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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 17

The words were softly spoken but Scott could hear them clearly as he neared the medi-lab.

'What would you do if dere were dogs?'

A chuckle sounded, a woman's laugh, soft and low, somewhat wicked. 'You make the heist during a thunderstorm. And take a dust-buster with you. Dogs never can handle a vacuum cleaner.'

'Oh, dat would just be charming in a t'ief's kit,' replied Gambit. 'Lock-picks, wire-cutters, umbrella, cordless dust-buster. I t'ink you not takin' dis seriously, chere.'

'Now why ever would you think that?' The tone wounded innocence, the inflection defiantly happy.

'Well, it could be de fact you haven't given me a sensible answer in ten minutes,' came Gambit's soft reply. 'Or it could be de grin dat goes from your right ear to your left ear. Or it could be dat t'ing you keep doing wit' your hand.'

'What thing?' said Azimuth, innocently. 'That thing?' she asked.

'Dat t'ing,' confirmed Remy, his voice slightly husky.

Scott slowed, his steps pausing as he suddenly considered whether he wanted to enter the room. But the door was open and the need was urgent - deliberately making his footsteps much heavier, Scott walked to the door of the medi-lab.

Two faces turned, looked at him, went blankly still at the same moment. Scott winced inwardly - he had always hated the way Gambit's face closed utterly when he was talking to him, the way he felt completely excluded from whatever the man was thinking, an intruder. To have both Remy and the woman turn the same look on him made him shudder inside.

But he fought down the feeling, ignored it, as he inspected Azimuth. She sat on the bed behind Remy, her body half-obscured by his. Her hand trailed across the nape of Remy's neck, where she had obviously been massaging it. Her pale blonde hair was cut short, her smoke-grey eyes were flat and steady, her face almost beautiful. She was also, Scott noted, terribly thin - the jut of her collar-bone was sharp over her large, loose t-shirt, her face only a shade away from gaunt. Hank had told him she was ill but he had not made it clear exactly how frail she was.

'Remy,' said Scott, nodding shortly in greeting. 'Azimuth,' he continued.'I'm Scott Summers. I'm sure Gambit has told you all about me.'

Azimuth inclined her head slightly, whether in greeting or agreement Scott couldn't be sure. Remy moved away from her, sideways, until he lounged still on the edge of the bed but in a position where he could see both Azimuth and Scott and where, Scott noted, he could most easily defend Azimuth against any attack.

Gambit's gaze flickered towards Azimuth, and her eyebrow flirted upwards in a move Scott clearly identified as a "shall I?". Gambit's fingers curled out slightly and made a quick, negative movement. The couple turned their attention back to Scott, both faces unnervingly guarded.

Scott found himself sighing inwardly. He had made a connection to Remy once, a tenuous offer of friendship that had not been rejected, on the day Remy had helped move his and Jean's stuff to the boathouse. He still didn't know what had happened to sever that connection but, long before the ludicrous trial in the Antarctic, any trust between them was dead. Sometimes Scott wondered which one of them had been responsible for killing it.

But now was hardly the time for introspective musings on the merits of his leadership.

'I need your help,' he said to Remy. 'We need your help.'

'We?' Gambit's eyebrow quirked upwards slightly but otherwise his face stayed poker-still.

'The X-Men. The Professor,' clarified Scott.

'So you've definitely located him?' asked Azimuth. The look in her eyes was speculative as she gazed at Scott.

'Jean has,' Scott confirmed. 'She's been doing psychic sweeps since the Professor disappeared. She picked up a psychic impression recently - she pinned down the location last week. The government's had him in some kind of jail out in the middle of the Nevada desert. It seems to have been psi-shielded - that's why it took so long to find. Either the psi-shield's been weakened somehow or the Professor is getting back his powers at last.'

'So what do you need me for?' asked Gambit, his voice quiet but his eyes intense.

'We have a team organised,' said Scott. 'Kurt's come over from Excalibur, we've borrowed Siryn and Warpath from X-Force. It's an underground complex and every indication is that it's being used to house people the government wants no-one to know they've got. Security is intense, high-level automated defenses, guards, top-level weapons. It's going to take all of the X-Men to get the Professor out.' The look he gave Gambit made it clear that he numbered Remy among the people necessary to accomplish the objective.

The grin that twisted Gambit's mouth had no humour in it, only a certain wry discomfort. 'In case you don' remember, Cyke,' he said. 'Gambit ain't an X-Man anymore. Rogue made dat much clear to me - everyone 'cept Stormy haven' done much to change my mind.'

'Rogue doesn't lead the X-Men,' said Scott, quietly. 'And we aren't as unforgiving as you think we are. Colossus was an Acolyte not that long ago. If it wasn't for the fact he's injured at the moment, he'd be part of the team going in to get Xavier.'

Surprise flitted across Remy's features, a genuine emotion sharply nipped in the bud. Scott grinned inside himself - it wasn't often he could break through the hard veneer that Remy always presented him - but damned if he wasn't the complete tight-assed jerk that Remy thought he was.

Unreadable eyes bored into him, red-on-black effective at disguising whatever thoughts passed through Remy's mind, their scrutiny always disconcertingly intense. All expression was lost again in the poker-face that Gambit had perfected long before meeting the X-Men.

So what he said was a complete surprise to Scott. 'T'ank you,' said Remy, softly, sincerely.

Scott shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable at even this simple exchange. 'Takes more than a dark past to stop you from being a X-Man,' he replied. 'As at least half the membership can attest. And Jean told me that - your trial might not have been what it seemed.'

'And here I was, t'inking you saw de world in black and white,' said Remy.

'Various shades of red, actually,' replied Scott. 'We need you, Gambit. Need your help.'

'I know,' he replied. 'Stormy told me. I know what you need me to do.' He stopped speaking and the silence built.

In the end, Scott couldn't help it. 'And?' he asked.

'And I can' help you.' Gambit's tone was final.

Anger ripped through Scott Summers' whole body, a roaring red tide that seemed to start in his stomach and then raced through his system. He fought it down, back, but the effort left him trembling. ~Damn you, Gambit,~ he thought viciously. ~Damn it, why do you do this? I thought - I thought - we need you and you just keep pushing us away. You're the only one that can ever do this - ever make me this angry. And I wonder why we aren't friends.~

He waited until the fine trembling in his muscles stopped, until he had enough control that he wasn't shouting. 'Why won't you help us?' he managed to grind out.

'I can',' replied Gambit. 'Didn' t'ink you'd want me. Know dat some of you don' want me.' The flatness of his tone was enough of an insult to make the red tide rise in Scott again.

Azimuth's cool voice cut through the tension. 'Don't,' she said softly and laid her hand on Remy's arm in a warning gesture. 'Just tell him why, Remy.'

The look Remy flashed at her was a mixture of pouting and penitence in one and Scott wondered suddenly whether Gambit had just been baiting him. That thought did little to calm him.

Remy sighed. 'I can' go, Cyke,' he said. 'I can' leave Azimuth here by herself. You'll jus' have to go wit'out me.'

'We need your thieving skills,' said Scott, his voice tightly controlled to rein in his temper. 'We have to get into the base quietly and we need you to do it.'

Gambit shrugged. 'You'll have to survive wit'out me.'

Scott's fists clenched tightly at his sides. 'When I walked in here you were planning how to break into houses. Innocent people's houses. To steal things from them. But when I ask you for help doing exactly the same thing to save the Professor you say no?'

Azimuth laughed suddenly, unexpectedly, and drew Scott's startled gaze to her. She shrugged at his scrutiny. 'How do you know we're planning to break into "innocent people's houses"? You don't know anything about what Remy does as a thief but you'll happily condemn it out of hand. But you get pissed when Remy doesn't agree with your plan to break into a government facility and retrieve a man who was responsible for massive loss of life and damage to property.' She didn't falter under Scott's intense glare. 'I find it an interesting study in comparative morality, that's all.'

'The Professor,' Scott's voice was hoarse and he stopped and cleared his throat. 'The Professor has been gone for over a year now and he hasn't been seen or put up on trial for what happened with Onslaught. If the government could be trusted to treat him like they should - but they won't. The X-Men have to rescue him.'

'Den you have to do it wit'out me,' Gambit said.

'Why?' asked Scott, harshly. 'Want to be left in the Mansion so you can turn it over? There isn't much left to steal since Bastion went through it.'

The only time Scott had ever managed to break through Remy's close-mouthed distrust towards him was when the Cajun lashed out in anger - when heat drove him into honesty and explanation. He had hoped the unfairness of the question would make Remy explain himself but the thief's expression didn't falter at all. His voice was cold as he asked, 'How many people are going to be left in de Mansion?'

'We need everyone on this mission,' replied Scott. 'All of the X-Men are going.'

'Den who'll be left to look after Azimuth?' Gambit asked. 'You t'ink I can jus' leave her here like dis? All alone?'

For the first time, Scott really looked at Azimuth and he felt the anger begin to drain from him. Her gaze on him was cool and self-possessed and her face gave away nothing but still he could see how terribly frail she was. The mound of her forced pregnancy pushed at the front of her t-shirt and he shuddered suddenly as he looked at it. There was something almost obscene about its healthy protuberance in a body so drained and fragile.

'It'll only be for a short while,' he said, softly.

Azimuth's laugh was abrupt, harsh. 'But just maybe long enough to kill me.'

Scott saw the flash of emotion that slipped through her gaze as she spoke and he couldn't help himself. 'You don't like me,' he stated.

Azimuth looked at him for a long moment and gave an answer that was no answer at all. 'You're very - sure in your beliefs. Righteous.' Her voice was faint with memory. 'People - get hurt - by the sure and the righteous.'

'You won't get hurt,' said Scott, knowing it was a promise he was helpless to keep. 'There haven't been any difficulties so far. We'll get Hank to check you out before we go - if there's any problems . . .'

'And if de Marauders come?' interrupted Remy. 'What does my chere do den? Hide under de bed until dey go away?'

'The Marauders haven't come since you've been here. There hasn't even been a hint of them. Hank told me what Azimuth did to Sinister. I don't think there's any danger,' Scott replied.

'There is,' said Azimuth. 'What I did to Sinister was - temporary, at best. There's no guarantee he hasn't broken through the twist - he has enough strength of mind to do it. If all they're doing is waiting until there's a weakness in security - well, I figure leaving me here alone would be invitation enough.'

'And Gambit would be enough to save you from the Marauders?' asked Scott.

'It'd be better than dying here alone,' replied Azimuth.

'I need Gambit's skills,' grated Scott, helplessly.

'And you're willing to sacrifice Azimuth for dat?' asked Remy, quietly. 'What if Jean was like dis? Would you leave her?'

'No,' said Scott, sharply, then, 'Yes. I don't know.'

'What would you do if I hadn' survived Antarctica? If dere was no master t'ief at your beck and call?' Gambit's face was grim.

'But there is,' replied Scott. 'You have skills we need to get the Professor out. I need you to come with us, Gambit.'

'And you don't really care what happens to me?' asked Azimuth, and her eyes as she looked at Scott were very dark.

He remembered what she had said about being hurt by the sure and the righteous and he opened his mouth to say that he did care, he didn't want her hurt, but getting the Professor back . . . How could he explain what the Professor meant to him, how the man had saved him from that orphanage, had showed him what his powers could do, had given him a home and love that Scott Summers had thought would be forever denied him? Had given him, in a certain way, Jean Grey, who was the soul and centre of his universe? How did he explain the guilt that sang through him every time he thought of the Professor going away, flying off with Val Cooper and knowing that he hadn't stopped them, partly because the Professor didn't want him to and partly because the bonds of trust and love had been broken by Onslaught? How did he explain that the guilt gnawed at him every day, knowing that the Professor had gone, not to justice, but to a cold cell and isolation with people who hated him? How did he explain the desperate need that burned inside of him to fix it, to make everything better, to rescue the man who had rescued him?

He didn't have the words to explain how he felt. So, as always happened, he didn't.

'The mission's been planned,' he said. 'Gambit has been factored in. We go this afternoon. How can I change it now?'

There was a weariness in Remy's voice when he spoke. 'I know what you need me to do,' he said. 'And you don' need me.'

Scott went to protest, bit it back as burning eyes were lifted to his, told him, somehow, that he had let Gambit down again, had betrayed a trust he didn't even know existed.

'Stormy was mostly a pickpocket when she was a t'ief,' said Gambit. 'But I've put some time into teachin' her how to pick locks. She's good enough to do what needs to be done. And Logan can take care of most anyt'ing dat comes up.'

'How do you know?' asked Scott. 'You're the best, Gambit. Storm is - an amateur.'

Gambit smiled. 'Never knew you'd say such nice t'ings about me, Cyke,' he said and continued before Scott could protest. ''Ro told me what you were planning a couple of days ago. I got some of my contacts to get hold of de security specifications, send dem to me. Azimuth and I been working wit' 'Ro, makin' sure she can do what needs to be done. Stormy can do everyt'ing necessary - and Logan's been briefed on what to expect. You don' need me, Scott.'

Scott's jaw snapped shut audibly in his surprise. 'Your contacts got hold of the security specifications?' he asked. 'Just finding out that jail existed was hard enough. How did they get hold of the security specifications?'

'Dey stole dem,' said Gambit, with exaggerated patience. 'Dat's what t'ieves do.'

'And Storm's decided you don't have to come along?' Scott's voice was strained.

'She knew I'd never leave Azimuth,' replied Gambit softly, but his tone made it clear that Scott, too, should have known that. ''Ro's been plannin' dis mission all week, Scott - from long before de time you got here. Maybe you and she should compare plans before you get where you're goin'. Make sure you don' trip over each other, neh?'

'Why didn't you tell me this before?' asked Scott, his voice dangerously calm.

Gambit shrugged, grinned. 'You didn' ask,' he said.

Anger locked Scott's jaws tight, propelled him out of the room, drove him to stand, trembling, in the hall until he could calm down. Gambit infuriated him - did it deliberately, he was sure, but somehow he could never stop himself reacting.

He reached out for Jean on the psi-link, found her, poured out his anger to her, let her soothe him. When she had managed to calm him down, he went looking for Storm to find out everything she knew about breaking into a government prison.

'You shouldn't bait Scott like that,' said Azimuth, but she was unable to muster any sting in her voice.

'I know,' replied Remy, his tone equally light. 'But he jus' - he has a habit of t'inking of Gambit as not'ing but a sneak-t'ief. Don' like givin' me credit, non?'

'You don't like him underestimating you?' Azimuth asked.

A grin flashed across Remy's face, although Azimuth couldn't see it. 'Non,' he replied. 'I like de fact he underestimates me. I like keepin' him off-balance.'

Azimuth sighed, relaxed back into his arms. 'Men,' she said, as if it were all the explanation anyone could need.

He brushed a kiss lightly on the crown of her head. 'Boys,' he amended quietly, and was delighted to feel the soft shake of laughter through her body.

'Do you think they'll make it?' Azimuth asked. 'Retrieve the Professor?'

'Yes,' replied Remy, his faith in the ability of the X-Men to do the impossible still unbroken. 'Dey'll have him out by tonight. Gives us all afternoon to play wit' deir toys.' He shifted his arms so they slid beneath Azimuth's back, buoyed her up further. 'Enjoyin' yourself so far, chere?'

She looked down at the length of her body, her limbs impossibly pale and quavery beneath the water of the pool, her t-shirt floating loosely above the mound of her stomach. She hadn't been able to bear the thought of wearing a swimsuit - couldn't stand the thought of looking down at where the were-child crouched within her. 'I always enjoy the pool, LeBeau,' she said. She did, too, in her own way. It took the weight off her, allowed cramped and disused limbs to stretch and feel loose, reduced the pain in her back.

The soft snort told her she had not been believed. 'You really want me to believe dat, chere?,' said Remy. 'If you do you better stop sending out waves dat say 'hurt' and 'embarrassment' every time you t'ink someone might be watchin' you like dis.'

Azimuth shrugged ruefully. 'I don't like to be seen,' she said. 'Not like this - not when the were-child is - so much of me. If I could be sureno-one was watching . . .' She trailed off, let inference do the work.

'I know,' replied Remy gently and she knew that he did understand. 'You aren't unattractive, chere. Not to me. Never to me.' His hands cradled beneath her, slid up Azimuth's back, slipped gently through her hair and she found herself gasping with sudden desire.

'LeBeau,' she whispered, as his mouth drifted down the side of her neck, slid over her ear. 'LeBeau!' It was sharp this time, nearly frantic. 'Stop.' She pushed at him, pushed herself away.

He caught her shoulders just before she would have slipped out of his reach, pulled her back to him, held her tightly. The feel of his arms around her was tense, but his voice was playful as he said, 'Keep running away from me, amant, and I'll start to t'ink you don' love me any more.'

Azimuth slapped at his imprisoning hands lightly. 'Emotional blackmail is a bad thing, Remy,' she said. 'You know I love you. And wanting you - gods, LeBeau, I can't tell you how much I want to do the wild thing with you. But,' shadows twined through her words again, 'I can't. Not while . . . I just couldn't - not with the were-child, as long as it's . . .' She trailed off again.

'Not while de were-child is watching.' Gambit finished the sentence for her, felt her tense beneath him, slip away from his hands, turn, stand facing him. Her eyes locked on his, hungry for reassurance.

'You feel it too?' asked Azimuth breathlessly and her body relaxed at his whispered affirmative. 'I thought - I thought I was going mad,' she said. 'I thought paranoia was starting to get to me. I can feel it there inside of me, Remy, feel it watching me in the night when everyone else is sleeping. I can feel it gloating.' Her voice rose up, high, frightened.

'So can I,' confirmed Remy. 'You're not going mad. It watches you - watches me.' His hand stroked her cheek lightly as he remembered those nights when he lay beside her restlessly sleeping body and felt the dark malevolence that flowed from the child inside her. 'I'm afraid for you,' he said softly. 'Afraid of what it's doing to you.'

'It's eating me alive,' she replied, her voice low. 'Did Hank tell you I'm losing weight again? The enzyme supplements worked for a month or so but it's starting to peel off me again. The were-child is taking it all. It doesn't care if I die. It *wants* me dead.' Her voice was vicious.

'Hank told me,' replied Remy. 'Do you want - dere are people I know - dey'd finish it for you - even now. You can still do it.'

'No, I can't,' said Azimuth, shaking her head. 'If we leave here the twist I put in Sinister's head won't work any more. He'll be on us as soon as we set foot off the mansion's grounds. We're his breeding pair, Remy, tagged and collared - and he'll happily slaughter both of us to get his precious little were-child out of me.' Her eyes went hard and cold, sleet-grey. 'I'm going to survive this were-child, Remy. I'm not going to let it kill me. Not it - not Sinister. And the only way I'll do that is here.'

'Maybe we could ask Beast again, non?' said Remy. 'If he knew what it was like, what it was doing to you . . .'

'I won't make him do it,' said Azimuth, her voice distant. 'It would kill McCoy to have to do it. I won't let Essex get his hands on me - but I'm not going to make McCoy one of his victims either.'

Remy blinked suddenly, made a swift adjustment to his internal settings. He had thought of Azimuth as fragile for so long now that he had almost forgotten the cold harshness she was capable of turning on herself. And - thinking back to the fight with Rogue - on other people. He cast around quickly for a safer topic.

'I'm not pushing you too hard, am I?' he asked. Azimuth turned a puzzled look on him, so he elaborated. 'Wit' all de training I'm making you do. I t'ought maybe I'm tryin' too hard to make you de perfect t'ief, wearin' you out.'

She laughed. 'I want you to train me,' she said. 'As long as you're training me I know at least one person thinks I've got a future. I want to be a thief and if you keep teaching me how to be one I can convince myself I'm going to survive this whole horrible frigging ordeal.' She leaned forward into him, curled herself tight against his chest, so when she spoke again her words were muffled. 'Speaking of surviving - is there any reason we're hiding from possible Marauder attack in the pool?'

Remy shrugged. 'Got to be de las' place dey look, non? Give us a chance to get away from dem.' He gave Azimuth a wounded look as she playfully swatted him. 'My chere don' believe me?' he asked mournfully. 'How 'bout because if dey do come down heavy-handed it doesn' much matter where we are? And I t'ought ma amant might like to have some time down in de pool wit'out having a half-hundred X-Men watching her.'

'What a thoughtful man you are, LeBeau,' said Azimuth and kissed him soundly before curling back against his chest. She was quiet for some time and he held her gently, hoping that the peacefulness that surrounded them could begin to work its magic on them both. He knew his hope had been in vain as he felt her body curled against him, felt how cold and tight she was and the tense shiver of her muscles.

'Azimuth,' he said, very gently. 'What's wrong?'

She lifted her head but her eyes were closed, as if she was afraid to open them, to look at the world. 'I'm tired of playing this game,' she said softly.

'What game, chere?'

Her eyes opened and they were dark with rage and he felt the sudden buffet of her emotion, a storm of anger so intense he thought the air would crackle with it. 'I'm tired of playing Sinister's game,' Azimuth grated. 'Tired of being a pawn in his game of "genetic domination of the universe".' Her face was enraged and her fists beat lightly against his chest as words burst from her. 'I want to be happy,' she half-shouted at him. 'I want to stop having to lug this evil little thing around inside of me. I want to go back to being able to walk from one end of the room to the other without having to stop and have a rest. I want to be light of foot. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. I want to make love to you. I want to eat without having to gorge myself just to keep my weight up. I want to be able to walk out of the grounds of this mansion. Gods, I hate this, Remy, hate it, hate it, hate it. I'm so sick of being Sinister's little play-thing, his broodmare. I wish he was dead. I wish they were all dead. I'm sick and tired of being fucking *frail*.' The last word was vicious and the blow she delivered to his chest carried real force.

He caught her hands, held them as she panted at him. 'It won' be long, ma amant, ma belle petite,' he said, softly. 'Not much longer and dis'll all be over.'

'Will it, Remy? Will it be over?' Azimuth's eyes were still dark, but her face was twisted now with pain instead of rage.

'Dis part, at least,' he whispered. 'Even Essex can' make you carry a baby more dan nine mont's. Dere's not much longer before it's gone and den we can leave here, if dat's what you want.'

'I want,' she said, emphatically. 'Most of the X-Men are nice, but the mansion is like - it's like a prison now.' She looked down at their joined hands. 'I don't like being around a team, Remy. They assume a lot of things.' She looked back up at him. 'Did you know Hank and 'Ro think I'll join up with the X-Men when I'm better? And Scott - Scott was measuring me up before, working out if I'd fit into the team, whether you could be trusted again.'

'De X-Men are very ' Remy paused, searched for a word. 'Consuming,' he settled on.

'I can't be an X-Man, Remy. I just can't,' said Azimuth. 'I'm not made to be a hero.'

He smiled ruefully. 'Neither am I, apparently.'

She gave him a sharp frown. 'What do you mean, Remy? Who thinks you're not cut out to be a hero?'

He shrugged. 'Dat's de general consensus 'round here, chere,' he said.

'So why do they think you joined?' asked Azimuth.

'Redemption. For all my past sins.' His eyes slid away from hers, and he would have turned his face as well, but Azimuth's hand caught his cheek, turned him back to face her.

'They don't know you very well, do they?' she said. 'They haven't done a lot of work on breaking through your fatade.'

He grinned, a sly uncomfortable grin. 'Dere are a lot of dark secrets in de X-Men, chere, dark places. Dey don' ask you questions, cause maybe you start asking dem questions. Dere's more dan a few tales of death and murder and alien possession and hate and rejection wrapped up in de X-Men. So,' he shrugged again, 'dey take de easy way out. Dey don' like my style much - maybe it's easy for dem to understand me if dey t'ink I do all dis so I can redeem my soul.'

'Of course,' said Azimuth, throwing her hands up in despair. 'It's the obvious reason why you'd be doing it.' She shook her head slowly. 'Remy, you were with these people for years and the only one who seems to know you at all is Storm. How do you do that?'

'Natural talent,' Gambit said casually. 'T'ieves don' like people gettin' too close.'

'Well I won't give away your secrets,' said Azimuth, a small half-smile on her face. She brushed his hair lightly off his face. 'I wont use any of those words like courage or honour that'd make a thief blush. But you have got to admit that being a hero does rock your socks.' Her smile broadened.

He smiled back at her, ignoring her teasing. 'You're good for me, chere,' he said. 'Makin' me remember why I do dis. Why it's s'posed to be fun.' He leaned down and kissed her rather thoroughly. 'After all,' he continued, when he lifted his mouth from hers, 'dere's not a lot of point bein' a hero if it isn' any fun, non?'

'Non,' agreed Azimuth, her smile wide, her eyes dancing. 'So what else you got planned for me, LeBeau?' she asked, her voice a sudden purr. 'Now I've got my tantrum out of the way.'

'Well, I had planned an afternoon of sophisticated dining and entertainment pleasure,' replied Remy, lightly kissing her fingertips, his grin shamelessly wicked.

'Oh yes?' said Azimuth. 'Details, please?'

'Well, I t'ought you might like curling up on de couch in front of de big-screen TV and watchin' Terminator 2 while I finished cookin' you up de best jambalaya you ever tasted and den followed up wit' some impossibly good chocolate ice-cream.' He knew she was a sucker for T2 and he would use that knowledge shamelessly.

The look she gave him was pure delight. 'Oh, you silver-tongued devil, you,' she replied. 'What sane girl could resist? Take me to the rec-room,' she commanded.

With a flourish he lifted her into his arms and did exactly what she asked.

It had been a remarkably easy victory.

Between himself and Storm they had been able to forge the disparate plans they had created into one master-plan. Scott had been grudging in his praise of what Storm had intended but he had to admit she did have a flair for the unexpected. It had been her thought that, although the power-dampening field stopped the activation of mutant talents, it was not capable of halting the effects of those powers. It was also, Scott admitted inwardly, her knowledge of Bobby's increased confidence and fine-tuning of his powers that had led her to rely so heavily on the Iceman's abilities.

Bobby had been able to stand just beyond the edges of the mutant-dampening field and extend an ice-hammer inwards through it. Although his power stopped at the field's edge, although he had no control over the leading edge of the hammer, the weight and force of the ice he built behind it drove it onwards until it smashed into the metallic edges of the compound and drove on through, creating a gap in the wall just large enough for a person to slip through.

Scott's strengths, as always, lay in the military precision of his mind. He had chosen the strike force that slipped through the gap and would take down the mutant-dampeners. Storm was the obvious leader with Logan as her back-up. His choice of Rogue had surprised Storm, but he knew she had been trained in terrorism by Mystique and would adapt most easily to the lack of powers. She had also had extensive training in the fire-arms they were forced to take with them. Warpath, trained as a Hellion and surprisingly quiet despite his immense size, was the fourth. Betsy and Kurt, weapons-trained and stealthy, and Hank, the least affected by a mutant-dampening field, made up the numbers.

They had split into two teams after entering the compound, Storm, Wolverine, Warpath and Beast the forward team, Nightcrawler, Rogue and Psylocke the rear-guard team. The security specifications Gambit had procured for them had proven remarkably accurate and Storm's group had made it three-quarters of the way to central command before they had met any resistance. It had obviously confused the guards that the X-Men were using fire-arms instead of powers and the appearance of the rear-guard team had doubled that confusion. Through the smoke and the fury, Storm had managed to lead her team to central command, where Logan's claws had made swift work of the electricals.

After that it had been simplicity itself. Jean had located the Professor quickly and had been able to direct Kurt to teleport to him. Kurt had returned Xavier to central command where they had held off the guards until the other fliers had been able to blast through to them, guards falling before Siryn's scream and the walls melting in front of the blasting field of Cannonball. It had been indestructible Rogue who had carried the Professor out of the jail, bullets bouncing from her skin as she did. The confusion created by the presence of the flying mutants, by the collapsing ice structures of Bobby, by the telepathic interference of Phoenix and Psyclocke and the desperate fighting of the others had allowed the strike team time to escape and return to the Blackbird. The sum total of wounded X-Men were Hank with a bullet-graze on his upper arm, a somewhat bruised Siryn who had been slammed into a pylon when caught in Cannonball's backwash and Marrow, who had a nasty case of wounded pride from being one of the back-markers and, ultimately, not in the fight. As far as he could ascertain there had been no fatalities among the guards.

So why, thought Scott, staring through the front windscreen of the Blackbird as the central states unfurled beneath him, why wasn't he happy?

The answer to that one rested behind him, tended carefully by Cecilia, who had been left in the Blackbird as medical backup. After she had satisfied herself to the superficiality of Hank's wound and Siryn's bruises, she had turned her care on the Professor, working to ascertain if the months in prison had affected his health at all.

~Unfortunately,~ thought Scott, ~it looks like all the wounds are mental ones.~

His psychic rapport with Jean hummed slightly as he felt her agreement and her concern. The thoughts she were picking up from Xavier were deeply unhappy and had a desperate edge that worried her immensely. What also worried everyone was that Xavier had barely spoken since being brought on board. The effusive welcome and gratitude they had expected were not there - what they had received instead was the tired thanks of someone who seemed barely able to comprehend where he was and what was happening to him.

To a team used to the image of the Professor as the confident, shining leader, the reality was a devastating blow.

He heard it behind him, the soft shush of the hoverchair they had brought with them. 'Scott,' said the voice he remembered so well.

'Charles,' he responded. He couldn't call him Professor. The Professor had never been so - broken.

'I wish to thank you for rescuing me,' said Xavier gently.

Scott couldn't make himself turn to face Xavier. 'I wish it could have been earlier,' he said. 'If we could have found you - if we had been able to track you down. I'm sorry, Charles. Sorry it took so long. Sorry we couldn't get you out of there sooner.'

The silence beside him held so long that Scott realised he was holding his breath only when black spots began to dance in front of his eyes. He exhaled just as Xavier said, 'Where are you taking me, Scott?'

'Back to the mansion, of course.'

'I want you to take me to Muir Island,' said Xavier.

'Muir?' It was half a shout. He finally turned to face his mentor. 'Charles - we've come all this way to rescue you - we've risked life and limb - we're here for you - and you want to go to Muir?'

Suffering had drawn the lines deep on Xavier's face and his eyes were shadowed with an infinite pain. 'I do not wish to appear ungrateful, Scott,' he said, his voice soft. 'But I feel it would be better for all concerned if I was taken to Muir Island.'

Scott looked down at him, wished (not for the first time) that he did not have to wear his visor, that he could show the terrifying concern that ran through him. 'Why, Charles?' he asked. 'We're all here for you. We all want you back.'

'Do you want Onslaught back?' asked Xavier and Scott recoiled from the question. 'I went mad, Scott,' continued the Professor, relentlessly. 'I killed people. I nearly levelled New York - and I still don't know why. Moira - Moira can at least offer me therapy. I - I cannot go back to the X-Men, Scott. Not yet.'

'But we can help you, Charles,' said Scott, helplessly. 'We trust you.'

'Do you?' said Xavier. 'Will you? Or will you be watching me, waiting for me to go insane again, checking every move I make? Or will you be expecting me to go back to being your tower of strength, the centrepiece of the X-Men? I cannot live with either of those possibilities, Scott. I need time away from Westchester. My powers . . .'

'Your powers are returning,' interrupted Scott, harshly. 'Jean told me - that's why she could find you.'

'But they are only a hundredth of what they were before,' said Xavier softly. 'I can barely feel your presence in my mind, Scott, and you stand beside me. I feel - I feel crippled in a way that the loss of the use of my legs has never made me feel. Please understand, Cyclops, that I am not the person who you knew as your mentor. I need to re-group. I need to learn to trust myself again - or kill Onslaught once and for all. And if all of that does not persuade you, then perhaps you should remember that I am now a fugitive on the run from the US government. I will not feel safe if I am at Westchester, Scott. Please take me to Muir.' A sudden note of desperate pleading filled his voice.

Scott had never heard that tone in Xavier's voice before, that abject misery. 'We . . . we shall miss you, Charles,' said Scott, his voice strangely formal as he leaned forward and altered the Blackbird's course to take it to Muir.

'Thank you, Scott,' replied the Professor and then was gone, back into the passenger module, leaving the team alone, strangely subdued.

It had been a remarkably easy victory.

So why did it feel so much like a defeat?

Kurt knocked gently on the door, listened to the rustling behind it and realised he was not going to be answered.

'Rogue?' he called out softly. 'Mein Schwester? It is I, Kurt.'

The door opened slightly in front of him and he took it as an invitation. He slipped through the door into Rogue's bedroom, glanced around at the cool green tones and delicate, feminine furniture he remembered from last time.

He looked at Rogue, standing just behind the door, and put on his most winning smile. 'I thought you would have missed me,' he said. 'No welcome-back hugs for your swashbuckling older brother returned from foreign climes?'

'Y'all are staying?' asked Rogue and at Kurt's nod she finally reached out and hugged him to her hard - hard enough to make spots dance in front of his eyes. Rogue heard his gasp and hurriedly released her grip. 'What made yah come back here?' she asked, moving to sit down on her bed.

'Back to the X-Men?' asked Kurt, settling himself on the end of the bed. He continued at her nod. 'There were a lot of reasons. Daytripper - Amanda - has had to become guardian of Limbo and can no longer be in Excalibur. There were a lot of memories on Muir and I thought it best if this fuzzy elf got away from all that sadness. And the others were growing restless for a change. I thought it was time that someone else had a chance to be in charge.'

'So who did y'all anoint as glorious leader?' asked Rogue, hugging her pillow to her tightly, but smiling at Kurt nonetheless.

'Kitty's beloved,' replied Kurt. 'Herr Wisdom.'

'Pete Wisdom!' exclaimed Rogue. 'Ah don't know him, but Ah've heard - was he the best choice, Kurt?'

Kurt nodded, slowly. 'There were many reasons for my choice. Herr Wisdom is a clever man and he has been a leader in Black Air. There was only one other obvious candidate anyway, and Kitty - would not have been a good choice.'

'Why not?' asked Rogue. 'She's very capable, Kurt, even if she is a little young.'

Kurt frowned lightly, tapped his tail pensively on the floor. 'Kitty went to work with SHIELD some time ago. There has been tension between Herr Wisdom and herself since then. Nothing has happened yet, but I do not wish it to. They are - soulmates. But Kitty wants someone responsible and she feels that Herr Wisdom does not fall into that category. If he is leader of Excalibur and acquits himself well, I think KStzchen will see that Herr Wisdom is as capable as any at leading and that his - laxity is merely a front. KStzchen is still very young. I do not think she understands yet what a remarkable man she has managed to ensnare.'

Rogue's face was very white when he looked up at her again, her smile somewhat tremulous. Before he could say anything, however, she said, 'So what else brought yah back to the X-Men, fuzzy elf?'

He shrugged. 'The Professor,' he said.

'Xavier?' asked Rogue, puzzled. 'Did he send you back here?'

'Nein.' Kurt grimaced, a baring of sharp teeth. 'The Professor saved my life. I have worshipped him since that day, Rogue. Idolised him for his strength and his will. What we rescued from that prison, the man who is on Muir . . . He is not the person I remember. It is like looking on a schatten - a shadow - of the man who saved me. I cannot bear to be around him.' He looked up at Rogue, yellow eyes glowing with grief and pain. 'It is the coward's way, I know, but I could not stay on Muir while he is the way he is.'

Rogue's eyes brimmed with sympathy. 'Ah understand,' she said softly. 'Ah felt what it was like on the Blackbird. It hurts to see him that way. But Ah'm sure Moira will sort him out.'

Kurt smiled suddenly. 'Ja,' he agreed. 'That, or the Professor will get better so he never has to drink her coffee again.' He sobered as quickly as he had brightened. 'And how are you, mein Schwester?' he asked. 'Why were you locked away in your room when I came looking for you?'

Rogue paled again, dropped her eyes from Kurt's. 'Ah went to the Danger Room this morning,' she said. 'Ah . . . Gambit was there. Ah couldn't stay. Ah can't face him.'

'I had heard that Gambit had returned,' said Kurt evenly. 'I had not thought, after Antarctica, that he would come back.'

Rogue raised her eyes to his again. 'Antarctica wasn't what it seemed, Kurt. Gambit told me and Ah - Ah had to believe him. And Jean's been inside his head and she says that we didn't get the truth at the trial. We were manipulated. *Ah* was manipulated. Ah don't know what Remy did when the Morlock Massacre happened but what we got in Antarctica wasn't the truth. But that still didn't stop me from trying to murder him.' Her voice was bitter with self-hatred.

Kurt knew about that, but decided he didn't want to touch on it. 'What do you think now?' he asked.

'Now?' Rogue laughed hollowly. 'Ah can't face him, Kurt, because Ah love him.'

'You love him?' Kurt was stunned.

Rogue nodded slowly. 'Sad, isn't it?' she asked rhetorically. 'Ah never stopped loving him, Kurt. But someone puts their voice inside mah head and Ah try to kill him. And now he doesn't want me. Now he's got *her*.' Rogue's voice was vicious on the last word.

'Her?' asked Kurt.

'Azimuth.' Razor-blades sliced through the word. 'His woman. The one he loves now. The only reason he's here. Not for me - never for me again. Just for her.'

'Storm told me that she is not well - that Sinister is using her to make a clone-child.' Kurt's voice was cautious. There was something in Rogue's body-language that worried him.

'It doesn't mean Ah can't hate her,' responded Rogue. 'She's here, Kurt. She's in mah house, mah *home* and she's here with the man Ah love and Ah hate her so much Ah could walk in the infirmary right now and rip out her heart.'

'What did she do to you?' asked Kurt, concern in his voice. He had never heard Rogue so vehement. He had spoken to both Storm and Logan about Azimuth and both had said they liked her. Kurt trusted their judgment. More, he added very, very privately, than he trusted Rogue's.

'She told me it was mah fault,' replied Rogue. 'She said Ah could have had Remy any time Ah wanted if Ah'd wanted it enough. If Ah'd been brave enough. She told me Ah tried to murder him. She said he didn't love me any more. Aren't they enough reasons to hate her?'

'Does she know about your power?' asked Kurt, his brows drawn down in surprise.

'All about it,' replied Rogue. 'All about me and Remy. He told her everything about us.'

'That was most ungallant of him,' said Kurt. 'And if she knows about your power then she knows you cannot touch.'

'Really, Kurt?' asked Rogue. 'Ah can't touch? That's what everyone's told me for so long that Ah believe it. But there are so many ways. So many ways Ah could touch. But do yah think Ah'm going to use any of them?'

'Rogue?' asked Kurt, very gently. 'What is wrong with you?'

She buried her face in her hands. 'Ah'm afraid,' said Rogue, her voice muffled. 'Ah'm afraid that she was right. Ah'm afraid that Ah've spent so long not touching people because Ah chose not to. Ah'm afraid Ah'm just wasting my whole life too afraid to touch because of something that happened when Ah was a child. Because of all the things other people have told me about how bad mah power is and how strong it is and how Ah should nevah, *nevah* touch anyone because all Ah can do when Ah touch someone is destroy them.'

'Rogue,' Kurt placed his hand lightly on her shoulder. 'It's not like that, liebling. Your powers *are* strong and you don't have control over them. You can't risk hurting someone else, hurting yourself . . .'

'They all hurt me, Kurt,' said Rogue. 'All the people in mah head. Ah was so afraid of Carol, so afraid of her taking me over. But when she was in my head, all Ah had to fight was her. Now she's gone there's all the other voices - all the other people that were drowned out under Carol. They're all coming back now and they're in mah head all the time and Ah'm so afraid of what they're telling me to do. Do you know Joseph left me because Ah tried to give him mouth-to-mouth - just so Ah could absorb him? He was still breathing, Kurt, but Ah wanted to feel him inside mah head so bad Ah was willing to take away everything he had. What if it wasn't me that wanted that? Ah've got these people inside mah head. What if they all hate me? What if they were the ones that told me to kill Remy? Maybe Ah lost him because of someone else inside mah head telling me that Ah had to kill him because they hated me and they wanted me to kill the man Ah love. And now - now Ah want to kill Azimuth so badly that Ah'm afraid of mahself and Ah don't even know if it's me that wants to kill her. How am Ah supposed to know who Ah am any more?'

'Ah, liebling, liebling, mein Schwester,' said Kurt, drawing Rogue close into the circle of his arms.

'Oh Kurt,' wailed Rogue. 'Ah don't know if Ah'm sane any more. Ah don't even know if Ah'm *me* any more.'

Kurt held her tightly and rocked her and knew that there was nothing he could say that would soothe her.

It had been two weeks since they had rescued the Professor and, despite a success in a minor skirmish with the FOH, an air of gloom still pervaded the mansion.

It was not the general malaise that was affecting Hank, however. His concerns were far more specific. His face was grave when he stepped back from Azimuth, allowed her time to adjust her clothing.

'So what's the verdict, doctor?' asked Azimuth, somewhat wryly.

'It is not good,' said Hank and his voice was very serious.

'I didn't think it would be,' she said, wincing as she drew her hand down over her belly, smoothing her t-shirt.

Hank sat down beside the bed, drew his hand tiredly over his face. 'The enzyme supplements have stopped working,' he said. 'Your weight is no longer stable - you've lost three kilograms in the last fortnight. You don't have three kilograms to lose.'

Azimuth nodded, her face suddenly grim. 'I've looked in the mirror, Hank. I'm turning into a skeleton. The were-child is eating me again.' Her voice was filled with an implacable hatred and Hank sighed. He knew she wouldn't love the child but he rarely met such venomous hate.

'How is your exercise going?' Hank asked.

Azimuth winced again, dug her fingers surreptitiously beneath her rib-cage. 'I can barely get out of bed now,' she confessed. 'I certainly can't made it down the hall-way. Remy has to carry me to the bathroom now. I hate it.' There was a sudden weariness in her voice which startled Hank. Despite everything, Azimuth had always seemed to be able to carry herself lightly, to face the world with optimism. It was the tone in her voice that finally decided Hank.

'The pregnancy is nearly eight months advanced now,' he said. 'I can't see that there's anything further to be gained from prolonging it. If you agree, I shall contact Cecilia immediately and take steps to induce the birth.'

Azimuth's eyes were wide when she looked at him, and he finally noticed her fingers digging sharply into her ribs. A grimace rippled across her face again. 'I don't think that'll be necessary,' she said. 'I think you'd better call Cecilia now.'

'You're having contractions?' asked Hank.

She nodded, eyes frightened. 'I think you'd better hurry, Hank. The were-child is coming and I think it's coming right now.'


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