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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 24

Rogue followed Diedre through the twisting tunnels of the Guild complex, feeling as if all eyes were on her. There was some truth to it. People in the halls did stop to watch her as she passed. Some nodded in friendly greeting, some simply stared, and some were decidedly cool, but absolutely everyone noticed her. And if that weren’t enough, brushing elbows with that many strangers made her jittery even though she knew her powers were inactive.

And so, when they reached the particular doorway that was their objective, Rogue breathed a silent sigh of relief. The door was short enough she would have to stoop a little to walk through, but since everything in the complex seemed to have been chiseled out of solid rock, she could hardly blame the constructors for not making the doorway any larger than they had to. It was painted a cheerful yellow and had the name "Black" stenciled on its surface.

"This is Marcus and Andrea’s home," Diedre said unnecessarily as she knocked. Remy had apparently assigned Diedre the task of finding room for the X-Men in the crowded complex, but rather than rearranging anything to give the mutants a space of their own she had found thief families willing to take each of them in. Rogue didn’t like it. It spread the X-Men out, made them vulnerable. Unfortunately, she suspected that was the point and to her dismay, Scott had gone along without a complaint. We’re committed to trusting Gambit at this point, was the only explanation the senior X-Man had given when she protested.

Rogue shivered and pushed the thought away. Her trust for Gambit had shattered some time during the past twenty-four hours, leaving her heart in a shambles. The man she’d seen up on that stage was no one she knew, but she understood instinctively that he was the real Remy LeBeau, or at least as close to him as she’d ever seen. At the moment, she had absolutely no idea what she was going to do about it.

The door opened to reveal a woman about Rogue’s height, with dark hair that fell almost to her waist and warm brown eyes that lit with interest when she looked at Rogue. She was heavier than the X-woman and extremely pregnant.

She smiled. "Hello, you must be Rogue. I’m Andrea Black." She held out her hand and Rogue was obliged to shake it.

"Nice ta meet ya," Rogue answered automatically, fighting not to flinch from the sensation of Andrea’s palm against her own.

"Please, come in." Andrea stepped back, graceful despite her bulging stomach, to let Rogue pass. She greeted Diedre with a hug as the blond woman followed Rogue inside.

The Black’s home was a small cavern divided up into several living areas by heavy drapes hung from wires strung across the uneven ceiling. The area where Rogue stood appeared to be a combination living/dining area with a small couch and an even smaller table surrounded by four mismatched chairs. Beyond it, through a gap in the hangings she could see what looked to be the Black’s bedroom and, possibly, a nursery. She didn’t see any signs of a kitchen, though there was another wooden door at the back of the cavern that looked like it might lead to another room.

Rogue struggled for something to say. By normal standards, it was little more than a hovel, despite being neatly kept. Not that Rogue cared, but polite chitchat didn’t come easily to her. Where’s that Southern charm, gal? she chided herself.

Just as she was about to speak, a man walked around the corner of one of the hangings. He stopped in his tracks when he spied Rogue, an expression of pure surprise on his face. Rogue stared back in equal shock.

"You!" They exclaimed in unison. It hadn’t occurred to Rogue that the thief she’d seen that night with Remy would be a member of the New York Guild.

Diedre laughed while Andrea looked between the thief, who Rogue surmised must be her husband, and Rogue. "I take it you two have met already?" Her voice was curious, but not particularly alarmed.

Diedre gestured toward the man. "Marcus Black, this is Rogue. Rogue, Marcus." She turned to look at Andrea with a surprisingly gleeful expression on her delicate face. "Remember that time Marc came home with a story about he and the Guildmaster running into a flying woman?" She gestured toward Rogue.

Andrea chuckled, arching one eyebrow at Rogue. "That was you? Well, I’m doubly glad to meet you now."

Marcus, too, was laughing quietly as he came forward and held out his hand. "And I’m glad to make your acquaintance as well... under friendlier circumstances this time." He shook Rogue’s hand, then put an arm around his wife’s shoulders. "Welcome to our home."

"Ah..." Rogue swallowed and tried again. "Thank ya." She had no idea how to react. She didn’t know these people but they seemed to know her, and they displayed an open affection and unquestioning acceptance for her that shocked the young mutant to her core. She was used to earning approval... earning friendship... by dint of hard work, perseverance and sometimes, pure stubbornness. How many people had she ever met who actually liked her on sight? Would they feel the same way if they knew her powers, her past?

"Where should ah put mah stuff?" she asked after a moment. Rogue carried a small bag slung over her shoulder. In it were some basic toiletries and a single change of clothes, courtesy of the Thieves Guild. They were all the possessions she had in the world.

"Oh, in here." Andrea led Rogue into the little room she’d guessed was a nursery. It did indeed hold several items of baby paraphernalia, including two bassinets, but they were all stacked against one wall. A mattress lay on the floor on the far side of the room, neatly made up with pink sheets and a brightly patterned quilt. A shelf was bolted to the rock wall over the bed and held a small plant in a clay pot, and an empty plastic tote on the floor looked like it was intended to serve as a dresser. It was surprisingly homey.

Andrea sighed. "It’s not much, I’m afraid."

"Oh no, it’s fine," Rogue hastened to reassure her. No matter how mixed her feelings about the entire situation, she couldn’t begrudge the Blacks’ generosity.

Andrea snapped her fingers. "I almost forgot. Here, this is for you." She bent down awkwardly to open the purple and green tote, emerging with a floppy-eared stuffed rabbit. "Diedre said you collected stuffed animals and had them all over your bedroom." She shrugged, seeming a little embarrassed. "So this is to start a new collection with."

Touched by the simple gesture, Rogue accepted the rabbit, hugging it instinctively. "Thank ya." She couldn’t quite meet Andrea’s eyes and after a moment she turned and walked forward into the room.

"I’ll just leave you to get yourself settled," Andrea said from behind her. "If you need anything, let me know."

"Ah will." Behind her, Rogue heard the other woman move away and then her voice picked up as she and Diedre talked out in the living room. Rogue tried to ignore them as she slowly sank onto the mattress.

Well, sugah, this is home foh now. Better get used ta it. She smoothed the quilt with her fingertips, relishing the feel of the soft cotton. She wasn’t certain how long she sat there, wrapped in her thoughts, but it seemed like only a minute later when Diedre appeared at the opening in the drapes.

"Rogue? I don’t mean to rush you, but we need to be going. The Guildmaster said he wanted to see you as soon as you were settled."

Rogue’s stomach clenched. Part of her wanted to cross her arms and tell Diedre to inform the Guildmaster that if he wanted to talk to her he could very well come find her himself, thank you very much. The rest of her was simply afraid. Of him. For him. The last time she’d seen him had been in the amphitheater, with his back shredded by the whip and his own insane conviction about laws she didn’t understand. He’d been too exhausted then, too hurt, even to stand by himself but Bobby and Logan wouldn’t let her go to him. Now, she wasn’t certain she wanted to.

"Ah’m comin’." She set her bag and the rabbit on the bed and stood. Saying no wouldn’t do her any good. If she did refuse, Remy probably would come looking for her and then she’d have to deal with the guilt of making him go to that effort when he was injured.

She and Diedre walked the entire way in silence. Rogue soon found herself standing before a polished wood door. Unlike the rest of the doors she’d seen, this one looked old and expensive. Diedre raised a hand and knocked.

A rich, familiar voice called for them to enter. Diedre opened the door and went in. Rogue followed more slowly and found herself in, of all things, a fancy office. Remy sat in a high-backed leather chair behind a huge desk scattered with computers, papers and schematics. One large drawing had been spread out and was weighted at the corners to keep it flat. Rogue noticed that one of the corners was being held down by a loaded nine millimeter pistol. The Glock Remy had almost shot her with.

Remy himself was dressed impeccably in a stylish black suit with a dark burgundy shirt beneath. So the blood won’t show, a professional voice inside Rogue concluded. His face was pale and drawn, but the eyes that tracked her as she came in were as keen as always.

"T’ank you, Diedre," Remy said without taking his gaze off Rogue.

Diedre nodded. "Do you want me to try to work through some more of your email?"

Remy momentarily shifted his attention to the tiny blond woman. "Oui, chere. If Colonel Rasmutov hasn’ answered me yet about dose spares, I need t’ give him a call."

Diedre walked over to the far edge of the monstrous desk and unplugged one of two laptops from its cables. She tucked the slim computer under her arm and quickly left, closing the heavy door behind her. The click of the latch sounded horribly final. Rogue turned to find Remy watching her, his expression unreadable.

"How’re ya feelin’, sugah?" she asked weakly, trying to break the silence.

The aristocratic eyebrows twitched in the equivalent of a shrug. "Been worse." She noticed that he did not move his body at all, not even his head. His gaze moved from Rogue to the chairs pulled up in front of the desk. "Have a seat."

Unnerved by the utter strangeness of the situation, Rogue obeyed, perching on the edge of one of the plush chairs. "Ah nevah imagined ya havin’ an office," she commented as she looked around.

For a moment Remy’s reserve cracked and the man she knew peeked mischievously out at her from behind the stranger’s mask. "Me neither," he agreed. "I still get de creepy-crawlies every time I sit down in dis chair."

Rogue bit her lip to keep from smiling as the knot in her gut loosened a notch. That sounded like the Remy she knew, too.

Well, she thought as the silence began to thicken again. Might as well dive straight in.

"So, what exactly does the Guildmaster do, sugah?"

Remy’s expression sharpened as if she’d asked an unexpected question, but his face gave away no more than that. He was silent for several moments.

“De Guildmaster is responsible f’ directin’ de Guild.” A momentary smile lit his face. “Dat’s helpful, I know. Let’s see... De Guildmaster is, first an’ foremost, responsible f’ seein’ t’ de Guild’s safety-- keepin’ track o’ various government investigations t’ make sure de Guild ain’ compromised an’ makin’ sure his t’ieves obey de rules so dose government agencies won’ have anyt’ing t’ investigate. De Guildmaster is also responsible f’ decidin’ what kind an how many contracts de Guild takes, an’ who works which ones... an’ den figures out how t’ spend or invest de Guild’s share o’ de profits. An’ on top o’ dat, de Guildmaster is de final authority in matters o’ Guild law an’ is held accountable to all de ot’er Guildmasters f’ de behavior of everyone under his leadership.”

Rogue stared into the eerie red-on-black eyes, searching for something she recognized. Not only was that the longest, most straightforward answer she’d ever received from him, but it was delivered with a comfortable ease that set the hairs on the back of her neck to prickling. Remy always resisted giving away information. Getting an explanation out of him was like wrestling a greased pig to the ground. To have him respond openly to a question only brought home to her the difference between this man and the one she thought she’d fallen in love with.

“How long’ve ya been doin’ this?” she finally asked and received another motionless shrug.

“Not very long. I’ve been Guildmaster f’ a little less dan four months. Beyond dat… I’ve been a Master T’ief f’ six years an’ been a member o’ de Guild f’ nearly twelve.”

Rogue looked down at her hands. More volunteered information. Details she hadn’t even asked for. “Why are ya suddenly tellin’ me all this?”

“Because I can.”

Rogue jerked her head up at the longing in his voice. His gaze burned into her, begging her to believe, to accept. Rogue didn’t want to. He’d been lying to her since the very beginning, and she no longer trusted his motives.

"So, now that ah’ve seen this precious Guild o’ yours, ya figure ya can tell me all the things you’ve been lyin’ about foh the last four years an’ that’ll make everything all right?" She didn’t intend for the words to come out as scathingly as they did, and she saw Remy wince.

"No." He shifted in his chair, the first motion Rogue had seen. And as angry as she was with him, her hands still knotted into fists at her sides to see the pain that clouded his features at even such a small movement.

Her anger dimmed. "Ya ought ta be in bed, sugah." They’d been arguing so long she no longer cared if this particular round got settled today or tomorrow if there were more important things to take care of first. As far as she was concerned, his health took priority. She knew from experience that any argument they dropped would eventually resurface.

Remy sighed. "Maybe, chere. But first, we need t’ talk. I can’ afford t’ let y’ walk out o’ here wit’out y’ understandin’ some basic t’ings about how de Guild works."

Rogue stiffened at his tone as much as his words. "Excuse me?" She didn’t like anyone making implied threats, but particularly people she cared for, who were supposed to be friends. "If ya think ya can stop me, go right ahead." She stood.

"Dis is about keepin’ de X-Men alive, Rogue." The cold words stopped her more thoroughly than any physical force could have.

She turned to look at him and was surprised to see real fear in his eyes. Her own worries about putting the X-Men into the Guild’s hands redoubled in that instant and her body responded with rush of adrenaline. "Ah thought the X-Men had ya personal guarantee o’ safety as long as we’re workin’ together ta bring OZT down." She couldn’t keep the suspicion out of her voice.

He didn’t react. "As long as I’m firmly in control o’ dis Guild, y’ got not’ing t’ worry about."

Rogue did not immediately take up the unspoken "but" that dangled on the end of the sentence. She was instead looking at the man across from her with new eyes and realizing she’d met a number of people just like him in the past. Like other heads of crime syndicates, heads of private security forces, even heads of governments for that matter, this was a man who had a rather tenuous hold on a great deal of power. And like them, he would survive only as long as he stayed on top because there were always people underneath who would happily see him dead to further their own ambitions. That constant wariness and looking over the shoulder was one of the reasons Rogue had no desire to go back to that kind of life. She bit her lip. She’d found trust with the X-Men, a safe place where she could relax without wondering who was going to try to doublecross her next. She would not surrender that.

Rogue’s heart filled with dismay to realize how completely, horribly incompatible Remy’s life was with her own. He tried ta tell me, ah just didn’t want ta believe it. She drew a deep breath, fighting for calm. Think, girl. Keep ya mind on business. Ya can deal with the heartbreak later.

She found she was shaking and pressed her palms against her thighs to keep her hands still. "So ya need mah help ta hold ya political enemies at bay so ya can, in turn, keep the X-Men alive an’ well, an’ maybe knock Bastion down a few pegs in the process."

Her analysis won her a guarded smile. "Oui, chere."

Rogue sat down in her chair, this time leaning back against the cushions and crossing her legs. "All right, ah’m listenin’."

Remy closed his eyes for a moment, seeming to age years in that instant. Rogue was struck by the realization that she didn’t have the faintest notion how old he actually was. She’d never asked. Perhaps more than anything else, that brought home to her just how willfully blind she’d been where Remy was concerned. Bobby’s words from a few weeks earlier floated through her mind. Weren’t you curious? he’d asked her about her paramour.

Rogue snorted in derision as she answered the memory-Bobby, No, sugah, ah wasn’t. Ah didn’t want ta know because ah was so desperate ta hold onto the possibility o’ love that ah couldn’t bear ta go lookin’ f’ anythin’ that might shatter mah illusions. To her surprise, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders with that understanding. She felt clear-headed, suddenly, as if her self-deceit was a layer of gauze clouding her inner vision that had finally been stripped away. What an idiot ah’ve been! Ah know perfectly well that pretendin’ somethin’ is a certain way doesn’t make it that way. She glanced down at her feet, sighing. But ah wanted it so much...

When she looked up, Remy was watching her curiously. She shook her head. "Just talk, sugah."

He nodded fractionally. "Oui." For the first time in her life, she watched him settle in for a long explanation.

"In practice, chere, dere ’re only two ways to become part o’ de Guild." He paused. "O’ de Clans, actually. ’Guild’ is a word dat gets used interchangeably. At de moment, I mean de sum total o’ de Guild, not jus’ de t’ieves. Does dat make sense?"

Rogue nodded. She’d gotten a sense of the dual meaning of the word already.

"De first is by becomin’ a t’ief. De trainin’ process is bot’ harsh enough an’ thorough enough dat by de time an apprentice takes his oath t’ de Guild, it’s mostly a formality. If dere was any doubt about his loyalty, he’d never get t’ dat point."

Rogue nodded again, trying to keep her expression neutral. She had very mixed feelings about Bobby’s obvious loyalty to the thieves above the X-Men, but in principle she understood.

"De second is by marriage." Rogue’s gaze jumped involuntarily to his as her heart stuttered a beat, but he continued as if unaware of her reaction. "O’ possibly adoption, but right now I’m only talkin’ ’bout how an adult can come into de Guild."

His words recalled something he’d said several weeks earlier. Rogue’s head began to swim as she considered the implications. Was that what he’d meant when he said he was trying to get her to come in to the Thieves Guild? She wondered in sudden terror. Except that Remy LeBeau had never once used the word "marriage" with her, not even in passing. Her heart began to pound.

"Is that what our fightin’ has all been about?" she finally demanded. "Some kind o’ twisted Guild courtin’ ritual?"

His expression closed in on itself. "If by dat y’ mean, did I have hopes o’ someday marryin’ y’? ...den, oui." The words were painfully flat.

Rogue’s breath froze in her chest, as much from the fact that he’d used the past tense as from the admission itself. "An’ now?"

Remy looked away for a moment, and when he turned back, all trace of personal emotion had disappeared. "Guild laws are very strict when it comes t’ outsiders findin’ out about de Guild. Dis--" He flicked his shoulders to indicate the raw wounds across his back, "is as mild as de punishment gets f’ violatin’ Guild anonymity. Most o’ de time, de only resolution is death, bot’ f’ de guildmember an’ f’ whoever dey told."

He paused as if waiting for her to protest, but when she remained silent, he went on. "De only way t’ bring somebody in t’ de Guild is t’rough a pretty long an’ difficult process. Jus’ like wit’ an apprentice, a prospective spouse can’ get anywhere near de Guild until dere loyalty is pretty well assured. De reason is because, in de end, if dat person learns about de Guild an’ den decides dey don’ want anyt’ing t’ do wit’ it, dey end up dead."

"That’s ridiculous!" Personal considerations aside, the concept was ludicrous. "What right do you have to kill people just because they don’t want to get mixed up in the Guild?"

Remy’s eyes narrowed. "Morally? None. Dat’s why we’re so careful. But the hard truth is dat de Guilds have t’ be dat strict, even if de cost is murderin’ a few innocents."

"Ya wrong, sugah." Rogue shook her head in unconscious denial. "There’s no excuse foh murder, not evah." It chilled her to the bone to hear him say such a thing, even though she’d always known he didn’t really share the X-Men’s ideals.

"Am I?" Anger lit his features. "Den let me give y’ some statistics an’ you tell me what de solution is." He didn’t move, but she could almost hear him ticking points off on his fingers. "One, dere are twenty-four Guilds worldwide, wit’ a combined population of approximately fifty thousand people. Only ’bout eight thousand o’ dose are t’ieves, de rest are Clan-- men, women an’ children."

His stare bored into hers. "Two, de mutant birthrate in de Guild is averagin’ one in ten in dis generation an’ most o’ de estimates I’ve seen say it’ll be one in four in less dan twenty years. Right now, pretty much everyone carries de X-factor as a latent, whether dey’re a mutant or not."

Rogue gaped at him. Hank’s best estimate, using Cerebro, was that mutant births were something like one in one hundred thousand, and fewer than one in ten thousand carried the X-factor. Her mind started doing the math without her consciously willing it to, and the answer she came up with was disturbing.

"But that would mean nearly ten percent o’ the mutants on the planet are in the Guild." A Guild that only had eight members for every million people on Earth. The mutant population density was staggering.

"Oui, chere. De Guilds were one o’ de original hidin’ places f’ early mutants an’ dey been crossbreeding f’ centuries." Remy nodded cautiously. "Can y’ imagine what would happen if de world found out?"

Rogue pressed her lips together in a thin line to hide her horror as her imagination conjured images for her. Yes, she could very well imagine what would happen. The world was already afraid of mutants. Bastion had proven that beyond a shadow of a doubt. But if the general population, let alone any of the governments, discovered the existence of an organized group of mutants the size of the Guild...

She expelled her breath in a long, slow sigh. "Ah get ya point." She shook her head. "Ah don’t like it, an’ ah can’t entirely say ah agree, but ah understand."

Remy looked relieved. "Dat’s all I c’n ask."

Rogue dithered for a moment, then decided to press on. "So what does all this have ta do with me, specifically, sugah?" Other than the fact that ah think ya’ve said ya want ta marry me if ah could stomach becomin’ part o’ the Thieves Guild, which ah can’t. She wasn’t sure whether that thought made her want to laugh or cry.

Remy watched her, his eerie eyes giving her the impression he could see right through her. But if he could read her confused thoughts, he decided not to mention it.

"What do y’ t’ink would happen if any o’ my enemies here found out dat one o’ de X-Men I-- very illegally, mind-- brought into de Guild also happened t’ be a woman I was seriously involved wit’?" he asked.

Rogue balled her hands into fists. Her chest ached with every word he spoke. Everything she’d so desperately wanted to hear him say but never had during the past three years was suddenly being thrown across a desk at her as if it were any other business conversation. She hated it even as she ate it up, and didn’t know which response was the correct one. And unfortunately, her spinning emotions couldn’t keep her mind from answering the question.

"They’d say ya trumped up all this cooperation business as a way ta bring..." Try as she might, Rogue couldn’t separate herself and pretend he was talking about some other woman. "...ta bring me into the Guild without makin’ me take oaths o’ jump through any o’ the other hoops, which ah ain’t willin’ ta do."

She watched as her words extinguished the last flicker of hope in his eyes. He nodded slowly, wincing at the motion. "Dat’s exactly what dey’d say, an’ it’s close enough t’ de truth dat it would work. I can’ keep de Guild under control if I’m battlin’ halfway legitimate charges o’ violatin’ Guild anonymity f’ my personal benefit. "

"What do ya mean, halfway legitimate?"

"What do y’ t’ink I mean?" The expression in his eyes was incredibly tired. "Anyone wit’ eyes an’ half a brain can figure out how I feel ’bout you. I don’ know how t’ hide it." He spread the fingers of one hand in a gesture of pure frustration. "An’ it feels so good t’ sit here an tell y’ de truth, chere, even if I hate where we have t’ go wit’ it." He shook his head sharply, blinking, and Rogue was stunned to realize he was fighting tears.

When he’d gotten his reaction under control, he looked back at her. "De only way I know t’ protect m’self an’ de X-Men is t’ play de deniability game. De only people who can say f’ sure dat we were ever involved are you, me, de Drakes an’ de X-Men."

Rogue sank back in her chair, clasping one hand across her mouth as the logic hit her. Combining the Guild and the X-Men was dangerous, but made for a powerful alliance that gave them a far better chance of taking on Bastion and OZT. That she couldn’t argue, having seen a few examples of what the thieves could do. But to keep the X-Men safe from the Guild’s internal politics meant the death of any chance she and Remy might ever have had to be together. Not only that, but she would have to deny that there had ever been anything between them, and get the X-Men to do the same.

In some way, she’d already come to the conclusion that their plans for the future were totally incompatible, that eventually they’d have to admit it wouldn’t work. But to strip away both the present and the past as well hurt more than she thought possible.

Very slowly, Rogue levered herself to her feet, wrapping her arms about her waist. She felt cold all the way through.

"Ah understand, sugah," was all she could think of to say. She started to turn away.


Rogue held her breath as she looked back at him. His gaze on her was as gentle and intimate as a caress. "I love you."

She fought to keep her knees from buckling. "Ah love you, too, sugah." A tear found its way onto her cheek. She wiped it brusquely away. "It was a nice dream while it lasted, wasn’t it, Remy?"

His smile was raw, his voice little more than a whisper. "Oui, chere. I’m... sorry t’ings couldn’ be different."

"Me, too."

After that, there was nothing left for Rogue to do but leave.

Bobby walked into the med center expecting to find the kind of austere, purposeful silence that permeated Hank’s lab at the mansion. It wasn’t until the noise hit him that he realized the med center and its staff catered to the population equivalent of a small town. The small reception area was an ocean of boisterous or wailing children in which the nurse’s station was the only island. Bobby made his way over to that bastion and leaned over the edge to give the attendant his best smile.

She was a young woman, pretty in an overly made-up way, and smiled back at him. Bobby was doubly pleased when the light of recognition went on in her eyes. He had no interest outside of Diedre, but her response certainly did his ego good.

"I’m looking for Hank McCoy," Bobby told her. "Big, blue furry guy." He held up a hand to illustrate Hank’s height.

She giggled. "Of course, Mr. Drake. Go on in. Dr. McCoy is probably seeing a patient, but someone will be able to help you find him."

Bobby thanked her, then made his way through the double doors that led into the med center proper. His good humor gave way to apprehension as he did, and his smile faded. A passing nurse looked up curiously at him. He stopped her with an outstretched hand.

"Do you know where I can find Dr. McCoy?"

She frowned, looking him over, but then nodded back down the hallway from which she’d come. "Examination room two."

Bobby found the room and paused outside the closed door. He could hear Hank’s bass rumble coming from within, interspersed with a child’s voice and a woman’s. After a few minutes, the door opened and Hank walked out, clipboard in hand. He stopped short when he saw Bobby but then recovered, closing the door carefully behind him.

"Well, Bobby, to what do I owe the honor of this most salutary visit?"

It wasn’t as warm a welcome Bobby was hoping for, but he summoned a smile anyway.

"Hi, Hank. I thought I’d stop by to see if you were free for lunch."

Hank glanced at his watch, brow furrowing. "Lunch? Is it that time already?"

Bobby chuckled, feeling a little more at ease. Some things never changed. "They have been remembering to feed you, haven’t they?"

Hank grinned, showing teeth. "Indubitably. At least, I think so. Of course, I would be the last person to realize it if they hadn’t." He shrugged and stepped aside as the door behind him opened. A woman and her young son came out. The boy sported an orange wrist cast and was covered with a set of scrapes that made Bobby think he’d had a rather rude meeting with the unyielding stone of the cavern. He grinned and waved at Hank as his mother ushered him out.

Hank returned the wave, flashing blue-black claws as he did so. Bobby reflected that this might very well be the only place in the world where no one would notice. Hank watched the boy for a moment then turned to Bobby.

"I have a couple more patients to see, but after that I shall put myself at your disposal." He salaamed over the top of his clipboard. "Give me twenty minutes."

It turned out to be more like forty, but Bobby didn’t complain. It was enough to have Hank’s company, and as they made their way into the huge communal kitchen that served most of the Guild’s needs, the two men talked about Hank’s involvement in the med center and Bobby’s new daughter as if they were completely ordinary events. People paused to watch them pass, the murmurs echoing with Hank’s name.

Hank finally turned to Bobby with a bemused expression. "Do you know, I do believe this is the first time in my life people have stared at me simply because I’m something of a celebrity... rather than because I’m large, blue, furry and something of a celebrity."

Bobby chuckled. "It does seem kinda odd until you get used to it." It had taken him a while to grow comfortable with the Guild’s open acceptance of mutants, until he realized just how many of them there were.

Hank stopped abruptly and turned to look at him, his gaze searching. "Are you happy here, Bobby? Have you found what you wanted?"

The sadness in his friend’s childlike blue eyes drove straight into Bobby’s heart. Taking a deep breath, he answered honestly. "I have, Hank. This is where I belong. It’s... it’s my place in the Dream." He spread his hands, unable to explain any better than that the convictions that had led him to become a thief. His voice fell. "I just wish it didn’t have to cost me the X-Men."

Hank cocked his head. "The X-Men will always be there for you."

"I know. But I don’t think they’ll ever understand." Bobby was sometimes dismayed by how much the X-Men’s approval meant to him.

Hank pulled off his spectacles and began to clean them. "You might be surprised," he said without looking up.

Bobby’s chest tightened. "What’s that supposed to mean?"

Hank frowned and resettled his glasses on his nose. "Charles once referred to the X-Men as the ’rock-stars of the mutant equality movement’. He... believed... that high-profile teams like the X-Men would mold and influence the culture as a whole, but that the real work of changing peoples’ opinions about mutants would have to happen at the grass-roots level." Hank shook his head. "Though I must admit I did not properly appreciate the obvious fact that those grass-roots would, of necessity, contain a large criminal element." He smiled. "As any gardener can tell you, roots require dirt if they are to flourish."

Hank paused and his tone took on a reflective quality. "I was always surprised by Charles’ willingness-- even eagerness-- to accept the most minimally reformed criminals into the X-Men. Now I begin to see what he was searching for."

Bobby gaped at him and in return Hank gave him a sad, almost wistful smile. "Truly, Bobby, did you think I would condemn you for choosing the life you have?" he asked gently.

Pure, sweet relief rushed through the young thief as he ducked his head. "I... yeah, I guess I did," Bobby admitted, feeling somewhat ashamed for ever doubting his friend.

He looked up and smiled. "Thanks, Blue."

"You are most welcome." Hank’s grin was guileless as he made a show of looking around the cafeteria. "Now, you mentioned lunch?"


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