: TWIST OF FATE :

PART FOUR: NEW YORK

(24) - Duplicity -

Rachel scrabbled out over the edge of a half-crumbling retaining wall and peered over into the alleyway. A homeless man was being harangued by some guy wearing the Friends of Humanity insignia on his arm. She lowered herself down again slowly and waited it out. It didn't really matter if you were mutant or static – if you were worthy of a drubbing, anyone was fair game to the Friends of Humanity, whatever your genetic makeup.

The sound of dull thumps and muted cries floated out from over the other side of the wall. Rachel grit her teeth and forced herself to listen. What remained of her Hound instincts was willing her to leap over that wall and tear into the homeless guy's attacker. She could've taken him – she knew it. Even without her powers. But she was beginning to appreciate the fact that sometimes it was better to lay low, even if it meant sacrificing an innocent person. Being out here, on her own, in this forbidden place – it was dangerous enough without her going out guns blazing. In such situations, being selfish was the best course of defence.

It was probably the only valuable lesson Gambit had really taught her.

When you're on the job, p'tit, and the odds are 'gainst you, and someone needs your help… don't be tempted to play the knight in shinin' armour. It won't get you not'ing but killed.

And she remembered Rogue giving him this look that clearly said you can talk and stop talkin' out your butt, but he'd spoken a truth back then. It was sometimes better to be a bitch. Even if she was currently itching for a fight.

The altercation, however, was showing no signs of abating, and Rachel was seriously debating jumping in and ending it when she heard a muffled psst a little ways along the wall. She jerked her head in the direction of the sound but saw nothing. Thinking it was her imagination, she ignored it; only for it to come again.

This time she followed it, creeping along the length of the wall till she got to a crack that looked out onto a scrap yard. On the other side of the fissure stared one bright blue eye.

"S'only me, kiddo," came Logan's unmistakable voice. "Sorry t' startle you. Looks like our meetin' place was occupied." His eye shifted in the direction of the alleyway, from which the moans and whines of the unfortunate homeless guy were only slightly discernible. "You get here okay?" he asked.

"Yeah," she replied on a relieved exhale of breath. "But I haven't got long, Logan. If I take even a minute longer than expected picking up the delivery I'll be in trouble…"

"I know," he cut in quickly. His eye disappeared, and the next moment he was pushing something small and metallic through the crack in the wall. It dropped into her hand just as she went to catch it.

"That's it?" she whispered, surprised. It was no bigger than the masking device Rogue and Gambit had carried on them.

"Yeah. Don't knock it. It's Forge's work." She could almost hear the grin of the man on the other side. "Just don't lose it, okay? It's a one of a kind." There was a pause, and the next time he spoke he seemed to have backed away from the wall. "Now get goin', kid. No point in hangin' around here and givin' those Sentinels an excuse to put you inta solitary. I'll see you later."

Nothing more was said between them; he had already gone before she started to move again. Off she went on her regular errand, couriering cleaning supplies from the nearby warehouse to the internment centre. It was the sole task that belonged to her, and the only chance she had during the week to see the world on the other side of the camp's perimeter fence. She picked up her pace slightly, trying to make up for those few lost minutes.

She'd tried escaping once. It had been in the first week at the camp, on her first courier run. It was common, Kate had said. Everyone had tried it at least once. That had told Rachel that the Sentinels were well-used to dealing with escapees, but she'd still gone for it anyway, despite the fact that all couriers were tagged before every journey they took. She'd tried to get the tagging device cut off by some guy at a garage, but he'd wanted nothing to do with her. One look at her overalls had told him that she was an interned mutant and that even talking to her wasn't worth the risk involved.

So she'd ended up running to Mutant Town, and even they had been too scared to help her, knowing, as everyone knew, that the Sentinels would be close behind. Eventually she'd got some leery old mutant to cut off the tag, and naturally he'd wanted something else in repayment. She'd virtually beaten him to a pulp by the time the Sentinels had caught up with her. She'd known there was no way to outrun them by that time. All she'd earned was a week in solitary confinement and a beating every evening for her trouble. When she'd got out, she'd been chastened enough to know not to try the same stunt again.

Rachel picked up her collection just one minute later than scheduled, then made her return with only a few seconds to spare. She was given the usual scan when she got back; the tag was taken off and checked for details of her movements. She was questioned over her loitering near the scrap yard, which she explained away with an encounter with a Friends of Humanity member who'd been in the area; this was verified and she was allowed to pass back into the compound. All the while Forge's tiny device had done its job, evading the scanners and humiliating pat-downs as only an invention of the Maker's could do.

Once back in her own district the others had crowded round her expectantly.

"Did you get it?" Kate asked breathlessly. Rachel said nothing but produced the small device from where she had wedged it into the seam of her back pocket. Storm took it in her palms, stared at it with an oddly loving look.

"It's so small," she remarked in a voice that was strangely wistful.

"Will it work?" Franklin asked dubiously.

"Yes," Storm replied with a now sober gravity. "Nothing the Maker makes can possibly go wrong. Unless, of course, it is made to do so."

"And you think that's possible?" Franklin persisted. "He is working for the Brotherhood now, y'know."

"Hush, Frank," Rachel warned him softly, but Storm continued anyway with that same gravitas of tone; "No. It's not possible. The Maker is a good man."

The words were said with such tender conviction that Franklin was silenced. Rachel took the device back and held it between her thumb and forefinger.

"The only thing is," she began morosely, "is that I don't have a clue how it works."

"Give it here," Kate said. "I'll take a look at it."

Rachel handed it over willingly. Kate had always been more than just adept at working computers and other mechanical devices – her skill was such that she was often given the privilege of working with the Sentinel's computer mainframe during system crashes. She turned the object over between her fingers, and declared, after a few short moments, "I think I've got it. There's no on switch. It's sensor-activated. I'm guessing you put it in contact with the collar and it shorts one of the inner circuits. The only problem is figuring out which part of the collar it has to come into contact with. I haven't got a clue about the inner schematics of these power disruptors."

"There's not a lot of surface area to them," Piotr pointed out humorously. "A few minutes, my dear, and you will have found the weak spot."

Kate gave him a nettled look. She'd always been tetchy about her mechanical expertise.

"I know that!"

Rachel saw a faint smile flicker over Piotr's face. It was obvious that there were some of his wife's idiosyncrasies that never failed to amuse him.

It was while Kate was busy trying to find the trigger point on Magnus' collar that Franklin drew her quietly aside.

"You know, I'm beginning to think this might actually work," he admitted in a low voice to her, and she smirked up at him.

"What? You mean you had doubts?"

He gave her a look.

"It's a crazy scheme and you know it."

"Sometimes the craziest schemes are the ones that work," she smiled.

"And who told you that?" he replied sarcastically.

"No one," she added evasively. "Just some guy."

"Just some guy?" he repeated quizzically and she laughed.

"Don't be jealous. His name's Gambit. He's a total ass."

He swallowed that with an effort. She could tell that he was trying desperately not to give away at least a modicum of curiosity.

"Anyway," he added, changing the subject and clearing out his throat quickly, "What I was going to ask was whether you'd thought about what you're going to do if things do go wrong."

She pulled a face at him.

"Do you have to be such a pessimist?" she grumbled.

"Not a pessimist," he smiled faintly. "More like a realist. I mean, you're not even really sure that you can chronoskim somebody else, let alone yourself."

"To be honest, I'm not really thinking about things realistically," she admitted. "I have to work on the assumption that everything's going to go the way I want it to, otherwise I'll freak out." She turned aside slightly so that the others couldn't hear her. "I've been meditating five hours a day for the past week, Frank," she spoke in a low voice. He couldn't help but hear the uncertainty in her tone.

"I know. But something tells me you don't think it's enough."

"No," she answered slowly. "It's a little hard to think straight when there are so many other things on your mind…" She placed her hand tentatively in his, feeling an odd flood of relief when his fingers curled gently round hers. "The truth is, Frank, I'm trying not to think about it. About the possibility that I could lose you. And everyone else."

"At last!" He looked up to the ceiling comically and she stared at him.

"What?"

"You," he said, smiling down at her indulgently. "You being you, without all the bravado."

She continued to stare at him. It had never occurred to her that she ever put on such an act. He saw the look on her face and carried on quickly.

"Don't get me wrong. It's not like it's a bad thing or anything. In fact, I totally admire it. I'm nothing like you, Rae. I don't go taking risks. I don't make waves. I don't think outside the box. Hell, people tell me I'm an Omega level mutant, but I don't even know how to use my powers. I'm a waste of space, Rae. You're not."

"That is such bullshit," she shot back at him, but he shook his head seriously.

"No. It's not. The most I could probably do is reach out for someone telepathically, read a few minds. I can't even begin to comprehend what you can do, and yet you take it all in your stride. You're strong, Rae. I'm not. But," he added, squeezing her hand gently, "it's good to know that you still have feelings. That you'd still miss me if I was gone."

She smirked at him, pretending to look wounded.

"Of course I would! D'ya really think I'm that hard-hearted?"

He made no answer and she saw that he wasn't in the mood for banter. She sighed, got on her tip-toes, and kissed his lips, taking him completely off guard. She didn't really care who saw them.

"You're definitely not a waste of space," she murmured, just as they were both interrupted by a victorious cry from Kate across the room.

"Got it!" she declared triumphantly as they both turned to see what was going on.

"But it hasn't come off," Magnus spoke, puzzled, trying to shift the collar at his neck without success.

"That wasn't the purpose of the device," Kate replied, unable to hide a wide smile. "Forge made it to short circuit the collar when it comes into contact with the built-in power-supply. Neat, really." Her smile grew wider. "Go on, Erik. Try using your powers."

There was doubt on the old man's face; nevertheless, his glance shifted to the cutlery still left on the nearby table from lunch. There was barely a pause. To everyone's amazement the knives and forks had shot off the table and clattered to the floor. A moment of anxious silence followed during which each person suspected the sound to have attracted attention. Not even a breath could be heard.

"It worked," Rachel finally deigned to speak when the room remained quiet.

"So this is it," Franklin murmured, as if to add there's no turning back now. Storm flickered a glance over at him.

"Phase two goes ahead," she intoned darkly. He heard it and grimaced. Colossus merely nodded.

"Yes. Rachel sends Kate through the Timestream. And we target the Sentinel mainframes at the Trask building, try and shut them down."

"This is insane," Franklin muttered to himself; Kate shot him an exasperated look.

"With our powers, it's doable," she reminded him.

"Don't forget the ambient field that'll nullify those powers once we get near the perimeter," he countered pointedly, and Rachel's mouth twisted.

"He's right. We can't rely on our powers alone."

"So whaddaya we do then?" Kate frowned. "Give up? Logan says he has a plan to get us in there. And I happen to trust him."

"It isn't just a matter of trust, Katja," Peter interjected softly. "It's more a question of staying alive long enough to get the job done. Do you think we stand even half a chance without our powers?"

Kate made no reply to her husband, her mouth going tight and thin.

"What have we got to lose?" she finally asked quietly. "Apart from each other? Do you think the love of two people matters when the lives of millions are at stake?"

"Until you're back here safely," he replied soberly, "there's a lot to lose, Kate. I would rather there were more of us to protect you than just Rachel. But if you fail in your mission to prevent the death of Senator Kelly, then this is the only failsafe we have – to destroy the Sentinel mainframes. And it's a risk I'm willing to take, as long as you're in one piece."

There was a silence. Rachel looked away. She knew Kate and Peter had talked for a long time about this – about the lengths each of them was willing to go to, about the sacrifices they were both prepared to make. She knew none of it had come easy to either of them, and she felt that she was somehow intruding on a heartfelt discussion that still hadn't quite been resolved. She cast a glance in Franklin's direction, and saw that his eyes were on her. They were both thinking the same thing. Was it possible to fit in all the words they should've said?

"Rachel?"

It was Kate's voice, Kate's hand on her shoulder, drawing her gaze away from Franklin's. "If you're having second thoughts, all you have to do is say so. All this rests on you, after all – there's no plan, no mission without you."

Rachel shook her head sadly.

"You think I could give up now? When I've brought us all this far?"

Kate smiled slightly at her.

"It isn't a weakness to change your mind."

"But I haven't changed my mind," Rachel insisted earnestly. "I've just… I just wish I had more time."

"I know." The older woman nodded sympathetically. "But the longer we have to say goodbye, the harder it gets to say the words." And this time her smile was sad. "I'll be waiting in your room. Whenever you're ready, just say the word."

And she left.

-oOo-

Franklin was in his room gearing up when she sidled in.

"All set?" she asked him.

He didn't look up at her.

"Just about."

She watched as he took the photo of his mum and dad off the noteboard, folded it up and slipped it into the breast pocket of his khaki overalls. It pained her to think that she'd never had a picture of her own parents. There were some days she couldn't even remember their faces. She swallowed the thought and shut the door behind her, sat on the edge of his bed.

"I guess we should be talking about this," she spoke up uncertainly.

"About what?" he said, still not looking at her.

"About us."

He paused. His mouth went hard.

"No, Rae," he returned after a lengthy silence. "We talk about this on the other side. When there'll be a reason to talk."

He was distancing himself. She understood why. She knew he wouldn't be able to go ahead with this if she gave him a reason not to throw away his life. It brought home to her just how dangerous this really was.

She remembered what Rogue had said once about Gambit.

Ah know Ah want t' be with him. Always.

She remembered the flavour of the kisses she'd stolen from them in those moments where she'd spied on them, feeding on the intoxicating nectar of their intimacy, the thing she'd never understood but wanted.

She could put a name now to what their feelings had been. Franklin had taught her that much.

Rogue, all unconditional love tempered by a fear that unconditional love could never be enough.

And Gambit, fearing that unconditional love was too much, yet knowing, subconsciously, that it was exactly what he felt for her.

She understood now. She'd always assumed Rogue and Gambit had been on the same page as each other about their feelings. Now she saw that they never had been. One pulling, one resisting. Both drawn inexplicably to one another. She wondered what it meant, the fact that they were bound by this thing, the Timestream. She felt it with Franklin, but she didn't dare look at it, let alone analyse it. For the first time she realised just how much her relationship with Franklin seemed to mirror that of Rogue and Gambit, except that the roles were reversed.

She was the one that feared to love. He was the one who would give it all.

"Rae," his voice came softly, interrupting her thoughts. She looked up at him and saw that the look on his face was strained.

"What?" she asked him.

"You're broadcasting."

She held her breath, checked herself. She forgotten that he now had access to his powers, that the collar round his neck had been nullified, that he'd heard every one of her thoughts.

"I-I'm sorry, Frank…" she apologised earnestly, but he had turned away, back to the desk, bracing himself against it with both hands as if the world were on his shoulders.

"No, Rae," he told her with emotion. "I get it. I really do. I get what they did to you back at the Hound Pens. That they took away all your emotions, that you never learnt how to deal with them. I know you're scared and confused. That's why we don't need to talk about this. That's why we don't need to complicate things. Right?"

She couldn't answer. Her breath would barely come.

"Frank, I…"

Her voice came out weak. She didn't even know if he heard her, because he continued right on top of her.

"I can't begin to imagine what they did to you," he ground out. "And I don't want to push you. I don't want to make things worse. I don't want to scare you, Rae. I don't want my feelings to scare you."

She opened her mouth to protest weakly, saying, "But you never told me…"

A small, humourless laugh shook his frame.

"How can I tell you what it's like when you couldn't ever understand?"

"But I do," she murmured. "I do…"

"Do you?" And his voice was cold. "Do you know the hell I've been through? The hell I'm going through?"

She did get it, didn't she? She saw it, felt it, every moment that they spent together, right? The agony that he felt because even when he was closest to her, he knew he wasn't connecting with her, not the way he wanted to. And she got that.

Right?

And he turned to her then, his expression hard, and said;

"No, Rae. You don't."

And suddenly he was throwing it all at her, all his thoughts, all his feelings, all his emotions, coming at her in a torrent, a hideously beautiful flood of warmth glittering and crashing over her like molten crystal, textures and tastes she'd never seen, never experienced… And she gasped, she gulped, she tried desperately to drink it all in when it was impossible to do so, when there was so much bitterness twisting in with all the desperation and hopelessness and tenderness…

And somewhere inside the psionic tumult she flailed, she cried out Stop!... And he heard her. He stopped. It all came to a halt and settled round her feet like the tides washing in and out, and she realised that she was crying.

Until that moment she'd never known just how many shades of love there could be.

He walked up to her, took her head between his palms, rested it against his stomach, stroked her hair.

"I love you, Rae," he told her, and she understood, for the first time, what he meant.

She couldn't say it.

She twisted her face into his abdomen and sobbed.

-oOo-

Her room was darkened, lit only by the flickering glow of the few candles they'd managed to scrape together with their rations.

Rachel sat on the rug cross-legged, Kate's head in her lap. It was hard to concentrate when the conversation she'd had with Franklin not even an hour ago was still whirling round her mind, his words still hanging heavy on her heart. It was about all she could do to suppress the doubt now winding snake-like through her. Was this right? Was this just another form of selfishness dressed up as altruism? A means to an end, a way of making a soulless life like hers meaningful?

What if she was leading Franklin and the others to their deaths? What if there would never be a chance to talk things over with him once they were done with this, what if this was it? What if this was it and she and Franklin had parted – forever – on bad terms?

Besides, she wasn't sure that she was going about this the right way. For some reason, she wished Rogue was with her. She was the only other person in the world that even had an inkling of how to use Rachel's powers, and even if it was a long shot, she sure could've done with some advice. Any advice.

Even a hug would've been enough.

"You sure about this?" she asked Kate in a whisper. Any excuse, she thought. Any excuse to back out now. To go to Frank and the others and tell them not to go to the Sentinel's mainframe with Logan. That the whole thing was off.

"Are you?" Kate asked back. There was no nervousness betrayed in her voice. If Rachel had wanted an out, she wasn't going to find it in her best friend.

"I guess…" she faltered.

She remembered Franklin's expression right before she and Kate had closed themselves in here and locked the door.

It had been the look of a man suppressing a scream of anguish.

"Did you say goodbye?" Kate asked her out of the blue.

Rachel bit her lip. She didn't really know the answer to the question.

"Yeah," she replied shortly. "Did you?"

"Yes." Kate's answer was firm, final. It told Rachel that she was prepared for failure, for death. Until now, Rachel had held those two concepts very much at bay, but they were biting at her heels now and then some.

"Shall we start?" Kate was asking. She shook herself inwardly. Okay, Rae. Here we go. No half measures.

"Yes," she returned, as calmly as she could. She placed her hands on the sides of Kate's shorn head, momentarily uncertain. She tried to remember how this worked. Kate shifted impatiently, waiting.

"Relax," Rachel whispered to her, and she closed her eyes, she fell into the rhythm of the silence and the flickering shadows of the candles. She drove away Franklin and Rogue and Gambit and everyone else; she swept away her emotions with more efficiency than she knew she had. She remembered herself, by the lake, where it had been so easy to conjure up. She'd barely had to think about it.

Please, she thought. I want to see you. I need to see you.

And she opened her eyes to blackness.

"Please," she said to it out loud, her voice echoing in this dark and noiseless realm. "You have to help me."

And that was when they came.

First one, then another, and another.

A golden rain, shimmering, dancing before her.

Threads.

The threads of Time, crowding in around her like curious little people, darting this way and that as if in silent communication, coming in close only to whirl away, always out of reach.

"Please!" Rachel called out in tearful frustration. "You have to help me!"

And they stopped. They leaned in towards her as though drawn to her. Towards Kate, lying sleeping and helpless in her arms. As though they recognised her across eons that had never really existed, because they had been there all the time.

What do we do? they seemed to ask her, and she heard them as loud and as clear as if they had been real.

They were real. They were always there. Always had been.

"You know!" she railed at them, despair edging over anger over despair. "You've seen everything! You know how this happens! You know what to do! Please!"

The threads shimmered, silent, evaluating, communing in a way she couldn't comprehend.

It's against the rules, they finally said, and she shook her head, spoke wildly; "If it was against the rules, I wouldn't be able to do it!"

And, we cannot, they said.

"It's not for me!" she protested desperately. "Rogue said to me, do it for us, do it for a better tomorrow! And that's what I'm doing! So you have to help me! Please!"

Her plea echoed, trailed into nothingness. There was that silent conferral again. She waited with bated breath, hardly realising that her cheeks were wet.

We will do it, they decided at last. But only because it has always been.

She had no time for questions, nor for thanks. Before she could even think what it all meant, those shining, shimmering threads had bent, buckled, converged, gathering in close, so close she could barely breathe with fear, and then… Swoosh! … They had pierced through every inch of every contour of Kate's prone form, and the older woman spasmed violently, once, twice, thrice, her body glowing with an inner light, brighter, brighter, so bright it was hot enough to burn…

White noise.

Then darkness.

Rachel's eyes flew open to the candlelit walls of her dingy room, and she spilled out an involuntary cry, panicked, thinking that Kate was dead…

But Kate was silent, breathing quietly, regularly, in her lap; and Rachel knew, instinctively, that the threads had taken her, that they had been as good as their word. Wherever Kate was, the Timestream had her now.

Rachel heaved a shaky sigh of relief.

And that was when she heard it.

The thunderous crashing of two, three, four Sentinels somewhere very close, the crash of furniture and cutlery somewhere beyond the door. Then the cries, the shouts of confusion, of horror, Franklin's among them.

Blind panic took her. She nearly got to her feet before she realised I have to stay in physical contact with Kate, I have to otherwise she'll be lost in the Timestream and everything fails.

BOOOOOOM!

She room shook, swayed. The atmosphere grew close, buzzed with a sudden charge of static and she heard thunder rolling overhead. Storm. Ororo Munroe was on the attack.

She hadn't even computed this fact before Rachel found that she had hoisted Kate's dead weight into her arms and was staggering for the door. Somewhere outside the battle was growing and she didn't understand, she couldn't understand how this could be happening, how the Sentinels could be here or even what they wanted, but she knew she couldn't stay here with Kate like a sitting duck, that she had to do something

She managed to flip the lock despite her burden and she kicked the door open, right off its hinges and into the corridor. For a tortuous moment she stood there, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from, which way to run, which way led to safety and…

KABOOOOOM!

Screeching metal, the taste of an electrical fire on her tongue, and the dull thud of a Sentinel's fist on a wall…

The corridor shuddered again, loosening plaster from the ceiling, showering her in a film of dusty white. Rachel coughed, and stumbled out of the doorway, heading to wherever she thought the quickest unblocked exit would be, thinking, we should've figured this out earlier, we should have planned an escape route…

She'd only made a few steps when Logan – Logan, of all people – skidded round the corner just as the corridor shook once more under another almighty crash.

He clocked her without even halting.

"This way, kid!" he hollered at her, grasping her by the shoulders just as she'd thought he'd run right past; he shoved her in the opposite direction with a force that nearly sent her to her knees. "Not that way. Not that way." His teeth were gritted, his entire left arm covered in blood. She half-froze, watching his tendons and then his skin threading back together again over a framework of bare bone. He didn't have time for sensibilities.

"Move!" he barked, and she did, but only because she was more afraid of his wrath than anything else.

They got to the end of the corridor before the entire thing seemed to explode in a shower of bricks and mortar right down the opposite end. She stumbled, only managing to stay upright when Logan shot out an arm to steady her.

"Keep calm, kid," he murmured as there was the crash of thunder and lightning again – Storm venting her fury – somewhere behind them. His voice was so quiet she barely heard it over the din, as if he were reassuring himself more so than her. "We're gettin' you and Kate outta here. Don't look back."

She didn't dare. She could barely see in front of her. Her senses were on autopilot; the only thing she was aware of was the weight of Kate in her arms, the fact that she couldn't break contact with her for even a moment.

"What happened, Logan?" she panted desperately, the oxygen searing her throat. "How did they find out? Why did the Sentinels attack?"

"We've been betrayed," Logan answered gruffly, making short work of a grill door that was barring their way down into the sewers with a mere swipe of his claws. Rachel gaped fearfully at him.

"Who could do such a thing?!" she cried.

"I ain't sure," Logan growled, twisting the bars of the door behind him out of shape so that no one could follow them through – no one human-sized anyway. "But I have a fuckin' good idea. Lucky I planned an escape route beforehand."

He said nothing more, engrossed as he was in getting them out. Rachel staggered after him, barely able to keep up. Her knees ached; her arms throbbed dully with Kate's weight. Every breath she took in was filled with noxious air and made her gag.

"The others…" she began, meaning to ask Logan whether they stood a chance in hell of surviving, her mind flittering frantically on Franklin for a split second that lasted too long; she choked on the thought, and Logan cast a glance back at her; a hard look, yet one that wasn't without an undercurrent of compassion.

"Don't you worry about them, kid," he urged her darkly. "They're gonna do everythin' they can t' give us a headstart and then they'll be right behind us!"

No sooner had he got the words out than she felt it. It crashed over with all the brute force of a tsunami descending over her head, with the suddenness of smacking into the back end of a bus. Pain washed over her with all the fire of being doused in icy cold water; pain that brought tears to her eyes. She hardly knew how she managed to stay standing. It was there one moment, gone the next; when she came to, she was staring into Logan's worried gaze, the tail end of her scream reverberating through the tunnels.

"What happened?" Logan asked, steadying her once more, helping to redistribute Kate's motionless form, pushing her up against the wall so that she didn't fall over. "Shit, Rachel – what happened?"

And she looked up at him, only just realising what that tsunami of pain and the abruptness of its passing had meant. Tears streamed down her cheeks unbidden.

"It's – it's Ororo," she hiccupped, almost beside herself with grief and fear. "I – I felt her on the astral plane… She's – she's dead Logan. I felt her die…"

The expression that filled Logan's face was so strained and gaunt he suddenly seemed as old as all the many years he had lived. That look alone frightened her more than anything. He turned away quickly, as if to hide that look from her.

"Shit," he swore hoarsely. When he looked back at her his face was still taut but the awful haggardness had gone. "We gotta get outta here. Now."

He led her onward through the maze of fetidly smelling tunnels. Twice she stopped, feeling that same brief starburst of energy, that cascade of white hot pain bearing down on her only to give way to a great expanse of nothingness – and she knew first Magnus, then Piotr too had followed where Storm had gone. The void was as intense as the buzz of activity that all life entailed – all the more loud for the totality of that silence. By the time they reached the ladder that was their exit out of this place, she was shrouded in it.

She stood, mute, as Logan arranged Kate on her back, distributed her mass carefully so that Rachel could more easily climb the rungs and reach the manhole ahead. Only one thing was on her mind – but she dare not cast out the tendrils of her psyche to Franklin, for fear of what she might find.

"Logan…" she begged him without further words, trying to communicate the thing she dare not say. He heard her loud and clear. His nod was curt, short.

"You go up and find a place to hide, kid," he ordered her, already walking away from her; but on an afterthought he paused and came back, digging into his pocket. When he drew it out, she saw there was a small, round metal disc in his hand – one of Forge's masking devices that she had seen on Rogue and Gambit so long ago. He stuffed it into her pocket, ignoring her protests. "Don't argue with me Rae!" he barked at her. "You and Kate are gonna need it more than me! Now get outta here while you still can! No buts, kid! I'm gonna get Franklin back for you. I promise. Just don't let Kate outta your sight. Yah hear me?"

She nodded numbly – meagre assurance, she knew, but he took it. In a trice he was gone; and she was left to climb to the light alone.

She couldn't count the minutes she took struggling to reach the manhole cover, nor what strength she expended in lifting it and crawling out onto the streets. Indeed, she had no conception of where her energy had come from – she felt drained; only her mind seemed to be working with a feverish clarity, fed perhaps by the last burst of energy given up by her dying comrades. Whether some form of psionic cannibalism or not, it was the only thing keeping her going. Logan had chosen their escape route well; the manhole had opened up onto one of the quieter alleyways – there was no one about to impede their way. She had no idea where she was; but it didn't matter, she didn't think she would have recognised any place the state her mind was in right now.

She stopped in a narrow conduit between two buildings merely to put down Kate for a moment and catch her breath. The older woman lay, still and quiet, her face in an odd repose. It was the first time Rachel had seen the worry lines on her brow clear and smooth. It seemed ironic, that this deathly sleep should take away all the cares of the present world. For a brief moment Rachel envied her.

"Be strong, Kate," she whispered shakily, touching her friend's clammy cheek. "Please."

Because Kate was the only person now who could bring them all back, who could restore those that were now lost… …

She pulled Kate's jacket closer about her, allowing herself to think of Franklin with an almost tentative shyness. It was an indulgence – but it was a comfort, one that steadied her already brittle nerves. She held him close to her, cupped that soothing warmth in both palms, pressed it to her breast, fed from it as though from her only source of sustenance. In the darkness they clung to one another in a desolate embrace. She saw now what Rogue had meant when she had said that she had wanted to be with Gambit always. Even the smallest of distances seemed to dilate – never had Rachel felt so far from another human being.

She didn't know if this was the thing Rogue had spoken of. She didn't know if this was love. But she knew that, in those few short nights she had spent together with Franklin, she had learned there was something more to life than this struggle – that there were some reasons to smile despite all the sorrow around her. And it was something she didn't want to lose.

"I'll tell you, Franklin," she murmured into the darkness. "When you get back, I'll tell you, I promise. I think I love you, Franklin. I think I do."

No sooner had she made the resolution than he seemed to come straight at her from out of nowhere, as though she had summoned him from the either. Instinctively she reached out, found him – pure, bright, the angel she had always known him to be. She gazed up at him in awe, the warmth and light of his psyche bathing her in a sweet and loving embrace. She didn't comprehend it in a rational way – it was her senses that responded, letting him wrap her in wings of light, envelope her in tender reassurance.

Time hovered like a hummingbird between them – what felt like minutes must have been seconds. In another moment she felt him withdraw from her, the light now tinged with sadness. She sobbed, knowing now what it meant; she tried to snatch him back, to no avail. Even as he stepped away from her he began to dissipate. Fine gold molecules whirled around her in an iridescent snowstorm, brushing against every fibre of her being, lavishing her with a final caress.

The whirlwind of gold flickered, faded. It hovered for a moment before her – goodbye – before winking out and —

On the other side was blackness.

And she knew Franklin Richards was dead.

-oOo-

Cold and dark.

The church was cold and dark and empty.

It wasn't too far from the way he felt inside.

Only a few candles remained in their ornate and gilded racks at the altar, casting their paltry light little further than their nearest neighbour. In a few minutes, they too would be guttered out, and the building would be engulfed in darkness.

Remy stood a little away from these faint flickers of light which struggled valiantly to bring their small brilliance into the world. The shadow of a crucifix loomed high above him, impassive, out of reach. The passion of the Christ was a passion carved in wood and metal and stone. It was a passion Remy had witnessed many times before, when Jean-Luc had taken him and Henri to mass every Sunday. Then, as now, it was a passion as far removed from his own emotions, his own drives, as humanly possible.

Only now did he begin to understand it.

The agony of sacrifice.

He turned only when he heard Essex's footsteps on the cold stone floor behind him, echoing in this old world building with an ominous clarity. Here, now, was his future approaching.

"Essex," he greeted the other, no emotion, no fear.

"LeBeau," came that silky smooth voice so full of hideous promise.

They stood, facing one another in silence for a long, crawling moment. The candles at the altar hissed and spluttered. As if they sensed Essex's presence, as if they rebelled against it. As if to warn a crucified god that the devil had entered his inner sanctum.

The god slept on.

Remy was the only one that heard.

"So," Essex spoke first, "you have found it then. The truth."

"Oui." A pause. "Father."

And a grin lit the monster's face, a truly horrifying one. Maniacal pride at the fact that the seemingly endless years of scheming were, at last, starting to bear fruit.

"Then that you are here is a good sign," Sinister mused coolly. "It means you have accepted the truth. That you are ready to be what you were always intended to be."

What Sinister had always intended him to be – exactly the same as the father. Cold, ruthless, calculating. Amoral. An avatar for the creature that Essex himself always should have been.

"Yes," was all Remy replied.

And Sinister's smile turned ugly.

"Name your price," he said, as the candles in the background flickered in their last, lingering death throes.

"I want my powers back," Remy returned coolly, evenly. "I want it all. Everyt'ing you took from me. All de potential I had to be de creature you intended me to be. All of it. In exchange for Rogue."

Sinister's eyes narrowed, glowed with triumph.

"And you shall have it, my boy. That, and more. But," and his voice lowered to a sibilant hiss, "the girl comes first."

There was no time to think, no time to weigh up the options. No time to falter or play chicken. He was committed. To the bitter end.

"Of course," was all he said.

And, the deal having finally been made, the candles gave up their final, wretched protest, and the room was lost in darkness.

-oOo-

-END-

To be continued in Book 3, 'Arrow of Time'


And a big thanks to all my readers for taking the time to read and review. I don't say it often enough, but I am really grateful for your support. Words can't express my appreciation. See you again soon for Rogue and Gambit's explosive reunion... ;)