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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 9

Storm woke to the uncomfortable sensation that she was being watched.

For a moment she was disorientated, wondering where she was, but then the rough feel of Hank's lab-coat beneath her cheek made her remember. She had chased Hank out of the infirmary at 4am, promising to watch over the patients if he got some sleep. Storm realised that at some point she had curled up on the chair, on Hank's lab-coat, and fallen asleep. She would have to make sure that the Beast never found out about it.

Slowly, wincing at the pain in her neck, Storm lifted her head, to find her gaze locked onto two steady, smoke-grey eyes. For half an instant Storm flinched from the sharp, unyielding scrutiny, but then she gathered herself and inspected Azimuth as she had not had time the night before.

Azimuth had pulled herself up in her bed, so now she sat against piled pillows, her hand lightly resting on Gambit's head, where he still lay sleeping on her lap. They had tried to move him from her bed the previous evening, but they had been unable to separate his clasped hand from Azimuth's, and eventually had decided to leave him sleeping, sprawled across the bed. The Beast had managed to clean and stitch the cuts on his cheek, but neither of them had moved, deeply lost in unconsciousness.

Azimuth's blonde hair was lank and matted with sweat and hung in unpleasant straggles across her forehead. Her face was marred with strain, deeply drawn and taut over cheekbones, stark white across her brow and around her mouth. Beneath her steady gaze, black circles stained her skin, so dark they seemed like bruises. Her expression was so stark that her lips were little more than a thin, white line, marked only with redness where she had early bitten through them the previous evening.

Storm remembered Gambit's descriptions of Azimuth, the lyric praise of her beauty and her strength, and shuddered inside as she thought of what must have happened to Azimuth to bring her to this state. She looked as if you spoke too loud, she would shatter like flawed glass.

'Azimuth,' said Storm softly and inclined her head in greeting.

'And you are Storm,' Azimuth replied. Her voice was fragile - attenuated - as if exhaustion and abuse had stranded her halfway across the galaxy from Storm, instead of only a few metres across a medilab.

But the ragged fragility of Azimuth's voice was wrapped around a thread of steel, a hint of inner strength, forged by heat and pressure into diamond hardness. Storm wondered suddenly which one of them would break first in a contest of will. She had the feeling she might not like the answer.

'I've been wanting to meet you,' Azimuth continued. 'Remy told me all about you.' Her gaze dropped from Storm's eyes to where her hand rested on Gambit's lush auburn hair. Slowly she ran her hand over his hair and neck, as if she was afraid he would disappear from under her touch. 'He loves you, you know,' she continued, her voice a whisper, and suddenly her gaze flashed up to Storm's face - like a knife, it pinned Storm against the chair. 'It would kill him if he ever had to choose between us.'

The thread of steel in Azimuth's voice slid out from beneath the words, a cutting edge that promised hurt for hurt. Storm's breath caught in her throat as the room suddenly filled with implications of violence, a taste of crisis and necessity. Somehow Azimuth needed certainly *now*, to know whether this visit to the X-Men would cost her more than she was willing to pay. Storm's mind scrambled to understand implications, to reference the knowledge gleaned from Remy with the stark need Azimuth exuded, to grasp why Azimuth expected pain. But then Storm realised that she did not have the time, the information, to measure Azimuth's intent.

So she answered Azimuth the only way she knew how - by looking deep inside herself and telling Azimuth the truth she saw there. 'I would never make him choose,' she said softly.

For an instant Azimuth's eyes narrowed and flashed as she gazed at Storm. And then suddenly her face softened, relaxed. The smile that lit her eyes and face contained genuine warmth and Storm realised that when Azimuth was cleaned up she would be very nearly beautiful. 'I can see why he loves you,' Azimuth said, and Storm was suddenly shaken as she realised that what Remy had told her was true. This woman did see into the very heart of you. Storm made a sudden resolution never to lie to Azimuth.

'How are you feeling?' she asked. 'You look ....' Storm trailed off.

'Terrible?' grimaced Azimuth and Storm nodded. 'I don't exactly feel the best, though a hot shower and a month's sleep might help with that. I've got an awful headache and I wouldn't like to try doing anything too strenuous for a while, but I think I'm essentially all right.' Tiredly, Azimuth ran her hand through her hair, but it did nothing to improve it.

'Have you got any other injuries?' Storm asked, her face mirroring her concern. They had been unable to get to Azimuth to get her colours off and the Beast had been worried that she may have taken further hurts.

But Azimuth was shaking her head. 'Nothing I can't handle,' she said. 'Just the usual damage.' Her voice was suddenly bitter, but it invited no comment from Storm, who wisely changed the subject.

'And Remy?' Storm asked. 'Is he without injury?'

The smile that Azimuth bestowed on Remy's sleeping head was full of fondness. 'Nothing physical,' she said. 'Just a bit more damage to his soul, and a complete loss of control over his powers. Nothing he hasn't dealt with before.' Storm was unsure if Azimuth was joking because, while her tone was light, she refused to meet Storm's eyes.

'But after last night . .' began Storm and then trailed off as she saw Azimuth's hand on Gambit's back tense and then soften and withdraw. Beneath the gentle movement of her hand, Remy stirred and then, with a grace that made Storm envious, lifted himself up from the bed until he was sitting back in his chair. Storm wished she could move so easily after hours spent sleeping in such an awkward position. Just to emphasise the point, her neck twinged sorely, reminding her of her illicit sleep in the chair.

'But after las' night, Gambit is startin' to t'ink dat a cognac hangover ain't de worst damage he can inflict on his poor, achin' head.' Gambit finished Storm's sentence but his attention was entirely locked on Azimuth.

'Headache, lover?' she asked and sympathy dawned in her eyes as he nodded gingerly. 'Combine it with mine and we've probably got the hangover from a 24-hour tequila slamming contest. Shame we couldn't have got the drinking in first.'

A fleeting grin lightened Gambit's features, but they sobered again as he looked at his lover. 'Gambit miss you so much, chere,' he whispered and reached his hand out to stroke her cheek. 'I t'ought dat you were dead, dat Sinister take you away and kill you to punish me. I don' t'ink I could have lived if he'd done dat.'

'But he didn't, LeBeau,' Azimuth's voice was soothing. 'He didn't even hurt me that much, for once. A headache, a few bruises, not much more.' Her voice went suddenly tight and Storm saw that tightness reflected in Remy's face.

With little more volume than a breath, Remy murmured, 'Did he?'

'Doesn't he always?' replied Azimuth whimsically, her voice light, but Storm saw her face was drawn with the patterns of an ancient pain and her eyes drowned in hatred and despair. And then Storm had to look away, uncomfortable in the intense feelings that suddenly vibrated in the air between Remy and Azimuth. But she couldn't help but overhear their words.

'Oh gods, chere, I'm so sorry. I should have been dere for you, I should have stopped him..'

'You couldn't have. There was nothing you could do.'

'Dere's never anyt'ing I can do.' An agony of self-reproach in those words.

'Yes, there is.' Wondrous love in those ones. 'You can tell me that you love me, you can kiss me when I need to be kissed, hold me when I need to be held, love me when I need to be loved. You can make me stand in front of mirrors, you can tell me it isn't my fault, you can make me believe in myself. You can prove to me I'm *real*.'

Passion vibrated in the last word and Storm found herself clutching Hank's lab-coat to her, somehow aware of how desperately important Gambit's response was.

And then a wry chuckle slid through the charged atmosphere, dispelling the tension easily. 'I could prove to you exactly how real you are, chere,' said Gambit, lightly, 'but Stormy would probably be rather offended.B'sides, de bed's too small and I t'ink you need a shower first.'

Shocked, Storm turned to look at Azimuth and was startled to find that she was wearing a broad grin. 'You think I need a shower?' she was asking. 'I should make you kiss me and you'd find out how badly I need to clean my teeth.'

Gambit's smile remained, but a thin worry-line appeared between his brows. His voice was slightly hesitant as he said, 'Your power, chere? Is it -- all right? I didn' - damage you?'

Azimuth reached out and cupped her hand around his cheek, smiling gently. 'I could twist you around my little finger right now,' she said.

Gambit's grin sharpened, broadened. 'Gambit already wrapped around your finger, chere. You don' need to change my reality to do dat.'

Just as Storm began to feel uncomfortable again, Azimuth glanced at her and dropped her hand from Gambit's face. She flashed an apologetic glance at Storm and said, 'Storm, I'm sorry for dragging you into our troubles. I know Gambit had to bring me here, but I would have done anything to avoid causing you difficulties.'

Gambit faced Storm for the first time that morning and gave her the benefit of his most charming smile. 'Don' be too distressed, Azimuth,' he said. 'I t'ink Stormy like de opportunity for flexin' her muscles. Figuratively speakin', of course.'

'It has been a long time since anyone has had the courage to call me Stormy,' replied Storm, her face and voice grave. 'I do believe I have missed it.' A broad and uncomplicated smile blossomed across her face and her eyes danced with merriment.

Gambit's astonishment was totally unfeigned. 'Now dat's somet'ing Gambit t'ought he would never here, chere,' he said. 'You better call de Beast, cause I t'ink I'm in danger of passin' out again.'

'What do they say, Remy?' Storm asked rhetorically. 'That you do not know what you have until it is gone? It wasn't until you were no longer here that I realised how much you meant to me. I missed you, my friend, more than I thought was possible. I even missed you calling me Stormy. Though I would be pleased if you did not let that part be widely known.' The expression on her face showed her wry amusement.

'Givin' Gambit another dark secret to carry around next to his heart, neh?' Gambit's expression echoed Storm's. 'Lucky I be so good at keepin' dem. Jus' don' be lettin' de X-Men try pryin' it out of me, non? Gambit not sure he could survive a second trial.'

Storm allowed her expression to modulate downwards into a disapproving frown. 'They will not be trying anything like that whilst you are here, Remy. I extracted promises from all of them last night that you will be left alone until Azimuth is well enough to leave. I assume that you desire to leave?'

'Of course,' replied Gambit. 'If Gambit had any choices he wouldn' have crossed de mansion's t'reshold again. De sooner we can get out of here, de better.'

'I understand,' Storm's face was pained as she realised how impossible any thought of Gambit's return to the X-Men would be. 'I wish it could be otherwise,' she continued softly. 'I wish you could stay. I would like the time to get to know Azimuth -- and to talk things through with you.'

'Ah, Stormy, chere,' replied Gambit. 'I wish it could all be different, too. I miss you, chere.' Gambit stretched his right hand out towards Storm.

And she flinched backwards sharply as Gambit's hand and forearm were suddenly sheathed in crimson power. Gambit, too, flinched and then his face settled into a grimace as he worked to gain control over his errant abilities. Slowly, the charge drained back into his body until his extended hand was normal again. But his expression didn't change, making it clear to Storm that he was still fighting his out-of-control power.

Azimuth touched his back lightly and Gambit turned to look at her. 'You've got to get rid of your charge, Remy,' she said. 'It's built up again during the night and you've got to drain it, or you'll be taking Storm and I out.'

Gambit nodded and turned a bright but fragile smile on Storm. 'Gambit be going outside, Stormy. Don' take any notice of de explosions -- and take care of Azimuth for me.'

'Like I need it,' Azimuth snorted.

'Not normally, chere, non,' Gambit replied, and then reached out and stroked Azimuth's cheek lightly. 'But Gambit will do whatever he can to save you from hurt -- and seeing I jus' failed miserably at dat, I have to try extra hard dis time, make sure not'ing can cause you pain. 'Ro will make sure of dat for me.'

Azimuth smiled and nodded and, touching her finger to her lips, kissed it and touched it gently to Gambit's mouth. 'Be careful,' she said.

'Anyt'ing you ask,' he responded and turned back to Storm. 'Dere's no-one stirring in de mansion or de grounds at de moment, so I shouldn' be long. Watch over her.'

Storm nodded and waited until Gambit had left the room before turning back to Azimuth, who was still wearing her soft smile. 'You love him, don't you?' she asked.

'Utterly, helplessly, hopelessly,' grinned Azimuth. 'Kind of sad and pathetic, don't you think?'

Storm couldn't help but smile at the sheer impudence of Azimuth's rin. 'Not really,' she said. 'Though I would be intrigued as to why such a forthright young woman as yourself would love a man as -- shadowy -- as Remy.'

'Why?' The smile slowly dropped from Azimuth's face. 'Too many reasons, Storm. I love him because he's never tried to cause me any pain and that's a rarity in my life. I love him because he saved my life when other people were out to hurt me. I love him because, underneath all the strange betrayals that Remy has made, underneath all that self-loathing and pain, he has a core of honour that has never been shaken. I love him because he understands the memories I carry around inside of me and doesn't question why I hurt. I love him because after the nightmares, when I wake screaming, he holds my hand in the dark. I love him because he makes me stand in front of mirrors and forces me to remember I am real.' Azimuth's eyes had darkened with shame with each sentence until the ones she lifted now to Storm were blind, black pits of mortification. Her voice was no more than a whisper as she said, 'I love him because he understands damage -- and compulsion -- and ruin.'

Storm remembered what Gambit had told her once, that Azimuth would tell the truth about herself, no matter how much pain it caused her. And so she allowed herself to ask the question she had thought she couldn't. Softly, the words tasting strange in her mouth, she asked, 'When Remy asked you, 'Did he?', what did he mean?'

Azimuth's eyes refocussed on Storm. 'He wanted to know if Sinister raped me. Which he did. Again.'

Storm's face mirrored her shock. 'I never knew,' she said. 'I know Sinister does -- evil things, experiments, but *rape*? He's never seemed the type, never seemed interested in anyone sexually, even for his breeding programs.'

Azimuth's laugh was hollow, bitter. 'He's not interested in anyone sexually, not for breeding or anything else. He uses rape for what it is - a tool of domination, subjugation. He breaks your will with it -- or rewards you with it, if that's your inclination. Myself, Vertigo, the other women, Riptide and some of the men, he broke us into little pieces until we would do anything he wanted because we thought we didn't have choices any more. And if he couldn't break you into small enough pieces, he gave you to Sabretooth or Arclight or Scalphunter until you would do anything he asked just to get away from them, away from their teeth and their hands and their *eyes*.' A long shudder ran through Azimuth's frame and she averted her face from Storm.

Storm's voice was ragged as she asked, 'Did he ever -- with Remy?'

'Gods, no,' Azimuth's voice was sharp. 'The Cajun was *not* to be touched. Sinister had other plans for him.' Storm could tell that, in her mind, Azimuth had travelled back to somewhere where all the pain in the world resided.

'Are you all right?' Storm asked, and Azimuth's eyes suddenly focussed back on the present and she startled Storm with her flashing smile.

'I am,' she said. 'They may have broken me into pieces, but I've learned since then how to put the pieces back together. And now I am stronger the broken places.'

'Ernest Hemingway.' The voice came from behind Storm, who jumped, and then turned to see the smiling face of the Beast, who was leaning against the doorjamb. ' "The world breaks everyone and, afterwards, some are stronger at the broken places",' he quoted.

'That's the one,' Azimuth said and smiled. 'I didn't think it was that well known.'

'The Beast is a very erudite man,' said Storm. 'He has a quote for any occasion, I believe.'

'I do,' responded the Beast. 'And I believe the quote for this occasion is "I'm a doctor, Jim, not a doorjamb." I need to examine Azimuth and I think it would be better if I did it without an audience.' He looked at Storm pointedly, but she had already got the hint.

'I am just going,' she said. 'I will wait outside and prevent Remy from coming in until you are ready.' She aimed that remark at Azimuth, who nodded her agreement. Storm thought back over their conversation and all that had been done to Azimuth in the name of science. Reaching out her hand, she gripped Azimuth's tightly. 'You can trust the Beast,' she said.

'I already do,' Azimuth said, and squeezed Storm's hand back.

Storm trusted the Beast as well but, even so, she found it difficult to leave the room. Walking out, she changed her plans to wait in another room, and sat on the floor outside the medilab, where she could be ready if

Azimuth needed her.

She was still there, seated on the floor, elbows on knees, head in her hands when she heard Remy return. His footsteps were soft but somehow slurred, as if he could barely lift his feet. Storm looked up to see Remy's exhausted form walking towards her, his shoulders low, his feet shuffling. 'Azimuth?' he asked, his face concerned.

'The Beast is examining her,' replied Storm and Gambit nodded in acceptance. He walked to Storm and, leaning against the wall, allowed his body to sink into a downward slump until he had joined Storm on the floor.

'Azimuth told me,' Storm said, not looking at Gambit. 'About what Sinister did to her and the others. How he broke her.'

'I t'ought she might,' Gambit replied, and stopped. A long silence settled, filled with implications of the words that could have been said, but weren't. Just when the silence began to ache inside Storm and she opened her mouth to say something, anything, Gambit said, 'I can' go on like dis, 'Ro. I can' keep burnin' out all my power jus' to stay in control. I can' keep on bein' so tired.' There was a note in his voice that Storm had never heard before, a sudden, savage despair.

'You had control before,' replied Storm. 'Couldn't you just put your shields up again?'

'Non,' Gambit said, tiredly. 'Gambit only put his shields up once before and dat was -- how you say, trauma-induced? Gambit don' know how to start building dem and Gambit ain't willin' to try de traumatic approach again. I need someone to start dem again, to plant de seeds inside my mind so I can build my shields. Otherwise, de only way I keep control is by being unconscious or exhausted. Dey ain't really options, 'Ro.'

'No - no, they are not really, are they?' Storm said. 'You need a telepath, then, to help you. There are only Psylocke and the White Queen nearby.'

'You know dat ain't possible, Stormy. Psylocke too close to Archangel, she likely to kill me -- not dat I let her inside my head again. And la Blanche Regine? Gambit barely know her -- how can I trust her inside my head?'

'You are asking me to contact Phoenix, aren't you?' Storm asked.

'Oui, chere. De Phoenix don' like me, I got no doubt 'bout dat, but I don' t'ink she try and harm me if she inside my mind. B'sides, she been willin' to help me. She tell you where Azimuth is when you ask for help for me.'

Storm winced and that wince came out in her voice. 'I didn't tell her who Azimuth's "friend" was. She didn't know she was helping you when she located Azimuth.'

'You *lied* for me?' Gambit's astonishment was plain in his voice. 'You lied to Jean for me?'

'I did,' replied Storm. 'And I am not proud of it. Are you still willing to let her in your mind?'

There was a long pause, but finally Gambit said, 'De Professor is gone. Wit'out him, Jean de only telepath I let loose inside my head. I have to trust her, 'Ro.'

'Very well,' Storm said, formally, distantly. 'I will contact her for you. It will be difficult to explain what I have done. Phoenix will be most unhappy that I lied to her.'

'I know, chere. I'm sorry.' Gambit's voice was equally formal.

They had not looked at each other once in the conversation and the silence that settled between them now lengthened into an uncomfortable chilliness, as if there was nothing more to say. But, eventually, Gambit's hand stole out from his side, a slow questing movement until, at last, he slid it over Storm's hand. And, in time, she turned her hand over and clutched his, fingers intertwining, warmth mingling.

Their clasped hands were a promise that, whatever happened, they would be there for each other.

There was nothing more to say.

The Beast had his back to Azimuth, allowing her some semblance of privacy in which to dress herself in the hospital gown he had supplied in place of her colours. 'You will need bed-rest for some time,' he said to the rustling noises behind him. 'There was a fair quotient of damage done to your health and you need to rest to recover your strength. How long do you estimate you were -- unconscious -- for?'

'Probably a week, ten days, I'd say,' came Azimuth's reply. 'It was at least four, five days before Sinister worked out how to put my talent to work and I think I was gone for about two weeks in total, so that sounds right. So I've spent a fair bit of time on an IV. You can turn around, now,' she finished.

Beast turned back to her. 'Yes, there are numerous track-marks on your arms from the drips, so that makes sense. But being fed intravenously is never as efficacious to the health as normal food, so it will take a while for you to recover that strength. As well as the injuries done to your abilities -- I would suspect you will be suffering significant headaches for at least a week or so, although there seems to be no permanent damage. So I'm prescribing a week's bed-rest, with the possibility of further depending on your condition. As for the marks on your arms and the contusions on your inner thighs, they will heal in time, but there may be some scarring.' The Beast winced as he said this. It was obvious from his examination what those contusions had come from and he didn't like the thought of permanent reminders being etched into Azimuth's skin.

'Not me,' said Azimuth. 'I heal neat.'

The Beast looked at her with some surprise. 'You have a healing factor? Storm informed me that your talent was more -- cerebral in nature.'

'Oh, no, I don't heal any faster than anyone else,' replied Azimuth. 'I just heal neater.' She held out her hands to Beast and grinned. 'Look, Ma, no scars,' she said, brightly.

Hank shuddered slightly at the thought of what injuries Azimuth had sustained in the past, considering the savagery indicated by the current bruising and lacerations on her legs. He tried not to think about it as he said, 'There are no -- internal injuries indicated by my examination. Once the headaches have ceased you shall be free to leave.'

A look of relief flitted over Azimuth's face. 'Good,' she said, and Hank suddenly realised how uncomfortable her entire situation was.

'How much has Gambit told you of his current status amongst the X-Men?' the Beast asked.

'Everything,' was Azimuth's brusque reply.

'Then I do not need to tell you how -- precarious -- his, and your, situation is.'

'I am aware of it all,' said Azimuth. 'I wish neither of us had had to come here, but with my condition, Remy had little choice.'

'I know,' said the Beast. 'And I do not hold it against him. I just wish you to know that you do not have to be concerned whilst you are here. The only visitors you will be receiving will be Storm, myself and Cecilia.'

Azimuth frowned. 'Cecilia?' she asked. 'Was she the other doctor last night? The Hispanic woman?'

'Yes,' replied the Beast. 'She is -- was -- an emergency doctor at a Bronx hospital. She has only recently joined us. But she can be trusted. She is - nice.'

'Nice? A delicate little word for a man with as high-powered a vocabulary as you, Beast.' Azimuth suppressed a little grin as she teased.

'I like Cecilia,' rejoindered the Beast. 'She is an excellent doctor and very -- interesting -- to have around.'

Azimuth looked at the Beast long and hard. Finally she nodded to herself. 'The other one,' she said and Hank swung his attention to her. 'You're not in love with her any more, you know.'

'Pardon?' The Beast's eyes went wide with startlement.

'You have another person in your life,' said Azimuth. 'I can read you with my talent, remember. And you keep telling yourself you are still in love with her. But you aren't in love with her any more, not really. Let her go, Beast, whoever she is. Move on with your life.'

The Beast's eyes were nearly frightened, but then glinted with amusement. 'Are you telling me I should take my chances romantically with Dr Reyes?'

Azimuth held her hands up in a gesture of negation and laughed. 'I don't give advice like that, doctor,' she said. 'Can you imagine the trouble I'd get in if I did? All I'm saying is that you aren't in love with your old flame any more. What you do with that information is up to you.'

The Beast stared at Azimuth for some time, before he softly said, 'I shall ponder what you have told me, Azimuth. I thank you for being so blunt with me -- you leave me with a lot to cogitate on. Now, is there anything I can do for you?'

'I would *kill* for a shower,' replied Azimuth. 'LeBeau should be back by now. Can you get him in to help me?'

'After last night, I would suspect he is on the verge of exhaustion again, if he has gone to burn off power. But, if I take you to the shower, I'm sure he can watch over you while you get perform your ablutions.'

'Watch over me?' grinned Azimuth. 'Doctor, I want him to wash my back.'

For once the Beast was glad he was covered in blue fur, because otherwise he was sure Azimuth would have seen him blushing before he headed to the door to collect her lover.

They had been at the mansion for three days now and the Beast's promise about visitors had held true. Gambit spent most of his time in the medilab with Azimuth and the only people he saw were Storm, Cecilia and Hank. He and Storm had talked for some time with the easy familiarity of old friends until after she had spoken to Jean about coming to help him. She had been terse since then, obviously affected by their conversation, but had told Gambit that Jean would be coming soon and that Scott would not be coming with her. She was avoiding the medilab for the moment, though.

Gambit had managed to make friends with Cecilia by the simple expedient of making her a cup of his coffee. She had taken a suspicious first sip and then drunk the rest of the cup with a pleasure that bordered on the obscene. Gambit had actually averted his eyes as she drank, feeling uncomfortably like a voyeur. Since then, he had been able to maintain what could best be described as a cordial relationship with the doctor.

But he had avoided the Beast, ducking out of the room every time Hank had come in, finding excuses to be away when Azimuth was due to have a check-up. Finally, this morning, Azimuth had threatened to throw something sharp and pointy at him if he did not make some attempt to talk to the Beast. And so he waited now, in the corridor outside the medilab, so he could talk to Hank without Azimuth looking on. Much as he loved her, Gambit simply felt too uncomfortable to start a conversation with Hank in front of her.

It was not an ambush, but it felt like one when the Beast checked abruptly and frowned when he saw Gambit. He said nothing, and Gambit found himself forced to start the conversation. He had thought of his approach long and hard, creating and discarding a hundred opening sentences to this conversation, finally abandoning the effort when he couldn't think of anything that sounded sensible.

And so what came out was as much a surprise to him as to the Beast. 'Stormytold me,' Gambit began, 'dat you didn' know I was being left behin'.'

Hank's frown deepened. 'I did not,' he replied. 'I would never condone such a path of action. If I had known . .' He trailed off and shrugged.

'Do you t'ink Gambit is guilty, Hank? Do you t'ink Gambit deserves to be punished for what Erik de Red said dat he did?'

There was a long pause before Hank replied. 'I do not know, Gambit,' he said. 'There were inconsistencies at your "trial" that confuse me. I do not know what to think about you, but I do not think we learned the truth of

what you did.'

Gambit's harsh bark of laughter startled both of them. 'Gambit was dere, mon ami,' he said, his voice bitter. 'I was dere for de Morlock massacre - I was *dere*. Don' ever talk yourself into believin' dat part weren' true.'

'I suspected as much,' said the Beast, but his face did not shift into the anger that Remy had expected, but remained thoughtful. 'I have spent much time conversing with your delightful companion, Azimuth. She is quite a remarkably perceptive person, Gambit, as she has proven to me on more than one occasion. And Storm is one of the best judges of character I have ever met. I trust both of them in their judgment of others. And both of them trust you. More than trust you - both of them love you. I cannot help but think that this implies a more complicated story of the Morlock massacre and your involvement than your "trial" led us to believe. In such circumstances, I am willing to reserve my judgment on you and your actions until I have more information.' He looked hard into Gambit's eyes. 'Do not consider me your enemy, Gambit,' he said.

There was a pause and Gambit opened his mouth to make a comment, but the Beast forestalled him. Leaning forward, he continued, 'But do not consider me your friend.'

Gambit closed his mouth and nodded thoughtfully. This was so much more than he had expected, this offer of truce, that its generosity left him with no words to speak.

He gestured Beast into the medilab and followed him in, locked in silent consideration.

When Phoenix walked into the medilab, Gambit and Azimuth were speaking the private language of lovers, the lilting, intertwining speech of half-sentences and shared laughter that spoke of two minds working in parallel. Phoenix paused in the doorway, hoping to have a few moments to study these two people who had disrupted her beloved X-Men so severely and caused a strain on her relationship with Storm.

But within a second of her arrival, Gambit turned sharply towards her and flickerings of crimson power scored across his body. Startled, gasping, Jean prepared to defend herself telekinetically, but steadied as Gambit's face settled into a painful frown and the flickerings of power slowed and vanished.

'So it is true,' Jean said, wonderingly. 'You have lost control of your power.'

Gambit nodded, grimly. 'You startled me,' he said. 'At de moment, dat isn' such a good idea. My charge is buildin' up again -- I can' hold it in all de time.'

'Especially when someone as hostile as you is around,' said Azimuth sharply, and Jean turned to face Gambit's companion, who was glowering fiercely at her.

Before Jean could say anything Gambit turned back to Azimuth and caught her attention. 'It's all right, chere,' he said, softly, ignoring Jean's presence. 'Phoenix can be trusted. She not be out to hurt Gambit.'

'She thinks of you as a traitor, Remy,' said Azimuth, her voice angry. 'She's swallowed everything she's been told and she hates you. Inside herself, she calls you Judas. She has no *right*.' Azimuth nearly spat out the last word.

'She has every right,' Gambit said, patiently. 'De X-Men, dey were hurt by me. In deir t'oughts Gambit is a traitor.'

'Their thoughts are not my thoughts,' Azimuth said, fiercely. 'I *will* defend you.' She turned a ferocious glare on Jean. 'If you hurt him,' she hissed, 'I will hurt you.'

Jean was shaken by the sheer level of anger that Azimuth was directing at her, so shaken that she modulated her own towards Gambit. 'I will not hurt him,' she said. 'I may not like him, but I will not hurt him.'

Gambit had kept his eyes on Azimuth, who still glared at Jean. 'Well?' he asked.

'She's telling the truth,' whispered Azimuth and suddenly seemed to release her grip on the fierce anger that had tautened her whole body. Sighing, she leaned back into the pillows. 'She won't hurt you,' she said and touched Gambit's hand. 'But be careful.'

'Always, chere,' Gambit chuckled and kissed Azimuth's cheek before turning back to Jean. 'Where shall we go?' he asked. 'I don' wish to do dis here, not in de medilab.'

Phoenix had expected that, aware of how uncomfortable Gambit always was in the medilab. 'The Professor's study,' she said and turned, aware that Gambit was following her.

The Professor's study had been partially re-furnished, none of the X-Men feeling comfortable without at least a large desk and several chairs in the room that was the heart of the mansion. Jean sat behind the desk, Gambit before it, the late afternoon sunshine drawing slanting lines on the surface between them. Jean turned on the desk-lamp, in case night fell while she was on the astral plane.

'Are you ready?' she asked.

'Ain't got no shields left,' said Gambit, wryly. 'Gambit got no choice but to be ready.'

Phoenix had been doing this so long, she no longer needed to prepare. She slipped easily onto the astral plane and slid her thoughts into Gambit's mind, prepared for the overwhelming jumble of tumbling thoughts that occurred in the minds of non-telepaths.

She encountered only darkness.

For a second, Phoenix was utterly disorientated, as if she'd leaned against a door that had suddenly given way beneath her weight. But then she re-gathered her thoughts and allowed her mind to probe outwards into the darkness. She was not lost on the astral plane, she realised, but was in Gambit's mind -- a mind so disciplined that it showed her only what it wanted her to see.

And what Gambit wanted her to see was nothing.

Phoenix gathered more power to herself, strained harder to send her mind through Gambit's, to find some indication of his presence if nothing else. The darkness clogged at her mind, dragged at her psychic body, but still she pulled herself in towards the centre of the darkness where she hoped to find Gambit. And then she could feel something against her mind, a pressure of some sort, an indication of some shape within the darkness. Straining, Phoenix hurled herself forward.

She broke through the darkness to be overwhelmed with light for a moment. Gasping psychically, Phoenix shook her astral body's head and looked for the source of the light.

Gambit's psychic shields had been the strongest Phoenix had ever come across -- as hard as Wolverine's adamantium, unbreachable, solid walls. She had hurled the entirety of her power against them in the past and not even scratched them. Even the Professor, in one of his rare confessions of such things to her, had admitted that he had tried to sneak into Gambit's mind on the odd occasion and found that all of his power could not make a dent.

But those now-vanished shields were nothing as to the impenetrable crystalline structure that hung in the centre of Gambit's mind like a diamond shedding light. It seethed before Phoenix, a small thing but oozing power, a sheen like oil moving constantly over its radiant surfaces. Tentatively, Phoenix reached out a tendril of her mind and touched it. It felt like nothing she had ever touched before -- it felt like layers of shields, each one off-set from the one below, so anything that managed to slip below one shield would lose itself in the constantly shifting layers below. Phoenix wondered if she should be afraid.

And then Gambit's presence was behind her, as if he stood over her shoulder. ~I wouldn't go there if I were you~ he said, and suddenly the crystalline structure was lost again in darkness.

~What was it?~ asked Jean and turned to face Gambit. But there was no-one in front of her.

~None of your concern,~ replied Gambit, from over her shoulder again. ~Just help me get my shields back, Phoenix. I need to be able to control my powers.~

Phoenix twisted again, rapidly, then frantically, as Gambit's presence stayed behind her now matter how she turned. ~Where are you?~ she cried. ~Why won't you show yourself? How can I help you if you won't trust me?~

Rage - burning, roiling rage -- picked Phoenix up and tumbled her through the darkness. Desperately, Phoenix tried to hold herself steady, to fight back, but she could not orientate herself, as she was tossed psychic head over astral heel across Gambit's mind.

~Trust you? TRUST YOU?~ Gambit's psychic voice was a roar that nearly overwhelmed her. ~You left me to die, you called me traitor, you *abandoned* me, and you want me to *trust* you? Don't make me sick.~

Terrified, Phoenix struck blindly out with her power, but her mental fists were caught and held gently. A sudden wave of overwhelming bitterness swept across her and then she heard Gambit give a mental sigh and lift her up until she stood on her psychic feet. The blackness settled back into a quiet non-emotion. ~I'm sorry,~ said Gambit, softly.

~You are a telepath.~ Jean's thoughts were awed. ~You are a telepath and none of us ever knew. But if you are, how come you can't build your own shields?~

~I've never been trained, Phoenix, and I never wanted what I've got.~ Gambit sighed mentally again. ~Just start my shields for me, Phoenix. All you have to do is start them and I can build the rest. And then you never need worry about me being a telepath again, because I'm going to put all that power away where it will never get out.~

Phoenix thought of arguing, but then thought better of it. Quietly, she delved into her own mind, found what she needed and created two memory packets which she carried in her psychic hands. ~Are you ready?~ she asked.

~As I'll ever be~ came Gambit's wry reply.

Phoenix dropped the first packet and waited until she was sure it had fallen into the darkness. Then she opened her other hand and dropped the other packet. It opened as it fell, flowering in the darkness into the start of a psychic shield.

Jean was tossed once more across the astral plane, ejected unceremoniously from Gambit's mind as his shields sprang up, flinging her out and away. Gasping, Jean was slammed back into her own body, and looked up into the flaming red-on-black eyes of Gambit.

'What did you do?' he shouted at her, his fists balling in his anger. 'What else did you put in my mind?'

'A memory-packet,' said Jean, refusing to flinch. 'I gave you all my memories of all the telepathic training I have ever done. It is in your mind now, if you ever want to use your powers fully. I refuse to let any telepath suffer without proper training.' Phoenix's voice was a proud whisper.

Slowly, Gambit's fists relaxed. 'How do I access it?' he asked.

'It's inside your shields,' said Jean. 'If you decide you want to use it, just find it and say "Apocrypha". That will open up the memory-packet and allow you to access the training.'

Gambit settled back into his chair. 'T'ank you, Phoenix,' he said. 'T'ank you for helpin' me.'

Phoenix leaned forward, anxiously. 'Do you have control over your powers?' she asked. 'You are too dangerous otherwise.'

Gambit smiled and lay his hand down flat on the desk in front of him. It glowed cerise, and when he lifted it, a perfect, glowing palm-print was imprinted on the desk. Phoenix flinched backwards, suddenly conscious of the effect the imminent explosion would have in the confined study. But before she could do anything else, Gambit used the tip of his index finger to trace the glowing outline of the palm-print. Where he traced, the glow flickered and vanished again.

'I guess that's a yes,' said Phoenix and, looking up, realised for the first time that it was dark. Suddenly, she could help it no more. 'Why did you do it, Remy?' she asked. 'Why did you lie to us? Why didn't you tell us?'

Gambit smiled and sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. 'Would it have made a difference, Jean, if Gambit had told you? I came to you because of Storm, not because of any ulterior motive. I didn' know about Archangel until later, and den it was too late -- I was in too deep. I make restitution every day of my life for what happened to de Morlocks and comin' to de X-Men was part of dat restitution. Bein' on de side of de heroes I could fight de ones who made it happen. But if I had come to you from de start and said -- dis is my past, dis is what I'm runnin' from, dese are de wounds I want to heal -- if I had asked you to take me in and help me, if I'd asked for forgiveness instead of just tryin' to make myself worthy of it, would it really have made such a difference?'

'Yes,' said Phoenix softly. 'Yes, Remy, it would have made a difference.'

Gambit laughed softly, surprising Jean. 'Dat's where you and I are different, Jean,' he said. 'You don' believe in secrets. You and Cyclops have your psychic link, you spent half your time in de Professor's head, you don' know what it mean to keep secrets any more. But for some of us, secrets are de t'reads dat bind de bones. If we let de secrets out, if we tell anyone what we know, we are lettin' dem in for a world of hurt. And de secrets I carry around inside of me -- if I let dem out, I die, Jean. What you heard from dat "trial", dat were no more dan one part of a hundret' of de secrets I carry inside of me and look how close it took me to dyin'. And you want to know de worse part, Phoenix?'

Phoenix looked up to nod and was startled to find that Gambit wasn't in his chair any more. His voice drifted out of the shadows, but she couldn't see him, couldn't feel him. But his voice whispered out of the dark to her and slid into the spaces between her thoughts and made her head pound. 'De worse part, Phoenix, is dat barely not'ing of what dey heard at de "trial" were true.'

And then he was gone, his absence somehow making more impression than his presence. Jean turned off the desk lamp and held her head in the dark, hoping to control the pain that centred there. It had all been so easy before, when her anger had been righteous and controlled, focussed on the man who had betrayed them so badly. But now it was all confused, secrets wrapped in lies curled around deceptions. She didn't know what to believe any more and her head would not stop hurting.

Why did he have to come back?


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