Any Kinda Breath part 2

They're Marvel's. No money. Don't sue.

Dr. Niles and everyone in Harper Hospital are mine. Don't use them without permission. I know a hundred ways to use a staple as a lethal weapon. Seventy-two of those ways involve your spleen. Be kind to your spleen. Hands off.

This fits into the Kinda Mooks series. Go read 'Any Kinda Breath' part 1 or you'll be so totally lost that I'm not even gonna attempt a recap here. You can find it in a buncha places, such as (un)frozen, Alternate Timelines, and the Itty Bitty X-Men Archive:
(http://thundercrack.interspeed.net/xmen.htm).

For those who get frustrated with the French that's rampant in a later scene, there are translations in the Notes from Kaylee at the end. Romantics should know up front that 'je t'aime' means 'I love you.'

Warren-lovers... um... leave your weapons outside, please... ;-)

Mature content. You have been warned.

For all those who sent feedback for the last part: _Thank you_ so much. I'm sorry I haven't been able to answer more of your mail yet than I have. Since most of the letters did actually ask for more story, though, doesn't this count as a response? :)

Comments to [email protected] Or public comments will do -- I don't mind, really. ;-)

Enjoy!




_It's adenocarcinoma, Mr. LeBeau. A non small-cell type of lung cancer._

He blinked slowly at the framed watercolor on the wall and let the words run through him.

_How... how do y' *know*? How can y' *know*?_

_if not for the advanced technology_

_isolated the reactive cells_

_Remy, please sit down. There's a lot we need to discuss._

_Surgery could be an option_

_chemotherapy_

_not forget radiation_

_remove the affected lobe_

_Are you getting this, Mr. LeBeau?_

Another long blink. The watercolor was an original Cézanne. A study for one of his most famous pieces in his 'Bathers' series. Remy had pinched it from a rich miser who'd hung it in a trophy room and left it to gather dust. For a while it'd been too hot to unload, and by the time the coast was clear he'd fallen well and truly in love with it.

That was art. Timeless.

_Is... is it serious? Henri? Is it..._

_Cancer is never a matter to be taken lightly._

_But we ain' talkin', y'know, life or death. I feel fine._

_... That's... difficult to say at this stage._

_But I feel *fine.* It's jus' this cough, neh? I've had worse. Got better from it, too._

_Unless you're expecting intervention from the divine, Mr. LeBeau, we really do need to get back to explaining your treatment options._

The room was warm, the heater having been turned on before he ever got up there. Bobby, probably, since he couldn't remember taking the time to do so earlier. Funny, that little gesture of consideration. The cold never bothered Bobby.

_I realize you need some time to absorb this. If you like, I can... speak to Bobby about everything._

And here it was heading into winter. Snow and snowmen, ice and everything that went with it. Santa, eventually, and plastic reindeer on top of houses.

_H-how long, Henri? What... what're we talkin' 'bout?_

_I can't say that at this point._

_Dr. Niles?_

_I can give you statistics, but I don't think you're ready to hear them._

_Tell me._

_less than ten percent survive five years after diagnosis_

_nine out of ten adenocarcinomas aren't symptomatic until after metastasis_

_less than fifty percent are surgical candidates_

_chances increased to fifteen or thirty percent after surgery_

_cut out part of your lung_

_just the affected part_

_aware of scarring inside...?_

_afraid chemo is a must_

_need to do more tests_

_good thing you're healthy... the treatments will make heavy demands on your body's resources..._

_I'll talk to Bobby_

_let you think about_

_just get some sleep_

_fortunate Hank discovered this now rather than_

_talk tomorrow_

_I can tell Bobby_

_ever *read* the Surgeon General's Warning?_

_Just relax, and I'll break the news to_

The door opened, soft shush of wood over carpet. He blinked slowly at the painting. Cézanne had such a fine hand for displaying imperfect humanity in all its blunt beauty.

"Remy."

He looked. "Salut, Bobby."

The man took a step inside and closed the door, dropping them back into semi-darkness lightened only by a bit of starlight. Remy could still see, though. His eyes were good in the dark.

"Hank... told me. He said... he..." Remy gazed at him, red and black and dry-eyed. "Oh god... _Remy_..."

And then he was crying. Crying, and Remy was staring at him, distantly aware that he should be doing something. Instead he just sat in the chair against the wall, gazing, listening to voices in his head.

Bobby kept standing there, tears coursing down his cheeks, body shaking all over.

He remembered to stand eventually, moved by something more instinctive than reason, and held open his arms. Bobby was in them in less than a heartbeat, silent tears becoming loud, wrenching sobs that made his body shudder, his uninjured hand wrapping so tightly into Remy's shirt that the fabric popped in complaint. Trusting that unconscious drive Remy rubbed his back with one hand, then the other, whispering, "Hey, hey, it's okay." Nonsense words. Just sounds and syllables. "It's okay, it's okay." Meaning nothing at all.

They found their way to the bed. Remy sat himself against the headboard, not releasing Bobby from his arms or paying any attention to the sting of bruised flesh, listening to the wracking sobs with detached fascination. "It's okay... it's okay..." And his hands stroked as if they knew a secret magic, and Bobby clung to him and said words like "can't" and "you" and "cancer." And after awhile the tears eased and the sobbing was dry and the face buried against his now-damp chest stopped pressing so insistently into him. There were hitching breaths for a short time, slowly spacing themselves out.

Bobby fell asleep against him, and Remy stared at the Cézanne and listened to his thoughts.

By the time the clock shone a steady 3:13, he'd found answers.

He tipped Bobby's chin up with a finger and arched his neck to breathe a kiss across his lips. The younger man stirred faintly at that, a wordless sound coming from his throat, and Remy kissed him again just as gently.

There was an answer in the braced hand that rose to curve around his neck, pulling him closer. Remy leaned in and slid his tongue into the waiting mouth, fingers lifting to stroke through disordered brown hair. He could play a kiss like the most subtle of blues, knowing the key of every chord, the touch that was able to coax out the most delicate of notes, the intensity that took the music of the flesh and let it vibrate in the air. He used every bit of that skill now.

He wanted Bobby to wake with nothing but that physical music in his mind.

A hand caressed down the T-shirt clad chest and tugged the fabric free from jeans, sliding back beneath it along warm skin. Fingers traced the muscle-cushioned bumps of ribs. He relished the shiver that called from his lover.

The Iceman, shivering. He had to smile at the thought, busy lips curving upward.

His mouth dropped to the throat so temptingly turned up to him. Was there an inch of skin there that he hadn't kissed? He decided not to take the chance, lips and tongue carefully thorough. Bobby gave a shaky sigh and rocked his head back. Remy could taste the tears that'd crept down from his face and stained his neck.

Tears. For him.

"Remy, I..."

He shifted and caught the lips again, driving the words away, emboldening the touch of his hands to push them further from conscious thought. No words here, no distracting thoughts. Just sensation and the emotions that went with it. Emotions that reminded him that he'd made it out of his frozen hell with his own two feet, but he hadn't quite escaped entirely. Not alone.

Maybe he'd never been meant to have this. Maybe he really should have died there.

But he'd savor this moment and everything in it now that it was here, and relish the sweetness of it all the more with knowing how short a time it would be.

He shifted, curling around Bobby, and the pull of the bruising across his midsection reminded him that he'd let those muscles stiffen too much. Bobby seemed to sense his not-quite-flinch and sat up, pulled away, eyes opening to full wakefulness. "Wait, you're not-- "

Fingers across his lips silenced him, and then Remy was back at his neck, his throat, easing up to an earlobe and catching it in a so-soft bite. Still he said nothing, guiding with touch alone, and Bobby slowly sank to the mattress under his determined ministrations.

A gift, then. Unnamably precious. Unwilling to realize his own value in Remy's eyes or what his love _meant_ to a man who'd believed that life would always be about paying the debts of yesterday.

Love like that wasn't meant to be tested so harshly. It wouldn't be. If this was justice, at least justice had been kind enough to allow him these past months.

Bobby gasped beneath him, and Remy smiled an unfettered smile as he sought to bring the sound again.

He'd felt for years as if the ax hung over his head, waiting to fall and deliver the only sentence that was right, and now the waiting was over. He'd done his best to balance those scales tipped so far from level so long ago. Maybe he'd even halfway accomplished that. He'd tried. God, he'd tried.

Bobby breathed his name like a prayer and shifted, turned, tried to take a more active role. Gentle hands pushed him back down and a kiss kept him there.

"M'amour," he whispered against the gasping lips. "Let me."

"But..."

Another kiss, then another, deeper, soul-searing. "Shhh," he breathed when he broke it, dropping his lips to tickle an earlobe. "Shhh." He drew back enough to meet the bright gaze and to see some of the messages in it; trust, longing, and beneath those...

He focused on the trust and longing and kissed those eyes closed to hide the rest.

His hands roamed with the freedom Bobby had granted him all those months ago, seeking out familiar contours, playing fingertips over skin to call that note from the quivering body. Back to those lips, more ardent, not demanding so much as giving fiercely. His body hovered over the other's, supported by a quick hand here, a shift to an elbow, a hip settling briefly against blankets. Never still or resting for a heartbeat, divesting the both of them of clothing in motions so smooth and practiced that Bobby didn't seem to realize their nudity until he finally let himself lay against him, desire fully evident and impatient. Where fondly named Jacques was in a hurry, however, Remy intended to take his time.

It was amazing how the importance of Time became so much clearer in just one night.

Bobby breathed like a small steam engine, panting quickly and rapidly, his fingers tangling in the blankets.

So _much_ seemed so clear, now! As he stroked the planed lines of his lover's body, breathed in the scent of sweat and arousal, he marveled at the immediacy of the clarity he'd been searching for his whole life. Somehow it didn't even strike him as unfair that he should only start to understand it _now._ Understanding at all was something he'd never believed himself capable of.

He wasn't quite sure of just _what_ he was understanding, but he knew it was profound.

Bobby's left hand tangled in his hair as Remy nibbled his way down the fit body. His lover had never bulked up tremendously, but his build was more compact than Remy's and carried the weight more densely. He'd been conditioned over these past months -- pushed himself more than Remy'd ever seen him push himself before -- and his body reflected it.

Remy took Bobby in his mouth, slowly, ears attuned to the barely verbal responses he drew out of the other man. Just a taste, a touch, a silk-smooth warm caress with lips and tongue, and Bobby's breath exploded. Another stroke, fingers tickling lower still, and his lover arched up with a cry and nearly gagged him.

("Bobby's fitness level has risen tremendously in the past few months," Scott said, unaware of the lurker just outside of the War Room who overheard the conversation to Muir. "And I can't imagine how he's gotten so flexible.")

Remy nearly choked again, this time for a far different reason. He did _not_ need to be thinking of Scott Summers while making love to Bobby. Some things simply... didn't belong. _Ever._

A breathless, "Remy," and beckoning fingers opening and closing convulsively. He ignored them for the moment, mouth and hands already quite busy. Bobby shuddered again, groaning. How many nights had heard _that_ sound since that first night? How many times had one or the other of them gasped or cried out or moaned in appreciation for the other's efforts? How many nights...

... how many nights would it not happen again...?

His own breath caught with something more complex than desire and he scooted up Bobby's length a bit, ever so briefly dropping his forehead to rest against the heaving chest. If he truly believed in God he thought he might take a moment now to pray -- to say, 'I can't, I can't, please help me, please,' not knowing exactly what he meant by the words but meaning them regardless. I can't. I can't. Please help me.

Please.

Fingers slid into his hair, caressing, then the other arm was over his shoulders, holding him there, holding him _there,_ as Bobby shifted, stilled a tremble, slowed his breathing as if ready to ignore desire and end it all here and just hold him, he could let go... but he didn't want that, no thoughts now, no words even unspoken. He stroked the hardness pressing against his side and turned his pause into a leisurely tongue exploration of Bobby's skin. Stay in the moment. Cherish this. Make this time count. That was what he could do right now.

Bobby's left hand left his hair and caught at his arm, pulling, and Remy slid up to meet the request, as breathless in the kiss as the other man. The hand vanished, crept lower and surprised Remy with a caress just where he needed no more encouragement. He caught a shallow breath and held it, reaching down, catching the hand and pulling it to his lips for a quick kiss.

Bobby curled his fingers around Remy's and brushed them alongside the unshaven face, and Remy thought he felt his heart either swell or break, or maybe both.

Eyes still full of that trust-longing-other, Bobby lifted his head from the pillow to kiss him again, then started to shift to turn over. Remy put a hand to his chest and nudged him back down. The smooth brow bunched slightly in question. "But..."

"I wan' see y' face," Remy murmured. "A'right?"

A slow nod with blue eyes luminous in the dark. Remarkable eyes. So plainly human, and yet somehow still he found himself drowning in their depths. Especially now, especially knowing... knowing that...

~Not now,~ something deep in his mind decided firmly. ~Not now.~ Now was for something else...

And then...

~Mon dieu...~

Sound and sight and _feel,_ all together, joined in some single overwhelming sense that fit no one name except

~Bobby.~

Sweat and heat, and Cajun French breathed in a rhythm with moving bodies. Bobby'd asked him once what he said when he spoke that way, and Remy had grinned his most charming grin and said that a guy had as much right to his secrets as a woman, didn't he? Which was just his way of avoiding the fact that there were some things he was ready to _say_ that he wasn't quite ready to have _heard._ Some things that just... just...

God, the warmth, the warmth everywhere... in his loins, in his mind, in his chest, in his... heart...

Everywhere.

Some timeless eternity later found Remy slowly easing an arm out from beneath his lover's shoulders, ears attuned to the level breathing and listening for any hitch. Bobby slept the sleep of the sated, and the innocent. The Cajun had been slipping out on both for longer than he'd been calling himself 'Gambit.'

... even if he wanted nothing more than to lay his head back down on that smooth chest, grip arms around Bobby's waist, and hold on as tightly as he possibly could, not letting go, _not_ letting go... holding on tight and saying goodbye all at once...

He made himself don clothing with quick motions, denying instinct its gratification and not permitting so much as a look back at the quiet form on the bed as he dressed. There would be much to explain later, but still riding that wave of almost-euphoria, he didn't even dread it.

Before he left he stopped to breathe the lightest of kisses over the hair-shadowed forehead. "Je t'aime," he whispered too quietly to wake the other. "Don' ever doubt that."

Bobby's lips curved, but he didn't wake, and Remy made no noise at all as he slipped out.

***

He didn't plan on sitting. He didn't even plan on pausing for long, really, since this announcement shouldn't take more than a minute at most. Less than that. It wouldn't go over well, but it didn't have to. Henri didn't have to _like_ any of this any more than Remy did, but he had to accept it.

As Remy had.

Henri turned his full attention on him as soon as Remy pushed open the double doors and walked into the lab. He was alone this time, Dr. Niles gone for parts unknown, and he looked haggard and unkempt. "Good morning, Remy."

"Mornin'."

Henri gestured to the mismatched couch and chair in the corner. "Have a seat."

"Non."

A quick look, sharp. Very sharp for six AM. "Pardon?"

"Non." He cleared his throat, then carefully smoothed his voice into unaccented English. They took him more seriously when he minimized the accent. "I'm not sitting. Or staying. I just came down here to tell you that I won't be taking the treatments you offered."

Henri didn't move for a whole minute. Remy watched the seconds tick by on the large clock on the far wall. He couldn't read the spectacled blue eyes, but that didn't change his resolve. Silence wouldn't sway him.

The doctor walked a few steps, seeming uncharacteristically flatfooted, and turned with an abrupt, graceless motion to lean up against the central table. "Why don't you explain why," he invited in a voice that held no question.

Remy kept his voice low and clear, calm and steady. "You won't understand this. I don't think someone like you _can._ You're too..." A small smile. "... too much of a decent man."

"Forgive me for not seeing just what your opinion of my decency has to do with your decision to refuse treatment."

No, this wouldn't go well at all. Remy lost the smile. "You told me you didn't know how I survived. Down there." He almost shivered with the word. "Antarctica. Remember that?"

"Of course. The conditions were extreme and you weren't equipped. Your survival under those circumstances is as close to a miracle as anything I've witnessed."

"What if it was a mistake?"

Henri's eyes narrowed slightly. "I believe I just misheard you, Gambit."

Remy gestured expansively, wishing there was a way to convey exactly what was in his mind... all that confusion and the giddy thrill of discovery. "Seems to me that whatever's up there or out there is trying to balance the scales. To fix a problem." He took a breath, shallow enough not to call on that deep cough, and rushed the rest out. "I wanted that trial, Henri, an' I wanted to... pay for what happened. And I didn't pay. Not like _they_ did. It's not right, an' I'm thinking it was just an... oversight. And I was _supposed_ to die."

Then he stopped and caught his breath back, watching carefully. Somehow those words hadn't sounded as... reasonable... as they'd sounded earlier in his head. And he didn't think he'd conveyed the understanding he wanted to convey at _all._

The blue eyes held his for another minute -- also counted by the slow ticking of the clock -- and then, as if Henri timed it precisely, he reached up at the minute mark and pulled his glasses from his face, dropping them in dexterous furred hands to be polished against his lab coat. "Tell me something."

"What?"

The voice was tight... sounded very angry. "Have you enlightened Bobby with this... discovery of yours?"

Remy looked away. Dropped his voice a little, half- consciously. "He ain' ready t' hear it." He barely noticed how easily his accent had crept back in. "I know it's gon' be hard on him... but..."

"'But'?"

This wasn't going anything like what he'd planned. He should already be gone, not standing here _discussing_ this. And where was that surety going, that comfort in his decision? It was here just a second ago... just a heartbeat, really...

His throat was suspiciously tight when he made himself look back to Henri. "It'd be a lot harder f' him t' watch... t' watch it happen slow."

Where had _that_ come from?

Henri didn't put the glasses back on. Didn't move away from the table. "You've become an expert on cancer in the past twelve hours, then? I must say, I'm _astounded_ that you've managed to compress twelve years of education into that many mere _hours_! Most impressive, Gambit. For your next trick why don't you make the Statue of Liberty disappear?"

Remy swore harshly enough to almost set off his fickle lungs, then had to stand there under those furious eyes for long seconds while he fought for composure. That wasn't just _anger_ in that tone, no; that was _disgust_ there, twisting it, making the normally melodic baritone vicious.

His surety in his decision was fading so quickly that not even a ghostly afterimage tickled his mind in parting.

"I heard what Dr. Niles said," he rasped when he was able. "Bad odds, Henri."

"You're the gambler." Coldly. "It was my impression that you _liked_ bad odds. 'Makes the pot sweeter' -- isn't that what you said?"

Somehow he kept himself from snapping at that. "Y' wan' cut out my _lung._ Pump me fulla _poison._"

"At this stage we don't even know if any of that would do you any good," Henri said bluntly. "We have more testing to do to discover if it's even operable." Slowly he put the glasses back on. "Don't you even want to _know_?"

He made a desperate last grab for that certainty that this was only justice. "Maybe I ain' meant to. Maybe this is the universe settin' t'ings t' right."

A glint of a fang between blue lips. "Oh, I see. And the universe just happened to decide to punish Bobby the same time it caught up to you."

"That ain'--"

"Because that's how he'll see it, if he hears you speaking this infantile rubbish. He's barely beginning to accept that being a homosexual doesn't mean that he's a freak or damned, and now you wish to tell him that some higher power -- God, as it were -- is actively punishing _you_ for past crimes. What on Earth do you _expect_ him to think about that, particularly when he sees that you've chosen not to fight? What's more natural at that point than the assumption that _he_ is likewise being punished? And tell me... just what does Bobby have on his conscience that he feels is perhaps worthy of condemnation other than the societal prejudice he was instilled with regarding his own orientation?" Henri crossed his arms over that thick chest and paused as if honestly waiting for an answer, then continued without letting there be one. "I suppose everyone who has been afflicted with a severe illness such as this is also being justly punished by higher powers. Let's look at Legacy, shall we? I'm sure that Jamie Madrox was a truly deplorable person. Certainly he hurt enough people in battle to deserve that manner of death. What about Moira? She had a son who killed people. Perhaps she's damned for that? We'll ignore for now the fact that she's given more to this world, unselfishly, than almost anyone either one of us could name. I'm certain that _she_ deserves this punishment, indubitably." His voice went glacial. "In fact, only little Illyana could have deserved it more."

"Va te faire foudre," Remy spat. "Don' try t' turn this into--"

"_You,_" Henri said, firmly enough to override him, "began this. I'm merely following it through to its logical conclusions."

Other than more profanity, Remy couldn't think of anything to say.

And after a moment Henri continued with a marginally less biting tone. "You have lung cancer because you smoked cigarettes every day for most of your life. Not because of some divine punishment. Not because of a nebulous 'balance' the universe maintains in each of our lives. You smoked. You got cancer." Another step down in tone, eyes gentling just a bit. "Sometimes it really is that simple, Remy."

You smoked.

You got cancer.

That simple.

His feet suddenly didn't want to hold him. Rather than letting himself collapse ignobly right where he was he somehow made himself walk the interminably long three yards to the stool by the nearest bed, and he sank to it with a not-quite-steady motion. Just sat and stared blindly at nothing.

A whisper of bare, furred feet over the floor. They sounded like slippers, those feet. Henri pulled another stool around and sat a few steps from him, wordless.

Eventually Remy asked quietly, "Y' t'ink I got a chance?"

"I don't have an answer to that yet." Always honest with him, Henri. He could at least count on that much. "That's what the tests will tell us."

_I don't want to die,_ he wanted to say. But there wasn't much point in saying that, was there? Instead he asked, "When... y'know... when do we get started?"

There was a pause, then an indrawn breath. "I'd like to get some blood, and another sputum sample. Then..." A hand was suddenly on his shoulder, and Remy looked up into eyes that held no hint of the anger of minutes earlier. "How much have you slept in the past few days?"

"I don' know..." He made himself think about it. "Few hours. I--" He stopped himself. Henri already knew about the... panic attacks. "I guess I'm a li'l tired."

"Yes, that's what we in the scientific community call 'a big fat lie.' I'm afraid that's not even worthy of the slightly less stigmatic label of 'understatement.'"

It wasn't enough to bring a smile. "But y' said we can do these tests, neh?"

Henri didn't comment on how willingly he changed his focus one hundred and eighty degrees. "I need blood, and I need you to cough for me. Then you will get some sleep if I have to knock you out to inspire it."

"But--"

"This afternoon we'll begin." The hand squeezed his shoulder, once. "But first, sleep. I can't overemphasize how important that is."

He couldn't hold that gaze any longer. With a sigh and a nod he dropped his eyes to the floor again. "D'accord."

"I'll ask you this one time, and one time only: Are you through playing games?"

His eyes closed and he nodded again. "Oui."

Another squeeze and the hand slid away. "Good." Gently. "I know this can't possibly be easy, Remy." And rather than waiting for a senseless answer of agreement, he stood and went about gathering what supplies he needed.

_You smoked. You got cancer. Sometimes it really is that simple._

He breathed too deeply and his chest seized up. The coughs hit him hard, robbing him of breath, tearing his chest, tasting foul.

Sometimes it was that simple.

***

Hank met Bobby just outside the medlab doors, having been warned in advance by the ping of the elevator. Bobby's feet were bare, his hair mussed, and he wore only hastily drawn on jeans. Those normally quick, bright blue eyes stared out between red-rimmed and puffy lids set in a sleep-lined face. He looked anxious and tired all at once, like he'd cried himself to sleep and woken to find that the world had gone wrong somewhere. Or stayed wrong, stubbornly refusing to go back to normal when the sun rose.

Even in this midst of his hurry he calmed when he saw Hank. "Is he down here?"

"Yes." Hank waited patiently while Bobby stepped forward to peer through the windows on the medlab doors. Remy was already asleep in there; he'd dropped off nearly the moment his head had hit the pillow, letting three days of near sleeplessness catch up with him all at once. And as for any other concerns Bobby might have had...

"Blankets," Bobby said quietly. "You put them on?"

"Yes."

Bobby took a breath. "He gets cold real easy. He won't admit it, but he does."

"I'm aware of that."

A restless brush of a hand through slightly longish brown hair. "I woke up and he was gone. I didn't know where he went."

"He... wanted to come down to talk about the procedures we'll be doing." All true. "We'll begin this afternoon."

Bobby didn't even look at him. "Earlier he was so... he was..." A pause. "I thought he might be planning something stupid."

"He's not, Bobby." Not now, at any rate. "But he needs sleep right now more than anything."

"Yeah." Eyes flicked to his, then back to the windows. "He doesn't look bad, does he? I mean, he doesn't look sick."

Hank put an arm around the other's shoulders and started to steer him away. "Come on, Bobby. Allow him his rest. Maintaining his general health is the most vital thing right now."

"But he doesn't. He looks fine." He let himself be guided, but his head was still turned back toward those windows. "I just don't get... how he can be sick."

"His general overall health is misleading, I'm afraid. It made it far too easy for the symptoms to be overlooked." This wasn't a direction that would be particularly helpful, Hank decided abruptly. "I imagine you'd like to discuss our next step...?"

Finally Bobby let his reddened eyes come back around, nodded and looked ahead of them instead of behind as Hank motioned him into a waiting room. Bobby took a corner of the neutral beige couch. With an eye to comfort Henry sat down beside him rather than across from him. Clinical detachment would only frighten his friend more.

The blue eyes were still distracted, but fixed on him readily enough. "You said last night that there were more tests you had to do. Before you'd... know."

Everyone always wanted it to be so simple. Easy answers, everything laid out, the problems clearly defined so that coping could begin. Hank only wished he had some way of making that happen now. To just be able to say, 'Yes, he'll live, but he must undergo _this_ treatment,' or even, 'I'm sorry... there's no chance' -- allowing them the opportunity to _know_ how much time they had. It was this uncertainty, this fear-hope-confusion-dread, that made the process so anguishing.

"I'll be doing a CT-scan this afternoon," he said, losing himself in the details of what he _could_ accomplish instead of musing over what he couldn't. "Marcus was able to pinpoint what appears to be a growth on the X-rays. Now we need to get a more detailed image of its exact size and location. The scan will supply that as well as showing us whether or not there are other growths the X-ray hasn't revealed and then, using that information, we can conduct a biopsy." He'd explained this to Bobby earlier but wasn't entirely sure of just how much had actually reached through the haze of shock.

Bobby blinked a few times, visibly making himself focus. "Right. And the biopsy is for... what'd you say it was for?"

"It will tell us what type of cells any abnormalities the CT-scan reveals consist of. It's necessary to allow us to be certain of what we're dealing with. We were able to isolate the reactive cells when we ran the cytology on the sputum sample, but that doesn't necessarily connect _those_ cells with the mass seen on the X-rays."

"'Abnormalities,'" Bobby echoed distantly. "You mean the... c-cancer."

Hank nodded and wondered how long it would be before Bobby would be able to say that word without his voice threatening to break. "That's correct. What we do from that point will depend on what we find in the biopsy."

"When will you... the biopsy? This afternoon?"

"Tomorrow morning. Marcus will be arriving at seven."

A short nod, almost composed now. "And after that?"

"... A lot depends on the results of the biopsy."

"Hank..." Just his name in a level voice, but there was no mistaking the pleading in those eyes. Bobby was managing by dint of some heretofore-unseen self-control to keep his expression almost unreadable.

Almost.

Well. He might as well have some idea of the possibilities now. "If the biopsy tells us what we believe it will tell us, the next step will be a relatively minor surgical procedure to test whether or not the cancer has entered his lymphatic system."

"What does that mean?"

"Well, it will tell us if the cancer has metastasized." He explained that before Bobby could ask: "If it's spread beyond the localized area, which in this case would first be detectable in his lymph nodes."

"And if it has?"

"If it has..." He hesitated. It was early, and they really didn't know much yet. Perhaps too early to put forth such a grim possibility.

Probability. Nine out of ten adenocarcinomas didn't show symptoms until after metastasis. Marcus had commented that if the abnormality he'd noted was the cancer growth it was unusually central for its type, more likely to trigger symptoms early, but nevertheless -- there still remained a ninety-percent chance that Remy's cancer had already spread. And if that were the case...

If that were the case, Bobby had a right to know about the ramifications ahead of time. "If it has, we begin looking for signs of cancer cells throughout the body, primarily in the liver or brain. Adenocarcinoma is usually... an aggressive form of cancer. If it has gone systemic it will probably move quickly. And if that's the case... there isn't much we can do. Pain management, mostly. Perhaps we could give him a little more time with radiation or chemotherapy..."

Bobby's throat bobbed on a hard swallow. "More time before... before he dies."

There was no point in circling it. "Yes." No point in dwelling on it yet, either. "But it's far too early to look at that as the only possibility, Robert. We may discover tomorrow that surgery will be a viable option."

"You said you might..." He paused long enough that Hank almost spoke into the silence, then continued just before the words would have come. "You might cut out his... his lung."

"It's a possibility. Another is that we'd have to perform a lobectomy -- ah, removing just a portion of the lung. I wouldn't worry so much about that... we humans generally don't use nearly our full lung capacity, so with a little training and practice he should be able to recover quite comfortably."

"But he could never... I mean, he wouldn't be..." Hank barely held that gaze, those desperate eyes. "He _hates_ being sick. And not being able to be active, he just wouldn't--"

"Stop." Bobby stopped. "Listen to me." He at least _looked_ as if he were listening... "I do not have all the answers. No one-- _no one_ does. We could go in tomorrow and discover that there's absolutely nothing we can do." A sheen of moisture sprang instantly to the eyes holding his own so intently, but nothing fell. "We may also go in and find that a lobectomy could facilitate a remarkable recovery. We _don't know._" Bobby blinked, too rapidly, and Hank reached out to rest a furred hand over the uninjured smooth one. "I would love nothing more than to be able to give you a straight answer, Bobby. Any sort of answer. But I'm sorry to say that all I can do is explain each phase as well as I am able."

An unsteady nod that was so far from real comprehension at this stage that Hank felt a pang for him. "That guy that was here... Dr. Niles...?"

"He's the best oncologist in the state. Perhaps even in the country."

Bobby nodded again, breathing out a little shuddering breath, and pulled his hand free gently to rub it over his eyes. For a long moment he just left his hand there pinching at his forehead as if to ease an ache somewhere inside.

Then he dropped his hand and turned to lean back, the top of his head just bumping the wall over the sofa, staring at the utilitarian light fixture. After a moment of the heavy silence Hank stood, intending to give him his space, let him digest this information in his own way.

"Wait."

"Yes, Bobby?"

He didn't look away from the light. Kept staring, and suddenly Henry noticed that his eyes were... shining? Not with damp moisture, but...

Frozen.

And he didn't blink anymore when he cleared his throat and said, "I'd like to know... what you're gonna be doing. Details. When and, and how and why. I wanna know everything you can tell me right now."

~Oh, Bobby.~ He closed his eyes briefly behind their spectacles, then opened them and slowly sat back down. Across from the couch. And waited until the frozen eyes looked at him.

"Not like that, Robert," he murmured. "You know the danger of a partial transformation for any length of time."

"I'm okay like this."

"No." ~I'm so sorry, my friend.~ He had to have enough faith in Bobby to believe he could handle this, though. No matter the findings of the biopsy, he knew that it would get much--

--_much_--

--harder before it was over. He couldn't encourage Bobby to start removing himself, one little step at a time. His friend would never last that way; not on this long road.

"I will answer every question you may have, but not while you're like that."

Bobby stared at him with those glassy eyes for a few seconds that felt much longer, then nodded once. The ice receded without fanfare and left two blinking blues in its wake.

"Thank you," Hank said softly. Those eyes were warming, tearing up already, but he found the tears easier to gaze at than the other. "Now... what do you want to know, Bobby?"

Another blink, sending a few unselfconscious drops down unshaven cheeks. "Everything," he said simply.

Hank settled himself more comfortably and prepared for a long morning.

***

Time. Tripped. By.

Bobby'd been staring at the clock for exactly seven minutes and twenty-four seconds. It fuzzed out every fifteen seconds or so when his gaze went unfocused, but he quickly narrowed his eyes and brought the picture back clearly. If Time insisted on traveling so _slowly_ then it would have to contend with his scrutiny.

It sounded stupid to him even as tired as he was, but he found comfort in his inane distractions. Before this had come counting how many times the letter 'e' was used in an article in Newsweek magazine. For all that he'd been trained as a number-cruncher, though, he'd lost count somewhere around three hundred and nine. Before that was an attempt to estimate how many small glass pebbles were in the bottom of a very fake floral arrangement that graced the waiting room table. He'd poured the thing out finally and counted them up, one by one, and took no particular pleasure in noticing that his guess of four hundred twenty-eight was only off by fifteen. Before _that_ he'd closed his eyes and focused on his heartbeat for a while in a futile attempt to lull himself into a snooze. Before _that_ he'd paced an ordered little path back and forth, back and forth, until he was fairly sure that he'd worn a patch of carpet down to threads, though he hadn't bothered to check. Before _that_...

Well. It had been a long hour. Long enough for him to realize that most of his mind-absorbing distractions featured meaningless numbers, which made him wonder why he hadn't been more successful as an accountant.

Nine minutes, two seconds.

It wasn't fair. It really, really wasn't fair. One minute Time was racing along merrily, dragging him by the scruff and not giving him a chance to even get his feet beneath him, and the next it... stopped. Paused. Held still and breathless, keeping him _waiting_ in this room for more hours in the past few days than he wanted to remember. Hurry up and--! Sit here. Rush-rush-rush and--! Relax. Take a breather. Watch the Country Music Channel.

No. It definitely wasn't fair.

He could be watching the 'procedure.' The 'operation.' The thing they described by nice detached words that didn't say what really happened. He'd sat -- well, stood -- in the observation room for the biopsy, cringing internally, heart pounding as that needle was guided by unfeeling machinery down, down, down... denting the flesh of Remy's back, piercing, penetrating, traveling through him down into the 'abnormality' in the lung... And he'd stood in there for the longer hours the next day while Dr. Niles made an incision just below a collarbone Bobby loved to kiss, watching the calmly professional doctor pass a snaky metal _thing_ into the cut, guiding it beneath flesh down Remy's torso until it gathered the evidence it needed to indicate that the cancer had not, thank god, spread to the lymph nodes. That was the moment the question was answered; there was the instant when they found out that Remy actually had a _chance._

He'd stood in there this morning, hardly noticing the voices of friends who'd tried to offer support that he didn't know how to accept, and he'd tried not to go pale when he saw what they were doing, saw how the motionless man was laid on his side, saw the blood from the incisions, saw the thing they used to spread the ribs, _Remy's_ ribs, apart, saw...

Ten minutes, forty-three seconds. He stood and started pacing again.

A lobectomy. Doctor-speak for "we're gonna cut out a piece of his lung and we're not putting it back, but don't worry, he'll be fine, unless he dies on the table or the disease is more widespread than we think in which case he won't, but you probably shouldn't worry too much about that, he's really healthy except for this whole deadly cancer-thing, so don't get yourself in a tizzy, Bobby, just sit down and smile and drink coffee or take a nap and this'll all be over in just a few hours, honest, really, there's a lad."

Okay, so that wasn't _exactly_ what Hank and Dr. Niles had said... but it was definitely the gist of it.

They'd been in there so _long._ Bobby's nerves had driven Jean out early on, her pretty face pinched with the pain of the headache he'd inadvertently caused. Scott hadn't lasted anywhere near as long as she had; his personality didn't bear up well under the constant fidgeting, and Bobby hadn't been able to force himself to listen to a word the leader said. Rogue had put in her appearance, then quietly left. Logan hadn't even poked his nose in. By now he was down to Sam Guthrie, who'd thus far survived by simply being quiet and remembering many short errands that got him out of the room frequently.

Bobby tried to appreciate their support. He really did. But it was so hard to divide his attention between their well-meaning words and the realization that everything - hinged - on - this. What the hell did the quiet assurances of "it'll be okay" mean against _that_ knowledge? How could _anything_ be "okay" until Hank marched his furry blue butt down here and walked in and looked at him and _said_ it was all "okay"? For all the years that Bobby had uttered those same reassurances, he'd never before truly realized how completely shallow and meaningless they felt from the other end.

And Time just kept dragging...

***

The blue furred face was either the most wonderful or the most terrible thing Bobby thought he'd ever seen, and it all depended on what words he was about to hear rumbled out in that baritone voice.

Hank smiled tiredly, but it looked (please-god-let-it- be) genuine. "We're through. It went well."

Bobby just blinked at him, not quite sure he understood. "He's okay...?"

A nod. The doctor clasped his shoulder. "He's in the recovery room. The operation went... resoundingly well, actually."

Tears tried to fall, then forgot to and just stayed quivering and ready. He couldn't pull his gaze away from his friend's tired, spectacled eyes. It wasn't possible. The nightmare couldn't be over so quickly. It couldn't be true that he could stop _fearing_ now, that these feverish four days were _finished_...

"Is he... better? I mean, what's it...?" Don't dare to hope don't dare to hope don't dare...

"We're going to start him on chemotherapy as soon as he's recovered enough from the surgery to withstand it, as I explained to you," Hank elaborated, taking a seat on the overstuffed couch and motioning Bobby to sit across from him. "But for now..." He smiled more broadly. "Marcus is guardedly optimistic."

Bobby sank down to a chair, feeling as if his legs had turned to Jell-O. "He... he's okay. He's really okay." He fixed Hank with a dazed look. "Really?"

"It's a little early to say that there won't be any further complications," Hank cautioned, "and we do still have much to do before we can say he's safely in the clear... but it looks auspicious at the moment."

With a breath that wanted to catch in his throat Bobby tipped his head back and closed his grainy eyes very briefly. All the apprehension of the past days and nights... all the desperate searching for some guarantee that it would be _all right_... and now Hank had done it. He'd given Bobby the miracle.

~Thank you,~ he thought; at Hank or at something bigger, he wasn't sure. ~I promise to never again put Insta-Curl in Hank's shampoo, or say the 'G-D' word, or make fun of televangelists, or... or...~ It didn't matter. None of that mattered. Only-- ~_Thank you._~

Hank was waiting patiently, and when Bobby finally opened his eyes the blue lips were again stretched in that quiet smile. Bobby swallowed hard and returned the expression more stiffly. "Can I see him...?"

"Of course." The doctor stood in a shush of fur and lab coat. "I believe you know the way..."

Hank watched as Bobby quickly gained his feet and hurried out, to all appearances intent on being there when Remy awakened. His younger friend had so far risen to face these trying circumstances with the fortitude Henry had always believed was hidden behind the mischievous grin. It was encouraging, that determination. Heartening. If Bobby's resolution had faltered in these past four days then the coming months would have looked very bleak indeed.

They were going to be _long_ months, but for the moment at least it was appearing as if Bobby would be able to bear up under them. Hank mused on that briefly, finding reassurance there, as he headed more composedly for the recovery room.

***

No one had remembered to mention the coughing.

Remy counted that as a relatively small offense in the larger scheme of things, but when it was coupled with the wide assortment of other small offenses it came to carry a bit more weight. They hadn't remembered to mention the coughing and they'd let the fact that he'd have to practice 'deep breathing' twice a day slip their minds. Neither of these things were comfortable. Neither made him a particularly happy Cajun.

'The cilia in your lungs that you destroyed by smoking are growing back,' Henri had informed him matter-of-factly; almost cheerfully. 'They aid in a process that transfers mucus up along the walls of your lungs to your throat, where you then swallow the mucus down your esophagus as your body's way of disposing of it. Smoking destroys the cilia, so now that the hairs are growing back you've got mucus with smoke byproducts -- tar, for example -- that's been trapped in the bottom of your lungs for years being brought up, thus the sooty color. It will pass in time.'

Remy rather thought that he didn't really want to know that. Any of it. Ever.

Now he was supposed to be 'taking it easy.' Three weeks after the lobectomy he was still shaky on his feet, knocked to his ass by a bad enough cough. Dr. Niles had said that they wouldn't be starting chemotherapy until after he was comfortably back on his feet, which was _almost_ enough encouragement to stay in bed longer... but the enforced idleness was driving him to new extremes of mentally climbing the walls. Being the sort to always be on the go, he'd never really noticed just how many hours got inconsiderately crammed into each and every day.

And as much as he appreciated Jean and the support she'd offered for his relationship with Bobby, he thought he might very well tear her a figurative new hole the next time she gave him that encouraging smile and said, 'You're really doing so _well._'

He sighed now, forcibly deep to exercise his diminished lung capacity, and focused on what he'd been doing for the past fifteen minutes -- walking the hall.

This never used to be so exhausting.

Warren, thank whatever watched over thieves and rascals, wasn't an issue at the moment. Not only had he and Betsy not been staying at the mansion, but now he'd been summoned overseas for 'business interests' that needed his personal attention. Elizabeth herself had yet to show any intention to return to action now that her telepathy was defunct. It had come as no surprise to hear that she'd accompanied Warren to Europe; Remy had gathered that she was showing increasing interest in the running of Worthington Enterprises.

Heh. Maybe the unpredictable lady would go vicious-bitch on Warren, insinuate herself into his finances, then overthrow him and keep the fortune for herself. Though he didn't particularly like Elizabeth, Remy couldn't deny that he found a certain appeal in that thought...

At the top of his current avoid-if-at-all-possible list, Rogue was showing an uncomfortable amount of interest in his health. He was never sure how to respond to her less-than-tentative overtures of 'friendship.' What had gone wrong between them still rested solidly on his shoulders, he knew that, but that didn't erase the edginess he felt in her presence. The awareness of his current... vulnerability... doubled when she entered the room. Tripled, even. He recognized it as a subconscious reaction, out of his immediate control, but still battled with it whenever it made itself obvious. He didn't want to be a slave to memories of past mistakes.

Scott was distantly supportive, though he was clearly not planning to get involved in Remy's treatment any more than he had to, which suited the Cajun just fine. None of these people were particularly 'friends'; the time when he would've given them that label had pretty much gone the way of the dinosaurs and didn't look any more likely to return.

He chose to ignore the creatures currently living in the Savage Land. They ruined his analogy.

Sam Guthrie was busily falling into his role of trying to fill the gap left by both Remy _and_ Bobby taking leave time from active duty. The kid was running himself ragged with a cheerful smile. Bobby admitted in his more uncomfortable moments that Sam's example was enough to have him more than a little ashamed of his past history of underachievement. Remy didn't have the energy to blunt the edge of that self-castigation these days. In what he considered his more selfish moments he found himself simply hoping that they'd pass with time.

Then there was Logan. Logan, who was the only person in the mansion who treated him almost exactly the same as he had previously. The Canadian never went out of his way to ask how Remy was feeling or knocked on his door when he hacked and wheezed and groaned and generally felt impossibly sorry for himself in between his bouts of resolution to get himself back to full functionality as quickly as possible. Logan hadn't said a single uncharacteristically nice word to him in all this time, and Remy wouldn't have it any other way.

It would be less tortuous to him, though, if the man would obey Henri's orders and quit smoking.

Smoking. Remy _missed_ smoking. He longed daily for that feeling of scratchy warmth, filling roughness. It didn't matter that he was living through one of those horrible commercials they put out to keep kids from picking up the habit; he _still_ wanted a cigarette first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

He didn't have the breath to spare to sigh as he slowly paced the empty hall, but he felt the sentiment fully.

When his breath gained the warning rattle loudly enough that he couldn't ignore it he forced himself to slow, heading straight for the room. Anytime he pushed it did this. In a moment his chest would seize up, his throat would constrict, and he would--

He'd _almost_ made it to the room when his fragile control over his lungs fractured and the agonizing coughs hit. The lightning stabs of pain stretched all the way from muscles along his ribcage, still recovering from the surgery, to the very top of his skull, which seemed to want to pound merely for the pounding. He gritted his teeth, fumbled his door open, and walked/fell through gracelessly.

~A'most twenty minutes,~ he thought with satisfaction that wasn't entirely occluded by the pain. Four days ago it'd been barely over half that. Measurable improvement. It somehow made the coming months less daunting.

He clutched the edge of the dresser and fought the clawing, tearing, damp coughs grimly.

The door opened -- he saw the motion out of peripheral vision -- and then almost immediately there were hands on him; left at his back, brace- wearing right half-clutching at his tense biceps muscle. "What are you doing up? You should be in bed... easy, breathe shallow..."

It made him struggle harder to control himself. After a too-long space of minutes he was slowly able to quiet the coughs, standing with his eyes closed and still holding tightly to the dresser. Bobby's worried murmurs hadn't stopped.

When he could speak again he said, "'m fine. Leggo."

Bobby didn't seem to hear him. "C'mon. You should rest."

"Non, I--" He forced himself to slow when his throat gave a warning squeeze. "Non. I ain' gettin' better by spendin' all my days in bed." He shrugged roughly. "Let _go._"

Expression bordering dangerously on shattered/scared/oh-no-don't-be-mad-at-me, Bobby let go and took a very small step away. "... Okay. ... Are you gonna lie down?"

"Tu ne m'aide pas..." he all but growled, voice strangled still. "Y' wan' keep me in this room f' the rest a my life?"

"No!"

"Then I gotta walk--" He had to pause to catch his breath. "--don' I?" For once he didn't feel up to taking the time to soothe Bobby's ruffled feathers, either. "Jus' gimme some _respect_ here, Bobby. This is hard enough wit'out havin' t' fight you."

"... fight me...?"

Remy straightened and forced more breath down into his lungs. "I'm gettin' myself better so they can start poisonin' me that much sooner. I'm tired an' I'm hungry an' I don' _feel_ good, but I still got enough common sense t' decide when I need a 'nap.'" He scowled irritably at Bobby's outright-conflicted expression. "An' merde, _don'_ look at me like that right now."

Bobby blinked, stricken puppydog-eyed look chased away by the blank surprise on his face. Cleared his throat, opened his mouth as if he were going to speak, closed it and rubbed his left hand through his hair restlessly. "I... uh... then is there anything I... can... do? Anything?" There was almost a _wistful_ note in his voice. "There's gotta be _something_..."

"Y' can drop the solicitousness, f' starters," Remy informed him in a voice that he couldn't really claim was anything other than a grumble. "I don' like bein' _babied._"

"... okay. Um." He tugged at his brown hair absently, briefly catching his lower lip between his teeth. "You're annoyed. Aren't you?"

Red-black eyes rolled in exasperation. "No, Bobby, I _always_ like t' hack an' wheeze an' tell my boyfriend t' buzz off."

"... oh. Um." He turned a little hesitantly and took an uncertain step for the door.

Now he was running? Remy felt the bite in his voice and was too tired and generally grumpy to restrain it. "Where y' goin'?"

A startled look. "You said... you're hungry, right? I thought you might want... something to eat..."

It was Remy's turn to blink. "... Oh." Well. That was... thoughtful.

Of course it was thoughtful. When Bobby wasn't hovering anxiously, all but begging for something to do, he was _always_ thoughtful. Which wasn't always the same as helpful.

But it was rather difficult to stay mad at someone who'd been all but waiting on him hand and foot, completely absorbed in his well-being, for nearly three weeks. No... counting those nights of the panic attacks, those arms in the dark, it was a good bit longer than three weeks.

Thank God the panic attacks at least were in the past. Henri had explained to him that in all likelihood they were a symptom of his body trying to tell him that something was wrong -- a subconscious defense mechanism. It sounded true enough, and they hadn't returned since he'd found out about the cancer, so...

So... Bobby was still staring at him, looking very much as if he expected another rebuke. Remy sighed silently and didn't let himself show how weary he was when he pushed away from the dresser and walked over to take him in a hug. Bobby hugged back, arms as tentative and gentle as they'd been since the surgery.

Then Bobby drew back, expression suddenly purposeful. "I'll go get food. You do whatever... whatever you need to do. I won't be long." Now that he had a Mission he was in a hurry to get started. He planted a quick kiss on Remy's lips and vanished through the door while Remy was still trying to think of what kind of food to ask for.

"Huh."

Well, there wasn't much he wouldn't eat. He shrugged, considered his respiration for a moment, then decided that he might as well walk himself into another coughing fit. Painful, yes, but the sooner this was over, the sooner the chemo would be over in the long run, and the sooner Remy could look back on all of this as a particularly ugly dream.

He took a breath, ran a hand through his hair to order it, and opened the door to begin again.

***

His forehead rested against the cold porcelain, which seemed to be trying to leach enough of his body heat to take on its own warmth. Given how long he'd been here, that probably wasn't going to happen if it hadn't already. Remy wasn't sure what the heat- exchange-rate was for flesh-to-toilet-rim -- it wasn't a mathematical problem he'd pondered often -- but it definitely wasn't an even trade. It seemed that he was getting _colder_ while the porcelain stayed cheerily chill.

~So get up, maudite idiot.~

He thought the words with some vehemence, just on principle, but there was no particular inclination to actually go about obeying their order. He'd been successfully not listening to them for nearly twenty minutes, though for about fifteen minutes before that he'd been too busy fighting with (and losing to) his upset stomach to think much of anything beyond ~not again not again oh shit again oh shit~ and the like.

This was getting to be almost routine.

He heard the not-quite-melodious singing moments before the door opened, and he jerked himself back from the toilet and fumbled for the flusher with one hand as he stumble-staggered to his feet. By the time Bobby's off-key tenor performance made its debut in the doorway Remy was spitting mouthwash into the sink and reaching for a towel to dry the face he'd just stuck beneath the running faucet for a few seconds.

"Remy!" Bobby called, singsong, obviously in an enviably good mood. "You in here?"

He caught a breath, finished toweling his face, and made his unsteady way to the bathroom door where the door frame itself was quite willing to offer him support. He found himself smiling despite his wooziness at the brightness of the face he was greeted with.

Bobby's grin seemed nearly unwilling to be bound by the stretch of lips. "You'll never guess what happened today," he said in something rushed enough to almost be a babble. "Try. Just try to guess. Try." He half-bounced, half-walked over and tipped his chin up to brush a kiss across Remy's unshaven cheek.

And then the exuberance faded abruptly. Bobby's left hand lifted to trace across his other cheek while concern darkened the sky blue of his eyes. "You're cold and clammy."

It took an effort for Remy to keep from rolling his eyes. He twisted the smile wryly instead. In the month since the surgery and the week since he'd started chemo Bobby had become quite the medical technician. Remy couldn't count the times he'd woken to find his lover tap-tap-tapping away at his computer keyboard late into the night, eyes endlessly scanning lines of text that covered everything from assorted brands of cancer to potential side effects of the kind of chemo Remy was undergoing to warning signs of recurrence of adenocarcinoma. A week into chemotherapy now, and hardly a day went by without the sweet-if-still-irritating observations about his health. 'You didn't sleep as much last night.' 'You threw up _twice_ this morning. _Twice._' 'The Oncology Newsletter said you can have all the clear Jell-O you want.' 'You're not, um, experiencing... what's it called... pyrexia, are you?' And worse.

At least his focus had all shifted toward encouraging as much activity as possible instead of restraining it. He'd caught on fast to that much.

Maintaining the smile, Remy caught the curious hand and kissed the back of it quickly before letting go. "Just splashed m' face. Stop worrying."

Bobby didn't look entirely convinced. "We could take your temperature..."

"Bobby. Cut it out." He was amazed at how patient he sounded. Then again, he'd always been fairly good at patience when it was needed to misdirect someone. He didn't like Bobby to play even belated witness to these periods of nausea. "What happened t'day t' get y' so excited?"

"Huh? Oh." That grin came back readily. Bobby twisted his fingers neatly and caught the hand Remy had caught his own with, swinging it a little. "I was at the grocery store, right? With Jean? 'Cause Scott made me?"

Scott consistently 'made' Bobby do many things these days. Sometimes it was the only way to get him out of the house, and totally coincidentally, out of the mother-henning role he kept falling into with Remy. "Right. Y' don' gotta make everyt'ing a question, Bobby."

A quick flush of embarrassment that didn't even dim the grin. "Sorry. Well anyway, I was at the store with Jean, and this guy comes up to us and says, just outta nowhere, 'Excuse me for being so forward' -- he said it just like this, I swear -- 'Excuse me for being so forward, but I couldn't help noticing your distinct physical _presence._ Would you consider modeling for me?'" The guilelessly charming face couldn't decide between pink and pure crimson. The grin, however, was firmly fixed. "Wanna know the funniest thing?"

Remy blinked. Bobby was still swinging his hand endlessly as though full of energy that needed the outlet. "Funniest thing?"

"He was talking," Bobby told him distinctly, "about _me._"

Remy blinked again.

"_Me,_" Bobby said again after a moment, grin fading into a slightly perplexed look. "That guy. He was talking about me instead of Jean. And using words like 'distinct physical presence.' About me."

Remy blinked again. "He was hittin' on you."

The smooth brow furrowed. "No. I mean, he was an _artist,_ right? He was just, y'know, wanting me for... art. 'Cause guys don't just walk up to you in a _grocery store_ and... and..." Something dawned in the baby blues, slowly. "I mean... they _don't,_ do they? Just walk up to you? In the grocery store? That wasn't in any of the books..."

"Did he say _nude_ modeling?"

Bobby shook his head dazedly. "No, but... but Jean _was_ awfully giggly afterwards..."

Remy realized distantly that he wasn't even thinking about his stomach anymore. "Y' never been hit on by a guy b'fore?" His lips twitched involuntarily. "Other than me?"

A quick cough and a flash of returning blush. "Um. No. No guy other than you." Another cough, and then Bobby was freeing his hand and walking over to sprawl with a thoughtful grunt across the lower half of the bed. "Huh. You really think he was hitting on me?"

Only Bobby could find doubt in this situation... "I t'ink if he'd been hittin' on y' any more he'd'a been down your pants."

"In the middle of the store??"

"Well he _wasn't,_ Bobby..." Suppressing the automatic sigh that wanted to go with the movement, he pushed away from the door frame and paced steadily to the bed, sitting with a bit more caution than Bobby had used. Maybe he wasn't quite as over the nausea as he'd thought. "What'd you say t' him?"

The head rolled and brown hair, growing longer now, fell untidily over Bobby's face. "I said something like, 'Um, sorry, I have somewhere to be.' Which means that if you're right I came off as a totally clueless jackass."

Remy tipped back slowly and tucked his hands behind his head, lying parallel on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He wasn't sure he liked the idea of another man hitting on Bobby. Especially not when he really wasn't feeling up to being proper competition most days. "What'd he say?"

"He didn't. Jean sorta glared at him and he said 'okay' and 'bye' and left. I thought she was, y'know, maybe a little jealous? She's the model and all..." He blinked a few times behind the hair. "Wow. I'd heard about 'Gaydar,' but this is the first time I've _seen_ it..."

"Read about it in one a y' books?" Let him say 'yes'... Remy didn't want to think what other part of Bobby's life he might've missed in recent weeks. Not that Bobby had particularly _had_ a life other than worrying over Remy, not that he'd seen, but now there was this whole area of Outside that Remy couldn't touch as easily as he had once, and he realized with a little jolt that Bobby still had a presence there. An independent Self.

An independent Self that was evidently attractive to other gay men.

"Yeah." A hand suddenly reached up and caught Remy's again. "God, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to run off with that. How're you feeling?"

How was he feeling? Uncharacteristically competitive, outclassed, and uninformed. None of those were particularly comfortable things for a thief to feel. He forced a smile and squeezed the hand in his, then released it. "Great." It wasn't a _big_ lie. And besides, he was beginning to think that he could use a little more _outward_ focus here. "Tell me more 'bout your day."

***

He hated watching this.

He hated the thought of Remy having to go through it alone even more, though, so he put on an attempt at a smile and pretended to be comfortable and tried very hard not to think about just _what_ was being pumped into his lover through the port into his chest.

Uncomfortable enough to look at, that. It had been a minor surgery, but the results were a constant reminder that no matter how well the lobectomy had gone, Remy's health was still a concern. Twin tubes ran out of the port that went into his chest. Hank handled the several-times-weekly administration of the chemotherapy, which was injected slowly through one or the other of those tubes and sent into the body to come out near the superior vena cavae. Chemotherapy, Dr. Niles had explained, was very hard on a person's veins: The least stressful way to introduce the chemicals into the body was to skip the smaller veins in the arms and go straight to the area around the heart.

Dangerous chemicals being fed almost directly into Remy's heart. Oh yeah. No problem.

These sessions took about an hour. Usually Jean would come join them, sitting and chatting amiably through the process as if she didn't notice that they were busily poisoning his lover. A few times Scott had.

Bobby preferred to have just the two of them. There was this look Remy got sometimes when they had an 'audience'... this wary, defensive bearing that he couldn't seem to help. Hank was Bobby's secret weapon in figuring out the confusing psychological variables that made up his lover, but even Hank's sensible explanations of Remy's fear of vulnerability didn't really help Bobby figure out how to ease that. What did he say? 'Don't worry, they don't bite'?

He rather thought that Remy would consider leaving him in Antarctica a little worse than biting.

Hank talked companionably through the awkward few minutes it took to set up the chemotherapy. Bobby joked back nervously. Remy was mostly silent. This was the second session of the treatment; the first had lasted two weeks and had been tolerated fairly well, and the two-week break in between had helped, but a few days into session two already had Remy sick. Hank and Dr. Niles said the same thing: It was a normal side effect, nothing to worry about. He was still holding up remarkably well under it all.

Bobby wondered where the cutoff point between "holding up remarkably well" and "we're gonna lose him" was.

~Stop that,~ he told himself sternly. ~He's fine most of the time.~

Remy had settled into the recliner that Jean had sent down here for just this purpose. As was becoming tradition for medlab furniture, it was hideous. Where Hank's chair in the corner was a particularly loud shade of blue and the sofa complementing it mingled more hues than a psychedelic rainbow, this cushiony thing was actually... fuchsia. Bobby had been horrified when he'd first seen it, thinking for a few seconds that Jean was making fun of them. Remy, however, had laughed until he'd clutched his chest in pain.

When exactly had Remy's sense of humor become better than his?

Bobby reclined on his sofa, feet up on the armrest, and flipped through a medical text that he thought he could use for weight-lifting exercises if he were so inclined. 'Dry reading' didn't _begin_ to describe it. He'd read worse, though. He'd survived getting a degree in _Accounting,_ and after that _this_ was a piece of cake.

Remy flipped through the newspaper, as casually interested as always in keeping up with current events. For a short while there was no sound but the almost inaudible hum of the machinery running the chemo, the soft rustle of papers turning and the comfortable sigh of slow, relaxed breathing.

When Rogue came in, the leisurely atmosphere became abruptly strained.

Remy greeted her with a nod and her name, sounding courteous, but Bobby didn't miss the way his eyes flickered to the IV-pole and the bag holding the chemicals that hung there.

"Howdy, boys," she said congenially enough. "Just thought I'd come keep ya company for a bit."

Reflexively Bobby glanced at the monitor set up to display Remy's pulse. It was a habit he'd acquired during the first two weeks of chemo, and in this latest round it had proven more enlightening. Maybe it was the chemicals, maybe it was the sickness caused by them, but something was making his partner jumpy on a regular basis.

From the climbing numbers displayed on the monitor, it looked as if Rogue's arrival definitely didn't help. His lover didn't show it, not on the surface, but her very presence raised his heartrate. The Cajun's jaw was set a little too hard, his smile a little too forced. No, this wasn't helping at all.

Which meant that it had to go. Or, more specifically, _she_ had to go. "Rogue," Bobby said as politely as he could manage. "Maybe that wouldn't be the best idea right now."

Remy shot him an openly surprised look. Bobby didn't often breach social protocol like that. He didn't particularly care if it was atypical, though, and just stared at her with pseudo-patience while waiting for her answer.

"I just wanted to talk t' Remy, sugar. Won't take but a minute." Her voice was still quite friendly as she settled casually into Hank's chair. Her eyes were uncompromising. "Actually, I was gonna ask if you would excuse us."

"He's not hurtin' anyt'ing by stayin'," Remy said quietly, folding the newspaper very precisely and setting it aside. "Leave be, Rogue."

"I need t' talk to you 'bout a few things. Private things, Remy."

Bobby's eyes flicked to the monitor again. Another little jump upward in pulse. He thought he saw a muscle tick in Remy's jaw.

"This ain' really de best time." A humorless smile as a long-fingered hand found the IV-tube and flicked it in indication. "Catch me later; we'll go f' a walk or somet'in'."

~You _can't,_~ Bobby wanted to point out. The chemo would hit him a little while after administration and he'd be lucky if he could even really get out of bed for a bit. Remy didn't like to be reminded of his weaknesses, though, and he particularly hated having them exposed in front of anyone who could be kept in the dark about them. Was this then Remy's way of putting Rogue off?

Her lips curved into a wistful smile that Bobby wanted to tear from her face. Didn't she see what she was doing to him? "Y'know, swamprat... I remember days when you'd be on your feet in a heartbeat t' walk me anywhere."

~You bitch.~

Green eyes flicked toward Bobby as if she'd heard the thought. Her smile was fixed and fake. "But things just change all over, don't they? In the strangest ways imaginable."

Remy didn't say anything, but his pulse shot higher and the automatic blood pressure cuff hissed softly as it was called into action.

"Yeah," Bobby said when his lover stayed tensely silent. "Things change all over. Look, you heard him... this isn't a good time."

Eyebrows arching, she fixed him with a more direct look. "Sugar, I didn't come down here t' argue with you. Why don't ya go for a walk an' let me an' Remy chat on our own?"

The blood pressure cuff relaxed with a long sigh and a reading was displayed in blocky illuminated letters. Bobby's jaw hardened. "I really don't think he needs what you've gotta say right now."

"Bobby." Low voiced, from Remy, with hardly any inflection.

"That ain't for you do decide," Rogue put in irritably, scowling a little. "Go on, Bobby. I'll call ya when we're through."

He jabbed a finger at the monitor. "Look at what you're doing to him already! If you think for one second I'm gonna--"

"_Bobby._" Real anger that time. Remy's face was masked so blankly that he _had_ to be livid. "Arretez-donc. Stop that."

"Look at your blood pressure!" he protested. "The second she came in here--"

"Ferme ta guelle!"

Bobby wasn't sure exactly what that meant but it sounded pretty adamant. He choked off his next words. Didn't quell his glare. _Get out of here,_ that expression was meant to tell Rogue plainly. Couldn't she see? Didn't she care even a little?

She looked from one to the other, then slowly unfolded herself from the chair and stood. "I'll come find ya later, Remy," she murmured. Another glance at Bobby, then she strode through the door. The latch clicked solidly.

Remy stared in stolid silence at the chair she'd occupied.

"Remy," he began hesitantly, "I didn't mean to--"

His lover tipped his head back and closed his eyes. That jaw didn't unclench much. "Just lemme 'lone, Bobby."

"Wh-what? I was just trying to--"

"I wanna be _alone._"

And Bobby realized with a sudden sinking in his chest that Remy only _said_ that because, hooked up to the IV, he couldn't leave himself.

So Bobby did.

***

"I can't figure him _out._ Am I just blind? Hopelessly clueless? Why the hell is he _nice_ to her?"

"She _is_ a teammate," Hank pointed out mildly as he adjusted some knob or other on the microscope he was peering into. "How else would you have him relate to her?"

Bobby was pacing restlessly, reflecting absently on how he seemed to do this a lot in recent months. The auxiliary lab where he'd found Hank didn't really have room for it, but he managed. "I had the proof right there, Hank! She walks in and _boom,_ his blood pressure goes up. I just don't understand it. He's uncomfortable around her. He doesn't _like_ being around her. So why is he _nice_?"

"Analyze the question, Robert."

"What?"

"Analyze it. Why _would_ he be so congenial to our displaced Southern belle?"

"That's what I'm asking you!"

A sigh, but not an especially deep one. He wasn't really annoyed yet. "Your partner burdens himself with an unseemly amount of culpability."

"You mean guilt? Yeah." He could swear that he felt his heart twang at that. "I know he does."

"And what is the companion for guilt?"

"Uh..."

"Remorse. Contrition. Penitence."

"Huh?"

"He feels bad and tries to make nice with the people he thinks he's hurt."

"Ooh." He paused in his pacing and rubbed irritably at his head. An ache was forming somewhere just inside his skull, tap-tap-tapping merrily at his nerves. "But Hank, he... he really shouldn't be doing that right now, y'know? It's not _good_ for him. And he..."

Hank glanced at him after he'd trailed into silence and stayed there for a minute. "Did you intend to finish that thought?"

With a sigh that he tried to suppress Bobby sank down on the folding chair set in one corner. "I wish I spoke French."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. He said something, and I don't have any idea what it meant, but it sounded... bad. And he was so... angry." He swallowed hard, stared at the incomprehensible tangle of equipment on the table beside him. "I wanna help him, Hank, but I can't seem to figure out _how._ It's like he's tackling this... this thing, all by himself. I-I know he doesn't _need_ me, but now... Y'know, I can barely keep my shit together when I hook up with an accounting job or, or as an X-Man or when I'm talking to my dad or--"

"Is there a point to this self-castigation?"

"Yeah." A breath. "This thing is pushing him; making him see what he's capable of. What if he's seeing... seeing those ways we're different and maybe getting sick of my... limits."

"Your _limits_?"

"I could _never_ have fought this the way he's doing," he breathed out, painful honesty. "Hank, can you just _imagine_ what it must feel like? And how sick he's gotten, and the cure being worse than the disease--"

"The cure is only worse than the disease if the disease is halted in its tracks," Hank cut in. "I assure you, had he chosen not to undergo treatment he would have been _far_ less comfortable or drugged to the figurative gills."

"But that's just it! He could've decided to just let go and not fight, and you would've put him on drugs, and he'd've just... just faded away, y'know? Without all this _knowing_ and being sick all the time and wondering if there's even any point to it." That was more than he'd meant to say. He forged on before Hank could pause him on those words. "I don't... I don't know if I could do it, Hank. I _know_ the question would've entered my mind early on about whether or not to even try. But somehow he just... did it. No questions, no hesitation, like there wasn't even another option. And some part of him's gotta know that I wouldn't have the guts to just _face it_ like that." The words dried out then, without even really saying all that he had to say. Despite the regard he held for Hank he also had to believe that now would come the false reassurances... now would come the big words that he'd have to look up later that would be meant for no other purpose than to mislead him into thinking that he had 'strength waiting to be tested' and that Remy had 'hidden vulnerabilities' and that everything was okay, he had no reason for concern, Remy didn't think less of him for his weakness...

Slowly, face thoughtful, Hank sat back from the microscope, chair squeaking beneath him. A large hand found his spectacles; pulled them off and rested them in his lap as he stared at his teammate. Bobby wanted to squirm, but damnit, he'd _meant_ all that and Hank wasn't gonna make him take it back just by _looking_ at him.

"Oh, Bobby," Hank said finally in a voice much lower and softer than the distracted version from moments before. "I fear I have done you a disservice."

~Wha...?~ "I don't follow."

Warm eyes, a little sad. "Sometimes it is still far too easy to gaze across the bridge of time and see you as the boy you were when we all first came to be here."

He knew that tone of voice; that was storyteller mode. Hank had something he believed Bobby needed to hear, and it wasn't a simple something. "I'm listening."

"I think I wanted to protect you in those days, Bobby. Restrain your embarrassment for a moment... You were small and frightened, younger than all of us and plunged into a terrifying situation. On some level, despite my moral abhorrence for the practice, I believe it became natural for me to attempt to... shelter you, when I could. To at the least not burden you with knowledge that you could do nothing to alter. I had no desire to agitate you needlessly and pointlessly."

Some of the fuzz of anxiety was clearing from his thoughts. Bobby didn't say a word, but nodded shortly in encouragement. Whatever Hank was working around to, something told him that he wanted to know.

His friend glanced down briefly at his glasses in thought, then looked up again, seeming almost resigned. "You're laboring under a misconception. Remy is not superhuman, any more than you are something less. He has not faced this without his own share of uncertainty or fear or... indecision." A louder creak as the heavy weight settled more comfortably into the chair. "Let me tell you about the morning after we informed him of his illness, when he came down to... discuss treatment."

Bobby nodded more slowly, put his milling thoughts on hold, and listened.

***

He'd made an attempt to talk himself out of anger. He really, truly had.

When it failed, he didn't feel too bad.

Remy had wanted to refuse treatment. He'd wanted to give up, resigning himself to death, claiming it his due in that horrible, guilty _way_ of his. The morning after they'd been together--

--_so_ together--

--his lover had gone down to the medlab to tell Hank to let him die.

Humanity. Courage and fear, strength and weakness. Despite the fact that Remy had entertained the notion of giving up, Bobby couldn't fault him for it. Aborted past decisions didn't tarnish the admiration he held for the man who was currently wading through hell for nothing more than a _chance_ at survival. Even if it was now a _good_ chance after the surgery, the possibility was still there that this was all for nothing.

Since Bobby's opinion of Remy couldn't fall he found himself reevaluating a lot of the preconceived notions he'd held to be true all his life.

It was so _different_ from what he'd imagined. He'd seen the movies, watched the television shows, read some of the books. A person going through an illness like this was supposed to hit certain stages -- his loved ones were supposed to feel _this_ at this juncture and _that_ at the next. All laid out, all somehow satisfyingly choreographed. There had been limited roles in his mind for each of them to fall into and that hadn't seemed a _bad_ thing at all; merely an expected truth.

Reality was... something else entirely.

How could he have expected to find himself laughing uncontrollably one night when Remy had dryly observed that he should ask Hank to leave the port in and acquire himself a nice heroin addiction, just to keep the port from going to waste? It wasn't even funny, not a little, but it came after a session of holding Remy's hair away from his face, rubbing his back, trying and failing to think of words as the man wretched painfully over the toilet for the fourth time since lunch. And what could have prepared him for the conversations that carried so naturally and paused so abruptly when one or the other of them mistakenly tossed out a mention of long-term plans, forgetting in the normalcy of the moment that those plans were still in question? Smiling over irritable grumbling, biting back tears when Remy tossed that offhand Cajun grin his way, losing himself in music he'd never even listened to before, staring up at jeweled stars in a nighttime sky and honestly _wondering_ what happened to a person when the heart finally tripped to a halt...

No. It was something that those diluted, twisted, melodramatic portrayals that he'd always taken as truth... couldn't capture. Couldn't even touch.

Remy -- bold, daring, face-every-challenge Remy -- had been ready to lie down and accept his fate... and Bobby was forced to reconsider everything he'd based on his own false assumptions.

The first thing he was reconsidering was something that had happened just over a year back. Something that he'd let himself lose sight of in the maelstrom of confusion that had surrounded it. Something that had contributed to the decision that Hank hadn't allowed Remy to make unchallenged.

"Rogue," he said flatly, breath pluming in the outside air. "We need to talk."

Her motions didn't pause; she continued rubbing a cloth over the hood of her convertible casually. "What about, Bobby?"

"You know what about."

She glanced over her shoulder. Met his blue eyes with her green ones and held the gaze mildly. "No offense, but I think what I had t' talk to Remy about needs to stay between me an' Remy."

"Fine," he said shortly. "We still need to talk."

Slowly, indolently, she curved her body, turned, leaned back against the freshly polished crimson car. She exuded lazy Southern style, but her eyes were sharp and stared hard. "What've _we_ got to talk about?"

Still angry. Hurt? Still _wounded_ over the choice Remy had made, the man he'd taken to his bed. And even Bobby knew that a wounded animal was that much more dangerous.

But damnit, he _couldn't_ let this go. He couldn't. Remy was in there, sick and nervy and altogether miserable, and _she_ was contributing to that, intentionally or no, and it didn't matter that he was confronting possibly the most powerful teammate he had because he was mad enough to _almost_ manage to forget that, and besides, hadn't Logan once said something about an animal defending a wounded mate being more dangerous still...? "I want you to leave him alone."

And with those words, that confidence in his rightness was abruptly back.

"Excuse me?" A trace of that tone that grated on his nerves every time he heard it from her. "That ain't your call to make."

Well. So much for the vague hope that this would be easy. "I'm not ordering you, Rogue. I'm asking you. I'm asking whatever part of you cared about him once. He can't take what you do to him right now."

"What do _you_ know about it?" She hadn't really raised her voice yet, but her eyes were flashing enough to warn him that it was coming. "There's no law saying he an' I can't still be _friends,_ Bobby. He's a grown man. He can make his own decisions."

"Decisions like blaming himself for what _you_ did to him?" he all but hissed, thinking that his eyes might be flashing as well. "Decisions like thinking that he _owes you_ somehow for having cared about you?"

She drew up, stood straight and tall. "Don't go there. Don't you dare go there."

"Or what? Leaving _me_ in Antarctica isn't really gonna cut it, I don't think. Try the Sahara, maybe?" His throat was so tight that the words were said even _more_ harshly than he heard them in his head, but he didn't care at the moment. No one-- _no one_ had really addressed this. No one had confronted her. Storm asked her about it once, Bobby thought, and he was pretty sure than Hank had made plain his horror, but Rogue had yet to be held accountable for what could so easily have been murder. Why? How had they all let this _go_? Was it so easy to fall victim to Remy's determined abandonment of the issue?

She looked ready to cry or scream. Her voice was choked. "You got no idea what really happened there... you weren't _there_... you didn't hear what he told me _in my head,_ Bobby..."

"Tell me, then! Tell me what the _fuck_ gave you enough reason to _leave him there_!"

"You... you wouldn't understand..."

"_Try me._"

"I can't... it's not..."

He clenched a fist. Unclenched it. "_Why did you leave him there_?"

"Because he _told_ me to!" She turned in a motion so fast and fluid he could barely follow it, her hand slamming down, denting and mangling the carefully tended hood of her convertible with a screech of metal. "He was in my head, he made me see what he was feeling, and he _told_ me to leave him there. You got that? Can you swallow _that,_ huh?"

His mind was whirling around it all, but somehow the information was still, amazingly, falling into order in his brain. Like numbers lining up, information making _sense_ even when it was presented so chaotically. This belonged _here,_ that belonged _there._ She couldn't lead him into contemplation of abstract concepts if he cut down to the core of truth behind them.

"He told you to let him die," he said unsteadily, as if waiting for confirmation.

"_Yes._"

"You gave him what he thought he wanted."

"I didn't want to... I know this ain't easy to understand, but he made it so clear..."

"Uh huh." Numerical alignment. "Did you know he told Hank to let him die, too?"

She went still. Very still. "What?"

"When he was diagnosed with cancer. When he found out how bad his chances were. He thought he deserved it. He thought he was supposed to have _died_ when you left him in the snow, and he told Hank that he didn't want treatment."

Rogue didn't turn. Her fingers curled against the already twisted metal of her car's hood, making it bend and warp even more. "It... it ain't the same..."

"No person of any sorta conscience is gonna just _accept_ that decision from a man in that condition. No one." And now he felt tears of anger and something less easily defined trying to start up in his eyes. It was so easy to get caught in conflicting emotions nowadays. He took a step closer and dropped his voice, hearing it go rough. "Everything that'd just happened down there... everything that'd been said to him and about him... all of it was just stacking up, making him feel like he couldn't take it anymore. If you ever cared about him... if you were even fucking _human_ at heart, you wouldn't have done that to him."

A tremble passed through her. "Back off, Bobby," she said hoarsely, not turning.

The warning in her voice was plain, but he didn't back away. ~She might touch me.~ Yes, she might. Steal his mind, steal his memories, see what he felt and thought and believed. He didn't want that -- he certainly had no desire to share himself or any of the tender moments he'd had in Remy's arms with her -- but he wouldn't let this go, either. At the very least, if she _dared_ to do that, then she'd be forced to see how it all looked through the eyes of someone who loved the man she'd abandoned.

"What was he to you?" He felt sick even heading in this direction. "Did he feed your ego? Make you feel pretty? Was he _property,_ Ro--"

She'd turned and shoved him back before he finished saying her name. A shove from Rogue wasn't something to sneer at, either. His torso snapped back, dragging his legs _through the air_ after him, and he spared half a heartbeat to wonder if whiplash via angry Southerner was covered by his insurance...

And then he was ice, caught and slowed to a halt by a ready slide that formed beneath him, and in almost the same thought he was guiding a pillar of crystal water to erupt beneath Rogue's feet, launching her skyward, flinging her into the air with enough speed and force to even catch her by surprise.

She recovered quickly, spun in the air in a catlike motion, and dove for him with a shouted word that he couldn't make out. Instinct and anger mingled for once: He sheeted ice around her outstretched form with less than a thought, thickening it automatically, springing back as the ice boulder started to fall to earth.

Rogue broke free a few yards above the ground. Ice shattered, quieter than glass, and began to fall as she regathered herself for another lunge for him.

He gathered the ice, fused it with more and encased her again, thicker this time.

Another fall, all the way to the ground, and another spray of crystalline water outward. She was livid now, madder than before, and the expression on her face gave _him_ a chill.

It didn't even touch the anger in his chest, though. Frozen teeth bared, he sheathed her in ice again, leaving her head free and trapping the rest of her more securely. The ice trembled immediately under the strain of her struggling but he thought he had maybe a moment, maybe two, in which to make her hear him.

"I could trap you in a glacier," he told her in words made level and uninflected by the very truth they reflected. "I could bury _you_ in Antarctica, deep enough that you might never get out." He barely heard the words and had no idea where they were coming from. "If I were the sort -- _if_ I were the sort, I could send ice crystals through your arteries directly into your brain." She was panting raggedly, not struggling anymore, listening to him. "I could fill your heart with ice. I could kill you, Rogue."

Deep beneath the words and the sentiment he sat inside himself and watched his actions in timorous awe.

"I know that if you touched me you could steal my mind and my powers." Icy lips twisted. He took a shaky breath. "But you'd have to touch me first."

She said nothing. Glared with enough heat to figuratively scorch.

"All I was trying to say was _leave him alone._ All I care about right now is that you _stop_ trying to put your shit off on him and just let him focus on getting better. If you wanna have a heart-to-heart with him, _wait_ until he comes to you." His voice thickened. "You don't have a right to reach out to him. Not after what you did. And... and you _can't_ justify that. You _can't._ He may not see that, but I do, and I'm not gonna let--"

The ice quivered and shattered. Rogue was trembling from head to toe; with anger or some more worthy emotion, he couldn't tell. "Stop," she said flatly. "Just stop."

"Not until you--"

"Bobby...?"

His frozen heart felt even harder and colder suddenly. He turned his head slowly and tried not to panic. "Remy... what are you doing out here...?" He'd just taken chemo... it would be hitting him at any moment and then he'd be sick again, and he was already barely standing straight, swaying a little, with a hand braced against the brick wall just outside the garage, staring at Bobby with a dazed look, and... "You should be taking it easy..."

A little tremor ran through the long body wavering there so unsteadily. "I heard..." He shook his head. Looked past Bobby at Rogue, who appeared more frozen than she'd been encased in ice. "Cher, why...?"

"Don't call me that," Rogue said hoarsely.

Remy blinked slowly. "I was talkin'... t' Bobby."

Ice transformed to flesh. Bobby barely spared a moment to be relieved that long habit had caused him to don his uniform pants beneath his clothes, just in case something unexpected happened. The daily clothing had cracked and fallen away, leaving him now bare-chested and clad only in the second-skin leggings.

Mind on more important matters, he ignored that fact and went to Remy, leaving Rogue standing motionless in the winter grass.

"I'm sorry," he said when he was close enough to be heard only by his lover. "But I don't take a word of it back." His stomach fluttered uneasily, doing lazy flipflops, but he didn't dare let this surety in his actions escape him. He'd meant it all, even if he hadn't known he'd meant it until it was out.

Remy stared at him as if looking at a stranger. Crimson and midnight eyes were too full of surprise to show anything else he might've been feeling. "I... Oh."

Bobby took a breath, extended a hand. "Can we... shouldn't we get you to your room?"

The eyes dropped to his hand. Blinked. "What happened t' y' brace?"

"My...?" He looked. "Um." Those little bones in his hand had still been sore after his altercation with the wall, and the brace had been worn to remind him not to use it. But now they... didn't hurt? At all. He'd actually _forgotten_ about it. "I guess it... broke off." _Forgotten._ When he hadn't transformed to ice for months simply to avoid risking misaligning those bones. "It doesn't hurt..."

Remy nodded faintly, then closed his eyes suddenly and swallowed hard. His hand against the wall was trembling, sending shivers up along his arm and all through the increasingly leaner body. He didn't say a word; Bobby had seen these signs enough to know them by now, though. Quickly he slipped an arm around Remy's waist, hating the flinch away from his colder-than-usual flesh, but not taking it to heart. He murmured, "Come on," and waited until fingers slipped from the wall to slowly creep behind his neck, over his shoulders, letting him reach up to take the hand in his to offer more support.

Out of his peripheral vision he caught a last glimpse of Rogue as they turned. She still hadn't moved. She still watched them silently. She was crying.

A part of him almost felt sorry for her, but the part of him that really mattered was busy with thoughts of Remy, and she didn't rate so much as a concern next to that.

***   He was wearing more clothing than he'd thought he could fit on his body; bundled to the teeth, and thickly. Winter sat cold and unfriendly over the grounds with no Ororo returned to ease its weight. Today he felt good, however, and in the last three months there had been perhaps as many _days_ when that had been the case, so he was going to enjoy this, damnit, even if it meant slogging miserably through the numbing morass of wet New York snowfall. No way he'd miss it. Not when he was about to sign over yet another series of seemingly endless weeks to a third round of chemotherapy.

"Have you made any attempt to contact Ororo?" Beside him walked Henri, far less bedecked in clothing than he, strolling with the stride of a man who was determined to enjoy such a rare moment of wintry sunshine in the holiday season. His concession to the Christmas spirit was a floppy Santa hat he'd been wearing nearly every day since December 1. Remy was determined to steal it and stuff the tin bell at the tip with cotton before the day was out.

"Enh." His half-shrug was buried beneath fabric. Lots of fabric. Pointedly _not_ festively colored fabric. "Be hard t' get in touch wit' her..."

"That's the voice of a man dissembling. With your connections I'm certain it wouldn't be too difficult."

His breath turned to mist. God, he wanted a cigarette, even now. "I ain' usin' my... 'connections.' Right now."

"Oh?"

He shrugged more brusquely and declined to answer.

Henri's head bowed briefly, gaze dropping to the ground in front of them. "Isolating yourself may prove detrimental, Remy," he said almost casually, not pushing.

"Just givin' m'self a li'l time t' get better, Henri." He'd seen to it personally that the most news regarding him that went out of this mansion was the offhand reference that he'd been sick, but underwent treatment. Let the teams think what they would. Being a spectacle wasn't something any thief worth a cheap take could stomach.

On a deeper level, the thought of having his vulnerabilities displayed... disturbed him, fundamentally. For rational reasons as well as instinctual ones. There were plenty of people out there who'd love nothing more than to facilitate an end to Remy LeBeau's life. Letting word of his current weakened state get out would be painting a neon sign saying "Good Eats" above his head.

He had a habit of falling out of contact with everyone around the holidays anyway. This shouldn't surprise any of the people he usually kept in touch with.

"Very well." Henri tipped his face back up, sunlight caressing blue fur and making it glow softly. The bell tinkled with tinny cheer. "I know how little you're looking forward to this, but in the vernacular... I'm afraid you'll have to suck it up. No matter what feelings you may have for past experiences you at least have the assurance that you've endured worse."

"Understatement," Remy murmured. "Tell me again why we're doin' all this...?"

Henri's step hesitated, continued. "You're perfectly aware of the rationale."

"Am I? Y' friend Niles cut out the cancer. Why y' keep pumpin' that shit into me, Henri?"

"I've already explained to you," Henri began with a voice of infinite patience. "There's a possibility that the surgery failed to expunge all the carcinoma from your body."

"Possibility," he echoed. "Chance."

"Yes."

He pondered that a moment, then nodded with sarcastic comprehension. "Y're poisoning me on a _chance._"

Henri sighed deeply, steamy breath spreading in a diffusing cloud. "In all likelihood there is no cancer left inside you. As far as anyone can tell at the moment, the lobectomy was sufficient independently."

He was cold -- it felt as if the snow were seeping through his clothing, clinging to him wetly, biting. He was exhausted. He was bitter. "Funny how y' never put it quite like that b'fore." _Before_ the treatment it had always been referred to as 'necessary.' It was only after he'd agreed to let them introduce harmful chemicals to his bloodstream that he'd come to understand that the doctors' definition of 'necessary' didn't exactly match his.

"The dilemma is that there is a possibility that we missed some of the cancer cells. We're unable to detect the disease on such a small scale, at least for now, I'm sorry to say. It doesn't take much for cancer to acquire a foothold."

"Y' t'ink y' got it all, but y're gon' make me go t'rough all dis again just in case." He nodded sagely. "I gotcha."

"Essentially... yes. That's correct." A gentler tone: "But regardless of how it sounds, we wouldn't be asking you to submit to this without compelling reason."

Silence for a bit as they walked. Remy shivered and tucked his hood higher. The chemo had thinned his blood, he decided. Made him that much more prey to the chill in the air. Facing these current challenges had made it easy to slide the memory of Antarctica to a distant corner of his thoughts, but the experience never quite faded entirely.

Eventually-- "Last one got... pretty bad, Henri." He'd taken the first two-week session well enough, then spent another two weeks recuperating before beginning the second course. That one hadn't been tolerated nearly as well. He'd lost weight with a rapidity that had caused Bobby to ply him with caloric foods at just about any time that he wasn't kneeling over a toilet or basin and emptying his stomach. Found bed too tempting, ended up dozing in chairs instead when he refused to give in and lie down. His clothes had stopped fitting properly. He wouldn't buy more for an intermediary stage, however, so made good use of belts with extra holes punched.

Only now was he even beginning to feel vaguely human again, so predictably it was time to hook back up to the poisons. Merry Christmas, Remy. Ha ha ho.

"Your body's actually handling the chemotherapy extremely well," Henri said unflappably. "The nausea is affecting your overall health, but the Compazine eased that somewhat and you're not suffering many of the prototypical reactions to the treatment."

Reflexively Remy slid a hand into his hood and ran fingers through his auburn hair. He hadn't admitted to anyone just how much trepidation he'd faced the idea of losing his hair with. "Lucky me," he muttered. "What happens if I say I don' wan' do the next treatment?"

"If you insist on being so self-destructively stubborn, no one can force you to acquiesce."

A humorless chuckle. "Li'l late, innit? Be a bitch if I quit now an' the cancer comes back." Be a worse bitch if he kept going and the cancer came back, he thought, but that pretty much went without saying. Besides... once he decided to fight, Remy LeBeau was no quitter. Jean-Luc raised him better than that, even if he'd lost sight of that for a time.

Even if some part of him still thought...

Words flashed through his mind involuntarily... words and an image he'd never forget... 'You don't have a right to reach out to him. Not after what you did. And... and you _can't_ justify that. You _can't._ He may not see that, but I do, and I'm not gonna let--'

~Bobby.~ He almost smiled even now. After finding him out in the yard with Rogue they hadn't discussed it... hadn't even mentioned the scene. Once he'd settled his stomach he'd carefully crawled into bed and, though he wouldn't admit the label, huddled beneath the covers in a disconsolate ball. It would've been an appallingly dismal afternoon if not for Bobby's utter fascination with the healing aspect of his powers that he'd inadvertently discovered. Remy had spent hours watching his lover inflict tiny little damages on himself -- a pinprick or a scratch, accompanied or sometimes even preceded by an "Ow!" and a quick transformation to ice, then a shift back to flesh and a delighted exclamation when the injury was "just _gone,_ can you believe that? _Cool_...!"

The distraction had been entirely welcome. Between chemo-induced nausea and much more welcome amusement at Bobby's experimentation, Remy hadn't known what to think, then or since. The taboo subject had been breached, without his presence or permission, but entirely in his defense; a defense which he didn't allow himself, but...

... but... some part of him had to respond to what he'd heard, if only a little. The outside perspective, heedless of his own recrimination, couldn't help but skew his view. It didn't bear much thinking about -- he wasn't ready to consider letting go of his self- disgust entirely -- but it warmed him regardless.

Henri had been silent, not responding to the last, but now he glanced at his watch. "The afternoon seems determined to abscond. Are you prepared?"

He gazed across the lawn at a magnolia tree that hadn't quite lost its splendor to the clawing cold. The blossoms had long since fallen and faded away. It didn't look festive either, but rather fatigued, it's strong branches bowed beneath the oppressive weight of snow.

Or those blossoms could have been plucked, he reminded himself. Plucked and handed off in hopeful, uncertain gestures of affection. Attraction? He didn't want to muddle through figuring out which came first.

Magnolia blossoms. Funny, the things that stuck in the mind the most.

"Prepared?" He made himself smile with cocky self- assurance that he in no way felt. "Two more weeks. Piece a cake." With a last glance that he wouldn't allow to be wistful over the sun-dappled lawn, he turned and bobbed his head at Henri. "Whatcha waitin' for? Sooner we get started, sooner we'll be done."

Henri gave a bemused smile and fell into step with him, that horrible bell tinkling, somehow still restraining that characteristic bound and matching his stride again. From anyone else that would have been one more reminder to his battered ego that he wasn't quite the man he'd been. He couldn't remember a time when Henri hadn't had to shorten his gate for _anyone,_ however, so that at least he could let go. "For the record, my friend, in my opinion you've made the right decision."

"Didn' know there really _was_ a decision at this point, Henri." But he swallowed the terseness that tried to twist his voice. "Still... merci, mon ami."

"Thank me by muscling through this. I'm growing weary of having my medical encyclopedias pilfered by Bobby. The sooner you're healthy again, the sooner my library is safeguarded."

"D'accord," Remy agreed, looking ahead to the mansion and the brightly lit tree that filled the closest visible window. "That's a deal."

***

"... sure you've been having no reoccurrence of nausea? Dizziness?"

"Non." A tiny, very tightly suppressed grin had been fixed on Remy's face for the past several minutes.

Niles was stubbornly refusing to respond to his grin even a little. "Your blood pressure's come down since the last time I saw you. Henry tells me it's back to your pre-treatment norm."

"Oh?" The smile was trying to get away from him. Remy shifted his seat on the examining table and played with the deck of cards in his hands, shuffling and reshuffling expertly. He hadn't played much with the cards these past months. He'd _missed_ the cards.

"Ye-es." Niles' mouth quirked, then firmed again. "Your status reports have been excellent, actually. As I'm sure you're well aware."

"Moi?" He flipped a card up at random. Seemingly at random. Ace of Clubs. Still had the touch.

"Oui, toi," the doctor answered dryly. He dropped his nut-brown eyes to the papers in hand, flipping through them busily as Remy fought the sudden impish urge to swing his feet back and forth like a child. "You're not gaining weight as fast as I'd like, however."

"Fast metabolism," Remy informed him cheerfully. "Once I get some good Cajun cookin' I'm gon' bulk up again real quick."

"I'm sure. We'll see about removing the port in a few weeks, unless it's giving you any problems...?"

"Soon as possible. Not today."

Niles made no comment at that, let the papers lay flat on the clipboard again and gave him a brief once- over glance as if he hadn't already done the basic physical. "How about your breathing? Any pain?"

"Non. Still get a li'l short a breath if I push it hard, but it's gettin' better."

A sharp look. "What exactly constitutes pushing it hard?"

Remy flashed the grin. "I ain' out runnin' _yet._ Too much walkin', too many stairs... that sorta t'ing."

"Mm hm." The eyes were assessing, but after a moment Niles snorted faintly and shook his head. "All right. You've been over all this with Henry exhaustively already. Do you have any questions for me?"

"Nope."

"No?" Eyebrows raised. "You're three weeks out of chemotherapy, just starting to kick again, and you have no questions whatsoever?"

"Right." He flipped up another card. Jack of Hearts. Grinned like a loon and ignored the absolutely puzzled look Niles was giving him.

"Am I keeping you from an appointment?" the man asked with a wry twist to his mouth. "Something more important than verifying your health?"

"Not 'xactly."

"'Not exactly'?"

"You seen Bobby?"

Niles stared at him a moment, then actually chuckled in sudden comprehension. "Well. I'd say your recovery is... ahead of schedule." A half-smile, very knowing, with just a glint of white teeth between dark lips. "If you really have no questions, we're through here."

"Bon!" Remy hopped off the table and reached for his shirt. The thinness of his arm would've been an embarrassment if he wasn't in such an extraordinarily good and anticipatory mood, he reflected cheerfully. He slipped the loose thing on and tugged it this way and that for a moment before shrugging and grinning simultaneously at the doctor's frankly amused look. "Not much point, eh?"

Niles' smile warmed just a little, just for a moment. "I don't think he'll mind."

Tucking cards in a pocket, Remy took his leave with a jaunty nod.

He took the stairs because he could. Lots of stairs, but he was getting good at pacing himself and already looking forward to the pleasurable misery of getting back in shape again. No time to start like the present...

A month ago Guthrie had found him on these very stairs, halfway up and sagging there with too much stubborn stupidity to turn around and make his way down. Humiliating as that had been, he could nearly laugh at it now. Good ol' Sam. Great kid, really. So calm and polite: 'Let me give you a hand there, sir... pretty good hike up these stairs, innit?' Remy had given in, resigned, all the while wishing with a mix of bitterness and wistfulness that he was in the right kind of shape to teach the kid some of the Capoeira moves he'd learned in the back streets of Rio de Janeiro.

But the way things were going, in a couple of months he might well be able to do that again. Then, he thought, he might just spend a while showing _every_ teammate those moves, just for practice. And maybe he'd take another stab at knocking Logan on his ass... he'd done it before... see who could claim the title...

He took a breath and didn't even grimace at the lingering soreness in his chest. Today was the first day in what seemed like ages that he'd woken up and felt _good._ Naturally that had to happen on a morning when he had an early appointment in the medlab with Niles. Irritating as that had been he was now _free,_ energetic, and wanting little more than to take advantage of this renewed vigor...

... by finding Bobby as soon as humanly possible.

Jean started down the stairs from above; saw him and grinned. "So it went well."

He slowed down a little to spare breath for words. "Oui. Can' stop now, though... Doc Niles is gon' be chewin' t'rough dem ropes any minute."

Her laughter was bells. "I wanted a word with Hank. I won't keep you."

"Franchement, la," he informed her. "Damn straight you won't." He gave a wicked smile, hardly caring if it looked out of place on him now. It wouldn't for much longer if he could help it.

He hit the landing. Heard Scott's voice somewhere below and quickened his pace a bit, determined to _not_ be sidetracked by a single other person before reaching his goal. Ducked around the corner leading into their wing and only avoided slamming into Logan because the other man sidestepped quickly.

"Allo," he said, barely glancing. "In a hurry, can' talk now."

Logan snorted, said something about "Kids," and vanished around the corner without anything more risqué than that.

And then he was at the door, reaching for the doorknob, still wearing that grin...

He hesitated.

Four and a half months. Eighteen weeks. One hundred and twenty-six days, give or take a few. It was quite possibly the longest period he'd gone without since he was sixteen.

The grin faded.

What was this? He couldn't... he couldn't be getting _performance anxiety,_ could he? It hadn't been _that_ long, and he was _Remy LeBeau,_ and waiting in that room was _Bobby,_ who really had developed a sheer talent for creative application of the knowledge gleaned from those books of his...

The door opened under his still hand. Blue eyes in a worried face met him, searched his. "Okay, I waited like you asked... now _how did it go_?"

All by itself, aided and abetted by the ridiculous giddiness flooding through his very blood, the smile came through again. He let his hands have free rein; they caught Bobby's face between them, holding him there as Remy stepped close, curved his neck, found parted lips and tasted them. That was not a tremble in his fingers. There was no rock sitting in his throat. His heart couldn't be pounding so fiercely from nothing but the lightest of kisses.

Bobby's hands went to his arms and he pulled away a little, searching Remy's face. The visit with Niles had been more formality than anything, but it was just like Bobby to be certain that he'd missed some single vital word by not being there. "What'd he say?"

"He said what Henri's been sayin'." Not easily deterred, he pressed another kiss to those warm lips as he nudged Bobby back into the room and let the door swing shut behind them. "He said my blood pressure's good." The door clicked. Remy freed a hand to lock it. "He said my lungs're good." And then he had that face in his hands again and was kissing those lips; light, urgent brushes. "He said my heart's good." Bobby was giving up the reservation, beginning to press against him, lips starting to move with his insistently while hands went from holding his arms to gripping, letting some of that nerve- thrumming tension bleed through to mingle with Remy's own. "He said that if there's anyt'ing there, they can' find it."

Words came raggedly: "Did he say... anything about... exercise...?"

"Doctor's orders," he breathed into Bobby's ear. "Bed-bound f' t'ree days. _Lots_ a exercise. No excuses."

Bobby's laughter sounded nothing like bells, but was warm and ecstatic and tickled his skin time and again, all throughout the afternoon.

***

"OOF!"

"Shoulda seen that one comin', cher."

"Remy, when... when _you're_ out here... getting your butt kicked... _then_ you can say that!" Bobby rubbed said posterior, grimacing, breathing in uneven gasps. There were many, _many_ things a person could say about Logan, but no one could ever claim that the hairball wasn't a thorough instructor. Thorough enough that Bobby thought he'd been sure to bruise every single muscle group in his aching body.

Logan stood there unflustered, ten feet away, barely even breathing hard. "Get up."

"Gimme a... second... I think you broke my butt..."

From his comfortable seat against the wall of the Danger Room, Remy observed, "Y' don' get up soon he's gon' do worse."

Bobby sent a mild glare his way. "Aren't you supposed to be... _my_ cheering section?"

A flash of teeth. "I'm jus' here t' admire the view, joli."

Joli. Another French word Remy had taken to using on him lately, and one that Bobby filed away to look up later. It couldn't be anything too risqué -- Logan hadn't so much as batted an eyelash at it, and he _knew_ French. On the other hand, Logan could match profanities with the likes of Victor Creed and worse without batting an eyelash, so that wasn't necessarily a guarantee.

Bobby nobly restrained the groan and found his feet again. Three weeks into intense hand-to-hand training with Logan, and so far the only progress he could see was that Logan was actually sweating a little after whipping his tail from one end of the Danger Room to the other. ~At this rate I might be able to lay a finger on him in, oh, _a decade._~ It came to Bobby repeatedly that he probably looked like ten different kinds of dorks out here. If not for the fact that both his tutor and his personal critic were so... professional... when they actually got around to explaining what he'd done wrong, he was fairly certain that his effort to be a more 'well-rounded X- Man' would've ended after the first lesson.

Today's session finished ten minutes later on a higher note than the last several had. Instead of leaving Bobby in a panting puddle on the floor, Logan let him quit when he was still wavering on unsteady feet and counting twinkly things as they flashed across his vision. "Blocks," the short man said briefly. "Work on 'em. Next time we'll turn it up a notch."

Bobby waved weakly. "Right. Up a notch. No... sweat."

Logan snorted. Grabbed a towel, flung it around his shoulders, and walked out with only that, meaning that Bobby couldn't have been doing _too_ badly. Remy said something to him with the bantering tone of ego-flashing, to which Logan answered with words sounding suspiciously like a challenge. Probably a comment on how soon _Remy_ would be looking to get himself bruised and battered again. Now that he was feeling _human_ again he was already making noises about getting back to working out with the team. Hank responded to those with the expected dire threats.

Remy found his feet and leaned back against the wall casually, waiting. Three months out of chemo had seen some definite improvement in his condition, but he still looked half-starved, and that wasn't even Bobby being overly critical. Weight was slow in returning. Sometimes he still got out of breath even with mundane life details.

"Y' gotta get more aggressive," Remy said while Bobby sucked in breaths. "Y're holdin' back too much an' waitin' f' him t' make the first move all the time."

"That's 'cause... when _I_ make the first move... he _hurts_ me!"

What sounded like a laugh, but quickly turned to something else. Bobby straightened abruptly and paid close attention when Remy pressed a forearm over his mouth and smothered--

"--coughing? When did you start--"

"A _cold,_" Remy cut quickly, covering the coughs with a chuckle. "Jus' started, an' it ain' bad. Look around. Everyone's got it 'cept you an' Logan an' Rogue."

Bobby's brow furrowed in a frown and he walked over, dashing sweat from his forehead with a forearm, taking the towel Remy offered almost as an afterthought as he peered at his lover's face. Skin color looked good, uniquely exotic eyes were alert and bright. "Still, just in case, maybe we should--"

A pleasant, but very implacable smile. "How 'bout we don't? It's not enough t' bug Henri wit'."

Bobby tried to force a teasing grin, but it fell a little flat. "Aw, I've been going _easy_ on him lately. He _needs_ to be pestered. He's not _happy_ if he's not pestered."

The smile faded. "No." Remy pushed off the wall and walked to the door. "I gotta get a few t'ings done. See y' later."

With a sigh and a resigned wave, Bobby leaned back against the wall Remy had vacated. There was a difference between irritated and genuinely mad, and he was pretty sure Remy hadn't crossed the line into the latter, but it was often hard to tell when the Cajun decided to go closemouthed on him. There were so many _layers_ to the man...

Still musing, Bobby shifted briefly to ice, reveling in the immediate and soothing cold, then transformed back in a slow and languorous wave from feet to head. In the wake of the ice his muscles were cool, relaxed, without a strain or tear to ache later. He was beginning to understand how Logan could take all the training he subjected himself to.

Now if only he could do something about not being _hit_...

Some hours later Bobby sprawled crosswise on the bed in their room, paging with marginal interest through a book Logan had shoved at him with a grunt that had sounded like, 'You need this.' It was called 'Karate-Do' and was, as near as Bobby could tell, written A Very Long Time Ago. An interest in learning how to defend himself sans powers hadn't yet truly translated into an interest in the history and development of the martial arts, but he was giving it a shot before shelving the text. He feared his teammate's response if he did otherwise. Logan didn't often give _advice,_ so it was occasionally worth listening when he bothered to.

He was _almost_ getting just a little bit absorbed in the diagrams when Remy finally came in, but his attention shifted abruptly at the greeting: "Allo."

He sat up and swung his legs off the bed. "When did you start getting hoarse?"

Remy stopped in his tracks; rolled his eyes, not without amusement this time. "Ah cher, stop worrying," he said in that somewhat husky voice. "Just got that li'l cough, 'at's all." He qualified quickly, "A _real_ li'l cough."

"Have you had Hank look at your throat?" Bobby stood, that earlier frown returning easily. "You haven't, have you?"

"_Bobby._"

He flushed a little crimson, having just enough awareness of how much he sometimes overreacted to feel a tad sheepish, but not quite enough to stop the worry in its tracks. "It's just to be on the safe side."

A calculatedly slow grin... the kind that he found it so hard to _not_ respond to, no matter the situation. Remy caught him by the shoulders and pulled him into a full-length hug, which was another thing he found it very hard to not respond to, damn that smug Cajun...

But the words he murmured into Bobby's hair weren't teasing despite the setup. "I know it's been a long year, cher."

"Six months, three weeks," Bobby corrected automatically, settling into the embrace more comfortably, not letting himself think too much about how thin Remy still was. "But who's counting?"

A little huff of breath that might have been a laugh. "Well, a long six months, three weeks. An' in case I ain' made this clear a t'ousand ways... y' been wonderful. I mean..." And he faltered here, sounding uncharacteristically awkward. "I wouldn'... I couldn' have... asked you..."

Bobby started to draw back, wanting to see his face, but Remy's arms were too snug and didn't seem intent on loosening anytime soon. He tried to tell himself that the gesture was simply affection, not liking the desperation he thought he felt in it, the fumbling words that weren't being said to his face. "Hey," he said, muffled into a thin shoulder. "Hey, c'mon, it's... y'know, that whole 'loving you' thing..." It was probably a good thing his face was buried in Remy's shirt, considering how hot it felt. Even after all this time the blush loved to appear at those words. "You didn't have to _ask_..."

A tremble through the too thin body that almost had Bobby really concerned until it resolved itself into quiet laughter by his ear. Tickling laughter. "Yeah," Remy agreed in that rusty voice, and didn't seem to have anything else to say.

So Bobby _did_ pull back after a moment, putting on as stern a look as he could manage. Remy might very well brush this off as he so often did -- Bobby's growing competence with the technical medical jargon no longer made much of an impact after months of frequent reference -- but he was determined to give it a shot anyway. "But the American Cancer Institute website says that hoarseness can be an early warning sign of a recurrence of lung cancer, caused by a growth in the lung putting pressure on the recurrent laryngeal nerve, and that means--"

Remy kissed him. Thoroughly. _Slowly._ And almost succeeded entirely in chasing the words from Bobby's head by the time those achingly fierce and tender lips drew back.

Almost. "You should at least have Hank _look_ at your throat," he continued stubbornly as soon as he was able.

"Bobby. I. Am. Fine." Remy let him go entirely and walked over to the closet, pushing Bobby's clothes aside and grabbing for one of his leather dusters. "Everyone's got a cold now, right?"

"But not _everyone_ had _lung cancer._"

A wry look from red-black eyes. "Give it a while b'fore y' sign my death warrant."

"Remy!"

"Ah, merde, I didn' mean that..." A long sigh as he slid into the duster one sleeve at a time. "Jus' don' go borrowin' trouble, eh? I spent enough time t'inkin' 'bout bein' sick when I _was_ sick."

Guilt tap-tapped at Bobby's chest. At three months out of chemo Remy was just beginning to really feel like himself again. It wasn't the time to jump at shadows.

Remy left again, stopping briefly to kiss him again in wordless reconciliation. Bobby responded, said nothing, watched him head out. Then he flopped down on the bed with a grunt and a sigh and stared at the ceiling, debating just how to rewire thought processes he'd been establishing for six months, three weeks.

And two days and nineteen hours, but who really was counting?

It was hard to let go of emotion that had been such a part of him for so long, though. For the longest six months, three weeks of his life he'd been exhaustively mindful of restless sleep in his partner, any irregular breaths, every hacking cough as lungs tried to repair themselves from the damage of more than a decade of smoking. A tremor, a hiss of pain, a hollow cast to features that had only just started to regain the visage of health. He'd noiselessly drawn blankets up around Remy's unconscious form countless times when he'd walked in to find him passed out in a chair or on the sofa in their room. He'd helplessly crouched there, hands resting uselessly on a spasming body while his lover heaved over a basin, over a toilet, out on the grounds...

But that had only continued for a couple weeks after the chemotherapy ended. For more than two months Remy had been well on his way back to health. If Bobby kept clinging to that nebulous specter of future maybes...

'I spent enough time t'inkin' 'bout bein' sick when I _was_ sick.'

No. Adding that burden of constant anxiety wasn't helping Remy at all.

A cold. It _was_ the season for them. Jean had been battling the sniffles unsuccessfully for a week, actually. Even Scott had taken to popping the occasional throat lozenges.

Remy was recovering from everything almost stunningly well, and amazingly fast. Maybe it was time to put a little faith back into chance and fortune again. Just be grateful for Remy's life, and that he himself had found the strength to last through it, and that it was over.

It was over.

And he continued to tell himself that very earnestly, every day, until three nights of restless sleep on Remy's part turned into a fourth night during which Bobby woke to feel too much warmth radiating off of the sheet-tangled body beside him.

He blinked blearily at the clock as he came out of sleep. Just after five AM. He hadn't even been the sort to get out of bed at five AM when he'd been pushing himself to _do_ something with that accounting degree. The only times he could recall _seeing_ five AM prior to the last six months, three weeks, six days and... no, it was _seven_ days and some hours now, which meant that it was officially _seven_ months, not six... but he still couldn't remember seeing five AM before that unless he was seeing it _before_ turning in for the night, and frankly, his social life hadn't been fast enough to cause that to happen often.

The back his arm was flung over had a light sheen of sweat dampening skin. Remy's forehead rested on a forearm, the pillow having found its way to the floor sometime during the past hours. His breathing was deep but a little more rapid than Bobby liked.

"Remy," he said tiredly, nudging him a little as he drew his arm away. "Hey. Wake up."

A protesting murmur as that face buried itself in the circle of arm.

"C'mon." He nudged a little more firmly against ribs. "We've gotta take your temperature."

"mmhmm... mmas'eep..."

Bobby closed his eyes and sighed, then opened them and leaned over decisively. "Remy," he murmured into a slightly turned up ear.

"... mmph...?"

Grinning a little despite the circumstances, Bobby dropped his lips lower until they just grazed the sensitive lobe. "I need you to wake up, Remy."

Stillness, though breath had shallowed too much for sleep. "Mmm..."

He nuzzled his partner's ear and whispered, "I _need_ you."

_Much_ shallower breath. "Hmm... cher..."

"Wake up, Remy." The tiniest of kisses on the sensitive skin just below the ear, evoking a rather pleased murmur. "Wake up..."

Remy rolled over, blinking sleepily but smiling, and started to reach arms around him. Bobby sat up and turned on the light.

"Hey!" Remy's arm went over his face briefly, and red irises glared out at Bobby from beneath its shelter.

With a winning smile Bobby waved the thermometer he'd taken to keeping in the bedside stand months ago. "Open your mouth."

"That was low," Remy grumbled in a rare display of petulance.

"Open," Bobby repeated firmly.

"I don' wanna."

The bedsprings creaked softly as Bobby shifted closer, then closer, then straddled his partner's outstretched legs and sat lightly on his thighs. Remy eyed him warily with a firmly stubborn expression. The expression didn't change much when Bobby let an exploratory hand wander into rich auburn hair, running the sleep-tousled mass through combing fingers.

"Please?" Bobby said in his absolute best imploring tone, throwing in the Eyes that he'd figured out a few months ago were his best weapon.

Remy scowled a little too fiercely for it to be genuine and crossed his arms over his chest. "No."

Bobby leaned in and whispered against The Spot at the juncture of neck and shoulder, "Pretty please?"

The shiver pretty much betokened fading resistance, but still there was another obstinate, "No."

Bobby nibbled up the neck to the scruffy jawline and nipped lightly. "Pretty please with sugar on top?"

A long moment of silence, during which Bobby devoted more attention to the set jaw and let his hand slip down to rub rhythmically at his partner's neck.

"Okay," Remy said after a minute.

With a victorious smile Bobby straightened and offered the thermometer. Remy glared with low voltage and accepted it, then mumbled, "Ain' fair."

"What's not?"

"Y're gettin' 'wiles.'"

"Women get wiles. I'm getting _cunning._" He unstraddled Remy and planted an unrepentant kiss on his cheek as he curled up beside him with a jaw- cracking yawn. "And stop talking. You know it messes up the reading when you talk."

"Hmph."

The sky outside their window was lightening even as they watched, the dark gray taking on the rose cast of the coming sunrise. Looked like rain today. He could feel on the corner of his awareness the heaviness of moisture hanging in the sky over the grounds. He loved rain. It made him feel connected with everything from the mud on the ground to the clouds in the sky.

An arm settled around his shoulders. He glanced to find Remy gazing silently out the window as well, back to blinking tiredly but having let the scowl fade.

When he checked the thermometer a moment later he felt the first real tinge of disquietude start to form in his chest.

"What is it?" Remy asked in a mostly disinterested tone.

"One hundred point two."

"Don' sound too bad..."

"It's not all that high, but..." No. No chances. "I'm gonna call Hank, okay?"

An elegant hand gestured at the clock. "Nah, don' call him this early..."

But Bobby was already reaching for the phone. "He'll be up. Well, he'll be hitting the snooze button, but he's usually out of bed by five-thirty on weekdays."

Remy reached out swiftly, put a hand over the arm he'd stretched for the phone. When he met the red- on-black eyes Bobby felt another chill. A deeper one. He hadn't seen that glint of uneasiness in those eyes in a while. "Bobby, don't..."

Gently he freed his arm, kissed the back of the hand that'd held it, and picked up the phone.

***

"So how do you want to present this?"

Marcus ignored the underlying inflection to that level question from his old friend and colleague. "I'll present the facts and the treatment options." He was staring thoughtfully at the handful of magazines Henry had left on the countertop beside the stainless steel sink, lost in contemplation of attack and counterattack. "LeBeau is an intelligent man, and it's my impression that he won't want us to sugarcoat this."

"Marcus..." That inflection was stronger now. Henry's baritone voice carried subtleties well. "Perhaps we should also present... alternative options. Just as possibilities to be aware of."

"Alternative options, Henry?" Marcus' voice wasn't so deep, but also carried nuances quite well. He raised an eyebrow at his blue-furred companion in quiet challenge.

Hank's gaze didn't falter. "Pain management, Marcus. If he decides to refuse treatment."

If he decided to refuse treatment. If he only focused on the uncomfortable meaning behind the semantics Marcus would be explaining the situation with: The treatment will be worse this time, and the chance of survival tremendously less.

"Nonsense."

"'Nonsense'? On the contrary... it's a very likely potentiality. You saw the toll the last round of chemotherapy took on his resources. And that was a relatively _mild_ chemo. With the evidence we have that this may have gone systemic we would have to consider a much more aggressive class of chemicals."

Marcus stood from the tall stool and walked to the small fridge Henry kept down here. In between a few foods that a doctor probably shouldn't actually consider ingesting, including cold _Twinkies_ of all things, were a couple of bottles of sparkling water. He helped himself to one, closed the fridge and leaned against the wall. Didn't bother meeting that steady gaze. "Yes. Obviously we didn't push it hard enough last time. If we had the cancer wouldn't have recurred."

"And so you believe it's in Remy's best interest to attack it more aggressively."

"Of course. If we don't we might as well sign off on him." He took a drink of the sparkling water, swallowing the coolness down a tight throat, then said, "I'm not in the habit of giving up, Henry."

"I'm very aware of that." And the inflection was stronger. "Hell would freeze over before Marcus G. Niles surrendered to cancer."

He answered flatly, "Sarcasm has no place here."

"Sarcasm? I believe I was merely presenting a statement of fact." An equally flat tone: "How did Time put it? 'He's waging a war, and his patients make up the battleground.'"

"That was a pretentious exaggeration." Attack. Counterattack. "I'm a doctor. It's my _job_ to exhaust every avenue of treatment available. 'I will follow that regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patient.'"

Hank finished the line bluntly: "'... and abstain from whatever is deleterious.' I took the Hippocratic Oath as well, Marcus."

The dark-skinned jaw tightened. "Are you questioning my competence to assess this situation or my motives?"

With a snort Hank told him mildly, "No one who's seen your results would argue your competence. The question I'm presenting is... are we going to be asking this young man to go through a grueling treatment that will ultimately accomplish nothing?"

"I thought this 'young man' was your friend, Henry."

"He is," Hank said simply, blue eyes still unflinching. "And it's because of that fact that I'm loath to see him suffer needlessly."

Marcus slipped the water bottle to his right hand and tapped it rhythmically against his left, ticking off what they knew. "The examination of the lymph nodes indicated metastasis, but that's no guarantee that it's gone systemic. The PET-scan _only_ revealed a relatively small mass in the left lung." And he would not ask just how Hank came to have in his possession a Positron Emission Tomography scanner when relatively few hospitals around the world maintained the expensive and highly advanced technology. Some things he'd learned not to question. "There was no sign of carcinoma anywhere else in the body that we could detect." He took another quick swallow of sparkling water and stared at nothing in particular. "If we remove the rest of the lung and the affected lymph nodes and put him on a stronger chemo, he still has a chance."

Silence was his answer for nearly half a minute, and then Hank cleared his throat. "As I've said numerous times, Marcus... I have the utmost respect for your skill and experience. I cannot argue with your results. However... I suggest that you consider the difference between 'time' and 'quality time' in this evaluation." Heaviness in that voice. Sadness. An emotion Marcus knew well. "We've both seen the worst case scenarios of long-term illnesses. We both know what pressure that inflicts on the patient and the patient's loved ones."

Marcus stared with great absorption at the water bottle. Hank was asking him for a judgment call based on his years of experience battling this disease. They were both aware of the current situation; both knew that the cancer was aggressive, and any future treatment countering it would have to be equally so. The pneumonectomy -- the removal of the lung -- was the first necessary step if such treatment were to be pursued. After that would have to come chemotherapy that would tax every remaining resource the young man had. Marcus wasn't in the habit of quitting, but he also wasn't in the habit of torturing patients who had no real chance.

The fact that, with sixteen years of practical experience, he had to deliberately ask himself that question about the man's chances was not an encouraging sign.

"What was the first thing you told me about LeBeau when you called me in to consult, Henry?"

He heard the rustle of fur and glanced to find Hank rubbing tiredly at his face, glasses in hand. "I told you that Remy is a fighter."

"Why did you tell me that?"

A quiet snort that didn't sound particularly amused. Hank gave him a wry look as he placed his glasses back over his eyes. "Because I'm fully aware that you're as demanding of your patients as you are of yourself, and I believed that you wouldn't take the case otherwise."

Marcus nodded once. "You're right. I wouldn't have. I have enough demands on my time as it is."

"Yet you did accept the case."

"I did, and I don't intend to let it go." He'd been... disturbed, with the response LeBeau had shown to the testing. The man had displayed a certain resentful passivity... an almost sullen acceptance of the necessity of the procedures, disclaiming their purpose while making no real argument against them. Marcus had seen many, many patients over the years, and this attitude had in his experience often accompanied the beginning of resignation. Fatalism. "Give me the benefit of my years in the field, Henry. Let me present this to him as I see fit." He finally fixed the other doctor with a very direct look. "You know I can't make any promises. If he makes it through this, for the rest of his life he'll have to be aware that there's still a possibility of recurrence. I can offer him a shot and that's all. The question is whether or not that's enough for this man." He paused, reluctant to offer such a qualitative judgment of a man with whom he'd had only limited dealings, but feeling the assessment valid regardless. "From what I've seen of him... and from what I can assume based on the scarring in his lungs indicating that he's survived under extreme circumstances previously... I have to believe that it _will_ be enough."

Hank stared at him for another interminable period, then sighed all the way from the bottom of that enlarged chest and nodded acceptance. "As long as Remy is made altogether aware of what he's in for should he undergo this treatment, I'm in agreement with your decision."

With a 'thwap' Marcus set the water bottle down on the counter. "Well then. What are we waiting for?"

"Lead the way, Pyrrhus," Hank told him with a wave of the hand.

Marcus tensed. He knew Greco-Roman history as well as the next educated man, and he was aware of the significance of the name. Pyrrhus had won countless battles, but always at great cost in the lives of his soldiers. A Pyrrhic victory was one in which the cost of the battle outweighed the worth of the victory.

He'd never believed in Pyrrhic victories in his field, and he didn't intend to start now.

The look he gave Henry was too expressionless to be considered rebuking, but the blue-furred doctor sighed in concession to the inappropriateness of the remark, hand gesturing in wordless apology. Marcus hesitated, then nodded acceptance. He glanced toward the door, the waiting room beyond in which LeBeau and his lover sat awaiting the verdict. "Shall we?"

Hank rubbed his forehead briefly, eyes closed, then stood with that agile grace Marcus couldn't help admiring. "I would sooner endure a root canal without anesthesia." He straightened his glasses and lifted his chin a little. "Let's go."

***

He was barely aware of the quiet buzz of excitement running through the mansion; preparation for the arrival of old friends. The news that Warren and Elizabeth were returning from overseas hadn't made much of a dent on his awareness. He had... other things... on his mind. Things that scared him.

Yes, he thought he could use that word without flinching now. 'Scared.' It fit _frighteningly_ well, didn't it?

The cancer was back, and this time they wanted to remove his entire lung to try to get rid of it. To _try._

Niles was as encouraging as he'd been seven months ago, with his own unique brand of insistence. 'Here's what we're going to do,' he'd said as if there were no questions whatsoever. And then he'd gone on to spell out procedures that Remy could barely listen to without paling, with a mostly quiet Henri giving infrequent nods of support. It had been all Remy could do to keep his composure while Bobby sat there hearing the news with him; if he were to crack in front of his lover he might as well have intentionally set out to hurt him, badly, because any response Remy showed Bobby would take worse to a factor of ten.

But... his entire _lung._ Recovery from that operation, then three more _months_ during which he'd undergo chemo, _worse_ chemo than before. And all on what? On a maybe? Niles had presented the information as a given, taking his acceptance as assured, but even _he_ had admitted that statistically Remy's longterm chances had halved. How easy would it be for the man to make the decision if it were _him_ who'd be going through this?

Remy reached for the coat he kept by the door, pausing momentarily as he caught sight of his own outstretched arm. Before, when he'd first come 'home' from Antarctica, he'd made some effort to hide his thinness. Concealing vulnerabilities was a habit he'd learned young and never let go of. When had that come to matter so little? Why was it less important to hide his emaciated condition now than it had been those too-short years ago?

For the period during and immediately following the chemotherapy he had no answer. Whatever his reasons had been, they weren't within easy grasp. Today, though, looking back, it seemed as if it had never been more than a useless gesture and a wasted effort. Now more than ever he was _tired._ And somehow the fight just didn't seem worth it anymore.

***

The first glimpse had come as enough of a shock to actually cause Warren to stumble in his steps. He hadn't seen LeBeau since before he'd been called to take a more active role in Worthington Enterprises overseas the better part of a year ago, and since that time his communication with the team and his old friends had been unintentionally sporadic. Betsy, still reeling from the forced loss of her telepathy all those months ago, had shown even less desire to keep a line open back to the old homefront.

Somewhere in his memory he could dimly recall having received word in passing that LeBeau was sick. 'Sick' in his mind had meant the flu. 'Sick' had perhaps indicated a bad virus. It hadn't been put in a context that set off any alarms, and after sending a general politic message wishing for LeBeau's health he hadn't thought about it at all. It hadn't occurred to him that his old teammates were being particularly closemouthed about the issue simply because he hadn't had any reason to question.

He hadn't had any reason to wonder if when they said 'sick,' they really meant 'dying.'

LeBeau passed through the foyer like a slow, stilted ghost, and Warren watched him from the upstairs landing and thought he could count the man's bones beneath his shirt. When the Cajun reached out, hesitated, then grabbed and donned a long coat Warren walked quietly to the top of the stairs and waited until Remy had gone out to descend and exit through a side entrance. He took to the air immediately outside, beating his way upward with powerful wingstrokes, then took a look over the yard with his eagle's-eye perspective.

Only by focusing on each individual movement he made was he able to keep the fury in check.

When LeBeau merely wandered with seeming aimlessness around the perimeter of the house Warren swooped down, arced up, settled lightly to his feet with a few more flaps of giant wings no more than three strides from the other man.

LeBeau stared at him with blank, flat eyes, not looking in the least surprised at his arrival. "Wings," he said in a voice that sounded rough and hoarse. "Long time no see."

Warren took in the gauntness of the tall frame, the hollowness of cheeks, and remembered where he'd seen similar distinct features. "You son of a bitch."

The Cajun smiled slowly, not pleasantly, with a look of twisted satisfaction. "Still mad 'bout that li'l spat we had, huh? Damn, homme, y' _do_ know how t' hold a grudge."

How _dare_ he? How dare he talk about trivialities when... "How could you _do_ this to him? You... you just..." Oh God, please, let Bobby be safe. "Did you infect him? _Did you_?"

LeBeau stared at him with an expression of absolute stillness for a moment. Warren found a desire to take that coldly reserved façade and tear it to see what was beneath it, but at the same time wasn't sure he wanted to know. The antipathy he and LeBeau shared wasn't something that need ever be explored; they'd both more or less agreed to that throughout their more unpleasant dealings.

But never in his worst imaginings had Warren pictured _this_ and the danger it presented to an old friend. It was all he could do to stay here to get the story instead of racing off to _find someone_ and get every detail he could. Why hadn't anyone _told_ him? He could perhaps understand the reluctance to say anything when he was so far away, but now? Had he been missing obvious signs? Why hadn't Jean or Scott _said_ something?

Bobby... God, worse than he'd ever feared... so much worse...

"Infect him." LeBeau seemed to think about the words, watching him coldly and clinically. Coat waving about too-thin legs, he stood braced, staring, sickly. "Y' figure t'ings out quick, don'tcha? Shoulda been a detective. I t'ink y' got a gift."

Warren took in an unsteady breath, eyes closing briefly. The Cajun had to be baiting him... even _he_ couldn't talk so casually about giving Bobby AIDS... "Tell me," he said gratingly as he opened his eyes to glare, "_tell me_ that Bobby's okay."

Remy's mouth twisted into something like a leer. "'Okay'? Bobby's the _best._ Bobby's the greatest fuck I've had since--"

And then Warren was at him, ignoring déjà vu, feeling the jolt through the skinny body as Remy's back met the outer wall of the mansion forcefully. There was a grunt and then a sharp expletive from the man in his grasp, and a quickly aborted struggle.

Warren's throat was tight and he had to swallow hard to get words through. "Bastard! Manipulative _bastard_! You told him you _loved_ him! You, you told him that you wouldn't _hurt_ him! How _could_ you?!" A sound came from his throat that couldn't decide if it wanted to be a furious growl or a vocalization of desperate denial. He _knew_ LeBeau was scum, but somehow... somehow he'd _almost_ believed...

"I bet," the man gasped out, "betcher glad I turned y' down, neh? 'Cause the man that... that fucks Remy LeBeau... gets fucked, don' he...?"

And this time the sound _was_ a strained cry of denial. "I swear to Christ, if you've given him this..."

"What he has," said a nearby voice, "he can't give me."

Warren turned so fast that the suddenly freed Cajun staggered. He hadn't heard Bobby approach. Hadn't heard anything at all except...

Bobby's eyes were narrowed, but otherwise his expression was a fierce muddle. "If you were almost anyone else I'd freeze the blood in your veins right now." A pause, blue eyes flickering past him, then a flash of teeth. Warren hadn't seen that expression on his friend's face often; that consideration followed by burning resolution. "And if he's bleeding under there from the stunt you just pulled I might do it anyway."

Remy, panting against the wall, ground out, "I _got_ dis, Bobby."

"Bobby," Warren said falteringly, "I was just... you're okay..." And... and _threatening_ him? What was going on here? "What do you mean, he can't give it to you? 'Bleeding under there'? What...?"

"I mean exactly what I said," he answered flatly. He walked toward them with carefully measured steps. How long had he been out here? "He just had _surgery,_ Warren."

"I said _go,_ Bobby!" Remy spat.

Warren looked from one to the other. "I don't understand... what... what surgery...?"

"Don' say--"

"A test to see if the cancer's spread," Bobby told him with whatever was beyond 'fury' in his eyes and voice. "Can you get _that_ through your head, or do you wanna beat it out of him?"

Cancer.

~Oh my god.~

_Cancer._

He faced Remy sharply and took a breath to say... to say _something,_ but all he could really see was that haggard face and the pain that _he'd_ just put there in his rage, and God, this wasn't possible, how could he have made such a mistake?

The Cajun had a hand braced against the wall and looked as if he were trying and failing to stand straight. "Don' look at me like that," he growled, panting, glaring out of those hot-coal eyes.

Hearing the waver in the man's voice, Warren's eyes went wide. The barest edge of comprehension began to sink in. "Oh my God, Remy, I'm--"

Remy's face twisted. His teeth bared and his fist flashed out simultaneously, so that Warren couldn't even tell which came first. He didn't even have time to think 'dodge' before the fist connected.

And... it barely even rocked him. Barely even stung. And when he shook his head and looked back at LeBeau, blinking under the assault of too much new information at once, he saw a flash of mirroring shock, dawning horror, in the other man's face.

LeBeau turned too quickly, grabbed the wall for balance. Bobby was there suddenly and reaching for an arm, saying something quiet, face transformed from fury to concern in just a heartbeat. Warren could only take a step back, tucking his wings tightly against his back in unconscious and undesired sympathy to the _feel_ of pure vulnerability pouring off the other man, watching in frozen silence while he waited for his thoughts to stop reeling.

Remy shrugged Bobby's hands off sharply, spat something too low and vicious to be heard, and half- lurched away, walking very fast and very unsteadily. Bobby stared after him for an instant, motionless.

"Bobby...?" Warren began hesitantly.

Bobby's voice was toneless, and not like anything he could ever remember hearing from his friend. "You thought it was AIDS. Didn't you."

"I... just thought..."

"You thought that because we're men and we fuck each other it had to be that. Because AIDS is a 'gay disease,' isn't it? We just get it by osmosis, don't we? Spontaneously generate it, maybe?"

"No, I--"

The sky-blue eyes were blazing when they fixed on him. "Wake the hell up, Warren. Considering your lifestyle, _you're_ more likely to get HIV than I am." He didn't even wait for the impact of _that_ statement to ease before curling his lip and saying, "And if you _ever_ try to justify acting like _that_ with such a pathetic excuse again, I won't bother warning you first."

Warren's eyes dropped. He opened blue-skinned hands, staring at them in something akin to dismay. "Bobby, I'm sorry. I didn't _know._ I... my history with him..."

"This isn't about your history with him. This is about me."

The winged man could only stare. He'd known Bobby since the younger man was a shivering huddle staring miserably at a frozen sandwich in his hands, his stomach growling in loud dissatisfaction and his eyes close to tearing. The evolution from that scared boy into the class clown had seemed natural, and class clown into team prankster hadn't surprised him. But in all this time, for all that ice, Bobby had never addressed him this _coldly._ Never seemed so foreign. Not even when he'd first admitted his sexual preferences. Warren was staring at a stranger, and he didn't have a clue what to say.

But he tried. "I was worried... I know I overreacted, but can't you understand _why_...?"

"Warren, do me a favor," Bobby said in a voice that sounded almost reasonable.

"What?"

"Stay out of my sight."

Warren said, "Bobby," but it was only to the man's departing back.

***

His chest was so tight that he could barely force breath into it and there was a roaring in his ears that he didn't try to identify. Shrunken muscles in his chest ached from the operation they'd done to check his lymph nodes. Weak, wasted. He wasn't anywhere near the man he used to be.

He'd never be that man again.

He didn't see anyone on the way down to the medlab; which, all things considered, was probably for the best. His breathing was rapid and shallow by the time he shoved open the double doors and nearly stumbled his way through them. Red-black eyes found their target immediately.

"No," he choked out hoarsely. "I ain' doin' it again."

Niles turned swiftly from the scan he'd been studying. "What?"

"Je ne puis pas prendre ceci encore. Pas encore." The words came on their own and he let them ramble. "Regarde-moi! Regarde ce qui est arrivé à moi!"

"Mr. LeBeau, if you'd just--"

"C'est ce pass a rien! Si je vais morire, ca va etre comme je veut... pas entrapper dans ce lit, faire vomir... et que Bobby peut m'observe... des que je dépérir! Je suis fini!"

"Assez!" Niles suddenly thundered. "Quitte!"

Panting too much to continue anyway, Remy stopped, a hand going to the long, dark-tiled counter to keep himself steady, eyes still blazing with his furious intent.

"What happened?" the doctor asked flatly when he had silence.

That was none of his business. "Look at me," Remy growled more slowly, in English this time. "_Look_ at me." He held open his free arm to indicate his skinny frame, his pale skin. So proud he'd been of the smattering of weight he'd put back on after the chemo ended. So easy it was to believe there was a _point._ "I can' take it again. I won't."

Niles laid the scan on the counter with a very precise motion. "You're overwrought. Perhaps we should discuss this when you've calmed down."

"I know what I'm sayin'!" He had to clear his throat twice to get more words past the painful rock lodged there. "Y' tol' me what y' wan' do, an' it ain' the way I wan' spend the rest a my _life,_ Docteur. If I only got a li'l time left I want it t' be _good_ time, y'hear me? I wan'... I wanna..." But there were only images in his head, undefinable, each asking 'why can't I be?' when they glanced across his mind. Words couldn't capture them. Words couldn't even begin to _touch_ them.

The doctor walked toward him as he trailed off, and then the tall man stood over him, stared down at him, and Remy didn't see a hint of compromise in the dark face or eyes.

"Come with me," Dr. Niles told him; a command rather than a request. "There's something you need to see."

Then he passed Remy without a backward glance and pushed through the double doors, swinging them open far harder than was necessary. When he'd vanished through them Remy was left staring as the doors swung back, forth, back, in an ever-decreasing arc with a whisper-shoop, whisper-shoop each time.

He swore and pushed away from the countertop to follow.

Niles was waiting for him in the elevator, one large hand holding the door open expectantly. Remy walked in and stood beside him, wordless, and they rode up to the main level in complete silence. They passed Elizabeth on the way out the front door. She offered no greeting and didn't seem surprised when none was offered in return, but her violet eyes saw too much. Remy thought they always saw too much.

Niles gestured him into the passenger seat of the black Porsche parked out front. The interior of the car was as pristine as the exterior except for a single drained coffee cup in the cupholder between the front seats. The doctor hardly waited for him to fasten his seatbelt before revving the motor and taking off.

Remy didn't ask where they were going, or why, or how long it would take. All the way down the long access road and for twenty minutes on the highway he stayed trapped in his own mind, staring out the passenger window and seeing nothing that raced past his vision. His chest still hurt, his lungs still felt too small, and neither of those things mattered as much as the smothering hopelessness wrapping increasingly tighter around him. Hopelessness and helplessness, trapping him in floodwaters too strong to swim.

Niles shifted gears on the Porsche aggressively, as if each motion was a definitive act of war. Every abrupt motion of the car jarred a body sore from the surgical procedure, until he gritted his teeth and ground out, "Y' don' like me very much, do you?"

"Ninety percent of all lung cancers are caused by cigarette smoking," Niles informed him emotionlessly, as if the answer were obvious and suited the question perfectly.

Silence. Another five minutes passed, the Porsche's engine roaring when Niles floored the accelerator to pass another car.

"I didn' _choose_ this," Remy said eventually.

"You chose it every time you picked up a cigarette."

"I didn'--"

"'Didn't know'? Of course. You and all the other smokers somehow didn't notice the biggest public health reform in US history."

Remy closed his eyes. Rested his head back against the seat. "So why do y' do it? Why don' y' just sit back an' leave us t' our 'fate'?"

"Ask me that again later."

"Quoi?"

"I said ask me that again later."

And then more silence, thicker, unwilling to be breached. Remy pulled his sunglasses down over his eyes and stared straight ahead.

Remy had never been to the cancer ward at Harper General Hospital. Everything from diagnosis to treatment had happened for him in a single convenient room at an isolated mansion with no eyes peering at him that he didn't know. He hadn't had any cause to realize how unique that situation was before now.

The cancer floor was the seventh. Remy only knew this because he glanced at the display outside the elevator before they got in and his trained thief's mind jumped to and held the entry of greatest interest to him currently: Oncology. It came as no surprise at all when Niles pushed that button, still wordless. The doors slid shut and the elevator carried them upward.

There was an odor to the cancer floor that Remy noticed immediately. It wasn't overpowering, but rather pervasive; medicine and illness, antiseptic sterility fighting waste and all the byproducts of failing bodies. The moment he stepped off the elevator and took a breath of the recycled air he knew without question:

People died here.

A small blonde woman in a white uniform seated behind the huge spread of counter directly in front of the elevators looked up and smiled a polite smile. "Good afternoon, Dr. Niles."

"Hello, Anne," he said in a distracted voice. "Is Jim still in 713?"

"Yes, sir, he is."

"Good." His eyes flicked to Remy. "Stay here. I'll be back in a moment."

Remy nodded. Watched him walk off. The blonde gave him a briefly curious look, but he wasn't in the mood to say much and strolled as casually as he was able to fake around the corner to the left, hoping for a waiting room. The nonchalant pace faltered completely to a stop and he found himself staring openly instead. There was a large aquarium imbedded in the left side of the wall, well tended, with what looked like an eclectic mix of bright tropical fish swimming slowly within. Standing in front of the aquarium was a woman with half-shorn, half-balding red hair, one of her pale hands clutching an IV-pole, the other firmly held by the younger, shorter woman beside her. The balding woman didn't seem to notice his appraisal. She spoke in a low, gentle, almost dreamlike voice, saying something about a large fish that she called 'PuffPuff,' telling the girl that was probably her daughter that at night, when there was no one to talk to, she sometimes walked down here to watch the fish. Her voice droned on, rising and falling, and the girl made encouraging noises even as she looked sharply away. Looked at him. A jaw that appeared habitually set was trembling and her eyes were glistening brightly, reflecting every light in the hall behind him. She cleared her throat. Talked to the woman: "Which one does PuffPuff chase, Mom?" Offered him a quick, embarrassed, tremulous smile. Somehow he managed to return the expression. There was a quiver in his own smile, too, though he wasn't sure why.

"Mr. LeBeau."

He turned to Niles. Followed when the man gestured. They passed several rooms with doors halfway or all the way open, bodies lying on beds in each one, the blare of a television here, a phlegmy snore there... Remy looked straight ahead. His peripheral vision told him plenty, though. More than he ever wanted to know.

At the room with the placard reading '713' Niles stopped and motioned for him to step to the doorway. His heart beat loudly in his ears as he did so. The odors in this room were stronger, telling more of the illness than the treatment. The still form on the bed was small enough to be swallowed by the thin mattress.

"His name is James Cohen," Niles told him quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping boy. "When I first met him he offered me his hand and said 'call me Jim.' That was three years ago. He was eleven years old."

Remy breathed as quietly as he was able, slowly, and refused to hold his breath to shut out the scents.

"The children's ward is full. Jim volunteered to be relocated up here. He said that it didn't really matter if he was surrounded by other kids if he couldn't get out of bed to play with them, did it?"

"He's just a kid," Remy whispered. "How'd he...?"

Even at a murmur, Niles could make his voice sound as hard as stone and as sharp as razors. "His parents chose it for him."

"_What_?"

"His mother smoked when she was pregnant with him and both of his parents continued smoking around him all throughout his childhood. _They're_ fine. They both even quit smoking." A pause. "_After_ he was diagnosed with a very aggressive, diffuse form of squamous cell carcinoma. Statistically worse than what you have. It's been a long road for him. Not long ago his parents picked out his casket and made his funeral arrangements."

His chest got even tighter. "Why... why're y' showin' me this... why are you...?"

"Because he's in remission, Mr. LeBeau."

"... he..."

Finally a crackle of passion in that cold voice. "He _beat_ it, Remy. No, there's no guarantee that's it's gone for good, but right at this moment that boy is sleeping in there knowing that he _won._ For now and maybe... _maybe_ forever."

The boy was still unmoving on the bed. His completely bald head was turned sideways on the pillow, barely making a dent in the fabric. "Y' said t' ask you later why y' do this," Remy said distantly. "Why?"

A small gesture, somehow taking in the whole floor and everything that could be inferred by that indication. "Because the price of stupidity shouldn't be this," he answered simply. A step back out of Remy's peripheral vision. "Meet me by the elevator when you're ready to leave."

And then he was gone. As if sensing his departure the boy turned his head, opened his eyes, looked directly toward the doorway and its occupant. Remy felt a shiver pass from his head to his toes. Those simple brown eyes, sunken deep into a pale-fleshed skull, didn't belong in the face of a fourteen-year-old boy. They were the eyes of a human pared down to the essence, everything superfluous stripped away and leaving only whatever was vital and _needed_ to keep a body going. A great, overwhelming fatigue showed in the lassitude of his slow, slow head-turn, but the gaze _smoldered_ with something that the exhaustion didn't touch. Instinctually Remy recognized what he saw there.

With no mask, no camouflage, those were the stark eyes of a survivor.

Standing there in the sterile hallway with a nose full of disease and a chest full of pain, Remy wondered if he were to look in a mirror if he would ever find those same eyes staring back at him.

He thought that maybe... maybe it was time he found out.


~end part two~

Notes from Kaylee: Yes, there's a part 3. No, it's not written. No, I don't know how long it will take to be written. Yes, I still like feedback. Thank you.

French stuff (rough translations -- experts out there, don't be too picky) -- Many abject overwhelming thanks to Abyss for tons of translations, and to Shai for her help:

*cher -- dear (masculine -- pronounced the same as the feminine version, "chere")
*Je t'aime. -- I love you.
*Tu ne m'aide pas. -- You're not helping (me).
*maudite -- damn
*Arretez-donc. -- Stop that.
*Ferme ta guelle! -- Shut your mouth!
*D'accord. -- Okay.
*Moi? -- Me?
*Oui, toi. -- Yes, you.
*Franchement, la. -- That's for sure.
*Allo. -- Hello.
*joli -- handsome
*homme -- man
*Je ne puis pas prendre ceci encore. Pas encore. -- I can't do this again. Not again.
*Regarde-moi! Regarde ce qui est arrivé à moi! -- Look at me! Look at what's happened to me!
*C'est ce pass a rien! Si je vais morire, ca va etre comme je veut... pas entrapper dans ce lit, faire vomir... et que Bobby peut m'observe... des que je dépérir! Je suis fini! -- It's not worth it! If I'm going to die, I'm going to die my way... not stuck in bed and vomiting and watching...watching Bobby watch me go downhill! I'm (dead) finished!
*Assez! -- Enough!
*Quitte! -- Stop!




::end::

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