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For Poi, as always.

For Kael, who can't be thanked enough for hours of research and unending patience while I rambled line after line at her late into the night when she had to be up before dawn.

For Mitai, who listened.

For JB, who asked.

For Johnny and Steven, just 'cause they're real life Mooks and I wish them the best.

For Duey, Alicia, Pebblin, 'rith, Dannell, and Jen especially, and all my Plotting compatriots who contributed or encouraged this series.

For Mom, who is no doubt looking down from whatever afterlife there is, shaking her head in that age-old way and saying, "What's wrong with writing about heterosexuals?" ;)

Special thanks to Matt Nute for boldly helping me name Remy's wonky wong. (Note: The term "wonky wong" is courtesy of DuAnn Cowart and should be credited to her if you should develop any fondness for using it.) Also special thanks to Abyss for the lovely French swearing that won't really be used until the next part, but hey.

Now then. All but Dr. Niles are Marvel's. No money. Don't sue. Don't use Dr. Niles for any reason without my permission. I live next to a convent. I could rip out your trachea today, confess tomorrow, and still be in good shape for heaven by tomorrow evening.

You may have noticed that this story is very LONG. Well, it's also not a complete story. This is the first major part of what I assume will be a G-I-A-N-T three-part Mooks story. Earlier stories in this arc can be found at a buncha places -- e-mail me for URLs if you can't find them.

A few notes: One, I'm giving Remy his hard 'th' in this story for the most part. I think it's easier to take him seriously that way, and this is a very serious story. Two, I'm retconning that utterly ridiculous idea that Hank would just wander off with the other X-Men after Gambit was dumped in Antarctica. So far as I'm concerned he got thumped on the head with a falling rock and was too out of it to be fully aware of what was going on. C'mon... he's a doctor. No way he'd behave the way they wrote him. It was stupid.

This story is rated R for some fairly explicit sex. There's also language. Not much violence. If you don't need to be reading such, then don't. This story also features a homosexual relationship. ("Duh," anyone? ;) If you have a problem with that... long walk, short pier, mind the sharks on your way down.

Comments to the list that you're reading this on or my semi-new address, [email protected] In case it's not obvious, I've put a lotta work into this one. Yes, I know I'm lousy at answering feedback, but I figure that in a way writing another story IS answering feedback. See? See the connection? So feel free to drop me a comment. :)

Oo! And a certain small potato of defiance, namely Marion, actually did an ubernifty portrait of the Mooks! It should be up at Alyson's lovely site, (un)frozen, sooner or later. Go mark the page and watch for updates: http://alykat.interspeed.net/unfrozen/

Any Kinda Breath
By Kaylee


More than the beyond-cold wind howling over his staggering form, more than the numbness in feet and hands that stopped allowing him to feel how chill the snow was, more than the ache that seemed to comfortably seat itself in the middle of his brain and spread fingers every which way... more than all of that, he hated how the dry air sucked the moisture from his lungs, turned them into husks in his chest. His frozen feet would keep shuffling, he decided, if only he could draw a breath strong enough to power them.

It was the only thing alive in him, he thought, drawing a fold of salvaged cloth more tightly across his mouth, trying futilely to warm the air enough so that it didn't feel so much like razors cutting his chest from inside. The heavy, clawing ache rearward of his chest was the only thing real about him. A pair of freezing, cracking lungs housed in a failing casing that tripped and stuttered its way through the great field of snow.

It hurt. He would never leave. He'd die here, unable to draw a lungful of air, fading away with warmth still in his body because his lungs wouldn't work...

His eyes opened, and for a minute he really was back there, and the dark room was painfully bright against unshielded eyes, and the overly thick quilt was a blanket of snow, and he would still die here, just like this, his efforts at survival less consequential than the sound that tree in the forest made when it fell.

Then he rolled over and pressed his face hard into the pillow as the coughs hit him.

Don' wake up Bobby, don' wake up Bobby, don' wake up Bobby...

Like his hands, going numb for no reason in the middle of the day. Like his eyes, overflowing with unneeded moisture in memory of when his body had struggled to keep them damp against the leaching wind. His lungs sat heavily against the rear of his ribcage and wouldn't let him forget.

His body shook -- shivers or a byproduct of the coughing or both -- and he all but smothered himself in cotton-covered feathers as he fought to bring his breathing back under control. He wasn't there. He wasn't there. He wasn't there. He wasn't

merde

able to catch his breath. Tiny little inhalations, suppress the hitching in his chest, don't breathe deeply enough to trigger them, damn but he needed air. He tried to relax, calm down mentally and physically, but mind and body seemed caught in an argument and he received fire from both sides. Just a little air, just one decent breath, just one and he could hold it for a while until his heart stopped pounding so hard...

Finally need overpowered whatever pride or courtesy kept him struggling for silence. He sat up, almost lurching, and straightened his lean torso in an effort to open his lungs as much as possible. Tiny breaths passed in and out of painful lungs that seemed to have shriveled to the pocket-sized variety. He knew he couldn't slow them, he knew he couldn't control them, and he closed his eyes tightly as he tried to anyway.

He didn't even feel the bed shift before the legs straddled him from behind and the arms loosely circled his chest, offering comfort as the only gift in their possession. Bobby knew better than to expect words from him right then. Spent the next endless minute, two, murmuring against his shoulder reassurances that somehow didn't sound hollow. You're here, Remy. You're safe and warm. See the blanket? And those are my arms around you and I'm not letting go. You don't need to go back there, not ever. Just relax, trust me, relax, breathe in, relax, easy, easy...

Finally, after too long, the hyperventilation eased, lungs slowly reassuming something resembling their proper size, body sagging back tiredly from its rigidly desperate posture. Remy let his eyes stay closed and his mind go quiet. Thought about absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

Bobby spoke softly to him, the words not important, and kept that silence from being all-consuming.

***

One of the irritating parts of having a live-in lover, Remy decided, was the fact that such a lover tended to have far too much to say in the mornings when he himself wanted nothing more than to forget that the last night ever happened.

"Scott won't mind if you don't go," Bobby was currently telling him earnestly. "Maybe you should stay here."

The buzzer -- taking the place of Charles Xavier's telepathic summoning these days -- had sounded before their alarm had a chance to go off, and Remy had slipped out of bed instantly out of habit, ignoring the graininess of eyes and the yawn that tried to surprise him mid-inhalation. Bobby's protests had started pretty much immediately and hadn't abated in the few minutes it'd taken the taller man to don his uniform.

"Jus' get ready," Remy said tersely, in no mood for this. His nerves felt twitchy and that yawn kept trying to return, neither of which was making him very cheerful. To top it off, Bobby hadn't even dug out his uniform yet. He just sat there on the edge of the bed, half-covered by the blanket, forehead lined with a frown and expression clearly troubled.

"But you hardly slept at all," he protested, obviously without much hope.

Remy pulled open the door and glared over his shoulder, actually putting some voltage in the look. "Don' mother me, Bobby," he began, then looked sharply back into the hallway as an amused-sounding snort reached them. Logan didn't even glance at them as he continued on down the hall, but Remy's face tightened with irritation regardless.

"He doesn't care," Bobby was quick to point out, but Remy rolled his eyes and strode through the door, slamming it behind him forcefully enough to make him jump at the noise. He of course shrugged off that momentary startle quickly, shoulders squaring and jaw hardening. At night, with just the two of them, he could drop those defenses -- hell, could barely keep them up. With brightly revealing sunlight chasing away nighttime shadows, however, those well-meaning words were invasive, suffocating. He was fine, he'd said so more than once, and to doubt that was to imply that he wasn't entirely sure of himself, self-sufficient, independent...

He ran out of synonyms and spent a moment not letting himself think about anything of less than immediate consequence. A hallway mirror informed him that his uniform finally fit like a glove again, lightweight Kevlar snugging against his torso with that comforting heaviness. Arms and legs filled out the rest of the skintight, tough-but-flexible fabric. He looked as good as he ever had.

Then he doubled over and coughed, harshly, lungs wheezing complaints, and forgot how attractive he was.

Pneumonia, he thought as the fit eased a bit, one arm clutched futilely around his chest, the other holding the wall up. Can' be too bad, though... doesn' hurt so bad as... But that thought cut off, just like that, unwilling to share space with a calm, rational, daytime mind. He would not think about the respiratory infection he'd battled coming out of Antarctica, a complication of the cold-damage. He would not remember the fear that he'd never draw a full breath again. He would not recall how many times he'd asked himself why he even bothered fighting, why he didn't just let those breaths still down to nothing the way they wanted.

No. This bore no relation to that. Walking pneumonia. He'd had it before, years ago. Spent a while hacking and feeling generally miserable, but it hadn't interfered with his lifestyle all that much other than causing him to cut down his covert activities until he could be sure he wouldn't give himself away with a coughing fit at the worst possible moment. Hardly worse than a bad cold. Certainly not enough to warrant being coddled like a child.

Red-hued eyes raised. Met their own steady gaze in the mirror, grateful that the fevered redness wouldn't be visible in his eyes. It hadn't been bad at all. Really.

He straightened and glanced each way down the hall as he cleared his throat and gathered wind back, the heel of a hand brushing quickly over eyes. No one in sight. He'd apparently rebuffed Bobby hard enough to keep his lover's concern from overcoming his anger at Remy's attitude.

I'm gon' feel like shit over that one later.

Well, that was nothing new. Shaking his head to clear it, he headed for the staircase.

***

"They're tearing the building down to build a homeless shelter," Scott explained en route, "but the problem is that the homeless have already claimed it. It's to the point now that the city is planning to send in law enforcement to drag them out, because the building's coming down today. It's beyond condemned -- a miracle it's still standing."

"How's this a matter for us?" Logan wanted to know reasonably. "Sounds like they got it together. Boys in blue can handle things, give those people a roof in the meantime."

Scott seemed to have been waiting for just that. "This particular building is, rumor has it, housing mutants right now."

"Like Morlocks?" Remy cut in uneasily. That was a group he owed more than his life was worth.

To Remy's relief, Scott shook his head immediately. "No. We're talking a handful of unconnected individuals. The building's been under scrutiny for a while now, and nothing untoward happens there. The only concern is that the beta and gamma level mutants living there now might retaliate with force, which would mean the cops might be called on to answer that force, meaning..."

Since Scott was still looking at him, Remy nodded understanding. The leader seemed satisfied with that and turned his attention back to the wider group, going on to explain that they were only to use force if absolutely necessary, that the under-the-table deal Scott had worked out with the NYPD gave them one shot to keep things controlled, and if any bystanders were threatened the boys in blue would come in fully armed. Officially, of course, the police department would claim that the X-Men showed up without invitation whenever a news agency picked up the story. It was up to them to watch their own tails, like always.

It felt ridiculous to Remy to actually use the Blackbird for such a short jaunt, but arriving in school vehicles wouldn't exactly work well for confidentiality and Xavier had yet to approve any of the plans for ground-based transport for the team. At least they would make an impression. Maybe convince the squatters in the building that they were serious enough that no force would be necessary at all.

He found himself hoping very much that this was so.

They arrived on site in an attention-getting storm of trash and dust as the Blackbird's modified thrusters eased her down between dilapidated buildings. Remy swore to himself and imagined all the faces peering out of dusty windows, the hands springing automatically for telephones. The numbers dialed, the 911 lines being tied up, the shrilled word - "Muties!" - reflecting all the fear this high-profile action instilled...

He understood the point. Realized that the only way to counter the continuous harm to their reputations was to prove themselves on the side of truth and justice and all that other bullshit that some people actually ascribed to 'the American way.' Nevertheless, it made him feel too visible, a thief in the spotlight, and never was he more aware of his startling, different eyes than when seeing them on a television screen. Which was why he tended to fade into the background shadows when the TV crews arrived.

Not that anyone asked X-Men for interviews. Not that X-Men offered.

Maybe they could get through this one before the media showed up.

Ororo was on extended leave -- something to do with a very personal obligation involving a student of the man who'd taught her how to pick pockets as a child -- and Scott was back in the position he'd always been comfortable with, wielding the team on his own. Remy sized up the surrounding area with a glance. Faces in windows. Fingers on phones. They wouldn't have long, even if the police were unofficially sanctioning this run.

The building itself was as bad as Scott had said, actually canting a bit to the left. He almost thought he could hear phantom groans of overstressed beams inside. Old brick, poorly laid, splashed with so much graffiti that the original red of the bricks didn't even begin until the bottom of the second story.

"God," Rogue breathed, not far away. "I've stayed in a lotta dumps, but ya gotta be insane to live in somethin' like this."

Offhandedly, he started to volunteer that he'd stayed in worse. Perhaps it was fortunate that a too-deep breath triggered a sudden spate of coughing instead. He was far enough away from the others to turn swiftly, smothering the noise against an upraised arm, and it passed relatively quickly with nothing more than the familiar burning lingering after. He took a slow, deep breath. Another, then another, relaxing as lungs momentarily proved willing to be docile.

When he looked back around he met Bobby's eyes, not more than two yards away.

"Are you..." A pause, blue eyes flicking across his face. "... okay?"

Remy swallowed a cough and dredged up an impatient look. The pointed silence on the trip over should have been enough to paint a clear 'No Trespassing' sign on his back, shouldn't it? "'M fine." He kept the real irritation out of his tone with effort. No reason to blame Bobby for giving a shit. "Just a cough. An' this ain' exactly special warfare here."

Hesitantly: "You could sit this one out..." A couple of steps, then the lightest brush of fingers across his forearm, blue eyes making no attempt at hiding worry. "We can handle this."

He would have softened to the all-too-rare public affection if not for the sting of... pride? Hopefully this wasn't just pride he was acting for. "Really," he said shortly, pulling back a little. "I'm fine." And he meant it. The pain in his torso was almost a phantom pain, little more than a memory and an emotion. He dropped his voice, hardly hearing the grating tone it picked up. "F' god's sake, Bobby, don' treat me like a child."

"I wasn't." Injury in the set of shoulders, depths of eyes. "Just... we don't know what's gonna be inside there."

"I handled t'ings more dangerous than this when you were still gettin' tucked into bed ev'y night by y' maman," he snapped without thinking.

Bobby drew back, paling a little, color washed out even more by the light blue of his costume. He looked at the building, blinking too rapidly. Cleared his throat. "Fine." Eyes slanted to Remy, then away as he turned abruptly and strode toward the small huddled conference with Scott at its center. He wouldn't tell Cyke that Remy wasn't up to this. Not yet. It would take a lot more to convince Bobby to risk really offending his lover, which was a fact Remy took little pleasure in using as a convenient manipulation tool. Still, in this case...

He sighed -- carefully shallowly -- and pulled his compacted bo staff from its place, snapping it to full extension with a sharp, angry flick of the wrist. Probably wouldn't need the weapon, but regardless of how foolish he knew he seemed, he wasn't interested in taking needless risks. The bo was far less likely to cause structural damage to the building than a misplaced kinetic explosion.

Scott glanced his way, then bobbed his visored head impatiently. 'Get over here.' Remy made his way and stopped just within hearing range of the low voice as the leader laid out the game plan. Rogue was to go in through a window on the top floor, the fifth. Remy would take a rear ground-level entrance while Logan took the same from a shadowed alleyway to the left. Scott would go in the main entrance, attempting reason before any action was taken. Bobby and Jean were to remain outside and play backup structural support in the chance that the building's own would fail.

When they started to break, Remy's attention was caught by a quick glance from Logan as his teammate tapped Scott's arm, drawing him a few steps away. A low-voiced conversation was followed by another very direct look from Scott, then-- "Gambit, you're trading with Wolverine. Take the left entrance."

The left entrance was expected to have less chance of opposition than the rear. "An' just why is that?" he asked tightly.

"I trust Wolverine's judgment," Scott said simply, turning away and making it clear that the matter wasn't up for debate. "Get moving."

Logan gave him a long look. Remy started forward with a curse and walked past him, heading for a roundabout way to the alley. "Any p'ticular reason f' that?"

Logan fell into step to work around to his own entrance. "Something's wrong with you."

"'S a fuckin' cold."

"I don't care what the fuck it is. It's enough reason for you to take a lighter post."

At least he knew Logan's 'concern' wasn't invasively personal.

Logan passed him after he assumed his spot in the alley, voice gone silent, eyes giving him a last assessing sweep before the man vanished around the corner. Annoyance sat low and heavy in his stomach, but he didn't give himself the luxury of indulging in a swim in it. A slow breath. Another. Mind cleared with each exhalation, nerves steadied. Be prepared for anything, expect nothing.

The comm. buzzed in his ear faintly. *Wolverine, Gambit, Rogue; make your entrances. Quietly, people.*

The window he was going in through was set high and lacking glass entirely, nothing but a rusted frame marking that it was ever anything other than a hole in the wall. He collapsed the bo with an almost inaudible hiss and secured it, half-crouched beneath the window, then sprang lightly up. Gloved hands caught the lip easily and he pulled himself up with little effort, sliding through without even a catch of fabric against the frame. A short drop to the dusty floor, then he'd ready the bo again and work his way in slowly until he was needed. Quiet, easy, and hardly worth all the fuss that they were--

A scream. A shrill scream, right by his ear, and then a short little man with huge arms appeared literally out of nowhere, melting from a corner, swinging a two-by-four like a baseball bat. He moved too fast; Remy's feet hadn't even hit the floor when the board slammed him across the midsection, hammering him back into the wall. He heard his own choked grunt... tried to gather legs to shove off the wall and counter, ignoring the fire in his ribs. A breath shuddered halfway into his chest... and got no further before his throat seized and lungs rebelled.

*Gambit!* Over the comm., Jean's voice. *Scott, he's down, something's--*

He couldn't hear anything more, body bending double of its own volition, knuckling him down to the filthy floor. At a distant corner of his mind he saw the two-by-four drop, the feet pounding away from him. He closed his eyes tightly, head roaring as he tried to bring his breathing under control again. More than pain, now... choking, feeling fluid coming up with the coughs, struggling for air through a haze. He tried to analyze; broken rib, punctured lung, maybe. Merde, don't let him drown in his own blood. Maybe it wasn't so bad, maybe it was just that damned cough again, aggravated by the constriction to his lungs, maybe he'd calm it in a minute...

A hand on him, on his head, and he tried to jerk aside before he heard the sharp, "Be still, kid," and felt Logan's touch freeing the radio from his headpiece. His stomach was contracting, feeling tight enough to hurt, rippling inflexibly with each wet cough.

Logan vanished from his side. There was a scuffle of some sort -- he couldn't follow -- and a shout nearly lost in the buzzing in his ears. Logan was watching him, then, when he should've been playing backup for the rest of the team. Remy raised his head barely and caught a glimpse of his teammate throwing a large form aside, then a flash of brown eyes directed at him, worried, those were worried eyes, and...

His vision grew hazy, darkened entirely, and he sank down into airless waters as everything faded away.

***

There was a scream over the comm., wordless and high, then a grunt, loud and pained, then--

*Gambit! Scott, he's down, something's--*

Then the radio was filled with gasping coughs that had only one possible source.

"Remy!"

Jean, off to the left, ripped her earpiece free with a sharp motion. Her voice was suddenly in his head -- in all of their heads -- linking them tightly in an effort that she'd pay for later, her telepathy already strained from an exhausting encounter earlier in the week. Those mind-voices, relayed by her, always sounded a few notes off to him, but Scott's familiar tone was hard and true. ::Bobby, hold fast. Do not leave your post, you hear me?::

But he's--

::I'm on it.:: Gruff, yet always a note gentler through a psilink, Logan's voice. ::Got him. Just a sec and I'll have the radios clear.::

It really took no more than a second before there was a popping sound from the earpiece and the psionic pressure was suddenly gone from his head. Which was somehow worse, since now he couldn't even hear Remy, and--

"Logan, how--"

*Just a--* Grunt. *--second.*

"I'll be there in--"

*Don't move, Bobby,* Scott cut in, voice strained and panting. *These walls... could go any second. You and Jean need to be ready.*

Remy, oh god, please don't be hurt, please be okay... "Logan...?"

There was such a muddle of noise over the radio that he could barely distinguish any background sounds at all behind his teammate's low-voiced curse. *Rogue, I can't get up there. You're on your own. Cajun's--* Another curse, then an audible thud. *--bad off.*

Bobby's heart stopped. For Logan to say someone was 'bad off' meant a good bit more than most people's assessments.

*I got it, short stuff. There's a bunch of 'em, but they're mostly runnin' scared up here. Take care a the swamp rat.*

Scott's voice: *Then get - oof! - down here, Rogue. I could use the backup.*

Bobby's eyes looked for every hint of movement. Saw hardly any. For all the fervor going on inside, the building looked almost quiet from the street. "Logan, how--"

*I don't have time to give him a fuckin' physical, Drake!*

"Scott--"

*For the last time, Bobby, I need you there until this is over!*

Almost vibrating with tension, he kept his feet in place. Barely. Why hadn't he said something? Maybe if he'd just talked to Remy more... maybe he could've reached him and convinced him to stay back on this one. Then that train of thought was drowned out, replaced by the far more urgent and pertinent knowledge that Remy was in there, already hurt, bad enough for Logan to stick by his side even when Scott was being swamped, and time was such a slow thing, cramming too much into tortured seconds until--

::Calm.:: Her mental voice was sharp, distracted, but the green-eyed glance Jean threw his way carried understanding. ::It'll all be over soon.::

He seized on the contact. How bad is he? Jean, how bad??

::I don't know. It's all chaos in--:: Just like that, her words cut off and a hand snapped upwards. Simultaneously a body leapt or fell from a third story window, screaming, plummeting almost two stories before Jean's telekinesis caught whoever-it-was and cushioned the fall, letting the small figure run as soon as feet touched down. Jean's voice was barking through the radio at Scott, then, and he tracked the updates and warnings on the edge of perception. He had to stay until this was over. He had to stay until this was over. He had to stay until this...

Cold swept through him, exhilarating, empowering. His vision altered, became sharper, the infrared spectrum overlaying the narrow range that was all normal humans ever saw. Flesh to ice, patience to hell. He had to stay until it was over.

Well. All right then.

Jean shouted. He couldn't hear her. He hadn't been careful of his radio this time and had crushed it when he'd transformed to ice. Her voice sounded directly in his head-- ::Bobby, wait!:: --but his ice body was tingling, burning with cold, and his hands were extending and his teeth were bared and it was a wave through the air, one that no one could quite see but him, and it was so beautiful as it erased the stain of red, of heat, and solidified at his command, leached water from the air, blasting through the building in a tide of slush as carefully controlled as he was willing to take the time to make it. There were terrified screams as unprepared squatters went down in the slush. A few shouts marked his teammates, and he registered dismissively the fury he heard in them.

He kept the frozen flood highly localized, just the huge main room Scott had been in and the connecting hall the radio had told him was full of opposition. Jean would be monitoring the building's structural stability, Rogue would pluck Scott from the mini-avalanche, the ice wouldn't reach the side room Logan guarded Remy in, and...

And he really didn't care enough to think about those details anymore. Jean left his head alone, thankfully, and with the radio dead he wasn't subjected to hearing what Scott had to say yet. He formed an ice-slide with less than a thought, riding the crest of it to the doorway, then jumping to land on the ice-flood. Beneath his feet the loose stuff solidified more, whispering and creaking with every step he took. He allowed himself a brief moment's pause to survey the damage -- nothing severe, and the worst thing he saw on any face was fear rather than pain -- and then he heard a distinctive swear from down the hall and let himself break into a run.

Logan was almost bowled over by his entrance, the Canadian very obviously restraining a reflexive attack at the suddenness of it. Bobby spared him not so much as a glance. He dropped to his knees by the huddled form on the ground, ice giving way to flesh seamlessly. A hand reached. Trembled. Touched lightly at the almost motionless body beside him. "Remy..."

The Cajun didn't acknowledge him. He was curled around himself, body hunched, temple meeting the floor. There was blood beneath his face -- Bobby couldn't miss the hint of a rattle to Remy's breathing that told where it came from.

"Oh please god... Remy, can you hear me?"

Logan was gone when he looked around frantically. Maybe he was after a medivac bed from the Blackbird, or just seeing if the rest of the team needed any help wrapping things up. Bobby turned back and touched an unsteady hand to the pulse in Remy's neck. He thought it was too fast, but didn't really remember what it was supposed to be either.

Sirens sounded; well in advance of police arrival, notably. The sound seemed to reach Remy where his voice hadn't, calling to whatever decades-trained instincts had kept the thief alive and free for so long. The head moved, slowly, something between a cough and a moan finding its way through lips. Bobby's hands didn't know where to go. They finally settled lightly on his lover's shoulders, hoping it was the right place, and he found himself murmuring, "Easy, Remy, move slow... everything's okay, just don't rush yourself..." in that same voice he used at night when he found the man stiff and gasping with... memory? "Careful now, your ribs might be messed up..."

Remy slowly sat back, torso sagging vaguely upright above sprawled legs, arms limp and hanging like broken branches. He was blinking, head swiveling in no particular direction and breathing shallow, lengthy breaths in carefully regulated intervals. Bobby's heart clenched as he saw the blood on Remy's lips.

"Can you hear me?"

"Bobby," he grated, as though speaking took great effort.

Relief almost allowed tears to flood Bobby's eyes. "God, Remy... are you okay?"

Low, slow words. "He'p me... get up..."

"I think Logan went for a bed. You shouldn't--"

"He'p me," he said again, as if he hadn't heard the denial. Eyes focused on Bobby's, slowly clearing. "Gimme... y' hand."

He didn't know what else to do, so he slid a hand down to take Remy's, just holding, praying that would be enough to satisfy the man.

Remy took a slightly deeper breath. Pushed himself to unsteady knees with his other hand, then reached to grab Bobby's shoulder. Bobby winced inwardly but didn't fight, figuring that trying to hold him down at this point would probably work him up more than letting him stand. He kept his body rock-steady as Remy levered himself up.

When Remy was standing Bobby stood also, drawing an arm around his shoulders and saying, "Lean on me." At least this time there was no argument. The tall form pressed against him, feeling heavier than usual. How often did Remy actually let him bear his full weight? Bobby slipped an arm carefully around his waist, watching for a flinch, and when he saw none started to ease them forward.

Remy jerked them to a wavering halt when they reached the doorway and he saw the ice. "Wha--" A wheezing cough. "I can'..."

Of course, idiot... cold aggravates coughs... "Oh geez, I'm sorry, hold on..." He looked back over the room. The only other entrance was the window, and he wasn't about to try muscling Remy through that right now. "Shit. Um..."

His lover solved the dilemma by stepping forward, almost pulling away from him. Bobby hurried to offer his support again, throat tightening as they stepped out onto the ice. Way to think, Drake, he told himself acidly. He could feel the tall body beside him shuddering in automatic reaction to the cold -- mental or physical or both, he couldn't tell -- and it was all he could do to keep from pulling Remy back and waiting for a teammate to offer them a better way out. "I'm sorry," he started to say, then realized that at the moment his apology was more for his benefit than Remy's, so cut it off with a silent curse.

Scott was slugging through the ice, checking to make sure that the stunned people who'd been all over him minutes ago were okay. The red-tinted visor turned briefly his way. Bobby fancied that he saw the taut line of mouth tighten even further. But then they were at the door, Remy's head hanging and body shaking, and Bobby focused all his concentration on half-carrying his lover to the waiting Blackbird. Logan was coming off the 'Bird with a medivac bed, but he didn't so much as glower when he saw that it wouldn't be needed. Just vanished back inside, securing the unit, then passed Bobby and Remy to pause outside, probably looking to see if his help was needed in the building.

The sirens were growing steadily louder. It was less than thirty seconds before Logan, Jean, Rogue and Scott slammed into the 'Bird, urgency re-instilled as the noise grew. Bobby settled the onboard oxygen mask over Remy's face and fastened his lover's seat belt as Scott and Jean quickly took their places up front and brought the Blackbird to life. "Hold on back there," Scott called tersely, not a moment too soon as the thrusters fired with a roar and the jet shuddered into the air. Bobby braced his arms on either side of Remy, legs locked tight to keep himself in place. The Cajun's eyes were closed and his body was limp against the seat.

Some timeless moment later the 'Bird leveled off, the whine of angry engines quieting. Bobby eased himself around to the seat beside Remy, wanting little more than to close his eyes and sag against the long body now that the immediate crisis was over and Remy seemed to be relatively stable. Instead he reached to resettle the strap on the mask more comfortably around the auburn-crowned head, brushing back strands of sweaty hair with gentle fingers. Remy's breathing was leveling into something deeper and he couldn't hear the rattle anymore... was beginning to wonder if he'd imagined it in the first place. But no, there was the blood on those Cajun lips, shouting proof.

Logan, hood pulled back to flop against his shoulderblades, came over to stand in front of them and Rogue perched sideways on the next row of seats up, silent. Bobby looked from one to the other helplessly. "I didn't think it was this serious."

"Ya knew somethin' was wrong with him?" Rogue asked, voice unreadable.

Bobby started to answer, but Logan chopped an irritated hand down. "So did I," he said dismissively. "We've all fought sick before, darlin'." He tapped a toe against Remy's foot. "Hey. Open your eyes."

Lids cracked slightly on red and black.

"You okay?"

Eyes closed, then opened again. A small nod, just one bob of the head down and up, oxygen whispering in protest.

"Good. But if you don't get your ass down to see Hank as soon as we get home I'll drop you and haul ya down there myself. Got me?"

A pause, then a smaller nod, terse, red-black eyes glinting with tired anger.

Logan turned and headed for the front. After a moment Rogue did the same, still watching them.

Remy closed his eyes and sighed faintly into the mask, not drawing away as Bobby continued fussing with the strap, trying to settle it just right. There was probably something he should be doing, Bobby realized, but he couldn't really think of just what. Check pulse? It was there. Respiration? Slowing. Temperature? He didn't know where the thermometers were on board, and it wasn't as if they were far from the mansion. Any minute now the engines would whine again and the thrusters would shift until the great aircraft groaned down into the hangar bay. Other people could tell if someone was too hot with a touch of skin to skin, but Bobby's body temperature wouldn't level off for a while after he'd changed to ice, meaning he couldn't trust his own perceptions. Plus, he was used to Remy feeling warm; he'd been sick for a few days, and now that he thought about it Bobby wasn't quite sure that the heat had gone all the way back down after the flu passed.

His fingers stroked a lock of hair back, over and over, soft silken brush over drying skin. There were no magic words this time. Remy wouldn't collapse against him with that total openness, total trust that was only truly theirs in the depths of the night. He couldn't begrudge his lover that when he still sometimes found himself blushing upon noticing a particularly intense stare from a stranger at the two of them, even once or twice going so far as to step out of the arm around his shoulders, pointing to this or that as if it explained the rejection. Smiling demon eyes never seemed to condemn him for that, which only made it worse.

So he certainly couldn't hold this small public restraint against Remy.

After a while Remy pulled his head away from the light caress, still not opening his eyes, and Bobby didn't press it. He reached down and caught a long-fingered hand with his, half in offering of support and half in need of same. That much Remy didn't attempt to rebuff, and when the engines finally shifted pitch to that higher landing scream the man even went so far as to squeeze lightly back, fingers lacing with his while their owner stayed mute and only breathed.

***

Lungs were still lined with fire, but it was a tamed fire now, no longer raging across the landscape of his chest. He stayed limp against the seat and didn't try to fight anything -- not the pain and not the fear. He'd been down, completely vulnerable, and he didn't entirely understand why. Bad enough when the reason was painted clear, but now?

Bobby's anxiety practically radiated off of the tense body, carried to Remy through every small touch. Oddly enough there was no tinge of 'I told you so' in voice or hands or any of the quieter ways in which Bobby conveyed mood. As if that outlet for guilt-venting didn't even exist.

He could taste the thick iron of blood in his mouth. No injury on lips or cheeks or tongue, meaning that it had come from... inside. When he'd been trying to hack up a lung. He'd brought up blood.

His ribs were okay, he thought. Tender, but a surreptitious exploring hand didn't show him anything drastically out of place. When the two-by-four hit him, maybe it'd just... ruptured something, some small thing, and he'd bled a little. Inside. It made sense to him, and it wasn't anything to be immensely worried about.

Bobby would be worried, though. Hank might be too, and Remy was in no mood to let himself be poked and prodded to death when he already knew what was wrong. He'd had a flu, it'd progressed, flus did that, and now a wake-up call had been delivered in the form of a plank across screaming lungs, and he wouldn't be stupid enough to make the same mistake again or to let himself in for the same kind of lab-time he'd had to endure coming out of Antarctica. There'd been quite enough of that. He'd knocked his head when he got hit -- that made him woozy. Sloshed his brain. And then... bit his cheek. Just enough to bleed.

He kept his breathing level and calm while he caught the inner lining of his cheek between his teeth and bit, hard, until more metallic taint bled across his tongue.

He probably wouldn't get out of this without confessing to the pneumonia. That was going to win him enough stupid-points to keep his meter high for a while. Scott didn't have much patience for idiocy when it endangered his team. Still, it wasn't as if anything more than restriction from duty would be heaped on his head, and that he could cope without for a while.

He moved his head and Bobby stopped messing with his hair, then searching fingers found his hand and held it to a cool palm. When the engines changed pitch and the SR-71 eased down to a landing Remy found himself turning his fingers, holding the hand briefly tighter in an effort to... what? Find comfort? Through a handclasp? Now he was wandering hopelessly into melodrama.

When the engines cut off he reached up to the mask and pulled the hissing thing from his face, fumbling to find the cutoff valve blindly. It was a quiet group that passed him, one at a time, feet making clunk-clunk-clunk noises on the ramp as they departed.

And then one didn't, stopping in front of him. He opened unsurprised eyes to meet Scott's shielded stare.

"Medlab," he was told. "Now."

"I don' need--"

"You put your teammates, yourself, and the job in danger. I'm not hearing any excuses. Hank's expecting you. Now." And then he walked down the ramp with a somehow angrier clunk-clunk-clunk than all the rest.

Bobby insisted on thinking that he couldn't walk by himself, one arm linked around his waist, the other holding his arm firmly. Remy put up with it until they got to the elevator, then disengaged himself as gently as he could, given his mood, and leaned up against the wall instead. That anxious don't-be-mad-just-let-me-help look in the blue eyes kept him from whatever snappish words he might've said, but he didn't have any other kind of words lurking in his head so he ended up saying nothing for the brief trip up, staring fixedly at an imaginary smudge on the floor.

When they reached the level the medlab was on, Bobby followed rather than clung to him. That made it easier to carry off the exasperated expression he was going for.

"Have a seat," Henri said from the sink, scrubbing his furred hands with something that smelled too strong. The blue head bobbed at a utilitarian examining table that Remy remembered far too well. How often had he heard 'Have a seat, Remy' when he'd finally made his way back here? For how long had that been followed by assorted uncomfortable happenings while he lay there, trying not to think about anything, finding it all too easy to lose himself in what-had-been...?

Bobby's hand touched at the small of his back, calling his attention to the here and now, and he stepped forward to slide up onto the table.

Henri approached, rubbing a small towel over his hands. "What happened?" Then before Remy could begin to answer, "Let's get that shirt off. Do you need help?"

Remy flushed, warm blood heating his face. Like he was an invalid... "Get Bobby out," he said in a voice made slightly hoarse by coughing.

He could feel the startled eyes on him but didn't turn to look. "But... why?" Bobby asked with a perfect mix of surprise and hurt.

Because this is gon' be one big bruise an' y' don' need t' see that. But he didn't want to say that and he was busy thinking of too many other things to come up with a better reason, so he just said, "Please, cher," as levelly as he could. Henri nodded his head at Bobby in support of the decision, perhaps guessing at what Remy didn't say.

The door clicked shut and Remy unceremoniously stripped off the top of his uniform, baring a torso that was indeed marred with swollen, reddening flesh that deepened to a more livid crimson across each rib.

Henri showed no particular reaction to that and asked again, "What happened?" as he clipped a pulse-oximeter onto a fingertip and freed a blood-pressure cuff from its velcro on the side of the table. Remy found it in himself to be grateful that the man became considerably less pedantic when dealing with the limited patience of a teammate in pain.

"Got hit," he said. "Started coughin'." He held an arm out for the cuff and waited with a fair approximation of tolerance while Henri velcroed it into place. The doctor glanced at the reading on the pulse-ox and gave a 'hmm,' but made no comment on it as he pulled the clip free and turned attention to the blood-pressure cuff. He slipped the disc of a stethoscope along Remy's arm, the metal curiously warm as though he'd been holding it in his hand for just that purpose.

"What were you hit with?"

"Two-by-four."

"I take it that ducking wasn't a feasible option?"

Remy found a weak snort of amusement. "Not this time, mon ami." Good. Warm up. Friendly tone, lighthearted. This was good.

Henri said nothing again as he scrutinized the reading on the blood-pressure gauge, then let the cuff hiss to laxness with a small nod. A thermometer appeared from nowhere and was pointed toward Remy's lips. "Open." When it was safely in place Henri shifted to bring the stethoscope up to press lightly against the lean chest. "Breathe in... good... out slowly..." The disc shifted. "Again... good..."

He spoke around the glass finger in his mouth. "I had a flu a li'l while 'go... y'know, like ev'body had..."

"Don't talk until I remove the thermometer, please."

"'S jus'... y'know, I had pneumonia once, an' it wasn' a big deal... an' I saw this doctor li'l while ago, an'..."

"Close your mouth, Remy, or I'll find a place to put that where I'll get an accurate reading even if your mouth is running."

Remy closed his mouth. Tightly.

Henri moved behind and pressed that flat circle against his back. "Breathe in. Good. And out. Good." Shifted it down and repeated the process, then over, then up. Then did it all again with the disc perhaps a half-inch off the former placement each time, lingering particularly around the lower left side. Remy wanted to ask him what he found so interesting there, but something kept him from being quite so bold. Something other than the threat-or-promise about the thermometer.

The doctor came around and plucked the thermometer from his mouth, holding it up and turning it briefly to find the reading, then gave another not-reassuring 'hmm' and set it aside, stethoscope dangling to rest atop the furry blue chest that peeked out from beneath his lab coat. He picked up Remy's hand and did something to a random finger, squeezing the tip and watching it, then dropped it with a nod and nudged both arms up to give his large fingers access to the abused ribcage. "Two-by-four, was it?"

"Oui."

"Was Babe Ruth swinging this aforementioned plank?"

"Ha ha," Remy commented sourly, concentration absorbed with not wincing as ribs were prodded. "Y' shoulda seen the other guy."

"I'd wager that you didn't lay so much as a finger on 'the other guy,' my veracity-challenged friend."

He swore as a cruel finger found what had to be the tenderest spot on him. "No... but Bobby kinda got -- merde, Henri, watch it! -- got all of 'em. An' he got Scott too, I t'ink, but I missed seein' it."

"Hmm." Fingers settled to the top and bottom of his eyes, prying each one wide while Henri peered at them clinically. Finally the man stepped back a little and crossed an arm over his broad chest, resting the other elbow atop it and letting a hand raise to cup his own chin. "No obvious break in your ribs. I don't believe it's necessary to tell you just how fortunate you are in that regard." A nod at his face, eyes briefly flicking to lips. "Would you care to explain to me just how you ended up with blood on your mouth?"

Prepared for this, he tapped a finger to the outside of his cheek. "Bit it. Still bleedin' a li'l."

"So you did not expirate blood?"

A pleasant headshake. "Non."

Henri wouldn't be satisfied until he'd examined his cheek and decided that it had probably bled badly enough to produce that much blood. Remy sat through it all with that still carefully exasperated patience, emphasizing how unnecessary all of this was with a derisive roll of the eyes here or there and a sheepish grin in the right places. He was tired and the act was wearing thin, though, when Henri finally said, "All right. I'd like to get a few X-rays. The damage to your ribcage might be relatively minor, but I'd rather know just what we could be dealing with." He turned away, still talking, scratching at his head absently. "And while I have you here, why don't you tell me about these panic attacks you've been having at night?"

Panic attacks?

"Bobby says they've been going on for... just over two weeks, if I don't misremember. You wake up hyperventilating? Nightmares about Antarctica?"

He only stared silently at the other man's back, blinking, trying to stomach the word - panic - and failing. When had Bobby told Henri about that? What had he said? Panic attacks?

The blue head turned back his way with a look of veiled interest in the eyes. "I assure you, whatever you tell me will be kept in confidence. What Bobby was describing is understandable given the experience you went through. You told me that you had a severe respiratory infection for a few weeks afterward, correct? It's quite normal that, from a psychological standpoint, the increased pressure you've likely been feeling in your chest as the result of... pneumonia, if that is indeed what we're talking about here..." Henri's gaze seemed to sharpen there, as if watching for a response. "... would be acting as a catalyst to the memory of the sensation from back then, which would then likely invoke the emotional associations and lead to bad dreams, which taken to an extreme make it seem perfectly rational for you to be experiencing panic... attacks...? Remy, where are you going?"

He finished tugging his uniform top roughly into place and walked for the door. In two inhuman bounds Henri was in front of him.

"Where," the man said again, very distinctly this time, "are you going?"

"Back t' my room," he answered tightly. "Lemme by."

"I still need to get X-rays, and you haven't yet--"

"You're gon' hafta tie me down if y' want those X-rays," Remy cut in, glaring. "An' I promise I ain' gon' make it easy f' you. My doc in town can handle what's goin' on wit'... wit' whatever. Jus' lemme by, Henri."

The man backed down, for now, as Remy had known he would. Henri wouldn't press a physical altercation with him without more convincing evidence that something was wrong. "Remy, I think you're making a rather large error in judgment... a grave error, mayhap."

"'Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man'?" Remy riposted quickly. "Yeah, I read the Bard too, Henri. Can' get outta Jean Luc's house wit'out it. Don't you t'ink you're bein' a bit dramatic?"

Henri stepped out of the way, expression troubled. His brow was furrowed deeply enough to even show the motion faintly through fur. "Perhaps you're right," he said unconvincingly, but that was more than enough for Remy to shrug off the concern with.

"Merci." He pulled the door open without another glance behind him. "Stage is all yours."

***

He was planning to go out one of the side doors to indulge in a cigarette from the much-abused pack he carried, but the voices from a seldom-used waiting room not far from the medlab gave him pause.

"... 's sake, you could've seriously injured someone with that stunt."

"I was careful. I knew what I was doing." Remy blinked. That was Bobby, and he sounded... unlike himself. Impatient, almost, as if barely willing to stay there and answer Scott.

"If that building had been as unstable as we were led to believe your little trick might've brought the whole thing down around all of our ears."

"It wasn't, Scott. Really, I controlled it. I can do that, y'know. I may not be able to turn myself into a scary ice-thing and terrorize government agencies like a certain schoolteacher, but I'm not exactly ignorant about my powers."

"Do you think I give orders for my own entertainment? No one got hurt because you were lucky, Bobby, and that's just not good enough. Not in doing what we do. You've never just breached orders like that before--"

"I didn't! I did exactly what you said! You said to stay there 'til it was over. I did that. I stayed there. I did."

"You knew what I meant, and--"

"Creative application of orders! That's what it was. I followed orders. To the letter."

"You took a completely unnecessary risk because of emotional irrationality, Bobby! Whenever I have team members involved in a relationship I watch them carefully, but from everything I'd seen I thought you were acting sensibly. I thought I could trust you to behave responsibly with regard to Gambit and understand that sometimes there're more lives at stake than--"

"Why?" Remy broke in, pausing in the doorway and meeting Scott's startled look with a hard glare. "You t'ought he was too much of a coward an' I didn' give a shit? That why y' t'ought you could trust us t' not do anyt'ing 'irresponsible'?"

Scott didn't have an immediate answer, which was all to the good since Remy really wasn't in the mood to share codefendants' role with Bobby at the moment. He half-turned with a disgusted shake of his head and continued on down the hall, carrying with him the momentary impression of Scott's slightly dropped jaw and the glimpse of wide blue eyes from the other side of the room.

Then footsteps, running, and the expected, "Wait!"

He didn't, and Bobby ended up following him all the way out the side door into the cool air of early evening. The sun was setting on the opposite side of the mansion, leaving the sky here a solid sheet of steel-gray/blue with a single lonely cloud skulking across its expanse. Remy suppressed a reflexive shiver at the faint chill. Freed a cigarette, examined it briefly for tears, then caught it impatiently between lips and touched his finger to the tip. A small flare of his powers, a few tiny shreds of tobacco charged, then the faintest explosion, too minuscule to really be called that, and a quick inhalation to catch the fire and set the tip to glowing. He took a shallow drag and breathed in slowly, testing his lungs. They tightened briefly at the intrusion but soon relaxed at the soothing warmth. Just as he'd known they would.

Bobby lurked just outside the door a few feet away. "Should you be doing that? Smoking?"

Remy gestured vaguely with both hands. "Makes m' lungs open up." He thought his irritation was obvious in the taut anger of his face and the brusque words, but if it was Bobby didn't seem to seize on it.

"Oh." A pause. "What did Hank say?"

Remy blew out an impatient jet of smoke. "I'm fine. I told y' I'm fine."

More quietly, as if volume itself could offer offense. "Oh."

Long fingers flicked the cigarette and tossed ash to the walkway. "An' he said somet'in' else."

"What?"

"He said--" and he had to fight to keep from snarling-- "'panic attacks.'"

Bobby gave him what almost seemed like a genuinely confused look. "Huh?"

"Panic attacks, Bobby." His cigarette-bearing hand waved sharply toward the mansion, generally in the direction of their room. "Y' tol' him 'bout the dreams an'... 'bout me wakin' up..." And it was killing him to say this much, to admit even to the sole witness in daylight hours that these things existed and overwhelmed him nightly. "Mon dieu, can' y' keep your mouth shut about these t'ings?"

Dawning comprehension went hand in hand with bewilderment. "I... yeah, I told him, but just so I could make sure it wasn't something, y'know, medical. I was just worried about you." And then he actually tried to redirect the conversation. "Is that what they're called? Panic attacks? Can we do anything about--"

Remy swore, half in anger, half in utter disbelief. "Y' tol' him t'ings he had no business knowin', Bobby! 'Bout me."

Bobby's head shook, and now a furrow was forming between his brows. As if somehow, some way, he really wasn't getting this. "Remy, it was important. I mean... god, do you have any idea how scared I get for you when you do that?"

~An' I don't?~ He chased that thought down deep. "Well how y' t'ink I feel, havin' everybody known' that I freak out ev' night, heh? That I can' handle a fuckin' memory. How y' t'ink dat feels?"

"It's not... it's not everybody. It's just..." The face was pale, eyes wide. "Remy, c'mon. You know I wouldn't--"

"You did," he spat, too angry to even pay his cigarette its proper due, flicking the butt of it repeatedly with a quick thumb. "Y' told him--" His chest tightened warningly and he turned away, trying to force his breathing to shallow, raising the cigarette and taking as slow a drag as he could, seeking that warmth again to ward off the cool air. Shoulders felt so tight he wondered if they'd ever loosen and his stomach burned in that way it sometimes did when he was too angry - hurt? - to find an outlet. He spent a moment battling the cough, battling that not-quite-real pain in his gut.

"I didn't mean to hurt you." Bobby's voice was too tight and controlled. Like he was battling, too. "And if you don't believe me, we're screwed, 'cause I can't think of any way to convince you of that."

Remy dropped the cigarette and ground it under a heel. "Why don' y' tell Henri? 'S always easier hearin' what you t'ink comin' from him, neh?"

No answer to that. He made it all the way to the door before Bobby said anything at all.

An unsteady breath that made Remy steel himself in preparation, then-- "Wash your face," his lover said dully. "You've still got blood on you."

His hand froze on the doorknob for a few heartbeats while the words sank in. His head tried to turn, tried to see if those eyes showed the same flat resignation he thought he heard in the voice.

Instead he turned the knob and went inside.

***

"Stupid arrogant asshole," Bobby told the single cloud. "Son of a bitch! What is wrong with him?"

The cloud kept on sneaking across the sky, answerless.

"Goddamn it!"

God didn't seem inclined to reply either.

Bobby jerked the door open and all but stormed through, barely resisting the urge to freeze everything in his path, alive or not, in a fit of pique. He hated to admit it, hated to even think it, but sometimes his lover could be such a... such a...

"Bastard!"

He made his way to the medlab, fortunately (for him or someone else, he couldn't decide)
not meeting anyone on the way. Hank was actually just coming out through the swinging double doors when he reached for them, and only an uncharacteristically agile jump back saved Bobby from a rather ignoble busted nose. Ignoring the near miss, he started to open his mouth to tell his friend... well, he wasn't entirely sure what.

And Hank beat him to it. As always. "Come in, Robert. We need to talk."

That smooth voice reached the stinging wound beneath the anger. Bobby closed his mouth and walked into the lab, heading unerringly for what he'd come to label 'Hank's Spot' in the corner where the overstuffed blue monstrosity of a chair had so often held his friend's bulk while they talked in recent months. There was a colorful and equally hideous sofa there now as well -- also courtesy of Jean, Bobby thought -- and the younger man dropped down to it with a slump.

Hank took his usual chair, leaning forward attentively. "So... do you want to start or shall I?"

Bobby shook his head, then rested it between his hands, eyes closed and face downcast. "Is he gonna be okay?"

His heart started pounding when Hank hesitated before answering.

"It... makes perfect sense. Pneumonia isn't precisely something a wise man ignores, even in the less dangerous cases, but if he's being truthful with his implication that he has been examined and it is relatively minor, there's most likely nothing for you to be concerned about."

Bobby opened his eyes and tilted his head to catch Hank at the top of his vision. "That's a 'no.' Isn't it."

A slight headshake. "It's an 'I don't know,' Bobby," the man murmured. "Not yet. He made his exit stage left before I finished a thorough examination. In point of fact, I was just wandering out to go find you to ask if you could perhaps convince him to return."

His eyes closed again and he sighed. "He's not talking to me," he mumbled.

"What?"

Slightly louder-- "He's not talking to me. We... had a fight. I guess." Bobby opened his eyes again and shot the closest thing to a glare he could manage -- which given the direction and target wasn't very close at all -- toward Hank. "Why'd you have to tell him 'panic attacks'? Wasn't there another word you could use? Y'know, a five syllable big one or something?"

"Well, I suppose I could have put them forth as 'anxiety attacks'..."

Bobby flopped his arms at the air, letting them fall to collapse along the backrest of the couch as he sagged back. "Oh, even better."

"I'm truly sorry, Robert. I had no idea he would react that way." Hank's eyes glanced across his and Bobby knew that he was about to bring something up that might not be particularly pleasant or welcome. "Since he was so disturbed by the wording... it's possible that he's more concerned about the situation than he's displaying."

"You think he's..." He trailed off, not sure how to finish it.

Hank did instead, saying simply, "Scared." Then adding, "It's as human an emotion as any, and no matter what might be said about our prickly friend, he's as human as you or I." Bobby started to bristle, wondering if there was any implication of slander in that, but Hank's steady gaze quashed the spark of anger immediately. "Particularly considering his experience on our largest continent and whatever archaic treatments he underwent at that 'hospital' he was admitted to after he was found. I've been frankly astonished that he allows me as much medical freedom with him as he does."

Bobby shook his head and tried to bring them back to the point. "But what can I do?"

"Get him back down here for tests as soon as possible. Tomorrow. Tonight, even, though you might not have much luck in that respect."

"Not likely. He's being an ass." There. He was even mad enough to say it to another person. "I won't be able to find him if he doesn't wanna be found."

Hank nodded. "Tomorrow, then. Hopefully sleep will contribute to a more refreshed and enlightened perspective in the morning."

"I hope so." He glanced down again, staring at his linked fingers. "There... was blood." He had to clear his throat, and even then his voice sounded rough to his ears. "On his lips. While we were talking."

"He bit his cheek during the altercation. I saw the laceration, actually." A pause and a subject change. "You realize... I did have an obligation to make a report to our fearless leader. He was down here just a few minutes ago."

"Was he mad?"

"I would say... concerned."

Yeah. He can get in line. "Okay." Bobby didn't feel that he needed to ask more on that matter. Trust in Scott was pretty well ingrained in his worldview. "I'll... I'll try to get him down here tonight or tomorrow."

Out of his peripheral vision he saw the blue head nod once. Then-- "Robert... if you need to talk..."

And that, more than all the gags and lame pranks and horrible puns, that in a nutshell was why Hank still held his unchallenged position of Bestest Bud.

Still, Bobby just smiled faintly in gratitude and shook his head. "Thanks. I think I just wanna think for a bit." Even with his Bestest Bud, there were things he'd rather keep between himself and his lover. "Maybe later."

Another nod, as undemanding as always, and Bobby left a good bit calmer than he'd entered.

***

The mansion was at nowhere near full capacity, and even when multiple teams stayed there a determined person could find a spare bedroom tucked into an odd corner here or there. Remy had learned the layout of the place two days after his first arrival on the grounds, then had relearned it when a significant portion was rebuilt following another one of those encounters the team tended to only talk about on nights of mulled wine and liquor-bolstered memories. It was no challenge at all for him to find an unoccupied room for the night after he caught a shower, and he settled on one at the far end of the old men's wing, down a hall and around a corner from the room he shared with Bobby. He even went so far as to make sure that it lacked a phone with the private room extension service that most of the suites here possessed. It was supremely unlikely that someone would randomly dial this room in the middle of the night, but he wasn't in the mood to chance any interruptions to his sleep.

For an hour or so he watched TV, twisting a little absently, grimacing at the feel of the painful stiffness settling into the muscles beneath his ribs. That turned out to be as engaging as a golf tournament -- he firmly refused to believe what everyone claimed about 'acquired taste' and 'actually takes surprising skill' with regards to that 'sport' -- so he eventually clicked it off and picked up the book he'd grabbed at random from their bookshelf. With a sigh he flicked the light-switch beside the bed and glanced at the title.

'Outing Yourself,' by Yada Yada.

"Bobby," he muttered. Tried to mutter. It came out as something softer and more painful.

It didn't look as if this book had earned the same studious attention most of Bobby's 'gay library' had, and a half-hour of flipping through it showed why. Be a good bedtime story. Can' drum up the interest t' stay awake readin' it. Besides, he figured he had 'outing himself' pretty much down pat these days.

The book found a dishonorable discharge and ended up tossed to the carpet by the door where he wouldn't forget it in the morning. He wasn't feeling like company, wasn't about to risk running across anyone who'd ask if he were 'okay,' and couldn't think of anything off the mansion grounds worth doing. Sleep was tapping at his eyelids, reminding him that he really hadn't gotten much last night, and he settled beneath the blanket willingly enough to try to make up for the lack.

Nearly an hour later he found himself staring at the ceiling and musing over how much colder a bed was when it had only one body in it.

He turned over restlessly and pressed his face into the pillow. He hadn't thought to grab an extra blanket either. Their bed always had two blankets on it. Even in the summer, though one or both almost always ended up kicked off to the floor by the time they found sleep. He missed the comforting weight, the knowledge that the warmth could be there at any time with nothing more than the lazy stretch of an arm to the carpet.

At some point it occurred to him to wonder if maybe he was afraid of going to sleep. Afraid of the dreams, or of waking up from them, or

(or of not waking up from them at all)

anything else along those lines. That sparked anger, this time directed at himself, and the slow burn of that kept him awake and annoyed for another crawling hour, during which he almost convinced himself that his chest didn't feel tight and Hank wasn't right and he wouldn't dream of ice just because he was short of breath.

Eventually, sometime between 'late night' and 'early morning,' he drifted off. And was there again.

The ice was as cold as ever, drawing his body heat out in greedy draughts, drinking him dry. The snow still reflected the sun so cheerfully, so brightly, stabbing through his eyes, making him walk -- stagger -- with a hand exhaustively raised to shield them. There was wind this time, reminding him of those blissful, heavenly moments when it paused to gather breath, leaving him with only the nearly-beyond-human-endurance conditions rather than those he couldn't fathom lasting another hour in.

Reminding him also that a human being was an enduring animal, and it tended to die hard.

His lungs were crowding out his heart in their effort to draw breath, and still somehow they failed, and still he walked because there was nothing else to do but die, and he wasn't ready to die. He wasn't ready.

God, please, just a lungful of air...

He woke to the pillow and the coughs, heart thumping, eyes burning. Don' wake up Bobby, his mind told him with the echo of habit, and he made the effort, buried his face in softness, and did his best to swallow down the lung that sought to crawl out his throat. He choked on something there; something warm and wet and tasting of iron. Don' wake up... Blood. Blood in his throat. ... Bobby...?

Minutes - seconds? - passed, and he couldn't take it, couldn't handle the pain, needed to breathe too badly. Scrambled to sit up, tried to open his airway. Slow the breaths, slow the breaths, slow the breaths, slow the--

This wasn't his room.

His heart pounded harder. Not his room, he couldn't breathe, where was he, where was Bobby? There was a blanket kicked to the floor, just one, he always had two, always, just in case. He was dizzy, gasping, what had Henri called this? 'Panic attack'? The cold and the aloneness and the pain, but where was...?

No arms, no words, no breaths, no heat of a body pressed tightly against his back, warming his lungs through the skin while lips moved tirelessly by his ear. No one proving that there was a reality in which he'd escaped his frozen tomb and been welcomed into a bed and a heart. Alone, cold, and something was wrong with him that he couldn't fix, and where were those arms? How could he not be feeling those arms pulling him out of memory, out of the past, only he was out of it and should be escaping the clutch of ice in mind and chest, finding some calm, and he wasn't, it was still there, and it was different this time. Here, and here was still hell. His chest hurt and it was real and he was alone. No unspoken trust that if he needed it, if words and arms weren't enough, if it went too far... there was an unacknowledged safety net that wouldn't let him fall again.

He hadn't been ready to die a victim in Antarctica. He couldn't face the possibility of doing so now.

A hitching, choked breath. Die? He couldn't really... not here, surely...

He fumbled out of bed and to feet. Tried to find rationality. Not his room. Still the mansion. No Bobby. Panic attacks. If he could just calm down he'd be okay, but he thought he'd try being okay in the hallway, maybe, or maybe even down in the medlab since for some stupid reason there was no phone in this room and he couldn't call for, yes, for help, which he needed since this somehow wasn't easing away this time, so just forget pride and its accouterments. He managed a fairly steady fast walk to the door, accidentally kicking a book that was lying on the floor aside, and wrenched it open, then let the wall support him as he made his way down the hall. His short, shallow breathing sounded impossibly loud to him with every step. Someone had to hear him. Had to.

And then the idea came to him that no one was in the mansion at all. The Marauders had come while he was away, no, he'd led them here, stupidly thinking of nothing but the payment he needed, and blood had run to wash the soles of his boots, god, the blood, like in his lungs but cleaner, and he'd been too much of a coward to sacrifice his life fighting them, knowing he'd lose, and so he'd grabbed the first innocent he could -- bones sticking out of her... had they done that? -- and ran like the hated weakling he was, and...

Breathe. Desperation in his mental voice, making him believe in its strength less. A memory, not like the real in his chest. Punishment. God's own justice. He'd been meant to die there, out in the snow, and only now did time catch up to take him away again.

This hall... this hall was so long...

***

For all that his reputation made him out to be the surliest X-Man, Logan sometimes thought that he had more tact than any of his teammates would ever guess. Being 'blessed' with enhanced senses meant that he had learned his own version of manners at an early age. There wasn't a person on this team he couldn't embarrass with some small personal detail if he wished -- bodily functions at inopportune times, whispered conversations that he couldn't avoid overhearing without stabbing his eardrums, the whiff here or there of a perfume that really didn't belong on a certain man's clothes...

And the unavoidable, incredibly irritating nighttime activities that tended to remind him that he had been sleeping alone for far too long. Those were the hardest to shut out.

Still, he'd developed some skill in the area. With 'the boys' being housed only just down the hall and Warren's room -- where Betsy invariably stayed with him during their visits -- across the way, he'd had to. And safely among the sounds he'd learned to ignore was the familiar whisper of rapid breathing.

It wasn't often in the hall, however. At least not when it was this rapid. And usually it was put forth by two sets of lungs, not one. And most of the time it wasn't accompanied by the sound of unsteady footsteps and the dragging 'shhh' of fingers along the wall.

He put his internal grumble on hold while he quietly gained feet and shrugged into the silk kimono M'iko had gifted him with years ago. Fingers tied it expertly as he padded to the door, still listening. That wasn't just panting; hyperventilating. And when he took a wary sniff of the draft creeping in beneath the door...

Hackles rose and he jerked the door open. The Cajun, palm dragging against his door for support, nearly fell against him. Logan caught the weight readily, hardly shifting, and immediately drew an arm around his shoulders and put another supporting grip around the lean waist. The sweaty face was drawn tight, full of panic.

Christ, but the stench of terror in the kid's sweat was overwhelming...

Whatever was wrong with him was tied in with the botched run at the condemned squatters' house. He could smell the blood on every breath, and those breaths were hardly enough to keep Remy conscious. More than any words or reassurances or bullshit remedies, what he needed now was a doctor.

Lucky for him we keep one in stock...

Remy staggered beside him and Logan ended up almost carrying him by the time they reached the elevator. He debated just scooping the trembling body up, but the wild-eyed expression and uncontrolled tension stopped that thought. Remy would fight him if he tried. Better to handle it this way.

The elevator took far too long to descend, and by the time the doors whisked open the man was sagging heavily against him, eyes glazing. Logan half-dragged Remy down the short hall and through the double doors, and by then his breathing was slowing, slowing, and he'd stopped responding when Logan prompted with his name. Now Logan did bend and pick him up, distantly surprised to find that the taller man was a good bit lighter than he looked. He'd eyeballed Remy at a smidge over two hundred, but if he was more than one-eighty Logan would be surprised.

"Hang on, Cajun." He reached a cot and laid the now-limp form on it, butting the speaker on the wallphone with his elbow as he did so. The dial tone came up, too loud, and he freed a hand as soon as Remy was settled and punched the first automatic dial. A four-tone extension beeped out, then two long rings.

When the phone was picked up, Logan didn't even wait for the tired 'hello.' "It's Logan. I'm in the medlab with the Cajun. Need ya down here, buddy."

An immediate rustle of blankets and a creaking bed. "What is it?"

Hank was managing to sound relatively alert, considering he probably hadn't found his bed more than an hour ago. "Dunno. Found him in the hall breathin' like a freight train and scared shitless." He tapped at Remy's cheek with the flat of his hand. No response. "He's pretty much out now."

"Make sure he's sitting up. Twenty milliliters per second on the O2. I'll be right there." And then a click. Logan hit the speaker button before it could go to a dial tone.

By the time Hank arrived, blue fur in wild disarray all over the parts of his body not covered in the white lab coat, the kid was propped up in the adjustable bed with the oxygen hissing softly into him. His eyes were closed, but Logan didn't think he was entirely out. Not even faking it, really. Just exhausted -- too exhausted to open his eyes and pretend not to be.

"Don't leave," Hank told him shortly before placing some small attachment on Remy's middle finger and almost immediately glancing at the readout on the monitor it was connected to. Whatever he saw must have not been too bad, or at least not bad enough to warrant a change in the carefully expressionless expression. Logan faded back to stay out of the way as the doctor reached out and pulled Remy's hand to rest on his inclined chest, gentle around the vicious bruise there, fingers settling over the wrist with a practiced gesture.

"How are you feeling, Remy?"

The eyes didn't open, but lips slowly moved. "... hurts... a li'l..." His voice had coarsened noticeably since earlier and now was a raspy thing, rough enough to sound painful, even distorted by the oxygen mask.

"Where does it hurt?"

"... ev'where..."

Logan looked away restlessly, uncomfortable with the scene. He'd known Remy for a while now -- long enough to respect the man's self-control, his tolerance for pain. For all his smarmy charm and that too-pretty face, the Cajun was a tough one. Seeing the man reduced to bare honesty, not even finding the spark to spice it with wry humor, was enough to knock even Logan's equilibrium off balance. He knew what it took to strip a strong man to this.

Hank released Remy's wrist and wrapped the automated blood pressure cuff around his arm, then grabbed a stethoscope from its home in a nearby drawer and fit the thing around his own neck. "Can you tell me what happened?"

A long pause, as if to gather strength, then that same hoarse mumble and spare words: "Like b'fore. Woke up. Couldn'... breathe."

"You were sleeping alone?" Logan couldn't detect any judgment in that level voice, but the kid apparently read some; he stiffened and opened his eyes, straightening and fixing McCoy with a glare over the plastic mask.

But all he said was "yes," as if unwilling to qualify the answer with an explanation.

Hank nodded and briefly glanced at the blood pressure reading as Remy sagged back, closing his eyes again with a long, shallow sigh. The doctor fitted the earpieces of the stethoscope into place and pressed the business end to one side of the man's chest. "Breathe in for me..." The disc shifted. "Again..." Logan leaned up against the wall, crossing his arms and watching. "Again... good... and again..." Hank pulled away and slid a careful hand behind the Cajun's back, nudging him forward as he listened to the lungs from behind. "In... and out... again..."

After a moment, still supporting the generally pliant Remy, Hank pulled the stethoscope from his ears and looked to Logan after removing his glasses and rubbing his face tiredly. "Would you listen to something for me? I'd appreciate confirmation."

Logan approached, suppressing his discomfort with the situation. "What?" He took a step back when the other man held the stethoscope toward him. "I ain't puttin' that thing on."

"Even your senses aren't quite up to what I need without this."

"You got any idea how loud the world gets, furball?" He glared at the instrument. "That'll be like turnin' the volume up to the max, then doubling it."

Remy's eyes cracked briefly. Closed. The distinct lack of protest was enough to make Logan mutter a curse and grab the stethoscope from the furred hands, jamming it into place ungently and grimacing at the sudden increase in noise. What had been a sibilant hiss of oxygen was now a muted river's-roar. The steadying thump of Remy's heart pounded, a merciless drum against his inner ear. Hank's own heartbeat, two steps removed, wasn't much quieter.

And that was only the beginning.

Logan gestured sharply and kept his voice as low as he reasonably could and still expect it to be heard. "Hurry up and show me whatcha want."

To his credit, Hank wasted no time in positioning the disc at a spot low on Remy's back, and he spoke very softly. "Describe to me what you hear, please."

He heard...

"In detail."

What the hell was that?

"Logan?"

He shook his head, brow furrowed. "It's... popping. Lots of little pops, goin' off real fast." It felt... odd... to be talking about what was inside the Cajun with the man sitting there so uncommunicatively.

Hank moved the disc very slightly, making skin whisper achingly loudly against the scope. "Can you still hear it?"

"I could hear it if I took this fuckin' megaphone outta my ears."

"Can you hear it directly. As in, does it sound as if the popping noise is occurring directly inside?"

"Yeah."

Another agonizing scrape of the metal over flesh, rushing like a waterfall slamming into his ears. "Now?"

"No, but there's... there's a rattle to it. Faint, I guess..." He glared briefly. "To you."

No comment was made on his steadily souring temper. "What about here?"

"... No. It's lower. But the rattle's still there."

"Here?"

"Nuh uh."

"The rattle?"

"Yeah."

Another repositioning, this time to high up on the front of the man's chest. Remy didn't even open his eyes. "What do you hear now?"

"It's... fluttering."

"Here? Any trace?"

"Yeah. Quieter, but it's there."

A frown flittered across Hank's blue face, quickly gone. He dropped the metal end of the stethoscope, which swung to slam like a thunderclap into Logan's chest. "Thank you," he said distractedly, not noticing or not acknowledging his teammate's scowl.

Logan jerked the instrument from his neck and threw it into a random basket against the wall. He found that he had no urge to ask just what he'd been hearing... at least not with the Cajun sitting there like a shadow in the middle of a brightly lit room, an oddity to scrutinize rather than an individual. "Got whatcha need, Hank?" he managed with a poor semblance of patience.

A nod of the disheveled head. "I believe so, for the moment."

"Good." He glowered in general ill temper around the room, ears still ringing from that momentary assault. "This place always smells like a damn interrogation room."

"Smells," Hank echoed. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "What did you smell on his breath when you found him?"

"Same thing I been smellin' on him for weeks. And blood since yesterday." Remy shifted slightly, head sagging a bit, and Logan's brow furrowed. "I thought you handled that after the run. The blood in his lungs." His focus shifted to the kid. "Cajun, what the fuck did you tell--"

"Don't trouble yourself with it, my hirsute friend," Hank cut in smoothly. "What's important is that the situation is being handled now. Thank you for your help; it was most valuable."

That was about as clear a dismissal as he'd ever heard, and he'd heard more than a few. No problem. No problem at all. He didn't need any encouragement in getting out of this room and away from this teammate whose pain-laced scent was grating on his nerves. Something about that scent...

He dropped a hand on Remy's shoulder. "Feel better, Cajun."

Remy reached up to cover his hand briefly, then the red-and-black eyes opened and fixed on him with enough earnestness that Logan shored up his patience in preparation for whatever emotional claptrap would follow.

"Tell Bobby I'm sorry," Remy said in that raspy voice.

Logan patted his shoulder awkwardly. "Yeah. Sure thing." Started to pull away, and...

"Tell 'im I'm an idiot." There was still surprising strength in that long-fingered hand, and he wasn't about to get into a tug-o'-war with a sick and scared person. There were some things a man didn't stoop to.

So he nodded brusquely. "Right. I'll do that." Started to pull away again, and...

"An' tell him if he don' f'give me, I und'stand. But tell him I'm really sorry... an' I'm a jackass, tell him that... an' make sure he knows--"

Logan, patience finally expired, leaned in menacingly. "Let. Go." A flicker of surprise in the strange eyes. "Now."

Remy let go with obvious reluctance, seeming to shout more messages for his lover with his eyes alone.

What Logan actually said when he knocked twice on Drake's door was, "Hey, Ice... your boy's in the medlab. Get down there." Which resulted in his nearly being trampled by a half-clothed man who somehow made it from bed to door in less time than it took Logan to finish the second sentence. Bobby didn't even apologize -- not that Logan really gave a shit, but it was a definite oddity from the generally self-conscious younger man -- and was taking the stairs downward three and four at a time before his door stopped swinging back from its ricochet against the wall.

Logan counted his duty fully discharged, shook his head at nothing in particular, and went back to his waiting bed to try to recapture the dream about the redhead and the giant cake and the strategically placed ribbons. He'd had the dream exactly once -- in October of 1978 -- but he hadn't given up on its return. It was like playing the lottery; he knew that the statistics said, "Somebody's gotta win, and it won't be you," but that didn't stop the irrational yet somehow comforting belief that the odds were actually fifty-fifty. Win or lose. Every time.

He made a mental note to remember to ask someone about the kid in the morning, then shut his door firmly and reveled in the quietude.

***

Hank pulled over a convenient stool after Logan left, perching his considerable bulk on it and waiting in silence for the few seconds it took Remy to become nervous or impatient enough to demand, "What."

"Why don't we start this again?" he asked pleasantly. "You were telling me earlier about your symptoms..."

The fine-sculpted face turned away from him even though Remy hadn't bothered to open his eyes. "Tol' you all 'at matters."

"No." Still pleasant, but this time there was no compromise in his voice. None at all. "I need details, and if you have any care for your own well-being you will supply them." Now to push, just a little, circling the topic of deception and targeting on what actually had worth at this moment. "Was today..." A glance up at the clock on the wall. "... yesterday the first time you can recall bringing up blood since you've been ill?" Still steady, still as nonjudgmental as he could be. Saying without words, 'Yes, I'm perfectly aware that you lied, and no, I will not make an issue out of this, but yes, you will now proceed to tell me everything of interest there is to know. Or else.'

For a moment he thought that the stubborn reticence would continue even now, but Remy's exhaustion was on his side and the fear of the unknown seemed strong enough to strip those defenses away. "... first time... that bad. Jus' a few times b'fore, jus' a li'l bit when I was coughin' up... stuff..." His eyes didn't open. His brow was still lined with pain. "Jus' a few weeks..."

Hank didn't let himself breathe a sigh of relief at the implicit cooperation, but the sentiment was there regardless.

***

Bobby shoved through the double doors, panting, red-faced. His gaze swept the medlab and settled immediately on a bed to the right, the bare-chested man inclined on it, the familiar blue-furred form sitting on a three-legged stool beside it and speaking in a low, level voice. Both heads turned at his entrance, and then Remy was staring at him over the obscuring oxygen mask, blinking.

His feet wouldn't move. They'd just gotten... stuck... somehow. Frozen in place. His breathing... that noise I heard... I didn't say anything, and now he's down here, and... oh god, please, don't let it be serious...

"You still wear the Tigger pajamas, Bobby?" Hank asked into the silence, furry brows raised. "I thought you threw them away after they ceased milking laughter from everyone."

Beneath the mask Bobby saw Remy's lips twitch, very slightly, drawing toward a smile. Bobby'd once worn them without thinking in those early days of tiptoes and secret rendezvous. He could still remember the double-blink Remy had greeted him with. The hand raising to press against his mouth to hide the laughter. The way the man had finally given up and collapsed into hysteria, that all too rare chortling shaking the angular body for long minutes. Remy had laughed so rarely in those days...

Even now they got a chuckle at the very least, so Bobby wore them religiously.

"I like Tigger," he said distantly as he caught his breath, looking at those red-black eyes. Remy. God, Remy, down here in the medlab at night, and he never would have sought out help, anyone's help, if it hadn't been serious. Desperately serious. And his lower chest was mottled with a hideous dark splotch, and he looked so... so...

One of the long hands turned over on the bed, lifted, and made a tiny little gesture toward him -- not quite beckoning, not quite not, as though unwilling to dare being one or the other. Bobby was across the floor in a heartbeat and taking that hand between his, scared to squeeze it, reassured somewhat when Remy himself squeezed back with a firm grip. He looked exhausted, out of place on that bed, but strong enough. Just so very tired...

"I'm sorry," Bobby blurted out before Remy could quite work around to speaking. "I shouldn't have said anything... you have every right to hate me..." Oh god, please don't hate me. "I'm so sorry, I didn't know, are you okay, what happened?"

Remy was shaking his head with growing vehemence, and finally he reached his other hand -- connected to some sort of, god, some sort of monitor, like he needed monitors -- across his chest and covered Bobby's lips with his fingers. Bobby fell silent less because of the covering hand and more because Remy obviously wasn't up to speaking over him and just as obviously had something he really wanted to say.

"Y' still 'pologize too much," his lover murmured hoarsely, just loud enough to be heard. "Je suis desole. I nev' meant t' say those t'ings, cher."

"But you were right, I shouldn't have--"

The fingers pressed more firmly against his lips. "Bobby. Don' say y' sorry."

"But I--"

"Please."

"Bobby," Hank said in that soft deep baritone. "Calm down."

Somehow... that actually worked. There was so much unspoken reassurance in Hank's presence, in his voice. Like nothing in the world could stay wrong for long once he was on the job.

"What happened?" Bobby asked, though he thought it likely that he already knew.

Remy tipped his head back against the bed with a sigh, closing his eyes and leaving the floor open for Hank, who took the offer without pause. "Remy experienced another... anxiety attack." There was a faint twist to Remy's lips at the term, but he didn't open his eyes. "Logan brought him down here, and now Remy was just giving me the unabridged version of his symptoms."

Bobby tightened his hand unconsciously, and Remy squeezed it back after a moment. "Is... everything okay?"

A reassuring smile across the beastly face. "You have nothing to worry about tonight. I'll be doing some X-rays in the morning, but for now I believe sleep would be most beneficial." His focus turned to Remy. "Do you think you'll be able to rest? I'd prefer not to give you a sedative if you're having breathing difficulty..."

"I... can sleep..." Remy answered, sounding somehow doubtful.

"I'll make sure he sleeps," Bobby promised, wanting nothing more at that moment than to crawl into the bed behind Remy, pull him back to lie against his chest, let everything drift away, stop mattering... "What about... later? I mean, what...?" He didn't know how to put it. "What is this, Hank?"

"Pneumonia," Remy started to murmur, even as Hank said, "I'm not entirely sure yet." Red-black eyes opened and turned to meet blue, challengingly, and for a moment the two of them stared at each other in silence.

Hank won, as Remy's dropped eyes finally revealed. Which told Bobby that deep down Remy was as clueless and terrified about this as he was, because otherwise his lover would have never backed away from a bluff. It was the first rule of card playing the Cajun shyster had taught him -- believe in your bluff. See the straight or flush or whatever you decide you have, and make the other player see it

Never show them doubt. Not that.

Remy. Just a broken word, thought deep in the mental landscape, and couched in confusion and fear.

Hank stood with a little sigh and smoothed a hand over rumbled, tufted fur as he nudged the stool over against the wall. "There's nothing more that needs to be accomplished tonight, other than the aforementioned sleep. In the morning, however..." He rested a hand on Remy's shoulder in a gesture that wasn't quite comforting, if Remy's half-shielded eyes were to be believed. "No more games."

Remy didn't answer. Which was an answer, or at least an acknowledgment.

Before Hank left Bobby pointed toward the thing attached to Remy's hand. "What is that? What's it for?"

"It's a pulse-oximeter. In laymen's terms... it lets me know that he's getting enough oxygen." A gesture toward the monitor. "There's an alarm built in that would go off if his blood-oxygen level dropped too far in the night."

Bobby felt his eyes widen and his heart tighten. "Is that... Why is he wearing that? He's not gonna need it, is he?"

"It's only a precaution, Bobby."

"But if he doesn't need it, why is he wearing it? Nothing's gonna happen, right? So why--"

A heavy hand reached over and gripped his shoulder lightly in that gesture the doctor was so fond of. It seemed impossible not to trust those eyes, and yet... "It's a precaution," Hank said again, patiently. "I very much doubt it will prove a necessary one, but that doesn't negate the sensibility in using it."

Bobby searched for the words that would make his protest make sense. Surely, if he could only say it right, surely Hank would see that the monitor wasn't necessary. Things like monitors were only needed when someone was hurt badly. Like when his father was in the hospital after standing up to a would-be mob and changing himself in Bobby's eyes forever. That was what monitors were for. Not... this.

He still hadn't found the words when two fingers brushed his lips, just like before, and shushed his protests ahead of time. He dropped his eyes instantly to meet that so-tired dark pair, mentally kicking himself already for going into this when Remy probably wanted nothing more than sleep.

And Remy said as much. "Leave it, Bobby."

Bobby left it, unwilling to speak past those fingers.

A minute or so later found them alone as the doors swung back and forth into the darkened room, marking Hank's departure. The medlab was quieter, the hissing oxygen louder without the low voice and warming presence. Dim lights were scattered around to guide the intrepid nighttime wanderer's footsteps. Bobby didn't intend to stray far enough from his lover's side to need their illumination.

And then suddenly he did need the light as he noticed the still-bare chest and the faint scattering of gooseflesh over Remy's skin. He released that hand reluctantly and hurried to the cabinet where Hank kept extra blankets, pulling out two of the neutral colored things and having himself back at Remy's side as quickly as he could without actually running. There was a tiny little wry smile turning Remy's lips up as the man watched him, but neither of them spoke as Bobby flung the blankets to settle over him one at a time, barely resisting the urge to actually tuck him in. He was pretty sure that even in this state Remy's pride wouldn't take well to that.

"How are you feeling?" he asked after he'd assured himself of his lover's warmth, needing now just to make some human noise and keep this room from being so loud in silence.

Remy closed his eyes. Opened them. Answered simply, "Tired."

An idea came to Bobby, and he didn't even stop to think about it before slipping a hand behind Remy's back, nudging him forward and squeezing up onto the bed behind him. The other man didn't protest -- didn't even really respond, actually, just allowing himself to be moved pliantly here and there as Bobby shifted to get comfortable. He had to squirm a bit as the blankets tried to tangle him, but eventually they ended in the position that'd become so familiar over these past nights; the lean body pressed back into the somewhat-less-so chest, legs comfortably straddling, arms loosely clasped around his lover's waist below the bruise under warming blankets. It occurred to him after working himself into place that Remy might object to this...

... but evidently he was too tired to do more than turn his head into its fleshly pillow and breathe a slow, deep sigh within the oxygen mask as dark eyes closed. Bobby closed his own eyes, holding back a familiar sting by swallowing once, twice, with controlled, careful motions. Hank said everything was okay. Sort of. He'd left, anyway, to go back to bed, and Hank would never leave a patient who needed him.

"Remy?"

"Eh?"

"Are you--" Scared? "--comfy?"

"Yeah."

"Can I get you anything?"

Beneath the mask, lips curled ever so faintly toward a smile. "Y'd have t' get up, an' I don' feel like movin'."

Right. Of course. Moron. "Oh." There had to be something intelligent he could say... "Think you can sleep?"

"Yeah."

How could he sleep in this room with that noise and the big hollow emptiness of it? "Really?"

"I can if y' stop talkin'."

Bobby caught his lower lip lightly between his teeth. Stop talking, Drake. He means 'shut up.' Don't say anything else. Just shush.

He shushed. It took great effort, but he did. Minutes passed with nothing but the sound of the oxygen and the warmth of the body against his and the strange little fluttery feeling just inside his chest, which he decided was his heart forgetting exactly where it belonged. He gave himself silent reassurances and thought about the man in his arms.

Eventually sleep took the effort from silence and he fell into dreams of ice.

And he felt guilty for taking comfort from it.

***

It had never truly been an uncommon thing for Remy LeBeau to wake up in a strange bed.

He didn't often, however, wake up in a strange bed with something hissing steadily against his face. His eyes opened to slits, full awareness settling into his mind with a rapidity many of his teammates would have envied. There were arms draped around him -- Bobby's arms, possessive in sleep -- and soft breathing lifting the chest against his back. One hand rested on his left thigh. The other curled more intimately against his inner thigh, sparking a brief rush of heat that was more a function of memory than actual desire.

Go back t' sleep, Jacques, he thought distractedly in the general direction of his pelvis, reaching down to gently move Bobby's hand from its resting spot. We'll take care a you later.

Jacques went back to sleep without protest.

It took a little doing, but he managed to untangle himself from blankets and Bobby without more than an unconscious mumble from the other man. He thought ahead enough to unplug the monitor before pulling the pulse-ox from his finger and laying it quietly atop the monitor. He shut the hissing oxygen off afterwards as he pulled the mask free. It was probably five, maybe six AM. Hank would be here soon to check on him and to push those exams.

The floor felt cold to bare feet, the sterile air equally cool against his chest. Briefly he shivered, warming up, sending a last glance at Bobby on the bed as he walked cat-footed for the door. His lover had turned, curled onto his side a little, smashing his face into the pillow with a sleeping man's determination to let nothing pull him from it.

Remy crept out without a word, soundless as a thief in the... early morning.

He took the stairs, mostly on principle, and switched over to the main staircase when he came out of the authorized-eyes-only lower level. By the time he reached the top he was huffing as if he'd done far more exercise, breathing in forcibly regulated puffs to keep from falling into uncontrolled respiration again. It took him a few minutes and a good deal of self-control to make himself look even a shade of his normal casually collected self, and by that time...

His error in judgment confronted him with a whir of opening mechanical doors, and Bobby's expression was a rare twist of livid as he stepped from the elevator to stop directly in front of Remy.

The Cajun dug up a winning smile. "H'lo, cher," he managed almost steadily. "Nice mornin'... ain' it?"

Bobby's lips didn't even twitch. At least not toward a smile. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Goin' t' get dressed." He took in his bare chest and sweatpants with a casual wave. "Can' really go around like this all day."

"You said you'd stay there. He's gotta do tests. You said you'd stay there, and--"

Remy kept his smile, but his teeth were clenched. "Y' read an awful lot into silence, cher," he said levelly, almost politely. "I got other t'ings I need t' be doin'. Henri's gon' hafta go t'rough the day wit'out pokin' an' proddin' me every which way." He gave a marginally courteous nod of dismissal and turned down the hallway.

Bobby was in front of him in an instant. "No."

"Excusez-moi." The quiet note of something much colder than formality surprised him. Usually he was better able to interpret and predict his own moods, tones of voice.

And usually that tone from him would have Bobby paling, but not this time. This time the anger in the pleasant tenor more than equaled his own. "How can you do this? We have no idea how serious this thing is, and now you wanna just--"

"Henri said it himself!" he suddenly almost-shouted. "'S a fuckin' panic attack. Y' hear dat? Panic, Bobby." He caught his breath up short before it could get shallow and rapid with that rush of... anger? Was it even anger, or was it something that hit much deeper...?

Bobby's hands were balled up at his sides, flexing with tension. He still didn't get out of the way. "It was a bad word choice, yeah, but... Remy, stop doing this. It could be serious!"

A swear in gutter Cajun French. Remy took a step forward. Bobby did as well. Remy started to step around. Bobby intercepted him, moving them right into the distance that was either intimate or dangerously confrontational.

"Bobby..." Softly, warningly. "Move."

"Goddamnit, Remy, why won't you listen?"

His red-black eyes didn't flicker. "Don' do this." He was too used to confrontation. Adrenaline was already pumping. This... this could get...

"I'm scared." Rambling now, quick words that barely made an impression on his mind. "I don't know what this is or how to fix it or anything, and even Logan thought you needed to go to the medlab, and Hank was all serious and he put a monitor on you. What the hell does it take to make you worry?"

Too close, too angry. Remy tried to make himself take a step back, but couldn't manage it. One step would show that Bobby was right.

So-- "It ain' your concern," he said coldly. "I'm not your concern." And waited for Bobby to crumble.

The blue eyes did widen, and the face did pale marginally, but what actually happened didn't involve crumbling. Bobby jerked aside with a curse, one fist raising, and Remy had a momentary flash of what he would do if Bobby actually tried to hit him...

And Bobby punched the wall.

Which might have been a lot more dramatic if he hadn't shouted "Ow!" in an ear-piercing way a split-second after his fist hit.

Remy blinked, trying to catch up emotionally with all of this. His lover stood there, staring at his hand, slowly drawing the now half-open thing away from the wall along the same path it had traveled there, as if he could undo the gesture if he were just careful enough. The hand curled in a position of pained stillness, not even shaking yet.

Bobby looked at his curved fingers for a long moment, then raised wide eyes to Remy's. "I think... I think maybe I broke it...?"

Since the wall itself wasn't even dented and that punch had looked pretty strong, that seemed likely. Remy breathed a short breath out. Reached and gently caught Bobby's wrist in a hand, staring at it as if he could actually tell anything of use. "How bad's it hurt?"

"Don't... don't move it too fast..."

Remy glanced at the wall again. "That was stupid."

A flash of anger momentarily chased back the pain in those eyes. "You wouldn't listen," Bobby started to say, then cut if off with a hiss. "Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow."

"How 'bout when I do--"

"OW!"

"Sorry..." Remy let go of his wrist gingerly. Bobby pulled it back to almost cradle it against his bare chest, still looking shocked. "Merde, Bobby, why'd you do that?"

"It was just... you were..." Another look at his hand. "Ow."

Remy sighed and looked down the hallway. Their room was only a dozen yards away, and everything he needed to get away for a day or six was in there. He could take off and handle things on his own -- maybe even see a doctor like he'd said he would. Someone who wasn't entwined with his daily life, and who wasn't best friends with his lover.

Bobby shifted his weight and said "ow" yet again, and Remy found another sigh. A deeper one. And a glare. "Y' did this on purpose, didn'chu?" He put a hand behind Bobby's near shoulder, then let it slip around to rest across both as he turned to guide him back to the medlab. "We coulda found a way t' work this out wit'out you breakin' bones..."

"Ow."

"I t'ink y're overreactin', Bobby. Dis t'ing goin' on wit' me... it ain' no big deal. Pneumonia does this." The elevator doors shut and the thing started dropping quietly. "I've gotten better from lots worse, cher."

The elevator bumped softly. "Ow."

"Not'in' t' worry 'bout." A comment from earlier suddenly sank into his head. "An' I don' want y' bein' scared, y' hear me? Ain' worth bein' scared about, this t'ing. Ain' even a 't'ing,' really." The doors opened and he nudged Bobby forward. "Y' worry too much."

"Ow?"

He pushed open the medlab doors. "An' I'll prove it t' you. Hey Henri?"

Henri was already waiting.

***

The shadow on the X-rays didn't tell him what he needed to know.

Remy had been cooperative at last, not trying to escape as Hank had halfway expected while Bobby was fitted for a simple hand brace. He'd consented to Bobby's presence during most of the tests. Even traded a few nervous jokes with the younger man during the X-rays as Hank directed him to turn this way, Remy, now lie still please, bend your knee just like this to keep your torso stationary, thank you. To Hank the instructions were familiar, comfortable in the sameness of the words he'd used many times before. One or two glimpses of Remy's face, though... only when he was turned away from Bobby, just the briefest view of how nervously the eyes flickered at this word or that, or the way he carefully avoided looking at the heavy machinery being manipulated all around his prone form...

And then he had asked Bobby to leave when Hank told him what would come next. When the other man was safely outside he'd turned a blank stare on the doctor and nodded listlessly as Henry told him, "I need you to cough. Deeply. We need a sample of the sputum from your lungs." Remy had given it half an effort. "I believe a mouse would be more effectual than you're managing." A real effort, breathing deeply enough to trigger what was now the natural reaction, face tightening and eyes squinting unconsciously at the pain. Hank had withheld the softer tone and encouraging words that he would have given to another patient; Remy would choose to see those things as condescending, and he was already a difficult enough patient without that added complication.

Even after Henry collected the sample Remy had stood half-braced against the examining table, struggling to quiet the coughs he'd been aggravating moments before, one arm half-curled around his ribs. The bruise, Hank realized with a brief sting of sympathy, would be keeping him from grasping at his ribcage the way another person might've to help regain control of breath.

After that and the rest of the tests, however, he'd carried himself as if a tremendous weight had been lifted. As though surviving them was a triumph and made whatever came next a matter of unimportance. Hank had shaken his head with a small smile and indulged himself briefly in the belief that Remy wasn't too far off base with that hope.

But the shadow on the X-rays showed him what was left of the past instead of what was happening in the present. It was very hard to tell the difference between what was scarring from the cold-damage and what was the result of whatever else he was looking at. This was his first opportunity to pin the wily Cajun down and actually have a chance to see the extent of the damage -- the permanent damage -- that Antarctica had caused. The scarring was... extensive. It muddled the view, obscuring the lighter shadow of fluid near the lower portion of the lobes.

It wasn't the first time Hank had cursed the confusion of their departure from that farce of a trial. The citadel had been sinking back into the ground, swallowed up by the earth that'd spat it forth. Rogue had gotten lost with Gambit, vanished, and he'd been struggling to find his own way out, and now he thought that something must've struck his head... that was all he could think of to explain the disorientation that followed, and how he could have missed the fact that Rogue came back alone... how somehow it just didn't register to his brain until they were too far away to have any real hope of finding him...

More than once he'd wondered if, by allowing that, he'd betrayed his Hippocratic Oath beyond any redemption.

Leaving the X-rays for later examination he went on next with a full spectrum analysis on the blood he'd drawn. His brows bunched in thought as he noted the white cell count. High. Higher than the fever was indicating.

Not a good sign.

He continued glancing over the analysis and felt his breath pause in his chest, as if his own lungs were sympathetic. Another oddity there. Increased levels of the enzyme acid phosphatase.

Acid phosphatase. That could be an indicator of...

He ran it again to be sure. There it was. Acid phosphatase. Again.

A furred hand found his glasses and slowly removed them. He rubbed his other hand over his face, across itching eyes, letting time handle itself for a minute. The symptoms played over in his head and tried to match themselves to a source, but he held off any acknowledgment for now.

("'Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man'? Yeah, I read the Bard too, Henri. Can' get outta Jean Luc's house wit'out it. Don't you t'ink you're bein' a bit dramatic?")

"'No,'" he quoted under his breath. "'No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world.'"

Dramatic. Yes. And now he was fighting the cold feeling, deep inside, that tried to tell him that the drama was portentous.

He didn't let himself consider the possibilities as he stood and collected the sputum sample he'd made Remy cough up earlier. No thoughts, no extrapolations, no assumptions as he donned his glasses and set about running a comprehensive analysis on the sample. The Shi'ar-enhanced technology made short work of a process that would take tremendously longer in any but the most high-tech medical facilities. Hank's eyes scanned the list as it began scrolling up the screen on the connected monitor.

Streptococcus pneumoniae: Negative

Hemophilus influenzae: Negative

Legionella pneumophila: Negative

Coxiella burnetti: Negative

Viruses, bacteria... all potential causes of the lobar pneumonia that the symptoms had initially indicated. All inherently serious, potentially fatal. All negative. And all imminently preferable to... Face very, very still, he kept scanning until he found the entry he'd been most apprehensive about.

Cytology -- monoclonal antibody reaction: Positive

He read it again. Then again, as if it might change from one moment to the next.

Cytology -- monoclonal antibody reaction: Positive

The chair creaked warningly beneath him as he sat back and pulled his glasses free again. He tipped his face up and stared blindly at the ceiling. A word bounced around in his head, repeatedly, hitting every nerve with calculatedly brutal accuracy. Such a small word for something so devastating.

He closed his eyes briefly and sighed, a heavy sigh, before forcing himself to sit up and reach for the phone.

***

The sounds from the monitor were very familiar to him. Almost without fail, he heard them on a daily basis. His teammates joked about it... said that training was an obsession with him, that even Jean took second place.

That part was wrong. Jean knew it, and he knew it. The rest, though...

They taped almost all of their workouts. Professor Xavier had started the practice, but it was Scott who reinstated it years later and convinced the far more adult and independently minded team members to give the practice a shot. It'd proven valuable in more than a few ways, not the least of which giving him a chance to look over a scene he'd participated in, evaluating weaknesses and strengths that hadn't been clear when he'd been in the thick of it.

He watched them now for a different reason, and didn't like what he was seeing.

There'd been an e-mail waiting for him this morning from Hank. That was nothing unusual, even when he hadn't referred a sick or injured X-Man to him the night before. Hank was constantly forwarding this interesting little tidbit or that worrisome news, every now and then a joke meant to 'lighten up the stalwart leader,' too. And when he had doctored one of the team he almost always sent a report, even if he'd already spoken to Scott just the evening before on the matter.

This morning it had said simply, "I am laying claim to our friend Mr. LeBeau until further notice. Do not even consider allowing him to work out with the team if he should make the offer."

That in itself wasn't so uncommon. X-Men as a rule tended to be suicidal creatures, inordinately fond of pushing themselves beyond human or mutant limits. Scott had found himself under strict medical restriction more than a few times over his years of action.

It had started him thinking, however. He watched the grass outside his and Jean's little boathouse grow every day, but he never noticed it getting longer until Jean mentioned that it could use a cutting. Small changes, daily, the world turning bit by bit until someone tapped his shoulder and said, "Look."

So he'd been looking. For an hour now, he'd been looking. Those tapes existed for a reason.

The handful Scott had skimmed from two years ago showed the man who'd been a consistently reliable ally. Lethally talented, frighteningly skilled in the use of his powers and his body... and he took such pleasure in his abilities. That supple ease, that wicked smile. Charm and grace and so many other things that some part of Scott, deep, deep inside, couldn't quite help but envy just a bit. A casual vault for the sake of vaulting, bo staff a living extension, body inhumanly flexible in the air as he took the fight to his holographic enemies, enjoying every moment of it.

But that was two years ago.

Less than a year back were the first tapes of training sessions after Gambit's return from Antarctica. Ororo had encountered him in the field under circumstances she'd called 'unusual, which is usual, is it not?' and after that...

After that, Remy was a ghost in the halls for weeks. No one quite knew what to make of him, and he didn't help matters with his quiet defensiveness and the stubborn certainty that he was a Hated Entity. Scott had done what he could to ease the transition -- having a hostile and edgy X-Man around wasn't really a new thing -- but it'd been slow going, hindered even more by the fact that Remy was in lousy condition and insisted on trying to prove himself the equal of the man he was before. Physically at least.

The tapes of the man at that point had Scott wondering just what the hell he'd been thinking to allow Remy into the field with them.

Some short time after that, Professor Xavier had suggested via Internet conference that he try pairing Gambit with Bobby for training purposes. LeBeau would have someone to work with who was a bit less vigorously fit than the majority of the team, and Bobby would have his own motivation to improve as the Cajun did. He had to be able to keep up with an out of shape teammate, of course. Even Bobby could get petty enough about pride to let it sting over that.

That was where the improvement most notably picked up, Scott observed with a trace of satisfaction. At first he'd assumed ego was pushing them both, which was just fine with him as long as something was. And the improvements had come so quickly; Remy'd bulked up a little, finally reclaiming some of that lost weight and recovering his wind along with it, and Bobby'd gotten conditioned, toned up, stretched his endurance farther than Scott had expected. A month after they'd been working together the tapes showed performances that climbed steadily up through satisfactory and began touching on impressive.

Four months, and Remy was nearly in honestly good shape again. It showed in more than the fit of his uniform and his once-again-efficient fighting style, too. The man enjoyed his body, and enjoyed using it to its fullest extent. He pushed himself, sweated, grinned out of sheer exuberance.

Scott let himself notice now the handful of instances in which one of the pair ducked behind a conveniently concealing wall or car or tree, all holographic, and the other wasted little time in joining him. I would've seen that ages earlier if it were a heterosexual pairing, he had to admit to himself reluctantly. His brain just wasn't wired to suspect that two men vanishing out of sight were doing anything other than... well... vanishing out of sight. He hadn't had that much experience with gay men.

Know better next time. He watched a bit more, skipping around a lot, taking notes clinically in his head as the hours ticked by in minutes. Gambit had hit a level field a couple of months ago, and at the time it'd seemed as if he were back to his old self physically, maybe even almost mentally. And yet...

Nowhere near, he mused, the recent comparison still fresh in his mind. At his best a few months ago he couldn't stay in the ring with himself two years ago. Which had been hard to see, as even a substandard Remy was an impressive sight when he got going. But the ease in that block wasn't quite as fluid as before, and he didn't get up as fast after the inevitable knockdowns. And he didn't even seem to see it.

One month ago. The weight was still there, the form was still good, but there was a conservation to Remy's style that hadn't been there before. He'd stopped carrying the fight to the enemy, started waiting and taunting the enemy to bring it to him. Less banter, more carefully chosen words. As though he were aware of... reduced endurance?

Aware of it.

Covering it.

Shit.

LeBeau had been a master at covering things since long before he ever hooked up with the X-Men.

Scott didn't spend much more time on the tapes -- only watched enough to confirm his suspicion that he'd allowed himself to fall for the easy front of confidence that Remy wore like his old leather duster -- and then he packed them away, carefully ordered, and decided that a trip to the medlab was in order. Hank could tell him if there was a point to this concern. By now the doctor had probably managed to pin even the slippery Cajun down for some tests... there would be a few answers waiting down there.

He didn't let himself consider too many possibilities on the way. If there was one thing he'd learned from his years of leading this team it was that assumptions were never safe things and trying to expect the unexpected wasn't nearly as reliable as fiction would have it. There was no point in supposition when fact was only a few floors down.

I'll need to restrict him from duty, he told himself as he took the rear staircase. Officially. But he's got a gift for getting himself in trouble even on non-mutant matters... which is his concern, not mine. I can't let him play this self-destructive game with the team, though. We've already seen what that can do. Bobby hasn't had any leave in a while... I could suggest a vacation for the both of them... That had promise. He mused along that vein of thought for a minute or so as he hit the medlab's level and made his way to the entrance. Maybe that would give them a chance to see if whatever they have will hold up when they're not ducking bullets. Better they learn now if it won't last than a year from now. And if it will... well, looks like I really should be splitting them up in the field. Can't trust emotional attachments not to be too much of a distraction under fire. It really had been an oversight on his part the other day, assuming that Bobby could hold himself back under those circumstances. Why had he thought that? Was it so easy to think that two lovers had less of an attachment simply because of the fact that they were both men?

Another thing to know better next time, he supposed as he pushed open one half of the double doors to the lab. He could just chalk these past couple of days up to further education.

"Hank? You in here?"

A sound from a corner off to the left. Clearing throat, then, "I'm here." Nothing more.

'I'm here'? That was it? From Hank?

Scott nodded a greeting as he walked over toward the darkened corner holding the giant blue chair that Hank rested in. There was a rather hideously bright sofa beside it, wearing far too many colors -- all tinted to a shade of red in his eyes -- for one single piece of furniture. "Where'd this come from?"

"Your wife," Hank told him, gazing at the couch rather than the man. "She said it was so that Bobby would have a comfortable spot..." His voice trailed off. He kept staring at the sofa.

Scott frowned. "What is it?"

"A Roy Dupois, I believe... very popular with color-blind decorators..."

"Not the sofa, Hank." The blue eyes raised, purple in his vision, and Scott was struck almost forcibly by the unfocused distance in them. The eyes of a man who was far away and didn't want to come back. "I... got your e-mail. About Gambit. I was just coming down to talk to you about him and see when you thought he might be ready to... go back to..." Hank's expression didn't flicker. Scott's chest went tight, warningly. "I've been looking back over some of the tapes... Hank, what's wrong?"

A sigh lifted the huge, furred chest and made the chair groan in complaint. Blue eyes closed for a moment, tightly, then opened slowly as his old friend bobbed his chin to the ugly sofa and said the words that had prefixed almost all the bad news Scott had ever gotten in his life: "Sit down. We need to talk."

He stood motionless for a moment, chest going tighter still. "What...?"

"Sit."

He sat.

***

It was probably one of the last semi-warm days they'd get before real autumn closed in, and both Remy and Bobby had agreed that such a day deserved to be fully enjoyed outside. Without Ororo in residence they couldn't even blame the gorgeous weather on a friend -- it had to be chalked up to nature taking pity on a wounded man, Bobby insisted, and therefore it was a gift they had no right to turn down.

Not that Remy had any complaints. They'd been released from the medlab under each other's supervision, though Henri had threatened bodily harm if either one so much as dreamed of leaving the grounds. Remy had by now decided that the man was simply on a power-rampage, and acknowledging the rarity in that made him less resentful about going along with it.

So he'd pulled his Harley out of the garage and found a bucket of rags, tossing one to Bobby and saying with a smile that a left hand could polish as readily as a right. That didn't get much of an argument -- Bobby loved the bike these days, though not out of any chest-thumping appreciation for loud machines that growled and belched exhaust. The first two rides had found Bobby clinging to him, tighter than skin, chanting, "If we die, I kill you," like a mantra of protection. He called Remy a thrill-seeker... accused him of getting off from the danger, which wasn't something the Cajun could really deny.

Then ride three had come about -- no, Ride Three, with capitals for the rest of his life whenever he thought of it -- and he could still smell the leather of the pants he'd put on for no reason other than to drive Bobby crazy, and the unnamable cheap aftershave on the face pressed into his shoulder, and the heaviness of rain coming in from the west, waiting to fall... He'd been lost in the adrenaline rush, the speed, the rumble of the great machine between his thighs and the impossible closeness of the body against his back, and he hadn't even noticed at first when hands clutching at his hips had drifted in, slid downward, and the body against him somehow pressed even closer.

When he realized it he almost ran off the road, which sparked a startled yelp by his ear and had those hands returned to grasping his hips in a heartbeat.

He leveled the bike, slowed her to a sane speed, and gasped, "Don' stop," as he leaned back into the other. "Merde, don' stop now..."

"We almost... we could've..."

"I got her. She's good. Jus'..." And just like that the hand was back, wanting as much as he did, and he gave up words willingly just to have enough attention to keep the Harley tame.

A massage. Right where it counted. Fingers kneading, a little hesitant and stumbling in this new situation, but god, the rumble of the bike and the heaviness of the air and the soft creak of cotton-lined leather pants...

"Pull over," Bobby breathed into his ear, barely audible over the wind. "Let me..." The way he asked-without-asking to take control, nervous about initiating, working up the courage to do so anyway.

"Not yet," Remy told him breathlessly. "Not... yet..."

"I want..." And he did want, as his body so eloquently told Remy. His hands were losing inhibitions and his breath was harsh in Remy's ear and his body was too close to allow any impression of indifference. He pressed hard against the taller man, arms tight as vises around him, face leaning against the skin of his neck as if he didn't want to see where they were going, didn't want to watch the world fly by, only wanted one thing, just one thing, and he'd willingly give before receiving.

Mind spinning, Remy released the throttle and steered the Harley off the road, letting her skid to a stop in a spray of gravel as a balancing foot went down to keep them from falling.

And then the ripping sound of a zipper rushing downward. He leaned back, let his head fall to rest on a waiting shoulder as that hand found the center of his world and worked with what was rapidly becoming expertise. Bobby might have willingly claimed the label of 'slacker' in any number of things, but Remy was fairly sure that was simply because he'd never... applied himself... to anything else as vigorously as he had to this.

It was all breath and no words and his own fingers gripping at Bobby's thighs since they had nowhere else to go. There were lips on his neck, against his throat, making his blood boil in that mind-melting way, and it was hot and it was sweet, and deliriously bold to be doing this right here, right off Greymalkin Lane, right in the path of any teammates or well-to-do neighbors who happened along...

Remy swore, feverishly, and stared up at spinning stars overhead.

And then his body arced in release and his eyes closed tightly as the stars whirled with wild abandon. His fingers were digging hard enough into Bobby's thighs that he worried briefly about bruises, though if Bobby minded he didn't say. Just held him, one arm snug around his chest, the other now gentling its motions below.

Eventually he found a breathless laugh, sagging against his partner and blowing hair from his eyes. "This the same guy who couldn' stand de idea a kissin' me wit'out a locked door between us an' the world?"

Bobby was very carefully still behind him. "I've never... done anything like this before..."

"Coulda fooled me, mon cher." He freed his fingers from a jeans-clad thigh and snaked his hand between them a little awkwardly. Bobby groaned and dropped his face back to the waiting neck. "So..." He moved his hand slightly, rubbing, and was rewarded with a shudder. "Guess we should get back t' the mansion... rain's gon' hit soon, an' I can' t'ink a any reason t' stay out here..." Bobby squirmed against him, panting, and Remy grinned at the stars. "I wouldn' wanna do anyt'ing that would embarrass you, 'course... we know how easy y' blush..."

"Remy..."

"Quoi?" Innocently.

Bobby's hands moved to his shoulders and prodded him to turn his torso. He did so, kicking down the centerstand to support the heavy bike and deliberately slipping fingers beneath the waistband of his lover's jeans with the motion.

"You're always such a--" Bobby started in a bantering tone but choked it off, hips rocking forward, and let a breath hiss between his teeth. "Screw it," he ground out. "Just kiss me."

Remy didn't make him ask twice.

Ride Three, he mused now, staring blindly at the carefully tended Harley. There was that seat, so worn with use and care, and looking at it now he wasn't really thinking of anything but how that night ended. A flush of all-over-heat took him from the toes on up as the memory-image hit: Bobby arched back over that seat, feet hooked on the back pegs, hands reaching above his head and clutching for any handhold... the glint of lightly tanned chest between the open wings of his shirt, skin all but glowing in the dark, torso writhing and graceful in this dance more than any other as Remy exercised the more pleasurable skills he'd learned in his short and intense lifetime. Fingers and lips and tongue... a smoldering look from eyes he'd learned to use to their best advantage... a word and a whisper and then a cry from Bobby's throat as that twisting body jerked and Bobby's head rocked back, lightly ridged muscles tensed into sharp definition, sweat mingling with rain as the clouds finally broke open overhead...

The rag hit him right in his hot-feeling face. He caught it before it fell to the ground, blinking and looking at the source. Bobby's flushed skin showed that he knew exactly where Remy's mind had been, and the grin said too many other things to name. "Do mine eyes deceive me? Is that Remy LeBeau, Mr. Smoothie himself, blushing?"

That, of course, made him call up a slow smile, with lots of teeth. "It ain' blushin' when I do it. It's selective redistribution a blood."

Bobby laughed and called him a name, then pulled another rag from the bucket and crouched to buff the custom chrome pipes. Light brown hair fell untidily over blue eyes, spreading tiny spiderleg-shadows across his face. He moved a little awkwardly, frequently forgetting his injured hand, and Remy flinched internally when he saw the quick grimace of pain as said hand accidentally bumped a footpeg.

Then Bobby threw another rag at him and he lit a cigarette, shrugging off Bobby's mock-scowl as the smoke eased that constriction in his chest, and bent carefully around his abused midsection to continue rubbing wax off the tank.

It'd warmed up enough by early afternoon for drowsiness to tap Remy on the shoulder and remind him that he hadn't really been getting that much sleep lately. He figured he'd spent enough time indoors, though, so when his lover made a general gesture toward the sloping yard behind the mansion Remy acquiesced readily. There was enough sun to warm his skin, soft grass that was still spring-green, and since he couldn't leave the grounds without an attack squad being sent after him by Henri...

Remy dropped to the ground -- sprawling like a cat even with the bruise muttering a protest -- when they found a likely spot just out of easy view from any of the mansion windows, not so secluded that they couldn't be found if need be. There was a faintly envious look from Bobby as he sat, knees drawn up, hip brushing against Remy's waist. "It's so easy for you to be so..."

"What?"

"Hang on. I'm trying to think of a non-girly word."

He snorted at the sky and propped hands behind his head. "I ain' sensitive."

A sidelong glance. "Okay. Graceful."

"Oh." He shrugged, rustling grass. "Learned how t' dance an' fight when I was a li'l'un. Everyt'ing physical came naturally after that."

"Must be nice." Wistfully.

He turned his head and met the blue eyes. "Y' got y' own grace, Bobby."

A faint blush. "Nah, I'm just kinda..." He grinned suddenly and raised his right hand, waving the brace. "I mean, really."

Remy freed a hand and reached out, fingers just lightly tracing alongside the so-familiar face. "There any compliment I can say t' you dat y' ain' gon' shrug off?" That hand, hurt because of him. "'Cause if there is I'll say it enough t' make up f' all of 'em you ignore."

Bobby visibly considered for a moment. "You can tell me..." That slow grin. "... that I have fabulous taste in lovers."

Remy gave a sharp bark of laughter that very nearly became a cough. He held it back in time to keep from earning a worried look, covering his mouth as if he only wanted to suppress the mirth. "Mon dieu," he said when he was able, barely keeping the struggle from his voice. "You don' believe in keepin' me humble, do you?"

"You wear 'humble' like a Halloween costume," he was informed as Bobby gestured with his braced hand in a lecturing motion. "Just to get candy."

Remy bared teeth lazily and caught the hand at the wrist, kissing the back of it to keep from having to talk until he could be sure his voice wouldn't try to betray him again. Bad enough that it still sounded hoarse without adding in that straining note as he tried to speak past a cough.

And eventually it didn't seem like he needed to answer. His eyelids felt heavy, the eyes themselves grainy, and he surprised himself with a jaw-cracking yawn. He shallowed it swiftly, automatically, but had to prop himself up on his elbows when his chest tried to tighten again.

Bobby patted his own stomach invitingly. "Here."

"Eh?"

"Pillow."

Automatic tension as he started to tell Bobby that he didn't need a pillow, he was just fine...

... and then he realized that he actually did want the contact, the sleepy warmth of another body, and he sardonically chided himself for defensiveness as he shifted around away from the injured hand and took up the offer. Bobby's fingers immediately went to slide up the lower edge of his shirt, baring his chest to sunlight. Not teasing, not tantalizing. Fingers splayed across his skin comfortably, too light to even evoke a mental ouch over the tender bruise. Just wanting to touch.

So unjudging. So willing to believe in him again.

So...

... comfortable...

***

He stood watching from far to the right, just out of easy sight should either one of them glance around. His massive shoulders sagged forward heavily beneath thick azure fur.

The Cajun was finally asleep, head propped on its breathing pillow, and Bobby stared lazily at the cloud-dappled sky above with a hand running slowly up, down, up Remy's body, possessive or reveling in the right to be so. Unconcerned, trusting in the magic of his doctor-friend to make everything right again.

"Atlas," Hank murmured. "I empathize."

He turned back to the mansion without approaching them. Give them this moment to breathe before he shifted this weight to their shoulders. The matter could wait for a short time.

A short time.

***

It had finally grown too cool outside for Remy's comfort, and he'd left Bobby languishing in the fading sunlight on the lawn with a warning not to melt. It still struck him sometimes as colossally funny that he slept with the world's only living icecube.

Other times it struck him as something very different from funny, but he preferred to focus on the humorous and leave the rest alone.

He retrieved the boring book from last night's room and took it back to its home, slipping it back just as he'd found it. There was no discernible order that he could see to Bobby's books, but with as much care as his lover took with them he should assume that he simply hadn't caught on to it yet.

Bed was tempting, even after the catnap in the yard. Jus' gon' turn into a lazy ol' man, he told himself with some pleasure. At that moment being a lazy old man sounded tremendously appealing. He was struck with the sudden image of himself in a rocker, mouth sunken around missing teeth and skin a wrinkled map of years, with a similarly creaky Bobby rocking beside him. Somehow that struck him as too funny for words. He spent a minute or so imagining up all the little foibles and peccadilloes that the years would have revealed, but eventually realized that it had to be the continued debt he owed to sleep that made this seem so hilarious. He'd never laughed at the thought of growing old before.

Halfway through pulling his shirt over his head he was stopped by the 'briiing' of the phone.

"Yeah?"

"Hello, Remy." Henri's voice, level and inflectionless.

His chest tightened. He told himself it was just the cough. "Allo." Nothing more.

There was a pause, then, "I'd like you to come down to the medlab to discuss the results of this morning's tests."

He looked out the window. Day was steadily slipping away. "When?"

"Now would be preferable... unless you particularly want Bobby to join us..."

That he most definitely didn't want. A worried Bobby could make a scratch into an evisceration. "Non. He don' need t' be there. I'll be down in a minute."

"All right." And then Henri hung up. Without a single word longer than five tiny syllables.

Remy tugged his shirt into order and went slowly for the stairs, wanting the time to think that they would afford him as opposed to the elevator.

When he pushed open the medlab doors he didn't just find Henri. There was another man there; a stranger with coal-dark skin and very serious light brown eyes. He seemed very much at ease, this man; expression unaffected even while he was surrounded by strange technology and the grating sterility of the lab. His hip was propped against a counter that housed a washbasin and his arms loosely crossed his broad chest. Remy's feet brought him up short as he took in the unexpected visitor, and he wasted no time in demanding, "Who's dis?"

Henri had been leaning up against the rear wall but now pushed away from it, walking forward with his hands out in a placating gesture.

Placating? Did he really look edgy enough to need to be placated?

"Remy, this is a friend and colleague of mine. Dr. Marcus G. Niles. Marcus, Remy LeBeau."

The man inclined his head and said in a curiously soft voice, "Hello, Mr. LeBeau."

Remy didn't return the gesture. "What's he doin' here?" He openly sized the man up with a glance -- well over six feet, built like a linebacker. Alert eyes. "Y' bringin' civilians in here now, Henri?"

"I assure you, Remy... Marcus is not concerned about the team or any of the goings-on upstairs."

He addressed the large man directly, challengingly. "You got no problem wit' mutants, eh? Jus' another open-minded homme. All over de place, guys like you." A doctor. A colleague of Henri's. Here. When Henri called him down here.

Dr. Niles gave him a mild look. "Mr. LeBeau, I'm a large black man who happens to be gay, who also happens to be a successful doctor in a challenging field, who also happens to be involved in a long-term relationship with the white artist son of a Catholic priest. I go to sleep every night knowing that there's an entire church of people praying at least twice a week for my partner to be saved from Satan, and knowing that in this case the 'Satan' they're referring to is me. When I was going through medical school a very small and very vocal faction of Southern Baptists twisted my initials and dubbed me 'Mama's Gay Nigger,' a nickname which stuck for the duration." He ticked off these details in a factual tone, not granting them any emotion, then gave a faint smile without humor. "I know all about bigotry. It's not something I have any desire to cultivate for myself."

What field, he wanted to ask, but didn't. Instead he looked from face to face, blue to deepest brown. "You're gay?" Common ground? Maybe Henri had called Niles in just because of that commonality. Maybe he wanted to encourage Bobby somehow... show him a successful man who'd faced as much prejudice as any of them. Maybe...

Dr. Niles nodded. "Yes. A fact which seems to scandalize no few of my coworkers. Fortunately for me I'm also very good at what I do, which means that I get paid the big bucks anyway."

Remy found a smile and hoped it didn't look as fake as it felt. "You should meet Bobby. He'd wanna hear all y' stories."

Another nod. "I look forward to meeting Bobby," he said, as if it were a given that he would. As if...

"I called Marcus in to consult with me," Henri said into the brief pause that followed. "He's the best in the field. Even according to Time magazine."

What field? "That's... great. Musta been hard t' get so much respect."

"It was," Dr. Niles confirmed. "But that doesn't matter today. Henry tells me you've been under the weather for a few weeks now."

He felt too exposed, surrounded by these bright medlab lights and nothing but open floor. The two doctors were predators, ready to pounce, and he was prey revealed in sparkling snow...

He shook himself internally to clear his mind. "It ain' no big t'ing. Jus' a li'l cough." He tried to force another smile and honesty, because if he acknowledged this next unpleasant thing nothing worse could be said. He felt that to his bones. "An'... panic attacks. Just a few. At night." The smile finally came through, quick and nervous. "Where'd you say y' went t' medical school?"

"Harvard, actually."

"Hard t' get in there."

"It is."

"Y' gotta say that, don'tcha?" He took a step sideways, away from the doctor, unconsciously. "Nice suit, by the way. Y' got it at Julian's, neh? On Third?"

"Yes, I did." Henri was saying nothing, waiting, expression not flickering even when Remy glanced at him. Dr. Niles took a lazy step forward and leaned casually against the central examining table. "Actually, Mr. LeBeau, I didn't come here to talk about my school or wardrobe."

Remy looked at Henri again... at a familiar face that was offering no help at all. "Izzat so?" he asked Niles. "If it's 'bout dis cough..."

"It is."

His heart pounded. Legacy flickered through his brain. He vaguely remembered it starting with a respiratory problem. Or... AIDS? How could he have gotten...? He hadn't slept around, and it was one of the few sureties in his life that Bobby would never cheat on him... and it would've shown up sooner on a blood test... right?

But there'd been an awful lot of blood splashed on him over his lifetime, recent and otherwise. Things like AIDS could be transferred that way, couldn't they?

"Is Bobby okay?"

Henri took that one, nodding firmly, thanking Remy with his eyes for asking. "He's fine."

Remy closed his eyes. Took a breath. That constriction was back, squeezing the air from him. Half-aware, his hand fumbled for his pack of cigarettes. Not to light one, no, not in here, but just for the comfort, familiar habit, familiar vice...

"Throw those away, you goddamned idiot!" The pack was snatched from his hand before he even pulled it fully from his pocket, and Dr. Niles held it crushed in a tight fist right before his eyes. He'd moved so quickly, and Remy still felt half-caught in a dream, so slow, everything so... slow...

Niles' face was inches from his own, twisted and furious. Remy cleared his throat, hoarsely, and asked, "What field?"

It was Henri who answered, stepping forward, gently putting a hand to Niles' broad chest and motioning him back. "He's in oncology, Remy. He's a cancer specialist."

And Dr. Niles threw the cigarettes into the nearest garbage can with a curse.


~end part one~

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