Thick as Thieves
By Valerie Jones and Lori McDonald
Note: This is the PG version of the story. With Lori's permission, I have gone through and removed the… er, harsh language from her chapters. No other changes have been made. The author of each chapter is noted in parentheses after the chapter heading.
Chapter 1 (Valerie)
Bobby Drake stepped out of Che Merrin, hoping he didn't look as much like a loser as he felt. It was nearly eleven, and he had realized nearly an hour ago that Clarissa wasn't going to show. He should have known better than to let Jean set him up on a blind date.
He stood under the tasteful burgundy awning and watched the rain. He didn't really feel like going back to the mansion, even though it was likely he wouldn't run into Jean at this hour. Mostly, he just didn't want to admit that the night was a complete failure. The valets watched him, but didn't approach. They knew they hadn't parked a car for him when he'd come in. Bobby imagined he saw ridicule in their eyes. Ridicule for the stupidly hopeful young man who'd gone in alone, and had come back out the same way.
Something familiar caught Bobby's eye, and he peered into the rain, trying to identify it. All he saw was a dark shadow-- a silhouette on the street-- that moved away from him with a well-known, cocky stride. Gambit. Bobby stared after the retreating figure then he stepped into the rain and followed. What could Gambit be up to on a night like this? Bobby chuckled to himself. Almost anything. Gambit always had a hidden agenda. Bobby was one of several at the mansion who were more than a little concerned that that agenda might not include the best interests of the X-Men.
Bobby kept his hands in his pockets and his head down, glancing up every now and then to keep his quarry in sight. Gambit didn't seem to be paying particular attention. He had the collar of his long duster flipped up against the rain, and was moving down the street with long, purposeful strides. However, that could only mean that he had someplace to go, and didn't much like being out in the rain. Bobby wondered where his bike was. Of course, considering the rain, he'd probably taken a cab from the mansion. Still, that didn't answer why he was walking to his destination instead of having the cabbie drop him off at the front door.
Gambit paused at the street corner ahead and looked around with apparently casual curiosity. Bobby dropped his head a little lower and tried to shuffle his steps. He'd had a rather painful lesson in how much the man knew about the art of hiding in a crowd in that Friends of Humanity debacle. After a single sweep of the surroundings, Gambit turned into the narrow street. Bobby glanced at the signpost, but it was empty of green placards. Lovely.
After a moment, Bobby went to the street corner and looked around. He just barely caught a glimpse of the top of Gambit's head as he descended a flight of stairs below street level. It was a basement entrance to the building Bobby had just passed, a brown brick monstrosity that appeared to hold several shops on the ground floor and apartments above, to judge from the small balconies adorned with the occasional wind chime or potted geranium.
Curiouser and curiouser. A girlfriend, maybe? Bobby went to the top of the stairs. The door at the bottom was gray, made of badly pitted metal. He paused, debating. How much right did he have to go snooping around Gambit's business? Then he stepped down onto the top step. But just think what an addition it would be to the gossip pool! It would hardly be any less than Gambit deserved anyway.
Bobby walked down the stairs and opened the rusted door. It was dark inside, unsurprisingly, and there was a light at the end of the short hall where it turned. Bobby tried to walk as quietly as he could, since Gambit could be just around the corner. He paused just shy of the corner and listened, but didn't hear anything. Hopefully that meant Gambit was gone, and not waiting to jump out at him and yell "Boo!". That would fit the Cajun's sense of humor.
Bobby walked around the corner. He saw a flash of motion that resolved itself into two men. Both were very large, very mean, and very well armed. Bobby was thrust against the wall with enough force to knock the breath from his lungs, and he felt the distinctive pressure of a gun barrel in the hollow beneath his chin. Only a tiny rational voice in the back of his mind held back panic and kept him from transforming to his ice form. It had been drilled into him: Don't show your powers against a human threat unless you absolutely have to. These days, it bred more paranoia than ever. And Bobby wasn't entirely certain that going ice would protect him against a bullet to the head. He thought so. Emma had taught him that he could heal wounds during the transformation, but he wasn't sure he could handle having his brains blown out. So he held still and tried not to let the snarling visage in front of him intimidate him too much.
"What're ya doing here, boy?" the man who held the gun on him asked. The pressure on Bobby's throat intensified, nearly causing him to gag.
"I'm with... G—LeBeau," he managed to gasp out. "He just—he just came through." And man is he gonna be pissed. But Bobby kept that thought to himself.
The two men exchanged looks, and the other one turned and went through a door at the far end of the hall.
"What's your name?" The pressure eased minutely, but the menacing snarl was still at full bore.
"Drake. Bobby Drake." There didn't seem to be much point in resisting. As much as it hurt to admit it, the wisest thing was going to be to wait and let Gambit bail him out of this goon's hands.
"So, Bobbo, is Mr. LeBeau expecting you?"
Before he even registered the question, Bobby thought, Mr. LeBeau? But then he gathered up his wits.
"Geez. I was late, o.k.?" He tried to put as much attitude into it as he could. "And the name's Bobby. Or Robert. Or Drake."
The goon didn't seem impressed. Just then, the door opened again and the second goon returned, followed by Gambit. Gambit's eyes narrowed to angry slits, then, just as quickly, the expression vanished.
"Oui, he's mine," he said, sounding disgusted. He glanced at Bobby. "Y' late." Then he turned and walked back through the door. Goon One released Bobby and stepped aside.
Trying to hide his nervousness, Bobby walked past them and opened the door. He found himself in what looked for all the world like a coat check. A pretty young woman sat at a small counter with racks of coats, primarily raincoats, hung behind her. The view was ruined, however, by Gambit, who leaned against the wall, scowling.
"Y' want t' leave y' coat?" he asked in a deceptively mild voice.
"Uh, sure." Bobby started to shrug out of his very damp sports coat. What in the world? But he decided not to push it. He'd already stepped in it big, and the expression in Gambit's eyes was decidedly unfriendly. The coat check girl smiled at him when he handed her his jacket.
"Inside." Gambit stepped up right behind him, making it impossible for Bobby to try to start a conversation with the girl.
"Right." He went to the door on the far end of the small room and opened it. He was immediately engulfed in a wave of noise. Half was music, the other half, voices. He would have paused for a moment to adjust, but Gambit nudged him rather forcefully from behind, and he stumbled forward into the room. How did Gambit find these places? Bobby looked around in mild awe. He was standing at the entrance to a very large casino in full swing. He saw craps, card tables, roulette wheels, pool tables. Two giant TV screens dominated two corners of the room. One displayed a boxing match, the other—and Bobby had to double check—ping pong. The competitors were Asian, and the commentary, Bobby thought, was in Japanese. There were people everywhere. Most were dressed to the hilt. It was a sea of black ties, happily interrupted by mostly lovely and highly be-sequined ladies. It was only then that Bobby realized that Gambit was dressed for the party. Except for Scott and Jean's wedding, Bobby couldn't think of another time that he'd seen the Cajun in a monkey suit. Unfortunately, he wore it pretty well, judging from the covert, and not-so-covert, looks the nearby ladies were sending his way. Dressed more casually, Bobby suddenly felt like a gawky country cousin.
"Now, y' want t' explain what y' were doin' followin' me?" Gambit stood slightly behind Bobby and to his left. Bobby wondered, if he turned around, would he find a gun, or perhaps a charged playing card, aimed at his back. That was certainly what Gambit's tone implied. What was normally a nagging dislike coalesced. Bobby absolutely hated it when Gambit took that superior tone with him. He was an odious, obnoxious, lowlife scum criminal, and Bobby would never understand why the Professor let him stay.
"I'll bet this place is highly illegal, eh, Gambit? What else goes on here, huh? Drugs, maybe? How many of these women are whores?" A spike of pain shot through his elbow and up into his shoulder as Gambit's fingers clamped on his elbow.
"De only reason I didn' let dose boys outside blow you away is 'cause you're an X-Man, hear? Don' give me reason t' change m' mind."
Bobby glanced over at him and was startled by the expression in his eyes. It was anger, mixed with fear. Bobby almost crowed. There was something here that Gambit definitely didn't want the X-Men to know about.
"Fine," he agreed shortly. Let Gambit think he was cowed. Gambit seemed to buy it. His grip relaxed.
"I got business t' do here, an' den we be gone. So you jus' sit over dere at de bar an' stay out o' trouble. Dese folks don' take too well t' outsiders."
Genuine curiosity caught Bobby for a moment. "Tell me one thing, Gambit. What is this place?"
Gambit snorted. "A playground o' de New York Thieves Guild. Now will y' behave?"
"Yeah. Sure." Bobby tried to hide another stab of triumph. Gambit was still stealing. Wait 'til the Prof heard about this one. So much for his "Great Success". Almost happy, Bobby made his way to the bar. Gambit went the other way, and stopped to talk with a slim man who bore an alarming resemblance to a knife blade. He was sharp faced, and had his dark hair greased back, showing a prominent widow's peak. He could have been wearing a flashing sign that said "criminal" across his chest and it wouldn't have been any plainer, Bobby thought. The man nodded at something Gambit said, and then the two of them disappeared through an archway into another room filled with gamblers. Bobby shrugged and turned around to face the bar, silently debating whether to try to follow Gambit further. He finally decided against it. Gambit was going to be in plenty of hot water as it was already. Personally, Bobby couldn't wait.
Remy was still muttering curses to himself as he stepped into the brightly lit office behind Shrew. Shrew was called Shrew because he looked like one, and because he was just about as bright. He walked all the way up to the monolithic desk that dominated the room and said, "Gambit's here, boss."
The man seated at the desk looked up at him slowly. "Thank you, Shrew." If he was annoyed, he didn't show it. In fact, he was completely expressionless. But Shrew bobbed, obviously pleased by the notice, and then left.
That left the man and Remy to face each other across the wide expanse of mahogany. Remy was always amazed at how much Michael reminded him of a shark—cold, slick, alien, and driven by a hunger that couldn't be reasoned with. He was one of the most dangerous men Remy had ever met.
Michael's lips curled upward in a smile that came nowhere near his eyes. "Bad night, Remy?"
Remy sighed. "Don' get me started."
"Who is he?"
Remy was expecting that. "Jus' a kid I got saddled wit." Which was true enough. If you looked at it a certain way.
"You don't look too happy about taking on an apprentice."
Remy snorted. "Apprentice? Not hardly." At Michael's curious look he added, "One, de boy got no sense. Two, he hates me. Three..." He was ticking the points off on the fingers of one hand.
Michael threw back his head and laughed. That was another thing about Michael. His moods could be mercurial sometimes. Remy had seen him put a knife through the heart of a man he had been hugging a moment before. He had made it a point to keep his relationship with the New York guild on a purely business level. Michael had no mistaken impression that they were friends.
After a moment, Michael's laughter died. His face became still once more. "So what did you want to see me about, Remy?" he asked.
Remy crossed the short distance to the desk and took a brown folder out of his jacket. He turned it around, and laid it down in front of Michael. Michael picked up the fairly thick folder and began to examine it. Remy simply crossed his arms and let him read.
He read quickly, scanning the forms with practiced ease. When he was done, he looked up. "I see."
Remy nodded. "Y' gon' have t' put a stop t' dis, Michael. De police are puttin' de pieces together. Dey know dey got a group o' mutants pullin' off high-dollar jobs. How long 'til dey start seein' de real picture?"
Michael considered him gravely. "I'll take care of it."
"Good enough." Remy was eager to be gone. The longer he was away from Bobby, the more nervous he felt. But as he turned away, Michael stood.
"Is anyone else beginning to suspect?" His hands rested casually on the desktop, the perfectly manicured nails reflected in the lustrous surface Remy cocked an eyebrow.
"Your X-Men, for example?"
Remy shook his head. "Dey blind t' everyt'ing dat don' fit dere 'dream'. Don' worry, Michael. We a long way from bein' discovered... so long as you c'n control y' guild, neh?"
Bobby ordered a beer and sat down at one end of the bar. The bartender set the amber bottle down in front of him with a thunk and a scowl. Bobby tried not to stare. The man had a scar that ran from the corner of his eye all the way out to his ear, which was mangled, and the scowl made it twist like a living thing.
"Thanks," Bobby said. The bartender only grunted. Must be a union job, Bobby thought. At least he'd popped the top on the beer. Bobby examined the label curiously. He'd ordered an obscure microbrew—one he'd never heard of, in fact. The name on the label was Hefeweizen. It was a strange looking beer. Cloudy, almost. He took an experimental sip. Well, it was different, but not too bad. Then he chuckled to himself and took another drink. After all, Hefeweizen was better than no weizen at all.
As he lowered the bottle, his eyes met those of a woman who sat just around the corner of the bar from him. He paused. A line from a song wandered through his mind without identifying itself. "Cerulean blue eyes, so fair and so shy." She was stunning, though Bobby wasn't certain he would call her beautiful. Her hair was nearly as white as Storm's, but much finer. It fell to just below her shoulders in a wispy pageboy. The blue eyes were framed by lashes of the same color, which somehow stood out against her pale skin. She had a short nose and pink lips, though Bobby didn't think she was wearing lipstick. A dusting of freckles crossed her cheeks, which was good because they were the only thing that made her look like a human being instead of a china doll.
Bobby realized he was staring and tore his gaze away. But the wall behind the bar was lined with mirrors, and Bobby found himself studying her more covertly. She didn't seem to notice as she ran one finger through the condensation from the base of her glass. He risked a direct glance in her direction. She was dressed in one of those really mini-dresses—the kind that looked painted on. Black. It was a horrible color for her, he thought. She was pale enough as it was, and the dress was so... cheap. A thought occurred to him then: she might be a prostitute. He looked away again. What would she do? Ask him to dance? Or would she be more direct? Maybe he would be better to move down the bar a ways. Then she would have to follow him if she wanted to make a proposition.
Bobby snorted to himself in disgust. Yeah, right, he could be chased away by a woman who was, as far as he could tell, completely ignoring him. If Gambit were there, he'd probably be laughing so hard he'd have fallen off his stool by now.
Bobby stared at his beer, ears burning. But something touched his senses, made him look over at the woman once more. He was shocked to realize that a line of frost followed her finger across the polished wood, swirling in an intricately beautiful design.
"Hey, you're a mutant!" he said before he could think about it. The woman's head snapped up and she snatched her hand back into her lap. Luckily, it was loud enough in that place that it was unlikely anyone else had heard him, Bobby thought angrily. What a stupid thing to say!
"No, it's o.k.," he tried belatedly to reassure her. "So am I." He touched the rim of her glass and froze her drink solid, despite the alcohol content.
The woman stared at her frozen gin, eyes narrowing. Bobby couldn't begin to guess what was behind that expression. Then she looked over at him.
"How do you do that without breaking the glass?" she asked. Her voice wasn't anything like Bobby expected. It was much lower. Not masculine, but throaty. It was gorgeous.
The bartender set another drink down beside the frozen one without a word, and turned away. The woman seemed to withdraw into herself. She picked up the new glass and slid off of her stool. She didn't even glance at Bobby as she walked away.
Bobby hmphed and took another drink, annoyed. He could now say that two—count them—two women had stood him up tonight. Just then a hand clamped down on his shoulder and he jumped about three feet. He whirled to find Gambit standing right behind him.
"Man, don't do that!" he groused. He was sure Gambit just loved scaring him out of his skin.
"Let's go," Gambit said.
Bobby levered himself to his feet. "Yeah, sure." He would be more than glad to get out of this weird place, and put an end to a rather miserable night. But he couldn't quite shake the first image he'd gotten of that woman—piercing blue eyes staring into his. And she had ice powers! He knew he should tell the Professor about her, but felt oddly reluctant to.
As he followed Gambit to the door, he decided that it might be to his advantage to keep this little secret for a while. At least until he knew more. And it certainly wouldn't hurt his feelings to have a hole card to play against the Cajun.
For the first time since the evening had begun, Bobby smiled.