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Chapter 1


Written by HF
Last updated: 01/02/2007 02:01:11 AM

Chapter 1


He studied his own picture for a long moment, felt a grin twitch at the corner of his lips. Slowly, it spread until it matched the one possessed by the face in the photograph-sly, confident, red-on-black eyes glittering with cynical, adrenaline-bred excitement. He could remember that day very clearly, even the click-whirring sound the old camera made just before he shorted it out with a delicate kinetic charge that overloaded ancient circuits. He'd left the film intact, partly because he wanted the Madri to know who it was who had stolen their "tithes" right out from under their noses. And, he'd done it partly because he knew it would piss Magnus off.

And oh, how it had pissed him off. Remy LeBeau's smile grew wider and darker, slightly maniacal at the thought of how Magneto would have raised the sub-sewers up to street level if it hadn't compromised security. Mags hadn't held back that time, although it seemed to Remy that it never took much to get the man going in the first place-he was damnably sensitive when it came to low-profile, preserve-the-secret-of-the-rebellion things, Remy thought irritably. The man was possessed by a dream, an impossible dream.

Though, the young man thought with some bitterness, wasn't he as well? Although his wasn't anywhere near as grand as overthrowing a despotic overlord and liberating the world. But didn't it merit as much? Didn't he have a shot at happiness, too? Not anymore, but he still held onto the dream tightly, so tightly he would sometimes mistake it for being reality; he would wake up with Lila in his arms and, for one moment-one lovely, endless moment-think #This is Rogue here with me.#

It jibed against what he thought was his inherently pragmatic nature, chafed at it uncomfortably like his 'uniform' after four days on stakeout in the city. #What you doin' down here, den, if dis be impossible?# he asked himself, setting down the WANTED poster. He knew part of the answer to his question-that Holocaust, the murderer of his Guild's benefactress, would kill him as soon as look at him. The riches of the New Orleans Thieves' Guild were gone, Candra dead, the few remaining human members scattered to the four corners of the earth. There was another reason, and that was the reason he woke with Lila and mistook her for Rogue, and he couldn't bear to think about that.

Much easier to think about the long, twisted road that had brought him here.

He remembered the day very clearly, and the events leading up to it; he could almost feel the sticky New Orleans air clinging to the back of his neck, foul with the scent of the burning oil refinery in Baton Rouge. They had been found in their last remaining safehouse on Garden Street, betrayed to Holocaust by a man Remy had later hunted down and killed. Candra had been there, unusually anxious and ill at ease, handing out as many credit cards, cash vouchers, and valuables as she could, telling the humans in her charge to get out of the country as quickly as they could and head to Europe. The Assassins had been gradually eliminated; the last clan to fall had been Camaar Sheikh's in Chicago, two weeks before, their power helpless before the onslaught of Apocalypse and his Horsemen. The Thieves, shadow-dwellers, had lasted just a bit longer.

And then, just before they began to leave-just after a few had, hopefully, gotten to safety-Holocaust had come. Remy felt his stomach lurch at the memory of the room in flames, his body crawling through it, mind possessed by the desire to simply get away. Through the smoke, he had seen Holocaust toss Candra's immortal and burning, smoking body to the floor. He had blasted his way through the wall and fallen what must have been two stories into the catacombs beneath New Orleans. Staggering on a broken leg, fainting from smoke inhalation, he had wandered through the endless tunnels for a lifetime until he came upon a small pocket of human rebels. They had almost killed him until he explained who he was and where he had come from.

The New Orleans' Thieves' Guild was gone, his family was gone. That thought had consumed him, terrifying in its darkness and finality. Was he the only survivor of a Guild whose roots had stretched back to the mists of time, who wore its pride like a lion wore it? They had carried that pride into the beginning of Apocalypse's reign, under Candra's sponsorship, and made themselves a thorn in the side of the regional southern governments. Even Candra's protection, though, hadn't been enough, and one of the remnants of the Guild was alive to prove it, a thousand miles from his home and once more trapped in tunnels.

Sighing, Remy picked up the poster and stared back into his own eyes, eyes that suddenly became alien. He read the caption, although he knew it by heart:






"Alors," he sighed, feeling the paper crinkle in his grip. "Well, then."

"Damn, Remy, ain't you stared at that thing enough?"

Lila Cheney's voice broke into his reflections, and Remy turned, oh-so-photogenic smile plastered across his face. "It's better dan lookin' at Guido's ugly mug," he said breezily, allowing the smile to become more of a smirk as first amusement and then outrage crossed Lila's face.

"He'll drop a tank on you if he ever hears you say that," Lila said, moving slowly across the small room they counted as their mutual bedroom. She perched on the edge of the scavenged office desk, her gloved fingers trailing over the wood. It was a strangely wistful gesture and reminded Remy of Rogue, the way her fingers used to just brush over him like a breath or a feather. "And you know," she said, a wicked smile curving her lips, "there are times-like now, when you're all broody and angsty for no apparent reason-that I might watch and approve."

"Only de times when I'm broody an' angsty, chere?"

"Honey, that's most of the time-twenty-four/seven, practically." Lila's smile softened as she reached to take the poster from Remy's hands. She adjusted an imaginary pair of glasses and peered at the photograph thoughtfully. "They didn't get your good side, you know," was her verdict.

"I know." Remy winced and made a face. "I jus' middlin' handsome from dat angle… de other picture dey got of me got posted in de girl Infinites' locker room."

"And you know this for a fact."

"Certainement. Dose Infinite ladies be havin' some wild times."

Lila laughed, a bright and silvery sound he used to detest, so unlike Rogue's warm, thick-honey laugh. He remembered, with some shame, thinking that it sounded exactly like a rock star's (which she *had* been)-insincere and forced. Over time, though, he had learned that it was simply natural to her, melodic and mercurial like her personality, and that in a world that didn't have much laughter, anything was good enough.

He wondered when he had gotten so philosophical. #Musta been when Rogue and Magnus tied de knot. If dat don' make you philosophical an' resigned, den I guess not'in' does.# Aloud, he said, "Writin' any more music, Lil? We liked dat last piece you did…"

A light blush suffused Lila's pale, vulpine features, and she brushed a lock of dark hair out of her face. It was another gesture that had seemed nauseatingly calculated when the woman had first shown up at his doorstep and told him she could help him out with his little 'gig.' After a few years together, though, it had acquired a naturalness that was hypnotizing, and Remy thought it strange to remember how old prejudices had clung even after the world had collapsed around everybody's ears. Rock stars lived side-by-side with thieves and orphans, mindless murderers with King Richard the Lionheart-type crusaders, and for a while each party regarded the other with a measure of distrust… But after a time, everything and everyone had been reduced to a common denominator: they were *alive*. Which was more than several hundred million other people could say.

"I've been working on something, but it's too depressing. People would fling themselves into mineshafts," she answered. "But it's getting harder to write happy things. People don't want to be reminded of the Before-days now, because they know they're never coming back. And there's not much to be found in coming back with a few packs of medical supplies and dry rations, although I could always try." She paused. "I never thought I'd see the day when I'd turn to dried ersatz beef for inspiration."

They shared a laugh at that, and things threatened to feel normal. Remy felt bizarrely domestic, a home-office man sitting and talking with his lovely wife, with water from a leaking sewer pipe trickling in the background.

"What's de word on de street?" Remy asked after a moment.

Sorrow twisted across Lila's face. "Hope is in the infirmary, suffering from heavy blood loss, according to Macy. We didn't know why at first…" She trailed off, and her voice caught on something that sounded like a sob or a muffled cry. "But then Macy looked… and he saw that she'd been torn. Down there." A nod indicated the direction. "Roberto found the clothes hanger in her room."

"Mon Dieu," Remy whispered. "Oh, God." Other profanities in other languages ran through his head. Why had they kept this from him? He looked at Lila again, *really* looked at her, saw the subterranean strain in her pretty features, the tightness in her dark eyes.

"God doesn't have much to do with this," Lila spat. "She wasn't lucid very long today, but she managed enough to say that she wouldn't wish this life on her worst enemy, let alone her own child. Macy doesn't think she'll make it-we don't have the right equipment, and even if we did, we don't have the blood to give her. That… and he says she just doesn't want to live."

Remy sighed and stared dully at the desktop. Hope… Dimly, now that he thought about it, he could feel her fading in a corner of his awareness, slipping more deeply into a comforting oblivion. The obvious question, why, could no be answered; he couldn't even ask 'Why her'? She was plain and everyday, her young face careworn, but she had been quick to help out when things needed to be done. Who was the father? Where had *he* been? #Why didn' I know dis?# he asked himself bitterly. #When did I start wantin' t' know?#

"Macy wants to take her off fluids," Lila added softly. "She'll die anyway in a few days. The… her uterus is infected already, and he says that she'll die of blood poisoning or dehydration, one of the two. Hopefully the dehydration will speed it along."

He didn't even know he was standing up, but he was, and looming over Lila so quickly she shrank back a bit before she regained her poise and stared at him with the cool insufferability of born pop-rock aristocracy. "De hell he will!" Remy said, voice little more than a growl in his throat. "He jus' tellin' me dis now?"

"Remy, Hope is *dying*," Lila said. She almost sounded as if she were about to start begging, but Lila had never begged for anything in her life. "It doesn't matter what happens to her body right now, she long ago stopped even wanting to live." There was panic in her words: what was he doing? Forcing her backwards, step by step, to the wall? He could see Candra's scorched husk of a body, her golden hair wisping away in streams of smoke. "I can remember when it happened," Lila continued. "It was when she missed her period. They've never been regular anyway-no one's been on a decent schedule-but she *knew* Remy, and she couldn't make herself want to live, or want to make her child live."

The words cracked, stopped, were forced on. "Dammit, Remy, do you know how terrified I am every time we have sex, thinking that this time the condom's gonna break?" Lila asked. "Or that maybe we're just gonna forget… and three months later, after I've *really* missed my period, I'm going to take a stolen pregnancy test and find out we're expecting? *I* couldn't do that to a child, either, especially a child I knew was most likely going to be born like me-be born like a human, and not have a chance at any kind of hope."

Remy stepped back from her a bit, surprised at her words. They rang in the small stone room, although they had been spoken quietly. There had been a force in them, though, a strength echoed in the snapping depths of Lila's eyes. Her chest heaved with repressed anger; her body fairly quivered with it-with anger, and something else. Fear? He could barely believe it: Lila had never been scared of anything. Even when she had told him The Story of Her Life, from its sordid beginnings (with Magneto! Poor girl) to her arrival in the sub-sub-subway systems, she hadn't sounded scared. Strangely detached, yes, but not scared. Never scared.

And she was afraid of making love with him… That stung, unexpectedly, and he thought of Rogue, who had never worked up the courage to even *touch* him without three layers of clothing hiding skin from skin. He remembered several nights, nights like last night, when Lila's abandon and willingness had almost been a shock. The pliability of her body was imprinted in him; he knew it when she held back, and that was never. When he had allowed himself to reach out with his bit of empathy, he had always met a blazing, white-fire wall of love and orgiastic joy. There had been no fear in it… or maybe there had been, just wrapped up in the conflagration and hidden.

"Lil'," he breathed, raising a hand to touch her on the cheek, where her skin was still soft despite the years of rough living. "I'm so sorry." He felt his hand tremble against her flesh, and she raised her own hands to steady it. "It ain't right," he told her softly, intensely. "Apocalypse, he's taken everyt'in' from us-our homes, our families, everyt'in'-an' he jus' gon' keep on takin' more, unless we stop him."

Suddenly, he was in motion, moving for the door like a ghost. Lila, startled, lagged behind, but then raced to catch up. By the time they made it to the main tunnel system that led to the hidden chambers where the humans lived, she was striding along beside him, trying to keep up with his pace and demand what he was doing at the same time. She got no answer, which was no surprise, but the determined set of Remy's body gave her some idea of what he was doing-and, sure enough, he headed straight for the patchwork infirmary they'd set up in a deep recess formed by the explosion of one of Apocalypse's suicide squads-ordinary humans telepathically beaten into compliance with orders from any one of the overlord's lackeys-who had blown out a huge chunk of a subway with C4 explosives.

Macy Emory stood as Remy stalked in, his pale face washed out in the fluorescent white light provided by a low-level Beta mutant, a French girl named Lucine. She had been an exchange student in modern cultures, a promising doctoral fellow studying at Harvard when the entire Eastern seaboard erupted in chaos, and had been unable to get home. Macy was forty-five, balding, empathic, and their only physician-and he wasn't even a physician, as he said frequently, just an ex-paramedic.

Lucine glanced up and, seeing Remy, toned down the bright lights out of deference to his sensitive vision. Remy, still unused to such shows of respect, murmured a request in French for her to 'lighten up'-Macy needed to see more than he needed to not see. A perplexed frown crossed Lucine's face, but she nodded and restored the light to its original level.

If Macy was pale, the woman on the bed was little more than a wraith. Hope Calkins lay, limp and drained of life, underneath a light blanket that she had partially pushed off her in her delirium. Pink suffused the deathly pallor, barely visible, but the sign of incipient fever. Darker and more ominous was the black stain between her legs, visible through the sheet, which was no barrier at all.

"She tore her cervix at a place I can't reach," Macy whispered, pushing frustrated fingers through his hair. Dark circles underscored his eyes. He looked very old, and as he looked at him, Remy realized this was the case: forty-five was ancient in this day and age, when life belonged mostly to the young who had the stamina to survive. He was somewhat amazed that the man was not only fairly healthy physically, but he was not a shaking, mental wreck.

Most telepaths and empaths had not survived the years since Apocalypse's takeover. Some had died from the massive emotional backlash of millions of people dying in near synchronicity. Most of those who had survived had killed themselves. The fraction of survivors had been left with grim options: some, desperate to silence the screams inside their own heads but too terrified to commit suicide, went to Apocalypse's scientists for help; others had sought out the few organized bands of mutant rebels and found help with another telepath or empath; a few, like Remy, had learned the hard way, through trial and error, how to block out even the most dire of psychological surges.

And some, like Macy Emory, coped by helping. "I figure this is as much my own conscience as it is the rest of the world," he had said once, "and I know things will just get worse if I don't do everything I can to help people."

"You ain't doin' every'tin'," Remy said now, voice hoarse. Macy looked at him, surprised and uncertain whether or not to be offended or confused. "She… she slippin' away, Mace. Can't ya feel it?"

"Of *course* I can feel it!" Macy exploded. "Christ!" He glared ferociously at the younger man. "Look, Remy, Gambit, sir… Whatever. I *can't* help her. I can't help her body and I can't help her mind. I'm just a paramedic, not a goddamned doctor; she needs a *surgeon* for what's happened to her." He paused and frowned. "No, she just needs an overdose of morphine. Too bad we ran out of it. Maybe we could send Jubes and Roberto to get some."

"No, we ain't." Remy brushed past Macy, who stumbled aside, and moved to Hope's bed. The woman watched him through slit eyes, her mouth moved soundlessly, but he could read his name on her lips. "Hope, honey, how ya doin'?"

She tried to answer, couldn't, only closed her eyes. Her breath rattled in her chest, her lungs too weak to push it out. He could feel the tight agony in her body, the clenching swirl of it in the depths of her abdomen. And there, too, was the sense of something cut or torn-something that was not merely flesh, but was spirit, will. Whatever had animated her through her days and nights as a human living hand-to-mouth had simply been… cut. Cut by a coat hanger.

"I can't let her die, Mace," he whispered, sliding his arms under Hope's limp body. It was light, like that of a bird, and lay passively in his arms. Her left arm dangled a little, exposing the purple bruise and scabbing of where an IV drip had fallen out. "I'm sorry… but Apocalypse ain't takin' another one from us, not if I can help it."

"Remy-" Macy reached out, but snapped back when Remy whirled on him with blazing eyes. The paramedic nearly fell over his own feet, but was steadied by Lucine, who caught him. With the loss of the light she provided, the room plunged into a gloom broken only by old tungsten-filament lightbulbs, the remnants of a stockpile they'd started out with after looting convenience and hardware stores. In the semi-darkness, Remy's eyes glowed, disembodied points of crimson.

"What are you going to do?" Lila asked. She was so dark, clad all in black, her pale face a blur, so that the words seemed to come from the air itself. "Remy, tell me… I'll go with you, maybe Guido or 'Berto or someone. You'll need backup."

"Non… no, I won't," he whispered. "I know where I'm goin'… dere's someone I gotta see."

Lila went with him, despite his objections, and they stole through the back tunnels like wraiths. Hope was limp, barely breathing, and Lila wondered that her dead weight had not slowed Remy down. They had been moving with this same swift silence for over half an hour, and Remy showed no sign of tiring.

#Not Remy# she amended silently. #Gambit.# Looking at her ghost-like love out of the corner of her eye, she repressed a shiver. There were times when he was Remy, the surprisingly gentle and rueful young man possessed of a grin to drive a girl wild and a suavity to close the deal. He had something that, in her old days, Lila would have called an ego, but when he was confronted with something that threatened him, it was not something as petty as that-it was pride, a stiff and unbreakable pride that made his body like iron. And then he was Gambit, who was great-hearted and utterly fearless no matter the mission, whose fierce, single-minded will would bend on the day that adamantium would break. There was a sense that this was not truly the way he was-there were times when he was so much like Magneto she was afraid-but that harshness and bitterness had been grafted onto him. The will and spirit should always be there, yes, but not that self-condemnation, the blind ferocity that took possession of him at times.

Those were the times when she felt the gulf between them very keenly. It wasn't just the leap from human to mutant, but the space between… between what? Souls? Experience? She knew how to pick locks and short out security cameras, but that had been done out of pure necessity. Gambit did it because he had been raised to it, *liked* it, for God's sake. She had been a one-time asylum inmate and rock star. He had been homeless, then adopted into the Thieves' Guild, and after that had been ripped from him, he had become an X-Man. He had fallen in love and left because of it, and she knew intuitively (call it 'women's sense,' Lila) that he had never recovered from the loss of a woman he had never really had, except in dreams. He had *her*, she tried to tell herself as they climbed awkwardly up a short ladder into an access tunnel, but she knew from experience that you always wanted the thing you could never have. Those feelings were keener, engraved more deeply in the heart.

#Why the hell do I love you, Remy LeBeau?# she asked him silently.

He did not answer, although his empathy should have picked up on her confusion. Maybe he figured the answer wasn't worth the effort, or that she knew it already, or that he didn't know himself. Did he see her as one of the many humans he'd taken under his wing, homeless and in need of protection, a damsel in distress? He had made no secret of not liking her when they first met. Maybe she was a substitute. Well, it wouldn't be the first time.

"Lil', I gonna need ya t' take Hope," he said quietly, and looking up, she saw that they were underneath a circular hatchway equipped with a heavy, sophisticated lock controlled by a keypad. It was the sort of device she expected to see leading to Apocalypse's bedroom, not attached to something resembling a manhole cover. "I swore to de person we're gonna see dat I wouldn't give de code to anyone… she might not even see me now, 'cause you came along."

"Remy, who is it we're going to see?" She sat down on the cold concrete, folding her legs, and Gambit set Hope's unresisting body into the natural embrace of Lila's lap. Instinctively, Lila cradled the young woman's head, noticing how limp her neck was, as if too weak to hold the head up on its own. Her chest moved up and down irregularly, and so slightly, but feverish heat roared off her and broken murmurs floated from her lips.

"A doctor," Gambit said after a minute of intense focus on the keypad. His fingers moved with inhuman swiftness over the buttons, then paused before resuming again. Another minute more. How long was the damn code? As if in response to her wondering, the lock disengaged and the hatch swung downward, nearly cracking Gambit across the head. He swore softly, but evaded the blow. "She not gon' be too thrilled 'bout seein' ya here, Lil'."

"I get that reaction with a lot of women," Lila said, handing over Hope to Gambit once more. Her face fell against his chest, and he frowned, apparently feeling the unnatural heat of her body. "Is she…"

"A mutant? Yes, I am." A shadow fell over the open hatch, strongly backlit to make the speaker's features indistinguishable. It was a woman, though, and her voice was somewhere between the exotic lilt of the Caribbean and the harsh practicality of the Bronx. "Remy, who the hell is this?"

"My… friend, Cece. Lila Cheney."

"I wasn't talking about her, I was talking about the person in your arms."

"Hope," Remy said as he lifted Hope's body and pushed it through the opening. The woman bent, took Hope by the elbows and pulled her back awkwardly but with a gentle professionalism. "She… she got pregnant," he told the woman softly as if afraid Lila would overhear-and she was the one who told him!-, "an' she tried t'… well, t' kill de baby, I guess. An abortion." He slipped up through the opening just after Hope's feet cleared it, and Lila followed behind him.

They had crawled up into an old surgical room, a relic from the Before-days, stocked with sutures and drugs and other things that had the peculiar antiseptic smell of hospitals. And the woman who was in it was very pretty, skin a soft café au lait in the lamps, her hair pulled back in a multitude of braids. She wore an evening dress, a long-sleeved black creation of silk and something to do with spangles. High heels were tossed in the corner, though, and replaced with sneakers.

"I was supposed to go to Heaven tonight," the woman said softly. "Warren was expecting me." She flicked some braids back behind her ear. "Help me with her, will you?"

Both the thief and the doctor lifted Hope onto the examining table, and the woman bent to work with her stethoscope, muttering softly to herself. After a moment, she had Hope hooked up to an intravenous drip and the young woman's legs spread and hiked up in stirrups.

"Holy God," the woman said quietly, glancing up at Lila and Remy over her shoulder. "Who found her?"

"She hadn't come for dinner last night," Lila volunteered. "Jubilee found her in her room, bleeding like crazy. Macy-he's our physician, well, he's not *really* our physician, more like an ex-paramedic-managed to get it stopped most of the way, but it wasn't until later we found out what had caused it. Macy thought she had been raped, but Roberto found an old coat hanger in her room."

The doctor nodded brusquely. "I see a lot of this," she said as she worked, threading a small needle with a filament of thread. Lila's body clamped down as the doctor calmly inserted the needle into Hope's vulva and began to stitch. "She may have been raped as well, which would explain why she tried to self-abort. Has she been out in the past couple of months, or does she stay close to your base?"

"Hope went out wit' dat foraging team," Remy said quietly, "almost two and a half months ago. I only remember it 'cause you went an' Guido was raisin' holy hell 'bout you goin'… an' dat Sarah disappeared."

Lila remembered that day well; Hope and another girl had gone off on their own. The girl had not returned; Hope had materialized at the end of the day, frantic and sobbing, saying that Sarah had vanished. That she had turned around to say something to her companion… and she had been gone. The X-Ternals had searched as best they could, but Sarah had effectively disappeared, either into the oblivion of death or the separate hell of the 'private' clubs that catered to clients with questionable tastes. Hope remembered nothing, she said, out of the ordinary, and after a brief period of hope tempered by grief and resignation, the small band out outlaws moved on.

"She should have been in here weeks ago," the doctor sighed. "At least I could have done this properly, or maybe talked to her."

"Dere ain't nothin' we coulda done, Cecelia."

"I know, Remy," the doctor-Cecelia-assented. "And there might not have been anything I could have done. As it is…" She stopped speaking, but her hands continued to weave gently in and out as they stitched up the wounds in Hope's body. "She probably won't make it through the night. There's a bad infection that's gotten a good chance to establish itself, and my antibiotics are all old. She needs a blood transfusion to make up for what she's lost…" Cecelia shook her head, and the braids swung back and forth. "Maybe if I talk to Warren…"

"Warren Worthington?" Lila asked, remembering the name. The man-the mutant, she amended-had survived Apocalypse's ascension with his fortune intact. She should know: before the world came a' tumbling down, she had performed at several of his private corporate functions. Now he ran something posh and exclusive to which she would never gain admittance, and would never want to.

"The one, the only." Bitterness tinged the doctor's voice and she reached for some new thread. "And you're Lila Cheney, of course-I remember a poster of you, from when you played at Madison Square Garden New Year's Eve a while back. And I'm sure I've seen your videos here and there, on MTV. I should have known Remy would end up with a rock star on his arm one day." The words sounded either sarcastic or endearing; they might have been both.

"You know each other?"

"Remy got me out of Kennedy Hospital alive when Apocalypse blew it up," Cecelia said, picking up a small irrigator. "My power saved me-I have the ability to generate a protective shield around my body-from being crushed-but I would have starved to death buried under all that rubble, or else just have gone crazy and let it collapse on top of me and put an end to it. But I don't go crazy, and I don't quit." Her dark eyes swiveled to Lila and fixed on her, as if challenging her to contradict. "Remy came up from underneath the hospital superstructure… I still have no idea how he did it, but he got me out safely. We've known each other ever since."

"Nice story," Lila said, glancing at Remy, who looked back at her.

"It's a nice way of sayin' she t'inks she owes me somet'in'," Remy said.

Cecelia snorted indelicately, a strange contrast to the gentleness with which she lowered Hope's legs from their stirrups. She strode to a cabinet and pulled out a thin thermal blanket to wrap around the woman, who took on the appearance of being an oversized child. Thoughtfully, the doctor adjusted the drip and said, "I owe you a lot, Remy-you know I hate seeing what Apocalypse has done. I'm not a crusader like you, or Miss Cheney here, but I do what I can."

"I tol' you it's too much of a risk, Cece," Remy said, tone indicating this was an argument he'd had with her many times. "You know what happens t' mutants who do dis-help out flatscans." His mouth twisted around the last word, investing it with as much bitterness and scorn as its first speakers probably did. But the bitterness and scorn was not for the powerless, dying woman on the table, it was for the monsters who put her there-and, Lila realized, for himself, a little. "Warren, he none too good 'bout keepin' up his end o' de bargain, 'specially when dere be a bigger prize he might get for sellin' you out."

"The risks we take," Cecelia said philosophically. She turned to Lila and said, by way of explanation, "I work days in the Infinites' medbays, mostly patchwork to get them back out on the field, and do some small experimentation in my own type of bio-shielding on the side. And I run prescription narcotics for some of Warren's more depraved acquaintances." She returned her gaze to Remy, wearing an expression that, were he not a strong-willed as he was, would have made him back down immediately. The look was transferred to Lila. "Warren wouldn't have a reason to expose me to the Madri," she said at last. "I do my work, both legal and illegal, too well for any complaints to be raised."

"Sounds to me like you can't make up your mind whether to be part of the problem or its solution," Lila said sarcastically.

A corner of Cecelia's eye twitched and she drew herself up. Lila thought she could see a faint blue light sparking around her, as if the woman were manifesting her shields in preparation for a physical fight. "Someone would take my place in the medbays, Cheney-I don't flatter myself that I'm indispensable, and *that's* my risk. I'm just a cog in the machine, a cog that goes out of its way every now and then to stitch up a few humans who don't have the sense to give up and die. Like I said, I'm not a crusader like you or the X-Ternals or the X-Men. I'm not going to put my life on the line when I can do more good alive than dead. And even then, that good-whether it's for Apocalypse or a street woman who got on the wrong side of a rape-isn't much."

"We ain't here t' fight over dis," Remy broke in impatiently. "Lil', you know dat not everyone's in on dis. Cece, she tryin' t' get by as best she can. We *all* tryin', belle."

Lila nodded grudgingly. "I guess you're right." God, she sounded like a sulky Magneto, upset that not everyone shared his dream of Freedom and Justice for All. She wondered that she approved of his dream, although she thought it hopelessly out of reach, but on a personal basis, couldn't stand the man. What if it was Remy, offering that dream to her? She cast a speculative look at his scruffy uniform, the hunted expression in his demonic eyes, the casual and almost sensual drape of auburn hair over his face; she compared it to the larger, more imposing Magneto with his helmet and long braids and flowing cape. Which one would she believe more?

#I guess, since you're hanging with Remy, that decision's already made# she thought.

"What were y' goin' t' see Warren about?" Remy asked.

"Codeine," Cecelia said shortly. "One of his best clients is extremely photosensitive as a result of his mutation, so he burns easily, even in this smoggy hellhole, and the codeine helps him out in more ways than one. He loves the stuff-it cuts out the pain and gives him a bit of a drift at the same time. It's funny how mutants carry over all the old habits of the conquered. You thought we would have learned something." Again, the piercing look was directed to Lila. "Many people have spent centuries in slavery," she said quietly, "and they endured. That's partly why I do this: because at its heart, Apocalypse's little government is just another petty tyranny, and Apocalypse is its tyrant. They all fall down, sooner or later. I may not be here when it happens, but they will."

That was a different kind of determination than Lila had ever heard before. Magneto had always been so passionately focused, and even Remy, on overthrowing something that, to Lila's mind was like overthrowing Mount Everest. Cecelia's was something different, a kind of resignation, but just as courageous. It accepted a life subject to Apocalypse, but it gleefully anticipated Apocalypse's destruction.

"I'll always hate Apocalypse, to the day I die," Cecelia told Lila in a low, confidential voice. "He slaughtered hundreds of innocent helpless people-my patients, who had come to me for help. He murdered my coworkers and interns, the nurses, everyone from the smallest newborn baby to the oldest man who was dying from Alzheimer's. He killed them just because he could, and because he didn't want the street people to have access to medical supplies, and we weren't the first and we weren't the last; we were just part of a sweep, to clear out any medical institution."

"Everyone had their lives taken from them," Lila mumbled, thinking of Holocaust's roving bands of 'censors', who had crisscrossed the States, shutting down radio stations and concert halls. For a while after receiving her own notice to cease and desist (her tour manager had been found dead in his office), Lila had written protest songs to rally the flagging spirit of the American people. Looking back on them, turning the lyrics over in her head, they seemed pathetic and ridiculous. She tried to anticipate how Cecelia would take this statement.

But Cecelia was moving now, over to Hope to take her pulse and respiration. Lila noticed the dusty banks of heart monitors and other instruments lined up along the wall, and wondered why the doctor didn't use them. Did Warren's sufferance extend only so far?

"She's weaker," Cecelia said quietly, looking at Remy. Her eyes were sympathetic and caring, no sign of the hard, pragmatic woman in them, "but at least she's comfortable. The morphine is helping, and the antibiotics have begun to work a little." A fierce smile creased her face. "They're Infinite field antibiotics, for those who don't have a modified immune system."

"Cece!" Remy said.

"What? It's my risk to take, isn't it?" Cecelia shot back. "After all I just said, and after what you know about me, why're you even bothering to sound disapproving? You know when I told you a few years ago that I would help you out in any way I could, this is what I meant."

Remy nodded reluctantly. "'S just... de people have deir hope in you, Cece. *We* do. An' if anyt'in' ever happened to you..." He trailed off, obviously uncomfortable with emotion, "I don' know what I'd do."

"You'd find someone else," Cecelia answered, but Lila heard affection and pleasure behind the practical words. "Life doesn't have its romance anymore, Remy, but it's still valuable for all that. As a doctor, I know that's why I do what I do. As a mutant, that's also why I do what I do-because I believe the X-Factor doesn't privilege one life over another." She paused and switched gears. "Now, I'll give you a small supply of morphine, enough for a couple days-I really can't manage any more than that. I'll tell you how much to give her and when, and I'll send along some antibiotics, too. In the old days, I'd just write a prescription, but here." She rummaged through a drawer, found a small packet, and thrust it at Lila, who took it and slipped it into her pouch. "I wish I could give her more help," Cecelia said quietly, "but this is all I can manage. Take care of her."

"Merci, Cece," Remy said, the words thick. He hugged Cecelia gently, despite her muted protestations, and moved over to pick up Hope's silent form. With unexpected gentleness and competence, he removed the intravenous drip from her arm and set it aside, bandaged the small puncture with a piece of sterile gauze and duct tape. He took Hope into his arms and turned back to go to the access port, which had closed behind them.

Cecelia punched in an impossibly long command code, fingers moving with a surgeon's deftness over the keypad. The hatch swung open, revealing darkness beneath it. Readying her energy pistol, Lila dropped into the darkness, thin beam of the gun's barrel-mounted searchlight piercing the empty black void around her. It reflected off old, rusty pipes and utility cables.

Remy followed a moment later, slightly awkward with Hope in his arms. As they turned to go back to the X-Ternals' base, the hatch began to swing shut with soft whine of gears, and at the last moment, Cecelia called to them.

"She won't make it, Remy," she said, her voice soft and sad. Looking up, Lila could see her silhouetted figure in the silvery halo of the hatchway. "I just... I want you to know that."

"Oui, Cece," Remy answered, sounding strangely resigned. "I know dat."

The hatch closed without another word, and the two rebels plowed through the darkness, on their way home. Remy was an otherworldly image in the wash of Lila's flashlight, Hope's blanket-draped body a pale and spectral blur. Lila wondered what she looked like; glancing down, she could barely make out the dull black sheen of her uniform. Would she look like a disembodied head, wandering through the darkness? The mental image made her want to giggle and shudder at the same time.

It teased and tormented her the rest of their journey through timeless, changeless, nearly identical tunnels. By the time they arrived back at base, the rest of the team was up in arms; Jubilee was antsing about, wanting to rush off on a search, Sunspot held her back, Guido was about to tear the place down. When Remy and Lila reappeared through one of the lower 'secret' ventilation shafts, there was a collective outpouring of relief and questions that made Remy stagger and nearly stop in his tracks.

Lila deflected most of it, pushing her way through the crowd with as much stage presence as physical force. Macy materialized next to her, relief vying for indignation on his face when he laid eyes on Hope. After a brief, unreadable glance at Remy, who stared back at the paramedic with an expression equally sphinx-like, he sighed and led them into the infirmary.

"A tunnel collapsed in Sector X-671 when you were gone," he said, pulling out a small cot for Hope. Remy laid the girl down, eyes carefully averted from the suppressed anger on Macy's face. He would be feeling it, though, Lila knew, if the older man were projecting. "Guido and Roberto helped out a lot, and we managed to get most of the survivors to a small shelter. Some we brought here for care... and some came because they knew who you were, and they wanted to fight. They said it was that idiot Mudir... Victor or Rictor or whatever his name is that did it."

Remy *did* look up this time, uncertainty flickering through his eyes. He must have been exhausted to let even that tiny bit of emotion show, Lila thought with a small pang. But she knew what these sorts of announcements did to him on the best of occasions-he didn't like being a leader, she knew, hated it passionately but did it anyway because... well, between Jubilee, Roberto, Macy (and even Cecelia), they had unanimously decided it. Not that Remy was a follower or troop-along, by any stretch of the imagination: he simply feared the implicit trust they put in him, the command they gave him, feared putting his people, his responsibility, in the position of very likely having to die.

And because he felt-accurately, Lila knew, from having talked to several of the others-they would be dying just as much for *him*, as for their grand, mad, doomed cause. Looking at them, and at the impetuous Jubilee in particular, Lila would never have thought that they would be the kind of people to follow a man like Remy LeBeau. *She* never thought she would have. But they did.

"I'm gonna kill him one of these days-a *paf* right between the eyeballs and we'll see how he likes it," Jubilee had told her once, pulling on a rubber band and snapping it to emphasize her words. "Stupid crazy Cajun's tossed all our butts in the stew dozens of times. I should just off him before he decides to have us waltz into Apocy's bedroom or somethin' like that." SNAP!

"Why don't you do it, then?" Lila had asked.

Jubilee's unexpectedly keen gaze fixed on Lila, and she had had the sense of an adult, suddenly, peering out from that young face. "'Cause that crazy Cajun's also gotten our butts outta the stew, I suppose," she said, "that, an' he's one of the only decent guys I've ever met, 'sides Everett, who wasn't afraid to *do* anything, y'know?"

Lila knew.

"Lil'," Remy said now, voice very low and intense, "why didn' she come to us? T' any of us?"

"I don't know, Remy," Lila answered, pushing a lock of amber hair away from Hope's face. The girl's lips were cracked and dry-looking, and she moved fitfully in her fever-sleep. "Maybe she was afraid we would kick her out... or maybe she was afraid that we would hate her for being so stupid as to get caught by an Infinite. Maybe she didn't even remember the rape and only figured out what must have happened when she missed her period." Lila paused, wondering if her list could get any more morbid; Remy's gaze had dropped to his hands, in which he held one of Hope's own small frail ones.

"Or maybe she just... forgot," Remy said quietly. "Like she blacked it out, y'know."

Lila sighed and shifted in her seat. "Remy, there wasn't anything you could have done for her. What happened... happened."

"It still shouldn't have happened," he said forcefully, yet for all the passion in his words, they sounded helpless, raging against something that wouldn't change. "Whatever it was... it shouldn't have happened."

"None of this should have happened," was the absent reply. Lila turned over his words in her head. #Of course it shouldn't have happened# she thought bitterly. #It happened to Hope... it could have happened to me. Am I glad it didn't? Would I trade my place for hers?# Lila knew she wouldn't, however much she liked to believe she would. *Remy* would have, she thought, knowing his bizarre, outmoded sense of chivalry. Women weren't objects, toys, however much he liked to play with them-they were something, in this day and age, needed to be protected. And Lila didn't delude herself that, for all her skill and savvy, she *was* just a woman, a human woman, and the Infinites were... Infinites.

And Apocalypse, being Apocalypse, didn't care. Like a force of nature, except more terrifying in his perfect *awareness* of what he did... she shuddered, and felt again as if his eyes were able to see her, see down into this little hole in the middle of the earth, see down to where she sat next to her lover who held the hand of a dying woman, see down to where her soul hid... and she could hear his laughter, cold thunder across her bones.

Next to her, Remy shifted over so he could put an arm around her shoulders and draw her close. She felt the natural, ambient warmth of his body, a bit stronger and warmer than the body of humans and even most mutants, due to the high metabolism at which his system operated. That, and the simple fact of his presence-large, soothing, spiked here and there by the lazy scent of cigarette smoke, his sweat, familiar scents in the darkness-made her want to slip into a light doze, a luxury these days. She felt herself slipping...

... and woke in a sudden blaze of light that Lucine had called up. There was activity, too fast for her dulled mind to follow, and after a moment she managed to process it, gleaning the fact of it from Remy's weary eyes that did not give way to tears, and Lucine's and Jubilee's, whose eyes did: the girl had died.


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