Chapter Two

Search and Discover

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Gambit watched the sleeping woman with her silver hair and moon pale face, her lashes like tiny silken threads of Christmas tinsel against her cheeks. The dark bruise like soot around her left eye and the swelling of her puffy, split lower lip only showed she was hardened against pain. Her delicate appearance belied her abilities. Who was this woman? How had she come to this point? Beaten, brutalized... but not broken. Never broken, he knew. In her, he recognized something, a characteristic that many of the X-Men possessed. From the way she'd stood up to the X-Men, thinking they were the enemy, like a mother lion protecting her cubs, he could tell that there was probably nothing anyone could do to break her. You could kill the woman, but that wasn't the same thing. She was like iron- unbreakable. He could see that in the way she'd held out until all of her kids were safe and taken care of, how she kept on her feet until everyone was tucked away, safe from harm. It was only when she'd been provoked by Wolverine that her last bit of strength gave out. How had she managed to keep that up?

Even unconscious, she was strong and on guard. He could see it in the tension in her body, her muscles taut as a bowstring as her head turned from side to side, back and forth, making tiny, questioning noises in her throat, as if constantly seeking out any potential dangers. Her hands clenched, unclenched, fisting and relaxing. Shadows danced beneath her high cheekbones, the stark fluorescent lights kissing her cheeks lovingly. It was as if the two elements adored her. Was that part of her power? Was that why they called her Eclipse? Was she mistress of light and dark?

And what had him waxing so poetic all of a sudden?

Well, that was a stupid question. He knew exactly what it was- Rogue being so close, he wanted to cut his beating heart out of his chest and exsanguinate on the floor of the Blackbird. He wanted to gouge out his own eyes, skin himself alive- anything, so long as he didn't have to be so achingly aware of her only a few short feet away, as untouchable as a poisonous viper. So he was focusing on another woman. He knew from past experience that it was a temporary solution, but it was still viable for twenty minutes or so.

He hoped.

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Jubilation Lee sank back against the far wall of the shower attached to her X-Mansion room. It had been a gift from Professor Xavier when the company shrink, Emma Frost, had discovered that hiding out in the gleaming, pearlescent cubicle helped the teenaged mutant cope with her current set of problems. Concerned, Charles Xavier had leapt at the chance to give Jubilee a place to call her own, an even more private place than her bedroom. He'd been only too eager to follow Emma's advice about the girl after she and Jean Grey had discovered Jubilee screaming from a nightmare, huddled up in the furthest dark recesses of her gigantic, walk-in closet.

So here she was, huddled instead in the brightly fluorescent fortress of ceramic tile, plastic caulking, and shiny, chrome fixtures that the Professor had had commissioned for her. Shivering as cool air poked at the beads of water on her bare skin, she scuttled back beneath the pounding shower spray. Liquid fire, golden hot and gentle as massaging hands, poured over her body as she drew her thin, scabbed knees up to her chest. How had she gotten so skinny in the last three months? And when was the last time she ate? Thinking for a few seconds, she realized she couldn't remember. But since she wasn't hungry, she wasn't too concerned. If only her skin didn't have that weird, transparent, bruised look to it. She looked like she was made out of spun sugar and glass. It irritated her- she was nothing close to fragile. She refused to be anything resembling delicate. She'd cut her own wrists before going back to being fragile, that untested teenage girl like an innocent porcelain doll just waiting to be knocked off the shelf so she could shatter into a million, unfixable pieces.

Jubilee?

GET OUT OF MY HEAD!

She knew the scream was loud enough, furiously frantic enough, and hateful enough to force Jean out of her mind. She didn't like the pregnant telepath traipsing around inside her head. Didn't these mind readers have any morals? Didn't they understand the meaning of privacy? Yet the Professor and his prize pupil, Marvel Girl the Great (oh, taste the bitter sarcasm of that thought), didn't see anything wrong with taking a stroll through her brain. For her own good, they said. They wanted to make sure nothing... happened.

Like what was about to happen now, the teenager thought bitterly as she carefully picked up the shiny razorblade between her fingertips. She wasn't careful enough. The edge sank into the fleshy pad of one fingertip like a child sinking into a soft, fluffy bed. Festively bright, crimson blood welled up from the painless cut and ran down her fingers, caressing her palm and trickling down her wrist, leaving ruby tracks on her arm before the droplets hit the shower floor. They left striking, scarlet blossoms on the white ceramic of the shower stall. Like vermillion fireworks, the girl mused vaguely. She pressed the other edge against the soft swell of her too pale wrist, skirting the indigo river that was the major vein there. She didn't want to hurt herself. She had to be careful.

The last thing she wanted was for Xavier to think she meant herself harm. Because then he'd send her back to that place, ahd she really would try to kill herself.

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Gambit wondered what Rogue was doing all the way up at the front of the Blackbird, by the pilot controls. Was she thinking about him? Was she hating his guts? Thinking about breaking his neck? Thinking about another man? Well, the Cajun thought bitterly, if she was thinking about another man, it was probably Wolverine, and he had nothing to compare with the muscular Canadian. After all, who was Remy LeBeau? A member of the Thieves Guild, a card-throwing Cajun, with eyes like a demon's and the habit of hiding away from the problems that stabbed at his heart. Hell, what problems? He didn't have a problem, he had a disease: Rogue. And he knew the cure, as insane as it was: Rogue.

But he wasn't getting that cure anytime soon, so he might as well think about something else. Like these children, all lying curled up on the floor. The sight of them was enough to break his heart. In the brief time they'd been awake after getting them aboard the X-Men's jet, he'd gotten to know them a little. He'd heard Dawn, one of the little boys, talking about his mother as Beast set the broken bones in his leg. He refused to talk about how his leg had gotten broken, but he wouldn't stop talking about his mother, Heaven. He absolutely adored the woman, whom Wolverine and Beast were currently out searching for. But what kind of woman would willingly involve her seven-year-old in something this dangerous? As a parent, she oughtta be responsible enough and old enough to know better.

New Moon, the boy who'd refused to sleep and literally nodded off in the middle of a conversation with Eclipse, had said he had no parents other than the Red Stars. He wouldn't explain who the Red Stars were, had in fact clapped a hand over his mouth when the phrase escaped his lips. After that, his only verbage had been in Eclipse's direction. But Remy knew he'd get through to the boy eventually. Or one of them would.

The girl who glowed like a nightlight, who was at the moment caught in a sleeping sandwich between the two youngest boys, had said her name was Belle Braun. Since none of the other kids had discouraged her from claiming her surname, Gambit could only assume she wasn't a runaway. She talked about her parents, too- Zacharias Braun and his wife, Violet. Those names sounded damn familiar to the Southern man, but he couldn't put his finger on why. Maybe her parents were mutants? But if they were mutants, than they shouldn't have any problems raising their little girl. Yet here she was, with Eclipse and these other children, the only child who could claim both her parents. And she insisted that no one in her family was in Manhattan. It didn't make any sense.

Every other child now sleeping on the floor of the Blackbird called the unconscious woman at Gambit's side "Mother." Or some variation. But they couldn't all be her children. There were far too many of them- seven of the ten children here claimed familial ties with Eclipse. And the little petite with the bad cough said she had a brother, Moonshine, lost out there somewhere. Beast and Wolverine were out searching for him, as well. Eight children, and she couldn't have been more than twenty-five. Maybe the two toddlers, Luna and Crescent. But the others... no. Not possible. Yet they all looked to the woman as a mentor and guardian, and she obviously took her role very seriously.

And Moonshine... where Gambit came from, moonshine was illegal. It was bootleg whiskey- bootleg alcohol, period, these days. Who named a kid Moonshine? Unless he could knock someone flat with a touch, it didn't make much sense. But he wasn't Remy's kid, so what did the card-throwing Cajun know? But everyone seemed to be scared for the missing boy, including Eclipse. She was moaning his name in her sleep. The children had refused to fall asleep until being assured several times over that the X-Men would find Moonshine. The oldest boy, the midnight-skinned New Moon, said Moonshine was the leader of the Blue Stars, whatever that meant. Maybe the Stars were the two teams Eclipse's people were split into- Red and Blue. But what did the names mean? And if Moonshine was a boy- the coughing girl said he was eight years old- than how could he be the leader of either team?

Where the hell were the adults? Why was Eclipse the only one here with these children?

Eclipse whispered something. It was almost a moan, full of torment, pleading. When Gambit turned to the sleeping woman, she moaned and whispered, "Red Stars... Red Stars. The children... Sunny. Moonshine. Red Stars! Come... Red Stars..." The Cajun's hair stood up on end as something like psionic energy washed over him. It was almost like the wave of energy was checking him out, assessing and analyzing him... and then dismissing him.

A solitary tear rolled down Eclipse's cheek. It gleamed like a black diamond against that strange, white skin.

"Black tears?" Rogue asked. "Who cries colored tears?" She came up slowly behind him, giving him enough time to protest her increasing presence. Finally, she was standing beside him, the burning heat flowing between them almost enough to make his teeth clench. He hated being close to her. So close, yet so far... like a butterfly fluttering its soft, silken wings against his cheek in a gentle, tender caress. He fancied he could almost feel the aching rhythm of her heartbeat in his own chest. He did his best not to reach out and brush a leather-gloved hand against her cocked hip.

Desperate to get his mind on something else, he focused on Rogue's question about the tears.

"Don' you know, cher? Gambit's tears be red."

For a moment, he shocked her into silence. Apparently, every time her presence had sucked him into depression, she hadn't noticed the glistening, ruby tears running down his face like blood. He wasn't quite sure how he felt about that- uncaring, disappointed, enraged, suicidal. How could she not have noticed all the pain she put him through?

It didn't matter. Unfortunately, they had more pressing matters to attend to.

Gambit turned to the power-sucking mutant beside him, who jerked when she realized Remy was watching her watch him. Irritated at the way her eyes skittered away from his face, he turned back to stare at Eclipse's face, trying to ignore that hollow emptiness somewhere in his chest. Obviously, his Queen of Hearts didn't want anything to do with him, even after all these months. So he'd pay attention to a more puzzling issue: Eclipse, mystery woman.

How had she become so wary of everyone? She was so incredibly restless, thrashing about in her sleep. She kept whispering, muttering unintelligibly under her breath. The tension rising off of her was enough to make Gambit tired just watching.

Ignoring the woman in front of him, he turned his attention back to the woman behind him, unable to help himself. Rogue. Rogue, the lone X-Men, the lonely wanderer, who scorched him with her nearness and seared him with her emotional distance. Those hunter green eyes like dark jade cut at him, emerald knives slicing at his heart. The flecks of gold in their depths were like salt in the wound. Seeing the soft, glistening lips painted with a dark, glittering wine color made him ache to take her in his arms and kiss those lips. Kiss those lips, as he'd done only three times before...

A kiss on Rogue's lush lips while she lay asleep on the sofa in the Red Room. It had been under false pretenses brought about by a traitorous Morph, an attempt to get an oblivious Rogue to kiss him probably unto death. But it hadn't mattered to Gambit- it had been their first kiss. A kiss that was like sweet, heavenly bliss until she sucked the life out of him. And even when he'd woken up, groaning with the aches of dancing with death, he'd had to admit that it had been worth it.

A second kiss while in a cage, trapped by Mr. Sinister on a tropical island in the middle of the Antarctic wastes. A kiss that was an unintentional gift from the freakish Sinister, who was suppressing their powers with his machines. For the first time, they had been able to touch without fear of death or the loss of Gambit's energy-charging powers.

And the last kiss, the one that had been brought on by her brief control over her once uncontrollable powers. It had been brief, as their other two kisses had been. But it had been so tender, and he had been gentle. Her lips were so soft under his... but it had been a goodbye kiss, lasting only a few precious seconds. It had been a kiss to make him stay at the X-Mansion, instead of disappearing for a year to get away from all the temptations that Rogue represented.

But who was he kidding? Rogue would never allow him to kiss her again. She'd never allow him to do anything to or for or with her again. So why torture himself by remembering?

Better to focus on the mission.

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Endymione Midnight hated his name. He hated his father. He hated his primary power, the one he had such tenuous control over. He also hated his secondary power, the one he could control the best. He hated being lost. He hated being alone. He hated Manhattan. He hated X-Gene. He hated failing at anything. And more than anything else, he absolutely hated making his mother cry.

Right now, he was lost and alone in Manhattan, on the run from X-Gene and, he was almost certain, from his father. His photokinesis was trying to flare out of control, and it was all he could do to keep from losing his grip on the mutation. His ability to poison people, well... no one was touching him, or there might have been a problem. He had failed to keep his team together while under attack from the mutant breeding program out for their blood (well, their DNA at least). And he knew for a fact that if his mother was still alive and still conscious, and possibly even if she were unconscious, she was crying because they had become separated.

So Endymione, who commonly went by the name Moonshine, didn't want to deal with the portly police officer coming toward him as he trudged along the sidewalk, keeping well away from the street lights. Part of his upbringing had instilled in him a wariness of authority figures, especially adult males. Another part had taught him to run far away from police, because if they thought you were a runaway, you were liable to end up in a situation that could get you killed. That's what had nearly happened to his mother, a decade ago, before he was born. That's what had happened to all of the Red Stars. That was how they ended up with X-Gene. And Moonshine would rather be dead than get stuck with that group of crazy people who'd ruined his mother's life.

Wondering where Eclipse was, and his sisters and brothers, and wondering if he'd ever see them, he kept walking along as if he had every right to be on the street. The cop kept coming. Heaven's warning came back, tickling the back of his mind: don't hurt the innocent. The policeman was innocent- probably.

"Son, it's a bit late t'be on the street, doncha think?"

Moonshine ignored him, but let his grasp on the second meaning of his name loosen a little. If the cop grabbed him and touched bare skin, it'd be his own fault what happened.

"Where be your parents, son?" The policeman tried again. When Moonshine kept walking, the officer grabbed his bare arm. Now, years later, Moonshine would admit that what happened next was not the man's fault. He hadn't known about the raw, infected scrape on the boy's upper arm, nearly invisible in the night out of the glow of the amber lights. The cop hadn't known that the flesh was ragged and wet and looked like raw beef framed by feverish red flesh. He hadn't known it was oozing pus and tender to the touch, thanks to some mud that had made its way into the wound earlier that night. There was no way he could've known. But Moonshine wasn't thinking about culpability at the moment. His only thought was of making the man let go.

The bulbs of the street lights shattered as Moonshine lost control of his photokinesis. The glass tinkled like bells and wind chimes as it crashed to the asphalt and concrete. And the police officer groaned as his eyes rolled up into his head and he passed out on the sidewalk, his breath suddenly reeking of whiskey. Moonshine looked around and began yelling for help. When an older couple across the street began approaching, the little boy dashed away before anyone could stop him.

He didn't have time for stuff like this. He had to find his mother.

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Why was she talking to him? If all she had to throw at him were agonizing accusations, he'd rather she shut up, stop talking, and stop torturing him with her adorable Southern drawl and her beautiful green eyes full of hurt. Eyes that cut him like knives of green glass.

"Why did ya think ya could up an' leave for a whole year an' expect me ta jus' welcome ya with open arms?"

Gambit bit his lip as kinetic energy surged through his arms, trying to reach for the playing cards that weren't there, trying to vent his frustrations against his will. Clamping down on the energy trying to escape his grasp, he ignored the sharp pain in his chest at Rogue's tone. As if he had betrayed her. As if he had torn out her heart and left it pulsing and spurting in the dirt. As if she were the one dying inside.

He couldn't say this, could never tell her, but the year-long journey hadn't been voluntary. And he couldn't tell her because she wouldn't believe him... and proof of that fact would only rip his heart out again.

Professor Xavier had forced him to go. For Rogue's own good, the balding mutant had insisted. They needed time away from each other, he said. A whole year seemed excessive, but the Professor had insisted it be a year. He didn't know what the telepathic mutant had been doing with the woman in that year long absence, but it obviously hadn't done anything for the relationship between the Southern belle and the Cajun playboy. In fact, upon returning, everything that had ever existed between them was in ruins. And for some reason, despite the Professor's backup, Rogue didn't believe him when he swore that he had felt nothing for any of the companions he had traveled with during his year-long journey. And it had been nothing... compared to the intensity of his love for Rogue.

He remembered them, though. Sweet memories. Memories of women who were just friends- half of them too young to be anything more- but who he had fought beside across the globe.

"Where did you go?"

A new voice, soft and hesitant, broke the tense stillness within the X-Jet. Rogue and Gambit's gazes snapped away from each other and the Cajun's eyes focused on New Moon, who was crawling carefully towards him. The boy stopped every few seconds to check on the children he passed. He adjusted a blanket, tucking it under Midna's chin. He repositioned Belle's head on her pillow. He tucked a stray curl from Sky Flower's forehead behind her ear, his eyes gleaming with worry as she made a small noise in her throat. He glanced at Night Thorn, who seemed to be in a satisfactory position and so was not messed with. He gently took Crescent's thumb out of her mouth without waking the toddler. He did the same to Luna and Star Fox. He tucked a ragged piece of moth-eaten fabric that might have been a teddy bear back under a sleeping Orion's arm. Finally, slowly, as if approaching a skittish animal, he got to his feet. The last child, Dawn, New Moon stared at for a long moment, but the injured child was sleeping on a pallet laid out for him by Beast and the teenager obviously didn't want to disturb him.

"Ya sho take care o' dem pretty good, no?" Gambit asked softly, following New Moon's example of quietness. He tried not to notice Rogue walking out of the jet into the surrounding darkness. Away from him.

"It's my job," New Moon replied casually. "Moonshine ain't here, an' I'm the oldest. Someone's gotta make sure everything goes right."

"Maybe Gambit don' know better, but isn't dat her job?" He jerked a thumb at the still unconscious Eclipse. New Moon gave the Cajun a cold look and replied, "No. She's hurt bad. So right now it's my job, okay? Buzz off."

"Okay, okay," Gambit replied, holding his palms up in surrender, smiling a little. "Gambit mean no harm. Just askin'."

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Wolverine prowled the streets of Manhattan, searching. Call him a sucker for a pretty face and a girl in trouble, but when Eclipse had handed him that photograph of her people, and he'd seen the agonized, beseeching look on her face, he'd known he couldn't withhold help from the woman and her little family. So now he was wandering oround a disgusting, pungent city looking for some kid. He was also supposed to be looking for a bunch of other people, but the kid was his main concern. Being a little kid out on the street in a place like this was impossible to tolerate.

Of course, the stench of the city was impossible to tolerate. He hated the way cities smelled- gum, sweat, tears, exhaust, metal, humanity. He hated that. But on top of those disgusting smells, the sickening stench of metropolitan life, there was the sweet smell of perfume. Peaches mostly, citrusy and warm as summer on the beach. Where was that smell coming from? And it was soft, a little breeze bringing with it the most delicious feeling, like spring time breaking through the icy thrall of winter, like dawn rising after a long night of bloodshed and terror.

And with it came a sound- the sound of muffled screaming.

Cursing under his breath, Wolverine broke into a loping run, following that heavenly perfume and the sound of that screaming. He didn't know if it was anyone he ought to be looking for, but damn it if he was gonna just wander off and let some innocent woman end up getting mugged or raped or murdered because he was too preoccupied with a mission to give a damn.

Especially after what happened to Jubilee.

Trying to ignore the memory of the teenage sparkler with the adorable, kick-ass attitude lying unconscious and half naked on the ground in a back alley covered in blood, grime, and bruises, he kept running until he found the source of that smell. He was in luck: he'd found Dawn's mother. Hard to believe a woman that young looking could have a seven-year-old, but what the heck? He could ponder her age some other time. Right now, he needed to save her from the three yahoos closing in on her, and the other hooligan with his arm around her waist, pinning her hands, and one hand over her mouth.

"Don't you bozos know it's not nice to bother nice ladies?" He demanded. The four thugs turned to him, and the woman- Heaven, he remembered Dawn saying- took the opportunity to ram the back of her head into Mr. Grabby's nose. Wolverine enjoyed the melodic crunching of cartilage and bone. Stomping on the jerk's foot, she managed to get loose, but found herself separated from Wolverine by the thugs. Still, Grabby was hunched over, cupping his gushing nose. The other three were glancing back and forth between Wolverine and the girl, whose eyes gleamed with a strange, electric blue light as she pressed herself against a dirty, graffiti-splashed brick wall.

"You wanna stay outta this, buddy," one of the morons snapped. He reached out and hauled on a handful of the woman's fiery red hair. "This slut's a mutant!"

As if Wolverine didn't know that.

Flexing his biceps and clenching his fists, the snarling mutant unsheathed his adamantium claws. The four losers stiffened, staring at the shining metal blades protruding from between Wolverine's knuckles. Then, almost all at once, it dawned on the guys that they were all unarmed. Their only advantage over Heaven was numbers and size. Numbers they still had, but this new mutant could cut them up like salami and there'd be no stopping him. They could die. One mutant whore wasn't worth dying for.

They ran.

Wolverine sheathed his claws, fighting his natural instincts to go after the idiots who'd done their ignorant best to piss him off. Doing his best to keep from scaring the girl, he approached Heaven, who immediately fell back against the wall, eyes narrowed dangerously. He knew that look. That was the look of a woman on guard, terrified out of her mind, and pissed off to the point that she was probably gonna attack first and ask questions later, if ever. So Wolverine took the initiative, saying gently into the tense stillness, "Are you Dawn's mother? I got a little boy asking a lot of questions. He's real worried about his mom."

She swiped at some blood trickling down her cheek from a gash next to her left eye. The coppery scent of blood made his nose itch. Those eyes still blazed like electric, cerulean fire as she whispered, "Where's my son? I want my son."

"He's on our plane, back at Saint Peter's Gardens," he replied truthfully. He had a feeling she'd know if he was lying to her, and if she was a mutant, he didn't want to end up dying because he underestimated her powers. Holding up his hands, palms out, he took a step forward. "Eclipse and New Moon sent me. I'm supposed to find the rest of the Red Stars."

"What about the children?" She asked with some difficulty. He wasn't sure if it was pain, fatigue, or emotional stress that made her voice tremble. He hated women like that- they made his protective instincts unsheathe their claws and start snarling.

"Just looking for Moonshine and Sunny, New Moon told me. We got everybody else. And the adults, except Eclipse. I take it you're one of them?"

She stared at him, watching him warily as she licked a bleeding lip. She had some lush lips, Wolverine couldn't help noticing. Maybe it was swelling from whatever impact had split her lip. Then again, maybe it wasn't. She was pretty voluptuous. He liked women with meat on their bones. Sticks... he hated sticks. Those heroin washout stick women with hip bones so jutting and sharp you could cut yourself trying to hug them. The opposite of this girl, in her shredded blue jeans that hugged her curvaceous hips and belly, her long, peach colored tunic with the hippie fringe that was cut so that it showed her tattooed navel but hung past her knees on either side. Her hair was so black, it was blue and violet when the light from the street lamps glanced off it. But her feet were bare. They were cut up and carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey, probably from glass, rocks, and other pieces of street and alley debris.

"I want to see my son," she murmured.

"Okay," he replied, hands still up in the air. "He wants to see you."

She hesitated for a moment. That small space of time stretched out into a screaming eternity as her eyes like a twilight sky on acid raked over him, up and down and back around, burning into him like turquoise lasers. Then she hobbled towards him until she was directly in front of him. She looked up at him, cobalt eyes defiant as she said, "We need to go and get Moonshine. I told him to stay in the subway while I went looking for the others. He'll be wondering what's happened to me."

"Hey, whatever you say," Wolverine replied, catching another whiff of that delicious perfume. "You're the boss."

She gave another of those wary, searing looks, and then she began limping off down the sidewalk toward the subway entrance about two blocks away. She didn't look back to see if he was following.

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"So, where did you go?" New Moon demanded, and Gambit wasn't smiling anymore. He didn't want to think about all the places he'd gone while away from Rogue that year. He could still remember everything about his journey. All his brushes with death- he loved dancing with the Dark Lady. After all, he was a ladies' man. He remembered all the ladies he'd met on his travels- one for every country he'd visited while away.

"You sho ask a lot o' questions," Gambit muttered darkly. He immediately regretted his tone when New Moon ducked his head and sank back down to the floor. Frustrated with himself, wondering why he cared that the boy looked upset. "Gambit'll tell ya what he remembers."

So he did.

He remembered Paris. He remembered Marionette, the mutant opera singer with the sonic voice. He had saved her from a psychotic stalker with a fetish for nooses and masks. She had saved him from an attack by renegade mutants trying to blow him off of the Eiffel Tower to his death. They'd kissed once, but that had been part of a ruse, since he was pretending to be a singer attached to her opera house at the time.

Then there was Madrid, in Spain, with the lovely guerilla soldier, Scarlet Carson, fighting the little war against a new fascist regime. After the few final battles they'd shared in his three months in Spain, he'd helped her reintegrate into her old life as a musician.

In Lisbon, the assassin Teresa had saved him from a mutant named Napoleon. He'd been attacked by vampires in three different countries: Rome, Italy; Dublin, Ireland; and London, England. In Rome, the werewolf hunter Anna Valerios had rescued him from a lycanthrope, and he in turn had saved her from vampires. In London, he'd met the vampire police girl Seras Victoria, and joined up with her and Irish-Japanese, vampire hunting nun Yumiko to defeat bloodsucking Nazis. He'd followed Yumiko to her native Ireland to fight the Nazi presence there. Following the anti-Semitic, socialist party to Berlin, he'd paired up with the famous vaudeville girl Sally Bowles and infiltrated the underground nightclub circuit to stop human trafficking and underaged prostitution.

Suddenly stopping his long list of adventures- most of them mostly true- he turned and asked, "Would Eclipse want Gambit talkin' 'bout stuff like dis wit' you?"

"Probably not, but keep going."

Gambit smiled. Damn but that kid reminded him of himself when he was that age. Keep going, New Moon said. Well, fine, then. He would.

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Starlight stumbled through the hateful, crushing crowd beneath the heavy earth. She was not the kind of person who dwelt well with being underground, even if it was in such an innocuous place as the subway tunnels of Manhattan. The midnight haired mutant had to do her best to keep her body from tensing up under the oppressive weight of an entire city. If she panicked, if she allowed her fear to express itself in any way but mentally, her son would panic. And if he began to cry, people would look at her. And if people began looking at her, she'd be in serious trouble. Someone would notice her, and she might get found. She couldn't let that happen.

Wondering what the hell had happened to their leader, and where the other children were, she hefted her infant son in her arms, praying he'd stay as calm and happily burbling as he was right now. Looking into his gleaming, golden eyes, she bussed his cheek with a half-kiss and tried to ignore the blisters on the balls of her feet. The hot pain radiating from the abused soles was distracting, but she had to keep her body from tensing at that, as well. She couldn't afford for Sunny to start crying.

Remembering just how X-Gene manipulated herself and Sunny, she tried to swallow the simmering anger and focused on something else. Like her infant son's cooing little laugh. The moment she allowed her anger to manifest physically, Sunny would panic and begin to cry, thanks to the experimentation of X-Gene. And the moment he began to cry, the migraine would begin, and she'd be absolutely useless until someone calmed him. Separated from her husband and her team, there was no one who could calm Sunny, which meant she'd probably pass out from the agonizing headache.

Red Stars... Red Stars. The children... Sunny. Moonshine. Red Stars! Come... Red Stars...

Starlight jumped, startled by the breathy, whispering voice in her mind. Eclipse's voice! Calling to the Red Stars. Calling to her baby. Calling to Eclipse's own son. Calling for them to come. But come where? Where was Eclipse? And how in the name of all things holy was she supposed to make it to wherever Eclipse was in the state she was in? Her feet were twin beacons of burning pain. It was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other.

A fact that was not lost on the man watching her from the stairs leading to the surface.

'Gazer watched as Starlight stumbled along, putting as little weight as possible on her tormented feet. What had happened to her shoes? He could see the crimson splotches staining her white tennis shoes. Blood- but whose? Hers, or someone else's? And the arms that held a gurgling infant were beginning to tremble. He needed to get her, now, before something interfered.

But where were the rest of the Celestials? Where was Eclipse? And how was he going to get to Starlight?

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"Help! No, please, help me! Not my baby! Please, don't!"

Moonshine jerked to a halt in his tracks, suddenly wishing his little brother was here. Six-year-old Orion would've been able to sense exactly what was going on, would be able to smell and hear how many people were there, what kind of people, etc. Moonshine didn't have that kind of power- just photokinesis and touch-intoxication. And he wasn't entirely sure that those two gifts were going to help whoever was calling for help.

And yet... his mother. He had to find his mother. And his brothers and sisters. Sky Flower had been so sick when the attack had happened. He was supposed to find his family. That was protocol- when separated, search and regroup. His first priority was his family, then the rest of the team. He wasn't supposed to let anything or anyone keep him from that goal.

But his mother had also said, often, that, as a mutant, his duty was to protect normal people in trouble. He was pretty sure she meant when he was older, when he was a grown-up, but he had his powers now. Wasn't he supposed to use them?

Wondering if he was going to get grounded after all this was over, he made a dash toward the source of the cries for help. Skidding to a halt, his eyes took in everything in a split second. Muggers- five of them. A woman being shoved around between them, with auburn hair peeking out from a hunter green hood. The gleaming curls poking out from under that hood caught his eye in the dim, flickering light of the subway tunnels. A baby crying as a sixth mugger manhandled it.

"Lunch time!"

One of the teenage muggers, probably about seventeen, giggled maniacally. Gulping, Moonshine grabbed at the lightbulbs almost blindly, hauling on their light with all his concentration and strength. The dim light sparked and lanced around the group, and one of the muggers screamed in agony. The woman lashed out with one foot, catching another of the crooks in the knee cap before running over to the boy.

"Are you nuts?" She demanded. Irritated, he said, "I just saved you and your baby!"

"It's not a real baby, kid," she said, pulling a knife from the sheath strapped to her leg. "It's a decoy to attract trash like them. Didn't your mother ever teach you not to mess with vamires?"

"What?!" Moonshine cried, before something grabbed him by the back of his torn, black Tool shirt. He cried out, and a lightbulb exploded overhead in a shower of tinkling glass. One of the shards scratched his dirty cheek. One of the muggers, baring sharp, gleaming teeth, snarled in his face. His fetid breath made the eight-year-old gag.

"H-h-help!"

The woman, Abigail, glanced over from her battle against the other four vampires still capable of doing damage and swore under her breath. The boy was in deep sludge, since there was no way she could make it to his side before he ended up getting eaten. She couldn't make it- these four losers were gonna be too much trouble for her to get away quickly enough. She had come prepared for trouble, but not for a kid who'd stupidly (bravely) come to her (much unneeded) rescue. Still... that poor kid. He'd only been trying to help her. Not that he could have helped her really. But still...

"Don't you scum buckets know it ain't nice to pick on little kids? Not to mention pretty ladies."

Abigail sank her favorite, six-inch knife's adamantium blade into a vampire's chest and then whirled around to see a tall, broad shouldered man lunging forward to sink gleaming, silver bright claws into the vampire holding the little boy. The kid fell in a heap to the ground with a cry of pain as his captor exploded into ashes. Before she could go to the boy's side, check him out to make sure he was all right, another vampire sank fang into the meat of her arm. She screamed and twisted, cutting the muscle on the ragged teeth so that blood spurted onto the ground. Pissed, she sank her knife into that bloodsucker, clenching her eyes shut to avoid ashes getting in them when her enemy turned to ash and cinders. She turned to stake another one in the chest, but the snarling man plunged his gleaming claws into her target before she could make the killing strike.

Counting in her head, she realized there was one vampire left right before the remaining enemy began howling in pain. The cry sent shivers down Abby's spine- an animal shriek, a death cry, cutting at her ears. Both Abby and the man who had rescued her turned to the source of the screaming and saw a young woman with dark hair down to her waist, her hands on the last vampire's face. They were locked in a lethal embrace, the vampire's hands wrapped around the woman's throat. Her delicate, scraped hands sank into the vampire's flesh. That flesh was withering, the eyes shriveling in their sockets. After minutes of screaming that sank into helpless, pathetic whimpers, the vampire turned to ashes in the woman's hands.

Wolverine turned to the red haired woman who'd killed some of the vampires. He looked into her eyes and recognized her immediately.

"Abigail Whistler."

Abby jumped in surrise, then peered at her rescuer more closely.

"Logan," she said, finally smiling. She pushed back the hood of her green jacket and plucked the white earbuds from her ears. "What are you doing here?" Abby held out her hand, which Wolverine heartily shook, replying, "Looking for that kid," pointing at the boy who'd rescued her. "And that lady," he added, pointing to the women who had sucked the life out of the vampire. She was helping the boy to his feet. The minute he was on them, the kid threw his arms around the woman's waist and buried his face against her side. For a long moment, they just held each other, with the dark haired woman patting the kid's back until he finally was calm enough to let go.

"Scary, huh?" Heaven asked, brushing back her hair. Moonshine nodded, not trusting himself to be able to speak without stuttering. He hated stuttering in front of strangers.

"You Moonshine?" Wolverine demanded. The boy glared and replied, "What's it to ya?" He took a stance in front of Heaven, obsidian eyes defiant. For a moment, they took on a silver sheen, and another lightbulb, this one further off, exploded into a shower of tinkling shards. "You want somethin'?"

"Your mom's lookin' for ya," Wolverine growled, and felt a flash of satisfaction when Moonshine's eyes lit up. Despite the light in his eyes, the kid still kept a sullen look on his face. Heaven wrapped her arms around the boy's thin shoulders. He spared her a glance, but then returned his furious gaze to Wolverine and Abby. He didn't know whether to believe this man or not. He really wanted to see his mother. And the man had brought Heaven with him. The boy turned to the member of the Red Stars, his eyes questioning. Dawn's mother nodded even as she touched her cool, gentle fingertips to the cuts on his face. He could feel the flesh and muscle knitting back together under her mutant power. Moonshine looked back at the man who'd rescued him.

"I had it sorted," the boy snapped, irritated. He hated the fact that he'd needed rescuing in the first place.

The older man snorted. "Yeah, right."

"I did!" Moonshine snarled, clenching his fists behind his back. He wasn't like his mother, or Starlight- he couldn't suppress physically expressing his emotions. And right now, trying to keep from blowing up a lightbulb or something was top on his priority list. That, and proving to this grown up that he'd had everything under control. If he didn't, that was no one's business but his and the other Celestials.

Overhead, a second light bulb exploded in a shower of glass as its beams flared like a wildfire. Heaven's hand came down gently on his shoulder, squeezing. A soft reminder to keep control over his light manipulation. He swallowed and looked from her calm face to the man he'd heard called "Logan. He relaxed his hands, wiping his sweaty palms on his raggedy jeans. He needed to calm down. He needed to just relax and... and... maybe get an Eegees. Or a milkshake. Or something.

His stomach rumbled at the thought. He realized he hadn't eaten in at least twelve hours- since before coming home from trick-or-treating. The three miniature Hershey bars didn't exactly count.

Ignoring the growlings in his belly and the savage hunger pangs, he refocused on Logan and the woman he'd saved from vampires. Scruffing his haphazardly chopped bangs out of his face, he asked, "So who are you, anyway?"

The woman grinned. She liked the kid's style. Her husband had been right about that. Trying not to laugh at Moonshine's show of bravado, she replied, "Abigail Whistler. I'm with the Nightstalkers. You probably haven't heard of us." Jerking her thumb in the man's direction, she added, "This guy's Wolverine. He's part of the X-Men. Them I know you've heard of."

Moonshine didn't respond to that. It was like he hadn't heard. Instead, he demanded, "Are you gonna take me to my mother?" He shoved his hands into his back pockets.

Wolverine wondered whether he ought to pat the kid on the back or sock him in the face. Attitude was usually pretty annoying... but then, he recognized the arrogance of someone used to giving orders and having them obeyed. And the kid had had a hard day. He'd give him a break.

This time.

"Yeah. Eclipse is waiting for you."

And a small, hesitant smile broke out over the kid's face. Wolverine was amazed at the transformation. For once, he actually looked like the little kid he was supposed to be.

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"So how long were you gone?" New Moon asked, laying down a card. The teenager studied the layout of the cards, calculating in his head. Gambit watched the way his eyes shifted all around, taking in everything- the cards already in play, the ones waiting to be drawn. He even kept track of the nuances of Remy's expression, the way his eyes lit upon each card.

"You countin' cards, mon ami?"

"No," he said softly, and laid down another card. "Eclipse says that's cheating."

"It be cheatin'," Gambit reassured him.

"So," the boy said, shifting so that he lay on his stomach on the Blackbird's cool, tile floor. He propped his chin on his fist, holding his cards in the other hand. He spoke softly and moved slowly to keep from waking the other kids. "How long were you gone?"

"A year," Gambit replied, trying to ignore the ache in his chest. He wondered, briefly, if Rogue would still hate him as much if he'd only stayed away for half a year, or three months, or a month. Would she still have considered it a betrayal? Would she- and the others- have reacted the same way? Would Rogue have refused even to see him after that first meeting? The meeting that lasted just long enough for her to slap him with a bare hand, and call him a bastard, before walking out of the room? Would almost everyone have treated him like a stranger? Probably.

Would Jubilee have rushed into his arms and welcomed him the way no one else would? That he did not know.

"Who's Jubilee?" New Moon asked casually as Gambit laid down his own card.

"You be readin' my mind, mon ami?"

"Not on purpose," New Moon replied, watching Gambit's expression as he surveyed the cards laid out on the floor. The boy knew the look on the older man's face had nothing to do with the card game and everything to do with the questions he was asking. He wasn't trying to read the Cajun's mind- he didn't have control over his telepathy. And it wasn't as if he could see everything. All he caught were flashes of images and words, jumbled together, and only when laced together with intense emotion... and he hated not knowing the background behind the things he saw and experienced. Laying down a Diamond Jack, he asked again, "So who's Jubilee?"

"She a friend."

"Who hurt her?" The kid didn't know what made him ask. Maybe it was the anger and grief Gambit felt, like the same heartwrenching emotions most of the older Blue Stars felt. Jubilee held the same psychic taste in Remy LeBeau's mind as Eclipse held in Moonshine and Night Thorn's.

Gambit was quiet for so long, New Moon had to wonder whether he'd finally pushed it too far. The grown-up's mind was roiling suddenly with a rage that reminded the teenager of his old life. He didn't want to think about that, about the gang or Petra or that creepy freak who'd always exuded that black rage. Instead, he focused on the adult's face. It was the only reason he saw the single tear trickling from one jet and crimson eye.

"A bad man," Gambit replied, and put down another card. Before New Moon could react, Gambit slapped his hand down on the pair of red Jacks. The teenager swore under his breath.

"Watch your mouf, boy."

Glaring, New Moon got to his feet. Looking down on the mutant still seated cross-legged on the floor, he snapped, "You're not my mother, and you're not the boss of me. Don't tell me what to do." And he went back to lay down beside Sky Flower, who coughed and whimpered in her sleep. The boy slung an arm around her, and she cuddled against him, even in sleep.

Remy watched the kids settling back into sleep, and tried to keep his fury and heartache at bay. It wasn't the boy's fault that even the mention of Jubilee's name made the card thrower's stomach twist with the blackest rage. No one besides himself, the Professor, and Wolverine could understand the deep, blood curdling hate and anger poisoning his mind. Even thinking about the young Chinese-American teenager made him want to murder someone- preferably the son of a whore who'd turned the X-Men's splendid little glowstick girl into the ghost of a flame. But that wasn't New Moon's fault, and if his telepathy wasn't under total control, the painful hatred would make the kid very uncomfortable.

"... rape, no question..."

The sound of Henry McCoy's voice caught Gambit's attention. He turned to where Rogue and Beast talked in the doorway of the Blackbird's ramp. Remy scooped up the playing cards, slipping the deck into his pocket before getting to his feet and walking over to his teammates.

"What we talkin' 'bout over here?"

"Eclipse," Rogue whispered softly, turning away from him. She stared out over the gardens, and Remy was shocked to see a tear roll down her cheek. His hands itched to caress it away, to smooth away the lines of pain etching themselves into her angelic face. Unsure if his presence was welcome, he laid a hand on her shoulder. It began shaking. More tears rolled down her cheeks. Gambit felt each tear like a stone in his gut.

"What's wrong, cher?"

"Neither Rogue nor I were prepared for the extent of the damage done to Eclipse's body. Because of the nature of the distress call, the Professor asked me to bring a more thorough medical kit than I otherwise might have thought to. With it, I was able to do much more than I would otherwise. Including DNA testing, as well as examinations on Eclipse and some of the more badly abused children."

"So what?" Gambit asked, shrugging.

"Eclipse was brutally raped. It was incredible that she managed to make it as far as she did before finally collapsing. Her injuries were terrible- lacerated cervix, vaginal tears, fractured pubic bone. Her left hip was dislocated, and her left knee, as well. Her left eye socket is cracked, her right cheek bone chipped. Her lip required stitches. Bruises, lacerations, and green fractures on both femurs, hips, and knees. All in all, it was a miracle that she survived the rape. And this was not the first time such an attack had occurred against her person."

"What?!" Gambit yelped. Then, glancing around surreptitiously to see if he'd wakened any of the children, he whispered, "What?"

"In the X-Rays and bio-scans, the readouts showed she'd conceived and given birth at least five times. When I checked out each of the children and tested them to see if they suffered any illness, I discovered that seven of them had enough genetic markers in common with Eclipse to indicate first generation familial relations."

"What dat supposed ta mean ta Gambit?"

"Night Thorn, Sky Flower, Midna, Orion, Star Fox, Luna, and Crescent are all Eclipse's biological children. Based on their ages, this fact indicates Eclipse conceived and bore at least one child every year. Eclipse is only twenty. Her youngest child is three. Her oldest, Sky Flower and Night Thorn, are eight."

"Are you sayin' she became a mother when she was just twelve years old?" Rogue whispered in shock. "She was just a little girl!"

"Yes. That explains her distrust of adults in general, and males in particular, as well as her fiercely protective streak in regards to the children of her 'team.' The fact that she can still conceive children at all is almost beyond the realm of science to explain. I do not know if she'll be able to carry this child to term."

"Still conceive... this child?! She's pregnant?"

"Yes. Whether it's a result of the rape or a prior dalliance, she is pregnant. We must be extra careful with her."

Yeah, Gambit thought, casting another glance at the woman sleeping on the table-bed. They needed to be careful with all of them.