|Sun, 25 Jul 1999
Casting Stones Part 1
Well, I'm actually posting a fic (!). I think I just might finish this one. ;) Be aware that chapters may come in "chunks" from me, because I like to give myself the freedom to retcon without anyone screaming. ;)
Obligatory Disclaimer: <deep breath> Okay. Rogue, Gambit, and the rest of the X-Men belong, alas, to Marvel Comics. Rather astoundingly, I am using them without permission. However, I am not making any money off of this, so please don't sue me. The original concept for this story belongs to Faith Barnett (who is also helping me considerably by beta-reading), and I am using it *with* permission. Any comments, constructive criticism, suggestions, offers of large cash donations, etc. will be gratefully accepted at Enyo@jps.net. Flames may be directed to email@example.com. Ratings-wise, I'd say this is a PG-13 for some occasional language. Oh, and one quick continuity (ha, ha!) note: in this story, Remy did not lead the Morlock Massacre because 1) this is a "What If?" scenario, 2) it was a horrific nonsensical retcon in the first place, and 3) this is my story and I can do whatever the heck I want. Thank you.
The tunnels were cold. Remy could feel the chill scornfully slicing through his trenchcoat and body armor, caressing his skin with silvery fingers. The rational part of his mind told him that it was simply his empathic perceptions overlaying the tunnels' psychic resonance with his physical senses. The rest of his mind told that part to shut the hell up.
Senses on overdrive, he heard his nigh-soundless passage through the swirling ankle-deep water like a roaring flood, and was supremely conscious of the bo staff collapsed in his trench pocket and the various dozen-odd cards and miscellaneous weapons secreted throughout his body armor. Remy LeBeau didn't need empathy to sense that this place was bad news, and the sooner he got out, the better.
It was rather ironic, he thought wryly, that only a few months earlier he'd been living it up on the party scene, making good use of his inescapable good looks, incalculable wealth and unbridled freedom. Yet as soon as he hooked up with the X-Men, he found himself wading through sewers. He allowed himself a tight grin. *Dat's what you get, LeBeau, tryin' t' be a hero.*
Not that he'd stay much longer, not with that anal-retentive Summers in command. He'd only stayed as long as he had as a favor to Storm.
The empty tunnels mocked him hollowly, the close darkness enfolding him in a seductive embrace. *Be honest wit' yourself, homme. It ain't all for her.*
It had been a long time since he'd had...a friend. Since he'd been exiled from the Thieves Guild, he'd been wandering the globe, living hard and trying to convince himself that he enjoyed it. Trying to convince himself that the Guild's close familial ties and strong kinship had only held him back. But in the still of the night, after the thrill of the heist or the gambit or the conquest had died, he found that every corner of his mind revealed only barren loneliness. And so the small part of him that had not had its capacity for dreaming stripped away was clinging to Storm's friendship like a lifeline. He knew that it wouldn't last, but he just didn't care.
And so he found himself trudging through sewers at two o'clock in the morning. He barked a quiet laugh. *Story of my life.*
When Storm had mentioned the Mutant Underground, he hadn't realized she was speaking literally. It was an interesting concept. In the course of his lifetime, he had traveled in the same circles as many different underground associations, several of which dabbled in the sort of quiet clandestine terrorism that the MU specialized in. But he had yet to find one that was completely run and operated by the second-class victims. Groups like that were generally organized and financed by the middle or upper-class, using the poor as the brute force, easily expendable. This one was something new.
He wondered if that didn't play into the tension obviously sizzling between the MU and the X-Men, something that had to do with more than simply conflicting ideologies. Either way, it meant that he, an impartial third party--*never t'ought you'd be dat, neh?*--got to make the meeting.
He shifted a few weapons for easier access as his kinesthetic spatial sense registered someone in the tunnels beyond. The figure was stationary, presumably in the widening up ahead where the meeting was scheduled to take place. He paused, red eyes narrowing. The someone was not quite--human. He sensed a powerful mind, female... But her touch was something new. What little he could read didn't entirely reassure him. Her mind was...for lack of a better word, contained. Not contained like Scott's, all blinding resolution and adamantium morals, but contained as in a Bengal tiger stuffed into a birdcage. And yet she glowed with a radiance a non-psi was not supposed to possess.
*Shit.* This would be interesting.
A few minutes later, he stepped out into the open, not armed but ready to be in a hairsbreadth time. A little light trickled in through a grate in a corner, but even to him, it was dark. He didn't bother to try and dampen the lurid glow of his eyes, preferring optimal eyesight to the risk of spooking his contact. He located her instantly, leaning up against the far wall in the shadows. She didn't seem alarmed. Straightening, she stepped towards him with silent ease. Her presence was...phosphorescent. He felt his powers drawn to her, like a moth to a flame.
He blinked in surprise, hearing the unmistakable Southern accent behind the terse word, shimmering blues and greens in his mind's eye. He righted himself against the discordant echoes of her steely presence, eyeing the figure in front of him with covert interest. All he could make out was a slender, hooded silhouette.
"Oui, chere. An' you are...?"
"The Guardian," she answered shortly. The shimmering energy field that was her aura quivered slightly in surprise, though she gave no evidence of it. He saw her hand move, and readied himself.
"Relax," she said, and he felt more than heard a distinct note of amusement under the adamantium veneer, windchimes on a summer day. "A CD." She held up a square package, tossed it at him. He snagged it neatly and felt the smooth circle through the plastic wrapping.
"Anyt'ing in particular I should know about it?" he asked as it disappeared into his trench.
"Not really. Just deliver it to the X-Men." The windchimes were gone, stilled by the dead weight of an oppressive darkness. She turned to go.
"Why not deliver it yourself, chere?"
Her head swiveled, and he felt the steel bubble, sharp anger crackling in reds and oranges. She heard the car the instant before its headlights flashed through the grate, lancing bright-white lasers that struck concrete and flesh impartially. He caught a quick glimpse of vivid green eyes and striking beauty before she whirled, and was gone into the empty silence of the shadowy labyrinth.
Remy closed his eyes, tracking her spatial signature as she navigated the tunnels at an amazing rate before she, and her presence, disappeared from his perception.
With a quiet sigh, he let out the breath he'd subconsciously been holding. He felt...energized.
*Well. Dat *was* interesting.*
With a familiar grin on his face, he turned and headed back towards the surface.
"The Guardian." Scott scowled darkly, glancing around at no one in particular.
"Y' know her?" Remy was intrigued. He'd brought his empathy back down to normal levels, but Cyclops was loudly projecting a very interesting combination of disgust, anger, doubt, and, most unusually, guilt.
"She came to us shortly after the assassination attempt on the Professor," Storm answered, and Remy felt the mood in the room momentarily blacken. "She desired help in controlling her powers. But she--"
"Had just tried to *kill* Miss Marvel," Scott finished firmly. *Almost as though he's tryin' t' convince himself.* The rest of the team looked uncomfortable, and Remy could sense conflicting emotions from several. Jean and Betsy, tight behind their shields, were mysteries.
Any further questions were cut off by a pleased sound from Hank, seated at the nearby computer console. "Cerebro has cracked the code," he announced. "Very clever encryption technique. It appears they had some doubts about the competence of our Cajun friend."
Remy felt Scott shift uncomfortably, and knew he had also doubted that Remy would return...for vastly different reasons.
Logan gave him a sharp look. "I wouldn't be," he growled, leaning against the wall. "The MU don't trust no one."
A warble from the computer signaled that the decryption was finished. "Shall I patch it through to the holo-generator, Fearless Leader?" Hank asked cheerfully.
Scott hesitated, eyes flickering in the way that signaled he was having a telepathic conversation with his wife. Remy picked up heightened tension in the room, saw Scott's eyes slide over him with enforced casualness, and understood.
"I'll leave you to it, den," he said, hiding the stab of anger that clenched his gut. Ignoring Storm's look of entreaty, he pivoted and strode out of the room, bitterly aware of the silence and the eight pairs of eyes boring into his back.
As the doors hissed shut behind him, he cursed, angry at their distrust. Angry with himself, for being hurt. *You knew dis would happen de second you walked in here.* His whimsical notions were violently dispelled, and he figured it served him right.
*Time t' pack your bags, LeBeau.*
Vivid green eyes stared at him challengingly from beneath a mane of white-steaked, unruly red-brown curls. Remy gave a low whistle and settled back in his chair, looking at the holo-image in open admiration. He wasn't exactly sure what he'd expected when he'd called up Cerebro's file on the Guardian, but it sure wasn't this.
The holo was unquestionably of the woman he'd met in the tunnels; younger, certainly, but there was no mistaking that face. And yet, there was something about her...
The image had been taken mid-flight, which explained how she moved through the tunnels so quickly. Rogue, as she'd been called, looked free, alive. Her attractiveness was very much different from the glamorous grace of Jean or the elegant beauty of Storm. At first glance, he would have labeled her "cute." But despite her youth, she somehow managed to broadcast an unapologetic sexiness, wearing wild abandon like a badge. The image reminded him, he realized, of Belle. The confident tilt to her chin, the fierce light in her green eyes, the determination on her face were all reminiscent of the strong-willed personality he had met in the tunnels. But what had happened to the playful half-smirk on her lips? What had happened to the Rogue?
Disturbed, Remy pulled up what little biographical information Cerebro had. No family information, just a passing mention of-- His eyebrows rose. Mystique? THAT name he knew. Not a woman to cross, that one. She'd earned quite a reputation in certain circles for being entirely efficient--meaning, entirely ruthless. As for her motives--well, they were her own. *She* was Rogue's mother? Well, he now knew where she got her determination. What a way for a kid to grow up. *Better dan de T'ieves Guild?* He thought wryly. He was one to talk.
He scanned down the list of Rogue's activities with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. She'd been a busy girl. And a successful one, from the look of things. What exactly were her powers, beyond flight? He called up her stats:
Natural power: skin-to-skin contact results in uncontrolled absorption of memories and powers for a length of time partially proportional to the length of contact. Powers resulting from prolonged and intense contact with Carol Danvers, aka "Miss Marvel": flight, near invulnerability, superhuman strength, "seventh sense" of danger. Other side-effects from partial Kree physiology include resistance to poisons and ability to survive in a vacuum for a limited space of time. Remy whistled, turning over the implications in his mind. Her absorption power was easily one of the most dangerous--and most useful--mutations he'd come across. No wonder the X-Men had feared her. And with the added powers of Miss Marvel...
He went back to her history, scrolling down until he saw Carol Danver's name. Girl had taken out one of the most powerful superheroines on the planet within a minute or two. But not without repercussions. She'd left Mystique and shown up at the X-Men's door. *Girl's got guts, dat's for sure.*
Cyclops' entry read that Rogue had permanently absorbed Danvers' powers and copied her psyche, and that she had claimed that she was being mentally assaulted by Miss Marvel's mind. It also mentioned that Rogue had said she'd realized that Mystique had been using her, although Scott sounded extremely cynical.
So, they'd left her to fend for herself. Just like that.
Remy leaned back in his chair, thoughts running back to the restrained mind he had felt in the tunnels.
*Is dat de price of controlling your power, chere?*
He studied her expressive eyes, searching for traces of the emptiness that echoed inside his skull.
Gambit gave himself a solid mental kick. He must have been well and truly engrossed not to sense Storm approach. "Oui, Stormy."
"I have told you not to call me that," she said absently, stepping inside the lab. Her eyes were fixed on the hologram hovering gently above the table. "I was not aware Scott had given you access to Cerebro."
*You know damn well he didn't.* "Sorry, chere. Just curious."
Her blue cats eyes fastened on him appraisingly. He sensed equal parts disapproval and reluctant agreement. "I understand your frustration, Remy. But you must give everyone a little time--"
He traced her eyes to the duffel bag pushed up against the wall. Her gaze flickered back to him, pain and hurt in their clear depths.
"I'll never fit in here, chere, an' you know it."
"Remy..." she hesitated. "It is...difficult for Scott to accept new members onto the team. Since the Professor was injured, he has been left with a heavy burden--"
"It isn't just Scott, Stormy." He said it as gently as possible, but felt her sharp shaft of hurt nonetheless. "I'm a t'ief, chere. I'm no hero."
"Indeed." She pinned him to the chair with a piercing look. "So, it was a self-serving thief who rescued a young girl from the Shadow King."
He sighed. Leave it to her to throw that one piece of misguided altruism in his face. "Chere--"
"Remember, Gambit, I was once worshipped as a goddess by the people of Kenya." Her face had smoothed into a resolute calm that made it a small stretch of the imagination. "I enjoyed, even reveled in, the power and honor they accorded me. Yet I came to realize that that was wrong. All the X-Men have their dark pasts, Remy. People can change."
He laughed, knowing that he hurt her but unable to stop himself. "Yeah, Stormy." He gestured towards the hologram on the table. "Like she changed?"
Her face clouded, and she was silent long enough for him to regret his words. He opened his mouth to apologize, but was stopped by her uplifted hand.
"Rogue was...a mistake," she said at last, quiet but sure. She lifted her gaze to meet his, apologetic but uncompromising. "We all make them. But I do not wish to make the same mistake with you."
He began to shake his head, but she strode forward swiftly and seized his chin in one slim brown hand.
"I do not believe that you are simply a thief, Remy," she said, blue eyes focusing on him disconcertingly. "Had that been the depth of your character, you would never have risked your life for a street urchin. As much as you try to deny it, you have a good heart, and at your core, you believe in doing what is right. And in that, I think you may find you have more in common with us than you wish to admit."
He watched her warily as she straightened. Seeing his expression, she sighed. "If you truly wish to leave, my friend, I doubt that I could stop you. But the Professor should return from his conference tomorrow, and I would like for you to meet him. All I ask is that you give us...and yourself...a chance."
With a swirl of ivory hair, she was gone, leaving Remy with the faint scent of fresh earth and green growth, and the low echo of her voice. *My friend...* Remy tasted the words as if for the first time, feeling them out and trying to shake the impression that someone, somewhere was laughing at him.
As the room dissolved into a writhing blackness, Remy amped up his powers with a tight smile. What with his early MU reconnaissance and hacking into Cerebro, he hadn't gotten more than two hours of sleep before it was time for Scott's precious early-morning practice. Still, much as he despised it, he was used to running on little to no sleep, and he doubted the X-Men were better prepared.
Of course, since he was still officially a "guest," he was not required to attend the Danger Room sessions. But with everything that had happened to him in the last few weeks--hell, in the last few *hours*--he welcomed the chance to settle back into comfortable, long-established instincts. In the here and now, there was only the battle.
The scenario Scott had selected was to his liking; a dark shadowy complex of boxes and barriers, with hushed rustlings indicating enemies all around. To his right, Logan and Psylocke looked equally pleased, melting instantly into the shadows. Yet Remy sensed grim anxiousness from other teammates, whose powers were perhaps not so compatible with the dark.
Storm apparently meant to remedy that. Rising on the still air, she outstretched her hands and jagged lightening coalesced into an incandescent ball. In a broad radius around her, the room lightened to a normal level. Remy shook his head. *Dat's stupid, Stormy.* Whoever or whatever their opponents were, they would certainly go for her first. And if that light went out, the X-Men in her vicinity would be left with little or no night vision, making them extremely vulnerable to attack. When he saw Jean take up a position directly below her, he immediately felt exceedingly stupid. Even after several Danger Room sessions, he still wasn't used to fighting--or thinking--as a member of a team. It was difficult to overwrite years of painful survivalist programming. Trust wasn't something that came easily to him--he was too much of a realist for that. But maybe even baby steps were a start.
Mindfully eyeing the whispering darkness beyond the circle of light, Remy inched backwards until he was back-to-back with Jean. She was shielding, but her slight twitch as they touched betrayed her surprise. Storm glanced down, and he felt a wash of warmth/approval before her gaze flickered back up towards their attackers. And then they came.
They weren't even human, this time, some sort of ugly-looking alien construct. With large, bulbous heads and segmented bodies, they resembled giant insects, Remy thought, as he let out a barrage of cards at the first ranks. *Almos' like Disneyland.*
Not that the bugs were anything to laugh at. Out of the corner of his eye, he monitored several advancing on Iceman with preternatural speed. Bobby incased them in ice, but Remy could see cracks appear almost instantly as they utilized tremendous strength. A well-placed card sent bug guts and ice spray flying. Bobby threw him a dirty look. *Yeah, you're welcome.*
But he had to admit there was something to be said for teamwork. His cards, Storm's lighting bolts and Jean's TK combined to nail most of the bugs at a distance, and Remy was sure that many never even made it that far thanks to the covert actions of Psylocke and Wolverine. Angel and Iceman waited for those who made it to the pool of light, having discovered that Warren's flachete made an acceptable substitution for Gambit's cards. Beast mopped up extras, using his agility to counter for the bugs' increased strength. All together, they were doing an efficient job of dealing with the assault.
*Cyke won't let dis last for long.*
He felt the change instantly, a subtle increase in the bugs' speed, a tightening of their ranks. Slowly but surely, more and more got through the long-range net, besieging the trio fighting hand-to-hand. Inexorably, the tide increased, and after a moment, Remy pulled out his staff, fuchsia energy crackling down its length. In a second, they were on him.
It was as he feared; their exoskeleton was too thick to let his blows do any real permanent damage. Time to get dirty. His next strike aimed for the nearest bug's eye, and its thin scream whitened as he drove into its brain. *Gotcha.* Spin and strike. Spin and strike. His world dissolved into gleaming black pinpoints among a blur of dusky blue-gray. But still they kept coming.
Behind him, he felt Jean go down, her powers the least suited to the close fighting. With a deep breath, he vaulted backwards, staff whirling, positioning himself over her body until she managed to erect a telekinetic shield.
*Thank you, Remy,* she said in his mind, clear tones thoughtful as she lifted herself into the air. *I'm afraid hand-to-hand isn't my forti. Can you hold them off on your own?*
*I doubt it.* he said wryly, neatly dispatching two with a clean thrust. *I'll need some back-up.*
Still, it wasn't long before a bug caught him off-guard, knocking him flat on his back with a grunt. He reacted quickly, sending the creature sprawling with a forceful kick, but soon found himself buried underneath a pile of clicking bugs, maws gaping with salivation. *Shit.* He wondered how real these things' bites would feel. Suddenly, he felt his hair stand on end, and the pile abruptly lightened as he saw the white-hot scorch of lightening strike someplace dangerously close. Hastily, he shook off the few remaining bugs, not wanting to test Ororo's accuracy. He saw a shimmering, translucent globe solidify around him as he scrambled to his feet, and thought a loud thanks to Jean. As the shield winked out of existence, he felt an eddy of air behind him and glimpsed Storm alighting next to him out of the corner of his eye.
"Came down here t' fight like de rest of us, neh?" he grinned as he felt her take up a position at his back.
"Shut up and fight, Gambit."
How long the intricate dance continued, Remy had no idea. But abruptly, there were no more bugs. As the Danger Room rematerialized, he grounded his staff with a metallic thunk, watching Storm's globe dissolve with a crackle and reassuring himself that he was still in one piece. Remy could see Bobby on the floor in front of him, hand to his head, loudly proclaiming the same thing to Hank, who was bent over him with a worried expression. Jean landed alongside Warren, whose wings drooped with exhaustion, red mottling on his right shoulder revealing that he had not escaped unscathed. Psylocke appeared, faint lines around her eyes revealing her strain, and Logan... Well, Logan looked the same as ever, though he had somehow managed to rip yet another uniform to shreds. Remy turned to Storm to find her watching him with a knowing smile.
"Whatcha thinkin', Stormy?"
"Oh, I was just thinking that we might make a team player of you yet." She smiled, watching his expression turn somewhat sheepish in amusement. "And do not call me that."
"Good job, people." Cyclops' voice boomed over the intercom. There was a palpable hesitation. "Take the rest of the day off."
Bobby openly groaned at his tone, and there was some good-natured grumbling as the X-Men began to limp out the door. The friendly jibes were tossed around impartially, including Remy in the circle of weary warmth. Tiredly, he soaked up their camaraderie, ignoring the gentle smile of Storm at his side. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to stay another day.
Hair still wet from the shower, Remy wandered downstairs, lured by the scent of something in the kitchen. He poked his head in to see Jean brandishing a wooden spoon threateningly at her boyfriend, who held up oven-mitted hands in protest.
"Jean, I'm just trying to help!"
"I know you are, Scott," she said through gritted teeth. "And I love you. But you cannot make a pie to save your life. So *get out*!"
Remy chuckled as Scott subsided with a hurt air. Jean caught sight of him at the door, and to his surprise, smiled.
"That goes for you, too, Gambit. Unless, of course, you are a master chef underneath that disarming facade?"
He grinned. "Wit' pies? 'Fraid not, chere. But I can make a gumbo dat'll burn your mouth off."
"I'll keep that in mind," she said dryly, giving Scott a gentle push towards the door. "Now scoot, you two. I think there's a basketball game going on outside."
Scott mumbled something about checking on status reports and disappeared down the hall. Remy watched him go with a shake of his head, thanking God that he, at least, knew how to have fun. He heard noise from the rec room and walked in, seeing Hank and Bobby camped out in front of the TV with an impressive array of snack foods.
Feeling his eyes, Bobby glanced up but said nothing. *Prob'ly has a lot t' do wit' dat bandage on his head*. But Hank beckoned him in brightly. "Greetings, Gambit! Care to join us in a little televised testosterone?" Remy glanced at the screen, and saw three earnest suits discussing the merits of Charlotte and Michigan in a pre-game show.
"T'anks, Beast, but I've never been much for televised sports." As a matter of fact, he'd never been one for television at all. He'd had other things to deal with. "T'ink I'll go join dat game outside, instead."
Hank waved him away cheerfully. "Watch out for Storm," he said conspiratorially. "She is--to put it in street terms--a 'hustler'."
Remy laughed and followed the hallway down to the back door, feeling happier than he had in days. Outside, he could hear the squeak of sneakers and friendly taunting. He opened the door...
And walked out into the oddest basketball game he had ever seen.
"No powers" was, evidently, for wimps. From what he could tell, the teams were Betsy and Warren against Logan and Ororo, although it could just as easily have been a free-for-all.
He paused courtside, watching the fracas in fascination. Logan was making a fast break down the left. It was interrupted when Angel abruptly swooped down and snagged the ball from his hands, only to have it in turn ripped away by the airborne Storm. Psylocke meanwhile used the unwitting Wolverine as a launching pad, and catapulted neatly into the windrider. They went down in a confusion of violet and white. *Ouch.*
Somehow, Logan managed to extricate the ball from the tangle, and evaded the diving Warren with a running roll. Rising into a crouch, he shot a crazy hook--and sunk it, nothing but net. He gave a raucous laugh, and Angel cursed good-naturedly.
Storm, dusting herself off, saw Remy first, and gave him a welcoming smile. He smiled back, feeling suddenly unsure of himself.
"Is dere room for one more?"
There was a sudden hush. He felt suspicion and animosity float from Warren, and Betsy was, as usual, a blank slate. Logan eyed him appraisingly, and in a flash of motion too quick to follow, sent the ball snapping directly towards his chest. Remy snagged it neatly, turning the warm weight over in his hands and watching the Canadian warily. Slowly, a feral grin spread across Logan's craggy features.
"Me an' the Cajun'll take the three of you."
Warren scoffed and Betsy arched her eyebrows, but Gambit felt a matching grin spread across his face. He dribbled the ball, hearing the acrid twang of rubber against asphalt and feeling the heat radiate up from the pavement with a quickening pulse. He passed to Logan with lightening speed, feeling his powers sync to the unassuming sphere. This should be...gratifying.
She could smell the young manager's fear.
Not fear of her mutancy, or her strength, or her ability to fly. Not fear of her invincibility or her power to comatize with a touch. He was afraid she would get him fired.
She tried to recall what it was like to have fears like that. Had they ever existed?
With difficulty, she saw herself as he did, sorting through a blur of aliases, stolen memories and shadowy phantoms. Her ever-expanding wardrobe of disguises had garnered today close-cropped blond hair, blue eyes, a subdued Boston accent and a government ID. She was the fourth or fifth federal inspector he'd seen in the past few days; it was budget time, and they had to review their investment. It would perhaps reassure him to know that she suspected none of them had ever had any intention of shutting the project down. Until today.
She listened to his running monologue with half an ear, more aware of what was not said than what was. The lab's technicians all looked hard at work, analyzing samples, conferring with one another and running expensive-looking machines. Yet she sensed an organization to their chaos, something beyond a well-run team. Maybe it was the metallic buzzing of the fluorescent lights, or the chill clamminess of the room, or the grating cut of the manager's laugh... But something set her on edge.
And her instincts were all she had left.
Her guide led her to an occupied console and launched into a complex explanation of DNA analysis and the X-factor. She reached out and touched his hand, a soft attention-getting brush. He turned to her... --
His thoughts caressed her gently, a soft eddy from the surface of his mind. Emotions, half-formed ideas, odd scraps of minutiae that float along the edge of consciousness... Impatiently she batted away song lyrics and whispered worries, pulling the weight of years of experience into her struggle for focus. Abruptly what she sought crystallized with lucid clarity in her mind.
He was a conscientious man, and his plans for their tour displayed a certain evenness of thought that made interpretation simple, if dull. But what she was looking for was not a simple diagram but impressions, feelings. She brushed aside the surface of that frozen moment with razorblade calm, feeling the waters already begin to drain away... --
...and she suggested they skip the explanation and continue on to the next lab. He did not argue, unaware of the intrusion but wanting her gone. She felt more than knew, with an odd, not-yourself sensation she had grown to accept, that the manager was only a pawn. He was certainly aware that his team's assignments were ambiguous and infrequent, but seemed to harbor no suspicion, simply some small disbelief at his luck. Ah, the naiveti of youth...
She let him show her around the other two sections, lingering long enough and asking enough pointed questions so that by the time she was done, the staff was rattled and it was past time to go home. Only then did she ask about the other lab.
He was reluctant. They were another department. His card could only get her into the hall. She really should talk to-- She smiled and insisted. He relented. And as the door clicked shut behind them, she turned and took his face in her hands. --
She watched the shift and play of his emotions with an expression akin to sadness. Surprise stretched across his face, then alarm, chasing quickly into terror. For the second before unconsciousness he gaped at her, wide-eyed, with a kind of horrified transfixion, as though hypnotized by the scorching blaze she knew burned in her eyes.
She wondered how they really saw her, sometimes, as their identity was being drained away. Was she the blood-lusting Lestat, who drank for the sheer pleasure? Or the reluctant Louis, who fed for survival? Their memories made no such distinctions. Cloudy, disoriented, wracked with fear...
She closed her eyes to the oppressive silence, hearing his screams resonate through her skull.
After darkness took his body he fought her, his unconscious mind lashing out in instinctive self-preservation. Yet the mental image it conjured was ephemeral, almost childlike in its fragility. She watched it almost pityingly as it wavered, trying confusedly to adapt to the mindshift.
It was always that way, with humans. Her powers were their first encounter with psionic elements. And she'd made abundantly certain that no one, but no one, could match her in her own mind. Especially not on their first try.
With a firm gesture, she dismissed the apparition. It dissolved into the landscape of her mind, to join the other ghosts.
She took a step back into her body...and his essence flooded her in a sparkling rush, an effervescent stream of ambrosia that made her, for this moment between heartbeats, a god. She threw her head back. Love and hate, pleasure and pain...the rushing sensations of life kissed her nerves with a caustic sting, blurring together in a pleasurably deadening roar. She felt a wild kind of hysteria overtake her as she listened to the siren's song, calling her to draw more, to lose herself, to seek oblivion...
She lay his sagging body on the floor. She felt powerful, radiant, alive... She tasted bile.
Kneeling beside him, she unfastened his watch swiftly and with agile fingers pried off the back. Locating the correct model in her purse, she swapped his battery for an identical, if less functional, twin. He would awaken in about half an hour, with a little disorientation and vertigo, with she the concerned inspector supporting him. A momentary dizzy spell. Perhaps he should go home and rest?
The memory of his absorption she would keep, along with the unavoidable small fragments of his mind. To add to her collection.
In the meantime, she had work to do. --(x)-- Remy closed his eyes, feeling the icy water run down his scalp with an almost orgasmic delight. He heard a grunt as Angel sat down heavily next to him, radiating reluctant respect. He was tired. And hot. *Prob'ly feathers not de coolest t'ing t' be wearing right now.* He also smelled slightly singed. Remy hid his grin behind his drink.
"I don't believe it," Angel muttered sourly, grabbing a water bottle and taking a swig. "Let me guess, you forgot to mention that you're also in the NBA."
Remy opened one eye with a grin. "Sorry, mon ami, but I haven't played since I was jus' a kid. But my cousins played hardball. You pick t'ings up real quick." *Everything* in the Guild was hardball. "Work hard, play hard," was his father's motto. *Carpe Diem*--but never drop your guard.
"Your cousins were mutants?" Betsy asked, from the other side of Warren.
Remy chuckled. "No. But somehow, dat didn't seem t' matter. Ever seen 16 year-old boys play t'gether?" "Point taken."
"Pretty good, kid," Logan said, sounding almost cheerful, if such a thing were possible. He eyed Remy with a sudden unhealthy glint in his eyes. "Like to try some sparring in the Danger Room?"
Remy grinned wolfishly. "Any time, mon ami." He liked the Canadian, for all his gruff, blustering, rampaging bull-elephant approach to life. It was nice to find someone else in the bunch who wasn't quite so squeaky-clean. Although he did appear to have the team's complete trust and respect. Remy wondered how he did it. His mouth quirked up in an ironic half-smile. *What's de difference between an assassin an' a t'ief?*
"It was well-played, indeed," Storm said, reaching up and unfastening her hair. With a shake of her head, it tumbled down her back in a long white cascade. The golden half-light of the setting sun illuminated her with a celestial glow. She was radiant, regal...a goddess indeed.
Remy smiled up at her, feeling his throat tighten painfully. He realized with a twinge what he'd been trying to deny for months--he loved her. Not the quick-flash passion he was used to, the white-hot flame that flared and died, but a warm steady pulse for the sister he'd never had. Was it any less dangerous? *Is it ever?*
She settled down next to him with a wave of affectionate pride, leaning back against the wall and closing her eyes with a contented sigh. The five of them sat there for a few minutes in companionable silence. Remy realized he was, quite simply, happy. *Dieu, LeBeau, what's happened to you?*
*So hard at work, my X-Men?*
The warm tenor rolled through his mind, gentle teasing overlaid with affectionate pride.
"Professor!" Storm cried, joyously leaping up with her teammates and casting about like a delighted child. Remy slowly got to his feet and turned unerringly towards the grove at the far end of the court, seeing Betsy zero in on the same spot. Xavier's mind blazed on his senses, and he hadn't even felt it until the moment the voice sounded in his head. He'd never encountered shielding like that before. And until the other night, he'd never felt a presence so powerful.
Xavier's vehicle--*Dieu, what is dat?*--rolled out from its place of concealment, and the X-Men jogged over to greet him. Remy lagged back, finding the tenuous threads of camaraderie suddenly and forcefully snapped. He was outside the circle once again. *Home sweet home.*
He half-heard their enthusiastic greetings, studying the man he had heard so much about. Despite the constraining chair and the breath support that made oral communication difficult, Xavier looked relaxed and happy. But from his open mind, Remy sensed that this was a rare occasion. The telepath was almost...detached, an unshakable rock that had grown accustomed to defying the crashing waves.
*So, Remy LeBeau, you are an empath as well.*
*Shit.* It was only years of training that kept his face impassive. He'd learned, some years ago, that his mind was unreadable to psis, probably due to some side-effect of his empathy. A low-grade telepath friend had once described it as "blurry." It was a protection he'd grown accustomed to. *Too* accustomed, apparently.
*Are you aware that your mind generates a sort of interference to telepaths?* Xavier sounded almost conversational.
What the hell kind of question was that? *Yes. I didn't know it could be countered.*
*As far as I know, it can't.* Remy caught the man's vague discomfort at that. *But I have encountered other empaths in the past, and recognized the distinctive signature. It's apparently characteristic of the power.* Pause. *Yours, however, is unusually strong. I would like the opportunity to speak with you later.*
Time slowed. Remy felt an instinctual, gut-jerking urge to run--grab his bags, leap on his bike, and ride the hell away from everything as fast as possible. In front of him, the X-Men began to break away from the Professor, casting quizzical looks between him and Remy as they realized a conversation was taking place. He felt their eyes, measuring, weighing... Wolverine inched closer to him.
"If ever I saw someone ready to bolt, it's you, kid," he said softly, voice pitched for Remy's ears alone. "But take it from me--it don't always hurt to stop runnin'."
Comforting. *What do you want, homme, a guarantee? Life don't work like dat.* His eyes flickered around the circle, searching for suspicion and animosity and finding only curiosity and puzzlement. How long would it take for that to change?
When he was young and invincible, he was a reckless gambler--until he learned that losing could carry a heavy price. He didn't think he could walk down that road again.
He felt Storm's concerned gaze.
God, he was sick of being alone.
Maybe... Maybe some things were worth the risk.
Looking into the Professor's considering blue eyes, he slowly nodded.
*Carpe Diem--what the hell.*
The Professor's study was...not exactly a comfortable room, Remy thought as he stepped through the door. High windows, dark wood and scant furnishings lent it an austere, utilitarian air despite the fire roaring in the hearth. The Professor's calm demeanor seemed stretched, the raw strength beneath prodding at the surface. Remy wondered what had happened since dinner, when he had seemed to be relaxing.
It had been interesting sitting there, listening to them laugh and talk. For perhaps the first time since Remy's arrival, the X-Men had seemed completely at peace. He had watched it all bemusedly, the wild melange of hair, costumes, accents and powers blending together in a melting-pot of friendship and good-humored teasing. Voices, mental and oral, were raised in toasts; old stories were taken out and dusted off. Differences faded away and joy swirled around the table in the light of the man with the piecing blue eyes.
Remy had never felt so alone in his life.
Now he sat down in the hard-backed chair Xavier gestured towards, watching the light pool on warm wood as the desklight flicked on seemingly of its own accord. He wondered idly if it was motion-sensitive, or if Xavier somehow had it wired to trigger telepathically. The technology at the mansion was nothing short of amazing. Undoubtedly another reason why Scott was so edgy around him. *Prob'ly t'inks I'll go sell it t' de highest bidder.*
*The X-Men are...not always an easy group to join.*
Face carefully under control, Remy's gaze sought the Professor, a shadowy form behind the desk. With a hum, the hoverchair rolled forward and Remy could see the glint of cold humor in the man's eyes.
*I assure you, I cannot read your thoughts unless you project. If that is what you are wondering.* Remy felt himself bristle against the amused undertone to the pedantic delivery. *But I am not totally unaware of my surroundings.*
*I'm a little different den most of your recruits.* Remy said dryly, choosing to ignore the subtle barb.
*True.* The blue eyes held his seriously for a long moment. The thrumming of his powerful mind was almost hypnotic. *What do you know about the Mutant Underground?*
For a heartbeat, Remy wondered if it was an accusation. No, the man genuinely wanted to know. He was going someplace, but Remy wasn't sure he wanted to find out where.
*Only what Storm told me,* he replied, picking his words carefully. *Dey're a group of mutants who consider demselves outside de law. Dey're committed to ending opposition t' mutants, by any means necessary.*
*And sometimes,* Xavier said with a surprising touch of bitterness, *their methods succeed where ours do not.*
He pressed a button on his hoverchair, and a holo-image flickered into existence over the desk. Words scrolled by, accompanied by various high-resolution images. Remy recognized a chromosome chart and several diagrams of what appeared to be DNA strands. He felt certain this was not a good sign.
*This is the contents of the disk you procured from the Guardian.*
Remy suppressed a jolt of suspicion, wondering why he was suddenly so trusted.
*What is it?*
*Do you know anything about gene therapy?*
What the hell was this, twenty questions?
*Then you probably know that scientists have been getting steadily closer to finding a viable method.* Xavier slipped easily into a lecturing tone, and Remy suppressed a ripple of annoyance. *The first attempts used retroviruses to "carry" the correct genetic code and splice it into the mutated DNA strand, as is their nature. When scientists encountered difficulties in "placing" the code where they needed it and thereby correcting the mutation, some began to look at other vectors, such as oligonucleotides and other chimeric molecules. Present research is focused on genetic diseases such as Lesch-Nyhan syndrome and PKU, but while there has been some success in correcting mutated DNA strands in lab rats, a clear answer for humans has not yet been reached.* His tone turned grim. *At least not in the private sector.*
Alarms began to scream in Remy's head. *You mean de government--*
*The government has apparently been funding gene therapy research of their own. This document,* he scrolled back up to the top, *Was narrowly uploaded from a government-funded lab by a hacker inside the MU. It's very arcane, and even Beast was unable to conclusively decipher it. Cerebro completed its analysis a short while ago. This,* he pointed at one of the images, *is one of their test samples. But it's not a cancer patient. This sample belongs to an Alpha mutant.*
Ice crawled up Remy's spine.
The Professor continued. *From what Beast has told me--*
Dieu, but his mind was cold.
*--The results here indicate that they are very close, if not already perfecting--*
The thin layer of velvet was gone, leaving nothing but unyielding steel.
*--Permanently reversing mutations.*
Remy leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.
As soon as Remy exited the study, Xavier felt Cyclops approach hesitantly.
*Come in, Scott.* he said wearily as the X-Man lifted his hand to knock.
Scott entered the room, face twitching with conflicting emotions. "Where is Gambit going, Professor?"
Xavier rubbed his temples. *To bed, Scott. He's in no condition to meet with the Underground right now.* He chided himself for the edge to his tone, reminding himself that it was unfair to take out his frustration on Scott. He just wanted to be still and think...and yet was afraid that the moment he did, the implications would start to sink in. How long before he could think about this without a glazed mind? *Do I want to?*
"Professor..." Scott hesitated, then plowed on forcefully. "With all due respect, why did you insist on telling Gambit what was on the disk? We haven't even told the rest of the team yet!"
Xavier sighed at the disappointment and hurt he felt roiling in Scott's mind. He knew Cyclops didn't fully trust the Cajun. For that matter, neither did he. But at this juncture, what choice did they have left?
*First of all, Scott, I didn't think Gambit needed to be there tomorrow morning when we sit down and discuss this as a team.*
He felt again the throb of guilt, the aching certainty that their world would soon be shattered. Whatever the current formalities, the X-Men were *his* students, *his* responsibility. This was blindingly personal.
*And second, from everything I can read from him, he wouldn't stay simply to deliver mysterious packages between the X-Men and the Underground. He needed to be told the gravity of the situation, to have a vested interest.*
Scott snorted derisively. "*Gambit*? Professor, that man doesn't give a *damn* about human-mutant relations!"
*Maybe not,* Xavier acknowledged without concession, remembering the haunted look on Gambit's face before he closed off. *But he knows trouble when he hears it, Scott. He caught the implications right away. He's extremely intelligent.*
Scott was surprised and skeptical at that statement, but Xavier knew the sharpness and intensity of Gambit's mind were unmistakable heralds of brilliance. Privately, he thought Remy was a great deal more than he appeared.
*Get some sleep, Scott. We'll see what the morning brings.*