumbling out, and Dazzler's mouth hung open in shock. Emma's brows couldn't climb any higher. She was the one who spoke, too.

"Really, Scott?" Scorn chilled her words. "Tell me that you are not that – " her lip curled into a sneer, " – naive." Remy could tell that hadn't been her first choice of word.

Cyclops tensed and snapped, "No, but I had hoped that this group could try to maintain a low profile in comparison to some of our other operators."

Remy glanced at Jean-Paul. The others all appeared human. He and Jean-Paul could pass, as long as he hid his eyes and Jean-Paul hid his ears. Jean-Paul's face wasn't as well known now as it had been once. Dazzler was far more likely to be recognized and Emma was a stunning woman even if she wasn't associated with Frost Industries and its millions.

"Low profile," Dazzler muttered. "Sure. Mutants with our faces plastered all over the media, wearing skintight body armor, wandering around Mexico, like we all couldn't be whiter if we bathed in bleach."

"You like being recognized, Ali," Jean-Paul said.

"Well, of course, I do. But not by people who are going to shoot at me."

"Got that right, cher." Remy turned his attention back to Cyclops. "Observe and approach? You want us to get this maybe mutant back here?"

"Yes."

"And if he or she says no?"

"Emma will make that call, depending on if this mutant can be an asset or may become a threat or is in danger there." Remy went cold at the thought. The Marauders had snatched too many people for Sinister for him to be comfortable with even the prospect of kidnapping.

~Darling, between your 'charm', my talents, and Allison and Jean-Paul's looks, we can persuade anyone to come with us,~ Emma whispered to him. ~That's if dear Sam's earnestness isn't convincing enough."

"Let's just get this shitshow on the road," Cannonball said.

~Earnest?~ Remy gibed back at Emma.

"Why, Sam, I didn't know you knew such language," Emma teased. "Do you talk like that around your mother?"

Sam gave her a sour look in return. "Cable and Domino. And Tabby. And the rest of X-Force. They're all foul-mouthed as hell and, no, I don't use that language anywhere near my momma."

"Of course you don't." Emma's voice was just a little warmer than before. Remy figured Cannonball was another one she had a soft spot for even if she would never admit it.

Light etched the rectangular shape of door at the far end of the conference, brightened for an instant, and then displayed a cobblestoned street for an instant as Ariel stepped through. Her portal snapped out of existence the instant she exited it. Her gaze found Remy immediately, then Jean-Paul, and she gave them a wicked, eyebrow raised smile. Both of her hands were filled with the handles to a variety of shopping bags. Taking in the labels made Remy wince a little for his credit card bill.

"Have fun, cher?"

Ariel tossed the bags down casually and produced Remy's card. "Not as much as you two, I'll bet," she said as she handed it over. She didn't bother keeping her voice down either and punctuated the tease with a salacious and very obvious wink.

Remy ignored the odd looks coming his and Jean-Paul's way. He very deliberately hardened his shields against Emma's sneaky mental probe in the next instant. ~Stop that.~

She smiled at him. ~Only because you caught me.~

"Ariel," Cyclops said, "we'll need you on standby for pick-up."

"No problemo, el supremo," she declared. "I'll hang out here until the call comes in and then bingo, zammo, everybody'll be back in time for lunch. I'm thinking I'd like some tapas and paella. There's this great bar in Barcelona... "

~*~


They brought back the technopath, because the kid wanted out from his situation, even though he wasn't and had never been a mutant, just a kid that got exposed to stolen AIM nanotech. He'd ended up with an ability to merge his mind with the same technology – fortunately keeping AIM from bonding it with someone else – and been quite literally sold to one of the drug cartels. Any family he'd had was gone and all he'd had to look forward to was being passed on to HYDRA for experimentation once the cartel finished with him. Emma scanned him and Remy took a reading on his emotions; they both agreed with Cannonball that the kid was on the up and up. Hell, he was only about fifteen. They figured he could work for Boxx or Nemesis until he was ready to transition back to the world outside Utopia.

Cecelia would be able to fix the kid’s cut hamstrings; if she needed help, Beast would help her even if he wasn't staying with Cyclops' X-Men in Utopia; they wouldn't leave the kid crippled by the cartel's vicious methods of keeping him from running.

Remy had the kid clinging to his back like a monkey as they came through Ariel's portal into the Utopia control room. The kid got along well enough with crutches, but couldn't move fast enough when they were being shot at. Cannonball was invulnerable when he was blasting but that didn't help the kid and none of the others had any kind of protective power. Remy didn't either, really, but with his senses ramped up high enough, he could feel a bullet coming and dodge when he couldn't blow it. Carrying someone meant he couldn't fight, though.

None of them looked at their best as the portal closed. The observe and approach method had fallen by the wayside as soon as they realized their target was a prisoner in a cartel compound.

"The next time we go on any kind of retrieval mission," Remy announced, "I want someone with a force field – Cecelia or Ichiko." The next time he went on a mission, he wanted his team. Except for Jean-Paul, none of them had listened to him. Dazzler's abilities were useless for anything covert. Cannonball kept butting heads with Emma and Remy because they were all used to being leaders. The mission might easily have been a failure if they'd been facing a real threat rather than half-trained cartel thugs that thought with their guns.

He stalked over to the conference table and let the kid – Felipe – slid off his back to perch on the table's edge, ignoring the stares from Magneto, Rogue, Namor, Psylocke and Dr. Nemesis. Behind them, Ariel leaned against the back of one of the Cuckoos' chairs. All three girls had swung around and were watching. Cannonball followed Remy and handed the kid his crutches before stepping back and crossing his arms over his chest.

"Gambit's right, we weren't prepared."

"Looks like you did all right, sugar," Rogue said.

Remy did his best to ignore her and Magneto.

"Debrief – " Cyclops started out.

Remy didn't have the patience for it. He slammed the whole thing into Cyclops' brain, slicing through Cyclops' shields to do it, and likely giving the poor bastard the mother of all headaches at the same time. It wasn't the worst thing he'd done with his telepathy since acquiring it, but it was definitely on the shitty side. Cyclops swayed and put his hands to his temples.

"Christ!"

"Remy, that's bad manners," Emma chided him. She pulled Cyclops' hands down and did something that smoothed the pain lines from around his mouth.

"Merde," Remy muttered. "Cyke, I'm sorry about that."

"Fast, though," Cyclops said with a wry twist to his tone. He  didn't seem as pissed off as Remy would have been. Maybe because he'd been hanging out with pushy telepaths since he was a weedy teenager. He switched his attention to Felipe and offered the kid his hand. "I'm Cyclops."

"Felipe Perez."

"Just to be absolutely clear, you aren't a prisoner here, and if there is anyone you want to contact, we'll make it happen."

"Is he a mutant or not?" Magneto asked.

"Does it matter?" Remy replied. "You gonna toss him in the Bay if he isn't?" A little bite colored his words, but not much, not as much as he thought he should have felt toward the other man. He didn't blame Magneto, though: he blamed Rogue.

He blamed her for her lie of omission.

Emma had turned back with them and set her hand on Remy's wrist, closing her fingers tight around it, as if she had the strength to restrain him.

~I'm not going to do anything stupid, cher,~ he assured her.

~I'm worried about them.~

"I heard the most interesting thing this morning," Rogue said.

Behind her, Ariel choked and muttered, "I think I need to be somewhere. Or, you know, anywhere else."

"I found out something interesting last night," Remy replied to Rogue, ignoring Ariel as she opened a portal and ran through it. He'd known she wasn't going to keep her big mouth shut.

"So it's true?"

"Oh, wow," Dazzler cooed. "Jean-Paul! You scored. I thought it was just gossip – "

"Maybe we could save the personal conversations and gossip for when we aren't in the command and control room discussing a mission and the repercussions?" Cyclops said.

Rogue ignored Cyclops and the restraining hand Magneto set on her shoulder, shrugging him off. "Maybe Gambit can explain why the hell he was sleeping with Northstar last night!"

Jean-Paul had been quiet until then, but he stepped up next to Remy with that startling speed and glared at Rogue. "How is it any of your business?"

"He's m–my boyfriend." She gave Jean-Paul a venomous look.

"Not any longer."

Remy cocked an eyebrow at Jean-Paul, who was certainly making it sound like a lot more had happened between them than had. Not that Remy minded what anyone else thought, but he hadn't believed Jean-Paul would let the rumors stand. After all, Remy wasn't the most highly thought of citizen of Utopia. Someone would be bound to look askance at Jean-Paul for just associating with him.

Jean-Paul sneered at Rogue and slid his arm around Remy's waist, pulling him close enough Remy had to wind his arm behind Jean-Paul or have it pinned. He sent a thought into Jean-Paul's mind, ~Are you sure of what you're doing here, mon ami?~

~Oui.~

Remy shrugged to himself and decided he'd go along with whatever Jean-Paul chose. The disbelief, amusement, and even approval radiating from the people around them surprised him. The disgust, contempt and lava hot anger didn't. He hid a flinch and thickened his shields so the ooze of emotions couldn't seep through. Jean-Paul's hand on his hip was the only thing he let himself feel and that was Remy's interpretation of that touch, not an actual emotion from him.

"Didn't know you were a cheater, Northstar," Rogue said.

Jean-Paul raised an eyebrow. "Do you really want to go there?" he asked.

"Rogue," Magneto said.

A red flush discolored Rogue's cheeks and her hands had curled into fists. Those were the usual signs she was about to lose her temper and break something or leave Remy bruised and embarrassed. Of course, she no longer had Ms. Marvel's invulnerability and strength to call on. If she hit something now, she had to do it with her own muscle and feel the consequences to herself too.

Magneto caught hold of her shoulder once more and this time held on. Rogue looked back at him and deflated a little. "But – but why with him?"

Remy's sense of humor, always primed to stir up trouble, reared its head after long hibernation. "Why not with him?" he asked. "I like him." In a room with five different telepaths, he didn't bother to shield that, because it was, strangely enough, the absolute truth. He did like Jean-Paul.

"You're both men," Rogue spat.

"Oh my God, how did we never notice before?" Dazzler asked.

"It's just wrong."

Remy knew that mulish tone, it went with Rogue knowing that everyone thought she was wrong and refusing to change her mind. It wasn't stubborn, it was stupid, and he didn't find it endearing any longer.

"Pardon me, did you just say that?" Jean-Paul asked. He was all silk and fury and it made Remy shudder pleasantly to have that on his side. He leaned fractionally into Jean-Paul, then froze as he realized what he'd done. Jean-Paul's arm tightened around him.

"Oh, she said it," Dazzler said. "But she's always been a backwards, jealous bitch behind the southern belle routine. – Right, Betsy?"

Psylocke rolled her shoulders. "I don't want to get involved in their drama again. It's endless."

"No," Remy said. "It's not. It ended last night." He meant he'd found out that Rogue had chosen Magneto and hadn't had the courage to cut Remy loose, but he supposed the way he and Jean-Paul were plastered together made it look like he'd found someone else. Well, this way let him save his pride, at least, let it look like he was the one to find someone else and end it. Better than being the pathetic connard that got lied to and cheated on. He stared at Rogue until she met his gaze. ~I know about you and Magneto,~ he speared past her shields.

It was easy, much easier than he'd anticipated, considering how often the telepaths complained about Rogue's 'static', until he remembered she no longer played host to a horde of other psyches that she'd absorbed. All of those were wiped away along with Strain 88. With the exception of Mystique, Rogue had been careful not to take more than surface memories and temporary powers since. It meant her shields were weak, because she'd never had to work on them, and Remy felt a spike of sympathy for her still new vulnerability. Though she finally had control of her power, as she'd always claimed to want, Rogue had paid a price she hadn't anticipated; she'd been comfortable with Ms. Marvel's stolen powers and the side effects of her own, no matter what she'd said.

Rogue's mouth dropped open. Another thing she hadn't had time to accept: Remy's telepathy and returned full powers. He could charge a layer of particles between them and keep her from ever absorbing him again. The flush she'd had before had darkened and dulled and worked its way down to her neck and chest.

"You – what?" she blurted out.

"Your quarters aren't shielded," Remy explained.

"Every telepath in Utopia knows what you and Magnus have been doing, Anna Marie," Emma added with a saccharine smile. Her hand was still locked on his wrist. He turned his wrist and slipped her hold just enough to take her hand in his instead.

The Cuckoos piped up, one, two, three, clear and uninterested in the messy personal shit, but confirming what Emma had said. "We. All. Know."

Magneto shrugged at the revelation. It didn't bother him that the affair was out. Why should it? On the grand scale of the conflict between mutant and mankind, the question of whether they were a separate subspecies, and if Utopia would survive, the question of who was sleeping with whom didn't even register, unless it affected who allied with whom. The only regret Magneto would feel was if his and Rogue's actions cost their cause Remy or Northstar's allegiance to keeping Utopia safe.

Their little island nation had just weathered one schism based on philosophy. They didn't need a second based on sex.

"We're not on a break any more," Remy said. "We're broken."

"You're just using Northstar to get back at me, aren't you?"

"He wasn't thinking about you at all last night," Jean-Paul said.

Dazzler patted Felipe on his back. The kid was watching the back and forth in bewilderment. He spoke English, but couldn't have anticipated getting stuck with a ringside seat at the latest X-Men drama. "Gambit and Rogue were an item. Now they're not and he's with Northstar. Don't they make a gorgeous couple?" Dazzler fake-whispered, more than loud enough for Rogue.

"Bitch."

"Oh, honey," Dazzler replied, "you want to start calling me names? Bring it."

"Oh, I'll – "

"Enough!" Cyclops shouted. "Rogue. Out. This is not the time and not the place. Take it somewhere else. Gambit, Northstar... this isn't the Castro, so cool it."

Jean-Paul slipped his arm free from Remy's side. Remy felt a little bereft. Emma gave his hand a squeeze.

"Emma, thank you for not stirring the pot," Cyclops directed to her.

"Why would I? It was entertaining enough as iit was."

Rogue huffed loudly and stalked out.

Namor wandered back to their end of the room as she exited and asked, "Do I need to waste more of my time here?"

"No," Cyclops said. "We'll get Felipe to the infirmary for an evaluation and someone will set him up with quarters. Emma, you can give everyone else the details of the mission, can't you?"

"Of course."

Namor paused. "Perhaps I should hear this." His gaze filled with heat as it settled on Emma's chest.

Remy swallowed a chuckle.

Dazzler hooked her arms through his and Jean-Paul's. "C'mon. You need to tell me everything."

"Gambit, Magnus, if you could join me for a moment?" Cyclops said. "Emma, you can handle the rest."

Remy followed Cyclops into a the next room that had been set up for breaks. Magneto strolled in after him. None of them settled onto any of the chairs or sofas scattered around.

Cyclops faced them both. "Is this going to be a problem?"

"Gambit?" Magneto asked. He managed to sound neutral rather than condescending or domineering.

"I'm not making it a problem," Remy said. He glanced at Cyclops and resisted the urge to poke around in his thoughts. Emma was in the next room; she'd catch him. He doubted she'd appreciate him riffling through her lover's head. "Is it one?"

"Rogue seemed to think so."

"Then maybe you should be having this talk with her." Remy paused. "Unless your problem is with Jean-Paul and me." There was no Jean-Paul and him, not that way, and he kept his own shields hard as diamond rather than let the snoopy telepaths see that, but that wasn't the point. He wasn't letting Jean-Paul's impulse to stand up for Remy come back on him.

"I will be talking to Rogue."

Remy waited.

Cyclops sighed loudly. "I don't give a damn who you sleep with – any of you – " His gesture included Magneto and everyone else in Utopia. " – and I can't believe anyone with any sense does either. I was worried." He stopped. "You didn't deal with Rogue and Joseph very well."

Remy blinked and blurted an uncomfortable truth. "I wanted her to love me because then if she figured out my part in the Massacre she'd keep it to herself." He grimaced. "Not that I was thinking that clearly."

"Honesty at last," Magneto commented.

Remy slanted him a glance. "Eh, Joseph was a dick, too." He shrugged. "At least you're the real thing."

Magneto's chuckle seemed to surprise him and Cyclops. "I'll speak to Rogue. This scene was unnecessary." He nodded to Remy. "I wish you and Northstar well."

It was Remy's turn to feel startled. "Merci. You – you and Rogue, too." His silver tongue had deserted him. That had come out supremely awkward. He folded his arms over his chest. "Think I'll stay off any missions with either of you, though."

"That, perhaps, would be wise." Magneto nodded to him and Cyclops. Cyclops nodded back and Magneto left.

"Done, Cyke?" Remy asked.

"Done."

He headed for the door himself.

"Remy."

Cyclops seldom used his given name. It brought Remy to a stop and made him turn to look back in curiosity. That hadn't been Cyclops' leader voice either. Because of that, he waited patiently.

"I don't know whether to tell you I'm sorry it didn't work with Rogue or I'm happy you're with Jean-Paul – "

Now Remy felt guilty. He wasn't and now Cyclops was being stand-up about it, even supportive, when it was just a way to yank everyone's chain.

" – but I did want to thank you for how you handled the thing with Magnus."

"Didn't make nice for your sake," Remy muttered. Cyclops gratitude and stupid concern made him uncomfortable as hell, because he was always doing his best to press the man's buttons, and he still cared, even if he didn't completely trust Remy.

"I know." Cyclops accompanied that with a little laugh. "I'd be worried if I thought you had."

"True."

"So. Ah. Emma said you were close to ready to do some big thing in your training. In a week or two."

She wouldn't let him put off dealing with Death much longer. Remy hadn't realized Emma meant it to be quite so soon, though.

"Oui."

"But you're okay?"

Remy thought about it. "Oui. Better than I've been since... since Sinister had hold of me the first time." It was true. With Xavier's manipulations cleaned out and no worries that Sinister could exert control of his mind, with his worst secrets out in the open, his obligations to the Guilds paid, even his guilt over his feelings toward Essex and the Marauders faced up to, he was probably as stable as he'd ever been. Lonely, but healthy, and ready to follow Emma's counsel and let go of Rogue finally. Finding out she'd already done the same didn't really hurt now he'd had time to let the facts settle. It made him sad, but not wrecked. It let him drop the defensive sarcasm he'd always aimed Cyclops' way. "Finding out the way I did hurt, but I'm all right."

"That's good. I'm hoping you can finish with Sinister's bases before you and Emma do whatever it is she's planning."

And Scott the nice guy was back to Cyclops their asshole leader. Remy gave him a sloppy salute and escaped.

~*~


Remy ignored the stares. He didn't like them, but it was a small island with a tiny population, and even if the telepaths weren't gossips, everyone else was. There was little he could do to stop whatever rumor was spreading like flu through a pre-school. The mansion in Westchester had always been a free-run of the kitchen place, at least for the adults, but Utopia had a mess hall instead for those who didn't use the tiny efficiency kitchens in their quarters. He would have stuck with that if there had been any food in his, but he hadn't had an opportunity to shop on the mainland in weeks.

He'd skipped dinner the night before, drank too much, and missed out breakfast too. If he didn't eat something soon his stomach was going to revolt, so he braved the mess hall.

Dieu, he hated institutional food and buffets. Both reminded him of his childhood, the few times someone managed to stick him in an orphanage after he got away from the Velvet Ministry. Even digging through garbage back behind the bars and restaurants of the French Quarter had been better. He grabbed himself fresh fruit and the makings for a sandwich, bypassing anything in which a serving spoon went more than once.

"Picky," Domino commented from just behind him. She'd settled for a big mug of chili and snagged a bottle of tabasco along with some tortillas.

The people whispering at the tables behind him were rapidly wrecking his iffy appetite. Remy shrugged at Domino and finished slapping his sandwich together. He didn't need condiments.

"Calm down."

"I am calm."

"You're going to blow up that peach."

He checked. The peach wasn't glowing, merci Dieu. "Not funny."

"Made you look."

Remy chuckled. At least it hadn't been his fly. He headed for a table toward the front glass wall, where the doors opened onto an outdoor patio and a mish-mash of salvaged furniture mixed with stone benches and tables. Domino matched his pace and when they reached the doors, nodded toward where Ichiko had staked out a table. "C'mon," she said. He shrugged and followed, only to realize Ichiko had been maintaining a forcefield around the table and chairs with its wind-ragged sun umbrella as she deformed it to let them in and reformed it around them.

It explained why the breeze hadn't been whipping her hair into a mess. Inside the bubble was a degree or two warmer and sound came through muffled.

"Nice, kid," Domino commented.

"Practice." Ichiko made a face and added, "I like being on a team. I want to keep up."

"Doing fine so far, petite," Remy said easily. He started on his peach. The drift of words from inside couldn't be made out.

Ichiko's forcefield didn't filter out telepathic input. A thought, his name, stung at his shields the same way hearing his name would and Remy found himself listening to someone inside the mess hall without conscious intention. He couldn't help tuning in.

The person in question wasn't making much effort to shield and Remy winced. Sunspot was gossiping with Cannonball and Moonstar. He couldn't read Cannonball, the kid had learned his shielding from Cable and took it seriously. Moonstar radiated impatience so strong Remy couldn't find what she was impatient with: Sunspot, his verbal digs about gays and Northstar turning Gambit, or something else entirely. Sunspot's actual thoughts were a scale worse than the things he was saying, ugly enough to make Remy shudder and hope Jean-Paul never had to hear them.

Domino caught the wince. "You hear something?" she asked with a wiggly movement of her fingers that had to mean telepathically. Of course, she knew the signs, she'd been with Cable for years.

"Just Da Costa running his mouth," Remy said.

Her mouth set in a grim line and he regretted mentioning it: hadn't Sunspot been part of X-Force off and on? Keeping track of who was on what team, taking a hiatus or defected to the other side for a while gave him a headache. He knew Sunspot had been with the New Mutants and then he'd been Reignfire with the Mutant Liberation Front while he'd been brainwashed. Or maybe that had been possessed? He'd skimmed those reports, not giving a damn at the time. The MLF had never achieved much for a group of high-powered mutant 'terrorists'. Da Costa's on again off again role in the Hellfire Club had been much more interesting. Anyone who could operate with and for Selene or Sebastian Shaw had a dark streak an ocean wide.

He'd have to quiz Sage about him. All those years undercover for Xavier in the Hellfire Club gave her insights no one else would have. She'd know if Sunspot might become a threat or just a pain in the ass for Jean-Paul.

"He made trouble for Sam and Tabby," Domino said. She looked thoughtful. "And, though I couldn't prove it, I think he did his best to twist up Shatterstar. Kid had no clue about anything but the arena and fighting Mojo. Ric was good with him, but Bobby kept throwing a spanner in the works, reinforcing the macho crap Rictor got from his father." She shook her head. "No time to ever figure out if it was deliberate."

Remy tuned into Sunspot's words. He was getting his digs in at Remy, asking if he and Jean-Paul had been acting queer on the Mexico mission. It wasn't the words, exactly, but the sour warp under them that made him wish he could be anywhere else. He made himself eat his sandwich instead.

Ichiko kept the force field around them, deforming and shaping it to take in other objects or exclude them, then moving on to shaping her power without a framework object to give it shape. Some people would have called it playing around, but Remy considered it good practice. If she'd gone to Westchester with Wolverine and most of the other kids, she'd have been in classes and had practice schedules. On Utopia, most mutants were busy enough using their powers to not need sparring sessions, except as teams, and even then, many of them had worked together enough they could fall into familiar routines even in a fight. Ichiko, though, hadn't even been in one of the proto squads Emma had run back before M-Day shut the Xavier School down.

"We should book a Danger Room session," he said.

Domino raised an eyebrow at him. "You think I need practice?"

"Non, cher, but I don't think any of us have been on the same team before. Be nice to get a feel for each other sometime other than under fire."

"I thought we did pretty good in Tasmania," Ichiko said.

"Petite, we did." He smiled, forgetting about Sunspot and the idiocy floating around in the mess behind him. He liked that she'd spoken up and that she already identified with their little ad hoc team. "Doesn't mean we can't learn more from each other." He had led an X-Men team for a while when Cyclops was presumed dead and he thought he hadn't been too awful at it. No one ended up dead, enslaved, or in prison, after all.

"Then should we get the others here too?"

He wasn't all that sure he wanted Jean-Paul exposed to the morons, but then again, Jean-Paul was out and made no apologies. He probably had experience in ignoring them or kicking their asses. If he wanted to do the latter, Remy would be right there with him. He figured Domino would be with him.

"It would be good if all those jerks inside talking about you and Northstar saw we're with you anyway," Ichiko stated.

Domino leaned over and side-hugged the girl. Remy pointed at her. "Petite, you're my new favorite." He hadn't been sure she'd even heard the gossip and had been very carefully respecting her mental privacy.

She shrugged. "Everyone's talking about Rogue and Magneto and you and Northstar like it's some huge thing. They're all stupid. People are trying to kill us."

"I like this one so much," Domino said. "We're keeping her."

Sunspot left along with Moonstar, while Cannonball headed over to a group that included his sister and sat with them. They didn't pay any attention to Remy's group, even when Sage, Shiro and Jean-Paul arrived at the table, so Remy happily ignored them too.

"We are the talk of the island," Jean-Paul mentioned with a twist to his smile.

"Mutant power of gossip," Domino said. "Faster than light, unites villain and hero alike. They're probably doing an intelligence analysis of what it means in SHIELD headquarters by now."

"And Stark is making off-color remarks to the rest of the Avengers," Sage added.

Remy lifted his eyebrow at Jean-Paul. "It doesn't bother me if it doesn't bother you."

"I've been out for years, Remy. You're the one everyone is talking about. Are you – "

He thought about it, for just a second, and decided he didn't care. Jean-Paul was a billion times better than almost everyone he'd ever shared a bed with before. They'd be disappointed as hell if they knew that was all he and Jean-Paul had done. "Non, you're probably good for my reputation."

"Wanna feed the rumor mill then?" Jean-Paul asked.

Domino and Sage were observing their conversation with undisguised interest. "PDA," Domino suggested, her expression cat smug, her eyebrows arched. She had a cigarillo hanging from the corner of her mouth, though she hadn't lit it. Remy realized with a certain horror that she had some of Wolverine's mannerisms along with an all too similar attitude.

"Are you sure this wouldn't just make trouble?" Shiro asked. He hadn't weighed in on his thoughts over the idea of Remy and Jean-Paul, but his presence at the table with them seemed to be a reasonable indication of if not endorsement than lack of opposition.

"I think we'll pass on making a spectacle of ourselves," Jean-Paul said.

They passed the rest of the meal discussing Danger Room scenarios without settling on anything before Remy headed off to see if he could book a block of time later in the afternoon. Nothing was free, but Havok had a four o'clock window and offered to share if Remy's team could handle a live-fire exercise against a pick-up team. Alex Summers and he weren't buddies, and Alex was no Scott, but Remy didn't think he'd take out any dislike he felt for Remy on the rest of his team.

He had to admit he might have been wrong as he took in the lineup for Havok's side: Polaris, of course, Colossus, Husk, Mirage, Archangel and Sunspot.

"Several of these people do not like me or my 'kind'," Jean-Paul murmured sotto voce.

Archangel flexed his wings, fanning the air toward Remy's team, while keeping his eyes fixed on Remy. It served as a silent reminder that those wings had been torn away when Harpoon crucified him in the Morlock Tunnels. For that pain and every shitty, selfish, destructive decision Archangel had made and the horrors he'd experienced since then, Remy was at fault, no matter that he got those wings back eventually.

"Well, at least one of them hates my guts," he answered.

Domino lit her cigarillo and blew smoke in the other team's direction. Colossus scowled at them, already shifted into his living metal form. She wiggled her fingers at him. "Petey hasn't been right in the head since his sister 'died'. Nate said Xavier screwed with him, used all that grief to set him up with Magneto. Magik coming back the way she did hasn't helped him a bit either."

Remy grimaced in sympathy. Illyana had been a sweet child as he'd known her, for the short time she'd been at the mansion, before the Legacy Virus killed her. The demonic sorceress Lolita that came back from Belasco's dimension couldn't fill the same space in Piotr's heart, plus she had a thing for head games and no one could really trust her. He figured Colossus would never get over mourning the little girl who died; no way the poor bastard could ever reconcile Illyana and Magik as the same person, and, really, they weren't.

As for Magik, well, he knew all too well what clawing your way to the top in hell made you. It wasn't her responsibility to fix Colossus. Magik would be lucky if she ever managed to fix herself.

"That is a tactic Charles used more than once," Sage commented in a low, sour tone. "Not that I ever received even a thank you for the years I spent with the Hellfire Club, servicing Shaw and his schemes, without any back-up if he ever discovered I was a spy or even decided he was simply tired of me."

"Thinking of backing out?" Sunspot taunted. "I can see how you might, Dom, since you've only got one man on the whole team."

Remy glanced at Jean-Paul and they both laughed. "Do you think he's trying to insult us?"

Remy considered it and spoke just loud enough for his team to hear and not the others. "He's trying, mais, I'd rather be compared to Domino than that connard. Now, if he compared me to Mystique, then I'd be irritated."

Domino flicked some ash in Sunspot's direction. "Don't worry about us, Bobby. Everyone on this team has bigger balls than you."

Sunspot's hands clenched into fists while his body began sucking in light, making it appear black to the unaugmented eye.

"What were you saying then, Domino?" Havok asked.

"What a manipulative bastard Charles Xavier is, wherever the old cueball has disappeared to," Domino replied easily.

Havok looked like he wanted to argue with her, even opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Defending Xavier seemed to be a level of hypocrisy even Havok couldn't swallow.

"You never liked him," Archangel said.

Domino nodded without concern. "No, I never did. I think he is and has been just as bad for mutant-human relations as Magneto. They're both arrogant old men with too much power."

"Let's just get on with this," Havok said. "One hour. Danger's programmed a generic city scape with mid-day population holograms. The goal is to recover a red polyhedron hidden in the safe under the desk in the office of Any City Inc.'s CEO. Half to three quarter powers, please, and anything goes. First to get the target and reach a designated exit strategy mark wins." He glanced up to the observation window and gave a nod. Around them, the empty Danger Room flickered into a generic urbanscape, brownstones, bodegas and skyscrapers, car clogged streets and hurrying passers-by, noise and smog and smells. It wasn't perfect by any means; it didn't take Wolverine's nose to detect the difference between generated odors and a real sewer stench and Remy could pick out the lack of energy potentials in the hard-light holograms, but it worked for its purpose.

Sunspot rocketed into the air, everything around him dimming as he absorbed visible light along with most other forms of radiation. Remy wondered if anyone had ever experimented to find out how much hard radiation Sunspot could convert into his own power. Shiro was protected from the side-effect radiation from using his powers, but couldn't dispose of it. If Sunspot could, Utopia could hire him out as a radiation disposal consultant and garner good publicity by cleaning up places like Hanford and Three Mile Island, maybe even worse disaster areas like Fukushima.

His moment of reflection almost cost him. Jean-Paul tapped his shoulder though, as he streaked forward and intercepted Husk before she could finish shedding her first skin. Remy dodged an arrow fired by Mirage and tumbled past Colossus faster than the bigger man could react. The contest between the two groups rapidly moved past contending for the same goal and into something more vicious. Havok's group weren't pulling any punches, half-powers Remy's ass, but they weren't really working together either, except for Havok and Polaris, who had worked on the same teams for years. Sunspot and Moonstar had history and could work together, but didn't mesh with anyone else. Colossus should have had plenty of experience working with Havok and Polaris – they were all X-Men when Remy would have laughed in the face of anyone suggesting he might ever be – but he didn't move like he used to, didn't think the way he used to, and there was a rage running under the surface of Colossus' skin that scared Remy. And Husk, that girl just didn't get how to rely on or support any of the others.

Remy's team would seem to be as mixed up and out of tune; it certainly didn't lack in the overweening ego department with him, Jean-Paul, Sage, and Shiro. And Ichiko was driven to prove she should have been picked for one of Emma's squads back at the Westchester school and that kind of insecurity and cockiness made for a reckless operator. But they'd already found a dynamic in the endless clone fight in Tasmania.

That made Remy shake his head. Had that really been only two days ago? He really needed to get his ass down to the Brig and check on Vee and Janos again.

Meanwhile, he had a target to snatch and a team to keep together. None of them were wearing communicators, but that was no longer a problem. He threw out a telepathic net and linked everyone.

Linking Ichiko proved hardest. Her emotions were all over the place, scrambling her thoughts enough to give Remy a raging headache, but the others all slotted into place with startling ease. It still exhausted Remy and slowed his reactions a fraction. Damn Emma for being right again. He needed practice; he needed to be able to use this new talent the same way he charged a card and threw it, reflexive and easy. Emma could have linked everyone and used her telepathy as an offensive weapon at the same time.

He took more knocks than he liked, but the team held its own and he slipped into the office where their target was hidden ahead of anyone from Havok's team. Cracking the safe was child's play for a Master Thief and he had the polyhedron in both hands – it would turn out to be too big to pocket, he'd bet Havok was behind that bit of programming – when the entire front of the building was peeled away. Polaris was hovering outside, responsible for that bit, but it was Archangel who divebombed in, forcing Remy to dodge out in an uncontrolled fall that had him wincing at how bad it was going to hurt when he hit the deck, even with the Danger Room safeties in place to keep it from killing him.

He flipped the polyhedron past Polaris' head, close enough she ducked away thinking he'd charged it. It fell neatly into Domino's outstretched arms, her luck putting her where she needed to be once more, and Remy bent his mind to calculating how fast he was falling since he'd come out of the fifteenth storey. Office spaces filled with panicked hologram people blurred past him, exposed after Polaris opened the building like a tin of sardines. The fall charged his body, gravity providing motion without any energy output from him. He almost wanted to find out if he could walk away from an impact the way Shaw would, but not enough to find out he was wrong. He twisted in the air and hooked the line of climbing rope he carried to one of the harness points on his armor. He needed to throw the grappling hook at just the right moment to catch on a support pillar or something, anything to halt his fall long enough to swing into the next floor below.

Even so, when he hit the end of that rope it was going to hurt like hell –

Shiro snatched Remy out of the air before his thoughts moved past that certainty. The wave of heat dissipated before it could singe Remy's hair; Shiro had him in a tight grip that placed him within the protective field that kept Shiro from burning himself up when he flew. Remy ignored the feverish feeling it gave him; it wasn't much worse than the super-thermals Storm generated to fly in the summer time. He slitted his eyes and wrapped himself around Shiro like a monkey, freeing Shiro's arms so he could maneuver faster.

A plasma bolt seared the air ahead of them, half blinding Remy, and Shiro jigged hard to the right as Sunspot attacked again. The Danger Room shuddered under the impact, holograms flickering briefly as the safeties overloaded. The air seethed with heat; too many energy manipulators in too tight confines, Sunspot, Havok and Shiro all generating plasma in one way or another. Remy's explosions weren't particularly hot, but the debris thrown up added to the heat retention especially in an enclosed space like the Danger Room. The interior fluctuations stressed the temperature control mechanisms to the max. The old Danger Room in Westchester never got stuffy, but the practice sessions had never been this heated in any sense.

For the first time, Remy rather wished Iceman was in the mix. He'd never realized what a difference having Bobby and his awful sense humor and ice-powered practical jokes cooled things down, both physically and emotionally.

Shiro swooped low and Remy let go. He tumbled to the ground,  onto his feet, and sent a fan of charged cards into the face of another building. It blew out a blinding cloud of debris, right in the faces of Polaris, Archangel and Sunspot. He kept moving while he struggled to re-establish the links with his team.

One by one they checked in, sometimes distracted by contending with someone else, and Remy began breathing easier. Once Domino reached one of the little glowing green circles, that would call the end of the spar. So far no one had taken any injury, but he could sense everyone's control fraying as frustration and adrenaline took over for common sense. Sunspot and Shiro – Sunfire and Remy couldn’t help smirking over the ridiculousness of the codenames, though he had to admit that their powers were like enough that it was sort of inevitable they end up with similar codenames – were going at each other furiously. The hologram city beneath their contest looked like Tokyo after Godzilla and Mothra went at it.

Polaris wrenched a bus into the air and shook it, knocking the occupants out like cornflakes from a cereal box, trying to flush out Domino. Sure, they weren't real, just holograms, but it horrified Remy anyway, reminded him of Magneto at his worst, and he winced but couldn't look away. Only his spatial sense saved him from Colossus's fist. He ducked and blew up the pavement under Colossus's feet, dropping him into a sewer main. Every time Colossus tried to climb out, the pavement crumbled under his weight and he fell back. Colossus's rage burned against his shields, out of control and enough to make Remy run without even a smart-ass remark.

Jean-Paul streaked across the sky at full speed and hit Archangel from the side, sending them tumbling out of the air. Remy couldn't see them, but his link with Sage let him know she'd used her martial arts training to take down Husk. She'd knocked the girl out to keep her from peeling down to a skin that would render her impervious to Sage's skills. Sage had Husk in a fireman's carry over her shoulder, basically using her as a shield as she moved through the cityscape to their exit point. Havok couldn't send a plasma bolt her way without frying his own team-mate, so he just shadowed her, uttering uglier and uglier threats as they went.

The Danger Room throbbed with anger so encompassing that it fed on itself. It almost reminded Remy of being a thrall to the Shadow King, the darkest parts of all of them intensified to reign over their normal thoughts and emotions. But this was all them, not a manipulation, years of stress and terror exploding at the first excuse and scapegoat that presented itself: him, him and Jean-Paul, anyone. It didn't matter why though, when he could feel it seeping through even his densest shields, a curl of ink twisting and spreading through the clarity of his thoughts, urging him to take part, to take all his enemies apart, to rip them into shreds, every thought, down to their cells –

And that was how he'd fallen in so easily with the Marauders the first time, how they'd fed him their bloodlust and he'd fed it back into psychosis and happy murder.

He shut down his empathy hard.

He sidled around a dumpster and took in a sight that settled the worry and sorrow in a way he'd never expected: Ichiko was using her armor forcefield to lower the people Polaris had dumped high in the air safely down to the ground. He let the wave of pride he felt for her then rush out and touch her, then added confidence when that startled her enough her control faltered. She had it back before the 'people' dropped more than a couple feet.

It didn't matter at all that they weren't real people.

The empty bus hurtling toward Ichiko detonated the rage he'd been tamping down.

Not that he needed line of sight, much less touch, any longer, but Remy couldn't miss the bus. Ichiko had her back to it and her mind on her rescue effort though. He blew the bus with more force than he had anything in years, tapping far more energy than a hard-light hologram should have provided, ripping apart the atoms of the air the hologram projected on. The explosion flattened the top stories of three buildings and slapped Polaris against the face of another hard enough to break her back if the Danger Room safeties hadn't kicked in. Death began laughing inside his shielded cage, urging Remy to cut loose and really use his talent. A hot red glow filled the false city, radiating from the walls of the Danger Room as Remy charged them.

Jean-Paul's approach registered, but Remy let him make it; they were on the same side. The hand on his forearm startled him though and he glanced down then up to Jean-Paul's face.

"If you blow up the Danger Room, Cyclops will take it out of your allowance," Jean-Paul said. The lightness of his words sounded at odds with the worry on his face.

Remy pulled in a deep breath and then let the energy potentials revert to just that: potential. The infernal glow faded out, followed by the cityscape. A loudspeaker announced, "Simulation ended."

Jean-Paul kept his hand on Remy's arm. Remy quirked a weary smile at him. "Cyke doesn't pay me. I keep telling him he has to, but – "

The rest of both teams trailed around, giving each other tired or nasty looks. Colossus kept slapping one fist into the other hand's palm. Polaris settled to the deck and pressed her hand to the small of her back, muttering, "I've got bruises on my bruises." She gave Remy a look that held more curiosity than resentment. "I didn't know you could do that."

He rolled his shoulders and didn't answer. A thin haze of dust, sublimated from the walls by his power, hung in the air while the Danger Room's fans and vents struggled to evacuate the excess heat. Remy wondered if anyone else realized what it was and that it marked a threat more dangerous than the black marks scored here and there by stray plasma bolts.

"Just another secret," Sunspot said. Remy tensed and glared. "Gambit's got lots of skeletons in his closet, right?" He laughed. "Not the only thing in there either."

Jean-Paul muttered an unflattering description of Sunspot's junk under his breath. His thumb rubbed a tiny circle over Remy's pulse point. Remy didn't pull loose, because the absent movement seemed to soothe Jean-Paul as much as it did Remy.

"Asshole and sore loser, huh?" Polaris commented. Sunspot opened his mouth to turn on her but thought better of it. Maybe he was smarter than he acted.

"Thanks for the spar," Remy said to Havok.

Havok scrubbed a hand over his face and muttered, "Yeah."

~Let's go,~ Remy sent to his team.

Jean-Paul didn't let go of his arm until they were out the door. They ignored Sunspot's deliberately loud, "Viados," though Remy couldn't help picking up the meaning from Sunspot's equally loud thoughts. Deviants.

"Nice," Remy muttered and caught Jean-Paul's hand in his when he let go, because it didn't matter how much you despised the person insulting you, the words could still hurt. He didn't care what Roberto Da Costa thought of him or what the little shit thought of gays, and Jean-Paul had too much pride and smarts to care either, but ... It was still there, a parallel wound to the one the world inflicted on every mutant, and they got over it, the wounds healed over, but the scars were always tender.

They parted to head for their respective quarters and showers, but not before Remy hugged Ichiko, because right then she was the best of them, and he had to laugh at the way she squeaked, and then at the proud, protective looks Domino and Shiro both tried to hide. Sage didn't give away anything, but that was Sage's way. Ichiko didn't quite realize it, but she'd acquired three big brothers and a mercenary mama bear e was too angry. and at the very least an ally in Sage. They were a damn sight more useful to have at her back than the gaggle of self-involved teenagers who had returned to Westchester with Wolverine.

Remy wondered why he'd thought he should go back to the school. He'd never had any desire to be a teacher, hadn't ever taken an apprentice to teach the thieves' arts. He'd partnered with Stormy and Laura, but both of them were capable of getting by on their own. He hadn't done more than show them a trick here or there.

He just didn't know if staying in Utopia would be feasible, long term.

Provided, he acknowledged, that Utopia even survived long term.

Genosha and Avalon hadn't.

He had his shields pulled in tight, keeping everything and everyone out until he reached the sweet relief of the telepath's tower. Otherwise, he would have sensed her waiting just inside.

Instead, Remy closed the door behind him and found himself facing Rogue, all in green from her eyes to her costume. She'd even had a manicure and nail polish on, an indulgence she'd only ever been able to give herself before.

"Hey, sugar, I figured we ought to talk," she said.

Remy stared at her, wordless and weary, before brushing past. He wanted her to go away. He'd hurt her, she'd hurt him, and he couldn't see what they had left to say to one another. She caught his shoulder, fingers digging in, so he turned back to her. "What have we got to say to each other, girl?" He was too tired for this.

Rogue crowded in close to him. "You could've told me you were – " she waved her hand, " – whatever they're calling it, gay, bi, slutty – "

"I like flexible," Remy told her with a humorless leer. Rogue never liked it when he joked. The truth was, she'd didn't have much of a sense of humor. Even casual remarks became digs in Rogue's mind. He went on, because he didn't have any reason to cater to her any longer. He could still see all her good points, and the girl had a lot of them, but they didn't outshine the shitty way she treated him. "Equal opportunity. Or none of your business anymore."

"Oh, you're always going to be my business." Rogue's eyes narrowed. "So why'd you keep it a secret?"

"Keep what?"

"This thing with Northstar!"

"Secret? The whole island knew I spent the night in his bed before I got breakfast the next morning," Remy said. Damn it, why wouldn't she just give up and go away?

"Well, what about being a telepath?" Rogue demanded. "You never told me about that. You never told me a damn thing, that's why I could never trust you. I got sick of it."

"I was supposed to tell you something I didn't know?" Anger was his enemy right now, but Rogue never knew when to quit. Stubborn as a Missouri mule. It made her hell in a fight, but it also made their relationship one long fight.

Rogue needed to shut up and leave, he thought while willing his fingers not to curl into fists. The air, the floors, the walls, all of it pulsed with energy he could unlock with a thought and he felt closer to losing control than he'd been since he was a teenager. Since before Sinister. She just didn't get it; Remy's powers responded to his moods and his subconscious, like most mutants, but he had so much power running under his skin and at his fingertips, it wanted to boil up and burn everything in response to his growing anger. The psychic shielding in the tower muffled his empathy and telepathy, but it did nothing to modulate energy conversion.

"How do I know you didn't know?" Rogue poked him in the chest. He still had on his armor, but it hurt, shifting the chest piece far enough it dug into a bruise over his ribs. In a few hours, the bruise would fade into nothing, because he was healing faster than he ever had before, but it ached for the moment. Rogue knew he'd just come from a practice, so she had to know he'd be sore. She kept talking and Remy forced himself to listen as she went on, "I'm sick of you, always taking off, running back to New Orleans for your stupid Guilds, slinking back to Sinister, and taking off with that X-23 girl – "

"Laura."

"What?"

"Her name is Laura," Remy told her. What right had Rogue to denigrate Laura like that? The disrespect pissed him off.

"I don't care!"

"I get that. I do. She's my friend, though." Remy let a little of his power burn so his eyes flared. "So, have a care how you talk about her."

"This isn't about her anyway," Rogue said. "Did you date me to cover up being gay? Because you'd never have to be with me?  Is that why you always told me you weren't with any other women?"

"I ain't doing this." He moved to walk past her again and she caught his arm and held him. He jerked away, but stopped. "You've got Magneto. Go cry on his shoulder, see how much sympathy he spares for you. I'm done."

"How can you say that!?" Tears clumped Rogue's eyelashes in to dark spikes and ran down to catch at the corners of her mouth before dripping off her chin. She dashed at them with the back of her hand, blinking hard to clear them from her eyes. Rogue always cried pretty, pretended she hated it, but she'd used the tactic too many times on Remy for it to have the same effect. "All I ever wanted was for you to trust me and tell me so I could help you."

"What help have you ever given me, girl?" In a minute, Remy was going to push past the dampeners and make Rogue know exactly how he felt about her now. He had enough control of the empathy thanks to Emma's lessons that he could do that. She wouldn't enjoy it; he could make sure of that too. Maybe he'd show her what he thought of her too: immature, self-involved, insecure, manipulative, bigoted, shallow, and hungry, so damned empty –

"Did you ever really love me?"

"You killed it," Remy replied, silky and vicious with an anger that had been brewing toward her for years. "I loved you. I did. I stopped loving you too, because you’ve got no idea how to love anyone; all you know how to do is take. You've got this endless hollow inside you, Anna. You fill it with everyone's powers and memories, but no matter how much they give, you always want more." He pushed her away from him. "I've got nothing more for you."

Her mouth gaped open.

"That ain't fair at all, Remy. The X-Men – "

"The X-Men. I'm talking about you." Remy clutched at his powers, winding them back in, and stuck with words. "Every god damn one of the X-Men, including you, has done shit they're ashamed of, but I'm the one you're always judging, since before the farce of a 'trial' in Antarctica," Remy snapped at her. His head throbbed, a headache growing behind his eyes from too much power locked down too tight. The muscles in his shoulder and neck were drawn tense and ached, protesting hard use and now this. He knew she'd picked this moment to confront him on purpose, wanted him tired and worn down while she went at him. It wasn't intentional, but Rogue was a creature of instinct. Instinct told her to strike at the weakest point.

It made him hate her, because she knew him that well and just used it against him.

"I had you in my head, that wasn't no farce." Rogue just glared back at him now, the tears forgotten.

Enough, Remy thought through a haze. "You think what you took in Antarctica was the truth?" he heard himself snarl at her. "That wasn' me you got, Rogue, or you'd have got m' powers too! Why'nt you go ask Lehnsherr 'bout that?"

He took a stride forward and loomed over her. She had so much presence, he forgot she wasn't as big as her personality. All the resentment he'd bottled up and set aside boiled up and he knew if he didn't let it out somehow, it was going to explode with worse than words. He knew how to wound her with those too, though. "He'd know since he was pretendin' t' be Erik the Red through the whole 'trial'! You got such a problem with m' lies, but you never called him on his and you never will, will you, 'cause he's the closest you can come to Daddy lovin' you, isn't he?"

"You bastard." She reached for him and Remy slapped her hand away.

"Does Erik hold you on his lap and tell you you're a good girl?" he taunted.

When Rogue reached again, her face contorted with fury, he charged the air around him, knowing as long as he did, she couldn't touch him closely enough for her power to work. "That ain't going to work with me," he told her, just as enraged. If they hadn't been surrounded by the tower's shields, everyone on the island would have felt the confrontation.

She couldn't use her power on him, but Remy could touch her with his. He didn't even need to touch now, though. He sent tingling, glowing charges into the fabric she wore so that she would feel it burning through to her skin. He knew Death was looking out through his eyes with him and wondered if his skin had begun to bleed black. If he just accepted the other, he could reach into her lungs and transform the air within to poison. Maybe just make her choke for air, feel sick and weak and helplessly alone, the way she'd left him in Antarctica. If he did, he could move on after her to Magneto, teach the Master of Magnetism what it felt like to go against another omega mutant. And then there was Mystique and Sabertooth, that sonovabitch Sunspot, then why not Archangel…? It would never end and he'd be the monster everyone thought lurked inside him. No. Remy took a step back and took the charge fizzing through the air with him.

Rogue drew her hands back and curled them into fists. "You've got no right," she said. Remy shook his head, then tossed it to get his sweaty hair out of his eyes. He'd been tired of this roundabout for years and all he wanted was to be rid of it. They were done. Might as well kill the thing between them dead. He said, "You won't let go of nothing ever, you dig and claw and demand answers like you got any right when you don't. You never did – hell, Cyke had more right to ask me questions than you. He was leading the team, responsible if I turned on the X-Men. You – " He snapped his mouth shut and shook his head again. "The hell are you doing here anyway? You think you're going to convince me to crawl back to you again? You want to be the one calling it quits? You think I'm going to apologize because Jean-Paul gave more of a damn about me for one night than you ever have?"

"That's it?" she screamed back. "Northstar's giving you what I wouldn't? Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe he's the one screwing you. That it? Is that it? Is that what's wrong with me? I haven't got a dick to fuck you with?"

As if taking it up the ass had been all that was missing between them. A strap-on could have fixed that. Not that Rogue would ever deign to use a sex toy, any more than she'd try anything that could have let them have sex even before she controlled her absorption power.

She softened her stance further and changed her tactics. Instead of attacking Remy's motives, she called on the guilt he felt, hitting him with the pain he'd made her feel. "Remy, I – I felt your self-hate, you wantin' t' die for what you done." She reached for his face and he jerked away. It wasn't fair to her, but he didn't trust her control. He'd never been afraid of her power before, but he couldn't forget she could kill with her touch.

"Merde, if I wanted to die, I'd've never made it off the ice shelf."

"You're sayin' Magnus fooled the X-Men into leavin' you to die there, sug?" Rogue whispered.

"He fooled the X-Men, Anna. You left me to die."

"I – I –  Why now, Remy, why're you sayin' these things now? Why not before? I thought you forgave me."

"I thought I did." Remy shook his head. So much of this was his fault, with heaping helpings saved for Xavier and Mystique. None of them had done Rogue any favors. "But it's always there, just like the Morlocks are there when you think of me now."

Rogue kept shaking her head. "I don't – I'm not – Why Northstar?"

She'd spent years with Mystique and Destiny. Where was the homophobia coming from? Was it just her ugly Southern roots showing? He shared some of those roots, he knew how insidious that kind of thinking could be. It just didn't fit Rogue. "Why not? Why are you so angry? You knew we were over. You knew before I did. You've moved on."

"I – I feel like I gotta keep you, though. Like I need to stay with the X-Men."

Fucking Xavier had got to her too. Once she figured it out and accepted it, the explosion was going rival a supernova.

She scowled. "That ain't me. Why would I think that?"

"I can't help you with that," Remy told her. "I'm the wrong person. But you could go to – " He groped for a telepath she would and could trust. Not Emma, those two got along like vinegar and salt.  " – Rachel or Betsy. Grey. Go to Nate Grey." Grey had never had much to do with Xavier, but he and Rogue got along. He could help her dig through her head.

"What do ya mean?" Rogue's open expression twisted into anger again. "You think I got voices in my head telling me what to do?"

He didn't say that she used to have exactly that because he knew that was one of the things what she feared most, having another personality take over her body. "No," Remy said, "Or I don't know. Just that Emma found things in my head."

"She says," Rogue mocked.

He shrugged wearily. "Can we just call it quits now? You're never going to trust me and I don't care anymore."

"You're a liar, Remy LeBeau." The rage was gone though, burned out, and Rogue looked thoughtful more than anything else. She tossed her head, the white streak in her hair falling back in her eyes immediately. "But I guess that's Northstar's problem now."

"You chose Magnus." Remy gestured in frustration. "Fine. I choose Jean-Paul. What is your problem with that?"

Her shoulders slumped and her voice turned soft, the venom draining away. "You coulda told me."

"I would have. When you told me about Magnus."

This time when he walked past her, she didn't try to stop him, and he made it all the way to his shower before he blew something up.

~*~

Water still dripped from his hair when he sat down with his laptop this time and Storm answered with the warm smile he always associated with his friend. Every time he saw her, Remy sighed a little, because she was that beautiful, that amazing, and no wonder she'd been worshipped as a goddess. If anyone had the regal demeanor to be queen of Wakanda, it was Storm. Becoming T'Challa's consort still couldn't be easy. Trying to stay with the X-Men and mitigate Cyclops' increasing militancy and balance that with a new marriage and different country had stressed her until she chose Wakanda over Utopia, which that left her feeling guilty, no matter who assured her she had a right to live her own life. So, if her blue eyes were distracted and tight with tension at the corners, Remy chose to give it a pass. Whatever went down in Wakanda, Storm would tell him when she was ready and he'd have her back.

"Hey, padnat."

"Remy." She made his name something better than anyone else did, all fondness and understanding. He wished, futilely, that they were in the same room and he could sink into that feeling until it soaked through all the way to his bones and soul. He wanted her to pet his hair the way she did on the nights he'd slept in her bed after Rogue had been particularly cruel. Selfishly, he wanted some of her time and care right now, no matter that she looked almost as tired as he felt. "I thought you had left Utopia."

"Things changed," he answered, prepared to tell her everything about his evolving powers and secondary mutation before moving on to what really bothered him. He didn't know if he'd ever felt so brittle before.

"So you and Rogue are together again." She was out of the loop. He thought every mutant on the planet must have heard the gossip by now. Now he had to explain what had happened in the last two days on top of talking about his powers.

"I came back because my powers are jacked and a secondary mutation kicked in." He shifted his position on his sofa and had to readjust the laptop's screen to keep the late summer sun coming through the windows from glaring off it. He told himself he'd found a more comfortable position to sit and hadn't just fidgeted. "Rogue's with Magneto."

Storm closed her eyes for a long beat. When she opened them, she spoke gently, "I am sure she will return to you when she has found her balance once more, my friend."

Annoyance wasn't an emotion Remy associated with Storm. It startled him and he shook his head. "My powers changed, Stormy. I get thoughts now, along with feelings – Emma's training me – and me and Anna, we're finished." He made a sour sound. "And I, I – "

"What is it?"

"Spent the night with Jean-Paul."

"Northstar," Storm stated.

He started to explain, because he cared about Storm too much to mislead her. "Oui. We just slept – "

"Gambit, I do not wish to hear this," she said. Remy caught his breath. Her face – he didn't know what that expression meant. He'd grown so used to being able to feel whatever anyone close to him felt that he'd lost the knack of reading an expression. Storm was upset, he could see that much, but was that hurt or anger? He flinched at that thought. "I'm so disappointed in you both. You don't betray someone you love like this."

She was. She was accusing him of betraying Rogue, as if everything Rogue did was his fault. The only defense Remy had against that was anger again.

"She doesn't love me," he said. "She never did." Before Magneto, there's been Joseph and Pulse and that Cameron fuck down in Mississippi. When he started thinking about it, Rogue had always been looking for someone else, something else, but somehow, no one ever called her on any of it. Remy dug his fingers into the couch cushion. Storm knew everything that had happened between Rogue and Remy and she was taking Rogue's part. He didn't understand why, but it hurt. It hurt like hell.

"She's hurt – "

He laughed without a hint of humor. "What about I'm hurt?"

Storm's look of disapproval deepened. "You will get over it. Rogue has been through a great deal in her life, Remy. You need to be more understanding. The way Mystique raised her and the trauma of her power has left her with deep wounds. You must believe she loves you as you love her."

"Did you hear me at all?" Remy asked. "Do you hear yourself? This isn't you and T'Challa disagreeing over politics. It's Rogue rolling around in bed with Magneto. I'm supposed to 'get over' that?" He refused to defend himself over the accusation he'd been with Jean-Paul. "'Ro – "

"So, if you're hurt, it is excuse enough to betray Rogue?" she demanded. "Both of you need to commit yourself to this relationship. Rogue has made a mistake, but so have you, and giving up now after you've both been through so much would be a worse mistake. You must see that."

"No, I see that – you know, forget it," Remy snapped. The sick feeling he'd hoped she would help him dissolve grew worse instead. Remy hadn't prayed in years. The only person who had ever answered any prayer of his had been Essex and Essex had turned out to be worse than the Devil.

"So, you slept with someone else to punish Rogue?"

"Not everything is about Rogue," Remy said. He'd begun to shake. What was going on in Wakanda to make Storm act like this toward him?

"I believed you were better than this. You're being cruel by – by fucking around with Northstar – how could you do that to someone you love?" He'd never heard her use that word for sex. Storm was never crude. He listened to her voice break and trail away on the last words and couldn't stand it. Whatever was happening in her marriage, Storm was too caught in it to hear anything else. She couldn't help him, he knew that, and if she said anything more, he would never feel the same about her.

"Ask Rogue how she did it," he suggested.

Storm let out a sob and said, "Remy, no – " He shut the laptop on whatever else Storm would have said. He shoved it away from him hard enough it tumbled to the floor.

"Fuck," muttered. He couldn't stay in his faceless, insulated quarters. He'd thought it would be a refuge, but he'd keep thinking and go insane. He stepped over the laptop on his way out the door. He needed to get what had happened clear in his head and then talk with Jean-Paul before everything blew up in their faces. If he was getting this kind of reaction from a friend, Jean-Paul might be getting worse.

~*~

It had already been a long day – summer days were anyway – and Jean-Paul had meant to relax and appreciate the simple pleasure of being alone. It hadn't been working because his brain kept turning and turning over the events of the day and he'd begun to doubt himself. He'd begun to worry. He'd begun worrying about Remy.

He'd been right. The wave of misery that crested over Jean-Paul before cutting off could only belong to Remy. If anything, it felt stronger – worse – than the unhappiness Remy had radiated the night before. Jean-Paul put down the book he'd been aimlessly skimming for the last half hour and started out of his quarters before he'd consciously made the decision to find his team mate. He followed his instincts, remembering he'd encountered Remy down on the beach before, and headed for the rocks on the island's western side.

The reddened sun sliding down silhouetted the figure sitting knees and neck bent out at the very edge of the breakwater, where the waves tossed restlessly against the stone, spraying them with a constant mist. Jean-Paul picked his way over the slick rocks without speaking. When he reached Remy, there was just enough light to catch in a crystal glitter on the mist beading Remy's shoulders and hair. If he wasn't wet through, at least he hadn't been out there too long.

He lowered himself onto the cold, wet stone next to Remy, close enough he could feel the heat coming off his body, though they weren't touching. Energy converters. Some of them, like Sunfire and that unbearable little prick Sunspot, ran so hot the mist would have steamed off them. He stopped himself just as his hand hovered over the curve of Remy's spine. All day he'd been touching Remy and Remy had accepted it, but that had been in front of everyone else. It was no guarantee Remy wanted Jean-Paul to touch him, that he'd liked it as much as Jean-Paul had.

Remy turned his head just far enough one scarlet eye squinted at him through the curtain of his damp-darkened hair. "Why're you out here?" he asked. The creak in his voice gave away a throat tightened by too much emotion. Jean-Paul gave into the hope it would be welcome and let his hand settle. Remy shuddered under the weight of that touch but didn't move away, just kept watching Jean-Paul with one eye.

"I felt something was wrong."

"My shields are not so good right now. Sorry."

"I don't think anyone else felt it," Jean-Paul offered. He didn't want to believe anyone could have felt that and not responded to the pain.

"Huh."

Remy's shoulders were tensed and hard under Jean-Paul's palm, all muscle and bone right under the skin and the thin layer of his shirt. He flexed his fingers against the damp fabric before stroking down between Remy's shoulder blades, stopping himself before the touch moved from friendly to intimate, while hoping he'd feel Remy relax even a little. It hit him now, that the game he'd pulled Remy into this morning might have consequences for Remy that it wouldn't have for Jean-Paul. Coming out was a lifetime of explanations and corrections of the assumption of heterosexuality, but Jean-Paul's had been very public and he seldom had to deal with anyone who didn't already know about him any longer. Coming out and getting outed were not the same at all and, while Remy had made his bisexuality clear enough the night before, that hadn't meant he was okay with declaiming it to all of Utopia. He'd just gone along with Jean-Paul's choice to let everyone believe the early morning rumors, probably to keep from embarrassing Jean-Paul by seeming to reject him.

Merde.

Neither of them had considered the potential consequences to Remy's other relationships besides Rogue.

"I think I owe you an apology," Jean-Paul said.

"Non." Remy lifted his head enough to look out over the water. The change in position pressed his back against Jean-Paul's hand.

"I shouldn't have made a game of it this morning."

Remy's wordless snort disagreed with him. "Only funny thing all day, mon ami."

Before Jean-Paul could figure out what to say next, Remy inched over and leaned into him. Instead of having a hand on Remy's back, Jean-Paul found himself with his arm around Remy's shoulders, holding onto him, while Remy tucked his head into the crook of Jean-Paul's neck.

"I called my Stormy – " Remy stopped, cleared his throat, and began again, tone leached of emotion, and Jean-Paul ached as he said, "I skyped Storm. She – " Words failed him again. Jean-Paul tightened his arm and stared at the dark water in disbelief. Storm? Storm had done or said whatever had Remy spiraling down? He didn't know her well, but Ororo Munroe had always been the epitome of courtesy and kindness toward Jean-Paul when he'd been at Westchester.

Remy's breath hitched. "She's always disapproved of some of the things I do, my staying with the Thieves' Guild, but she forgave me. She even forgave me for working for Sinister, for leading the Marauders to the Morlocks. For all my mistakes."

Jean-Paul swallowed against the thickness in his own throat.

Remy shook his head without lifting it away from Jean-Paul. His shields were slipping again, regret and betrayal rolling choking thick from him. "Something's wrong. She'd never talk the way she did to me, if something wasn't wrong."

"She told me to go back to Rogue."

Jean-Paul jerked in disbelief. Unbelievable.

Remy shook his head again. His hair drifted and caught against Jean-Paul's jaw. Jean-Paul brushed it away and without thinking smoothed his hand over Remy's head, then held it there. He had no idea how to help. Did Storm say that, knowing Rogue was sleeping with Magneto? Something had gone badly wrong, because that wasn't the Storm Jean-Paul had known.

"She didn't mean it," he murmured while hoping he was right.

"What if she did?"

"We could go to Wakanda and make sure that was really Storm," he suggested. He doubted she'd been replaced by some impostor, but the possibility existed in their world.

They'd probably get thrown out of Wakanda, but  he could let Storm know, one way or another, of the damage she'd done. He wasn't angry over what she might think of him. He'd keep it civil, but she needed to hear the truth, all of it, and fix what she'd messed up.

Later though, because Remy was leaning into him, his weight going pliant, the fingers he'd wound into Jean-Paul's shirt front gone loose. "I'm tired," Remy muttered.

"Then we should get you back to your quarters."

"Stay with me?" Remy asked.

"Oui."

Remy followed him when Jean-Paul rose to his feet. It felt natural to take his hand as they made their way back off the rocks, shivering a little as the chill in the damp air became something they both noticed. They went back to Remy's quarters, since Remy needed the shielding, and Jean-Paul had to wince at the stark lack of personal effects. The laptop abandoned on the floor provided the only evidence of someone living in the rooms. He went back and righted it, leaving it on the coffee table, after Remy stretched out on his bed and closed his eyes.

Leaving at that point would have been the smarter choice, but Jean-Paul hadn't won much in life playing it safe. He went back into the bedroom and settled himself on the bed next to Remy. Staying while Remy slept felt natural and right and waking in the night to pull a blanket over them felt good enough Jean-Paul wondered what it would be like if they were together.

If they were going to pay the price, shouldn't they get the prize?

 

Chapter Text

Sinister's Antarctica installation had been trashed during the mad race to find and control the first new mutant born since M-Day. No one had come back since. Snow dusted across the silvery-blue floors and lay in drifts in the corners. Ice sheened the exposed, red-threaded conduits that twisted and entwined through the corridors and chambers. Only random flickering emergency lights running on chemical reactions were left to throw a sickly yellow-green light.

Remy charged the air around him, doing a sloppy job of it so heat leaked, keeping him warm. He'd learned that trick when Rogue left him on the ice shelf to die. He'd grown too weak to keep it up after days and thought he would die in that white hell. These days he figured he could finish the job global warming had started and raise the level of the oceans without much effort. Being an omega mutant was a litany of things he could do, which he mustn't if he wanted to live with himself afterward.

He still wasn't Magneto.

His guts cramped when he stepped over a frozen blood stain. His blood, from the confrontation between the X-Men and the New Marauders. Wolverine's claws had still been warm when they sliced through his body armor, but the metal had chilled to near freezing before Wolverine finished his torture slash interrogation session.

Remy had still been breathing, even able to move – crawl – when Wolverine and the X-Men had left, but he'd never been entirely sure if that had been purposeful or not. Wolverine might have assumed Remy would die before he could get help from any of the other Marauders. He certainly hadn't known Remy's own powers had amped up enough to heal him. 

He hadn't allowed himself to think about that since.

Joining Wolverine's new school seemed like a bad idea now he had. He and Remy hadn't spent any time alone or evenon the same teams since. Too much going on too fast and now Wolverine had left again. For all he knew, Wolverine wouldn't want him in Westchester; he'd only talked to Iceman, after all.

Dieu, what the hell would he teach at a school anyway? Sex ed?

Skirting around the frost-furred stain took him into the narrower passages, the ones leading back to Sinister's private rooms. Once he had checked for booby-traps, Remy whistled for Sage and the others to join him. Sinister had an isolated system hidden in his library. Remy had been snooping, bored, one evening and figured out the terminals Sinister used in there did not exist in the main base network.

"It's all yours," he told Sage now. "Could be something interesting on it, oui?"

She glanced up at him with one dark eyebrow raised and asked, "Is there anything specific we're looking for?"

"Non."

"Not the Nursery?"

"What's the Nursery?" Ichiko asked.

Remy looked up and realized the rest of the team were all looking at him curiously too. His first instinct was to evade and offer some cover story, but he had no real reason not to tell them.

"I don't know," he said. "It's something of Sinister's, something... I keep dreaming about opening it up for him." He held up his open hands. "Maybe I'm just crazy, hein?"

Jean-Paul touched his shoulder, his hand fitting over the ball and squeezing once, warm and reassuring. Domino shrugged. But Sunfire looked thoughtful. "Sinister got in our heads – yours most of all – so if you're dreaming about it, it's worth worrying about."

"Thanks," Remy muttered. "I think."

Sage had already begun delving past Sinister's security measures. Remy glanced around and thought that secret lairs all looked the same. With just a little more frost and desperation, this could be Magneto's abandoned base, the one where he'd scrabbled for shelter and sustenance after the mockery of a trial Mags had orchestrated. He honestly didn't know how he'd survived, when Rogue had ripped his heart out as she took off and left him on the ice.

A shudder rolled through him.

"Are you okay?" Jean-Paul asked him quietly.

Remy gave him a side-eye. "Just bad memories here."

"Of Sinister?"

Remy shook his head. "Non. Magneto, my 'trial', Rogue, Wolverine... " His gaze strayed back to the pool of frozen blood. "Almost died right over there." The corner of his mouth kicked up and he lowered his voice so only Jean-Paul would hear. "Essex patched me up."

Jean-Paul made a sound that couldn't be considered a word, but conveyed understanding and sympathy. He was standing close enough Remy needed to only step back and he could lean into the warmth radiating off him. He wanted to take that step.

Remy jolted forward instead. Epiphany, the hell. It felt more like a two-by-four slammed into the back of the head as he realized what he wanted. That he wanted.

He tensed then fortified every shield and defense surrounding his mind and emotions.

Sage's surprised exhale and paused fingers helped, drawing Remy and everyone else's attention.

"What?" Domino asked as she leaned over to read the screen too.

"Hansford," Sage said.

"Hansford where?" Sunfire asked.

Remy frowned, thinking he should recognize the place name, though he knew he'd never been there.

"It's a powered down nuclear facility in Washington," Sage explained. "Old and despite claims of being cleaned up, still with a way higher rad count locally than should be comfortable for anyone."

"But no meltdown?" Jean-Paul asked. He'd crossed his arms over his chest and looked annoyed.

"No meltdown," Sage agreed.

"So why is – or was – Sinister interested in it?"

Sage rolled her shoulders while lifting her eyebrows. "How am I supposed to know? It's mentioned as a tesseract target multiple times in the power usage logs I found." She scrolled through the logs, highlighting each incidence. "Other than that, there's a note. That's what got my attention."

The whole team crowded close enough to look over Sage's shoulder. Ichiko grumbled about too many tall people until Jean-Paul slid her in front of him.

"Here," Sage added.

Sufficient background radiation for Nursery project, but monitored by government – would pose difficulties. Continue search for facility locations. List as secondary option one.

Remy stared at the screen and shuddered. The Nursery, whatever it was, was real and not some fucked up nightmare he'd cobbled together in his unconscious. "Merde."

Jean-Paul's hand settled on his back and stroked soothingly. Remy tensed like a bow string, hyper aware of the touch the way he hadn't been only minutes before. He could open his senses and feel whatever Jean-Paul was feeling toward him, know without a doubt if the contact between them was platonic or more, but he was afraid to know.

"Guess that's all we're going to get out of this place," Domino commented. "It's been cleaned out."

"Oui," Remy croaked. "Let's just get back to Utopia."

He reached out and powered up a tesseract. Now he had the hang of it, it took less time and energy, even without a power plant to tap.

His thoughts skipped away from Jean-Paul and the abrupt, terrifying attraction Remy felt toward him and settled on the idea of power plants. Sinister's bases needed huge amounts of power. Strong enough to create energy signatures that had to be shielded if they weren't going to be found. But Sinister wouldn't rely just on shielding. He'd want camouflage.

Where would no one ever notice a power plant?

At a power plant, Remy answered himself.

~*~

Remy gave Cyclops a clipped report on what they had and hadn't found (ruined equipment and cryptic data), before bolting away from the rest of his team. He snagged civvies and a set of sunglasses to hide his telltale eyes and used a tesseract to take himself to San Francisco. He knew Fontenelle had a sex dungeon somewhere in the Haight and even if she couldn't dreamscrape any longer, she knew his head about as well as anyone did except Emma.

He didn't feel up to coping with Emma when he could predict her reaction.

Not to mention the command structure of Utopia had been heading into a briefing room when he slipped away. The anti-mutant riots in Boston and Seattle were worrying everyone. Even de-powered, mutants remained the favorite hate target in the US, to the point it seemed like someone must be stirring the hate up deliberately. Emma had more important things to deal with than Remy's uncomfortable sexual epiphanies. Though, he thought with a twist of self-mockery, she could probably use the laugh.

Hands in his pockets to derail the old habit of picking someone else's pockets, Remy made his way through tourists still trying to find the remains of the Summer of Love. Their thoughts made his head ache. At least his team didn't have to deal with civilians.

He found the pale yellow Victorian house at cusp of late afternoon and early evening, when the light turned to melted gold and flared like fire from every smooth surface. Remy lacked a feral's super senses, but he could feel, even smell and taste, the difference in the air, the shift to cooler, damper, to the promise of fog rolling in before morning. It wasn't anything like the humid air of the bayous, but he liked it.

A young man in gray trousers and a suit vest led Remy inside to a parlor overlooking the street, disappearing without a word once Remy took off his sunglasses and said, "Ask Fontenelle if she has time for Gambit, please."

He helped himself to a bourbon from the array of cut crystal decanters set on a tray and occupied himself with the color and swirl of it in the heavy tumbler that warmed slowly under his fingertips. He didn't charge liquids often, the volume tended to dissipate the effect, but alcohol tingled to his senses, with its higher potential energy yield. He supposed there was a boring direct correlation between proof and energy yield. It would be more fun if the good stuff exploded better. The bourbon warmed his chilled nerves when he swallowed, but he didn't want to get drunk yet, so he set the tumbler down when he finished rather than refill it.

He remembered he'd promised to replace the bottle Jean-Paul had opened for him. The slight relaxation he'd achieved in the quiet parlor disappeared and his shoulders tensed.

"That doesn't look good," Fontenelle commented as she entered, looking like a crow in a cotton candy nest. Age hadn't been kind to Fontenelle, she was no jolly lady, just bone and gristle, squint and laugh lines, sharp bones and bird bright eyes. The black PVC dominatrix outfit she wore like a second skin added to her disturbing aura. Fontenelle was never a physical threat to anyone, though: it was her mind and the knowledge of others she'd gleaned through decades sorting through their dreams that made her frightening.

Remy cocked an eyebrow at her in response. "What?"

"The way you just tensed up, sweetling," she said. Her nails clicked against the crystal as she poured herself a drink and regarded him over the tumbler afterward, silently challenging him to deny what she'd seen.

Remy rolled his shoulder before grimacing an admission Fontenelle was right. His muscles had gone steel wire tight.

"Sit down and tell Fontenelle all about it."

Remy only hesitated a moment before sitting on the overly-embellished lounge. He listened to it creak and only let himself sprawl out once he knew it wasn't going to collapse under his weight. Antiques might be lovely to look at but they were never very comfortable.

Fontenelle seated herself opposite him. When he didn't start talking immediately, she raised her eyebrows.

If it were done, it would best it were done quickly, or some Shakespearean crap, Remy told himself. All those damn quotes and plays got jumbled up after a while.

"I think I'm falling for Northstar."

"You think?"

"Feh, fine, I know. I just don't know what to do about it."

Fontenelle sipped her drink before asking, "So why are you here?"

"You've dreamscraped just about everyone who has ever known me. You've been in my dreams, thanks to New Son." Fontenelle nodded along with him. "You're a mutant – "

"Was."

"Once and always, if you ask any Purity fanatic out there."

"True."

"And you're a trained therapist," Remy finished.

Surprise escaped Fontenelle's control and she snorted inelegantly. "Sweetling, I'm not crazy enough to try to fix everything making you crazy."

Remy laughed despite himself. "I just need to talk it out with someone who isn't in the Guilds or the X-Men or a Marauder."

"You do know I usually charge for my services."

"Oui."

"Well, we have the rest of the evening, though I have a charming gentleman scheduled for a session at midnight."

"I'll try to finish before then, cher. Wouldn't want anyone to miss a caning."

~*~

Scott scanned the monitors showing feeds from news organizations, police and intelligence agencies, and the comms Utopia's covert teams were transmitting. Heaving mobs filled the streets in three different US cities. Smoke and flames billowed from urban wreckage in Seattle, site of the city's mutant district. Mutant zones remained where those unfortunates who had lost their abilities but not their physical differences were forced to exist in as miserable of circumstances as could be found. Other screens showed crowds shoving past lackadaisical police lines. Some carried signs, some carried stones.

One sign, fluttering off the two-by-four it had been nailed on, caught his attention, before it was trampled. The mob pushed past the paltry sawhorses set up to hold people back. The police, barely a presence anyway, made only a perfunctory effort toward to stop anyone. The telepaths could get in their superiors' heads and push them into giving orders to defend the mutant neighborhoods, but they couldn't make the cops want to do the jobs. It had to do, though, because any other form of crowd control would be too obvious.

Burn the vermin out the sign shouted in bright red.

He grunted under his breath, unimpressed. Couldn't they at least come up with something new? Vermin, animals, beast, things, mutants, all words geared to reinforce their own definition of who was and wasn't human. The world was running out of groups it was acceptable to hate and then mutants came along and everyone could get their hate on again.

Emma clacked across the floor, sharp heels defying anyone to ignore her, and stopped beside him. She skimmed her gaze over the monitors and sneered. "I'm all for burning the vermin out too," she remarked, "so long as I'm the one defining them."

Scott suppressed a smile because he knew Emma's definition.

"Storm will rain out any effort at burning the mutant neighborhood in Boston," Emma said. She squeezed his arm. "It isn't as bad there as some places anyway. Chamber is working on finding the main instigators and says most people there are not receptive to the hardcore anti-mutant message. There are even a few counter-demonstrations in the offing."

"Wonderful," Scott muttered. Both sides would clash and mutants would get the blame for whoever got hurt without even being present. His gaze strayed back to the monitors showing Seattle. Empath was in Philadelphia, keeping the mob there calm, though influencing so many people might tax the mutant into collapsing. It would be worth it though: once the mobs dispersed, they wouldn't be energized enough to assemble again for some time. "Gamibt's an empath – can we get him to Seattle?"

"No."

The snap in Emma's voice made Scott glance at her, surprised. She'd been enthusiastic over Gambit's expanded abilities. She even seemed to be enjoying teaching him, though she'd never admit it. Aside from the Cuckoos, Scott would say Gambit was her favorite. He'd honestly thought she'd be in favor of reintegrating Gambit into regular X-Men ops.

"Why not?"

"Aside from subjecting him to the kind of emotions that can overwhelm even an experienced psi's shields?" Emma asked. ~Empath is going to be useless for a week at least.~

Scott knew there was more and waited despite the impatience itching along his nerves.

"Gambit's empathy is primarily passive," Emma added. "It may not have started that way, but he's strangled it down for most of his life. Trying to manipulate a mob isn't something he's ready for." ~Especially mentally. He has a lot of psychological scarring linked to that 'charm'. A lot of victim blaming.~

Scott made a face, unsure whether he felt worse that he didn't have a potential asset or over whatever Gambit had endured thanks to his mutations.

"Stopping the mobs before they form is a better strategy," Emma said.

"How do you suggest we do that?"

"Find the instigators and find out what they have to hide. Then get it and use it."

"That's blackmail."

Emma raised an eyebrow.

Scott watched the flames beginning to lick across the Seattle skyline.

"If it works," he said, "we can move on to Washington."

Professor Xavier wouldn't approve. Professor X had had years of them trying to do it his way. Magneto too.Xavier and Magneto had both failed. Scott didn't care so much over what way was right, so long as something worked.

"How is Gambit's training going otherwise?"

"Very well." ~I think you should consider integrating Riptide and Vertigo into Gambit's team. They'll respond better to him than any of the other team leaders.~

Emma was right, but Scott didn't look forward to the outcry he'd get over adding more ex-Marauders to their numbers. He hated admitting it, but Wolverine was right sometimes. The X-Men, including himself, could be a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites. They couldn't afford to be picky any longer. Vertigo and Riptide were strong fighters and could make a difference. He doubted either of them would be bothered by Gambit and Northstar's liaison either, since they had no personal connections to Rogue.

"I'll think about it. Scalphunter and Arclight too?"

Emma nodded. "Assign Scalphunter to work with Boxx testing defensive weapons systems for a while. Pair Arclight with Frenzy."

~*~

"So relax and let it happen," Fontenelle told him after Remy sketched out what had occurred since he returned from LA.

He wanted to do that, but distrusted the whole situation. Getting into something with Jean-Paul while Rogue still had a stick in her craw felt too much like juggling nitroglycerin. His serious relationships tended to end badly.

"Maybe I should just stick to flirting."

"You're not a coward, Gambit."

Remy didn't think he was. Not in a fight. Emotionally, though, he felt out of his depth. He didn't know what Jean-Paul felt either, though he could find out. It would be wrong though, he thought, and unfair. Jean-Paul couldn't know what Remy felt unless Remy let him.

It wasn't that Remy had any great attachment to playing things fair, but caring... that was different than playing, wasn't it? He didn't want to make a game of Jean-Paul. Didn't want to hurt him the way he'd hurt too many others.

"Can't blame me for not wanting to get hurt, can you?"

"No one wants to get hurt," Fontenelle agreed. She left her seat and came over to sit beside Remy. It forced him to sit up straighter to give her room. She touched his cheek and he went still, surprised by the contact, before jerking away. Fontenelle had never been one for touching her subjects. Dreamscrapes, by their nature, were detached from the physical. She wore gloves as part of her dominatrix persona, keeping clients at a distance even when they got off, and psychologists kept things cerebral with their patients.

He wasn't client or patient, though.

Remy still gave her a betrayed look through his lashes.

"And that's still your baseline reaction, isn't it?" Fontenelle went on. She brought her hand to her lap while meeting Remy's gaze with understanding. "You expect to be hurt."

He couldn't find anything to say.

"Even though you could read my emotions, even my intentions from my thoughts, you still expect a blow before anything else. You're crippling yourself, cutting off a chance before it can even become something. And it's why you fell for Rogue so hard and stayed beside her so long."

His breath stuck in his throat. Others had said those same things to him, but he'd always brushed aside the insight, focusing on Rogue's fuck ups and ignoring his own. He'd thought their damage fit them together. All it had done was make sure they could never fit at all.

"Merde."

Fontenelle smiled at him. "So now you understand."

"Oui." Remy coughed before repeating himself. "Oui."

"It okay to use your talent, so long as you don't use it against someone, you know," she added. "It's a sense, just like your sight. If you kissed a blind man, would you close your eyes?"

"Maybe."

She swatted at him and Remy mustered a smile in return, feeling better, if no surer of himself.

"It just feels foolish, to fall into something with someone so fast after Rogue. I loved her. How can I – "

"It's not fast, Gambit, you know very well. Stop lying to yourself. You cared about Rogue, but you haven't been in love with her for some time." The snap in Fontenelle's voice brought Remy up short and he nodded despite himself.

"It still feels like I'm just – " he snapped his fingers, " – with Jean-Paul out of nowhere."

"Then take it slow, but for God's sake, take a chance on him."

"You don't even know him. I'm not sure I know him, really."

"Try."

"Do I make my check out of Fontenelle or Yoda?"

She scowled at him. "I wasn't aware you were going to pay me."

"I'm not," he replied as he got to his feet, then bent and kissed her cheek. "But I am going to get out here. Maybe I'll ask Jean-Paul to dinner. It's still early."

"Good idea. Let it happen, if it will."

"I've never fallen in love with a man before."

Fontenelle snorted. "Liar. You loved Courier. All that flirting and dragging him into trouble. That wasn't for New Son."

"And look what happened to him because of me," Remy said in a flat tone. Jake had ended up in Sinister's hands, then stuck in a female version of his body, much of his ability to change shape curtailed. Their friendship had never been the same.

"He ended up with that Conaway woman, didn't he? Perfectly happy. You didn't destroy his life."

Remy sucked in a deep breath. Jake was happy with Sehkmet. They would never have met if it weren't for Remy. And he'd made his choices, taken the path that led away from what he could have tried and gone back to the X-Men and then the Marauders once again. If he didn't like how that had ended up, he had no one to blame but himself, but he wasn't going to blame himself what he hadn't done and he hadn't ruined Jake's life.

Frankly, Jake wouldn't have anything to do with him if he'd blamed Remy for anything, no matter how he whined and complained, and he was still taking Remy's calls.

When Remy called, which he hadn't since he'd taken on the Death persona.

Something settled in him. Maybe he'd call Jake in a few days. Tonight, he'd call Jean-Paul.

"Merci, cher," he murmured to Fontenelle.

"Shoo," she replied.

~*~

Remy's invitation surprised Jean-Paul. He'd sensed Remy distancing himself after the last mission. It hadn't surprised him. After all, the half-life of a practical joke couldn't go beyond a few days. Pretending they were lovers wasn't something Remy would want to keep up too long.

Surprise didn't stop him saying yes. Remy was good company and dinner with him sounded far more appealing, even just as friends, than staying on the island or going partying with Allison or the kids they often ended up trying to chaperone. It wasn't so long since he'd been a teenager, but Jean-Paul felt sure he hadn't been quite as cocky as this bunch were.

Then again, he hadn't gone up against supervillains and won, so maybe Pixie and the rest were entitled.

He took a taxi from the ferry dock to the restaurant Remy had mentioned. Remy was waiting in the bar and they were escorted to a table in a semi-private nook with a nice view of the rest of the dining room and a set of windows that looked out on the bay.

He let Remy lead the easy conversation, all casual subjects fit for being out in public, their voices low, another note in the tidal sough of the other diners talking around them. The delicate chink and tinkle of crystal, china and silver punctuated the meal. He wasn't surprised that he enjoyed the dinner, only by how much, and wished Remy didn't look so tired around the eyes, though his smiles seemed real enough.

"Shielding getting to you?" Jean-Paul asked before their waiter could ask if they wanted something from the dessert tray. He didn't want to order something and prolong their stay if Remy needed to leave. Remy had been toying with a fork, but set it down, though his hand remained resting on the table. Jean-Paul placed his palm over it without thinking.

A shake of Remy's head answered him, then a rueful smile and a real answer. "Non, non, Emma's a good teacher. It's much easier now and no one here is feeling anything too strong or unpleasant." He turned his hand under Jean-Paul's and threaded his long fingers between Jean-Paul's. "This doesn't bother anyone; this is San Francisco. And we aren't obvious enough, otherwise."

No one would notice either of them were mutants unless they paid close attention. Jean-Paul's hair was long enough to disguise the points to his ears and Remy kept his eyes cast down, mostly hidden behind his hair. Jean-Paul supposed it was a trade-off: Remy's hair might get in his eyes sometimes in a fight, but it let him conceal his only obvious mutation.

"So, cher, dessert?" Remy prompted.

"Tiramisu," Jean-Paul agreed.

Remy ordered a coffee for himself but ended up sharing the ridiculously generous serving off Jean-Paul's plate. Not off the same fork or anything overly romantic, just a bite or two, but Jean-Paul couldn't stop himself looking at Remy's mouth when he thoughtlessly licked his lips.

Remy went still and looked back at Jean-Paul while his pupils blew wide and dark against the crimson iris.

"I'm not imagining that, am I?" Remy asked.

Jean-Paul pressed his lips into a thin line before admitting, "No."

Before he could apologize or wave his attraction away as something easily ignored, Remy smiled at him. "Good."

"Good?"

Jean-Paul knew he was smiling too wide back, but that... that had a warmth he hadn't felt in too long filling him up. Remy smiled back with obvious relief.

They finished and left without pushing the matter, though that extra awareness thrummed between them.

"Walk back to the ferry?" Remy asked. "We can make the last one. Or I can open a tesseract."

"Walk," Jean-Paul chose. It would give him more time with Remy.

They ended up walking shoulder to shoulder down the sidewalk, in and out of the pools of light from the streetlamps, and it came naturally to tangle their fingers together. This wasn't the way Jean-Paul conducted most of his liaisons. Except for Kyle, he'd kept himself to casual hook-ups, mostly one night stands, with little or no build up or follow up. He'd find someone who wanted him that he wanted and they'd have sex. Remy was going to be work. He liked the idea, though.

"There's things I'm going to tell you about me," Remy said. The wind off the water had taken on a chill and they both moved into the cover of a nearby building. Remy's eyes gleamed scarlet in the shadows. "And I'd rather do it here and not where I'm going to try to sleep."

"Since I already know about Mr. Sinister and the Marauders, even Apocalypse, I can't imagine it will be too... " Jean-Paul trailed off because he could feel Remy's deep discomfort. This wasn't a joking matter.

"I never told Rogue this stuff."

"Why not?"

"It's nothing anyone would ever want to remember."

"You don't have to tell me."

Remy chuckled, his tone a little sour. "I know. It's nothing that anyone has a right to know, but... it's a big part of why I am the way I am, I guess. Plus, Emma's going to know soon, the next time we work on assimilating my Horseman powers."

Jean-Paul remembered the trip they'd taken to Limbo not long ago and the way Gambit had transformed into Death, exerting a kind of mind control over Dazzler and himself and taking over an army of demons effortlessly. He asked, "You still have those powers?" He'd thought Sinister removed them. Certainly, the rest of the X-Men seemed under that impression, enough that no one had really questioned what happened on that mission after Pixie brought them and Magik back from Limbo.

"Oui," Remy muttered. "Everything went haywire in LA, before I came back, when the telepathy kicked in. Death took over. I was lucky Emma answered when I yelled for help." He shivered a little, shaking his head. "My charm... the empathy? That's only worked on someone close or in the same room. The telepathy is so much stronger. I thought I'd drown in it."

Jean-Paul resisted the urge to crowd closer and wrap an arm around Remy's shoulders. This wasn't the right moment. "That's not what you meant to talk about, is it?"

"Non."

Remy's longers fingers twitched, restless without a card or a cigarette between them. Eventually, he turned his head away before beginning to speak. "You know the story, right? No one wants a mutant baby with demon eyes."

Jean-Paul cringed.

"Found in a gutter, taken to the hospital, disappeared from there. Lived on the streets, picked pockets, stole, whatever I could get away with until I picked the pocket of the leader of the Thieves' Guild and ended up adopted, oui? Star-crossed love with the daughter of the leader of the assassins, married to broker peace between the guilds, duel to the death with the brother, exile. Romantic, except I lose control of my charge and end up going to Sinister for help."

Remy shoved his hands into his pockets at last, then hunched his shoulders. "All true, but I left something out. Funny, none of the X-Men ever questioned it, either. I mean, what the hell did they think I did before I was old enough to run or climb into a dumpster?" 

He stared out at the dark water and the lights of various boats along the path the ferry from Utopia would cross and tonelessly told Jean-Paul about the Antiquary, the Collector of things rare and unique, like pretty children with crimson eyes. The Antiquary had the power to compel even Jean-Luc LeBeau to do his bidding at that time. The description of the Velvet Ministry, where the Antiquary kept his favorites until they grew too old to please him and he drained them of their psychic energies made Jean-Paul swallow down the urge to wretch. He wondered if either the elder LeBeau or the Antiquary were still in New Orleans and only realized he'd said so when Remy answered.

"Non. They're both gone. Belladonna rules the United Guilds of New Orleans now."

A half-dozen of the kids from Utopia stumbled down to the dock, laughing and obviously buzzed, as the ferry drew up.

Remy was watching Jean-Paul. The cynical slant to his mouth went with the way he stood braced against however Jean-Paul would react. The wariness, Jean-Paul understood now, went back to the child who never had a childhood.

Remy still had his hands in his pockets. Jean-Paul touched Remy's elbow and took his hand when Remy drew it out, then walked over to the ferry, ignoring the looks and giggles, hand in hand with him.

"I'll get a change of clothes and come to your quarters," Jean-Paul said. "If that's okay? We can talk more."

Remy nodded.

He had things to tell Remy too, about his past and his sister. Because if Remy became involved with Jean-Paul, he would automatically be involved in a sense with Jean-Marie. And Jean-Marie's troubles were too long term to dream that they would ever be over. He wanted her to be better, to be happy, and to find some balance, but there would always be setbacks. He'd accepted that, probably better than Jean-Marie did. Of course, it would help if no one kidnapped and brainwashed her. Or him. Or Remy.

~*~

Remy still found the concept of the Astral Plane creepy. He was a spook, so what, it was creepy, even if he was among the few who could access and manipulate events and artifacts there. The idea of this 'place' that existed as some shared creation of every mind with any self-awareness made the part of him that guarded his thoughts twitch. When any telepath visited the Astral Plane they were in a dimension resulting from their and everyone else's minds. He wasn't just in his head or someone else's. The Astral Plane existed in him and he in it.

That's what he got from Emma's explanations.

The Astral Plane tended to look the same for most telepaths, Emma explained in one of their lessons, because most telepaths weren't strong enough to shape it in opposition to the majority. On the other hand, for Xavier and Phoenix and a few others, the Astral Plane was their bitch.

Emma could make it do what she wanted, but mostly didn't, since it was seldom worth the effort. Emma's strength lay in her ruthless skill and not raw power.

Remy was all raw power, though he'd never want to get into a headfight with someone like Xavier.

Mostly the Astral Plane appeared surreal and Dali-esque, iconic objects morphing through a murk of less focused imaginings. Time and distance acted the way they did in dreams.

But for the work Remy and Emma were about to attempt, they needed something more concrete.

Emma let him shape their surroundings.

The dunes of clay red dust rippled away from a bare arena until they blurred into a bone-colored horizon. A blood-red sky overhead had a kind weight, a sense that it was almost close enough to touch. No sun, no moon, no stars interrupted its expanse. Light radiated from it, desert-harsh; light that cast no shadows.

The entire sky felt like a baleful eye watching them, each nightfall a long blink.

Black, pitted-iron chains bound Death on his knees. The links were the size of fists and sank into the unmarked stone, not buried in it but becoming it. Death's bone pale hair hung in tangles, knotted and caught between the links. He snarled at Remy as Emma and he approached.

~You don't need him,~ Emma said.

Death glared at her from a face gone angular and gaunt. His fingers were bloodied and raw, nails torn away from clawing at the stone and the chains. He looked like Remy had, starving and freezing and abandoned in Antarctica. His face was the one shining ice had mirrored: frost-pale and dying.

He'd thought he'd known what he could expect as Emma guided his efforts to absorb the abilities and excise the fractured remnants of the Horseman Apocalypse had built out of pieces of his own psyche. Feeling sorry for this other self hadn't been any part of Remy's expectations.

Nor regret.

Though he should have, Remy thought bitterly, for what decision had he ever made that hadn't resulted in regret?

~You can't kill me,~ Death denied. His lips were chapped and his voice rattled.

Emma examined her nails. ~Of course, we can.~ She frowned at some imperfection. The color shifted subtly, taking on a opalescent sheen, and Emma's expression cleared into satisfaction. ~Dissolution, absorption. You can call it something else... except, well, you can't call it anything, because you won't be any longer. Not as a conscious and aware entity.~ She looked up and smirked at Death. She even gave him a finger wave. ~That's pretty much 'death' even for you.~

Death bared his teeth at her. His attention switched to Remy. ~You don't even want what I am.~

~That may be true,~ Emma opined, ~but Remy needs you gone.~

Remy silently stepped into the bare circle. The dust that had been clinging to him fell away. Death straightened as far as the chains allowed. The hard clank of the links made Remy wince. His unconscious had chosen to bind Death in the image of the chains Magneto had bound him with in Antarctica.

~Don't let pity stop you, Remy,~ Emma advised.

~I'll fight you,~ Death said. He rattled the chains holding him. The sneer on his face echoed the smirk Remy put on when he was afraid.

It made the next step easier. He did pity Death, but knew Emma was right. He had to take control of the powers Death embodied or one day Death would take control of him again.

~I'm not fighting you,~ Remy replied quietly. He reached for the nearest chain and traced the links – his power and Emma's forged together – with his fingers until he reached the first manacle locked around Death's wrist. He turned Death's arm gently until he found the keyhole. His actions must have baffled Death to the point the Horseman persona pliantly allowed the touch and movement.

~What are you doing?~

Remy took out his lockpicks – the psychic mental versions looked and felt exactly like his very first set, the ones Henri had given him, that Jean-Luc had given to Henri, down to the nicks and tiny discoloration on one – and started to work the first tumbler open. ~Taking the chains off,~ he answered as he worked. He didn't look at the lock as he worked, since it was skill that required knowledge and a good feel not vision, and instead matched his gaze with Death's.

His heart skipped a little with fear, because he remembered how Death had taken over and pushed him down in Los Angeles, but Remy reminded himself of the differences: he wasn't drugged or concussed, he knew how to shield himself, Emma was right with him if anything went wrong, and most of all, he understood what he was doing now and why.

~Giving up?~ Death taunted.

Remy shook his head. The manacle opened and promptly dissolved along with a length of chain that had stretched down into the dusty earth. Remy was left holding Death's wrist. He watched as the black of Death's skin seep into his own where his index and little fingers were bared by his customized gloves. His fingers darkened, black at the fingernail and fading out steadily to return to normal somewhere under the palm of the glove. After another deep breath, the stain reverse the way it had entered him.

Death stared at him when Remy looked up.

~You can't embrace me,~ Death insisted. ~You can't have what is mine.~

~You're mine,~ Remy said.

He and Emma had spent weeks figuring out how to do this. He'd let her deeper into his head than he'd ever imagined and uncovered things he hadn't remembered. Unknotting the feelings that surrounded his past and his powers had been exhausting. He'd never guessed how much of the mutant hate he'd experienced since childhood had become incorporated into his own mindset. Emma had made him look at the truth, but Jean-Paul had been the one who held onto him after those sessions and told him, 'You're not the devil or the devil's child,' while inviting Remy to feel what he felt.

Many mutants hated being mutants or their powers. Remy was intimately acquainted with that reaction after years with Rogue. She blamed everything wrong in her life on her uncontrolled powers, though it had been the opposite really: what had been wrong with her life had resulted in an inability to control her mutation.

Remy, though, had always thought he accepted his powers. He hadn't been ashamed of being a mutant once he understood what that was. He'd just been happy to learn he wasn't some demon as the priests and more than one person had accused him of being as a child. He used his abilities without a hint of guilt, considering them as natural as breathing or running or throwing a punch.

He had no idea how much he'd hated them underneath the veneer of healthy acceptance until Emma and he began peeling it away.

Hating himself was nothing new; Remy had done that since the massacre. But Dieu, he hated, if not himself, then certainly being a mutant too. The powers he took such pride in, he hated as well because they were the result of his mutation. Deep beneath his sardonic smiles, he believed that his time in the Velvet Ministry had tainted him forever. The Antiquary's touch remained like a stain on his soul. He'd been willing to do anything to survive and escape. That desperation had hardened into a ruthlessness that moved every decision of his that followed. He'd got away and never looked back to the other children left behind to continue as the Antiquary's victims. And he'd been there, in the Velvet Ministry, because he was a mutant.

He hadn't allowed himself to see he'd been a victim too, that he'd been helpless to rescue anyone but himself so the guilt had simmered together with his anger and terror and resentment. Discovering that Jean-Luc, who he had venerated for taking him off the streets, had been the one to turn him over to the Antiquary had stirred the dark sludge at the bottom of his soul again, until it spread like poison through all his unconscious motivations.

Apocalypse had taken all of that to shape into Death.

Lucky, Emma had remarked, that you were so occupied in hating yourself and your mutation that you didn't hate everyone. She was right.

He paused, then reached for Death's other hand. Wordlessly, Death cooperated. ~You know, don't you, how this goes?~ Remy murmured. He imagined he could taste the Ozymandian dust on his tongue. It tasted like blood.

~I'm too strong,~ Death said. He turned his hand as the second manacle opened and grabbed Remy's hand. The toxic black pushed into him this time and it burned like poison in his veins. Remy made himself hold on, even when Death grinned at him and said, ~I'm stronger than you.~

The darkness settled in his bones, into the hollow places where it had always been, making them stronger, and the burn eased enough for Remy to breathe again. ~You can't be stronger than me, everything you are is me.~

Death's grip tightened. ~Everything you are is me.~

Remy shook his head even as he leaned in closer to find the keyhole to the collar locked around Death's neck. Death's hands dropped to his waist and held there in a parody of an embrace. ~Non,~ Remy said as he opened the final lock. ~I'm more than you.~ He locked his gaze with Death's as the collar and all the rest of the chains went away. His hands rested on Death's shoulders, in position to push him away or pull him closer.

He felt as certain as he ever had in his life. He was more than a self-hating mutant. He'd known joy as well as despair in his life time. His engine didn't run on hate.

Death looked uncertain for the first time. Remy leaned in and wrapped his arms around him. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened himself to the power all his darkness had harnessed.

The scream ripped from his throat was Death's and his at the same time.

He was everything he hated for one instant and the desire to give in threatened to undo all his work with Emma. This time it wouldn't be Death shielding him from too much psychic input, though. This time it would his end, what Apocalypse had intended originally. Remy had always held onto the good in life, though, no matter if it was as simple as a full belly or safe place to sleep, he was too stubborn, too much a survivor to let go. He couldn't drown the despair in pleasure, only balance it, but he didn't hate what he was any longer, only the mistakes he'd made. He accepted that his mistakes were his. He'd done good too and chose to go on and try to do more good rather than to give up. He was a fighter, just this time he had to fight to accept Death's powers as his.

Death didn't dissolve into nothingness easily the way the manacles had. The persona was too real, too separate and self-aware, to just give away. Death fought to hold onto the power he'd tried pouring into Remy before, because every bit of it lost didn't just weaken Death. It was pieces of Death's self that were bleeding away. Remy barely held onto the will to finish it, because Emma was right, he couldn't afford to let pity stop him, even as he tore the other being apart. The tipping point came when Death no longer had the power to maintain itself as a separate entity, when there wasn't enough left of the persona to fight. Everything left flooded into Remy, leaving him kneeling in an empty circle of earth, trying to breathe as he assimilated the part of himself he'd always rejected.

Most startling was the realization that what Death had done, the toxic air he breathed out, the dissolution at his touch, all of that was simply a different manipulation of Remy's charge, manipulating molecules at an atomic level. Taking back what Death had been holding hadn't gifted him with some new power, just a new skillset.

~Mon Dieu.~

~Well done,~ Emma said. He'd forgotten she was even there and looked over his shoulder at her.

~Couldn't have done it without you, cher.~

She flipped her hair over her shoulder and smirked. ~Of course not. Now wake up.~

Remy closed his eyes and opened them to the sun-filled sitting room in the telepath's tower which Emma had chosen for all their telepathic work. Emma was watching him from her seat across from the divan Remy had taken. Danger was outside the room, since she had a better chance against Death's entropic touch or poison exhalations.

"Would you like a drink?" she asked him.

"Oui," Remy croaked through a dry throat. He wondered if his legs would hold him up if he tried to stand. His muscles were shaking with exhaustion and his head felt caught in a vice that squeezed tighter with each heartbeat. He tipped his head back and blinked vaguely at the cream-colored ceiling. Why didn't Emma's quarters have the same soul-deadening decor as the rest of the tower quarters?

Emma returned and handed him a tall glass filled with icy lemonade. The condensation on the glass slid under his fingertips.

"Gatorade is disgusting and you need electrolytes," she announced. "Otherwise I wouldn't play waitress for you."

The tart liquid hit his tongue tasting perfect and Remy swallowed a third of the lemonade.

"It worked," he said eventually.

"Obviously."

He rolled his eyes at her. "I'm trying to say thank you."

"Then do," Emma told him.

"Merde. Merci beaucoup, Emma."

She gave him a smug cat-smile. "You have a mission tomorrow. Scott wants to make sure Sinister didn't decide to establish a lab at Hansford after all."

Remy groaned.

~*~

Sinister hadn't built a lab at Hansford.

Remy flipped a charged card at a cyborg guard and flipped his way out of the fusillade two more guards were firing at him. He landed with a jar that went all the way up his spine, despite flexing his knees to absorb the impact. They'd come under fire the instant they made it past the upper, overt portion of the power plant, and it had been run and fight ever since. His bruises had bruises. Sage was calmly firing single shots at the vulnerable joints of the cyborgs' armor from cover of an old school, gray-painted steel filing cabinet. Blood was running from a split in one of her eyebrows. Domino and Sunfire were deeper in the complex and Ichiko and Northstar were keeping anyone from creeping up on their rear.

Riptide and Vertigo were protecting the team's flanks. Theoretically. Remy wasn't putting much faith in their efforts, a quick scan of their thoughts back in Utopia had told him all they wanted was to get out of the secure medical facility and off the mutants' island nation. He'd brought them along anyway, because he wanted them to have the chance to bolt. Their willingness to even come near Hansford had been convincing evidence it wasn't one of Sinister's bases.

He hadn't considered it might be someone else's base.

Bullets hit the filing cabinet. The impact made it jump, but the papers inside absorbed the force before they penetrated through the other side. Remy thanked God they weren't using armor piercing rounds. No doubt out of worry about fragile equipment and not the fragile flesh of anyone getting in the way of one. These were getting stuck somewhere among the triplicate copies of toilet paper and cleaning fluid requisitions.

His ears were ringing from the constant barrage of noise in the office's small confines. Remy forced himself to keep moving. Air sawed through his throat, raw with the taste of cordite and smoke, and his pulse thumped at his temples. Adrenaline surged through him though, keeping him moving easily. He fed a little kinetic energy into his system. Couldn't afford to stay still too long, but the problem was he and Sage were pinned down in this office. They'd been looking through the paperwork stored inside for the between the lines evidence of Sinister's involvement with anything here.

They hadn't found anything, but the cyborgs (bad Robocop thugs with black faceplates over their visages and no insignia to identify who they worked for anywhere ) had found them, probably via heat signatures showing up where they shouldn't. They were big and strong and carrying guns non-augmented humans couldn't and Remy hadn't been too impressed at first. They weren't exactly in the same league as the human Sentinals Bastion had fielded; Karima could have wiped the floor with them without popping a servo. But there were more and more of them along with regular soldiers.

If there was any lesson every mutant understood at this point it was that numbers would kill you.

Damn, they should have turned back as soon as they spotted the first live patrol and realized it wasn't an abandoned lab. Sinister wasn't the only one with a penchant for nuclear power plants. Weapon X's biggest lab had been hidden at Three Mile Island, after all.

Of course it was Weapon X when Remy had led in a team geared to covert entry and not the sort of heavy hitters who could deal with large numbers of troops geared and trained to take down mutants. He or Sunfire could both take down the entire complex, but they hadn't come to kill people and he knew the collateral casualties that mutants left behind were the biggest argument the anti-mutants pointed to in their arguments that all mutants were threats. And Remy had enough innocent blood on his hands already. He didn't want more.

He dodged past two downed guards and then ducked down beside Sage as more bullets tried to follow his course. The cyborgs were having a hard time depressing their aim toward the floor. Bad design, which Remy was more than grateful for. "So, cher, this isn't what we signed up for." Weapon X was Wolverine's god damn problem or maybe X-23's. Hell, Sabretooth had a bone to pick with them too – and with Victor it would be their bones being picked over. Hell, he'd text Wilson. Get the old gang together, Wolverine, Sabretooth, Deadpool... Let the veterans of Weapon X have a little fun get together here. There had to be a coffee bar somewhere close by where Remy and his team could sit this one out.

"You signed something?" Sage replied while taking down another cyborg. A black mark burned through the industrial blue paint on the wall behind him. One of the guards on the floor stirred and groped for his weapon. Remy slammed his boot into the side of the man's head to knock him out again.

"Mon Dieu, no." He flipped a card into the face shield of the next cyborg pushing into the office and set it off, just strong enough to concuss the brain inside and fry the circuitry that would have kept it moving. That should provide them with a minute or two to take stock.

"I was wondering about your sanity." Sage popped up and studied the doorway. She dropped back to cover and added, "You just blocked our exit."

"Don't let me stop you." Remy took his own look. The downed cyborg was steadily being pushed forward by another one trying to get in. "And I blocked their entrance too." He winced as the latest cyborg aimed a plasma rifle at its downed compatriot and started burning pieces of it away so it could shove its way inside faster. It had to back up to get the angle right, which meant it couldn't see them through the doorway. The smoke and smell of burning armor and flesh filled the room, proving the ventilation had shut down. "Thirty, forty seconds." A little clock began ticking those seconds down behind his eyes.

"Suggestions?"

"Don't die?" he quipped. They needed to get out, before that plasma rifle was aimed at them. Time to think out of the box. Get them out of this box. He was a damned thief, when the hell had he ever needed a door to get in or out? He wouldn't call the idea he had a plan, but maybe it was a gambit... Remy laughed under his breath.

"Asshole," Sage said. A little quaver in her voice gave away that she knew they were in a tight spot.

"I'm going to make us a new exit," Remy told her. "Keep your head down." He looked at the wall between them and the next office and concentrated on stirring it into a charge. Sheetrock and wood were easy to tap into, but the metal studs took more effort (and would blow up wilder). It took more ooomph than if he'd been touching it, and he thought for the first time that this part of his talent was using psionics to get his consciousness into the walls, but he could reflect on that later. The wall began to glow a virulent pink. He set his hand on Sage's head and pushed it down, ducked himself down too, and set off the charge. He really needed to practice the just-look-and-boom trick, because he was going to run out of cards. Of course, he could always snatch up some debris, but he knew the aerodynamics of the cards, knew exactly how much zip to give them to have them hit exactly on target. Anything else was less reliable. Oui, he'd do that, practice his sin-black heart out, soon as they got back to Utopia.

The boom made his ears ring, but Remy grabbed Sage's shoulder and pulled her to her feet behind him. They dived through the smoldering hot hole at a run. Remy sent a barrage of cards at the next wall in front of him instead of messing with doors that would lead back into the gauntlet of cyborgs in the corridors, and blew it out too. They ran through without breaking stride. He blew out three more walls and they found themselves in a cross corridor, covered in sheetrock dust, bleeding from dozens of pinprick bits of shrapnel and panting for breath.

He and Sage shared a glance and silently agreed to move toward the sound of fighting. The floor shivered under their feet in a way that Remy connected with Sunfire, a muffled thump-thud echoing from much deeper underground. There were screams, though, much closer to them. He wondered if Riptide and Vertigo had worked their way around somehow, because that was the sort of noise Remy always associated with the Marauders.

"Anyone have a chance to yell for back up before this went to shit?" he wondered, because he hadn't had a chance to do so before Domino rushed in full-bore.

"You're in charge."

"Comms are jammed."

"You're the telepath," Sage said.

Remy winced and tried to reach out for Emma or anyone else. He hit a barrier of mental static, noise and inside-out movement that made him stagger and brace himself against a wall until the mental vertigo let go. "Psi-jammers. Merde, my head. You could have warned me."

Sage patted his shoulder in mock sympathy. The metallic thud-tread-whirr of another cyborg echoed down the hall. Remy grimaced. He had been putting out more energy than he'd been leeching and it was starting to affect how fast he could charge anything, especially at a distance. He took inventory of how many packs of cards he still had on him: not as many as he'd like. Definitely needed to get more practice in. He could charge and use his throwing knives, but knives, unlike cards, weren't cheap and throwing knives, good ones with proper balance, were hard to find for any price.

"I guess we do this the old-fashioned way, neh?" Remy said as he straightened up. He palmed another card, because he might be low on them, but Sage had to be running lower on ammo. "Fight our way in, get the gang back together, fight our way out, blow everything up."

Sage pulled her partial clip and replaced it with a full one. "I miss the Hellfire Club." She swiped some more blood away from the corner of her eye. It smeared into her hair.

Remy took in her outfit, which covered her from head to toe, including a hood, leaving only her face, with a bruise beginning to darken her cheek and temple, exposed. It hugged her body, but was hardly skin tight. In other words, it was nearly the antithesis to the sex kitten dominatrix outfits every woman in the Hellfire Club had dressed in. He faked up a leer and said, "I miss the Hellfire Club's wardrobe."

"Yes, you'd look so good in stockings, breeches and a waistcoat." Sage smiled and added, "Or the lingerie and high heels."

Remy grimaced. He'd never understood why anyone would want to wear the pseudo-Georgian era garments the men in the Hellfire Club had worn. Ugh, those shoes with the buckles and heels were the worst. He'd had enough of that sort of dress up in the Velvet Ministry. He had rocked the pirate look, though, when he ended up back in the Victorian era. Not all historical get-ups sucked.

The next cyborg went by the cross corridor. When Remy didn't hear another following it, he sprinted forward and blew its power conduits up, leaving the human parts trapped by the weight of the metal armor. Sage dodged over the prone body right behind him as they headed deeper into the complex.

Usually, Remy could look at damage inflicted and figure out quick which of his team was responsible. They were swiftly overtaking downed guards and cyborgs who had been taken down by someone else. If he didn't known better, Remy would have thought Wolverine was there. Someone had been slicing through flesh and metal with equal ease.

Unless Wolverine had lost one of his claws on each hand though, the marks weren't left by him.

That left two possibilities and considering it was a Weapon X facility, Remy figured it was fifty-fifty who was slicing and dicing their way further in: Daken or X-23.

Or maybe it was forty-five-forty-five with a ten percent chance they were both on site. That would be fun, you like blood spatter.

No surprise finding Daken tearing through a dozen cyborgs down the next corridor.  It just explained the screaming. Remy joined in after telling Sage, "Don't trust him."

"Teach a dog to suck eggs, Gambit," she replied.

Dead guards sprawled across the bloodyfloor within moments. Dakensmirked at Remy. Sage stood at an angle where she could keep an eye on Daken and down the corridor they'd come from at the same time. It was nice to have someone to back him up, even if he knew Daken could kill her all too easily.

"I liked that car," Daken said. Part of his costume had already been burned off by plasma fire, showing the tattoos running from his neck down one arm. Whatever damage he'd taken had already knit itself up. "What did you do with it once you got out?"

"I blew it up," Remy told him.

"Shame." Daken didn't retract his claws. Remy glanced at them and wondered if they were naturally black instead of Wolverine's bone-white or if it was a result of the various materials Daken had had bonded to them. They weren't alive, though, and that was what mattered: he fed enough charge into them Daken had to feel it.

"So are you still clean?" he asked.

"Hard not to be with Roston and the Pride both gone." Daken cocked his head. "You?" He flicked the claws in and out again, like he was trying to shake the tingle coming from them, and scowled.

Remy gave him a smug look before letting the energy dissipate. "You want a blood test?"

"Do I get to draw it?"

"Quit flirting," Sage snapped at them both.

Remy blinked and realized that, yes, he had been letting Daken – or Daken's damned pheromones – get to him. He opened his empathy just a bit, trying to catch what Daken was really feeling. If Wolverine's psycho son was in a bad mood, Remy would just as soon blow him up and trust the bastard dog's luck and healing factor would put him back together eventually. When Remy was far away.

Daken just felt like bloodlust and amusement with the same bitter undercurrents of rage and loneliness Remy had felt from him every time they'd encountered each other.

"Here for Weapon X?" he asked. He picked his way through the bodies, trying to avoid the blood pools. His boots were non-skid and blood got tacky fast, but he'd need to clean them later and getting it out of all the armor articulation was a bitch.

Daken grinned. "I heard Colcord was here."

"I heard Colcord was dead." That was what X-23 had told him.

"You'd almost think he was a mutant."

"Mutant cockroach," Remy muttered.

"I said, quit flirting," Sage interrupted a second time and glared at Remy as she did. "You've got a boyfriend. Remember?"

Daken glanced at her, interest clear on his face. Remy ignored it. "Jean-Paul knows I'm a flirt, cher."

Daken fell into step with them. "I thought you were with Rogue."

"Old news."

"Now I'm sorry I knocked you out and drugged you. We could have had so much fun."

Remy sensed more cyborgs entering the corridor ahead at the same time Daken heard them. Daken's claws slid out again, but Remy had already flicked a series of his cards at them. He'd put more energy into them than usual, because he'd started worrying. He hadn't heard or felt anything that signaled Sunfire or Domino were still in play for several minutes. He watched the cyborgs drop, their armor mangled by his explosions, and didn't care. Playing at being the good guy might cost one of his team their life. Besides, with Daken with them, someone would end up dead anyway.

The floor rocked under them and Remy had to catch Sage's elbow to steady her on her feet.

Daken gave the mess an approving look. "We could have been something else. Sure you want to go on playing for the X-Men?"

Remy sighed. This time there was no way not to get blood on his boots. It went with the stuff on his hands, anyway. Maybe Daken was right. Maybe he really didn't belong with the good guys. Which reminded him of his own two bad guys... Remy cautiously reached out for Riptide and Vertigo. If he didn't stretch his telepathy to anything outside the facility, the psi-jammer only made it harder, like pushing through frozen syrup, but not impossible.

To his surprise, Vee and Janos were still on-site and making their way – ruthlessly – down toward the rest of the team. Remy gave them a heads-up to leave Daken alone if they encountered him. So long as Daken didn't make a move on them. Remy didn't expect the impossible.

"Just you and her?" Daken asked. They were facing an elevator that would take them down.

Or trap them.

Remy would have preferred stairs. Or blowing up the elevator and rappelling down the empty shaft. Sage wouldn't like that however. So he worked on getting past the security and freeing it up. No time for a delicate touch and the trick he'd used to get them into Muir Island's lab. He hooked up a code cracker he'd picked up from a Guild-associated supplier then modified himself and set it to work.

"Riptide, Vertigo, Northstar, Armor, Sunfire, and Domino," Remy said absently. He tapped a series of code words into the cracker, letting it narrow its search parameters to hurry it up.

"Interesting mix."

The intrusion counter-measures were no match for a master thief familiar with Sinister, the X-Men, Magneto, and Shi'ar versions. "After you," Remy said with a gallant gesture when the elevator door slid open. Down the corridor, Vertigo and Riptide jogged toward them. They looked sweaty and stressed, but unharmed. Remy felt touched they hadn't just abandoned the team already. They had no real reason to stick except for him.

"Armor and Northstar are right behind us," Riptide reported as soon as they were in earshot. Relief eased some of Remy's tension. Not all of it, because they were still in the middle of a mission, but he worried about Jean-Paul and knowing he'd have his eyes on him soon helped. He'd always worried about Rogue, but unlike Rogue, Jean-Paul didn't resent Remy's concern or consider it an insult to his ability to take care of himself.

Being with Jean-Paul was so easy compared to anyone Remy had been with before.

"Elevator's going to be packed tight," Daken remarked, but not like he minded.

Vee flipped her green hair back with a coy look Daken's way. "Don't you want to get cozy? I could give you a wild ride."

Daken slid his claws in and out again while smiling back at her. "Close quarters. I could give you an appendectomy."

Jean-Paul arrived in a rush of friction heated air, Ichiko monkey-clinging to his back. He flashed a smile at Remy before catching sight of Daken. But he didn't say anything, just moved closer once Ichiko climbed off him.

"In," Remy said to all of them, because he didn't want to deal with anything but getting to Sunfire and Domino, getting Sage into the facility's computers – because Sinister might have been the team's area of interest, but it always paid to know what any incarnation of Weapon X was up to – and getting out clean. "Ichiko, put an extra strong forcefield in front of all of us when the doors open. Vee, send out a wave at the same time. Everyone else... be ready."

They stuffed themselves inside, elbows and armor bumping, and Daken made a point of standing behind Remy and leaning into him, hot breath in his ear, until Riptide half-twisted and his hair got in Daken's face. Jean-Paul shuffled closer and his fingers tangled with Remy's as the elevator lurched and began dropping downward. Remy squeezed back. He could have said something telepathically, but that still didn't come automatically to him, and the psi-jammers made it an effort he didn't know if he could afford. He had so much raw power potentially, but he could still run himself down to where he wasn't strong enough to tap into that power or worse, he could call it up but not control it. Emma's lessons in using skill instead of power made sense to his Guild-trained mindset.

"Ready or not, here we come," Riptide said and then laughed. Remy knew he'd made that little move with Daken on purpose; they'd always been allies in the Marauders, two lighter-set guys up against guys like Sabertooth and Blockbuster. They'd both been as protective as they'd dared to be of Vertigo too, for all the good it had done.

"Why?" Remy asked the way someone always did before the Marauders went to work. Then he chorused with Vee and Riptide, "Why not?"

Daken chuckled. "I feel like I have finally found my people."

"Why is he here?" Jean-Paul asked.

"Jealous?"

"Of what?"

"Weapon X," Remy answered before Jean-Paul and Daken could rile each other up.

Jean-Paul sucked in a deep breath that seemed to cool his temper and instead gave Daken a stiff nod and a muttered, "Bonne chance." Since Jean-Paul had had his own bad experiences with Weapon X, along with Aurora and many others, Remy had figured that would be enough explanation.

The lightssnapped off and the elevator dropped freefall the last two floors. The doors stuck without power so that Remy and Daken ended up squirming to the front so they could pry them open. Ichiko's forcefield took a beating the instant the doors opened onto a firefight already in progress. Even Daken recoiled momentarily. Remy barely registered that because Sunfire was down. Domino had shoved him into as much cover as she could and was just holding off everyone as best she could.

"About god damned time!" Domino shouted as the rest of the team sprinted out of the elevator and threw themselves into the fight.

"Don't bolt ahead next time," Remy snapped. "Sunfire?"

"Stunned. It was something new but I took it out. Dawdler." Domino dodged a bullet and Remy reaped the kinetic energy of its passage and sent it back into the gun that fired it. The screams following the rest of the ammunition in the weapon exploding distracted several of the nearer soldiers. Daken was amongst them in the next breath. Vertigo and Riptide followed. Remy found himself falling into the old Marauder routine with them, barely using his powers. In close quarters, hand to hand served better when you were faster and stronger, better trained and more flexible. Ripping into the enemy fed something in him he'd kept chained up with Death. It felt like being free.

It was a bloodbath and Daken was laughing at the end.

Vee and Janos were smiling like they'd just got off a rollercoaster and Remy felt a little bit the same way. He was grinning too, wild and alive, their glee threading through his shields thanks to the adrenaline high. Blood ran off Daken's claws, down Remy's cheek, from Riptide's hands and dripped from the tips of Vee's hair. It wasn't theirs. Breathing hurt though; it felt like his ribs were cracked on the right side, though he couldn't remember when that happened. He felt too high on blood and adrenaline to care and started to chuckle with Daken.

Right until he looked over and caught Jean-Paul's worried gaze, and remembered that Gambit the Marauder wasn't who he wanted to be any longer. Jean-Paul wouldn't want to be with him if he went down that path again. Jean-Paul wasn't focused on Remy or the others though, but past them.

Remy turned and staggered.

It was the Hatch.

His breath caught before he took in that it wasn't the Hatch from his dreams of the Nursery. Not quite. There were differences. But there were enough similarities to it that he knew nothing good could lie beyond it.

Sage was already on her way to the smoking and partially demolished computer banks on one side. She pushed a body out of a chair in front of a still functioning monitor and keyboard.

"Cher, we need to know what's inside," Remy said. His voice croaked, hoarse and dry, but it was steady at least.

"I would never have guessed," Sage replied.

Daken laughed again, but pulled in his claws. He was watching Remy. Remy made the air around him flare pink briefly, burning up any particles, including Daken's pheromones, surrounding him. He needed to think as clearly as possible.

"Huh," Sage said from the control console. "Security measures are all automated from this point."

"Drat." Vertigo sighed with dramatic disappointment. Her mutant power had no effect of machinery and even though Sinister had given all of the Marauder clones fighting skillsets, she would still be at a disadvantage. Riptide wouldn't be much better off. 

"Just stay close," Remy advised.

Sage made a frustrated noise. "I can't get it to open. There's a security phrase – "

Remy stared at the hatch. He'd been singing – or Sinister had, they'd been one and the same – in his nightmare when he opened the Nursery. Moving almost against his will, he went to the hatch, set his hand flat against the DNA reader at its center and watched it flash from red to amber.

"Sinister programmed this," he said. The amber light flickered as if in response to Remy's voice.

"Your old boss," Daken commented. He gave Remy a curious look, one that weighed him as a threat. 

"Sinister worked with Weapon X under the cover of Dr. Nathan Milbury," Jean-Paul said. "The Hudsons think he had his fingers in Alpha Flight at the beginning."

Remy squeezed his eyes shut. Sinister had programmed Remy into all his systems. Not him, he reminded himself: his body. He'd been another back-up plan, like Claudine, like everything that came out of Black Womb, including Xavier and Shaw. That's all the light switching on meant. His skin still crawled with the fear that using that access would somehow open him up to Sinister, even though the man was dead.

For the moment.

He had to take three deep breaths before he could make himself begin whistling the tune and then transition into the words, watching the lock's lights flicker one by one from amber to green as he sang, "... pokers and tongs say the bells of St. John's...," and the hatch groaned open.

"You always were his favorite," Riptide murmured as everyone walked through into the blue-lit metal hall beyond. Remy helped Jean-Paul get Sunfire on his feet and moving with the rest of the team. Daken only lifted an eyebrow, uninterested in offering any help. Remy wasn't surprised.

All the doors off the corridor were security locked, red lights steady over keypads, mics, and handprint readers. Remy recognized some of the manufacturers. He's the protocols to use with them. He'd been the one to point out retinal readers weren't really secure  even before Sabretooth popped an eyeball out of one of their targets and used it to get past the dead man's security.

Every one of the locks blinked open for him when he whistled that damned song.

At first they only found more offices, a supply room, maintenance, then another security center. Banks of screens monitored cell after cell. Though it might have been just as accurate to call them cages. A variety of a measures meant to disable a mutant were available to maintain containment.

Remy let out a breath of relief: none of the cells were currently occupied.

It looked more like they'd just been prepared for use. Everything was bright and shining, mercilessly sterile. There wasn't a hint of comfort anywhere to be seen.

Jean-Paul paled and glanced away. "You can always tell when it's the scientists in charge and not the military."

"How is that?" Daken asked.

Jean-Paul gestured to one of the screens, pointing at a drain in the floor. "The military gives you a bucket."

"If you're lucky," Domino added.

From his own experience, Remy thought they were right. Then he grimaced and muttered, "Unless the scientists want samples of everything... "

Riptide, Vertigo and a still pale and wobbly Sunfire all nodded.

Ichiko looked horrified then filled with pity. "Never letting that happen to you, petite," Remy swore and one-arm hugged her.

"No one here," Domino stated. She headed down the corridor where it extended beyond the security station. The walls were blank now, no doors, and laced with psi and electronic jammers. They felt deeply inert to Remy's senses as he trailed his fingers along them to pick up what else they were made of besides high-impact ceramic.

"Carbonadium alloy steel studs," Remy murmured as he figured it out. If he blew the walls, the shrapnel would be filthy dangerous. "Expensive, exclusive material."

"This place has government black project stamped all over it," Domino said.

Remy shrugged.

The corridor ended in a second hatch.

"Think you can bad touch this one into opening too?" Daken asked.

Remy waved his fingers. "Magic, mon ami, magic." He wasn't half as relaxed as he made out.

Vertigo giggled and whispered into Daken's ear. Remy thanked heaven he no longer blushed for anything, guessing at what she was likely telling him.

The second hatch opened for him the way the first did, once he sang another verse of the same old song. No one made any jokes this time as they passed through. Like any descent into hell, they all knew the deeper the level, the worse it would be.

This hatch opened onto a hovering white platform and lab that duplicated much of the equipment Remy remembered from Sinister's genetics labs. Finger-thin techno-stalactites grew down from the ceiling, traceries of frost over their deep blue exteriors, dark liquid swirling within the transparent interiors.

"Samples," Riptide said with his face tipped up toward them, tinted pale blue, eyes wide.

"Samples?" Ichiko echoed.

"Genetic samples, kidlet," Vertigo clarified. She looked uncomfortable.

"It's a cloning lab," Remy added. A hum somewhere in the distance explained the delicate shift in the air he felt and the thin feel to it in his lungs: negative ventilation. It had come on when they entered. He knew what he'd see when he stepped to the edge of the platform and looked down.

A honeycomb of incubation tubes paved the floor of the huge chamber. 

Riptide joined him in looking down. The tubes were dark, thankfully empty, hung in racks above a grated floor, made to open at the bottom, dumping out the clones and letting the fluid drain away in a flood all at once.

Riptide gave a little wave at the tubes and quipped, "I missed you, Ma," making Remy shudder. It hadn't been that long since he dragged Riptide and Vertigo from two similar tubes.

"Take a look at these samples," Sage said from behind them.

"Tell me."

"They're all from mutants with still active powers. Including more than one of the X-Men. X-23 is here. Wolverine. Daken." She glanced at Daken, who snarled silently.

"Weapon X always has liked their ferals," Jean-Paul said. "It takes a healing factor to survive what they usually like to do their experiments."

Daken's claws slid out with a familiar noise, almost the same as his father's, almost the same as X-23's, but entirely his. Remy felt his own powers straining for release, the charge crackling bright through the air between his fingers and his gloves threatening to light up too. 

"Not just ferals," Sage said. "There are samples from Cyclops and the Phoenix, Cable, Rachel, even Nate Grey."

"Well, shit, that's no good," Domino declared. "Permission to blow this place up?"

"In due time, my dear Ms. Thurman," came a cultured voice Remy recognized with a shudder. "In due time. This facility failed to produce what I needed, and Weapon X has been a consistent disappointment, but I have found it useful in other matters. When I am done here, you are welcome to destroy it in whatever fashion you please. I knew the X-Men would find it eventually."

Beside him, Riptide cringed, a whipped dog waiting for next blow.

"You," Domino exclaimed.

Remy turned and faced his worst nightmare.

"So good of you to finally arrive, Gambit," Mr. Sinister said from a tesseract doorway in the center of the lab platform. The slithering ribbons of his cape wrapped close to his armored form. The diamond centered just above his brows glowed like a ruby against his blue-white skin, the exact shade of his eyes. "I've been waiting for you."

~*~

The rest of the team, even Daken, moved like a startled flock of birds, then settled again, circled beyond Sinister's obvious reach, centered on him.

Remy didn't bother moving.

Jean-Paul had moved to stand nearest to Remy's side. He was looking from Sinister to Remy, concern painted over his features. And no wonder: Remy had confided all his fears of Sinister, all the ways Sinister had manipulated and controlled him, haunted him even after death.

So much for death. Jean-Paul should be worried.

Remy had been right. He said, "Bonsoir, Monsieur Essex."

Sinister's mouth curled into a pleased, sardonic smile.

"You said he was dead!" Riptide accused Remy from beside him.

"Guess it didn't stick," Domino said. "You should know how that goes."

Remy watched Sinister rather than take part in the bantering bravado, though usually he'd have at least one quip to contribute. Under most circumstances, Sinister used his stolen ability to shapeshift to assume a towering form. He only stood at a normal human height this time and Remy thought his form was... fluctuating. Parts of him bloated and then shrank; all within average parameters, but it made it look like something was under Sinister's skin, moving around. The effect disturbed Remy on a dozen different levels. He was reminded most of Jake, floating in a tank, helpless to control or complete his morphing ability and reduced to a blob.

The red diamond at the center of Sinister's chest armor bulged abruptly.

Everyone who could see it recoiled instinctively, even Daken, but the surprise was Sinister, who clapped his hand over the diamond as if to press it back into place.

"Not looking that good, M'seiu," Remy said. He quirked an eyebrow. "Maybe for a dead man, hein... " He shook his head.

Sinister's expression narrowed into malign interest.

"You know," Jean-Paul remarked, "I pictured you taller."

Sinister did seem diminished, but the rage his face gave away at Jean-Paul's dig shocked Remy. Sinister had better control than that. He pointed with the hand that had been over his chest and sent a force blow at Jean-Paul. The air shimmered, but Jean-Paul dodged it easily. Sinister hadn't accountedJean-Paul's speed.

Domino took a shot at Sinister, followed by Sage, while Ichiko slammed a forcefield fist into him. Sinister's body dimpled and absorbed the bullets, then dented and flowed around the blow from Ichiko. Remy didn't give him time to strike back toward Ichiko: he fired a series of exploding cards into him. Sunfire had recovered enough to send a blast of plasma at Sinister from the other side.

Riptide surprised Remy by spinning up and sending hundreds of resinous, razor-sharp shuriken at Sinister, while moving constantly. Equally surprising, Vertigo was doing her thing. Remy could sense her thoughts focus and twist, even saw Sinister waver on his feet for a moment between cards exploding off his armor, but then he shrugged it off with a sneer.

"Foolish little twit," Sinister commented. His glare settled on Vertigo and she dropped to the floor with a bubbling gasp. Blood hemorrhaged from her nose and eyes.

The sense of her on the Astral Plane disappeared, but not into the surreal calm of sleep. Vertigo was gone. Sinister had put her out like a candle, without even singing his fingertips.

Riptide screamed.

Everyone moved then, flinging their worst at Sinister, while Sinister shrugged it all off. Nothing touched him; his body just morphed to absorb or reshape itself after each attack.  Cold sweat ran down Remy's back. This was what he'd feared, more than being killed or whatever Sinister had planned for him: seeing people who depended on him go down, because no one could beat Sinister.

Nothing could hurt him.

His pulse hammered at his temples, but Remy kept moving, working in tandem with the rest of his team. Daken darted in and slashed at Sinister, but he was barely more than a distraction. Sunfire's plasma hissed and rippled around Sinister, superheating the air until they were all sweating and spots on the floor were melting, while Riptide and Northstar wove in and around, constant distractions from Sage and Domino, who both kept shooting while Armor tried to keep them shielded from Sinister's concussive blasts.

Lights flickered and began popping out as the ceiling and floors shook and cracked. Dust and the ozone sharp scent of sparking electricity competed with chemical fumes and the reek of equipment on fire. Another piece shattered and sent pieces zinging everywhere just as Domino tripped on a table leg and fell to the floor. Every bit of it missed her. Sage didn't have Domino's mutant luck and let out a short cry before Armor's forcefield expanded around her again. Domino rolled onto her back and leveled both her pistols at Sinister, emptying them at the same time. Remy threw another full deck of cards at him before Sinister could turn his attention to her.

None of it worked. Sinister hadn't even stirred from his place. He had no need to find cover.

He began to laugh. Daken darted in to swipe at Sinister again, only to be flung across the room and impact the wall, crumbling down to the floor afterward. If his healing factor was back to full strength he'd quickly be back on his feet, but he was out for that moment, and even back, really couldn't do much to Sinister.

Remy suppressed the desire to squeeze his eyes shut and give up. Instead, he gave the order he should have the instant Sinister made himself known: "Domino, Northstar, take everyone and get out. Call in the X-Men, tell them Sinister's back. Go!"

"Yes, I have no interest in any of you," Sinister said.

Riptide spun down and gave Remy a half-ashamed look. "I'm sorry," he muttered, before kneeling to heft Vertigo's body over his shoulder and retreating. It was much more than Remy would have expected from him. Remy smiled sadly as he ran

Domino grabbed Ichiko's arm and began tugging her toward the doorway Riptide had fled through. Sage staggered after them with one arm clutched to her side. Her mission gear was too dark to show blood, but the wet glisten on it gave the bleeding away. Sunfire shook his head at Remy and Jean-Paul laughed humorlessly. "You can't think I'd leave you with him," Jean-Paul murmured. 

"Oui, because you need to help Sage, mon amour," Remy snapped. "Go!" 

"Crisse! Bonne chance, Remy." Jean-Paul moved so fast Remy felt the kiss to his temple as little more than warmth and a breeze that made his hair drift.  "We'll be at the nearest rendezvous point."

"Don't wait."

"Only if it's been overrun." He saw only a blur as Jean-Paul sped to Sage's side, caught hold of her, and took her with him.

"Ah, love," Daken quipped, overhearing, then rolled to his feet and shook off any lingering injury and pain. 

"This isn't your fight, Akihiro," Remy said.

"You are a poor shadow of your father," Sinister told him, "though you at least lack his ridiculous notions of 'honor'."

"My father is an honorless dog and weak," Daken replied, "but even he wouldn't bow down to you."

Gunfire sounded back down the corridors, reminding Remy that his team mates on the way up weren't going to have an easy stroll out. They would be facing more cyborgs and security forces, maybe even military or SHIELD teams. Another boom shook the floor and the illumination flipped to emergency lights that strobed andmade everyone squint.

Sinister waited. Remy knew it was because he didn't need or care about the others. Doing nothing while they fled: that just emphasized how outclassed they were in the fight. They only thing that had ever seemed to get to Sinister were Cyclops' ability or Havok's plasma. Sunfire's plasma didn't seem to have as much effect, but if Remy analyzed the fight so far, he could see Sinister had maneuvered to avoid as many of Sunfire's blasts as possible. They had slowed him down. The explosions from Remy's cards hadn't done anything, any more than Daken's claws, but it occurred to him he wasn't using his powers against Sinister in the most efficient manner.

He'd been fighting like an X-Man, keeping a distance, trying for a knock out, not to kill. But the only way to win against Sinister would be to kill him. He couldn't be confined or rehabilitated, trying just guaranteed he'd free himself and pick up his plans once more, leading to more suffering and death.

"Why fight, Gambit? You know you cannot contend against me," Sinister said.

"Not even at full power?" Remy asked. He genuinely wondered if Sinister had ever felt threatened by him.

"Sadly, like Weapon X, you never performed to potential."

"So what is the Nursery?" Remy asked. He wanted to keep Sinister talking. It would give Sunfire time to recover a little more and Daken time to finish healing. Sinister would know that, but Sinister did have an ego and Remy had always been the one who listened. He hoped Sinister would indulge that habit again because Remy was trying something new. He thought he knew how Sinister constructed his telepathic shields given what Sinister had taught him. He might still be a novice telepath, but he had power and he had Emma's teaching and Emma was sneaky, manipulative and brilliant. He didn't know what he'd do if he got in Sinister's head, but a stealth attack had to be better than hammering him with explosions that had no effect.

"Stalling, Gambit?"

"Oui, but I've been dreaming about it too," Remy said. He tried not to give away how difficult it was to look present while he concentrated on telepathically picking Sinister's mental locks. Sinister's shields were a thousand times better than Remy's had been. It had been Remy's natural psi abilities, latent though they'd been, that had always made it hard for telepaths to get inside his head.

"Interesting." Sinister considered Remy as if wondering if he were lying. "If true."

"The hatches opened for me. I dreamed that song."

He hadn't dreamed about the hatch or the Nursery the night before. Emma and he had swept through his mind, uprooting and eradicating anything that wasn't Remy and the aspect of his power he'd finally accepted as his own. He thought the Nursery nightmares might have gone with those traps and strings. That had probably been why he hadn't expected Sinister under Hansford. There was always a down side. He'd been over-confident.

Daken kept circling toward Sinister's flank. Trying to slip past Sinister's peripheral vision. Sunfire simply stood, listening to Remy and Sinister, waiting for the action to recommence, gathering his strength to attack.

"The kernel I left in your mind must have degraded and begun leaking," Sinister said. 

Remy'd been dreaming of the Nursery before his exposure to Heat or he'd blame that. He shrugged instead and said, "Maybe you aren't as good as you thought."

"I find it highly annoying to admit that in this case, you may be correct." Sinister sighed and lifted his hands. "It makes no difference, however, since you are here now."

Sinister's shields thinned and opened as he prepared to send a telepathic blow at Remy, one that would have disabled him easily when his shields had been the crippled things he'd learned from Sinister. Remy casually reinforced the shields he'd learned from Emma, though, and slid a mental probe into Sinister's mind.

Sinister was so intent, so shockingly desperate beneath his mask of arrogance, that everything Remy needed to know was laid out for him.

Everything.

Sinister's plans. His failures. His fear and spite and obsession with freeing himself from Apocalypse. As Sinister made Gambit, Apocalypse had made Sinister. In a mirror of irony, Remy fought to free himself from Sinister and Sinister lived in fear of falling under Apocalypse's sway once more. 

Sinister had made Remy as his first weapon, but lost him. Apocalypse had laughed at Sinister when he told him the tale of leaving the red-eyed infant in the refuse of a New Orleans' alley. Acid rage etched into Sinister's brain.

He'd hated Remy for surviving, for the reminder of being bested, when Remy came to him. He'd already had other plans for Apocalypse, but decided he had another use for a mutant that shared some of his own genes, one who might still have potential to become an omega. He'd meant to break Remy.

The memories nearly distracted Remy from the present, but he saw Sunfire swaying and Daken tensing behind Sinister. No time remained to wallow in the final answer to where he came from, who his parents had been – there were none, just genetic samples and the science of a mad genius – or weren't. Because he might not have panned out as Sinister's weapon against Apocalypse, but Sinister had found another potential use for him.

Sinister intended to take over Remy's body, restore it to full power, and graft in the abilities Apocalypse had imbued him with along with all the others he'd garnered – like shapechanging – since.

Why Sinister needed Remy's body had its answer in the nature of Sinister's clones. Because Sinister existed now as a clone of himself and that clone body wasn't strong enough to support the added-on powers. Sinister was still working with his own science and not the Celestial technology which Apocalypse had used to remake him. Only the lab hidden in Tasmania had been able to match Apocalypse's abilities and Remy had destroyed it before the automated back-up plan had succeeded in maturing a clone there. Instead, the back-up Sinister had built into the Weapon X facility under Hansford had kicked in.

It wasn't good enough.

This Sinister had all his memories, his mind, his bleached sterile soul (or lack there of), but it couldn't take the stress. Each shape shift degraded it further. He needed to get into Remy's head, reshape it and take it over.

Remy didn't laugh, because the idea of becoming a host with Sinister burrowed into his self like some parasitic wasp left him nauseated and terrified, but he spared one instant to appreciate the irony. Sinister needed the body of an omega mutant, one with at least latent telepathic abilities, but those abilities had driven Remy to Emma. Thanks to her training, he'd dug out all of Sinister's little hooks and back doors, the same way he'd gotten rid of Xavier's compulsions. He'd done all that work to get rid of Death. Sinister's back-up plan, this one at least, had already gone awry. Remy wasn't going to be an easy conquest. Apocalypse had thwarted Sinister again.

He'd regretted going to Apocalypse, becoming a Horseman, following Mystique's plan to destroy Sinister. He didn't any longer.

~*~

Sinister's intended telepathic knockout ricocheted off Remy's shields. He rocked on his feet and focused on the physical world. Sinister followed up the attack with another telepathic bolt, one meant to find the flaws in the shields he'd taught Remy to build. Flaws Xavier had never bothered pointing out to him, Remy had realized while working with Emma, because they let him in too. Bastards. He slammed an equal amount of psychic energy back at Sinister, using it to blow wide the small opening he'd weaseled into before.

"That's new, but do you really think you can beat me?" Sinister asked. He flung Remy back out of his mind and followed it with a third attack. This one shook Remy's shields, but he reinforced them in plenty of time to shrug off the next attack.

"I'm not going to make it easy for you," he said.

"Admirable, but pointless, child. Surrender or I will slaughter your new amour."

He should have known Sinister would pick up on the emotions between Jean-Paul and himself.

Sunfire hit Sinister with a plasma blast. The heat started new fires and set off any alarms that weren't already blaring. Remy squeezed his eyes shut in time to save his sight, but staggered back as the skin on his face burned tight and hot. Even the air in his lungs burned.

He heard Daken yell in pain and begin cursing.

Shattered ceramics and glassware crunched under Sinister's boots.

Still blinded, with afterimages strobing behind his closed eyelids, Remy felt Sinister reach for him. He twisted away, using his senses to move without benefit of sight, ignoring Sunfire's yelled warnings and Daken growling. Harder was distinguishing Daken rushing at Sinister from Sinister grabbing for Remy again. He had to keep his shields locked in place against the mental battering Sinister kept up at the same time and Sinister was right, he couldn't beat him telepathically. Sinister just had too many years of practice in comparison to Remy, no matter how much raw power he now had.

A piece of something on the floor turned under Remy's heel, rolling his ankle with a sharp pain he ignored, but catching his balance slowed his dodge of Sinister or Sinister's arm morphed longer than before. Sinister latched onto Remy's arm and pulled him close into a parody of an embrace.

His laughter sounded in Remy's ears and his mind. Sinister thought he'd won. Physical contact made it so much harder to shield.

Physical contact made it so much easier for Remy to charge something or to use his powers the way Death had.

He'd known breathing out toxic gas would have only endangered his own team mates and wouldn't have even effected Sinister. Sinister wasn't immune to entropy though, the state of his current clone proved that. The center couldn't hold, everything spiraled out of control, everything in this universe died eventually. Remy had the power to hurry that inevitable end.

He began pulling all the energy, all the potential, from Sinister's cells. He didn't want to blow Sinister up and chance some piece of him somehow pulling itself back together again. When he was done, Sinister would be.

Sinister sensed something happening faster than most people would have. His shapechanging ability came from a control and awareness of each cell in his body. He could feel them fail.

"What are you doing?" he demanded. He let go of Remy and pushed him away with a nearly frightened gasp. His body rippled as he shed away the dead cells. 

Remy squinted his eyes open. They ached and watered. Sinister looked smaller. A circle of superfine dust sank toward the debris strewn floor. More of it hung in the air, so light it floated on the air currents. "You can't charge living flesh!"

"I can, but I'm not charging your body," Remy said. He reached out for the cells of Sinister's body. It was easier, even without touching him, because he had a sense of them, of what made up the cloned body before him. The only thing slowing him at all was maintaining his shields.

A blast of plasma from Sunfire just missed him, alerting Remy that Sinister hadn't given up, just taken a different tack. Sunfire had his fist pressed to his temples, but his face had taken on the blankness of the telepathically compelled. Remy broke the hold Sinister had on him. As soon as Sunfire was freed, Daken jerked and began running toward Remy, claws out. Sunfire went down on his knees, gasping pained noises.

Remy dove away and winced as he hit the floor because Sunfire hadn't completely missed; his arm was burned right through his armor, with the pain just reaching his brain. Debris and glass gritted and skidded under his palms through his half-gloves as he hit the floor. Still down, he extended his shields around Daken's mind too, dipped in and found Sinister there, twisting Daken's senses until he saw an amalgam of old enemies, their faces morphing into each other, mocking and threatening Daken, where Remy had been.

The instant Remy interrupted the illusion, Daken threw himself to the side and buried his claws in Sinister's chest. Sinister tried to morph around the claws but Daken just moved with him, keeping them sunk deep, transfixing what passed for Sinister's heart. 

"Don't let him get away," Remy said. He grabbed the edge of a lab table and levered himself upright. He didn't let himself look at the burn on his upper arm, one glimpse had been enough, black crust, seared muscle and serum oozing through melted bits of armor. The pain had to be shoved into another compartment in his mind, because it threatened to shred his concentration. There was no time to hurt in a fight, only afterward, or there would be no afterward.

Daken laughed, his expression dark with fury, and twisted his fist, digging the claws in deeper. He skewered Sinister's shoulder with his other hand, so he was held, writhing desperately, in place. The muscles in his arms and back rippled visibly as he lifted Sinister off his feet.

Sunfire stayed on his knees. Shock and growing fear showed on his face. He wasn't looking at Daken or Sinister though.

Swaying on his feet, Remy reached inside Sinister and took all the energy, all the potential energy that would ever be, whatever life was left for the clone body, and siphoned it away. He sent it into the floor beneath him, into the clone incubators and the walls. A nimbus of crimson and purple and twisting lines of black rippling from his hands to Sinister to light the chamber brighter and brighter. 

Pinned by Daken's claws and steadily weakening as his body gave away from Remy's assault, Sinister couldn't summon enough power to attack telepathically or flee through a tesseract.

"You're killing him," Sunfire said.

Remy didn't answer. He was taking it all. If he hesitated, he'd be lost. He couldn't afford Orpheus' mistake. He couldn't doubt. There was no thrill to it; it was a grim necessity, a thing that had to be done. Sinister's growing terror, the wild way he fought Remy and Daken's hold... Remy felt it all. He would never forget.

Dust dribbled from Sinister's lips as he gasped out, "Death." Daken had his back to Remy, but he caught a glimpse of what Sinister saw from his mind before it blinked out: his skin turned black, stolen energy licking flame red over his body. Sinister's body went limp and hung on Daken's claws.

It was done.

"He's dead," Daken declared.

Remy closed his hands into fists and the body, along with Sinister's armor, collapsed into a cloud of a black dust. Sinister was gone, mind and body. He wondered if he would ever feel like it was real. Or maybe he'd already burned through all the emotions killing Sinister catalyzed in him back at Muir Island, when the original Sinister died. After all, Rogue might have been the one carrying Strain 88, but it had been Mystique and his plan to expose Sinister to it.

Or maybe he'd never feel any relief or guilt because if Sinister had come back once, there could be no guarantee he wouldn't resurrect again.

"Gambit?" Sunfire asked as if he wasn't sure, which Remy thought wasn't unwarranted. Sunfire's time as Famine had coincided with Remy's as Death. They'd left together before Sinister recruited them. Sunfire had to wonder what was happening to him.

"Oui," Remy told him. He began pumping a greater charge into the facility. "It's me." It was all him.

Daken slashed his claws through the cloud of dust still hanging weightless in the air. "Neat trick." He sounded reluctantly impressed and underneath that, more than slightly disturbed. If Remy could kill Sinister like that, the same power would be enough to end even a feral with a healing factor.

"Remy, you're going to blow up everything," Sunfire said.

Daken shifted his attention from the dust to the walls and floor and ceiling, all of which were glowing brighter and brighter. The alarms still wailed, but the emergency lighting had begun to fail, so they were all painted in scarlet and black shadows. He shrugged and his claws finally slid back into the housing in his forearms. "Sounds like a good idea to me."

"Not with us in here."

"I've walked out of worse."

"I can get you out with a tesseract," Remy told them both. He paused before adding to Sunfire, "But I need you to trigger the blast with enough radiation no one ever tries to dig this place up, no matter what they think might be down here."

"Don't you have the juice to blow it to smithereens?" Daken asked. "You turned the Brit to dust."

"If I do that, the remnants of the nuclear plant we're under are going to contaminate half the state," Remy explained. He could feel bits and pieces of radioactive material still hidden in several portions of Hansford – material that officially had been removed long ago, when the plant shut down. He could steal the energy potential from that material, but he'd have to release it somehow, resulting in a worse destruction. But he couldn't walk away from the cloning facility without destroying it and every genetic sample stored there. Killing Sinister wouldn't mean anything if the back-up plan just spawned another clone of him after they left. It had to go.

Daken cocked his head and Remy listened, stretching out his other senses to compensate for not hearing as well as Daken did. The thump and pop of distant explosions and gunfire had fallen silent. Wherever the psi-jammer was, it was still operating. Remy couldn't even sense the rest of the team's thoughts and a heart-stopping jolt of worry hit him. They could handle themselves, but what if re-enforcements had been called in? The rest of the team could be dead up above.

A spike of fury sent more energy into the walls. They glared painfully bright now and pulsed in tandem with his heartbeat. Everything man-made in the lower levels fumed with power, ready to go up with a snap of his fingers. If his team was dead, if Jean-Paul or Ichiko were gone, then he'd – Remy stopped himself. He wouldn't do any more than he was going to do. He wouldn't ravage the area and murder innocents just to take revenge on whoever had been involved in Weapon X. He was too damned powerful now to allow himself to take even a step down that path. The results would be too horrific to face.

"I can do it," Sunfire said.

"Merci."

"Open the tesseract first."

He'd pumped enough power into the buried lab it was seeping into the earth around it and straining at Remy's control. So much potential wanted to be released and it still didn't feel like enough. His talent kept reaching for the nuclear material above: a kid for candy, an addict for an armful of heroin, entropy for an end. He ached to let it go.

"Sunfire," he said and clenched his teeth against saying anything more. His hands were fisted and he couldn't move. If he did, just that would be enough to break his hold on the built-up energy.

"I am ready."

It took more effort than it had since the first time he'd done so, but Remy established a portal from the doorway to the roadway that led to Hansford. It was the closest of the pre-agreed rendezvous points the team had memorized before infiltrating. He wheezed as he sucked in a breath full of ozone and chemicals and tried not to move his burned arm.

"Daken, go now."

He felt Daken move as he opened his hands. The control fell away, a perfect relief, and peace filled him, the same peace he'd felt before, in Madripoor. He'd died once to close Khan's portal, been judged and not found wanting, his sacrifice enough... before Rogue dragged him back to life. The air stilled for a nanosecond and he was aware of Sunfire launching himself into the air on a wave of superheated plasma before the heat reached him. He could do this.

Daken tackled him in the ribs. He wrapped his arms around Remy and threw them both through the tesseract portal as the floor beneath them, charged longer than anything else, exploded first. The blast wave caught them in the air and pushed them and a wave of seared air and wreckage behind them.

They hit pavement and rolled as fiery shrapnel hailed down around them. Remy's ears rang and roared and he could hear nothing past that. Without his armor, Remy knew his ribs would have broken. As it was, he could only gasp for breath under Daken's weight and feel a wondering sort of gratitude for the protection he'd offered, along with the last minute save.

Hands were plucking Daken off him. He could feel the vibration of Daken groaning and then a sharp hard rhythm of him swearing. Remy let out a breath that hurt, but not enough to keep him from inhaling fresh clean air in its place as his eyes focused on Jean-Paul hovering above him, obviously unsure whether he should touch Remy or not.

"I'm okay," Remy said before starting to cough. He held out his good arm and let Jean-Paul get him off the pavement. Everything had a faint ripple of orange-red color and he realized they were all encased in one of Ichiko's forcefields. Trucks and soldiers and haphazardly parked cars surrounded the bubble, but couldn't get through: a fusillade of bullets flowered white against the forcefield as they ricocheted off it. The noise of the guns and the shouting that followed carried through the white noise in his ears, but it was muffled. At least it seemed so to Remy.

"You idiot!" Jean-Paul yelled at him. Remy shook his head, waiting for his ears to pop and things to sound normal again. He twisted around until he'd spotted everyone who had made it out.

Sage leant against Ichiko. The pallor and tightness to her features told a story of blood loss and no painkillers, but she was conscious and ambulatory, so that was a win. Domino was unceremoniously jerking chunks of shrapnel out of Daken's back, pausing only to slap his head when he tried to get away from her. As Remy's hearing filtered back, he caught the tail end of her snapping at Daken, " – prove you're better than your father, why not start with being smarter and let me get this shit out of you instead of wandering around with a goddamn piece of metal stuck in your brain pan!?"

"He's had a bullet in his head, he probably misses it," Remy said.

Domino stopped to glare at him. "You – Don't get me started on you."

Jean-Paul snuck his arm around Remy's waist and Remy leaned into him gratefully.

"Sinister's dead," he murmured. "At least this one, anyway."

"Sunfire – ?"

The roof over one of the buildings blew off, snapping everyone's attention back to the shutdown power plant that was just within sight. A sunbright column of plasma stabbed into the sky as the earth rumbled and bucked beneath their feet. The plasma stream arched at the top, a dark dot becoming a form at the front, and resolved into Sunfire flying toward them like a man fleeing from the sun. Below, numerous buildings lurched and collapsed into a rapidly collapsing sinkhole.

"Seems fine," Domino commented. She raised an eyebrow at Remy. "Think you can get us all out of here before they – " she waved at the frustrated military outside the forcefield, " – bring in the big guns?"

He'd have to, since somewhere the psi and comm jammers were still running. He couldn't call for a pick-up from the X-Men.

Remy reached for the energy he needed and found it in the fuel and ammunition close by. He smirked at one soldier who raised a rifle and fired at him when nothing happened. The bullets within had turned to dust. None of the vehicles nearby would be going anywhere either until they were refueled and the batteries replaced. The tesseract to Utopia opened, a thin doorway only wide enough to take them one at a time. It was stable enough, but Remy was hitting his limits and Jean-Paul was holding him up more than he was himself.

Sunfire reached them and Ichiko opened the forcefield high up so that he could join them.

"Anything left is melted," he reported to Remy.

Remy nodded his thanks.

"Did we win?" Ichiko asked. She looked exhausted too, but the forcefield still held.

"We did, petite," Remy said. He started toward the tesseract. "Now let's get out." He wiggled his fingers at Daken. "Coming with?"

Daken rolled his shoulders. He'd already healed completely. "Is Wolverine there?"

"Westchester last I knew, mon ami."

"Then I wouldn't mind visiting your little island paradise. I hear he and One-Eye have agreed to disagree."

"Something like that," Remy said.

"I'll leave when I like."

"Of course."

Jean-Paul urged Remy forward again. "Enough. Someone needs to see to your arm."

Remy grimaced, reminded of the pain pulsing from the burn. It would heal in a day or two. Nothing like so fast as Daken's wounds did, but nothing so slow as a baseline human would. He'd have no scars. 

He didn't bother saying anything though, instead letting himself lean on Jean-Paul harder as they made their way to the tesseract. Ichiko followed and Remy let it snap out of existence the instant she appeared in the windy bright sunshine of a Utopia afternoon.

A seagull sheered away from the burst of light, squawking indignantly at them.

The damp breeze off the ocean soothed Remy's face as he turned into it. Jean-Paul sighed and relaxed his tight grip on Remy. His breath gusted against Remy's ear, a warm contrast to the breeze. The sky was a perfect blue with a few dreamy clouds high above the western horizon.

They had about thirty seconds of peace to catch their breath. Then the rest of the X-Men were going to demand answers to what had happened in Hansford. The Cuckoos were poking at his shields already, their telepathic voices threaded through with unhappiness. ~You. Were. Jammed,~ they chorused at Remy. ~We. Lost. You.~

~Pardon, petites, never meant to worry anyone,~ Remy replied. They withdrew tactfully. He hadn't realized they were attached to him. They had never interacted with him much; the vagaries of X-Men life and his defection had taken him away from Westchester when the Cuckoos came to the school. Maybe it was a telepath thing, now he was one of them. Whatever, it felt nice.

Daken rolled his shoulders and glanced around, taking in the stone-paved terrace Remy had used as the other side of the tesseract. Domino grumbled under her breath while reaching for a cigarello. Ichiko sank down and lay like a starfish on the cool pavers. Sunfire opened and closed his mouth before giving out a wordless grunt and sitting down next to Ichiko. Sage sat down next.

"Can we not do that again?" Ichiko asked. "I mean, we did win though, right?"

"Oui, petite."

A shout echoed from the doors into the control tower and mutants began spilling out in a rush. Remy sucked in a deep breath to brace himself.

"Where's Riptide?" Sunfire asked.

Merde. Remy had lost track of the Marauder. The psi-jammer had made it impossible to keep track of Riptide once they were separated and then he'd been concentrating on Sinister.

"Well, shit," Domino muttered. "That's great."

"Did you see him?" Jean-Paul asked. "Did he – "

"He was ahead of us," she replied. "I'd have seen a body."

"So your Marauder buddy's in the wind?" Daken said.

Remy tried to summon some reaction, but nothing came. Riptide didn't owe him or the X-Men anything as far as he was concerned. Let him go if he'd got away. What could he offer if Riptide had come back with them, after all? Cyclops would likely have insisted on putting the Marauder back in the brig with Crow and Flip. No, it was better this way and once Remy had his breath back, he was going to get them out to, damn whatever Cyclops ordered.

"Long gone," Remy said and smiled at Daken with his head angled just so, so that even Jean-Paul didn't catch it. Daken chuckled, low and a little unkind, but knowing. Remy never wanted to be as dark and angry as Daken, but he knew and accepted that he'd always have a little more in common with Wolverine's son than he did with most of the X-Men.

Dieu, it looked like every X-Men still on the island was converging on them. Cyclops, of course, led the charge, but there was Colossus, Rogue, Magneto, Namor, and Storm following. Remy hadn't known Storm was back. He spotted Pixie and Blindfold, Cannonball, Husk, Moonstar, Danger, and a dozen others. Emma refused to act like she was in a hurry, but she managed to outpace Chamber effortlessly, even in four inch killer heels, and her hair lifted behind her in a platinum pennant. And there, behind her, hesitant of her welcome, cautious as ever, came X-23. Laura. Her gaze switched from Remy to Daken and back, while her face stayed a complete blank. Remy ached for her, one born weapon to another.

"What the hell is he doing here?" Cyclops demanded with a finger pointed at Daken. Daken looked one centimeter from snapping that finger off with his teeth.

"I traded Riptide for him." The joke fell flat with Cyclops, but Domino snorted with laughter.

Emma arrived at the same time Rogue, Storm and Magneto, who had all flown, because they were show-offs, set down. She looked them all over and her lips folded into a purse of disapproval. "What happened?"

"Weapon X," Daken said, explaining why he'd been there with one name.

"Mr. Sinister," Domino piped up. She brought the cigarello to her lips, blew a perfect smoke ring at Cyclops' face, and finished, "Redux."

Cyclops blew out a long breath, clearly marshalling his self-control, and asked, "Who's wounded?" And that was the guy a bunch of mavericks and misfits consented to – mostly – follow. He might be a self-righteous dumbass a lot of the time, but his priorities were straight when it came down to the nitty-gritty. Plus, he really had sloughed away a lot of the overly moralistic attitude lately.

"Remy," Jean-Paul said immediately at the same time Remy said, "Sage. Vertigo's dead and Riptide didn't make it to the RD, so we don't know. They had psi and comm jammers running."

"Sunfire probably has a concussion, at least," Domino added.

"I'm fine," Ichiko said.

"Don't look at me." Domino smirked. "You know I'm always lucky."

"Sinister?" Emma asked Remy.

"Dead again. We destroyed the lab that grew the clone, but there could be others out there," Remy said. He shrugged and regretted it, feeling his ribs protest, bruises he hadn't noticed before, and the burn on his arm all flare to life. The adrenaline crash from this mission promised to be epic. "But he's dead for now."

Cyclops looked disbelieving and Remy could understand that. Sinister had always been able to shrug off all the X-Men's attacks. He didn't bother explaining that the clone had been weak, even if the mind had been as powerful as ever. Instead, he met Emma's gaze, blue as the sky overhead, and opened his shields enough for her to scan what had happened.

"All right," she declared. "I've alerted Rao. She has the infirmary ready. Cecelia is already there." She turned a steely look on everyone else. "Enough rubbernecking. If you aren't here to help get them to the infirmary, get out of here." Her telepathic voice sounded much kinder in Remy's head. ~Well done. If you ever try to bring down hell on your own head again, I will drag your pretty ass back to life and kick it from here to New Orleans, then chain you up until you swear you know better.~

He had to grin at her. For a threat from Emma, that had been almost tender. "Sounds kinky, cher."

Emma sniffed. "In a couple of days, I'm going to slap you."

"Love you too, Emma."

"You aren't as charming as you think. Jean-Paul, get him out of here."

Remy laughed, but let Jean-Paul tug him into motion.  He let himself go where he was directed, to the infirmary and Cecelia's sardonic comments and kind care, half-drowsing through most of it, before giving in to Cyclops and heading to the control tower. He'd have to tell the story sooner or later and he wanted it done.

Chapter Text

They escaped Cyclops' interminable debriefing after Remy faked falling asleep on Jean-Paul's shoulder and then really did. Proof he was too exhausted to answer anything coherently and Cyclops gestured to Jean-Paul to shake him awake and take him away. Storm made an annoying attempt to play the best friend card when they got to their feet to leave, but Jean-Paul glared her off. She'd kept staring at Remy during the debriefing, then looking at Rogue and Magneto seated beside each other, and raising her eyebrows. He didn't like her much at present. Remy acted like she wasn't there, which Jean-Paul already knew him well enough to know was him being defensive, so they just walked out together, ignoring her.

Jean-Paul did not want to know what she thought she had to talk to Remy about. If it was good, it could wait. If it was bad, it could wait forever.

He by far preferred X-23's ambush hug outside the doors of the control tower, awkward as it was, despite Remy grunting in pain when she squeezed his ribs. Remy's smile lit his face up, even if it turned lopsided when X-23 told him she meant to talk with Daken since he'd decided to linger. Her shifting gaze and a glance back showed Daken stalking out behind them, pissed off and tense, Cyclops following him looking much the same. Those two were going to clash as badly as Wolverine and Cyclops did. Remy would egg Daken on, too, just to rile up Cyclops.

Which, fine, that would be fun to watch, but Jean-Paul was not thrilled at Daken sticking around.

Jean-Paul was not jealous. Daken might flirt with Remy and Remy would probably flirt back – Remy would flirt with a rock – but he had no worries about Remy's intent or ability to commit. All right, he admitted to himself, he was a little jealous. Daken appreciated Remy the way few of the X-Men did, that had been obvious even during the mission, and that sort of thing, that understanding, would always be deeply attractive. Plus, Remy had mentioned missing Wolverine and the entertainment value of just how pissed off Cyclops could get.

It was just that Daken was pure distilled trouble.

It took a second or two for his eyes to adapt to the darkness outside. It had still been afternoon when they began the debrief and the lights inside had come on automatically. Utopia didn't have much outside lighting, though, beyond stray light from the odd window opened to the night and the runway lights for the Blackbirds. Light pollution from the city obscured most of the stars, but didn't defeat the soft shadows of evening.

Remy strode along easily since his eyes were dark adapted. They glowed a little, not a reflective flash, but a mild glow Jean-Paul found beautiful. It was enough he could make out that the crow's feet forming at the corners of Remy's eyes from squinting constantly were relaxed. He nudged his elbow against Remy's good arm as they walked. "Do you want – ?" – me to leave so you can talk to Storm, he started to say, but he didn't want to do that and bit off the rest of the words.

"Stay with me tonight?" Remy answered in a low tone.

Jean-Paul let his arm stay in contact as they walked. Sacre Dieu. Remy had asked him to be with him. Hadn't he? Was Jean-Paul reading more into that than Remy meant? They'd slept in the same bed for the last few weeks. Maybe that was all Remy had meant, maybe he just didn't want to be alone. He reigned in his excitement and told himself to tread carefully and not assume anything, no matter how much he wanted it to be more.

"Dieu," Remy muttered as he came to stop halfway to the telepaths' tower. He shivered hard enough Jean-Paul felt it through their contact.

"What – ?"

"We're alive. I'm – Sinister's dead. He's dead and I'm not." Remy laughed, a little rough and unbelieving. "I'm happy."

Jean-Paul cocked an eyebrow. "Is that so new?"

"It is." A smirk, barely visible in the dim light, formed on Remy's fine features, but it wasn't a mean one. It made Jean-Paul want to dance inside instead, because Remy had shared that with him. No one else saw how amazing Remy was, how there was a goodness inside him that had refused to give up no matter how many times he was down. Not even in the face of his own mistakes and Jean-Paul knew facing up to your own flaws and damage took as much bravery as flying face first into a fight. No one made it through life unmarked, but more than anyone Remy kept his head up and never let it show; telling Jean-Paul he was happy was admitting that he hadn't been. That's what that self-mocking smirk meant. That he knew Jean-Paul would get it.

"Prove it," Jean-Paul teased.

A hot feeling ran down Jean-Paul's spine, a sudden rush of emotion that was almost a sensation. Relief and excitement, a jolt of joy, the happiness Remy felt being with Jean-Paul and then need: all of it. Remy's charm, the projection Jean-Paul had experienced at the club the first night he and Remy met as two people and not two X-Men or two team mates, felt familiar now. His control slipped sometimes when he was tired, but not this time. This was Remy teasing back and while Jean-Paul could feel what Remy did, it wasn't compelling him; he was conscious of it. What he felt in response was all him, a gut-punch of emotion, the realization that if anything had gone differently earlier in the day, Remy wouldn't be standing in front of him. He wouldn't have had a chance to be with him. Wouldn't have a chance to love him – He could be in love with Remy, was already halfway there.

The prospect of that loss, even if it hadn't happened, couldn't be born. He needed to touch Remy and prove to himself they were safe. He needed more than an empathic touch. He wanted reality and a body in his arms. He needed Remy now.

"Come on," he demanded. He sounded desperate; he didn't care. He grabbed Remy's hand and pulled him close enough to hold, and kissed him. Remy's mouth opened for him, hot, slick, their tongues slipping against each other, too deep to breathe, teeth scraping against each other. It wasn't enough; he had to have his hands on Remy's skin, everywhere. His fingers scrabbled over Remy's shoulders, thwarted by his body armor, while Remy took over the kiss and made it a sensual promise. Jean-Paul protested and held on even as Remy slowed the kiss and finally broke it off. "Remy. Please." His lips felt bruised, tingling and swollen, and all he wanted was to press them to Remy's all over again.

"All yours, cher," Remy promised before sliding loose. Jean-Paul immediately missed the warmth of his body, the way Remy leaned into him wholeheartedly, the way their kiss had felt like the world ceased to exist outside the two of them.

Remy took Jean-Paul's hand and squeezed it, then tugged him into a run. His teeth glinted in a wicked grin that promised everything once they reached some privacy.

They reached the tower in a rush and tumbled inside with their hands all over each other. Jean-Paul spared some gratitude no one was in the lobby space even while he set his hands on Remy's waist and backed him into the elevator. Remy leaned against the back wall and Jean-Paul crowded close so he could slip his hands from Remy's lean sides to his hips back onto his perfectly muscled ass. He flexed his fingers and Remy groaned deep in his chest. Jean-Paul wanted to hear that again, loved the idea of making Remy sound like that again, along with plenty of other sounds. He pushed his leg between Remy's, and started grinding against him and there, there was that almost desperate sound he liked so much, as arousing as a hand gliding over his cock, and he could feel that Remy was hard, just the way he was.

The elevator stopped around the time Remy's hand found its way to Jean-Paul's nape, his deft fingers slipping through the strands of Jean-Paul's hair in a caress that went straight to his dick. He scraped his nails against Jean-Paul's scalp just right, making him shudder, feeling it from the crown of his head to his toes. He didn't even mind when the torn palms of Remy's gloves caught his hair and pulled it; the little sparks of pain made him even harder. They made the rest of the way to Remy's door and inside, all the way to his bed, in a blur, kissing and clutching at each other, hands frustrated in the quest for more skin by their tight armor. Only a sharp hiss when Jean-Paul inadvertently pressed the bandages over Remy's burned arm broke the haze of desire enough for him to pause.

They separated, breathing hard and staring, and Jean-Paul blurted, "Merde. Sorry."

Remy laughed easily. "Non." He glanced to the side, to the bed, and back. His pupils were blown, eyes black and alien. "Don't stop now."

Jean-Paul hesitated for a breath, wondering if Remy was genuinely up to having sex, then released the hidden fasteners on the top of his armored costume. He got rid of it with the same sigh of relief he always gave; no matter how advanced the material, it felt wonderful to get it off and let his skin breathe. Especially when his skin would be warming to another man's touch soon. He'd trust Remy knew his own limits.Remy wouldn't thank him if he left him with the erection he'd felt back in the elevator. He would be careful, though, since he knew Remy wouldn't.

Remy laughed again, delighted and visibly admiring, taking Jean-Paul in, before he dropped onto the edge of the bed. He drew his knee up and began opening the catches on his boots. Jean-Paul felt his pulse speed up, just watching the elegant line of Remy's back curve over, the hard knot of his biceps, and the long line of his thigh. The click of each catch opening sounded loud in the soundproofed room, punctuation to their hard, quick breaths. He shuddered with anticipation as Remy tossed the first boot away with a thud.

"Gonna just stand there and watch?" Remy asked as he started on the other boot. A flush darkened his cheekbones.

"It's such a pretty show, I think so."

Remy stripped the rest of the way in a flurry, then slowed enough to lay out the armored costume's pieces where he could find them fast in a rush, if he needed it . Jean-Paul followed the same habit and the knowledge they could both face some sort of fight the next day should have made the hunger he felt for Remy ease off, but it didn't.

He'd been with plenty of hook-ups, even a few people who knew he was a mutant when he was a member of Alpha Flight, but not often with someone who was the same. His crush on Walter had never been something that was going to be reciprocated, wasn't something he would have tried to make real, not with the way Jeanne-Marie felt.

Remy was differentand Jean-Paul had to catch his breath with how much he wanted him now, like this, with bruises on his ribs and a stark white bandage on his arm, imperfect and vulnerable and gorgeous and with a flush that spread down from his face over his chest. It wasn't even just the body – though Jean-Paul knew he was shallow enough that looks did matter to him – so much as it was Remy's sardonic humor and the surprising gentleness he had for those he thought needed protecting. Remy presented himself as selfish but was, when it counted, willing to sacrifice himself. And he was dangerous as a sharp blade wrapped in a silk sheath because he thought for himself rather than following orders. All of that made him attractive. The kindness and vulnerability Remy had gradually revealed to him over the last weeks, though, those were what made him irresistible.

"That's for me, oui?" Remy teased with a nod to Jean-Paul's erection. His eyes were hooded, lashes shadowing his cheekbones, and his mouth curled into that dazzling, sexy smirk again. He spread himself out on the bed, his body language a wanton invitation, only to wince. "Stupid ribs."

It took the edge off and Jean-Paul found himself laughing. He watched Remy try to scowl, but a smile took over his face and he chuckled too.

"Let me take over," Jean-Paul said. He been sitting on the next exam table when Cecelia pronounced Remy's ribs bruised and not broken, but he didn't doubt they still hurt, even if Remy did heal more quickly than most. He wasn't a fan of pain during sex, except a little hair pulling, but he thought he could make Remy forget those ribs if he took things slow. If he couldn't, they'd quit.

Still amused, Remy lay back and relaxed. He kept his gaze on Jean-Paul, watching through his eyelashes.

Once Jean-Paul had his own gear folded into a neat pile, he started toward the bed, then paused.

"You want to shower first?" A combination of disappointment and understanding colored Remy's voice, enough to reassure Jean-Paul that Remy really did want to go on.

Jean-Paul thought Remy, as much as he was into this now, might just fall asleep if they let the momentum slow any more. "Supplies," he said. "It makes more sense to clean up after."

He got that smile again.

"Slick and condoms in that drawer, cher." Remy gestured to the bedside table on the left. "Now that we've got the details out of the way... "

Jean-Paul joined him on the bed.

And then it was just easy. He'd had glimpses of Remy's body more than once by now, they'd been working their way toward this for weeks, but he'd never felt totally free to look before. No tan lines, Jean-Paul noted, but Remy was paler than he'd expected, which made sense. Remy wasn't a sun worshipper, not with those night-adapted eyes, and his armor kept him covered from head to toe. Remy stretched showily, displaying everything without a hint of shame, lean and elegant as a big cat.

Remy arched and moaned beneath Jean-Paul's mouth and hands and returned every caress while murmuring endearments and curses under his breath. He knew every spot to touch to make Jean-Paul quiver, fed back the way he felt to make  them gasp together with building pleasure. Remy's head tipped back and Jean-Paul had to follow the line of his throat from jaw to clavicle. His fingers found Remy's nipples, circling, rubbing, and Remy's hands slipped compulsively up and down his back, trailing tingling heat, lines that felt like they should fizz and glow.

He licked over Remy's sternum, tasted the salt of sweat and skin so fine-grained beneath his tongue. Smiled a kiss there when Remy's breath stuttered and his chest rose unevenly with a lost breath. Remy smelled of musk and ozone, perspiration gone rank inside his costume, with traces of pepper and soap and the medicinal sharpness of antiseptics, gauze and tape adhesive laying over it all. Jean-Paul knew he didn't smell any better, but somehow it went to his head, left him in a daze and wanting more.

Fitting himself between Remy's legs when he spread them came naturally, easy; easy as it was to test the grain of the coppery hair on Remy's thighs under his palm before Jean-Paul shifted positions and braced himself above him. He had to be careful of his weight, aware of the bruises blooming across Remy's ribcage, when he might have pressed himself closer, but it was no sacrifice. Not when he could tongue Remy's tight navel, then lick his way up the center line of Remy's abs, feel the flutter and flex of them, before kissing him again.

Remy's feverish hands tangled in his hair while Jean-Paul bit at his lips then stroked his tongue over them. He clutched at Jean-Paul's shoulders and caressed down his flanks, moving his entire body against Jean-Paul's without any regard to his ribs or his burn until he could cup Jean-Paul's ass and pull him in tight enough to arch his hips to drag their cocks together. Pre-come provided just enough lubrication without adding spit or slick and the friction, the contrast of Remy's smooth cock and his palm had Jean-Paul moaning under his breath. He repeated the glide and push instinctively, adding a corkscrew twist to his hips that made Remy keen, before leaning in to scrape his teeth over Remy's stubble. It prickled his lips in perfect contrast to the slide of his erection against Remy's as they rocked together.

Remy bent one knee and ran his foot up and down Jean-Paul's calf. It made Jean-Paul shake when Remy reached the back of his knee. How the hell did Remy know that teasing there could make Jean-Paul's eyes roll back in his head? Everything Remy did wound him tighter, until he thrummed with arousal inside and out. The rush of his pulse in his ears formed a backdrop to the sweaty shush of skin on skin, the rustle of the duvet,  the harsh rhythm of their breathing and Remy's infrequent bursts of encouragement. Every inhalation filled Jean-Paul's lungs with the heated tang of their mingled arousal; he could taste it at the back of his tongue.

"Come on, cher, come on," Remy muttered. "Plus dur." The light falling into the bedroom from the main room threaded his hair with red bronze and dark gold, the damp strands tarnished like copper clinging to his forehead and cheeks. His brows were drawn together, nostrils flared, but his mouth was soft and open as he gasped and writhed under Jean-Paul. His continued murmur of, "Harder, harder," reassured Jean-Paul his ribs weren't hurting.

Jean-Paul rolled his hips forward, then choked as Remy insinuated one hand between their bodies to wrap around both of them. His eyes almost rolled back in his head as Remy began a pattern of twist and stroke, rippling his fingers to vary the pressure. He panted helplessly against Remy's neck, his arms threatening to give out, as his orgasm rushed closer and closer. His toes curled into the mattress. Despite Remy's sexual confidence, Jean-Paul had retained the ridiculous belief that he was the only one with experience and that Remy wouldn't know as much about fucking another man as he did.

He was wrong.

Even exhausted and sore, Remy was on his way to making Jean-Paul crazy. It wasn't just that his empathy let Remy know exactly what felt best to Jean-Paul. It was the empathy feeding back everything he did that made Remy ache for more or shake with pleasure. Physically feeling his partner's enjoyment made for great sex, but the mental and emotional element added more. Knowing how much Remy wanted him and answering that was just as ecstatic as sharing their bodies. Each new touch stole away more of his control, trading back and forth between them, until all he could think of was coming, repeating Remy's name over and over. The pleasure felt like more than he could take even while he wanted it to never end, wanted more. The sounds Remy kept making, though, were almost the best part, little under his breath moans, not quite words, and a breathless keen when Jean-Paul's knee slid on the coverlet and the angle changed, pressing his balls against Remy's with his next thrust.

Jean-Paul could feel it building inside him, sense that Remy was close too, all shivering tension, bucking hips and soft Creole babble, his charm laying him open so that Jean-Paul knew everything he was feeling. It was too good, too much to maintain. His climax hit like the crest of an overwhelming wave, his hips stuttered, a gut deep grunt spilled from his lips and everything in him narrowed down to an endless moment of release.

Remy tightened his hand on  them, moving faster, drawing the last twitch and jerk out of Jean-Paul's over-sensitized flesh before he tensed and cried out, his come mixing wet and warm with Jean-Paul's. Remy's empathy wrapped around him and it felt like coming a second time as he let Jean-Paul feel his climax with him. His cock managed a helpless twitch in response, but his body couldn't match what Remy made him feel.

His lungs were still heaving and his abs ached a little from how hard he'd come. Perspiration matted his hair to his head and a droplet fell from his nose into the hollow of Remy's collarbone. Remy used his clean hand to swipe the worst of the rest of it away before it got in Jean-Paul's eyes, an absently tender gesture full of deep, wordless affection.

He put in a final effort and rolled himself to the side so he didn't collapse on Remy. They lay side by side, arms and legs in contact, overheated and limp, sweat and semen drying uncomfortably on their skin. Jean-Paul turned his head so he could watch Remy's profile. Remy's eyes were closed, his face at peace, lips curved up in a soft smile. "Mon Dieu," Remy murmured without moving or opening his eyes, raw and husky and sex-dazed.

Jean-Paul laughed quietly. He still felt connected to Remy, aware of his feelings, the affection that filled him, the little blooms of worry and insecurity, the stubborn will to live that fed everything else in him like roots that are never seen but make everything else possible. He realized that some time while they'd been making love he'd dropped his own shields without even thinking about it. If Remy wanted to read him, he could. It didn't bother Jean-Paul, so he decided to leave himself open until they left the shielded telepaths' tower if it didn't bother Remy.

"This is nice," Jean-Paul said.

"This is good, cher. Better than nice."

Their thoughts dissolved into each other for a moment and he understood exactly what Remy meant and agreed. Remy hummed in contentment. Jean-Paul rolled onto his side and ran his fingers over Remy's belly, smearing the mess there and making him squirm before rubbing him soothingly. "Don't stop."

"Ribs okay?"

"Stop worrying."

"You don't mean that."

Remy turned and smiled at him. "Non, I really don't."

Soon, they'd lever themselves off the bed and into the shower, but not yet. For a little while longer, Jean-Paul let himself savor having Remy beside him and all the good that came with that, the physical and mental afterglow, the knowledge they were safe, the security of knowing, really knowing how someone felt about him for once and the contentment that came with sharing his own feelings. He understood exactly what Remy had meant in the courtyard earlier. Remy was happy and so was he.

It felt amazing.

~*~

Remy resisted rolling his eyes at Cyclops. They were back in the star chamber – command center briefing room, oops – again. Just him and the big guns who ran Utopia along with Scott: Storm, Magneto, Emma, and Namor. And Rogue. He understood why they were present. Having Rogue there just pissed him off. Now Cyclops kept questioning if Remy had done the right thing killing Sinister.

"It was a clone," Cyclops said again.

"You want a clone of Sinister running around?" Remy replied.

"Was it necessary – "

"Did you want me to let him take me over?" Because that had been the other option. Sinister wasn't going to give up; couldn't Cyclops get that? "Maybe you wanted him to sit back and crank out clones for Weapon X?"

Magneto snorted quietly.

"I would have killed him," Namor stated. "I do not see why it is a problem."

"Well, sugar, that's because you and Swamp Rat share a lack of morals."

Storm reached over and squeezed Rogue's arm. "That is not helping."

"Don't think that's what Rogue's hoping to do," Remy commented before he thought about it. He grimaced as Rogue stiffened in anger.

"So what're you hoping to do?"

He sighed and, again, didn't roll his eyes. It was childish, but Rogue had started it. "Finish here, visit the city and get some dinner with my boyfriend, and then come home and fuck his brains out," he said.

Rogue's face reddened and Emma laughed, while Storm looked conflicted. He assumed Cyclops was glaring too: the visor over his eyes didn't hide the displeased set to the rest of his face. Besides, Remy could feel the exasperation fuming off him. Namor could have cared less and Magneto just raised an eyebrow, which was fine with Remy.

"I think we're done here," Magneto said. He nodded to Remy before rising to his feet. The corner of his mouth twitched, but Remy was the only one who had the angle to catch that. Hanging out with the X-Men seemed to be growing the old man a sense of humor. Or maybe he always had one and Remy had been too blinded by jealousy to see it. Either way, Remy preferred him as an ally.

"I'm not – " Rogue started, before Magneto set his hand on her shoulder.

"Enough. It's done. The consequences were it not would be worse. At least one enemy has been removed from play thanks to Gambit and his team."

Storm startled Remy by nodding firmly and saying, "I agree with Magneto. It is clear from Sunfire and Daken's accounts, as well as the rest of the team, that it was self-defense. That is certainly more acceptable than the collateral casualties we have all been responsible for at times." She looked at each of others, one by one, until everyone nodded, shamefaced. Bystanders and minions who got hurt and sometimes killed in the continuing conflicts between mutants and governments were an ugly fact the X-Men tried their best to not acknowledge, or at least had while under Xavier's command. Cyclops ran a more honest operation. They all tried not to involve innocents, but it had happened in the past, especially when fights broke out in populated areas.

The average person out there didn't care if it was the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four or Magneto on a rampage, when the damage left behind was often as bad as hurricane or earthquake.

Rogue shrugged off Magneto's hand with a sniff and marched out. Looked like their blow out hadn't changed her thinking. Remy had to laugh. Dieu, it was a relief to not care about getting back on her good side. He almost felt a little bad for Magneto, though. Almost. Magneto leaned closer and murmured, "It's a good plan."

When he had control of his second bout of laughter, Storm was watching him. Remy shrugged at her and turned toward Emma. He wanted to talk to her about what Sinister had been intending, if that had been a strictly telepathic thing or something else. The only mutants he'd known of who could possess another without their own physical bodies supporting their consciousness somewhere were Malice and the Shadow King. Malice had had that cameo, but Malice had also been one of the Marauders. Not a Marauder Remy had ever had much to do with until his second round with them, when Malice was possessing Karima Shapindar, so he didn't know all her abilities. He didn't think Sinister had ever had any dealings with the Shadow King, though, so likely whatever Sinister had been planning, he'd discovered how to do it from studying Malice.

Before he could disengage from everyone else and catch Emma's attention, Storm was at his side.

"Remy, would you please allow me to talk to you?" she asked. She sounded so hurt, he couldn't ignore it.

"I always have time for a belle femme." He sent a thought Emma's way, though. ~Later, cher, we need to talk about what Sinister was planning.~

~Agreed. We do not need another Shadow King.~


One was more than enough, Remy agreed.

"Let's walk and talk," he said to Storm.

As they passed through the main control room, he noticed the Cuckoos were monitoring input from three different missions in different parts of the world. Though none of the three turned away from the screens in front of them, their mental harmony greeted him telepathically. ~We. Are. Glad. You. Came. Back.~

~Me too.~ The thing was, despite his regular impatience with Cyclops and lack of faith in the whole mutant nation endeavor, Remy was glad he'd come back to Utopia. If he hadn't, he'd never have freed himself of the bindings he hadn't even realized were trapping him. He wouldn't have Jean-Paul to turn to or have earned the privilege of being Emma's friend. Just those two people in his life made up for the loss of Rogue, because they accepted him as who he was, not who they wanted him to be. He dared to hope, though, that it wasn't a zero sum game, that he could salvage something with Storm. Might even, someday, find some friendly ground between himself and Rogue.

"You're distracted," Storm said.

"Oui, shielding takes more concentration in a nest of spooks," Remy replied with a smile. He wasn't ready to share what he'd really been thinking. Instead, he just strolled with Storm, taking their time walking down the wide, empty corridor which finally took them outside.

It didn't surprise him that Storm took him outside. As he was more comfortable at night, she was more comfortable outside. The nature of their mutations dictated these aspects of their personalities.

The breeze off the Pacific tossed Remy's hair in his eyes so he had to rake it back with one hand. He noted with amusement that the same breeze smoothed Storm's ivory locks without her touching them. They didn't call her Windrider for nothing.

She led him away from most of the buildings to a footpath that took them to small headland facing San Francisco itself. At last, Storm clasped her hands together and faced him.

"T'Challa and I are not... content," Storm said. "That is not an excuse for the way I behaved to you."

"All right."

"It is context."

"Context," Remy repeated. The wind lifted, thrashing the waves into foam as they rushed onto the rock scattered sand. Utopia didn't have the sort of beaches that encouraged sunbathing and sand castles. He watched the spray scatter in the air over the breakfront rocks and judged that Storm was far more upset than her demeanor gave away. The weather always responded to her emotions on some level.

"My marriage is crumbling before it has barely begun." Her voice hitched and Remy folded like poker player with a losing hand. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her into a hug.

"I'm sorry, padnat. T'Challa's a fool. He should be fighting for you, wooing you, begging you to be with him."

"He wants a queen for Wakanda. His loyalties lie with his people and his country, as they should," Storm said. She only relaxed into his arms slowly, but the wind softened until it was just playing with their hair. "He doesn't see how much of an outsider I am there." Her shoulders hitched. "He doesn't see the way the Dora Milaje look at him or how they treat me. He doesn't understand why I have come back here or why I wish to remain with the X-Men."

T'Challa wasn't a mutant, he was Wakandan royalty. He'd never understand the ties that bound people as disparate as Storm and Remy or Wolverine and Shadowcat and Iceman and Emma together against a world that seemed united against them for a single difference in their genes. His connections with the Avengers probably made it even harder for him to understand how they could accept an ex-terrorist like Rogue or Magneto, or even an ex-Marauder like Remy, into their numbers.

Being mutants shouldn't trump what any of them had done, but it did unite them. Remy didn't understand it himself, but he'd observed it even in himself. He might have been raised by the Thieves and call New Orleans home  but he'd pick the X-Men, even the Marauders, over them. He didn't know if that was strictly a conscious choice on his part or something influenced or even dictated by mutant biology – the latter possibility bothered him enough he tried not to think about it, because if so, Magneto's arguments might be true.

He'd never considered T'Challa good enough for Storm, mutant politics aside, but he'd kept his mouth shut, because she'd seemed happier with the Black Panther than she'd been since Forge broke her heart.
Telling Storm that wouldn't help, so Remy just rocked her side to side and muttered insults at T'Challa and ignored the damp spot on his shoulder.

She drew away and he let her go until they were separate but his hands stayed on her shoulders.

"I was unfair to you," Storm said.

Remy tensed and nodded because there was no use denying it. He wouldn't tell her there was nothing to apologize for when there was. He'd accept it, though, if she meant it.

"I shouldn't have... I wanted you to stay with Rogue, for you to be happy with her, and I didn't listen to you. I am sorry for that."

Remy released her shoulders and stepped back.

"And the rest of it?" he asked. It took an effort to keep his voice even and his face blank.

Storm's faced darkened in a flush. She tugged pointlessly at her costume's sleeves, a fidget Remy had never seen before. "That was awful," she said in a small voice. "It was me being angry, trying to hurt you.."

"Goddess, Remy, please forgive me." Storm's eyelashes were wet with unshed tears. Remy wanted to take her back in his arms and say he did, that nothing could change how he felt toward her, but he still hesitated. She had hurt him, he thought, more than Rogue had. He'd come to expect Rogue's rejections, her turnarounds, her temper. Storm had been his friend, a support and voice of reason he'd needed far more than Rogue. Without her, he'd discovered others who had his back, his misfit team: Emma, Domino, Sunfire, even Armor, and Jean-Paul, most of all, Jean-Paul. He couldn't just let her off the hook.

"You didn't even listen to me," he said. "Jean-Paul was being my friend, we didn't have sex until last night."

"You said you slept with him."

"I've slept with you," Remy pointed out. In her bed, skin to skin, and it had never been about sex with them, but she'd immediately assumed otherwise, and that was another hurt: did she think he'd secretly lusted after her any of those times, that he would have cheated on Rogue with her if she'd been interested?

Storm pressed her lips tight and closed her eyes. "I am sorry," she said again.

He wiped his hand over his face. He was so tired of it all. He couldn't stay angry at Storm; he didn't want to. "I know, cher. You and me, we're still friends if you want to be."

"Thank you." Storm turned back toward Utopia's towers and began walking. Remy fell in step with her, amused when a piece of gravel turned under the heel of her boot and a gust of her winds caught and steadied her before he could. She glanced back at him and he smiled helplessly at her.

"I need to speak with Jean-Paul," Storm said when they reached the telepaths' tower's doors.

"Padnat – "

"I must apologize to him as well." A hint of humor showed as her blue eyes crinkled. "And I need to threaten him if he hurts you."

Remy opened his mouth to protest, then snapped it closed and held up his open hands. "Don't let me stop you."

Storm's smile slid away as she added, "I must speak with Rogue too. I am not looking forward to it."

"For what it's worth," Remy said, "Magneto seems to deal with her better than I ever did. She can't jerk him around, because he's not ashamed of who he is."

"And you are?"

"Not any longer."

She touched his cheek and smiled brilliantly. "Good. But I must hurt her, for betraying my friend."

"How're you going to do that?" he asked with an indulgent smile.

Storm curled her hand into a fist. "I hear she has a glass jaw without the invulnerability."

The image of dignified Storm socking Rogue in the face sent Remy into a fit of laughter that ended in him wiping at his eyes and Storm smiling indulgently.

"You going to punch out Magneto too?" he asked when he had control.

"I will 'speak' to him as well," Storm declared.

Remy considered warning Rogue, then decided it wasn't his problem, if it was a problem. Rogue could stand up for herself, just like he had done, and nothing Storm would say to her would be anything but the truth.

He started to head back to his quarters, suspecting Jean-Paul would still be there and he'd have a chance to talk to him before Storm did. Not that he meant to waste their time talking about Storm. He and she were good and Jean-Paul didn't need Remy telling him how to react.

Of course, Emma's mind voice interrupted that plan.

~Meet me in civilian clothes. Nice ones. I have a reservation for us in the city. We shall lunch and discuss what Sinister intended and how you and the rest of us can protect ourselves. If the mechanism lies in something like Malice's cameo, we already have a headstart, but if it's something else, we must be ready. The last time we faced off against the Shadow King, he did extensive damage to the Astral Plane and everyone trying to access it. That's unacceptable.~

Remy knew better than to brush her off, especially when he agreed that the threat had to be assessed, at least. Though he knew it was at least in part because Emma wanted him to use a tesseract to get her to and from the island. She hated what the sea air on the ferry did to her hair.

~I saw that,~ Emma sniped. ~Watch your shields.~

Remy reinforced his shields and wondered if he could find Jean-Paul and persuade him to accompany Emma and himself. He did have a plan for the day after all and even Magneto had considered it a good one.

Chapter Text

Claudine hovered her hand over the abort sequence and watched the power levels for Omega 2 rise higher than ever. She'd been monitoring since he spiked in Los Angeles, watching for any sign he was spiraling out of control again. None had come.

Hansford was a hot hole in the ground, though.

She smiled.

After what had happened at Hansford, she knew she wouldn't be trapped beneath Chernobyl forever, living out a sisyphean task that resembled a Lost plot while she waited for someone – anyone – to find the Nursery.

Waiting for a proper host – in other words one who wasn't her – to present themself.

Remy LeBeau would do for her purposes.

She slapped her hand down anyway. "Not yet," she said into the silence as another potential Sinister clone was terminated before the first cell divided. "Not yet."

She could wait a while longer. Spiting Sinister's plans satisfied her for the moment. Let Remy grow even stronger before he had to face the nightmare waiting to grow beneath Чернобыльская АЭС им. В.И.Ленина. Let the odds tip a little further toward him.

Sinister never fought fair, after all.

Neither did Claudine.

Maybe she'd even send Remy a warning when she grew bored enough to walk away.



The End