Curiosity

Chapter 10: The Chase

Disclaimer: Eh. Since you're not watching this on Cartoon Network or reading it in anything with the "Marvel" imprint, I suppose it should be obvious that I don't own Gambit (*sigh*). Or Rogue, or any of the other X-Men. Please don't sue, I'm not profiting.

Author's Note: There's a movie called A Shot in the Dark – it's an old Pink Panther movie, and it has the best opening sequence of any move. Ever. It's basically the main characters (the suspects) sneaking around this old French mansion, narrowly avoiding bumping into each other. That's sort of my road-map for this chapter – lots of sneaking around, chasing each other and general mayhem. I apologize in advance for all the jumping around in POV, I'm doing my best to make this chapter the last transition to the final showdown (which may or may not be 2+ chapters).

Update – this chappie has ballooned to 9+ pages, and I've got a few more scenes to flesh out (I planned this chapter out like a good little girl, which is why it's taking so long … and hopefully also why it's going to actually go somewhere).

And … cue the music!

* * * * *

"That went well," Jubilee remarked wryly.

Kitty didn't even have words to describe how well it hadn't gone. Rogue hadn't taken her gentle admonition kindly . . .

Thankfully, Rogue hadn't resorted to violence. She hadn't really even said anything before she stormed off in a huff. And no one stormed like Rogue in high dudgeon – she was the only person Kitty knew who could slam an invisible door.

"Rogue was here." It wasn't a question, so much as it was a command. Kitty squeaked in surprise, phasing through her chair reflexively as Wolverine made his entrance.

She popped back out of the overstuffed chair almost immediately … and immediately wished she'd stayed intangible just a moment longer.

Kitty phased back out, making good her exit while Wolverine was distracted with Jubilee. She supposed she should be grateful for the excuse to cut and run – she had a lot of work to do. She wanted something to give Storm the next time the Goddess found her.

* * * * *

Things were not going well. She hadn't expected Kitty to pull the information on Gambit out of thin air, but she'd thought the child would at least look for some information on the party (or parties) responsible for the series of attacks on her teammates. Instead, the girl was gossiping and watching television.

Ororo took a deep breath as a peal of thunder shattered the afternoon calm, rattling the windows in their frames. Perhaps she could use a cup of tea, to soothe her thoughts. She pulled out the tea kettle. The microwave was faster, but there was a lot to be said for the calming effects of the ritual of making tea.

She took a seat at the small table next to the large bay window, soaking up the warmth of the autumn sun while she waited for the water to boil.

* * * * *

Kitty was upset – things were not going her way.

Errors.

Blipping and flashing and dancing across her screen. A sea of timeouts and dropped packets.

Her search was not going well … mostly because she couldn't even get the minimal bandwidth required to upload her search-spiders onto several strategically placed, anonymous servers and let them crawl around and do the searching for her. She'd resorted to the somewhat clumsy technique for several reasons, the most pressing of which was the need to avoid detection at all costs.

A couple keystrokes revealed the problem: an overwhelming portion of the school's entire bandwidth was being eaten up by activity on one subnet. She shouldn't have even bothered hacking into the router to see the problem; as per usual, it was the boys.

Well, desperate times called for desperate measures. She took a deep breath, phasing as far out as she could and floating down through the floor. It didn't take her long to find what she was looking for: clean, well-lit and cool, equipment neatly stacked and wired. All the routers and servers, humming and flashing obediently …

She considered phasing through the Cisco router that handled the traffic from the east wing, frying it for good – the boys' dormitories. She decided against it; she furrowed her brow in concentration, phasing her arm through the bars of the server cage and forcing just enough tangibility to her fingers to disconnect the network cable from the router.

It probably wouldn't take the boys long to notice and investigate. Even the most technology-challenged mutant was likely to notice the single unplugged cable amongst the mass of neatly bundled wiring. For once, Kitty almost regretted the rigid professionalism with which their server room was maintained.

Such a pity …

Inspiration struck, and she pulled a thin piece of paper from her pocket – a receipt of some sort. She tore off a small piece, and set it carefully over the pin as she plugged the cable back in. It would pass a cursory inspection, but the thin paper would interfere with the connection, leaving her positively swimming in bandwidth.

Victory would be hers.

Kitty yanked her arm out of the cage as soon as the deed was done, phasing her forearm back into solidity and flexing her fingers. She'd always been bothered by the implications of being able to selectively phase, and it was even more disturbing to manipulate her solid hand through her intangible arm. At first, it had seemed like a physical impossibility that her arm, while intangible, would be able to support her hand, let alone conduct the millions of electrical impulses to direct said hand. Once she thought about it, she realized that her entire mutation was problematic in the face of Newtonian physics. Even Einstein's relativistic time-is-matter-is-energy doctrine failed to explain how two objects were able to occupy the same space at the same time … for example, her head and whatever wall, door, or person she happened to be phasing through at the time.

Thinking about it for too long tended to give her a headache. Beast had offered an explanation rooted in String Theory – which she'd thought she'd understood until the part where he postulated that she was able to modulate her fundamental frequency (or, really, the fundamental frequency of every single subatomic particle in and around her body) to match perfectly that of the object through which she was phasing, producing a wave cancellation effect that allowed her sub-atomic components to oscillate in and out of "phase" at opposite ends of each others' waveforms. Which sounded to her a bit like time-slicing reality. (1)

Her head was aching already. But, on the plus side – victory. She smiled as she phased all the way out and floated back to her room.

* * * * *

"Hey, watch where you're going, bub!"

Remy LeBeau was, hands-down, the best thief in the world. He was stealthy, agile, and light-footed, and he'd taught as much of his art as he could to the weather witch he was now tailing through Xavier's mansion.

She'd learned well. She had almost spotted him at least twice (he must be getting sloppy), and he'd dropped far enough back that he'd been forced to sprint to make up ground, so he wouldn't lose her entirely. He'd been sure she was heading for a liaison, but then … she'd walked right by the room, with barely a pause. Something – or someone – in the room had caused her to change her mind.

So, here he was, feeling more than a little sheepish about having run headlong into one of the students after a mad dash around one of the many blind corners. His luck being what it was (and lately, what it was, was nonexistent), he found himself confronted by a very angry blonde mutant.

"Sorry, mon ami. Didn' see y'."

Wait, he knew this guy.

Remy swore as he dodged the wave of ice the smaller man hurled at him.

"What's your problem? You think you can just run people over?"

He really didn't want to fight the guy. "Calm dow', mon ami, said I was sorry!"

Remy's feet slipped out from underneath him, his head impacting the solid paneled wall with an audible crack.

OK, now he wanted to fight this guy. He flipped to his feet in time to avoid another blast of slush, slipping a little but managing to keep his footing on the iced-up floor.

Sneaky bastard.

Remy manfully resisted the urge to pull a card out of one of his hidden pockets. This little twerp wasn't worth it – besides, if he wasted much more time here, he'd lose Storm for sure.

* * * * *

The watched pot was not boiling.

Storm: Weather Witch, Goddess of the Elements, X-Man … she had other titles, too. She was the Queen of Wakanda. She wielded both political and elemental power the likes of which few other women (or men, for that matter) had access to. With a thought, she could summon cyclones powerful enough to level the strongest buildings. And she found herself sitting at the kitchen table, kicking one foot idly and creating miniature dust devils while she waited for the water to boil.

She sighed, watching disinterestedly as a scrap of paper was caught up in the eddy, dancing nimbly around the other swirls of dust.

A faint whistle stirred her from her musings. The water was almost at a boil.

She smiled, letting her little dust devil go and reaching for the tea: there was nothing like a good rooibos Chai to clear the mind and soothe the senses.

A faint whoosh was her only warning before the kettle froze over, the water freezing and cracking as it came to a boil.

Bobby froze as the angry Goddess rounded on him, stopping him in his tracks. Remy breezed on by, ducking around Storm with a cheeky salute to the iced-over X-Man.

"Bobby, there had better be a very good explanation for this."

"Um …"

Bobby was too distracted by Remy's escape to think of a decent excuse. The thief had managed to use Storm as a cover, without her even noticing he was there. Bobby could only hope that Storm didn't find herself anywhere near the boys' dorms … at least, not until the ice melted.

Think, Bobby …

A loud clap of displaced air broke his frantic train of thought, accompanied by a waft of sulfurous vapor. Saved by the brimstone!

Storm broke eye contact with Bobby long enough to shoot Kurt a powerful glare. "Kurt, I've asked you numerous times not to teleport into the kitchen. The smell is … unsettling."

"Entschuldigung, Ms. Munroe, but I was working on my paper when the internet went down, and so I decided to come take a break and have a snack, but when I went into the hallway it was too icy to walk."

Kurt smiled up at her, all innocence and apology.

Bobby groaned. Nothing was going his way, today. He should have pulled a page from that Cajun thief's book and made good his escape while Storm was distracted with Kurt.

* * * * *

It was nearly noon, and Rogue had seen neither hide nor hair of that damn Cajun swamp rat thief … her feet were hurting almost as much of her pride. Not that she'd had much of her feet or her pride left after cramming herself into the too-tall boots and the too-short miniskirt on this lovely, crisp autumn day.

Without even thinking, she headed for the kitchen. Ice cream would fix everything. A shiver wracked her frame as a chill wind swept through the hallway. Or perhaps a bowl of soup would be better.

She was still trying to decide what exactly she wanted (steadfastly ignoring the growling voice in the back of her head that insisted Bourbon was the only cure for a cold day) when she swept into the kitchen. She breezed past the group arguing in front of the stove (nothing new, around here) and headed straight for the fridge …

… only to find herself flat on her back on the floor, staring up at Bobby, Storm, and Kurt, wondering what had just happened. Her head was killing her, she must have hit it when she fell.

Damn boots. Rogue shifted into a sitting position, ignoring Storm's admonition to stay still and Bobby's rather pointed stare. The floor was freezing. Literally freezing. It was actually covered in a thin layer of ice …

"Bobby! You low-down, no-good, sneaky little rat!"

"It's not my fault!" Bobby blurted out the denial without thinking. He'd been more than a little distracted by Rogue's spectacular flailing wipeout when she walked in, and that outfit of hers definitely wasn't helping in the concentration department.

She'd never worn anything like that when they'd been together.

She'd never worn anything like that … ever.

"There's ice all over the floor, Bobby, am I supposed to believe it's Kurt's fault? And ya can stop starin' at me anytime."

"Um …" He didn't think it would be quite politick to point out that he wasn't the only person in the room with the power over ice.

"Rogue, I think you hit your head, child. Perhaps it would be best if you headed to the infirmary."

"I'm fine, thank you Ms. Munroe … I'm just hungry, and I wasn' payin' attention, and I completely missed the sign warning that the kitchen may ice before the road, or somethin' like that … besides, I mean, who wouldn't assume there would be ice on the kitchen floor in September? Silly me."

"If she's being sarcastic, I'm sure she's fine." It slipped out before he could stop himself, earning Bobby an evil look from Kurt, and two almost-identical glares from Storm and Rogue.

"Bobby!" Ororo crossed her arms, staring pointedly at the Iceman.

"Um … ?" Think, Bobby, think. Deflect blame. "Ms. Munroe, those boots she's wearing are …" Distracting, hot, dangerous, super-hot, his mind gleefully supplied. "… really not suited to the terrain," he finished weakly.

"Am I to take it that by 'terrain' you mean the kitchen?"

"Und ze hallway outside ze boys dorm!" Kurt chimed in helpfully.

Ororo chuckled softy, shooting Kurt a conspiratorial look out of the corner of her eye. "Really, Bobby, I had no idea you were so interested in women's fashions. I suggest you go back to your dorm room and stay there. Try not to create anymore 'terrain' on you way up there. I'll be sending Wolverine to talk to you about using powers in the house, and about respecting your team mates! And about your unnatural interest in women's shoes!"

Bobby opened his mouth to protest, and then it hit him that hiding out for a few hours was probably the smartest thing he could do at this point. He turned an abrupt about-face, making a beeline for the door before he could dig himself even deeper. Today just wasn't his day. He couldn't help thinking that this was somehow all that damn Cajun's fault.

"Are you sure you're OK, Rogue?" Storm was looking down at her with a mix of suspicion and concern. Which she supposed made sense, given that she was still on the floor.

Rogue clambered to her feet, brushing herself off as best she could. "I'm just fine, thank y'."

Rogue had never been what Storm would call graceful – not on the ground, anyway – but those boots would surely try even her own skills. She stopped herself short of asking Rogue where she'd acquired them. She had more important things to worry about than boots.

Storm was torn – she wasn't at all sure Rogue was "OK" by any definition of the word, but she had matters to attend to. Tracking down Wolverine when he didn't want to be found (which seemed to be most of the time, actually) was always a task, and she still needed to find Kitty for a one-on-one talk.

She spared a glance at the still-frozen kettle before stalking out of the kitchen, swearing quietly to herself.

* * * * *

Remy was having a hard time keeping quiet. A small alcove in the hallway outside the kitchen provided an excellent vantage point for eavesdropping. He found it oddly satisfying to hear the ice-jerk get his come-uppance from Storm. And Rogue …

This was a sticky wicket. Storm strode past, oblivious to his presence. He'd been looking for Rogue all morning. Then again, he was almost positive Storm was up to something.

Curiosity won out over certain of his other drives, and he swept soundlessly down the hall after the Goddess. He needn't have bothered with stealth; for a Saturday afternoon, there were quite a few people roaming the corridor's of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. He was hardly a conspicuous presence.

* * * * *

Logan hated Saturdays.

He'd settled in to something of a routine. Saturday meant no morning Danger Room exercises, which meant he generally had unchallenged claim to the first pot of coffee (not that anyone in their right minds would deny Logan his morning cup of Joe). While the whole mansion slumbered, he had the opportunity to explore the grounds, to appreciate the natural beauty of the terrain surrounding Xavier's upstate mansion.

The peace never lasted long – but it usually afforded him a chance to watch the sun rise, have a cigar.

Today was no exception. It took a little longer than usual, but before the sun reached its zenith, Storm had managed to track him down. He'd taken to making a little game of it, switching up locations, alternating hiding in trees or atop rocky embankments.

Not hiding, he corrected himself. Meditating. Communing with nature, and all that.

He was a first rate tracker (despite his failure to corner Rogue earlier that morning), and as such was an expert in leaving no trace … but none of that was any use when your pursuant could fly.

It was business as usual – though Storm seemed quite a bit more agitated than usual. There was definitely something bothering her if Bobby's little redecorating stunt got her into such a huff. From her expression, he'd been expecting something a little more drastic. She'd mentioned something about Rogue, as well … muttered something under her breath about boots, as well, but surely he'd been mistaken …

If the Iceman was acting out because of Rogue, it would be prudent to deal with the issue before it got out of hand. Officially, Scott was in charge of keeping order in the boys' dorm, but Ororo had learned that Logan's results were quicker, and longer-lasting, than any extra chores that Scott could assign.

Logan sighed, grinding out the cigar against the bark of the tree he was perched in. Trying to ram a point though Drake's thick skull always gave him a headache. If he wanted to have any reasonable chance at making it to dinner, he'd better get started.

* * * * *

Kitty smiled, a subtle quirk of her lips that had always sent Rogue running for the hills. With the boys' dorm effectively cut off from the T-1 line, her efforts were bearing fruit.

Dirt, rather – on Remy LeBeau, Prince of Thieves, and the shadowy organization known as the Thieves' Guild.

Her web-spider had turned up a number of possible leads on its first crawl through cyberspace, and she was just about finished sorting the potential from the useless. She'd tweak the parameters a few times and send it back out, then feed the data through a specialized parser she'd cooked up. All of this was just to sort through the publicly available information. All she had to do was sit back and sort through the piles of data her spiders had returned.

There wasn't much information regarding Remy LeBeau in the public domain, or anyone with the surname LeBeau, for that matter. No birth certificate on Remy, but she did turn up the adoption paperwork from the Orleans Parish Civil Court Records. It seems Remy was adopted.

Interesting.

A wedding announcement, a few obituaries from twenty years ago for what she could only assume were cousins or uncles …

She frowned.

There was an article announcing the arrangement of marriage of Remy LeBeau and one Belladonna Boudreaux. The article listed his age as fourteen, hers as twelve.

There was another, more recent announcement of the impending nuptials. She hadn't realized that anyone still brokered marriages … but then, New Orleans was home to all manner of quaint Southern customs.

It seemed that both the LeBeau's and the Boudreaux's were old-world money – among the original French settlers of the area. The coverage of the wedding in the mainstream press had been slavish – almost fawning. It had been the social event of the season, it seems.

Until Remy had walked away. Left his beautiful young bride standing at the altar.

Kitty ran a few quick searches – pulled a list of registered companies for both the Boudreaux's and the LeBeau's, and ran a reverse lookup search for any domains affiliated with any of the addresses or names on file with the state or the parish.

A simple packet sniffer, deployed through a proxy server, gave her an overview of the architecture: two main mail servers, a couple of firewalls … nothing else facing the internet.

A few clicks, and she'd set up a packet sniffer to watch the firewalls. Now for the mail servers – unpatched Windows machines running an out-of-date version of Exchange. (2)

Like candy from a baby.

While she was siphoning data from the mail server, encrypting and redirecting the data through a series of proxy servers, she set to work on the firewalls. Whoever had set those up had known what they were doing.

A soft chime heralded the arrival of the emails.

She set a parser up to classify the bulk of it, and sat back to wait, twirling her hair idly. It was a little odd that Remy showed no legitimate employment records, but not out of the realm of credibility. After all, he had been adopted into one of the wealthiest families in New Orleans.

Which beggared the question: why? Jean Luc LeBeau had already produced an heir, though he lacked the spare. Still, mortality rates had improved somewhat since the middle ages, largely removing the "need" for a spare, even amongst families who saw themselves as having a legacy to guard. Remy was a nobody, and Jean Luc had adopted him off the streets, out of the blue.

The Boudreaux's public records were fairly boring – other than the wedding coverage. And the tendency of the patriarchs to die young. She did the math on the birth and death certificates – none of the first-born males had lived past forty-five.

The emails … there were a lot of emails.

Kitty dove in, starting with the LeBeau's private server.

* * * * *

Jean sighed, tossing her pencil aside in frustration. Her day was not going well. She had a ton of applications to complete, but she was barely able to concentrate long enough to write her own name. The entire school was fairly buzzing with pent-up energy.

The last time she'd heard this kind of mental noise was when a freak April blizzard had downed the T-1 line, leaving the students to attempt to entertain themselves during the four hour turnaround guaranteed by the contract with the telecomm company.

Needless to say, all manner of havoc had ensued.

If she concentrated hard enough, she could almost make sense of the chaos swirling around her … she could also get a pounding migraine.

She checked her watch, and decided to have a bite to eat. That would clear her head. And hopefully stave off the headache.

* * * * *

"Are you sure, child?"

Kitty ignored the 'child' part and nodded grimly. Storm had been hard to track down, and she supposed she should have waited for the Goddess to come to her, but after she'd sorted through those emails …

"I'm certain that all of the … information you've gathered was obtained through legal means?"

"As far as anyone can prove, I haven't 'obtained' anything," Kitty said dismissively.

Storm nodded a curt approval.

"Well? What are we going to do?"

"The foibles of those two Guilds are none of our concern."

"But she's going to kill Remy! We have to do something, we have to warn him!"

"How do you propose we do that, without revealing that we've been looking into his background? I believe I can predict how that would go over – Remy LeBeau values his privacy."

"But -"

"Forewarned is forearmed. I don't plan to allow Belladonna to get her hands on Gambit. Nor do I plan to stand idly by while she instigates a hostile takeover of the New York crime syndicate. However, a certain amount of discretion is called for in situations such as these."

"But-"

"Hush, child, I need to think."

Kitty sighed softly, barely managing to control the urge to roll her eyes. She couldn't understand how Storm was taking the news so calmly. She wasn't sure on specifics, but rumors had been swirling around the mansion about the nature of the Goddess' relationship with the Prince. Even if they weren't true (and Kitty earnestly believed that at the heart of every rumor was a seed of truth), she knew Remy. Was friends with him.

Which had to make the news that his former bride was planning to murder him in a convoluted plot to seize control of both the Assassins' Guild and the Thieves' Guild in New Orleans at least a little unsettling. And if that didn't raise her eyebrows, then the revelation that Belladonna was using the Morlocks as fuel to ignite the fire that would draw Remy out of hiding and deliver control of the syndicated crime networks based in New York City should.

Honestly, if Belladonna wasn't so evil, Kitty would have been forced to admit the simple brilliance of it all.

* * * * *

Logan couldn't remember his childhood, but he didn't imagine that he was particularly quiet or reserved. (3) While it would be more than a bit of a stretch to describe the mutants housed under Xavier's roof as quiet (or reserved, or civilized) it occurred to him that the boys were a bit … rowdier than usual. Jaime was all over the place, for one – which was nothing unusual in and of itself – but he seemed to have spread himself a bit thin.

With a barely repressed snarl, Wolverine waded through the crowd of duplicates. The hallway was definitely showing signs of having been frozen over recently; a few of the Jaime's were ice-skating along one of the side corridors that still held a few small patches of ice.

He sighed; looks like Storm hadn't been exaggerating the magnitude of the chaos Bobby had managed to instigate in just a few short hours.

Logan turned the corner to Bobby's hallway, exhaling sharply as he ran face-first into a solid object. He blinked to clear his vision; he was lucky that he had his regenerative power. The healing factor didn't stop it from hurting when he broke his nose on Piotr's chest.

"Excuse me, Mr. Logan, I didn't see you there."

For someone who was built like a tank even when he wasn't covered head-to-toe in bio-metallic armor, Piotr Rasputin was entirely too … well-mannered.

Logan grunted in response. "Where you goin' in such a hurry, kid?"

Piotr froze like a deer in the headlights. "The internet is down, so I thought I would go to the gardens. To paint."

Logan grunted again, shouldering past him. That certainly explained the chaos he'd seen thus far. He was already knocking on Bobby's door when he realized that Piotr' hadn't been carrying a canvas or paintbrushes. Or paint.

Whatever.

* * * * *

Kitty was deep in thought when a thunderous pounding at her door sent her heart leaping into her throat. And her laptop thundering toward the floor. She caught it just in the nick of time, barely managing to keep her grip on it when the knocking started again.

Not even Wolverine sounded like that; it was like an entire mountain range was not-so-gently rapping at her chamber door.

She set the laptop safely on her nightstand, and rushed to the door before her visitor could knock again. She liked having a door, she really did, and it would be a pity to see hers demolished.

Red filled her vision as she flung the door open, ready to give her visitor a piece of her mind. The color filled her doorway. Piotr liked red. It reminded him of home, and of family.

She looked up – waaay up – and was met with the unmistakable ice-blue of his eyes.

Kitty giggled nervously. "Hello, Piotr."

"Hallo, Kit-ty."

Piotr was always careful around other people – careful of the way he moved, careful of his speech, careful of his strength – and he was always doubly vigilant around Kitty.

"Um, I was wondering …"

Kitty smiled encouragingly up at him, gesturing for him to come in. Heaven forbid Jubilee or Amara see him standing at her door; that was how rumors got started. Not that she minded the idea of being linked to Piotr Rasputin in the mansion gossip … after the last rumors (true, but that was beside the point) had nearly destroyed her friendship with Rogue, Kitty had made a conscious decision to fly under the radar, as it were.

She'd seen Piotr a few times, outside of school grounds. She supposed normal people would call it dating. Fortunately, no one at the mansion was anything approaching "normal" – and even more fortunately, Rogue was the only person that seemed to have figured out she was seeing someone. And even Rogue didn't know who.

He really was a sweet boy. And really did seem to be having trouble articulating the purpose for his visit. She saw him eying her laptop, and she casually flipped the cover shut, flopping down on her bed and pasting an innocent expression on her face.

"Kitty, I was vondering iff you could help me – the internet in the boys' dorm iss down, and I was wanting to veb-conference with my sister, Ilyana."

"Really, the internet is down? How long has it been?"

"All afternoon. What you are doing on your laptop, iss it important?"

What was she doing on her laptop – felonies, hacking government-level encryption on firewalls – important?

"Uh, I was just doing some … research." Researching the private files of New Orleans' biggest criminal syndicates.

"Oh, I see – I would not wish to interfere with your studies."

"No!" Dammit, now she was feeling guilty. She knew it wasn't often that he got to speak with his sister. "I mean, yes, it's important. Um, perhaps Amara would let us borrow her laptop." She almost cringed as she said it.

* * * * *

Rogue's stomach was growling. Her feet were still aching, and she'd sustained quite a few scratches clambering into her tree.

Wolverine's tree, truth be told. She could smell the faint aroma of cigar smoke.

She supposed it said something about her state of mind that she was able to rationalize her habits – Wolverine's habits. She'd absorbed him enough, and recently enough, that his mind seemed at times to intertwine seamlessly with hers.

The tree-climbing wasn't nearly as disturbing as the bizarre cravings – everything from raw meat to cigars and bourbon. She was almost getting used to his (her) habit of eyeing up women, and the fights (truth be told, she wasn't entirely sure that particular tendency was all his).

It was just her luck he wasn't here. Not that he'd have anything favorable to say about her outfit, or her motives behind it … he could always read her like a book. Like she was in his head as much as he was in hers.

God, she needed a drink. And a nice long bubble bath.

She sighed softly as she felt the wind shift, carrying with it the unmistakable scent of rain. The weather around the mansion, never what she'd call predictable, had degenerated into "freaky" territory since Remy LeBeau had moved in. No one was brave (read: stupid) enough to confront Storm personally, but the safe money was on the dark-eyed Goddess having something to do with the erratic weather.

Natural or no, either way she was screwed. She swung down from the tree, wincing slightly as she landed heavily on her much-abused feet. She didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of reaching the safety of the mansion before all hell broke loose.

The first few drops splashed messily around her as she hobbled through the forest, silently damning Remy LeBeau, the designer responsible for the medieval torture devices that were masquerading as her boots, and men in general.

* * * * *

Belladonna Boudreaux sat comfortably at her father's massive antique Bureau du Roi, staring at the clock mounted in the ornate woodwork decorating the monstrosity. She hated that desk for everything it symbolized, yet she wanted it badly … it made the one in the Louvre – the original Bureau du Roi commissioned for Louis XV – look like the common cylinder desk on which it was based. The gilt carvings, the exquisite marquetry of priceless and impossible-to-find hardwoods and mother-of-pearly, the clawed feet … it symbolized power and authority just as it symbolized her family's blind adherence to past traditions. For centuries the patriarch of the Assassins' Guild had sat behind this desk, rendering judgment against traitors and administering the empire.

Boudreaux family tradition held that it had been built by the same master cabinet maker that had built King Louis. Another tradition held that the desk had a twin – an exact duplicate sitting in Jean Luc LeBeau's private study.

Well, she'd soon see the truth in that one. Too bad that she planned on disposing of her father and Remy in one fell swoop; she'd have loved to face Remy from behind this desk, see him brought before her and tried for his betrayal – of her and of her Guild.

She flipped open her laptop, verifying that the family jet was still parked at Paris Beauvais Tillé airport. While her father gadded about Paris negotiating with the Old World guilds, she'd been able to pad the ranks of his followers with men loyal to her – men with skills more marketable than just the ability to pick locks.

Her computer specialist had been able to institute some fairly sophisticated upgrades to their server infrastructure … or so he'd told her. As far as she knew, they hadn't really had a server infrastructure before Frederic. She really had no way of knowing, except that she trusted that he was too frightened of her to lie to her.

Her enemies had access to far more sophisticated technology than she could ever hope to get her hands on, a fact on which she was counting. Frederic had already given word that their systems had been breached.

Belladonna wasn't a gambling woman, but she'd bet every penny her family had that the mutants Gambit was holed up with were the ones behind the attack. Frederic had painted quite the picture; with any luck, the X-Men were already on their way to the ambush she'd set up. There would be far more than a local contingent of thugs waiting for them.

After all, she had a kingdom to usurp, a veritable empire to build, and she'd need more than computer geeks to help her do it.

* * * * *

Ororo watched the mansion shrinking rapidly in her rear-view mirror, shrugging off the feeling of guilt at nicking Remy's cherished motorcycle. If Kitty was right, she needed to deal with this situation in New York. As a bonus, by stealing his bike she ensured that Gambit wouldn't be following her when Kitty blabbed.

When, not if. Ororo had no doubt that Kitty would be unable to keep such a juicy tidbit to herself. With any luck, she'd have the situation handled well before Kitty alerted the entire mansion.

Normally, she'd have relied on her team – disclosed the information to Xavier and let the entire team formulate a plan. The situation with Belladonna, and the New York family, and the anti-mutant gangs … well, this required a delicate touch. She owed Gambit, and she wasn't going to let Belladonna set him up.

Luckily, she had a few favors she could call in.

* * * * *

As per usual, of late, nothing was going her way. Rogue finished the trek to the mansion in a dead sprint, her boots slipping precariously on the muddy grass. As she'd predicted, the rain hit well before she was even close to the safety of the mansion.

It was indicative of her luck as of late that she wasn't at all surprised to be greeted in the foyer by a veritable welcoming party. She stumbled in the door, tripping over herself … and the umbrella stand. It crashed to the marbled floor, disgorging its store of rain-gear in a clattering explosion of irony.

Which no one noticed.

Rogue wrung out her hair, resisting the impulse to shake herself off like a dog. She edged carefully around the crowd, none of whom had deigned to notice her yet. Wolverine seemed to be at the center of the chaos, as per usual. He seemed to be interrogating Kitty about something.

To her left – in the shadows under the main staircase – she saw something … an eerily familiar red glow. She didn't have time to revel in the irony, fortunately.

"Rogue! Mein Schwester, you are soaked to ze bone!"

Perfect. As though on cue, the entire crowd turned its attention to her.

This was unbelievable. She should have been expecting something of the sort, though, with the way her days had been consistently sliding from bad to worse of late. God, what she wouldn't give to be able to teleport … anything to get away from all of their prying stares. She could hear them, inside and outside her head, drowning out her own thoughts with their silent chaos.

She hadn't felt like this … well, since she'd taken the Cure.

Rogue was no more shocked than they were when the floorboards creaked dangerously under her suddenly-increased weight. A glance down at her hands – ungloved in an increasingly common act of defiance – confirmed it. She was armored up like Piotr.

How was this even possible? She hadn't had any contact with Piotr since … well, it was a good thing she couldn't blush through bio-metallic armor.

"Rogue!"

Wolverine shouldered his way through the crowd, a concerned expression on his face.

Rogue couldn't think past the jumble of thoughts rattling around in her head, inside and out, screaming and yelling and whispering and laughing. They were mocking her, she was sure of it. She had to get away, away from Wolverine's awkward fatherly concern, away from Kitty's shock and worry, away from Kurt and from Jean … was this was Jean felt like when she went nuts on stage after receiving the soccer MVP? Could Jean hear her, even now?

She was going crazy. She was certain of it now. It had occurred to her, when she'd first taken the Cure and – powerless – found herself not alone in her own thoughts. All of the psyches that she'd absorbed with her gift – as the Professor chose to label her curse – all of them were still camping out in her head.

They were talking to her, crowded around her, stifling her. She couldn't breathe, couldn't think.

She had to get away.

The world shifted around her, and she found herself smothering, crushed by the weight and the heat of the impossible geometry of the world around her. There was fire, and hate … so much evil. She closed her eyes, praying for the first time in her life.

* * * * *

(1) IANAQP: I Am Not A Quantum Physicist. Phasing just seems so … plausible, compared to the rest of the mutations that I couldn't resist trying to explain it.

(2) Both bad ideas.

(3) Actually, I think he was … If I remember correctly, he was a sickly child.

Author's Note (part deux): OK, I was originally going to try to get all of my plot lines untangled in this chapter. (Not necessarily end the story here, but just sort of wrap up loose ends) However, it seems that this chapter is getting really, really long. Anyway, sorry for the long window between updates. Please review!