Chapter 33

Sometime before midnight, Remi rode his bike up the long, winding drive to the mansion. He kept his speed down so the noise wouldn't disturb anyone, but he wasn't terribly surprised to find both his father and Jean waiting for him on the front porch. He bit back a surge of annoyance. He'd told them he didn't plan to start his foray into Elisabeth's mind until midnight at the earliest.

Remi parked on the edge of the drive and killed the engine. I told you I'd be back around eleven, he projected to the two on the porch.

Where did you go? his father asked.

Remi dismounted and unzipped the black leather jacket he'd worn to ward off the evening chill. I just needed to clear my head, he answered.

They would probably think that meant he'd spent the entire day riding the motorcycle, which was all right with him. He didn't think either of them would understand how well a few rounds of high-stakes poker in Atlantic City worked to settle his nerves. He'd walked away with a respectable portion of the pot, and now the night flowed around him like silk, sharpening his senses to a fine point.

He took the stairs up to the porch by twos, his boots thumping dully on the new wood. Jean gave him a startled stare as he joined them.

"You've been drinking." Her tone was more dismayed than accusing, but it still sent a crackle of defensive anger through Remi.

"You want to have Hank check my blood alcohol level?" he shot back. He had been drinking, though not nearly enough to impair him. Because of his unique blood chemistry, that took some doing.

His father gave him a reproving look. "I'm sure that's not what Jean meant." He glanced toward the telepath, his expression drawn in a frown, before returning his attention to Remi. "But this is a hugely difficult undertaking. It needs to be treated seriously."

"I know that, Aban." Remi took a firm grip on his temper. He was not on Chandilar, but even here he had to be aware of who he was—not so much the Imperial Prince Shi'ar, but the X-Men's new lead telepath who the team had to have confidence in. "I understand how difficult it is."

His father and Jean exchanged glances filled with veiled concern, which Remi decided to ignore. He stepped past them, stripping off his jacket as he did so, and the two fell in behind him.

Remi tossed his jacket across the back of the couch as he made his way through the living room to the lifts. Jean made an irritated noise in the back of her throat but she didn't say anything.

Remi smiled thinly. Had she still known him only as Remy LeBeau, he was certain Jean would have griped at him for not hanging the jacket up, and he wondered if she would ever feel that comfortable with him again. Hopefully. But for all that he still knew these people, they treated him like he'd suddenly become a stranger.

The lift doors slid open and Remi stepped inside. Jean and his father followed him.

"So how are you planning to keep track of all the pieces?" Jean asked as they rode the lift downward. She glanced into his face for a moment before returning her gaze to the doors in front of her.

Remi frowned, uncertain what she meant by the question. "The pieces?" he asked.

"Of Elisabeth's mind." She flicked a lock of red hair behind her shoulder. "How do you envision organizing them so you can find them again once you've figured out where they go?"

There was genuine curiosity in her voice, but her mind emanated a faint, professional kind of worry. For his part, Remi was baffled by the question, but before he could decide how to respond the elevator doors slid open.

Remi walked out into the hall. His father moved up beside him, the pitch of the hoverchair rising and then falling as he drew even with his son.

"Jean's question is a valid one," he began. "I am confident you have the ability to encompass the scope of Elisabeth's mind, even shattered as it is, but organizing all of those pieces and putting them in their proper order is a monumental task." He gave Remi an oblique look. "I think we would both feel better if we had some idea how you were planning to approach the problem."

Remi reached the infirmary and hit the control panel mounted next to the door. It slid aside to reveal Hank and Cable standing by Elisabeth's bed. Both men looked up as they entered, Hank with a bland expression that hid keen interest and Cable with his usual scowl. The machines attached to Elisabeth beeped rhythmically as if they were counting down the remaining moments of her life.

"Remi—" Jean began.

"I heard the question the first time." He cut her off more sharply than he intended, but the knife-edged cool he'd gotten at the poker table was beginning to slip and he resented it. Jean paused, pressing her lips together in a thin line.

"How is she doing, Hank?" Remi asked as he approached the bed.

"She's stable," Hank answered. He adjusted his glasses, his gaze flicking between the gathered telepaths. "Her vitals are beginning to weaken, though." He gestured to the machinery clustered around Elisabeth. "I can keep her body alive for weeks yet, perhaps months, but the sooner her mind is restored, the better."

Remi nodded to show he understood. Elisabeth's survival rested on him. He took a deep breath and tried to shut out the people around him. A thief's skill came from his ability to concentrate on his task to the exclusion of everything else—hands steady, vision clear, mind focused.

Remi shifted to the astral plane merely by the act of wanting to be there. It was a blank place, waiting to become whatever he willed it. As he moved into Elisabeth's mind, the scattered rubble appeared, stretching away as far as he could see. Jean appeared a moment later with Cable and Charles flanking her.

"I'm not trying to avoid your question," he said before any of them could speak. "I just don't know how to answer it." He shrugged and looked around. "I'm not going to try to organize anything." He couldn't imagine trying to piece all of this together like some kind of giant jigsaw puzzle. He doubted it was even possible.

"You can't just randomly slap pieces together!" Jean stared at him in horror. "This is a person's mind."

"Yes, Jean. I realize that." Remi struggled to contain his mounting frustration.

Cable turned to Charles with a frown. "This is a bad idea."

Shaking his head, Remi looked away from the group. Their lack of trust felt like a knife in his chest, and yet so familiar. He couldn't really blame them. He had made the choices that led them all here, just as much as his father had. And no one had ever trusted Gambit—not even before the details of the Massacre became known. He shouldn't be surprised that recent events had, at some unconscious level, validated their distrust.

For Elisabeth's sake, though, he had to put his conflicted feelings away. Before the others could question him further, he reached outward, spreading his awareness toward the edges of Betsy's mind. He could feel each of the jagged pieces of her—their existence disturbed the perfect smoothness of the astral plane. He envisioned them as asteroids, rocky debris littering an empty section of space well away from any star. Each of them, though small, produced gravity and warped the fabric of the universe in accordance with the known laws of physics.

In response, the pieces of Elisabeth's mind floated upward, becoming the asteroids he willed them to be. At first their motion was imperceptible, but slowly they began to drift, drawn together by their infinitesimal gravities only to collide softly and rebound in new directions. Each collision produced a tiny sound, barely a ripple in the empty vastness of space.

He kept the other telepaths at a distance where they glowed, dense and brilliant, immense bodies in the astral reality he'd created.

"People mistakenly think that the trick to picking locks is being able to force the tumblers to line up," Remi told them without taking his attention off the chaotic dance of rocks overhead. The void around him filled with the clickety-clack noise of a million collisions. It wasn't really sound, which couldn't propagate through a vacuum, but that was how he interpreted it.

One of the telepath-stars behind him rippled. "What does that have to do with anything?" Cable demanded.

Remi ignored the question. The effort of creating this astral place inside Elisabeth's mind felt like a smothering weight pressing down on him. It took the power of an Omega telepath to completely change the form of another person's mind. He wasn't tired yet, but that would come soon enough.

"What people don't realize," he said instead, "is that a lock is constructed with a single configuration in mind—when the tumblers are aligned, the bolt has to be able to slide through the void that's created. The components are machined to that specification. It is, in fact, only when the lock is unlocked that it is fulfilling the purpose of its design."

Behind him, the others pulsed in vibrant colors but no one spoke.

Remi went on. "A good thief knows this. He knows that the trick to picking a lock isn't in moving the tumblers, but in listening, because the parts always resonate a little bit differently when they settle into the place they were designed to go." In the silence that followed his words, the continuous click-clack of the rocky chunks bouncing off each other seemed to magnify, filling the emptiness.

Remi let his awareness of everything else fade, listening to the sounds as intently as he'd listened for the perfect little clink of tumblers falling into place. He'd always excelled at lockpicking. Jean Luc had never managed to put him in front of a mechanical lock he couldn't solve. His sensitive ears and fingertips always found the secrets buried in the machined metal.

Now, just like then, he listened with his whole body to the secrets held deep inside these shattered pieces of Elisabeth's mind. Every so often, amid the dissonant clicks and crunches, he heard a pure tone ring out. Not only could he hear it, but he could feel it through the gravity field that was his mind stretched across the breadth of Elisabeth's, and he immediately knew which pieces had made the sound. He took hold of them and fused them together with his will, feeling the perfect vibrations that told him these pieces had been designed to go together this way.

Remi had no sense of time as he worked his way through the jumbled asteroids, assembling them into larger and larger structures. Exhaustion dragged at him, familiar from physically demanding jobs where success depended on his ability to keep his hands perfectly steady for twelve hours at a stretch. He ignored the growing ache, promising himself a long, hot soak and a professional masseuse once he was done. It was a bargain he'd struck with himself many times.

Remi didn't realize the task was finished until he found himself wrapped in total silence. He opened his eyes to the sight of a massive spire of rock floating in the emptiness in front of him. It rose in graceful, twisting arches so complex his eyes couldn't follow their intricate curves. The jagged stone edges had disappeared, fitted together seamlessly and leaving nothing behind but a sleek, polished surface. He studied the structure for a long moment, searching for any sign of cracks or damage.

Finding nothing, he nodded to himself in satisfaction and released his hold on the fabric of Elisabeth's mind. The empty stretch of space with its completed stone tower dissolved, returning to whatever form Elisabeth preferred, and Remi gratefully retreated to his own body. He opened his eyes to find the others staring at him in varying degrees of surprise.

"That was… amazing," Jean said after a moment. "I would never have thought of…" She made an aimless gesture, struggling to put her thoughts into words. "You made it so simple."

"I, too, am very impressed, Remi," his father added.

Remi smiled at the sudden praise, but it couldn't completely soothe the sting of their earlier doubt.

"Elisabeth's brain trace is nearly normal," Hank told them, indicating one of the screens clustered around Psylocke with a wave.

Charles turned. "Do you know long it's likely to be before she wakes?"

"I would hate to guess," Hank answered with a frown, "but I suspect no longer than eight hours or so."

Charles nodded, his mind emanating pleased satisfaction. "Good. Then in a day or two perhaps someone should go visit Mutant Affairs again… provided Betsy feels up to it, of course."

#

Nathaniel Essex was not accustomed to intrusion, so he was surprised by the faint brush of a mind against his. He paused, looking up from his work as the presence bumped against the boundary of his mind and then wandered away as if it had accidentally blundered into him on its way elsewhere.

That was certainly possible, Essex thought, however unlikely. Intrigued, he set down his scalpel and stripped off his gloves, absently turning them inside out and depositing them in the waste basket next to the table as he passed by. As he walked out of the lab, he sent a small tendril of thought in the direction the other presence had gone.

Contact followed almost immediately. Something dark shuddered against him, evoking old memories of desire and the dissolution of sated lust. He got nothing more than that, though. Even as he reached toward the presence it slipped away.

Out in the hallway, a red light in an aluminum cage bolted to the pitted cement wall began to flash. Essex increased his pace. He reached the control room at the end of the hall and strode inside. A semi-circular counter filled most of the small space, on which were perched a row of high resolution monitors that gave him a near-perfect view of the exterior of the building.

A man stood outside the front door and looked up at the camera expectantly. Essex blinked in surprise and touched the speaker controls connected to the door.

"Amahl Farouk."

The Shadow King smiled inside his red leather helmet. "Hello Nathaniel." He looked over at the metal door barring his way. "May I come in?"

"Of course. I'll be right there." Essex released the momentary switch and turned away from the monitors. Curiosity nibbled at him, a welcome distraction from the grinding routine of his research. He and Farouk had known each other for a very long time, and though the Shadow King was really just a brute beneath his cultured veneer, he sometimes provided an interesting perspective.

Essex made a mental sweep of the area surrounding his lab as he walked toward the front door but found nothing out of order. Farouk did not appear to have any established any telepathic structures outside the boundaries of his own mind save for a couple of very ordinary sensory arms that swiveled to watch Essex's approach but did nothing threatening.

"I love the outfit," Essex commented sarcastically as he opened the door for Farouk. The Shadow King was obviously enjoying Magneto's body, if the fact that he was parading it around in a skimpy red leather get up was any indicator.

Farouk grinned, seeming genuinely pleased. "Why thank you." Essex couldn't tell if he'd even noticed the sarcasm.

He shook his head. "You look like a washed-up wrestler."

Farouk just laughed.

Essex led the way to his study which, unlike the rest of the complex was richly appointed with furnishings from the house he'd owned in Boston back at the turn of the century. He'd never been able to give them up.

"I assume this isn't just a social visit," he said and gestured for Farouk to help himself to a seat. "Tea?"

"Splendid. I'd love some." Farouk sank into one of the carved chairs and crossed his legs. "No one knows how to make good tea anymore."

Essex went to the sideboard to start some water heating.

"I was hoping you could tell me about a certain mutant," Farouk said from behind him.

"Which one?" Essex kept his voice mild. A request for information, particularly such a civil one, from Farouk meant he wanted something badly. But that, in turn, meant Essex needed to walk carefully. If it was that important, the Shadow King wouldn't hesitate to switch to more direct methods if he didn't get what he wanted.

"He calls himself Remy LeBeau."

Essex paused, hands upraised. Calls himself? That was an interesting turn of phrase.

"What would you like to know?" he asked instead and turned his head to observe the other's reaction.

"Everything," Farouk answered. He folded his hands atop his knee.

Essex considered his options while he prepared the tea. What interesting sort of trouble had Remy managed to get himself into now? Essex was inclined to cooperate with Farouk and tell him anything he wanted to know about the young man. He had a feeling he would learn more from the conversation than he gave away.

"All right," he agreed as he brought a filled cup to Farouk and sat down in a nearby chair with his own. "I first became aware of the young Mr. LeBeau about twelve or thirteen years ago. The head of the New Orleans Thieves Guild took in a teenage boy off the streets to raise as his own son, which caused quite an uproar. I took note, of course, because street children often grow up to be sociopaths of one flavor or another, and someone with no moral inhibitions and with the kind of skill set that comes out of the Thieves Guild…" He shrugged eloquently and took a sip of his tea. "…would be of great use to me."

"You weren't interested in his mutation?" Farouk asked. He took a dainty sip of his tea, pinky finger extended in an exaggerated affectation. On the astral plane, little tendrils began to grow out of the main body that represented Farouk's mind. Like plant shoots on time-lapse film, they squirmed and coiled their way outward, away from Farouk in all directions save for a pie wedge-shaped section pointed toward Essex. Exploratory vines climbed the stationary sensor constructions, poking into cracks and crevasses.

Essex raised a set of gossamer shields in response. Lightweight and sheer, they weren't significant protection but they would alert him to anything that tried to pierce their surfaces. He didn't really expect an attack from the Shadow King, but he hadn't survived this long by being trusting.

"Oh, peripherally," he answered Farouk's question. "Remy's genetic structure indicates he should be able to support a much stronger mutation than his bio-kinetic charge—" He paused as Farouk broke into a full-blown Cheshire Cat grin. "Something amuses you, Farouk?" Obscurely annoyed, he took another sip of tea.

If anything, the Shadow King's grin deepened. "Then you didn't know he was an Omega-level telepath?" he asked sweetly.

Essex choked in pure surprise and very nearly spewed tea on his clothing. He managed to swallow before dissolving into a short coughing fit, his mind spinning far too rapidly for him to suppress the reaction at a cellular level. LeBeau, a telepath?

"Can you prove it?" he demanded as soon as he'd recovered.

Farouk shrugged. "Only if you believe me when I say he punched through my shields and hit me hard enough to hurt." He thumped his chest with his thumb. "Xavier's the only other mutant who's ever been strong enough to do that."

Essex stared at him as he tried to assess the implications of what he'd just learned. Jean Luc's decision didn't seem so bizarre in the light of this new revelation, if, in fact, he had known what he was taking into his home. But Remy himself had not known—Essex had rifled through his mind in detail while he'd had LeBeau under sedation—so that begged the question of how Jean Luc could have learned something the boy himself did not know. And why would he have been left on the street for so many years if somewhere it was known what kind of potential he possessed? Moreover, why had Remy not manifested telepathic powers in all the years Essex had been observing him?

On the astral plane, Farouk's mind tendrils had woven themselves into a thick carpet that began to sprout odd growths. Essex might have labeled them flowers except for their fleshlike textures and the toothy ridges that took the place of petals. As they grew, the flowers snapped at each other, rattling their leaves and hissing whenever one of the others got too close.

"What are you doing?" he asked Farouk, not bothering to keep the note of suspicion out of his voice. If the ugly things hadn't been quite a ways away, Essex would have been more than a little concerned. As it was, he was merely wary.

Farouk made a dismissive gesture. "Merely amusing myself, I assure you." He took a last sip of his tea and set the cup aside. "I have an idea how to… reinforce my position the next time I face this young man, so I am experimenting, if you will." He gave Essex a slick smile.

Essex didn't believe that was all there was to it, but for now he forbore asking. He didn't want Farouk thinking he was too suspicious. But, he began strengthening his shields and arming his other psychic defenses.

Farouk leaned back in his chair. "You know, it's interesting how events play out." He stared thoughtfully at the ceiling. "Thinking back, I do believe I had LeBeau's sister in my stable at one point." He dropped his gaze to Essex's and his smile was one of the most predatory the other man had ever seen. "She was a sweet creature—so easily frightened."

Essex drained the last of his tea to cover his reaction to this latest surprise. "I wasn't aware he had a sister." His mind immediately began turning through the possibilities.

"You don't know very much, do you?" Farouk commented and Essex felt a rare burst of anger. It burned in the center of his chest like a tiny, hot star. If Remy LeBeau really was an Omega telepath, how could he have missed it?

"I've been through Remy's mind," he told Farouk, allowing a note of disbelief to creep into his voice. "It was a mess, but there was no awareness of himself as a telepath. Perhaps someone else was using him to shield their identity."

He was disappointed when Farouk didn't take his bait. He'd hoped that prodding the other's ego might evoke a little more information. Instead, the Shadow King leaned forward, his expression one of only mild interest.

"A mess, you say? How so?"

Essex shrugged. "The structure is very chaotic. I suspect his entire memory construct was shattered at some point, perhaps by trauma, and he had to rebuild it." He steepled his fingers and considered Farouk over the tips. "I did some emergency repair work a few years ago to keep him from completely losing his grip on reality."

"I assume you were successful?" Farouk's expression didn't change.

Essex nodded. "When he came to me, Remy was having significant trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Things he had merely imagined, or dreamed, he thought had really happened, and he was beginning to lose the ability to organize the events of his life according to chronology."

Farouk was silent for several seconds, his fingertips tapping silently on the chair arm. "Well, that is interesting," he finally said.

Essex wanted to ask him the reason for the comment but he was distracted by a sudden burst of activity on the astral plane. The Shadow King's field of flower horrors had grown into a jungle, and now the wildlife had begun hooting and rustling in response to something Essex couldn't identify.

Across from him, Farouk grinned as if he sensed Essex's uneasiness and was enjoying it. He probably was. Essex tried to ignore him as he made a circuit of the heavy walls that now enclosed his mind, their sheer sides so tall they nearly blocked out the vaguely sunlight-like illumination of the astral plane. Like a high-tech castle, the structure bristled with sensing vanes that would warn him of any approach.

Farouk chuckled. "You are quite paranoid, Nathaniel. Did you know that?"

"I prefer to think of it as prudence," Essex countered. He swept the empty expanse of the astral plane that separated him from the Shadow King once more, searching for any sign of threat.

"It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you, eh?" Farouk's laughter deepened.

Suddenly, tendrils exploded from the ground at Essex's feet. He lurched as they whipped around his body, pinning his arms to his sides. Thousands of fang-like thorns pierced his astral skin. With a roar of rage, he fought back but he was no match for the massive strength of the Shadow King.

Farouk leaned forward in his chair, his mouth stretched in a menacing grin. "Oh, don't be such a booby," he said as Essex struggled uselessly against his bonds. "You might even like what I'm going to do with you."