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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
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64


Written by Valerie Jones
Last updated: 05/10/2010 11:31:24 PM

Chapter 23

Scott was among the last to arrive at the rendezvous. It was nothing but a natural stone cavern somewhere beneath the city. Electric lights were bolted to the walls, their cables disappearing quickly into the darkness at the edges of the cavern. Water trickled across rock somewhere in the distance, making Scott painfully aware of how thirsty he was. He ignored his body’s complaints, however, as he took mental stock of his team. To his immense relief, they were all there– dirty and battered but alive, and apparently no worse than when he’d last seen them. Sam sat with his back propped against Psylocke’s leg while he adjusted the makeshift bandage on his thigh. The others were all on their feet. The thieves who had served as their guides stood a little ways away, talking in low voices and keeping a wary eye on the X-Men. Bobby stood with the thieves. He looked to be trying to reassure them, though about what Scott couldn’t guess.

Not too much later, Gambit arrived with a group of men trailing him, their expressions ranging from dismayed and angry, to furious. From the immediate, respectful way the thieves stepped aside, Scott decided these must be men of significant authority in the Guild. Unfortunately, he didn’t know anything about the thieves’ political structure other than being fairly certain Gambit held the top slot.

Gambit was limping. From the tightness of his expression Scott guessed he was in a fair amount of pain. But other than the limp, he gave no indication as he came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the cavern, his red gaze sweeping over the X-Men as if he were checking to make sure they were all there.

"Absolutely not!" One of the men behind Remy said, apparently continuing a previous argument. He was a fairly young man, with sharp features and a superior air that made Scott immediately wary. "This is outrageous! I don’t know who you think you are--!"

Gambit pivoted on his heel to glare at the dark haired man. "I think I am Guildmaster and you will address me as such." His tone was cold and hard. "Is that clear?"

The man closed his jaw with a snap, his eyes furious. "Yes, Guildmaster." His mouth worked silently as he ground his teeth.

"It is a clear violation of the law, you must admit, Guildmaster." An older man seated in a wheelchair said mildly. Remy turned to look at him, and Scott was surprised by how much the man reminded him of Charles Xavier. It wasn’t really his appearance or even the chair, but instead something about the man’s demeanor that brought the Professor to mind.

"In the interest of saving a life, I can understand it, though not approve." The man’s gaze moved across the X-Men, studying them. "But this is unacceptable." The look he turned on Gambit was stern, almost authoritative.

Remy’s expression didn’t change. "Lettin’ OZT slaughter de Guild is unacceptable," he answered flatly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Scott saw Bobby moving cautiously across the room toward the X-Men, skirting the arguing men widely. He stepped up beside Scott, his attention focused on the Gambit.

"What’s going on?" Scott asked him out of the corner of his mouth. He, too, did not want to take his attention off the argument even for a moment.

"Bringing anyone who isn’t part of the Guild into Guild territory is against the laws," Bobby told him, his voice pitched low.

"Who are these people?"

"The Guild Council. They’re a bit like the Senate."

"And the Guildmaster is the President?"

Bobby’s gaze narrowed. "Sort of, though he’s got more power than that."

Scott didn’t reply as Gambit began to speak again.

"De question, gentlemen, is what it’s gon’ take to bring OZT down. Y’ should all know me well enough by now t’ know I don’ hold wit’ breakin’ Guild law." He pinned several members of the group with his stare. "But we’re talkin’ ’bout de survival o’ de Guild."

"I still don’t see how these... people will help protect the Guild." This time, a man standing to Remy’s left spoke. His voice was surprisingly soft, though his expression was wary. "Even talking about this here is dangerous." He jerked his head toward the X-Men.

Gambit smiled briefly, though Scott doubted it was sincere. "Den maybe I should make some introductions," he said.

Scott straightened as Remy gestured toward him, his expression completely unreadable. "Members o’ de Guild council, may I present Scott Summers, better known as Cyclops, field leader of the X-Men, an’ dese are his team."

Scott saw the eyes of several of the councilmen widen in shock. The soft-spoken man turned to Remy. "The X-Men?" His gaze swept across the assembled mutants as if searching for something recognizable.

Scott stepped forward, his expression carefully controlled. "Yes, the X-Men," he confirmed with a nod to Remy. He understood showmanship and the need to present a strong face to the opposition. He and Gambit could discuss the thief giving away Scott’s real name some other time.

Gambit crossed his arms, his attention still on the Guild men. "Y’ say de Guild simply don’ have de power an’ skills t’ put together a strike team t’ go after Bastion an’ OZT." He recaptured their attention instantly, and the X-Men’s as well. "I agree. Information gatherin’ we c’n do. Hit an’ run, we c’n do. A toe t’ toe throw down wit’ de Sentinels is out o’ de question, n’cest pa?"

Scott saw where he was going-- where he’d been going all along-- and was grudgingly impressed by what Gambit was trying to do.

Gambit waved one hand toward the X-Men. "Well, dere’s y’ strike force," he told the men.

"What good are they without their powers?" Scott bristled at the snide question from a red-haired man who hadn’t before spoken. He held out a hand to forestall Wolverine whose low growl was clearly audible in the tense room.

Gambit smiled dryly. "Y’d be surprised. However, dat’s where de Guild comes in, non?"

The man in the wheelchair held up a hand for silence and received it. The authority he carried impressed the X-Men’s leader.

"Guildmaster," he said quietly, but with a note of warning Scott recognized. "I am reminding myself that we chose you to lead this Guild specifically because you have demonstrated many times your willingness to do whatever is necessary to protect it... including breaking the laws you have sworn to obey."

Scott could see the impact of his words in Gambit’s eyes as the mutant nodded. "An’ I’ve paid de price each time," he answered solemnly. Beside Scott, Bobby paled, an expression of pain flitting across his face before disappearing, and he wondered just what that statement might be referring to.

The man glanced at the X-Men, then back to Remy. "You’re asking us to take a very big risk, with no assurance other than your word that these people won’t betray the Guild."

Scott couldn’t read it from his expression, but he had the strangest feeling Remy was truly hurt by that.

Gambit’s face remained a flat mask. "I’m askin’ de Guild t’ make an alliance, f’ de good of all. De X-Men are in de business o’ protectin’ mutants, not betrayin’ dem."

"Will they swear blood oath to that?" The man’s gaze centered on Scott.

"This is absurd!" The sharp-faced man who had protested before stepped forward. His expression, Scott suspected, was supposed to be one of righteous indignation, but it was overshadowed by triumph. "With all due respect, Master LaSalle." The speaker nodded, and his silky smile made Scott’s spine prickle. "This cannot be allowed. Even the Guildmaster can’t toss aside centuries of Guild law to suit himself! We saw the results of that with Guildmaster Tyre, did we not?"

Remy’s gaze snapped to the other man’s as Bobby drew a sharp breath. The man gave Remy a smug, dangerous look. "If the Guildmaster insists on this course, there will be no choice but to call him into the ring, for the good of the Guild."

The other council members looked startled by the pronouncement as the two men locked stares.

Scott glanced questioningly at the young man beside him. "Bobby--"

"Shhhh." Bobby didn’t take his gaze off the thieves.

Gambit stared resolutely at the dark-haired man. "I do insist on dis course, Adrian." His voice was soft, dangerous. "An’ if y’ wan’ call me t’ de ring, dat’s y’ right." He turned to look at one of the other men in the group, his tone becoming businesslike. "Artur, I wan’ y’ t’ call an’ assembly f’ tonight, bot’ Guild and Clans-- but no children." The man raised an eyebrow at that as Remy went on. "I’ll explain everyt’ing den, an’ if Adrian--" He cut his gaze in the other’s direction. "--or anyone else wants t’ challenge me, dat will be de time t’ do it."

Gambit straightened, expanding his attention to take in all the council members. "Until den, dese people need medical attention. If y’ feel it’s necessary, dey c’n stay in de med center under supervision until tonight."

Scott’s eyes narrowed. Remy was presuming an awful lot of trust on the X-Men’s part. The idea of letting his team be placed under a kind of house arrest in such an uncertain environment made his skin crawl. He could see similar thoughts reflected on the other X-Men’s faces, but no one spoke. They were all looking to him to make the decision.

When none of the thieves protested, Remy nodded and turned toward Scott. "Is dat acceptable t’ de X-Men?"

Scott stared at him, trying to read the other’s strange, red eyes. Everything he’d thought true about Gambit had turned out to be a lie; this man in front of him was little more than a stranger. And yet, when his team’s lives had hung in the balance he’d turned instinctively to Remy for the means to save them. If Jean were there, she would have told him to listen to his heart and his conscience, he thought. His heart clenched. He didn’t even know for sure if she was still alive.

Do I trust you? Scott asked Gambit silently. That was the crux. The answer to that question would determine what course the X-Men took from there.

Very slowly, Scott nodded. "It’s acceptable."

He would have sworn he saw Gambit breathe a sigh of relief. Then his expression firmed as he turned to Mystique.

"Den dere’s jus’ one more t’ing."

Mystique returned his stare archly from where she leaned against Rogue. "And that would be the fact that I’m not an X-Man, and you don’t trust me like you trust them."

Remy almost smiled. "Do y’ blame me, chere?"

"I’ve never betrayed you," Mystique countered. Beside her, Rogue looked between the two with a dark frown.

Remy shrugged. "It’s never been in y’ best interests." He paused, his gaze steady on Mystique’s eerie, pupil-less one. "But y’ risked y’ life f’ ours today, an’ y’ hurt. I won’ send y’ back out dere if y’ willin’ t’ play dis t’ing by my rules."

She cocked her head appraisingly. "Which would be...?"

"Y’ never get t’ see de route in or out o’ where we’re goin’, an’ y’ swear an’ oath on Irene’s blood-- which is de only t’ing I know of dat c’n bind y’-- dat y’ won’ ever reveal what y’ know ’bout de Guild."

Mystique stared at him for a long moment, lips pursed. Then she nodded abruptly. "Very well. You have my word, on Irene’s life, and her memory. You’re going to need my help."

She pulled herself painfully erect and stepped away from Rogue, a sultry, dangerous smile appearing on her lips as she approached him. "I suppose this means you’re going to knock me out now." She swayed forward until they stood face to face.

"I’m in no mood f’ games, Raven." Remy reached up to encircle her throat with his hands, his thumbs moving to cover the main artery feeding blood to her brain.

Mystique’s hands balled into tight fists at her sides, but she didn’t resist as he applied pressure.

"Pity," she said, her eyes never leaving his.

Rogue stared at them both, her green eyes full of questions as Mystique’s eyelids began to flutter. The blue-skinned woman slowly sagged to the floor. Remy followed her down without releasing his hold. Scott could hear him counting the seconds under his breath.

When he was apparently satisfied, he let Mystique go and stood. He met Scott’s gaze and then gestured toward the entrance through which he and the councilmen had come. "Dis way, X-Men."

Bobby sank into the empty chair beside Scott with a sigh. "How is she?"

The chairs were pulled up beside Jean’s bed, which was currently covered by an oxygen tent and surrounded by carts of equipment that beeped and whirred reassuringly. Barely visible inside, Jean lay like some red-haired Sleeping Beauty waiting for her prince. She seemed strangely serene lying there, as if even a laser bolt through the lung couldn’t disturb her inner equilibrium.

"Hank thinks she’ll be okay." Scott ran his hands tiredly through his hair.

A strange dual beeping caught Bobby’s attention. He looked over at the tangle of equipment, noting that there were two separate heart monitor traces, one of which was beating about twice as fast as the other.

"Is that the baby?" he asked, surprised. "I thought--"

Scott looked over at him with a frown.

"The newest addition to the Summers clan is doing remarkably well, all things considered." Hank’s voice rumbled from behind them as he walked into the room with Dr. Lancaster.

Bobby turned to look at his long-time friend with a sense of apprehension. He’d never had a chance to ask Hank what he thought of his choice to become a thief.

Hank’s blue eyes were solemn. "Hello, Bobby," he said.

Bobby couldn’t summon a smile. "Hi, Hank."

Scott ignored the exchange as he gathered himself and stood. "Is it time?"

Bobby looked up at him, grateful for the distraction. "Yeah. The assembly will start in a few minutes. I’m supposed to bring the X-Men to the great hall."

With a last look at Jean, Scott turned. Bobby could see him putting his personal concerns away. His tone turned professional. "Do you know what Gambit’s planning?"

Bobby frowned as he climbed to his feet. Scott’s choice of words struck an uneasy chord. "No. He’s been brooding for the last couple of hours." In Bobby’s experience, that was a bad thing.


Bobby shrugged. "He gets like that." Though usually only when he was trying to gather up his courage for something, and Bobby was beginning to worry.

Scott nodded. "Hank, are you coming?"

The blue-furred mutant shook his head. "I’m afraid not. Someone needs to stay with Jean..."

"...and Artur Valencia specifically requested that I be there, with a medical team." Dr. Lancaster looked as concerned as Bobby felt about the upcoming assembly.

Bobby was beginning to think Remy really expected to have to settle the matter in the Blood Ring, which would be disastrous. Even if he beat Adrian soundly, it would only illuminate the fact that he was breaking Guild law and getting away with it. He couldn’t see any way for Remy to get through the day without serious damage to his reputation, and by extension, his power in the Guild.

Scott accepted Dr. Lancaster’s statement without comment. He gestured for Bobby to precede him and they left the room together.

Most of the X-Men and Mystique were waiting for them outside. Bobby could feel their combined stares like a physical force pushing him away. He’d known this day would eventually have to come, but he’d had no idea how much the separation would hurt. But he would forever be a thief first and an X-Man second, and now they knew it.

Taking a deep breath, he returned the gazes with as much fortitude as he could muster. "Let’s go."

Bobby led them to the great hall, the cavernous amphitheater where the Guild and Clans could meet as a single group. Every seat was filled, it seemed. The noise of the crowd echoed deafeningly in the enclosed space. Bobby led the X-Men toward a set of seats that had been reserved for them near the Guildmaster’s platform, which currently stood empty. Bobby looked down at the stage that took up the center of the sandy floor. Remy and the Council were all there, standing off to one side. On the other side of the stage was a tall wooden construction whose purpose Bobby didn’t immediately fathom. It looked like a frame of some kind, and had manacles dangling from each corner.

Rogue noticed the direction of his gaze. "What’s that foh?" she asked suspiciously.

Bobby shook his head. "I don’t know." But he was dead certain he wasn’t going to like it, whatever it was.

The X-Men settled quickly in their seats. Bobby was well aware of the many curious looks they were earning. He deliberately placed himself next to Rogue and was glad to see Logan sit down on her far side. The only instruction Remy had given him about this evening was to make certain he sat next to Rogue, though he’d been unwilling to explain why.

On Bobby’s other side, Ororo looked around the amphitheater with great interest. A line of stitches crossed her forehead, the black thread standing out in marked contrast to her white hair. "I remember Achmed telling us about such places when I was a street thief in Cairo," she remarked. "At the time, I held hopes of gaining a place in the Guild there, and I always wondered if the stories were true."

Surprised by her reminiscence, Bobby turned to look at her. "Were they?"

She gave him a brief, troubled smile. "Yes." Her gaze drifted down toward the stage, her smile dying. "I have a very bad feeling about this, Robert."

"You and me both, ’Ro," he answered.

The speculative buzz that filled the amphitheater died away as Remy walked up to the microphone. Without a word or a gesture, the Guildmaster commanded the attention of the entire room, and Bobby found himself holding his breath in unconscious anticipation.

"Guild members an’ Clansmen." Remy’s voice rang in the stillness. "I’ll be direct. I’m sure y’ already aware dat dere are strangers in de Guild complex. Strangers I brought here." He raised a hand, gesturing toward where Bobby and the other X-Men were seated. Three thousand pairs of eyes turned toward them.

"Dey are de X-Men," Remy continued as the cavern filled with murmurs and speculative voices. "An’ dey are pledged t’ help us bring down Operation: Zero Tolerance."

Beside Bobby, Rogue was slowly shaking her head, her expression pained.

"Rogue?" he asked her in an undertone.

She glanced over at him, her lower lip clenched between her teeth, her gaze clouded. "Ah don’t know this man, Bobby." She canted her head toward the stage.

Bobby reached up to squeeze her hand sympathetically. He’d been shocked the first time he’d seen the real Remy LeBeau, too. "Yes you do," he told her. "You just didn’t realize it."

He didn’t have a chance to gauge Rogue’s reaction as Gambit began to speak again. "I would have preferred t’ make dis alliance a little less abruptly..." The Guildmaster shrugged. "Bastion didn’ give us dat option. So, we live wit’ it, an’ we adapt."

He took a deep breath, looking out over the audience. "De Guild is strong, even in de face o’ deadly opposition. OZT has proven dat. We have become what our ancestors dreamed of building-- a home, a community, a refuge in difficult times-- an not jus’ f’ de mutants among us, but f’ all of us."

Bobby glanced down the row of X-Men, looking for their reactions to that statement. Gambit was a natural orator, and already Bobby could feel the Guild being drawn in. Most of the X-Men’s expressions were thoughtful, which reassured him. Maybe they would understand after all.

"But strength is useless wit’out a means t’ apply it," Remy continued, and Bobby dragged his attention back to his Guildmaster. "An’ dat is where de Guild suffers, because we can’t act against Zero Tolerance wit’out giving away our presence an’ sacrificin’ everyt’ing we’ve worked so hard to achieve."

The low level murmuring in the room intensified as the gathered thieves and clansmen began to understand the Guildmaster’s plan.

"So dat’s where de X-Men come in." For a moment, his face and voice lit with a grin. "Believe me, dey’re used t’ bein’ on de pointy end o’ de stick. Dey c’n strike where we cannot, an’ dey can bring Operation Zero Tolerance down." He paused significantly, his conviction sending a thrill through the room. "If we can give dem de chance."

The amphitheater exploded into a raucous babble as everyone began to speak at once. The subdued air of fear that had permeated the Guild since the plane crash had given way suddenly, replaced by intensity, an urge for action... and hope. Those seated nearest the X-Men leaned over to greet the mutants, asking dozens of different questions about how they planned to destroy OZT. Bobby couldn’t help but grin at the X-Men’s expressions as they tried to respond to the unexpected barrage.

But despite their renewed energy, there remained a strong undercurrent of uncertainty in the crowd. Bobby could feel it, hear it. They wanted to believe, because Remy had saved all of their lives. They knew his dedication to the Guild and they trusted him. But they were afraid because strangers always threatened the Guild’s safety. The Guild survived in anonymity, kept safe by the strict laws that punished anyone who put that anonymity at risk.

Cold, sinking dread began to invade Bobby’s gut. Remy seemed to sense the feelings of the people surrounding him, because raised his arms, calling for silence. The crowd noise fell away by degrees and when Remy finally lowered his hands, the room was quiet.

"De fact remains, however, dat dis alliance-- no matter how beneficial-- violates de most basic principles of de Guild, an’ de laws I swore on oath before each o’ you t’ uphold." Remy’s voice had grown somber. The council members were watching him with surprised, confused expressions, making Bobby think they knew as little about what Remy was doing as the rest of them. All but Artur. Bobby’s gut twisted another notch. Artur Valencia stood with his arms crossed over his chest, his expression painfully closed.

Remy paused. Bobby could see him gathering himself. "It’s been said dat y’ c’n judge the depth of a man’s beliefs by what he’s willing t’ sacrifice for dem." A ripple of reaction ran through the X-Men. The Professor had made that statement many times.

Remy raised a hand to his heart. "I believe de only way we will ever live wit’out fear again is t’ work wit’ de X-Men t’ destroy OZT." He looked out over the silent crowd. "I also believe dat de law is de key t’ our survival. It exists f’ a purpose an’ cannot be broken, o’ everyt’ing de Guild stands for will crumble t’ dust."

Bobby’s brow dipped as he chewed on the contradictory statements. On stage, Remy turned toward the gathered councilmen. "Artur."

Artur nodded, then stooped to pick something up out of the shadows near his feet. He gripped the dark coil in one hand as he walked forward, stopping just behind the Guildmaster. Remy turned back to the crowd.

"De law defines punishment f’ bringing strangers into de Guild complex." The dark loop in Artur’s hand uncoiled, and Bobby was unable to contain his dismay. The braided leather whip trailed across the floor at Artur’s feet like a snake.

In the amphitheater, the silence was so complete Bobby could hear the hiss of his own breath. Remy looked down for just a moment then raised his head to face the crowd, his expression resolved.

"De Guildmaster has spoken. Guild law stands."

With that, he stepped back from the microphone and with quick motions stripped off his suit jacket, dropping it unceremoniously on the ground, and began unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt.

"Is he out o’ his mind?" Rogue demanded, starting to rise. Bobby slapped his hand over her wrist where it rested on the arm of her chair, curling his fingers under the armrest’s edges to create a kind of manacle. Every muscle in his body had gone rigid in reaction to his deep-seated horror, but he knew he had to keep Rogue under control.

"Sit down, Rogue," he snapped at her, and saw Logan grab her other arm.

All around them, the Guild and Clans shifted in their seats, the noise rising and falling in uneasy waves as they watched Artur step in front of the microphone. To his credit, the thief looked deeply disturbed, but his soft voice held no hesitation as he spoke.

"When no harm to the Guild is intended or incurred, the penalty for violating Guild anonymity is twenty lashes."

At his words, the huge cavern exploded into chaos with every person there expressing their feelings, either for or against, with loud fervor. Bobby tightened his grip on Rogue’s wrist as the pain in his gut intensified.

"X-Men, hold!" Scott’s authoritative bark stopped several of the team in their tracks. Bobby was gratified to realize the X-Men were set to jump to Gambit’s defense, Guild or no Guild.

Scott’s expression was firm. "Everyone, sit down. We can’t interfere."

Bobby felt a swell of gratitude and respect for the other man as the X-Men backed up, their expressions uncertain. Rogue struggled against the two men who held her, her protests lost in the din. Bobby ignored her as much as he could and concentrated on the stage. Remy had taken off his shirt and had walked over to the wooden frame, where he was calmly allowing Adrian Tyre to clamp his wrists into the manacles. Bobby was a little surprised that it was Adrian doing it, but then he realized he shouldn’t be. Remy never gave up an advantage, and after this there would be no way for the thief to challenge his decision without making a fool of himself. If Adrian’s glare were any indicator, the other man knew it as well.

Nauseated, Bobby watched as Adrian finished and Artur stepped into place. Once again, the amphitheater fell silent. Bobby could hear the braided leather whispering across the stage floor as Artur adjusted his grip.

Bobby flinched violently at the first crack of the whip. The sound echoed through the cavern like a gunshot, harsh and frightening. When Bobby could look again he saw a long line of blood drawn across Remy’s skin. The muscles in Gambit’s shoulders and back were corded in pain as Artur readied the lash a second time.

Bobby wanted to scream. Once more, Remy was paying a price in blood to do what was right and to protect his Guild. Bobby could feel the bones of Rogue’s wrist grinding beneath his palm as he squeezed the chair arms until the edges dug painfully into his fingers. He couldn’t interfere in this, not without destroying everything Remy hoped to accomplish. But next time...

I swear, Remy, on my honor as a thief... never again. Never again.

He repeated the vow to himself every time the whip bit into Gambit’s back, watching silently as the man who was brother, mentor and friend endured each one. And by the time the final blow fell, the promise had been etched into his soul, never to be erased.


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