Summary: Remy plays knight in shining armour to Rogue's damsel in distress, but it isn't always a role he performs to perfection.

Note: This story is set in same timeline as House of Cards, which is (very loosely) based on the Days of Future Past timeline. If you haven't read House of Cards you might find this tale confusing, so be warned. In fact my original draft of Thread number 8 was a condensed version of chapters 19 and 20 of HoC, which only later grew into the 26-chapter monster it eventually became.
When I started re-writing this, I was tempted to do a HoC sequel, but decided not to. (Sorry). Instead this tale covers the chapters 'Revelations' and 'Masks' from HoC, but is written entirely from Gambit's point of view. For this reason the dialogue in a couple of the scenes is repeated but I've tried to minimise this as much as possible. Oh, and please note, this tale is rated for language.

Enjoy.


:: VIII :: The Other Side of Masks

A second. That was all it had taken.

A second to unmake their world, a world that had taken them four years and a safe house to create.

It'd been eighteen months since he'd last been with Rogue, when they'd both ended up 'accidentally' working the same mission together in the city. The only time they ever had the good fortune to cross paths these days was due to business – fun was never on anyone's agenda anymore, though he managed to get his kicks whenever he could afford to. Technically it shouldn't have bothered him if he suspected she was getting some of her own, which he did. The suspicion still hadn't prepared him for the moment when he'd stepped inside the Brotherhood headquarters and realised just who and what she was working for, what the years of hardship and oppression had forced her to become. Rogue, an underground espionage whore.

That was the moment when their world, their house of cards, had come tumbling down.

And that was why, as he stood there now in the Brotherhood's kitchen, staring out the grimy, rain-streaked window at his glowering reflection, he was feeling more than just a little pissed.

"I don't trust you, LeBeau," the woman behind him said in a voice as frost-bitten as an icy winter's day.

Remy said nothing. So fucking what? Story of his goddamned life. It was bad enough he had to be standing here, in a place he didn't belong, looking at his reflection when it was the last thing on earth he really wanted to look at.

"Den why'm I here, Raven?" he asked, expecting no answer.

She stood there silent with her white arms crossed and her grey eyes dissecting him. Porcelain skin and jet black hair. Snow White, hard and cold and ruthless. Her mouth twisted into a wry grimace and she said, with just a hint of grudging helplessness: "Because I haven't got a choice."

He stared at her and placed the cigarette between his lips, sucked slowly. He had to wonder why Mystique wanted to form a partnership with his boss so badly – enough to strike a deal with Sinister of all people. What was so important to Mystique that she didn't have a choice anymore, that she'd been cornered into making this pact with the devil?

"But I don't trust you," she added again, her lips pressed hard and firm. He exhaled smoke and said softly: "You wise, chere. I wouldn't trust me neither."

-oOo-

Rachel Summers. That was who it all boiled down to.

Daughter of the famous Scott Summers and Jean Grey, time twister now turned mutant-killing Hound. To Essex she was the pinnacle of evolution, a subject he would have sold his soul to the devil for, if he hadn't already sold it long ago. Remy had no idea what she was to the Brotherhood, but they knew where she was kept, and since Essex knew how to break the Hound programming on her, the deal between the two had been an unholy marriage of convenience. Remy's mission was simple. Help the Brotherhood free Rachel, and once they'd outlived their usefulness, kill them.

So he'd gone to the Brotherhood Headquarters for a briefing, to case out the enemy, and do a little bit of recon. It was only in the split second before opening that briefing room door that he'd known she was going to be there. Prophecy had little to do with it; he'd known she was there because of something else.

Her scent – vanilla and orange and shades of lavender.

It was the fragrance he smelled on the bedsheets back in the safe house, that coloured the pillow with memories of her hair, that haunted his nights spent reconstructing the texture of her skin and the shape of her body and the taste of her kisses.

That was how he'd known.

He hadn't bothered looking for her in months now, thinking she'd gone, thinking she didn't want to be found. He'd learned to live with that. But when he'd opened that door and seen her, just the back of her head, waves of cinnamon-coloured hair tumbling down over her shoulders, the smooth arc of her leg bridging the gap between her and the table… the ache he'd been repelling for all those months came back like a punch in the gut. All the waiting, all the searching… and then all the purging he'd had to do, all those other beds he'd climbed into, trying to get her out of his system… And she'd been here all the time, just here. With the Brotherhood.

She'd stared at him with cold, hard eyes, accusation and betrayal in her glance. Yes, he'd wanted to say to her. I work for Essex. I always have. I betrayed you before we even met, chere. It was what I came to you to do.

For years they'd been two of the same species of mad creature, working the same side of the fence but from totally different angles. Lies and betrayal were with them every single day of their lives, yet he'd never expected them from her, not even if he'd deserved nothing less. He'd hidden his truth from her, just as she'd hidden hers. It was a truth he'd half-guessed long ago – the truth that she wasn't his. It wasn't even as simple as her belonging to another. No. She was Mystique's whore, the Brotherhood's whore, the mutant cause's whore.

Knowing her betrayal was all he deserved hadn't stopped the starburst of all-encompassing and violent anger he'd felt when he finally knew the truth.

Despite Sinister's orders, he'd had no intention of killing any one of the people in that room.

But at that moment he would've made an exception for Mystique. Mystique, who'd taught Rogue how to control her powers, who'd sold her on to the 'mutant cause'.

He would've liked to kill her, nice and slow.

He had no idea why he was holding back now, when he was so close to her, when he was alone with her in the kitchen and he could've flipped the knife from his thigh and thrown it at her and stuck the goddamn thing in her throat before she even got a chance to scream.

His anger was no longer a bubbling crescendo, making his head thunder and the blood jangle in his veins. His anger was tight and focused and bitter, and in truth he wanted to turn a little of it in on himself. Maybe that was why he didn't off the bitch right here, right now, right where she stood.

"For your information," he spoke, turning back to the window and taking another drag, "I don't trust you neither."

"Good," she shot back evenly. "Then at least we know where we stand."

Again, he watched his reflection in the glass with that odd sense of déjà vu. His eyes, staring back at him into infinity, dark and glowing. In the background Mystique pushed herself away from the doorjamb and walked over to stand beside him.

"Let's just get one thing straight, LeBeau," she spoke quietly, almost conversationally, her eyes glinting dangerously. "Any wrong move you make in the next 48 hours you will forfeit with your life. But," and this time she turned to him fully, her voice openly dripping with menace and loathing, "if you so much as touch my daughter with those filthy Cajun paws of yours, I will tear you limb from limb personally, with my own two hands. Understand?"

He turned to face her, calm as he did not feel, eyes burning, bleeding liquid fire. His fingers were itching for that knife. Rage was seeping from his pores. He wanted to ask what the fuck was wrong with her that she'd got to the point where she was willing to pimp her own daughter. But asking that would've blown his cover. And Rogue's, for that matter.

"If dere's one t'ing you can trust me on, Mystique," he told her, his voice low, charged, "it's dat no one's gonna so much as lift a finger against your daughter. Not now, and definitely not on my watch."

-oOo-

The night had cast a dark and impenetrable cloak about the godforsaken city, a city where mutants were scum unless they were Hounds, where Sentinels were soldiers and death was in just about every corner you cared to look.

Remy LeBeau strode out under stars, slamming the back door to the Brotherhood headquarters and coming to an abrupt stop on the cold and dusty forecourt.

He was shaking, shaking so badly he felt as if he were going to fall to pieces. With one hand he lit up a cigarette whilst the other absently fingered the knife at his thigh. A siren was wailing in the distance and it made the itch in him even more urgent – he wanted to take something down, blow it to bits, rip it to shreds, destroy it completely and leave nothing behind but a pile of ash. He thought of Mystique standing beside him, calm, dispassionate. Saying: "I don't trust you, LeBeau."

His fingers stung. When he raised the cigarette to his lips he could feel the charge in them, boiling over from his nerve-endings and into the Rizla paper. It took a conscious effort of will to pull it all back inside him. Not now, LeBeau, bide your time, wait… …

He paused, his ears pricking slightly at the familiar tap, tap, tap of a mahogany cane, the tread of a light, frail footstep. He drew on his cigarette and frowned.

"Y'can save it, Irene," he ground out from between gritted teeth. "I ain't in de mood."

He turned when she didn't speak, his eyes resting on the little old woman in the prim little suit with the rose-tinted glasses, chin tilted, as if to regard him with disarming and child-like appraisal.

"I don't suppose you are," was all she said. Her tone was neutral, no veiled sarcasm, and it riled him even more. She had no right to be calm, no right to be standing there and talking to him with her self-righteous bull crap. He was so ready for what he had to do tomorrow, so ready to make somebody pay. She could've see it in his face, even if she hadn't been able to see it in his future.

"You have every right to be angry," she told him in a calm, controlled tone.

"Yes." He nodded tersely. "I do."

They both knew it. That if he killed anyone it would be because of his righteous fucking anger and to protect her. He had no claims on Rogue except that he'd slept with her a few times, and he would've liked to sleep with her a whole lot more, even if he'd known she was running with the Brotherhood, even if he'd known they were pimping her out for the sake of the mission, for the sake of the 'mutant cause'… God, it made him sick. It made him sick to know that he hadn't been able to do anything to stop it.

And blind though Irene was, even if she had known nothing about him, she could feel it in him now. She could feel the hate and the anguish coming off him in waves.

"Have you told Rogue?" she asked him quietly. "What lies in your heart?"

He snorted, shaking his head, looking away. "You're mistakin' me for someone who has one," he muttered.

"Oh, but I think you do have one," she retorted softly, "One that is so full that sometimes you fear it could kill you. All the better to deny that it even exists at all." Again, she paused; he felt the breath in his lungs press painfully against the wall of his chest and he let it out in a sudden exhalation that gave him away more than words could. But she brushed the silent admission aside as if it meant very little.

"Rogue is going to make a very big sacrifice, you know," she told him in a low voice.

He said nothing a moment, stared up at the moon and the clouds and the wisps of smoke curling steadily from the cigarette between his fingers.

"More sacrifices?" he murmured. "Ain't dat girl sacrificed enough?"

Again, she ignored him.

"The greater question is – what are you going to do to stop her?"

The words lingered between them for a few moments; when he made no reply she turned, walking back to the house with such apparent insouciance that he was incensed.

"You killed him," he blurted out in an angry rush just as she got to the door, and she stopped dead in her tracks, ears pricked, surprised. A thrill of triumph that he'd finally got to her coursed through him and he urged on excitedly: "When Essex asked me to take on dis assignment for you, I did my homework. And y'know what I found out? De Brotherhood killed Senator Kelly. You started all dis, Destiny. You. Why? (1)"

She was still for a long moment, her back to him, her hand on the door handle. And when she looked back over her shoulder at him, there was no regret in her. No remorse at all.

"Why?" she echoed softly, her voice cold and clinical and completely matter of fact. "Why, what else but for the end? I did it for you, Remy, and for her. For all of us. For everything."

The words had taken all her strength to repeat. Suddenly her shoulders slumped, and her hand trembled on the door handle as if she were uncertain despite herself.

He'd walked away from Rogue like that once, a long time ago.

Now he knew how it felt, when Destiny opened that door and walked away without once looking back.

-oOo-

The plan was a simple one.

Get Rogue into the Ritz, have her make contact with the Head of Hound Security, and steal his keycard to the Hound compounds.

Then both Sinister and the Brotherhood would be free to access the Hound Pens and claim their ultimate prize - Rachel Summers. Once the Brotherhood had revealed the location of the Hounds, Gambit's orders were to dispose of them.

Gambit had no intention of killing, even if he was sorely tempted to twist a knife into Mystique's stone cold heart. His priorities lay elsewhere, especially now that the presence of Rogue had cropped up to complicate matters.

He needed to plan the mission ahead, so he left the Brotherhood in their crumbling headquarters and sped all the way back to the safe house, a plan formulating in his mind whilst he simultaneously weighed up the evening's events. He knew Rogue was angry with him. Probably about as angry as he was with her for selling herself to Mystique's screwed up cause. He told himself sternly that this was exactly why he'd always kept her at arm's length. Sharing physical intimacy didn't bring any of the strings that were attached to other kinds of intimacy. Knowing what he knew about her now…it caused problems. Huge problems. Technical, practical. Emotional. He had to work with that now. So would she. It was the least of his worries.

Remy entered the apartment, crossed the small room, threw open the window and pondered.

Anton Simmons, he thought.

Every mission had its variables, and he always made it his job to research them as thoroughly as he could beforehand. Perhaps the lynchpin of this particular assignment was Anton Simmons. The Director of Hound Security. The man who could gain both him and the Brotherhood access to Rachel Summers.

The man Rogue had to seduce to get information from.

Remy grabbed his cell and dialled the number he most often dialled when he was doing his research. One ring and it was answered.

"Yo, Rems."

He didn't have time for pleasantries. Not now, not with this one thing on his mind.

"Didja get de intel for me?" he asked instead.

"Hey, do I ever disappoint you, man? 'Course I did."

"So what's de deal wit' dis Simmons guy then?"

"Hmmm." There was the sound of wires humming, the click of a mouse, the clack, clack, clack of typing. "Anton Simmons, Head of Hound Security," the cheap and cheerful voice finally said, sounding less cheap and cheerful than it usually did. "Been in with the new regime since day one. Rose through the ranks pretty quick. Got the Head of Hound Security job within two years. Trask Technologies' star employee."

Remy mulled over this, shrugged the trenchcoat off and threw it over the back of the armchair.

"Got any dirt on him?"

"Nothin' substantial, I'm 'fraid. Seems he was linked tenuously to an incident where some homeless mutant got beat up pretty bad. Guy survived but the case was thrown out of court. Insufficient evidence, but seems pretty cut and dried that Trask Technologies bought both the judge and jury. This was before Simmons hit the big time though. Clean record since then."

Not surprising. Remy fumbled in his pockets for a cigarette and lighter, found them and lit up with one deft movement.

"Guy married?"

"Nope - he's a widower," came the amused reply. "And this is where is gets int'restin'. You remember those Magneto riots that sparked off the original anti-mutant policies eight years ago?"

Remy could already see where this was leading, could already see the bigger picture forming. He rubbed the stubble on his cheek feeling a sudden weariness.

"Yup. Go on."

"Simmons' wife and daughter were out shopping in the city that day. Got caught in the crossfire between Magneto's Acolytes and the military. Afterwards, Simmons signed up with Trask Technologies. Got into some serious chop-suey too, if y' know what I mean. Black belt in Aikido, Jujitsu and Kempo… Not to mention he spends half his life on the firing range…"

Remy had heard enough. He stubbed out his cigarette on a nearby ashtray.

"Any significant other?" he interrupted quickly.

"Hmmm. Thought you might be askin' 'bout that. Gotta tell you, this Simmons is the kinda guy that gets off on his work, not on the 'fairer' sex. But," the voice added with a pride it was unable to hide, "he has been known to play away from home now and then. And I managed to find out he's been screwin' his secretary. Now this ain't your usual wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am kinda thang, know what I'm sayin'? Not since he's been screwin' her the past five years at least. That answer your question?"

"Very much so," Remy grimaced. "T'anks, mon ami."

He ended the call, threw the phone onto the nightstand and slumped onto the mattress. He rubbed his face. Lord he was tired. And this whole job was bad news…too complicated… too dangerous. He rolled onto his side. A year and a half ago she would've been right there. He would've pressed his face against her skin, kissed the dimple in her shoulder blade, slipped his arm around her waist, felt her fingers slide between his own…breathed in the scent of her hair.

Rogue, his lonely butterfly.

Gotcha back covered, chere…

And then he slept.

-oOo-


Twilight falls, followed by darkness. There are no shadows. Only the silhouette of the mansion, lights in the windows casting pillars of tawny light across the lawn.

He waits by lake and stares at his reflection, his hands in his pockets, his features disrupted by a feather floating casually across the water. Is this a memory, or a dream? It must be real, because he remembers this, a night six years ago, before the military had even attacked the X-Men… …

"Ah'm here," she says.

He turns and sees her there, under the monolithic cedar tree. She is self-consciously beautiful in a virginal white dress, a shy, expectant, romantic smile on her face, like this is the first time she's been on a rendezvous with a guy since she was thirteen. Hell, it probably is. Her skin shimmers like marble in the moonlight, untouched and untouchable.

He doesn't say anything. He goes to her. She's wearing the pendant he once gave her; he can see it, the silver butterfly, glimmering against her milkmaid skin. He closes the gap between them, places his hand over the butterfly at her breast, at her heart. There is no absorption. He touches her skin and all he can feel is softness and warmth and her heartbeat.

"How…?" he begins, but stops when he doesn't know what to say.

"Ah think Ah have a choice to make," she tells him softly.

And when she says the words, he sees, he understands. This is a dream…

He looks at his hand on her flesh, his palm closing over the pendant he had made hers.

"Irene says you're gonna make a sacrifice…" he whispers. She doesn't say a word, and his eyes meet hers again, seeing…trust there. Trust despite all the betrayal.

This is a dream…

"What do I do, Rogue?" he asks her when she doesn't speak.

She smiles.

"Follow my lead."

He feels it then. Something brushing against his enclosed palm – paper-thin wings caressing him with a feather-light touch. Surprised, he pulls back his hand, and now he sees that the butterfly pendant is real, blue and green wings luminous in the silvery moonlight, opening, closing, opening, closing. Without warning it flitters up into the sky and he takes a step backward, he watches it. There are clouds in the sky. Clouds with silver linings. The butterfly disappears inside them, out of sight.

And when he looks back, she's gone.

-oOo-


He woke later on his back, to sunshine.

He lay there a moment, thinking. He'd dreamed it again. The half-memory, the texture of her skin; the butterfly pendant he'd once given her, becoming real, disappearing behind silver, moonlit clouds… …

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, rubbed his eyes, got up, washed. Checked his cell for messages. Nothing. He lit up a cigarette because he needed it badly, walked to the window and looked out. Above the same old quadrant of fading stone and concrete, clouds were chasing one another across skies the colour of lilac.

And then footsteps on the corridor outside, slapping the floor with a staccato clap, clap, clap, closer and closer until they stopped outside the door. Click. Door opening. Slam. Closing shut. Thud. Pack on the floor. Pause. He said nothing. He waited for her.

"Place seems familiar," was all the greeting he got. Truth be told, it was better than the slap in the face he'd been expecting.

"Ain't used it since we were last here," he replied quietly. She was angry, and she had a right to be. She didn't have a right to his personal life, but she had a right to be mad at him for being Sinister's spy from the very start, from the very first moment she'd met him.

"Is that right?" she murmured, and her tone was cold.

He shrugged.

"Woulda come here and cleaned up if I'd got some leisure time, but you know Sinny… he's de regular slave driver, don't get much vacation workin' wit' him…"

There was no reply. He turned, watching her cross the room, dump her bag in her usual, little corner. Her body was taut inside the tight, leather bodysuit, the planes of her face almost rigidly gaunt, her hair caught back into an angry, unruly ponytail. She was crackling with pent-up rage. He could feel it crawling along his skin, a fissure burgeoning with the inhuman pressure it took her to keep her sense of frustration and betrayal in check. He wanted to take that face between his hands. Caress the sharp angles of her cheekbones with his thumbs, work the tension out of her body, unfold her, smooth her out lovingly. He wanted to put her back together again. Repair her innocence.

He wanted to kill Mystique.

He could do neither.

"Why so angry, chere?" he asked quietly instead, when she turned to him, waiting for an explanation he couldn't give. "Don't recall you bein' so prickly last time we met… Or the time before that neither…"

"Ah didn't know you were workin' with Sinister back then," she spat, her green eyes flashing pale and cold with disgust. Revulsion. Hatred. It was that which took him off guard. Her anger he could deal with. But disdain… abhorrence… She had no right. She had no right after what she had done…

"Oh." He tried cool detachment with an effort. "And if you'd known, dat would've made a difference?"

"Yes," she hissed, with such conviction, with such blind certainty that he felt a sudden surge of rage and he couldn't help himself asking: "Would it, really?"

"Why d'yah think Ah never asked, why Ah never wanted to know?"

"For de same reason I never asked you who you were workin' for. B'cause dat was business and what we had was -"

"Pleasure. Yeah, Ah got it." She whirled away from him and began to rummage pointlessly inside her bags. He knew it was a cover, something for her to do other than gouge his eyes out, or slam her fist into his face… or have to look into his eyes and show them the pain in her own. He watched her, watched the helpless rage building inside of her, her body drawn tight as a bowstring… And something went out of him. She was so fragile, so vulnerable, like the butterfly in his dream… And he had no idea how it must've felt for her to expose herself to other men. To give all that beautiful flesh over to them willingly, when he knew all she'd wanted was to fold in upon herself and hide. He wanted to reach out to her. He wanted to try again. He had no idea how.

So he told her the truth. That he'd never had to work for Sinister, that there had been nothing tying him to Essex, only the fact that he owed Essex his life, a life of bondage, a life of slavery - only to become a slave of a different kind. He knew it. He made no excuses for that. But her sense of righteousness, her sense of moral indignation riled him, because she wasn't an innocent anymore. She was just like him.

"I don't pretend t' be a good person, Rogue," he told her softly. "Why do you?"

She turned on him then, so wild and fierce and beautiful that he would've wept.

"Because Ah didn't sell out, Remy!" she seethed. "Because Ah don't sell innocent souls!"

He thought of her as she had been, under the cedar tree so long ago. It was with a sad sense of irony that he could not help but ask her: "Then why've you sold your own soul, p'tit?"

It was if the words had sent her plummeting to the ground. She choked; what colour was left in her face seeped out; the fire in her eyes burnt themselves out in a flash.

"You don't know…" she stammered in a voice he barely recognised. "You don't know what it's like…"

"Au contraire, I know exactly what it's like," he returned quietly. "Dat's why you and me do what we do. And if you've got a beef wit' Sinister, I can tell you I got one helluva beef wit' Mystique. How long has she been askin' you t'do it, huh? Turn tricks just for de sake of de mission?"

She was steadying herself against the old dresser, eyes swimming, jaw clenched, knuckles white against faded and peeling mahogany.

"It ain't like that," she half-whispered to the floor. "Ah don't have t' do it… It's just that sometimes Ah don't have a choice… So many of the statics have wised up t' mutant tricks… They come prepared, they neutralise our powers… Sometimes Ah can't absorb information from them… Ah don't have the heart for torture or killin'… Ah haveta find other ways…"

Remy felt it; anger twisting inside him again, right in his gut. To see her there, floundering for excuses for the thing she had become, the thing he'd been trying to protect her from becoming for so long… It was almost more than he could bear.

"And Mystique approved of dat, did she?" he seethed, unable to contain the fury which was now seeping dangerously into his voice. "Did she train you how to use those 'subtle charms' of yours, Rogue? 'Cos I know it's de kind of thing she ain't above doin' either!"

"No," she replied quietly, the shame in her voice only thinly disguised. "It wasn't her, not at first. It was me - it was my decision. Not hers. Ah wasn't forced t' do a thing. Besides…desperate times calls for desperate measures."

"Don' give me none o' dat bullshit," he ground out in sudden frustration. Why, why was she still making excuses for that bitch Raven? "So Mystique taught you t' control your powers an' you feel you owe her one. But dat don't mean you gotta whore yourself for her!"

Even as he said it he knew it'd been a mistake, but he couldn't take it back. Whore. At the word she flared up again, pale cheeks flushing, eyes wild.

"What do you care? Ah was only ever just a whore t' you anyway! And you know what, Remy? Ah accepted it! Ah accepted all the shit you threw at me, and still you have the nerve to preach at me when Ah don't belong t' you and Ah never did! Or is it the fact that you ain't the only man who fucks me that bothers you?"

A pause, a challenge; her gaze met his, taking the breath out of him, making the pit of his stomach burn… Yes. Hell yes, it bothered him, it killed him that others had touched her skin, had kissed her mouth and sunk their flesh into her own, and it killed him even more to know that she must've closed herself tight against every moment of it, squeezed herself shut and wished for it to be over, screamed and screamed inside for an end …for him

"Rogue -" he began, but she was too incensed to listen, even if he had known what he was going to say.

"No!" she cried, her voice slicing through him to the bone. "No more! Ah'm sick of this, Remy - all of it! Comin' here only once a year and bein' with you like it means somethin' more… Even if we wanted it to, it couldn't be, we both know it! And Ah can't deal with that anymore, Ah just - Ah can't."

Stark admission. Even she seemed to realise it, just how strong and unbreakable this thing between them had become. It stunned them both into a long silence. She stood a moment as if waiting for him to ackowledge it. But he couldn't. And she wouldn't wait for him any longer. She'd waited eight years and he half suspected that she could've forgiven him his involvement with Essex if only he'd opened his arms to her and let her in.

As it was she'd waited enough; he watched her turn on her heel, pick up her bag and go to the door with a sudden desperation welling inside him.

"Where you goin'?" he barked, angry at her, angry at himself, angry that they'd both allowed themselves to do what they weren't supposed to and get so goddamn hung up on each other.

"Away," she shot back breathlessly. "Ah don't need yah t' do this mission. Ah can do it myself. And if that means that Essex doesn't get Rachel's DNA, or whatever else he really wants, then so much the better!"

With a jerk of her arm she'd opened the door; with another, she'd slammed it shut behind her, the room echoing with her exit, a dread finality.

He swore a few choice oaths and ran a hand through his hair. Too much, LeBeau. Too fuckin' much. Turn away now, forget her. End dis. End being dis person she's made you become.

He turned a full 360 degrees in the middle of the room, looked up at the ceiling and swore again. She was his habit, the one he couldn't kick. She could be as tainted as fucking sin itself and he still wouldn't stop dreaming about her, wanting her, needing her in his life.

Goddammit. Goddammit. Like hell she was going to do this all by herself. Like hell she didn't need him. Like hell he was going to let Simmons - or anyone else ever again for that matter - touch her.

He picked up his trenchcoat, threw it on, and stormed out of the room before logic could get a hold on him once more.

-oOo-

Okay, so he was impressed.

Forge's suppressor was tiny, smaller than the size of a pea and yet here he was, standing in the shadows of the Ritz, well within the building's ambient security field. Ten minutes ago an unfortunate and misguided mutant had tried to enter, tripped the alarms, and promptly been arrested. Gambit had watched all of this from his vantage-point in the darkness and grimaced to himself. He knew what was coming to the unfortunate mutant. If his powers didn't make him useful to Ahab and the Hounds, he'd be sent off to a concentration camp. If he wasn't roughed up a little bit beforehand, or tortured, or even killed, he'd be lucky in the extreme. Nevertheless, Remy had no sympathy for amateurs. When a job was done, he liked to see it done properly. Inefficiency set his teeth on edge. Carelessness made his jaw tic. And Rogue, he knew, was angry. Bitter. Sick. Scared. He knew she was as serious about the job as he was. He knew she was focused on it. He knew she'd try to keep her head on for the sake of it.

He also knew she hated it with a passion.

And that was a serious shortcoming.

Lucky for her, he had her back covered. Again.

That was when the yellow taxicab pulled up in front of the Ritz - her first mistake. And he knew it was her. She was already making herself look conspicuous by getting a taxi ride to the venue.

"You ain't thought dis through proper, chere," he murmured to himself, squinting as he saw her exit the cab and slam the door shut behind her. "You angry, you ain't t'inkin' straight. Could cost you, if you don't have a proper cover story t' back you up."

The cab sped away, leaving her standing on the hotel steps, shivering. His breath hitched, his eyes narrowed. For the second time in his life, he saw her looking like a woman. Pure, uncomplicated woman. Charcoal eyes and cherry red lips, hair pulled back into an elegant chignon, a champagne gold silk gown, the neckline open all the way down to her navel, an expanse of creamy white skin filling the void between with sensuous, satiny curves. She stood a moment on the steps, gathering herself, taking in her surroundings. Floundering, uncertain.

"You look beautiful, chere," he reassured her in a whisper she couldn't hear. "And you know it. Even a man like Simmons not gonna help hisself from wantin' you…"

He ached as he watched her shake herself and walk up the steps, only to be swallowed by the revolving doors. Ached as he knew any man would ache when they saw her; ached with the memory of their lovemaking. He slid back into the shadows, the fire in his gut burning a trail right down into the root of him.

"Fuck, LeBeau, dis ain't de time…"

He shook himself and slunk round the side of the building, silent as a cat, padding softly but quickly through the darkness, knowing she was inside now, knowing the ball was rolling, that the game had begun. Adrenaline was already welling in him, the way it did every time he was on a job. This was what he thrived on - the stealth, the silence, the shadows, the chemicals pumping through him, the rush he got with the risk. Like nicotine in his veins. Like the slow surge of his power, tingling through his nerves, his fingers, his brain. Like sex.

Like her and him in their little safe house once a year, and all the fireworks that came with it.

He grinned despite himself. No powers tonight. He could deal with that. He could also deal with how pissed off he knew she was going to be that he'd followed her, as long as he knew she was safe.

He skirted a corner and found himself round the back of the building. He searched for the maintenance entrance and found it. Locked. As expected. Everything was running like clockwork. He liked that. Surprises were nice, but only in good measure. He produced his skeleton keys and worked the lock with a practiced ease. A minute later and he heard the click that would open the door for him. He was inside.

-oOo-

Remy sat inside the ventilator shaft and brooded.

Through the grating he had a perfect view of the ballroom, but he was only taking a half-hearted interest in what he was seeing because he was too busy worrying about the fact that he didn't actually have much of a plan.

So damn what? Ain't de first time I been makin' t'ings up as I go along…

No; what was worse was the fact that she was stealing his senses from him and making him reckless and foolish. He thought about what Irene had told him the night before. Rogue is going to make a very big sacrifice. Was this it, the all-important sacrifice? If so, he needed to be here. He hated the idea of fulfilling half-baked prophecies, but with her he couldn't take any chances. Every time he doubted it he would think of her standing under the cedar tree in a white dress with that romantic smile on her lips and it would do weird shit to his heart. He couldn't get back that image of her, but if he couldn't get her back at all… …

And then he figured it out. Suddenly he could articulate this feeling, the feeling that had been haunting him ever since he'd known her, that had driven so many of his decisions, of his actions.

I don't want you to die, chere. I don't want you to die.

It was a strange realisation, one that nevertheless renewed his sense of purpose. He held his breath and peered through the grating, feeling a surge of urgency take him…

…And suddenly there was Simmons, standing on the fringes of the party, talking to what appeared to be one of his bodyguards. He was a thin, gaunt man with a receding hairline, a flat mouth and dark, plaintive, watchful eyes. Unassuming, nondescript even. His frame lank and unimposing. Remy watched him with a greedy, narrowed glance. Saw the Head of Hound Security's vigilant gaze, taking in every movement around him. Saw the deceptively weak stance punctuated by powerful gestures quite at odds with the rest of his appearance. Remy saw what no one else saw. The face Simmons wore was a mask. A façade. He was dangerous.

Remy tore his gaze away, coasting the waves of people flooding the ballroom, seeking her out. He caught the flash of her neck a few moments later, at the other side of the room. She was waiting for her drink, elbows on the bar, fingers toying with a lock of brown hair that was really white. He knew that lock, the way it always fell in her face. The way it looked sweat-dampened and stuck to her cheek. The young Italian bartender offered her her drink, running his eyes over her face, downward over the deep slash of her neckline, the smooth valley between her breasts. She took her drink, letting the lock of hair bounce free and back into place. She turned, ignoring the Italian's smile. He stared at her hair a long while after, as she stood at the bar looking for Simmons, his eyes caressing her neck and her shoulders with a voluptuous intensity.

"Dat's right, homme," Remy murmured to himself darkly, "You look, but don't de fuck you dare touch…"

On the tail end of his sentence Rogue moved, crossing the room with a sudden purpose. People parted in her wake, men stared. She was too beautiful for this job. People noticed her too much, they'd remember her. Remy cursed again to no one in particular. The hardest thing about this was having to watch her with this horrible need inside him, this horrible ache. For a moment, he lost her in the crowds. When she resurfaced again, she was on the other side of the room, talking to a group of young men and women. She'd positioned herself in the sights of Simmons' small group. And Simmons, he saw, was looking at her. Looking at her with an undisguised interest, with rapacious, hungry eyes. He cocked his head, said something to the bodyguard beside him. Then he turned and put a hand on the shoulder of a woman in a pink dress suit who was standing to one side in the shadows. He said a few more words to her, short, urgent. The woman stared up at him, nodding as he spoke, never taking her eyes from his face.

Remy jerked into alertness. It was too far to lip-read, but the body language was clear. The intimacy of these two - the familiar touch Simmons placed upon her shoulder, the unwavering gaze she turned on his face, the quick, seriousness of his words - instructions… The two were lovers.

Simmons' secretary

Simmons had stopped speaking. The woman gave one last nod, turned, and left the room, shooting a furtive look right at Rogue as she did so.

Remy's cue unfolded.

Without a backward glance, he slunk away into the darkness.

-oOo-

The woman in the pink dress suit walked the plush, dimly-lit corridor, thud, thud, thud, heels muffled by the rich burgundy carpet. Remy waited for her as a hawk waits for its prey, his eyes taking in every agitated movement she made across the hallway. The tightness of her jawline, her flat mouth, the crease in her brow. The jerk of her stockinged legs in heels she didn't wear often. The clenching of her fists, arms that hung taut at her sides. Body language. He was a great reader. He knew from the way she held herself that she was upset.

The pinky glow of a nearby lamp brushed over her features, highlighting a face that was neither beautiful nor unpleasant; the undistinguished face of a woman in her mid to late thirties with high cheekbones, tired, heavy-lidded eyes and thin, wide lips, framed by a mass of mid-length wavy brown hair. A woman whose life would normally never have intersected with his own.

He didn't want to hurt her. He didn't want to deceive her either, but he was probably going to end up doing one or the other, and it was for the greater good. For Rogue's sake. So there was no use regretting the job before it had even begun.

She passed by his hiding place on a waft of heavy, overly-fussy perfume and he whipped out on that cue, grasping her from behind, pressing a hand against her mouth before the scream had time to form in her throat. She struggled, futile as he knew Simmons would not be when the time came for Rogue to face him.

"Hush now, chere," he breathed against her neck, her ear. "Believe it or not, I mean y' no harm. Jus' wantin' some information. Now you come wit' me quiet and no one has to get hurt."

He was putting out all the charm he possessed, garnishing every word, every movement, every breath with it, and she had stopped struggling; he could feel her heartbeat racing, her breath fluttering against his palm… She was scared, she was confused, and already she was needing…

"Good girl," he whispered softly, trailing his breath down her neck. "Now let's walk."

They walked down a corridor, and then another, him all the while holding her close, keeping her mouth covered, focusing himself on the shape of her body, her curves, the pulse of her heartbeat, the quickness of her breath. Letting his body move with hers, every movement subtle seduction. He could taste her confusion. Her heat. The sweat on her brow. The scent of fear, of adrenaline, of desire.

"Stop," he ordered at last, and she stopped without second guessing herself. He grimaced slightly. He had her. Whether she knew it or not, he had her.

They were standing by a door, one he'd unlocked earlier on. A doorway that was an old storage room for old and broken furniture, beds, wardrobes, dressers, lamps, chairs, coffee tables. He pushed softly at the handle, opened it and slid inside, pulling her with him. It was dark, but for the tawny sliver of light from the hallway. He released her slowly - respectfully - and shut the door behind him, turning the lock one-handed. She didn't scream. She didn't struggle. But he could hear her breathing, heavy, ragged, close beside him. He turned to face her in the pitch black. She couldn't see him, but he could see her. He could see everything in the room. He could see her eyes, combing the darkness, see her breasts heaving underneath the prim, pink tweed jacket, see her hands feeling for the walls, feeling for him. Her mouth open, terror welling in her, a scream forming in her throat –

"It's all right, chere," he informed her quietly, gently, inoffensively as he could. "I'm right here. And I ain't gonna hurt you."

Her eyes flickered in his direction, dancing this way and that, her hands searching the darkness...

"Who are you?" she demanded, but there was fear in her voice, a voice that he sensed was usually strong, confident.

"No one dat matters," he answered shortly. "Someone who needs your help."

"A mutant?" she asked him, her eyes becoming accustomed to the dark a little, because they were focusing on him, picking out his outline bit by bit, little by little.

"Does it matter?" he questioned mildly, but she was backing away from him again, the fear in her surging like a wild thing as she breathed in a panic-stricken voice: "You are a mutant, I can see your eyes…my God, your eyes… I'm going to scream… I'm going to scream, I swear it…"

He bit back an expletive and stepped forward, grasped her hands by the wrists, placed them on his chest.

"I'm right here, chere," he ground back, his voice low, charged. "Not'ing t' be 'fraid of. I'm not gonna hurt you. I promise."

She paused; he dropped his grasp from her wrists, but she didn't move her hands from his chest, didn't push him away from her in revulsion. And he felt it; the gasp rush through her lips unbidden, her eyes wide and timorous in the dark, her lips parting slowly as she whispered, trembling: "My God…" Another pause, another laboured breath, another whisper: "W-Who are you…?"

He stepped forward, but she didn't step back, didn't drop her hands. In the darkness her eyes were searching for his face, searching for more than just his eyes… And he felt guilty. He felt guilty for tricking her into this.

"You're right, chere," and suddenly he knew he wasn't going to lie to her. "I'm a mutant. And I need your help. I need some information."

Her eyes pellucid in the darkness, and she shook her head once, saying: "Anton… He won't-"

"Anton," Remy murmured back, cutting her off gently, "he told you t' leave de party, didn't he. He was lookin' at dat girl, de one wit' de brown hair and de green eyes. He told you to leave, he gave you some excuse and you obeyed him, but you knew it was b'cause of de girl wit' de green eyes, you saw him lookin' at her, didn't you…"

She sucked in a sharp breath, her fingers flexing against his chest, trembling.

"How do you know…?"

"I need you t' help me," he said quickly, ignoring her statement, taking another step in towards her, where he could feel the indecision, the want, the heat emanating from her. And suddenly there was doubt in her eyes, doubt and fear again as her eyes fixed onto his own.

"Why should I?" she queried, her tone bold yet shaken …

"B'cause I know how it feels," he murmured back, taking another step, pouring all his charm into the wall of her body, pushing it against the cracks in her defences, feeling her buckle, yield, feeling her fingers curl into his shirt, to hold him back, to draw him near…

"I know how it feels, t' be rejected by de one you love, chere," he persisted, his voice a low, gravelly rumble in the darkness. "I know how much dat hurts. Dis ain't de first time he's done it, is it. He swears you're the one, tells you over and over he loves you and no one else, but it doesn't stop him, does it. It doesn't stop him from lookin' at others, from wantin' t' be wit' dem. And it kills you, chere. Every day feels like a step closer to losin' him…"

In the blackness her eyes were swimming, and suddenly the fingers at his chest were pulling at his shirt, no resistance, and the guilt in him flamed anew when her voice broke and she sobbed: "O-Oh God," and began to weep.

He couldn't lose her now. Couldn't break the connection he'd been working so hard to forge between them. He stepped forward again, bridged the final gap, pressed his body against hers, took her face between his palms and whispered urgently: "I know it hurts, chere. I know it hurts so bad, but you can do somet'ing about it. Hurt him de way he hurt you, chere. Betray him like he's betrayed you. He doesn't even have to know…"

And she was back, she was focusing on him again, his face so close, his breath on her lips… She was with him… And her body trembling, melting into his…

"W-who are you?" she asked again, weakly, no fear, no indignation, no demand, but acquiescence, wonder, desire. And in that instant he knew he had her.

He pushed her back into the wall and pressed his lips against hers, and she whimpered, opening her mouth, kissing him back, her fingers climbing his chest, grasping his shoulders, winding into his hair, and the flame that'd been burning inside him all day was suddenly leaping, twisting hot and greedy and lustful, and he needed it, he needed to wash away the pain of rejection as much as she did…

He wanted to forget the love and the hate and the passion and the frustration; and most of all he wanted to forget her.

So he closed his eyes. Closed his eyes and tumbled down willingly into the sweet oblivion that was unthinking and mindless sensation.

-oOo-

Half an hour later and he was running down the corridor, swearing breathlessly to himself and tucking his shirt back into his pants.

"Merde, LeBeau… What de fuck were you t'inkin'?"

He rounded a corner and began searching for the storage cupboard he'd heard Avalanche and Mystique discussing behind closed doors the day before. His little excursion had already cost him precious minutes, and if Rogue was half as good as Raven seemed to think she was, then her and Simmons were well on their way to the penthouse suite. Frustration was building inside him like a boulder rolling steadily downhill, frustration and guilt and anger and shame…

"Shit shit shit, I know it was meant to be round here…"

He didn't have time for this bullshit. He needed to be up there in Simmons' room, ready and waiting for their arrival. He needed to have her back covered. He needed to be watching her every moment possible. Instead he'd wasted more than fifteen minutes fucking Simmons' secretary senseless, for no other reason than to satisfy his raging libido and to hurt her. A total fucking waste of time, considering the only important thing he'd needed was to get the Pen codes off her.

"Damn you, Rogue…" he hissed to himself. Of course it was all her fault. All the bullshit she'd been throwing at him that morning, then turning up dressed in that dress, reminding him just how much he wanted her, leaving him so goddamn horny he'd had to go to the lengths of screwing a total stranger… on the job no less… when he was meant to be watching her

He paused, rested his forehead against a nearby door and closed his eyes, trying to catch his breath.

He'd screwed up. Completely. Letting his physical needs cloud his judgement. Risking her with the tide. And his body still ached. Not with the throb of lust, of want, but with the raw emptiness of a want that couldn't be sated. With guilt, with shame.

If I've lost her 'cos o' dis…

The thought galvanised him. He pushed himself away from the door and stared at it, suddenly realising he was staring at the door.

Fuckin' finally…

He swung it open, and peered inside. Found Rogue's pack lying in a dusty corner, waiting patiently for its owner. He caught it up, slammed the door shut, and swung the bag onto his shoulders.

Thirty-four minutes and counting.

-oOo-

This was the kind of thing he lived for; hanging precariously on the brickwork ledge of one of the world's greatest hotels, muscles bunching and straining as he tried to pull himself up without losing his meagre foothold, eyes already seeking the next nook or cranny that would give him adequate purchase.

He'd been at this for fifteen minutes now; it was nearly an hour since he'd left Rogue at the party to chase after Simmons' secretary, nearly forty minutes since he'd seduced her and twenty-five since he'd fucked his way to a lacklustre climax… and about twenty-four since he'd finally charmed those goddamn Pen codes out of her. Straining, sweating, grunting, and not in a good way. His body had been through way too much this evening. Climbing to the penthouse suite of the Ritz was probably going to leave his muscles shot for days afterwards - if he lived that long.

No time to t'ink 'bout dat now, LeBeau.

He grit his teeth and soldiered on. He shouldn't have been complaining really. He'd got over the worst of it. Another storey and he'd be there. Just one more…

Nevertheless he was struggling. Each movement he made upward was sending painful spasms through his arms and legs, and he knew he'd been pushing himself to his limits that night. He'd forgotten how fucking stupid it was to go climbing a building this high, and without all the proper equipment. He just hadn't had the time to rustle it up after he'd come up with this insane plan earlier on in the day… and besides, whenever he was on a knight-in-shining-armour mission, he tended not to think straight.

Damned fool, LeBeau…

He'd finally reached the balcony of Simmons' room. He didn't even allow himself the luxury of the usual sense of triumph. With an inhuman burst of stamina he felt sure he no longer possessed, he hauled himself up onto the railings and swung gracefully over onto the balcony. He shrugged off Rogue's pack, letting it fall to the floor. The French windows were closed – locked, he had no doubt. He bent down on one knee, peered round the edge of the glass.

It was dark inside, and for a moment, he thought there was no one there.

It took only a split second for his eyes to adjust, for him to see two figures in the doorway. Simmons, leaning over Rogue, his body pressed against hers, their faint silhouettes outlined only by the lights of the city. At first he thought they were kissing. Simmons' hand was caressing her throat, slow, sensuous… But her body was too rigid, and suddenly Simmons had his fingers about her neck and her arms were up, jamming hard into Simmons' elbow… but his grip wasn't even wavering, wasn't even trembling…

"Shit!" Remy cursed to himself, turning away to fumble in the pocket of his trenchcoat for his lockpick. De bastard's onto her, he knows who she is… shoulda been in dat room twenty minutes ago, shoulda been ready for dis…

He found the lockpick, turned back towards the French windows, peering anxiously through the glass even as he stabbed the first skeleton key into the lock and began to work it… And Rogue was struggling, struggling with all her might, but Simmons was stronger… Remy averted his eyes, tried to focus on the lock, but his hands were trembling and he was cursing himself, cursing the Fates, cursing everything

If it weren't for dis fuckin' dampner I could charge dis fuckin' door and have done wit' all dis bullshit…!

He gave up on the first skeleton key, stabbed in the second. Raised his eyes, saw Rogue on the floor, clawing, Simmons behind her, grabbing a handful of her hair and yanking her painfully upwards…raising his free fist, driving it forward…

Rage surged through Remy like a physical thing as Simmons' fist connected with the side of Rogue's face with all the force of a jackhammer, and he could feel the impact as if it'd rammed into his own gut and twisted there, burning and bloody. And the hatred, the pure, boiling hatred was so strong, so powerful that he could feel the bio-kinetic energy swelling inside him, pushing with all the might he possessed against the dampening field that surrounded him; it was making his flesh, his nerve-endings, the very hairs on his skin crackle and burn. His fingers were working the lock madly now, his mind a white-hot blaze of fury and loathing as he watched Simmons lugging Rogue's struggling form over to the bed, murderous intent contorting his face, his eyes…

You fuckin' motherfuckin' bartards foutous, I'm gonna kill you, I'm gonna kill you you fucker, I'm gonna fuckin' KILL you…

The lock gave with a sharp click and the next moment he was on his feet, pushing the doors wide open, the energy buzzing in his limbs, overloading his muscles, and he was in pain, such goddamn mind-numbing pain… but his fingers were closing involuntarily round the knife at his thigh, and he was aiming without thinking at the figure on the bed hunched greedy and ravenous over Rogue's inert form…

I'm gonna kill you I'm gonna kill you I'm gonna kill you I'm gonna kill you…

And the knife left his hand. Whistled through the air like an avenging angel and hit its mark, deathly, final, absolute.

There was a silence; Simmons' form crumpled.

Remy stood in the doorway, feeling the pent-up energy in him disintegrate, feeling the pressure inside him, the painful crescendo, dissipate into the atmosphere around him. It took him a while to submerge the rest inside his bones, his skin, to switch off the remains that had been trying to get through. The thrumming in his head, in his ears stopped. Simmons was dead.

And it was one death Remy was glad, even happy about.

Rogue was moving, shoving the body aside with a barely concealed disgust, her limbs shaking with the strain. He went to her, the last vestiges of his power jarring through his legs as he walked, making his muscles feel as if they'd turned to jelly. He stood beside the bed in the darkness and looked down on her. The front of her dress had been torn open, and her arms moved instinctively to cover her breasts in an involuntary movement of shame and humiliation that brought his heart into his mouth. He remembered making love to Simmons' secretary with a dispassionate coldness that suddenly made him want to berate himself savagely when he saw her lying there, so small and wounded and vulnerable and child-like.

She was shaking, convulsing with pain and terror, but somehow her green eyes found his and she opened her mouth, stammered: "Y-y-you k-killed him…" in a voice he didn't recognise. And he smiled. No humour, no mirth. Just a cool pride that she was right. That he'd done it. That he'd done it for her, again. That he would do it for her again, a million times over.

"And dis time I don't care what you say, chere," he told her calmly, "he deserved it."

She was still shaking, still trying to cover herself and push herself up at the same time. His heart swelled at the pitiful sight; forgetting himself, forgetting she was still angry with him, he reached out to help her, touching her bare shoulder, only for her to shrug him away impatiently. He said nothing, respecting her wishes. He didn't feel he was worthy enough to touch her right now anyway. He turned and crossed over to the other side of the bed, where Simmons still lay.

"Mystique told us he wasn't to be harmed," she reminded him softly, but there was a strain of doubt in her voice and he was glad; if he'd had to hear her sticking up for Raven's decisions any longer he would've had to punch something. Hard. He bent over, pressed his left palm against Simmons' skull and pulled the knife lodged in his neck out with his right.

"Even Mystique will have to accept my judgement on dis one," he stated matter-of-factly. "Dat guy knew exactly who you were, and if I hadn'ta stepped in he woulda killed you. Dere was no other choice."

He wiped the blade clean against the corpse, his mouth twisted in disgust. When he raised his eyes again he saw that Rogue was looking at him, her eyes on his, an arm still attempting unsuccessfully to protect what little modesty she had left.

All dose men, all dose men and she still wants to hide herself from me, still doesn't want me to see…

He dropped his gaze and re-sheathed the knife at his thigh. Then he raised his eyes to hers again and shrugged his trench coat off; he held her gaze as he leaned forward and slipped the coat over her shoulders. She clasped it around her like a safety blanket, hiding her flesh from him, the beautiful flesh he'd come to think of as his own. But it wasn't his. It never had been. It was hers, and he'd claimed it when he'd had no right to. He was the one who'd made her what she was, who'd tainted her, taken her innocence and made her into Mystique's whore.

He understood that now. And he could expect no more thanks from her. He would never deserve it, no matter what else he did. No matter how much love he gave.

He threw her her pack and turned away from the body he'd never owned as she dressed once more, locked herself away from him in that tight, black bodysuit.

-oOo-

Later they stood together on the balcony, facing one another with the city behind them. He owed telling her the truth about what had happened between him and Simmons' secretary. He owed her a lot of truths, but he was tired of hurting her - it was all he ever did to her, and she didn't deserve anymore hurt.

He wanted to hold her; he wanted to kiss away the wound on her face, kiss away the memory of the body of the woman in the pink dress suit. He wanted to tell her he didn't give a damn about Sinister or this mission, that the only thing he gave a damn about was her. That the only thing he'd ever given a damn about for a long time was her. But she didn't need the burden of his feelings either. She didn't need the burden of a love he didn't think he was fully capable of giving her, not now, maybe not ever.

"Ready?" he asked instead.

She looked at him the way she had done a lifetime ago, under the cedar tree in a virginal white dress. Only the smile was gone. With one hand she passed him back his trench coat.

"As Ah'll ever be."

She brushed past him, just a whisper of contact, and swung over the balcony.

He watched her, the image of a butterfly he had set free coming unbidden to his mind.

And without another word, he turned and followed her lead.

-oOo-


(1) Destiny herself pulled the trigger that killed Senator Kelly and started the Days of Future Past timeline. An act that (in the 616 continuity at least) was ultimately prevented by Kitty Pryde. See Uncanny X-Men #142.

Next: A close encounter with the Phoenix...