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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24

Between the Darkness and the Light - REVIEW THIS STORY

Written by Amanda Sichter
Last updated: 01/02/2007 02:01:11 AM

Chapter 16

There was a wary look on Storm's face as she entered the medi-lab, her brows drawn down towards the bridge of her nose, her chin slightly clenched. Remy looked up from the book he was reading with a half-smile as she came in, but it quickly dropped off his face and was replaced with a look of concern.

'What's up, 'Ro?' he asked, his voice quiet.

'Is there anyone who would know that you're here?' Storm asked, directing the question halfway between Gambit and Azimuth.

They exchanged a glance and Azimuth said, 'No-one that I could think of. Remy?'

'Maybe one or two people,' he replied. 'Why?' he asked Ororo.

'There are some - cartons - that have arrived here, addressed to Azimuth. Several large cartons. They are sitting in the driveway at the moment as we are not sure if it is safe to bring them inside. Betsy has psi-scanned them and ascertained there is no-one inside but we would prefer to have you view them before we make a decision on opening them.' Ororo's eyes entreated with Remy and he rose from his chair.

'Of course, chere,' he said and grinned as he lay down his book. 'Leastit's more interesting dan de book I'm reading.' The look he sent towards Azimuth was outrageously sly. In response, she hefted the book she was reading and aimed it threateningly at him.

'What book is that?' asked Storm.

'Technical manual for de SR690D security system,' he replied. 'Dry as burnt toast, but a t'ief got to keep up wit' de latest developments if he want to stay on top of de game.'

'Oh,' replied Ororo, her expression carefully neutral. 'And you're reading the same?' she asked Azimuth.

'No,' responded Azimuth, her voice heavily laced with sarcasm. 'I'm not*allowed* to read the 690D manual until I've finished the 690C manual and passed the test my master sets me.' She pouted viciously in Remy's direction.

He laughed. 'Don' worry about her,' he said to Ororo. 'You should have heard her when she was readin' de 690A manual. Talk about whiny.' He deftly snagged the 690C manual out of the air and handed it back to Azimuth.

'Careful wit' dat,' he said, mildly. 'You'll lose your place.'

'Oh, go and check out your boxes,' said Azimuth, huffily. 'But if I've died of boredom by the time you get back, 'Ro, you'll know who to blame.'

'You wound me, chere,' said Gambit, pressing his hand dramatically to his chest. 'Wound me to my heart.'

'Oh, go away!' replied Azimuth and turned on her side away from them, although not before they had both seen the smile that curved at the corners of her mouth.

Remy motioned Ororo to proceed him through the door and then fell in beside her as they walked towards the entrance of the mansion. They walked in silence for a few moments before Ororo finally said, 'Azimuth is looking better. Happier.'

'She's feeling better,' replied Remy. 'Still not putting on any weight, though. Starting to worry Hank, dat.'

'And you, I suppose,' said Storm, her voice gently chiding.

Remy knew what the chiding was for and found himself grinning. 'Always worrying, chere. Born to worry, me. Born to feel guilty.' His smile broadened further. 'Jus' goes to show what a good Catholic education do for you. Sometimes I t'ink I be too good a pupil.'

'The Thieves' Guild children are all brought up Catholic, are they not?' Ororo asked and Remy nodded. 'How do they get around the eighth commandment? The one about stealing?'

Remy laughed. 'Dey jus' kind of never mentioned dat one. I only t'ought dere were nine commandments until I was seventeen. And by den I'd broken most of de other ones as well, so one more didn' matter.'

'You have - an interesting moral perspective on things, Remy,' said 'Ro. 'You break all the rules of the religion you grew up in - in fact you positively revel in breaking some of them - and yet you wallow in guilt over other things that are not necessarily your fault.'

'I wallow in guilt over lots of t'ings,' shrugged Remy. 'Fundamental tenets dere, chere. De priests always used to tell us we were only t'ings of flesh, made to be weak and to sin - dey didn' really mind so long as you flagellated yourself afterwards over every failing. Metaphorically speaking.' He smiled again. 'Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. It's been eight years since my last confession . . . I t'ink I'd have to supply him with a cushion and a packed lunch.'

'On the subject of confessions,' said Ororo, her voice suddenly serious, 'I hope that you will not be telling anyone else what you and Azimuth are studying. While I have no qualms about your need to remain up-to-date with security systems and suchlike, there are others here who would have rather more difficulties with the - implied morality - of such actions.'

Remy sighed, a gentle, sad sigh. 'I t'ought you knew me better dan dat, 'Ro,' he said, softly.

She glanced at him obliquely, somewhat startled by his words. 'What do you mean?' she asked.

He smiled a little, to take the sting from his words. 'T'inking dat Gambit be stupid,' he replied.

'I would never think such a thing.' Storm's voice was vehement.

'Den why ask de question?' replied Gambit. 'You t'ink I don' know what de others here t'ink of me? T'ink of us? You t'ink I don' realise dat some of dem are jus' waitin' for an opportunity to have deir moral sensibilities outraged? I'm not stupid, 'Ro. I'll keep my nose clean - as much as I can - until Azimuth is well enough to walk out of here.' ~Unless it suits my purposes to do otherwise,~ he added in his head but did not say out loud.

'Why don't you just tell them?' asked Ororo, quietly. 'Why don't you just tell me? What happened in the Morlock Massacre, Remy?'

'If only it were dat easy, 'Ro,' Remy replied. 'If only. Ach,' his voice was suddenly harsh, bitter. 'Too many if onlys in my life already.'

'Would I understand the reasons?' Ororo asked. 'If you told me would I understand? Would I be able to forgive you?' She did not add her last question - would you let me forgive you? The answer to that one, she was sure, would always be no. Remy seemed incapable of believing that he could ever redeem himself.

Remy's shoulders shrugged in a non-committal gesture and Ororo knew that her questions had reached the wall, the place where Remy simply stopped answering. She wondered, not for the first time, when that wall had gone up - when Remy had stopped trusting anyone with those secrets. Anyone but Azimuth - and Ororo suspected that this was only because Azimuth's history with Sinister and the nature of her power made it impossible for Remy to keep it a secret from her.

Her musings were interrupted by their arrival at the large cartons that the delivery men had left in an untidy sprawl across the driveway. Storm frowned at them. 'You'd be surprised how - stubborn - delivery men can be about where they want to leave things. They got quite upset when I made them leave the boxes here.'

'I can imagine,' grinned Remy, his good humour restored. 'I don' t'ink dey get faced wit' screaming paranoia every time dey do a delivery. Jus' t'ank goodness Bishop wasn' here. He'd probably have blown everyt'ing up wit' dat plasma gun of his. Jus' in case, of course.'

Ororo smiled, her grin mischievous. 'And still have felt perfectly justified as Azimuth's collection of Victorian dolls she saw on the Home Shopping Network and just *had* to have rained down in pieces on him.'

Gambit quirked an eyebrow at her. 'Victorian dolls?' he said. 'I t'ink dat *would* be justified. Tell me, you know somet'ing about my chere dat I don'?'

'No, Remy,' smiled 'Ro. 'Just open the boxes.'

'Don' need to, Stormy,' replied Gambit. He nodded at the address label. 'I know who dey come from. We better off gettin' dem to de medi-lab 'fore we open dem.'

In the end Ororo wafted them into the medi-lab on tightly controlled winds. Azimuth was completely puzzled and bouncing on the bed in her excitement by the time Storm got the sixth box into the house and lined it up behind three others in the hallway outside the medi-lab.

'Open them,' said Azimuth to Remy, more than a little imperiously.

He smiled fondly at her. 'You've got no idea who dey're from, do you chere?' he asked.

'None,' she said and bounced again. 'Oh, who are they from, who, who, tell me, pleeeeease,' she squeaked and Remy laughed at her.

'Gambit really got to teach you all of Lynch's aliases,' he said. 'Chicago Fine Arts Acquisitions is one of his less-subtly named companies. I t'ought you would have worked dat out for yourself.'

'Well I can't see the address from here,' said Azimuth, huffily. 'Sorry.' She rolled her eyes at Remy in a display of complete insincerity, then sobered. 'You told him we're here?' she asked and Remy nodded. Azimuth's mouth pursed in thought and then she said, 'Jean-Luc?' Remy nodded again.

~Jean-Luc knows they're here?~ Storm's thoughts were puzzled. ~I thought they were estranged - Remy led me to believe - now that is one secret I am going to ferret out of you, Remy LeBeau.~

She turned her attention back to Remy who was opening the first of the two boxes that she had managed to fit into the medi-lab. Channelling his powers carefully he charged the molecules in the nails that held the lid down. One by one they disintegrated until Remy could finally lift the lid from the box.

Azimuth had pushed herself off the bed, carefully braced herself and had managed to make it to Remy's side by the time he lifted the lid off the first crate. Her delight was made evident by her suddenly clapped hands. Bending carefully she began to rummage in the crate.

'What is it?' asked Storm, impatiently. 'What has he sent you?'

'Oh, he's such a darling,' said Azimuth, her voice somewhat muffled. 'The sweet man's only gone and had my apartment burgled.'

'Your apartment burgled?' repeated Storm dubiously. 'This is a good thing? Is this some thieves' ritual I don't know about?'

Storm had aimed the last question at Remy but it was Azimuth who answered her. 'It's all my stuff,' she said, emerging from the box with a handful of CDs. 'Music, books, videos. All sorts of things. I suppose he figured I might be bored.' Her grin was broad. 'He likes me,' she said, and it was obvious she was still surprised by the fact.

'He likes you?' said Ororo. 'Remy told me that Lynch accused you of betraying him when you had disappeared. But you say he likes you?'

'Oh, he doesn't trust me,' replied Azimuth matter-of-factly. 'I don't think Lynch trusts anyone - himself included. He certainly doesn't trust any of his thieves. But he does like me.'

Ororo's frown was more than a little confused. Remy had never got around to introducing her to Lynch when they were playing Robin Hood and Azimuth's matter-of-fact acceptance of the man's opinion of her was startling to the ex-thief. 'That's nice,' she ended up saying.

Azimuth looked at her expression and laughed. 'It's okay,' she said. 'I've kind of got used to it now. And Remy just keeps proving Lynch is right about him so it doesn't worry him either.' She poked her tongue out at Remy who was wearing a rather exaggerated outraged look. 'Well, you will keep threatening to blow him up,' she said. She grabbed a CD off the pile she had dragged out of the crate. 'I think I need some music to unpack to,' she said. 'Tell me, 'Ro, do you like Radiohead?'

The footsteps in the hallway were hesitant, stuttering, and Azimuth frowned in frustration as she listened to them. She knew the pattern of footfalls of the four who regularly passed down the corridor and had come to recognise at least a few of the others who occasionally visited her or walked past the door. But these steps were so indecisive that she couldn't put a name to them.

She thought that her strange adventures over the last year or so had inured her to surprise, but Azimuth was startled when the person finally loomed in the doorway.

'So you're her,' said Rogue from where she leaned against the jamb, and Azimuth could see the fear that danced within her eyes, that made her whole body taut.

What Azimuth could also see was the twist she had placed in Rogue's psyche and she suddenly flushed. She'd forgotten about the deep terror she had forced into Rogue's mind the last time she had seen her - she didn't like Rogue, but she found herself admiring the courage that had driven her through the shattering fear she must have been feeling. More than a little shamefacedly, Azimuth reached out and very softly, so Remy wouldn't hear, erased the twist. She didn't think having Remy come pounding into the room intent on her rescue would be a good idea.

'If by her you mean Azimuth, then yes, I'm *her*,' Azimuth said, and her voice was cold.

Rogue looked at her for a long time and Azimuth forced herself not to fidget under the scrutiny. Instead, she stared coolly at a point somewhere past Rogue's shoulder. She watched out of the corner of her eye as the tension drained from Rogue's body.

'You're kinda skinny,' said Rogue finally. 'Don't know why Ah was ever afraid of coming in to see yah.'

Azimuth knew, but bit her lip firmly and didn't enlighten Rogue.

Rogue moved further into the room, found a chair, sat down at a point half-way between the bed and the door. Azimuth gritted her teeth firmly at the invasion of a space she'd come to think of as her own but made herself sit quietly, ignore the rudeness. She knew Rogue was testing her and she wasn't going to allow herself to respond.

She watched as Rogue's eyes travelled the room, noting the fact that the bed was now a double bed, that Remy's possessions were strewn casually around and intermixed with Azimuth's, the pictures and books that were scattered around. It was clearly a room occupied by a couple and Azimuth knew suddenly that trouble was brewing.

'Made yahself at home,' said Rogue and her voice strained to be casual.

Azimuth shrugged, still not meeting Rogue's eyes. 'Don't have a lot of choice,' she said. 'I'm stuck here until I've had the werechild. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that.'

'The werechild?' Rogue was puzzled, and then it cleared. 'The baby,' she said. 'Remy's baby.'

'Not his baby,' said Azimuth, her voice harsh. 'No more than . . .' She cut herself off - she was not going to go there. She drew her breath in sharply. 'What are you doing here, Rogue?' she asked. 'Why are you in my room?'

'Ah came to see yah,' said Rogue, quietly. 'Came to see the one we turned the mansion upside down for. The one Beast and Storm spend all their time fussin' ovah. The one we just took in when she wanted in.' Her voice dropped to a whisper. 'The one Gambit would do anything for.'

'Well, here I am,' said Azimuth. 'You just keep looking at me as long as you want.'

'Yah don't like me, do yah?' said Rogue.

Azimuth's bark of laughter was short, unexpected. ~So it's going to be one of those fights,~ she thought. ~I can handle those sorts of fights,~ and she felt the tension drain from her. 'You're my lover's ex-girlfriend,' she said. 'Leaving aside any other issues I might have with you, that one's enough. No, I don't like you.'

'That's - petty of yah,' said Rogue, her voice vaguely contemptuous.

'Reasonably - yes,' agreed Azimuth. 'Why, what do you think of me?'

'Ah hate your guts,' replied Rogue, candidly. 'Ah wish yah had never come here.'

'Well there you are,' said Azimuth, tightly. 'At least we won't have to worry about putting each other on Christmas card lists.'

Rogue looked down at her hands, fiddled with her gloves. 'Ah have to hate yah,' she said. 'Yah stole Remy from me.'

'You left him to die in the Antarctic,' said Azimuth. 'Sorry, I thought that meant you were done with him.' Her voice was poisonously sweet and she scolded herself. She didn't want to be like this, but Rogue was definitely bringing out the worst in her.

'That wasn't me,' said Rogue softly. 'That was nevah me. There was a voice inside mah head telling me ta leave him. Ah nevah would have done it otherwise.'

'You keep telling yourself that,' replied Azimuth. 'I hope it's a big comfort in the long, dark nights. Better than thinking you tried to murder your boyfriend, I suppose.'

The look Rogue turned on her was half anguish, half murderous rage. 'Ah wasn't thinking to kill him,' she hissed. 'Ah nevah wanted him to die.'

Azimuth looked at her for a long time. Finally she sighed and let go of some of her own anger, slumped down in the bed a little. 'No,' she said. 'No, I can see that.' She shrugged. 'Doesn't change anything, though.'

'Because of you,' said Rogue. 'If you hadn't come along - if you hadn't been there. Yah stole him from me. We could have worked it out - if it wasn't for you.'

Azimuth laughed. 'You really believe that, don't you?' she asked, but didn't wait for Rogue's answer. '*I* never mattered. There's nothing that I did that took Remy from you. Okay, so I know that you - the essential you - didn't want him dead, even if some other part of your psyche was playing silly games with you. I think Remy half-believes that himself. It doesn't change the facts. You left him to die. He hasn't forgiven you. He never will.'

'He would, he would,' and this time Rogue's voice was pure despair. 'Ah know he would - if we could just talk, if Ah could just explain. He'd forgive me.'

'He trusted you,' said Azimuth, simply. 'You betrayed him. He won't forgive you.'

'Trusted me?' said Rogue, astonishment lacing her words. 'He never trusted me. He never told me *anything*.'

'No, he wouldn't have,' agreed Azimuth. 'But he would have let you absorb him - let you see everything that was inside his head. Everything!' Azimuth shook her head slowly, disbelievingly. 'Don't you know what that meant to him? Do you know how few people Remy's ever trusted in his life? Do you have any idea what it could have cost him? And the first time he ever asked you to trust him - really *trust* him - in return, you left him to die. But somehow he's supposed to forgive you?'

'Yes,' said Rogue, quietly. 'He loved me. Ah loved him. He should forgive me.'

Azimuth laughed again, a genuinely amused one. 'And that's enough, is it?' she asked. 'You believe that crap about love meaning you never have to say you're sorry? He doesn't love you any more, Rogue. There isn't anything left there. We all like to believe that love will last forever, but it doesn't. Love dies. It's nasty, it's horrible and I really wish I didn't have to say it, but love dies.'

'What would you know?' asked Rogue. 'Y'all have still got the man yah love. Y'all still wrap yahself around him. And yah have the gall to tell me love dies?'

'You think Remy's the only person I've ever loved in my life?' said Azimuth. 'There were a lot of years between seeing him, Rogue, and I never thought he was coming back and I was damned well determined to have an ordinary life. So I had other boyfriends - some of them I even loved and they loved me. But it died - for whatever reason, love died. I cried over a few of them, some of them cried over me. So yes, I do know that love dies. I do know what it feels like. And, gods, does it suck.'

'So why am Ah fightin' with yah?' said Rogue, her tone sweetly nasty, a soft smile on her face. 'All Ah gotta do is wait until yah stop loving Remy. Sounds like it won't be long happening.'

'No,' Azimuth replied softly. 'I'm not going to lose him. Not this time. We work on it all the time, work on love . . .'

'Work on it?' interrupted Rogue harshly. 'It's love. Yah don't need to work on love. Not real love.'

The look Azimuth gave her mingled contempt and compassion in equal quantities. ~No-one,~ she thought, ~No-one can be that naive. Unless it's a deliberate choice,~ and something clicked inside Azimuth's head. She found Rogue hard to read - there were so many different pieces of psyche floating within her that it was like piecing together five jigsaws at once. But now she could see it - a strange hunger that shone through Rogue, a need for unconditional love, for someone to love her always despite anything that she did - a hunger born in childhood. Some of the things Remy had told Azimuth, the strange conflicting actions of Rogue towards him, began to make sense.

But Azimuth still couldn't make herself play nice.

'Oh, so you don't need friendship or trust or communication or faith or passion or understanding to make a relationship?' she said. 'All you need is star-crossed love to make everything all right. Let me guess - Romeo and Juliet is your favourite story.'

'Bitch,' said Rogue. 'Don't treat me like a child. Ah had those things with Remy - we had something special. Don't try and tell me what love is.'

Azimuth bit back some of the more colourful swear-words that hovered on her tongue and sat up slightly, pushing irritably at the mound of her stomach. 'Fine, Rogue,' she said. 'You know all about love. You know all about everything. I stole Remy from you. We hate each other. Now we've worked that out, can you get out of my room?'

'No,' growled Rogue, softly.

'Why?' said Azimuth, her voice tired. 'What do you want from me?'

Rogue stood up so quickly the chair tipped over and struck the floor behind her. Her steps were quick, her fists balled as she paced rapidly across the room. Finally, she spun on her heel and faced Azimuth. 'What do Ah want?' she asked. 'Ah want to know what little Miss Perfect has done that means she gets invited into mah home. Ah want to know why you're the one that ends up with the man Ah love.'

'Why?' repeated Azimuth, startled. 'Because I've got enough sense to tell him I love him. Because I had the courage to trust him. Because I've got enough sanity not to leave him to freeze to fucking death. Good enough reasons for you?'

'And yah can touch him,' said Rogue, her mouth pursed tight. 'That's all it comes down to, isn't it? Yah can touch him.'

'Oh, don't even go there,' said Azimuth, sudden anger pouring through her veins. 'Don't even think about going down that road.'

'Why?' asked Rogue. 'Because it's true and yah don't want to believe it? Yah got Remy because yah can touch him.'

'Oh, it's little Miss Self-Pity now, is it?' said Azimuth, anger over-riding common sense. 'Little Miss "no-one can touch me, aren't I sad?". Do you want me to tell you about women I know who've never been touched, Rogue? Not because they happen to be young, beautiful, super-strong, flying, indestructible mutants with a power they can't be bothered to control. Oh, no, nothing as glamorous for them. They're just plain, mousy little people, not loud enough or smart enough to make an impression on anyone and living in cities and working in jobs that chew them up and spit them out every day. Just people who'll go through their whole lives without ever being wanted or loved or desired and who'll die sad, lonely little deaths without anyone ever having cared they even lived. And I'm supposed to feel sorry for you?'

Rogue's eyes narrowed. 'Oh, you fight dirty,' she said, her voice low.

Azimuth grinned, a feral baring of teeth. 'Dirtier than anyone I know,' she replied.

'Tell me,' said Rogue. 'Do yah do it so yah don't have to listen to what the other person says? Or do yah do it because you're a bitch?'

'Definitely the second,' said Azimuth.

'And there Ah was, thinking y'all was saying it because yah were trying not to have to agree with me,' said Rogue. 'Ain't no way yah can avoid the fact that Ah can't touch Remy.'

'You know, Rogue,' said Azimuth, plucking restlessly at the bed-covers. 'I really can't decide whether you're stupid or just terminally nanve. Of course, you could touch Remy. All you had to do was try.'

'Ah can't touch,' hissed Rogue. 'Not without getting someone else's life inside mah head. Ah *can't* touch.'

'You've lived for how long in a mansion with the world's greatest geneticist, one of the most eminent psychologists and one whole crapload of alien medical technology. One of your semi-team-mates can invent anything in the world. All that and you couldn't find one little thing that'd help you get control of your powers?' Azimuth gave an exasperated 'paf'. 'Shit, it's not like you needed Forge to invent anything. All you had to do if you really wanted to touch Remy was to put on a collar . . .'

'NO!' shouted Rogue, suddenly vehement. Her hand touched her throat in unconscious remembrance. 'Not a collar,' she said, softly.

Azimuth looked at her for a long moment and sighed. 'Okay, not a collar,' she said. 'But it could have been easy enough to remodel one into something that didn't cause you trauma - if you'd wanted to. Or the Z'Noxx chamber. Or getting Leech to turn off your power. Or getting Remy to wear gloves. Or even just trying stuff that didn't need skin to skin. Believe me, Rogue, there's all kinds of little games you can play that don't take skin to skin - and they can be damned satisfying. If you want that. If you try.' Her voice was harsh.

Rogue's eyes were closed, her face white, and she was swaying on her feet. 'How much did Remy tell you about me?' she asked, her voice anguished. 'Did he tell you *everything* about me?'

'No,' said Azimuth. 'But he did tell me how he suggested things you could try so the two of you could touch. He also told me that you ignored every single suggestion - or laughed it off. He was so goddamn patient with you and you gave him no reason to hope at all that you would even try and get over your problems. You never even wanted to try - and it broke his heart.'

'Ah didn't reject him,' wailed Rogue, softly. 'Ah - it wasn't him - Ah couldn't - Ah can't touch - Ah couldn't let him touch me. Evah.'

'What was it, Rogue?' asked Azimuth. 'When he tried to make you touch - what did you reject? His touch? Or Remy himself?'

'No - Ah - Ah . . .' Rogue closed her eyes again, remembering. She thought of the first time, in that carriage, when she had been able to stop Remy from touching her without it ending in tears. But after that - after that, when it became serious, when she had loved him . . . She remembered flying away from him, time and time again, every time he tried to touch her, saw herself spurning his outstretched hand in that theatre when he had offered her his whole soul, saw herself kissing him only when she knew she was going to be dead in a moment's time - remembered again the look on his face as she spiralled away from him, up and up, the bright splashed colour of him the only break in the whiteness of the Antarctic. She lowered her hands from her face, groped blindly outwards, found a chair, sat down. 'Ah couldn't let him touch me.'

Azimuth looked down at her hands, found them twisted tight in the blanket, untangled them. 'Why, Rogue?' she asked. 'Why were you so afraid of him?'

There was silence for a long while. Finally, Rogue sighed, gathered herself. 'Do yah know the story of the Little Mermaid?' she asked. 'Not the Disney one, the real one, the Hans Christian Andersen one?'

Azimuth shrugged non-commitally. She knew the story, but didn't think it was the right moment to state it. Besides, the whole fight was starting to make her motion-sick - she hadn't swung from screaming anger to compassionate sympathy and back so quickly and so often in a long time.

'The little mermaid saw her prince and she loved him utterly,' said Rogue, her voice very soft. 'So she went to the Sea Hag so that she could walk on land - and the Sea Hag took her voice in exchange and told the mermaid that every step she took would be like walking on knives. But the mermaid did it, because she loved her prince so much. But when she went to the palace she couldn't tell the prince who she was and he fell in love with another girl and the mermaid was left all alone and every step she took was like she walked on knives.' Rogue lifted her eyes to Azimuth, but they were blind to her presence. 'What if Ah let someone touch me and Ah end up walking on knives? What if Ah had let Remy love me and he had left me? Ah couldn't risk it.'

Azimuth sighed. Some part of her empathised with Rogue, understood the terrible fear of rejection that drove her actions, but most of her still fell in the severely pissed category. 'So you didn't risk it. And so you lost him. All love is risk, Rogue. If you don't let down the defences then no-one can get in.'

Rogue's eyes focussed on her again, emerald fire meeting the cold grey of sleet. 'What would y'all know?' she said, bitterly. 'What have you evah risked for love?'

Azimuth's mouth twisted, a wry bitterness that spread across her face. 'When I saw him,' she said, softly. 'In that club, I should have run. I should have run as far and as fast as I could and never stopped. But I saw him - and I just couldn't. He was so close to breaking . . .' She looked at Rogue again, pulled back into the moment. 'I'm sitting here with Sinister's werechild in me and you ask me what I've risked for love. Remy and I - we're magnets to that bastard - he wants us, wants both of us, wants to use us for what we are together. Remy is risk - being with him takes all the courage I've got, every day. But damned if I'm going to let fear rule me. Not like some.' Azimuth bit her lip, but it was too late to stop that last contemptuous addition slipping out.

A second chair did the hitting the floor thing. Rogue stalked closer to Azimuth, stopped herself with an obvious effort of will. 'You - you . . .' Rogue gasped - she couldn't think of anything bad enough to call Azimuth. 'Y'all are just so fucking perfect, aren't yah? Being so brave, working so hard at love, making friends here, telling me what Ah'm doing wrong in mah life, escaping from Sinister. Why don't yah just take mah place in the X-Men as well? I'm sure y'all'd be perfect at that, too.'

'I couldn't be an X-Man if I tried,' replied Azimuth, her voice cold to cover the fear she was feeling. 'I wouldn't be able to plan battle strategy in a pink fit. Give me a mind and tell me to find the cracks in it that I can use to survive - I can do that. But I couldn't be an X-Man. I don't want to be an X-Man.'

'But y'all will come here whenever yah want, won't yah? Treat the mansion like yah own personal hospital.' Rogue was so angry that logic had definitely lost its grip on her argument.

'Would you prefer that I was dead?' asked Azimuth and she could have competed with Bobby in the icy stakes.

'Do yah want me to be honest?' hissed Rogue.

'No,' said Azimuth, drawing the blankets up defensively below her breasts. 'No, I'm not interested. Just piss off out of my room, Rogue. I don't want to argue with you any more. I'm tired of you blaming me for your problems. You got what you wanted out of Remy. You wanted to be Scarlett O'Hara and he was your Rhett Butler. Your only problem was that you forgot how the movie ended.'

Rogue stalked close to the bed, leaned down until her face was inches from Azimuth's. 'You - you are such . . .'

'A bitch?' Azimuth grinned tightly. 'Guilty as charged. Now fuck off.'

Rogue eyes narrowed and for a moment Azimuth seriously thought she was going to be hit. She was ready to twist Rogue into sleep, but then Rogue was gone, leaving the room so quickly that Azimuth thought she may have been flying. Azimuth let out her breath and sank back into her pillows. She was surprised to discover she was shaking.

She was still clutching tightly at her blanket several seconds later when Remy stuck his head around the door. He looked so penitent, so little-boy-lost that Azimuth couldn't help the smile that lit her face.

'You okay?' Remy asked. 'I heard Rogue in here. I t'ought you might be upset.'

'Come here,' commanded Azimuth and clung tightly to Remy when he sank onto the bed beside her. 'I didn't handle that very well,' she said, eventually.

'Don' know about dat, chere,' replied Remy. 'Least de building's still standin'. Wasn' de last time I fought with Rogue.' He frowned slightly. 'Time before dat, too, come to t'ink about it.'

'She tried to blame me for stealing you,' said Azimuth.

'I know, chere,' replied Remy, kissing her forehead gently. 'I heard most of it. Rogue's got her own problems. But I'm jus' not interested in helpin' her get over dem any more.'

'Fair enough,' said Azimuth, and then frowned. 'You heard most of it? Where were you, exactly?'

'In the hall,' replied Remy.

'Oh, no you weren't,' said Azimuth. 'Rogue would have seen you if you'd been there. Where were you? And don't even think about lying to me.'

Remy grinned. 'Like I could get away wit' dat,' he said. 'If you must know - I was in the hall - hidin' in a closet.'

'Hiding in a closet?' said Azimuth, dubiously. 'And just exactly why were we practising our thieving skills?'

'Cause I got back from de Danger Room jus' after she must have come in de room. Cause I figure you didn' want me rushin' in dere, causing more trouble. Cause I wanted to hear what you were saying, in case you needed me. And I didn' want Rogue to see me - couldn' see dat being part of a good plan. So I waited outside so I could help you if you needed me. I only hid in de closet at de end.' Remy gave the lop-sided grin that always charmed Azimuth.

She couldn't resist it any more than she usually could. 'You're a coward, LeBeau,' she sighed, without heat. 'But I love you.'

'Dat's de part dat matters, chere,' whispered Remy and pulled Azimuth closer to him. 'Dat's what matters.'

The bed was covered in blueprints when Storm walked in to the medi-lab, but Azimuth was sitting up with her eyes closed and Remy was the only one looking at them. Puzzled, Ororo waited for a minute to see if she could work out what they were doing.

'De Johnston building,' Remy was saying.

A frown cut across the bridge of Azimuth's nose as she pondered, but it quickly cleared and she said, 'Entrance through the back alley, in through the window over the door, fifth-level security, no guards, egress from the fire escape overlooking the side road.'

'Not bad,' said Remy, reasonably grudgingly. He looked up at Ororo and smiled. 'What you doing here, Stormy?' he asked.

'Relaxing,' replied Ororo. 'I require a little time with people who aren't X-Men.' She sat down in a chair and rubbed at her temples. 'And don't call me Stormy,' she added, absently.

Remy grinned at the sight she presented. Even slumped bonelessly as she was, Ororo managed an air of dignified regality - which contrasted oddly with her collapsed posture. 'Rough day, chere?' he asked sympathetically.

'No more than usual,' she replied. 'Not for an X-Man.' She frowned over at the blue-prints on the bed. 'What activity are you two indulging in?'

'It almost sounds like fun, the way you say it,' said Azimuth. 'Memory tests. I get to look at the blueprint - Remy makes me close my eyes - he gets to ask me nasty questions about building security. And at the moment, I get to annoy him by getting the answers right.' She grinned at Remy's rude gesture.

Storm turned a mildly disapproving look on Remy. 'You told me you would ensure no-one would be aware of your thieving activities,' she said. 'And yet anyone could walk in here and see what you are doing.'

'What are we doing?' Remy grinned. 'Azimuth and I are lookin' to join the mortgage belt, non? A little investment property, perhaps.'

'And they would believe that, would they?' said Ororo, just a little sceptically.

'They would after I'd been in their heads,' said Azimuth and the smile she turned on Ororo was blindingly innocent.

Ororo sighed. 'That is not the thing to do, Azimuth,' she said in gentle reproof. 'There is a rule in the mansion that we do not use our powers on each other.'

Twinned eyebrows rose in disbelief, and Ororo was faced with amused scepticism on Azimuth's face and just plain amusement on Remy's.

'Oh, really?' asked the Cajun. 'Dat's a rule, is it?'

'Well, a general guideline,' amended Ororo and watched as eyebrows rose even higher. 'All right, so it is a vain hope,' she said and then laughed. 'I wish it was a rule - I am getting somewhat tired of Bobby freezing my breakfast every morning.'

Azimuth's expression suddenly turned diffident and she fidgeted with the corner of the closest blueprint. 'I was a little worried,' she said softly and gave a nervous half-smile when Ororo looked at her. 'I thought the X-Men might want to kick me out - after the fight I had with Rogue.'

Ororo's face hardened slightly. 'Rogue is an adult,' she said. 'She chose to come and see you - despite advice to the contrary. She has to deal with the consequences of what happened.'

'Is she - okay?' asked Azimuth, in a subdued tone.

'She has not been to see me since then,' said Storm. 'She spends most of her time in her room - she may be sulking, she may be undergoing some deep moral transformation, she may be meditating. All I know is that she continues to break things in the Danger Room.' Ororo's expression became even more stringent. 'There is no-one in this place that appears to appreciate the fact that we are on a budget.'

Azimuth gave her an incredulous look and then laughed. 'Don't do that to me, 'Ro,' she said. 'I thought I'd started some terrible internal war in the X-Men - and you're only pissed because she's making you go over budget.'

Ororo rubbed at her eyes again. 'You would not believe the amount of destruction people in this place carry out,' she said. 'They seem to have absolutely no idea how much it costs to replace things. Without Shi'ar technology we have to be far more careful but everyone just keeps on breaking things. I heard Rogue in the Danger Room this morning - when I went in and saw she'd broken all of the gym equipment again.' She sighed. 'I believe the phrase Kitty's beloved uses is "I could have cheerfully throttled her". At least we have access to Xavier's account again.' A quick, companionable grin passed between her and Remy. Both had thoroughly enjoyed working together on hacking into the Professor's accounts and getting funds out from under the government's lock-down. 'Now we can afford new gym equipment. All we have to do is wait for it to be delivered. And I don't have to keep getting that look from Warren every time I ask him for funds.'

'Budgetary considerations,' said Remy. 'De price of leadership, non?'

'Not much longer,' said Ororo. 'Scott is coming back. I have no doubt he will wish to assume the mantle of Fearless Leader.'

"Why's he comin' back?' asked Remy, and he trusted the two women so much that he let himself forego his usual poker-face and allowed his concern to come through in his voice. He had a feeling that Scott's return would make his and Azimuth's position much more tenuous.

'We've been searching for Charles,' replied Ororo. 'It has taken a great deal of time and effort - it appears that Bastion and the government were able to hide him very carefully. Between doing that and the usual skirmishes there has not been a lot of time available to the X-Men, in case you were wondering why you weren't getting more visitors. Jean has stated that she thinks she has been able to trace Charles and she and Scott are coming back from Alaska to assist in - liberating him. Scott will undoubtedly wish to lead the team in that venture.'

'And you're fine wit' dat?' asked Remy.

'Of course,' replied Ororo, sharply. 'Scott was the closest to the Professor and his first pupil. He is entitled to lead the team and I am more than happy to step aside for him.'

'Tell me,' said Azimuth. 'Do you actually think you're being honest at the moment or do you know how much you're lying to yourself? I'd love to know. I mean I keep lying to myself but I always know when I'm doing it - so if you can teach me any techniques?' She trailed off and looked at Storm, carefully keeping her expression very solemn.

Ororo laughed. 'I know I'm lying to myself,' she admitted. 'I keep hoping that if I say it often enough it will be true. I do want them to come back. Jean is one of my closest friends. Scott - I respect Scott. But I enjoy being leader,' she said. 'I enjoy being sole leader, not co-leader. And without Charles here to balance between the two of us, I am inclined to believe that Scott will take over. It is not that I have any difficulty with Scott's leadership, it is just that I enjoy the responsibility.'

'Except for de budgets,' said Remy, softly.

'Except for the budgets,' agreed Ororo. 'Scott can take that part of the leadership off me without a whimper of protest on my part.' She straightened in her chair. 'I will be ready if it occurs,' she said. 'I may not be happy about it, but if Scott has to take the leadership role to allow us to get the Professor back then I am willing to step aside.'

'And then *he* can deal with the issue of the frozen breakfasts.'


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