Homecomings: Chapters 22-25

by Alex Cartwright

Chapter Twenty-Two: If It Were Up To Me

"Hey, ump! Wassup?"

"What are you----blind? That was a foul, for sure!"

Scott's head jerked as he made his way down the steps towards his seat at the stadium. He had been away for a few minutes to call Jean, telling her that the basketball game was going into overtime and that he and the others were going to be late. Instantly recognizing the voice of Bishop, he regretted his decision to invite the brash time traveler with himself, Warren, and Alex to the Knicks vs. Celtics game at Madison Square Garden.

Warren had received four tickets for third-row seats from a grateful client of Worthington Industries. He decided to invite a group from the mansion for a "guys night out" in the city. Originally, the group was supposed to include Bobby, but he had dropped out when he discovered that Alex was going. While Scott could understand his teammate's resentment towards Alex, he had thought Bobby was over Lorna long ago. When Bobby announced his decision to back out, Bishop was nearby and asked about the basketball game. He explained that in his time, he had never heard of such a sport. Scott, in an especially generous mood that day, offered Bishop the extra ticket, not noticing Warren's expression of dread and irritation.

In retrospect, Scott wished he had picked up on Warren's nonverbal communication. At first, things were fine. Bishop was enjoying the sights and sounds of the arena. As the game went on, it became painfully obvious that Bishop had never been to a live sporting event before. He kept asking questions about the smallest detail of the game, much to Scott's annoyance. It finally got on his last nerve, forcing him to retreat from his seat to call Jean in order to get some reprieve.

While Bishop's behavior was annoying, Scott was somewhat troubled over the potential for a scene. It was no secret the brawny man had a temper, which often guaranteed violent and disastrous consequences. Too many times he and the others had the opportunity to observe him impulsively whip out his gun or making threats. Sighing heavily, Scott decided that for the sake of the group, as well as the other fans, Bishop would need to be subdued.

"Alex," he called over to his younger brother, "Alex, make him stop!"

Alex cupped a hand to his ear, blue eyes puzzled. He couldn't hear Scott through the roaring crowd and Bishop's insistent needling of the umpire. Warren, who was sitting next to Alex, leaned over and peered over at Scott. He grimaced and rolled his eyes when Bishop started throwing his fists in the air, hooting.

Scott raised his voice a little more. "I said make him stop!"

Alex held up a stack of five empty beer cups and pointed at them. Then he pointed at Bishop. He then shrugged and threw his older brother a look that conveyed, "There's nothing I can do."

"I don't care how drunk he is!" Scott shouted. "Shut him up!"

Glaring at Scott, Alex turned to Bishop. He leaned over and began to talk to him, gesturing to the people sitting around them. Bishop gave him a skeptical look and shrugged. He then stood up and starting jeering at the umpire again, much to the chagrin of those sitting around him. Alex turned back to Scott, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

I really don't need this, Scott groaned inwardly, still making his way down the steps to his seat. Things around the mansion were crazy enough. As field team commander, he was struggling to make sure not only their missions were successful, but also that everyone on the team could work with one another.

There was the situation with Bobby and Alex. Since Alex had finished his dissertation and was waiting to graduate, he returned to the mansion as an instructor and team member. Despite the fact that Alex had broken off his engagement to Lorna and his repeated attempts at making peace, Bobby still refused to even utter two words to the younger Summers. He acted as if it was just yesterday Lorna had broken things off with him to be with Alex. While Bobby was known as the lighthearted joker of the group, evidently there were some things he was willing to let go. He went as far as to request that he not be on the same team as Alex during field missions.

Many times Scott had been tempted to call Bobby out, but was stopped by either Jean or Hank. The two had always coddled him out of concern when they were going through the ranks, much to Scott's irritation. As usual, he honored their requests and did not confront the young man about his behavior. There were times he wanted to ask the Professor to telepathically force Bobby into maturity. Other than the Alex situation, Drake continued to leave ice sculptures on the lawn in front of his house, which was annoying to take apart the next morning..

Then there was Rogue and Gambit. When the Cajun thief first returned to the mansion, Rogue had gone out of her way to avoid him. She participated in Danger Room sessions when she knew he was on mission. She also intentionally went on missions with teams that did not include him. For his part, Gambit seemed to take her actions in stride, not letting on whether they truly affected him or not.

Lately, however, things seemed to be a little less tense between the two. The two were seen intermittently talking in the hallways of the mansion, but these conversations appeared to be quite brief and less intimate. When Scott approached Rogue about the possibility of serving with Gambit on the same time for an upcoming mission, she muttered that she would if she had to. During the conversation, she refused to meet his eyes and soon stormed off, leaving Scott bewildered and confused.

Scott was fully aware of his own ongoing conflict with Logan. The two had not spoken to each other since he and Jubilee had returned from Paris, which was fine with Scott. Storm, second-in-command, was now recruiting him on missions with her, as if alleviating Scott of the responsibility. There was also the fact that Logan seemed to be more involved with other activities----Scott hardly saw him around the mansion as much as he used to. He had asked Jean in passing whether or not she knew what the loner was up to, she responded rather skittishly. Not being all that concerned about the situation, Scott refused to pursue the issue any further. All he needed to know that the man was in control of his emotions and could be depended on during missions.

Scott was five rows back when he suddenly heard a POP! Startled, he was prepared to replace his wraparound sunglasses with his visor. He stopped himself when he saw several players from the Knicks pointing at the seats where his friends were sitting. Bishop was slumped over in his seat, the basketball in his lap.

Warren picked up the basketball and inspected it. "Hey, Alex," he drawled, beaming. "We've got the game ball!"

Alex poked Bishop in the side of the head with his index finger. When the bigger man didn't move, the younger Summers brother shrugged and took the beer cup from his hand. "Guess he won't be needing this anymore."

Scott was struggling to squeeze his way through the crowd of onlookers to get to his friends. Almost immediately, the paramedics arrived to take Bishop away. Given the size of the time traveler, it took about three of them to lift him out of his seat and place him on the stretcher. The tight space of the seats also proved to be quite awkward as well, forcing one to block Alex's line of view.

Alex tapped one of them on the shoulder. "Excuse me," he piped up, placing his foam finger in his lap. "But could you move over a little to the left? I can't see the game."

"Now I can't see!" Warren groaned, blue eyes impatient. "You guys better hurry up! We're tied in overtime!"

Scott struggled to keep from smiling as he watched the paramedics carry the tall, muscular Bishop away on a stretcher. The people who had been sitting around him stood up and cheered. Well, all except for Warren and Alex. They were still waiting for the paramedics to get out of the way so they could watch the rest of the game. Sighing reprovingly, Scott motioned for Warren and Alex to accompany the paramedics. They pointed at themselves and Scott nodded. Alex gave him a pleading look, but Scott remained insistent.

Scowling, Warren and Alex stood up and began to gather their things. Both were making it very clear that they were unhappy about the situation. "This is so unfair," Warren snorted.

"You're telling me," Alex grumbled, pulling on his brown suede jacket and picking up his soda from his cup holder. "Why is it that whenever Bishop gets himself in a mess, the rest of us get dragged down with him?"

"Next time, we're leaving him at home."

"And crazy-gluing him to the floor."

Remy LeBeau pulled his brown leather duster closely over his lean, muscular frame as he trudged on the sprawling grounds of the mansion. His cigarette hung between his sculpted lips, gray smoke swirling around him. The frost from last night still covered the grass, crunching under his footsteps.

Logan smokes his cigars around the place and no one says anything, he grumbled inwardly. The man can smoke anywhere and anytime at this place. When Gambit lights one cigarette by the front door, everyone has something to say.. He winced as he remembered Storm and Jean chiding him for his "filthy habit" and "setting a bad example for the children". One femme admonishing him was bad enough, but two of them was all too much. Plus, they seemed to be using the same tone of voice when they were scolding him. Fortunately, he managed to make a graceful exit through the front door.

When he was turning around to leave, he saw Rogue at the top of the stairs. She appeared as if she had observed the entire scene. The Southern Belle was trying her best to look Stoic and indifferent. However, there was a faint twinkle in those green eyes----something he had come to know while they were dating. It always came when he had done or said something amusing. As he began to slip outside, she nodded her head firmly, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her red hooded sweatshirt.

While she was no longer actively avoiding him or acting hostile, there was the reality that she was with someone else and there was very little he could do about it. However, instances like that sometimes gave the former thief a sense of hope. He wasn't going to delude himself into thinking that she was suddenly in love with him and that all was forgiven. Too much time had passed for that to happen right away. Too many things had occurred. But, it seemed like for a brief moment, they had that understanding that was lost all those years ago.

He never realized how much he had missed her until he returned to Xavier's. Yes, he did think about her while he was away, but that was often clouded by feelings of anger and hurt. It took seeing her around the mansion with Joseph, being happy, that finally did it for him. He compared it to seeing someone else with a piece of jewelry you once had, but had to sell. Now, on another person, that piece of jewelry looks more desirable than ever.

The old Remy would have pursued Rogue, forced her to see things his way, use that Bayou charm to get to her. However, he restrained himself. He knew she was happy; there was no way he could deny that. She smiled and laughed more than he could ever recall when they were together. She let go of some of the inhibitions she had when she thought she could never touch another person. For that, she was enjoying life for the first time. Who was he to take that away? Why would he even think of doing that?

Because I love her, he told himself, flicking ash from his cigarette.

He reached the halfway point between the mansion and the Summers' house when he noticed a lone figure, standing under one of the great oak trees. The swirl of gray smoke billowed from the person's head, obscuring his or her face. Curious, Remy sauntered over to the tree. The only other smokers in the mansion were himself, Logan, Bishop, and one of the new recruits, Stacy X. Logan was at the movies with Jubilee, while Bishop had gone to a basketball with Scott, Alex, and Warren. Meanwhile, Stacy was in the Danger Room with Sam Guthrie and Kurt. As he drew closer, he was surprised at discovering the identity of the fellow smoker.

"Filthy habit, isn't it?" Joseph asked in greeting, tossing his cigarette on the ground and promptly stomping it out. He was dressed quite stylishly as usual in a gray, three-quarter-length wool coat over black slacks and shiny, black leather loafers. His silvery hair had grown out somewhat, but it remained short, brushing against the collar of his coat.

"Eh, what isn't, homme?" Remy tried to laugh, but could not muster the sound. Instead, he raised a brow at him and asked, "Rogue knows about dis?"

"No, she doesn't. I didn't even know I liked it until recently. I suppose it was something Magnus liked." He tapped the side of his head gently. "One of the things about being a clone with amnesia. You don't know what memories are yours and what memories are the original's."

Remy nodded. "Sometimes, it's good not to remember everyt'ing, homme."

Joseph frowned at him thoughtfully. "I have to say I disagree with you, LeBeau. You don't know what it's like having to carve out a life for yourself. At least you have your identity."

Remy snorted. "Hah. Gambit knows what it's like. More dan you know."

The other man stared at him for a moment. Then he nodded thoughtfully, realizing that the Cajun had his own share of struggling for survival in this world as well. He was all too aware of the circumstances of his banishment. It had been a great source of trauma and guilt for Rogue when they first started their relationship. Many nights he had spent, comforting her and assuring her that she was not a bad person; that she was not to blame; that she had a right to be happy. Recently, he found himself in the same position, right after her former lover returned. Yet, he continued to be by her side to comfort and support her, despite nagging doubts and ruminations about the possibility that he might lose her. For her part, Rogue remained faithful to their relationship, refusing to even bring up her past with Gambit. Looking back, Joseph was not sure if this necessarily signaled her commitment.

After a brief silence, Joseph suddenly asked, "Do you still care for her?"

Remy smirked, turning his back to the other man to smoke his cigarette.

"I think I'm entitled to know." Joseph's voice was suddenly cold and forceful.

The tall, lean Cajun turned to face him, red-on-black eyes blazing. "You t'ink you're entitled? What makes you t'ink dat, homme?" His own voice was uncharacteristically raised.

"Because I love her."

Remy's insides froze. He struggled to regain his composure. "What you say?" he asked, slipping the cigarette from his lips. His hand was suddenly shaking uncontrollably.

"I love her."


"I love Rogue."

"I t'ink I heard you de first time, homme."

"I would never hurt her for anything in the world."

"What makes you t'ink Gambit wants to hear dis?"

"Because in spite of you wanting to see us apart, you want her happy."

Homme not as stupid as he looks, Remy mused, resisting the urge to smile. "Dat mebbe true," he said coolly, flicking the ash from his cigarette.

Joseph watched the other man continue to smoke. "You never answered my question."

Remy raised a brow at him and said flatly, "Gambit never said he would."

Joseph narrowed his eyes. He considered telling him how happy he and Rogue were together. He thought about informing him how Rogue never talked about him anymore. Following seconds of deliberation, he decided to be the bigger man and made his way to the mansion wordlessly.

As he watched Joseph's figure walk briskly a few feet away from him and towards the mansion, Remy slipped the metal collar he had taken from the laboratory. It would be so easy to place it around Joseph's neck without him knowing----use a charged card, pour on the charm. It would be so easy to watch Joseph lose his powers. It would be so easy to sit back and watch the other man touch Rogue without the magnetic field he created as a barrier and suddenly pass out in shock. So very easy, indeed.

Remy exhaled bitterly, cigarette smoke escaping from his lips. He stared down at the metal collar in his hand. Another time. Another place.

Chapter Twenty-Three: This Moment

The early spring afternoon in upstate New York was unusually warm. Typically, one would have to still bundle up in a coat before venturing outside in Westchester. Instead, only gentle breezes and mild temperatures welcomed people outside, which was refreshing given the long and bitterly cold winter. Many of the students decided to extend their leisure time on the grounds. Even the more studious ones sprawled out on the manicured lawns, reading and catching up on the semester's work. Some of the instructors, like Kurt and Hank, were holding their classes outdoors in a veiled attempt to enjoy the good weather and the raised spirits associated with it.

Bobby was in high spirits as well, but not only because of the weather. He had just finished finalizing the plans for the bachelor party in Las Vegas for his cousin, Joel. Being the procrastinator that he was, he kept pushing the task off, finding excuses in his teaching work or being out on missions. When Joel called last week about the trip, Bobby frantically realized that he had to take care of it. Despite spending almost an hour and a half on the phone with the airlines and the hotel, he managed to get a decent deal on the trip for the group, which also included Hank and Warren.

He stuffed his cell phone into the pocket of his chinos as he wandered outside the French doors of the living room and onto the stone deck. He contemplated bragging about his accomplishment to Hank (Warren was away on business), but noticed he was busy teaching a group of students on the other side of the back lawn with his new teaching assistant and former Generation X member, Paige Guthrie. Shrugging, Bobby's eyes then traveled around the spacious grounds of the mansion to see who else was outside. Most of them were the younger students from his math classes. Upon seeing him, a couple gave him friendly grins and/or waves in greeting. He returned the gestures cheerfully, walking past them and their teacher. It was no secret he was one of the more popular instructors at the school. His youth, sense of humor, and stories of pulling pranks on Mr. Summers and Dr. McCoy helped to ensure that status.

Hank looked up briefly from his lecture notes on ecological systems in nature. Through his black-rimmed glasses, he gave Bobby a wink. Then he quickly returned to asking the children questions about the previous night's readings.

Bobby's smile faded slightly when he passed the group. His mind drifted to a peculiar conversation he had with Hank the day before. Hank was known for being long-winded and often used vocabulary that sometimes went over other people's heads. However, that was not the case during their talk after arriving home from a mission. Bobby had just showered when Hank approached him. His old friend seemed distracted, but at the same time, trying to beat around the bush to get to his point.

"What's up?" Bobby had asked, buttoning his black Hawaiian shirt with palm leaves printed all over.

Hank peered around the room nervously before responding, "I need to ask you something." His voice was lowered to almost a whisper. "It's very important."

"Sorry, Hank. You're my friend and all, but I just don't do blue fur." Bobby had laughed at his own joke before slipping on his purple-tinted sunglasses. When he noticed that his friend wasn't sharing his enthusiasm, his laughter quickly died down. "Is something wrong?"

Hank shook his head emphatically. Then he played with the hem of his black periodic table T-shirt, which fell over his baggy jeans. "No, no. It's just that.. You're a good guy, right?"

"Um, if I'm not, I'm on the wrong team." Bobby had given him a strange look. "Seriously, what is this all about?"

Hank frowned, acting as if he didn't hear the question. "I mean, you wouldn't deliberately hurt anyone, right?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Like women."

"Have you been talking to Opal?"

"No, I mean in general."

"Hank, I told you I'm not interested in that Dr. Eglinton friend of your. She's nice and all, but she's also got scary teeth."

"Just answer the question. I need to know."


"Please, Bobby. Just for.. My peace of mind."

"Your piece of mind rests on my answering that weird question? That's really sad, man."


"No, I wouldn't. You know me better than that. Hank, what's going on? What's with the Inquisition?" Bobby was beginning to get worried. He had contemplated contacting Jean to conduct a mind scan on their friend. Obviously, something seemed wrong at that moment.

Hank was already out the door, clearly relieved. "I knew it. No worries, Bobby. I will see you at dinner." His bare feet slapped against the cool steel floor of the basement as he briskly retreated to his laboratory.

Since then, Hank refused to explain the conversation---what he was talking about, why he approached Bobby in the first place. He was also noticeably jumpy whenever he, Bobby, and Logan were in the same vicinity. His nervous rambling and chuckles were clear indicators of that. Still, he continued to decline commenting on what was on his mind. Hank could be very irritating like that, Bobby found. Not the brooding rebel like Logan, but rather the talkative, nerdy scientist.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jubilee a couple yards away. Despite the warm weather, she also had on a dark denim jacket over a white T-shirt and a pair of cropped, cargo pants with flip-flops. Her long, dark hair streamed behind her as she closed the door to the Summers' home. She slung a blue-and-white canvas bag over her shoulder as she began to walk away from the farm-style, white clapboard house. After a few steps, her head turned to his direction. A smile brightened her delicate features as she waved over to him. Bobby grinned back, making his way to where she was standing quickly.

"Hey," he greeted, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his chinos. He eyed her bag with curiosity. "Where are you off to?"

Her blue eyes followed his gaze before traveling to his face. "I'm going to the lake to work on my photography project," she replied. Then she asked, "Do you want to come with me?"

Starting in January, Jubilee started taking introductory photography classes at the nearby state college. She decided to pursue the idea after perusing through one of Jean's fashion magazines. Much to her surprise, she had a talent for it, specializing in black-and-white landscapes and other still life. Scott, Logan, and the Professor each had framed pieces hanging in their respective areas.

"Sure," Bobby said, nodding and adjusting his purple-tinted sunglasses. "Anything you want me to carry?"

She shook her head. "No, I'm OK. It's just my camera and other stuff. I was thinking about taking out one of the boats or a pontoon on the lake. You know, to get different angles of the lake."

"And I get to steer?"

"Sure. Just don't crash us into anything, or capsize.."

"Oh, please. Give me some credit. That only happened yesterday."

During their walk to the dock, there was the lively chatter that was always there whenever they were together. Bobby was telling her about the last mission he had been on with Hank, Rogue, Storm, and Scott recently. Since she was not an active member of the team, Jubilee often lived vicariously through others. Primarily, it was either Bobby or Paige, who had recently come to live at the mansion as a teaching assistant and a member of the team.

As Bobby was relaying the details of what happened, he stared at her. Her face was thoughtful and attentive, her sapphire blue eyes focused on his boyish features. He then realized this was the most comfortable he had been with someone for quite some time. Even with his closest friends like Hank, Warren, and Rogue, Bobby always felt compelled to be Mr. Entertainment with his quick comments, pranks, and impersonations. After all, that was his role in the group. While Jubilee appreciated his sense of humor, she didn't need for him to joke around and play the part of the clown to get her to listen. He could relax and being himself. That was good enough for her. The nightly conversations they would have in her room were a testament to that.

He couldn't say the same for other people in his life. To his parents, he was the dutiful son who joked his way out of serious conversations. To his teammates and students, he was also the jokester, who was guaranteed to provide laughs whenever he was around. To his ex-girlfriends, he was a passing interest, someone they could never commit to. Even Lorna Dane, who was now staying at the mansion, who was on speaking terms with him, still expressed her ambivalence about their previous relationship. He had overheard Jean confiding to Scott about the change in their old friend, saying that Lorna had commented that she didn't she slept with Bobby but rather she put up with him when they dated.

Bobby felt himself stiffen involuntarily as he recalled the incident in his mind. He wasn't sure what he had done wrong in that relationship. Or in any of the other ones that followed it, for that matter. All he knew was that he put all his effort into them, to try to be everything the other person wanted, only to be left alone in the end.

But he wasn't alone really. Bobby had his friends at the mansion, and his students. They were almost a second family to him. Then there was Jubilee. Grown-up, thoughtful Jubilee who made him feel at ease whenever he was around her and never judged him.

"Bobby?" Jubilee's soft voice interrupted his thoughts. They had reached the point where the stone path met the dock when she noticed his sudden silence after finishing his story and his tense facial expression and body language. Never having seen him like that, she became concerned. "Bobby, are you OK?"

He quickly forced a smile, nodding. "Sure.. I was just thinking."

"About what?" Obviously, it was something that was weighing him heavily from the way he had been acting. While she wasn't one to pry too much, she wanted to reaffirm to him that he could tell her anything. She placed a comforting hand on his arm and paused in her steps. Her blue eyes were round as they peered up at his boyish face, which still seemed troubled in spite of the smile he pasted on.

Bobby's gray eyes flicked to where her hand was. He could feel his the skin underneath tingle and become increasingly warm. At first, he thought she was exerting her powers. He then became conscious of the fact that she wasn't doing anything of the sort.

"Um, about whether or not we should take the pontoon or one of the boats," he lied. "My vote is with the pontoon. It's easier for me to steer and you can walk around to get different shots if you want. This time, I promise not to crash into anything." He could still remember her startled expression when he accidentally rammed the head of the boat they were riding in into a rock ashore. She had come very close to lurching over the side when he caught her.

"OK. Sounds good." Jubilee removed her hand, still unsure if he was really being honest with her. She turned her head in the direction of the boathouse nearby and nodded. Then she began to fumble around in her bag. "Oh, wait."

"What?" Bobby stopped in his footsteps. He was already ahead of her, wanting to put the awkward moment behind him.

Jubilee already had her camera out. It was a Canon SLR Logan had purchased for her a month ago. The camera came with a 28-90mm, zoom lens. "I want to take a photo of you," she explained, tucking a lock of black hair behind her ear.

He gave her a teasing look upon hearing her strange request. "But I haven't had my make-up and hair people pretty me up yet," he pretended whine.

"Very funny," she said, rolling her eyes. Then her face was serious once again. "Really, I want to take a picture of you."

"So you can blow it up into a poster for your room?"

"Ha ha. I'm thinking about moving into human subjects. And since you're the closest thing I'm going to get to a model.."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Uh, nothing. So, can I?"

"Sure, but no nude shots."

Her cheeks suddenly became flushed pink. She tried to compose herself and retorted, "I don't want my lens to crack."

He laughed and nodded. "Sure, sure. So, what do you want me to do? Ice up?"

She shook her head, ebony tresses spilling down her slim shoulders. "No, I want you just the way you are. Just stand there and be relaxed." Jubilee began focusing her lens, crouching over slightly to get a good angle.

As he posed for her by simply standing in place with a grin, he recalled the first part of her instructions, "I want you just the way you are." Modeling as her subject aside, Bobby knew she meant it in another way. It was the mantra for their friendship over the years. Suddenly, he found himself thinking about if she could have meant it in other ways as well. He admonished himself as soon as the idea emerged, wondering why it had entered into his mind in the first place.

After two shots, the two readied the pontoon to take around the lake. It was a gorgeous, idyllic day to take to the water. The sun shone brightly overhead and there was a slight, cool breeze that rustled the trees surrounding the lake and rippled the water. True to his word, Bobby was the careful driver. He steered the boat slowly around the waters before Jubilee asked him to stop so she could take some shots of the mansion in the distance. She snapped a couple of pictures, commenting about how the sunlight refracted off the water's surface.

Bobby locked the steering wheel in place and sauntered over to her side. "Anything good?" he asked after she had taken another picture.

"A couple shots look promising, but I won't know until I develop the film." Jubilee had been kneeling, but then straightened to her full height as she winded the film inside. Raising the camera to her face again, she was poised to take another picture. Then she lowered it, frowning and peering down at the camera.

"What's wrong, Jubes?" Bobby watched her turn the camera over, inspecting the various buttons and switches.

She shook her head, struggling to adjust the focusing ring. "I can't figure out what's going on," she said, brows furrowing together in frustration. "It's jammed or something." She raised the camera again and tried to move the ring again to no avail.

Bobby moved behind her. "Here, let me help." He circled his arms around her and tried moving the ring himself. When he heard a click, the ring shifted. "How's that?"

"Perfect. Don't move." She leaned against him slightly to set up the shot. The swaying trees played the perfect backdrop to the placid calm of the blue-green waters of the lake. This was going to be a great picture.

Bobby kept his arms around her, his hands on the camera. He willed himself to be motionless as she took the photograph. He tried to think of other things to keep himself still, like the picturesque day, being on the boat. Then his mind drifted to the way Jubilee smelled of bubblegum and cinnamon, the way he felt so comfortable with her. At that moment, there was no place he rather would have been.

Jubilee turned up to him, sapphire eyes sparkling after she had taken the picture. "Beautiful," she breathed.

Bobby smiled down at her. "You're right about that."

 Chapter Twenty-Four: Learning to Smile

Early spring not summoned thoughts of warmer weather and less clothing to wear outside, but the annual spring brunch party at the mansion. This was an opportunity to bring together the instructors, team members, students and staff for a relaxing gathering. The morning of the brunch found Jean, Ororo, and Rogue decorating the mansion and organizing the logistics (securing enough seats, plates, and silverware). Meanwhile, Cook had been up since six o'clock in the morning, preparing the menu for that day. However, unlike the previous years, she decided to recruit assistants from the instructors and students, sending them to the various shops and markets in town to pick up last minute items.

Bobby Drake pushed open the kitchen door with his shoulder, carrying in the rest of the groceries from his car. He found himself as an unwilling recruit after he was caught eating strawberries for the tart she was going to make. He flashed a busy Cook a grin, who seemed engrossed in boiling her rice. As he unloaded the groceries onto the counter, he saw Kurt sitting at the kitchen table cutting asparagus.

"Hey, Kurt," he greeted, sauntering over to him. "Where are Warren and Scott?" During his repeated trips from the garage to the kitchen, he had run into almost everyone with the exception of Cyclops and Archangel.

Kurt's yellow eyes looked amused, tossing a few spears into a large bowl. "They vent to the cellar to get some vine."

"But I bought some already." Bobby frowned, crossing his arms.

The other man shrugged. "Vell, they took one look at vat you brought home, and decided to get something else."

"What? It's a perfectly good box!" Bobby threw his hands in the air, exasperated.

"Sugah, good wine don't come in boxes," Rogue drawled, walking into the kitchen. She carried a bouquet of white roses, freshly cut from Storm's greenhouse, and a crystal vase. Nodding hello to Cook, she went to the sink and promptly filled the vase with water before placing the flowers inside.

Both men greeted the young woman, noticing that she was very dressed than usual. She wore a black pull-on dress with a deep V-neck and an all-over, retro-inspired floral print that had a bias-cut georgette frame through hip with diagonally seamed overlap. Long, opera-style black gloves stopped just above her elbows. Her hair was loose, but swept to the side, which complemented her lightly made-up features. However, her bare feet offset her formal dress.

"I think there's something missing from your outfit," Bobby observed, stealing an asparagus spear and popping it into his mouth.

She turned off the sink. "Ah know," she replied, rearranging the flowers. "Ah like my bare feet. Makes this ol' gal feel free, ya know."

Bobby turned to Kurt, chewing thoughtfully. "Maybe I should use that line when I want to walk around in my boxers," he mused, slipping off his purple- tinted sunglasses.

"That's not wantin' to be free, Bobby. That's just bein' disgustin'." Rogue chided, exchanging a sly look with Kurt. "Can't have the whole mansion gougin' their eyes out."

Bobby feigned a hurt look, clutching his heart. "You really know how to hurt a guy."

"Only if they're lucky," Rogue laughed, winking.

Kurt's golden eyes widened in disbelief as he tried to shake the pictures of his foster sister doing very carnal things out of his head. He was quickly trying to tell himself she meant that statement in another way. Embarrassed, he continued to silently cut up the asparagus and tried to avoid looking at her.

"Rogue," Jean said, entering the kitchen in a black, sleeveless dress. Her thick, Titian hair was swept up in a bun, exposing her graceful, swan-like neck. She flashed a smile to everyone before turning to the curvy young woman. "We're out of plates."

"Already?" Rogue could have sworn she and Logan had brought down at least three crates from the attic.

Jean nodded, sighing. "Well, kind of. Ororo and I were setting the table up when Artie and Leech knocked over a stack of four plates. By the time I saw what happened, it was too late. Do you think you could go to the attic and bring down another crate while I clean up?"

"Sure, hon," Rogue handed Bobby the vase and began to head out of the kitchen. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that many of the students were gathered around the staircase, talking and laughing excitedly. She decided to forego squeezing through the masses and take the elevator to the attic floor.

The steel doors were about to close when she arrived. Quickly, she slid her arm between them and slipped inside. She punched the '4' button for the attic level. As the doors closed, her nose detected a familiar scent--- pine and cigarettes. Slowly, she turned around to face the source.

"Remy," she greeted, feeling her insides jump. Her green eyes took in the tall, lean man from the Bayou. He was leaning against the back wall of the elevator, shuffling a deck of cards. It appeared that he had just had a Danger Room session since he was still in his trademark body armor and his brown leather duster.

"Ch・e," he responded. His red-on-black eyes roving over her clingy dress and the curves it hugged, leaving very little left to his imagination. It was taking all his self-restraint not to reach out and touch her arm, her hair. "You look tr・ belle."

She blushed. The intense, smoldering quality to his stare made her feel self-conscious all of a sudden. She hoped that the rid to the attic would be a swift one. "Thank you, swamp rat."

"So, everyt'in' ready for de party?" Remy asked, trying to act casual and nonchalant.

Rogue nodded, nervously tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "Yeah, Ah just gotta get some more plates for the party." There was a brief pause before she suddenly inquired, "Ya comin'?"

He stuffed the cards into the pocket of his leather duster. "Non, Gambit not interested."

"Why not?"

"Gambit not in de mood to party dis year, ch・e."

"Oh..Ya know, ya should go."

Before she could answer, the lights in the elevator suddenly flickered overhead. Suddenly, the car jerked to a completed stop. Rogue was flung backwards. Fortunately, Remy was quick to reach out and catch her in his arms as he was thrown against the back wall. He held her tightly for a moment, relishing the softness and warmth of her body against his. What seemed like an eternity was more like seconds as he hoped that this would never end. It was almost like those days he longed for, before he was in Antarctica. Unfortunately, he knew that all good things had to end when he felt Rogue gently pull away.

She stumbled to her feet, her hands on her hips. "What in the world?"

Remy stood up. He pressed a series of buttons. No movement. "Looks like we stuck, ch・e," he observed huskily.

Rogue frowned and opened the telephone box to call to the control room. She hit the speaker button. "Hello? Anyone there?"

The kindly, deep voice of Hank McCoy answered back through the speakers in the elevator. "Hi, Rogue. What can I do for you?"

"Remy and Ah are stuck in the elevator," she explained, tossing Remy an amused look.

"Oh, dear. Let's see.." She could picture him fumbling at his computer from the sounds in the background. "Oh, yes, you are."

"How soon can ya get us out?"

"In about fifteen minutes. There's a faulty connection in the computer, which I'll have to attend to."

"Would it help if Ah went up to check things out? Maybe there's somethin' Ah can do."

"No, no. Actually, that would hinder the situation. Is anyone hurt?"

Rogue turned to Remy, who shook his head. "We're fine."

"That's good to hear," Hank replied, sounding relieved. "Just sit tight and I will have you two out as soon as possible."

Rogue nodded, pressing her lips together. "OK. Oh, Beast?"

"Yes, Rogue?" The sound of his fingers tapping against the keys of his computer could be heard in the background.

"Could ya tell Jean Ah'm in here. Ah was supposed to get some stuff from the attic." Rogue credited herself for remembering her task. Lately, her memory seemed to be all over the place.

"Will do." Click. Beast was gone.

Rogue heaved a sigh, shoulders sinking. She gave her former lover a rueful smile. "Ah guess it's just us for now," she said.

Remy crossed his arms over his chest. "Dere are worse people to be stuck wit, non?"

Her green eyes fluttered. "No, Ah didn't mean that Ah.. Ah mean.." Then she scowled at him. "Ya just tryin' to put words in my mouth, Cajun."

"No, ch・e. Gambit would never do dat." His eyes twinkled merrily, which seemed to irritate her even more.

She rolled her eyes at him. "Same old swamp rat," she mused, her expression softening. "Always tryin' to start somethin'."

"Dat's what you liked about Gambit, ch・e." He flashed her a mischievous smile, seating himself back on the floor. When he saw that she was still slightly peeved, he said, "Come sit wit' Gambit. You heard Beast. We not leavin' for a while." He patted a spot nearby.

Rogue stared at him warily for a moment. She wasn't sure if it was the logic he laid out or his charm, but she reluctantly sank down to the floor. She made sure there was some distance between them. Despite the friendly banter they engaged in before the elevator stopped, she still felt some discomfort and anxiety whenever she was around him. Even when she first stepped in the elevator with him, Rogue could feel his eyes roaming possessively over her. The expression on his face, though determinedly detached, still conveyed some tension. She was tempted to ask him about it, but realized she was better off knowing.

Because I'm with someone else, she told herself.

Gambit pulled out the deck of cards and began to shuffle them absent- mindedly. He could tell something was troubling her from her lapse into silence. "Somet'in' you want to share?"

Startled, she shook her head. Then she glanced down at his hands, which were dealing the cards out. "Solitaire?"

He nodded. "Oui. Gambit would ask you to play a game, but we both know how you hate cards." He chuckled softly, flipping a card over.

The corners of her bow mouth curled into a sheepish grin. "Ya remember?" she asked softly, watching him intently flip over another card in the deck.

His auburn hair flopped over his brow as he nodded. "Oui. Dis ol' t'ief remembers lots of t'ings."

"Like what?" She was genuinely curious.

"Like de time you bought dat nice red sportscar. Gambit went wit' you to de dealership. Gambit t'ought he was goin' have to step in and break up dat fight wit' you and dat other femme." He looked amused as the memory replayed in his head.

Rogue threw her head back and laughed. "Well, Ah saw that car first. She was the one who tried to hit me first. That gal didn't know who she was messin' with."

"Well, if dat's what you want to call it," he said, shrugging his shoulders.

After her laughter died down, she was quiet for a moment. Then she asked, "What else do ya remember, Cajun?"

"Gambit remember de first we met, ch・e."

"Oh, gawd. That was a long time ago."

"Gambit remembers everyt'in' about it. Let's see, you started flirtin' wit' me.."

"Ah did not. You started it!"

"Whatever. You were tr・ belle.. Gambit knew you were somet'in' special."

Suddenly, undulating warmth crept from her neck to her cheeks. "Swamp rat." she murmured, her green eyes lowered shyly.

His fingers brushed against her soft hair, his eyes solemn. "Gambit never been more honest," he whispered.

She beamed up at him, placing a gloved hand over his. Hearing him just say that seemed to spread the warmth from her skin inside. This was the first time in a long time she truly smiled and meant it. This sense happiness and contentment soon expanded when she saw that he was smiling broadly as well.

Suddenly, the elevator car jerked upwards. It traveled slowly, but finally stopped on the second floor. Startled, both rose to their feet as the doors slid open.

Joseph stood there, holding a crate in his arms. His blue eyes coolly traveled to Gambit's face, then flicked to that of Rogue's. "Everything all right?" he asked, his voice very controlled and tight.

Rogue nodded emphatically, wringing her hands nervously. "Sure, sugah. We've been stuck.. Do you need help?"

He shook his head, clearly not pleased with finding her in an enclosed space with her former lover. However, he forced a smile and said, "No, dear. Let's go downstairs and finish the preparations for the brunch."

"OK." Rogue's green eyes turned to meet Gambit's red-on-black ones. She gave him a small smile. "Ah'll see ya, Cajun."

Gambit nodded, his mouth forming a taut line. He watched the Southern bell depart with the man she was happy with. Cursing fate, he tried not to think about how close he had been to the one thing he wanted for so long. It would be all too much.

 Chapter Twenty-Five: Needle in the Hay This is kind of long, but inspired by friend's trip to Vegas. The and are italics in HTML. Thanks to everyone for the feedback. Please keep it coming. As usual, the characters are Marvel's but the story is mine.

The first night in Las Vegas for Joel's bachelor party had started off innocently enough. The group, which included Bobby, Warren, Hank, Joel, and a few of Joel's childhood friends (Peter, Richard, and Jeff, three burly men who constantly smoked cigars and played football at Villanova with Joel), had landed in the city early afternoon. After checking into their rooms at the MGM Grand, the men visited the various casinos, such as the Belagio, along the strip. They had voted down Bobby's idea of seeing a magic show instead of gambling. Warren and a group of Joel's friends made a beeline to the Blackjack table, while Joel and Bobby took to the craps tables. Meanwhile, Hank kept himself occupied at the slot machines, calculating his probability of wins along the way.

Following a meal at one of the restaurants with an all-you-can-eat buffet and several bars for drinks, the group returned to the hotel. At that point, Joel's friends had disappeared to make some phone calls from their rooms. Bobby and the others stayed in Joel's room to make some drinks at the bar. Hank had appointed himself as the group's bartender, taking requests. His specialty for that night---screwdrivers.

After a couple of minutes, Joel's friends returned, announcing they had a surprise for their friend. Before Bobby could come up with a witty comment, Peter and Richard went into the hallway and led in a curvaceous blonde and an equally curvaceous brunette, wearing a nurse's outfit and carrying in a stereo. Bobby, already past his limit (usually, that was four alcoholic drinks---he had about six rum and Cokes), asked who was sick. For that remark, he received strange looks from Joel and the others.

As the brunette began her routine to the soundtrack of the latest Britney Spears CD, the blonde asked which one of them was the groom. When Richard asked why, she responded that she wanted to give him a special wedding present. Alarmed, Joel turned to the others and wiped a bead of sweat from his balding head nervously. He told them he wasn't comfortable with the situation, noting that his future bride expressly forbade him from having any interactions with strippers. Then he asked his three friends if they could stand in for him. All three shook their heads, commenting that they had received similar prohibitions from their wives.

Joel turned to Warren and Hank. "What about you two?" he inquired, finishing his martini.

Warren ran a tanned hand through his wavy blond hair, shaking his head. "The old me would say yes, but I'm seeing this new girl back home. It just wouldn't be right." His blue eyes glanced over at Hank, who was hurriedly chewing on a potato chip. "Beast?"

Hank was relieved that blue fur covered his cheeks. "I will have to respectfully decline," he said in a tone of voice, which forbade any further questioning. He hid his face behind the room service menu, finding that he had the urge to eat again. He then approached Peter and Jeff about joining him for another meal.

All eyes then turned to Bobby, who was working on his record seventh drink. He returned with a quizzical look, pointing a finger to his chest. Then he shrugged. "Sure," he slurred rather loudly, kicking off his sandals. "I'll get my check-up."

"Maybe this isn't a good idea," Hank warned, becoming concerned as he observed his friend's unsteady gait.

Warren grinned. "We're doing him a favor," he quipped, rubbing his chin. "The way I see it, this is going to be the first time he's seen a naked woman in years."

"I heard that!" Bobby yelled over his shoulder, which elicited laughs from Joel and the others. Apparently drunk Bobby was more amusing that sober Bobby.

Joel and the blonde quickly worked out the arrangements to send Bobby as his proxy. They agreed to allow his cousin some privacy by setting up the entertainment in Hank, Warren, and Bobby's neighboring room. Bobby, still very intoxicated, was oblivious to the conversation. Instead, he was asking the now-naked brunette about her nursing credentials. Sighing, Joel grabbed his cousin and ushered him and the blonde out of his room.

Bobby fumbled around in his pocket for the key card. "Can't find it," he muttered, his gray eyes heavy-lidded.

"It's in your hand, babe." The blonde pointed out. Realizing that he was lacking the fine motor skills to open the door, she went ahead and did it for him. Then she led him inside. Gently, she helped him sit down on one of the king-sized beds.

"Just relax," she purred, sliding her fingers in between the buttons of his Hawaiian shirt. She quickly pulled the shirt down, her eyes admiring the toned chest underneath.

Bobby blinked rapidly, feeling very much out of his body at that moment. It was as if he were observing the scene from the corner of the room. He wasn't sure if it was the alcohol, the situation, or a combination of both responsible for the dissociative experience. He looked down at the dancer, inhaling the mixture of cigarettes and liquor that emanated from her skin. He frowned thoughtfully as she stood up, swinging her hips and arms from side-to-side.

"What's your name, honey?" she whispered as she slipped off her nurse's hat.

"Bob. Bobby," he slurred, noticing how her uniform was not at all like Annie's back at the mansion. The skirt was too short. He made a mental note to make a suggestion to her the next time they talked.

"Hi, Bobby. I'm Ginger." She began to unbutton her dress very slowly, edging closer to him.

"Ginger.." The name rolled off his tongue quickly. He was startled when she began to brush her hair against his chest.

Ginger smiled at him. "Do you like that?"

An inaudible, but affirming sound escaped from his throat. She laughed softly, pulling off her white dress to reveal a lacy black bra and matching thong panties. His eyes widened in surprise, watching her step away from him to continue dancing for several minutes.

"You're cute," she cooed, running her hands through her hair and lowering her lashes coyly. "I could just take you home with me, you know."

He nodded, not sure what he was agreeing to. His ears thudded with the rush of blood seeping through his veins from the adrenaline. He inhaled sharply when she slinked towards him again, placing her hands on his thighs. Bobby stared down at the hands, which were small and white with shiny red nails.

Ginger leaned over and rested her cheek against his. "I'm gonna do something to you'll definitely remember. You have to stay still, Bobby. I want you just the way you are."

Bobby froze (not literally), an image of sapphire blue eyes and their warmth flashing in his head. I want you just the way you are. It seemed to immediately snap him out of his alcoholic cloud. He was now aware where he was. He was aware that his shirt was gone. He was aware that a strange blonde woman was straddling him, shoving her chest in his face and unbuckling and unzipping his pants.

More importantly, he was aware how wrong it all was.

Quickly, he picked up the young woman and lifted her off of him. "I'm sorry," he said, face flushing. "I just---I can't."

"What's wrong? Did I hurt you?"

"No, no. It's just that.. I can't."

"Oh, I see. You're gay."

"What? No, it's not that. It's complicated, s'all."

"So you've got someone who won't let you, either? Man, you guys are whipped."

"Not 'actly." Despite somewhat more lucid thoughts, he was still slurring. Quietly, he handed her hat and dress. "Sorry."

Ginger sniffed haughtily, standing up. She quickly got dressed and began to head to the door. "Well, I hope she's worth it," she said flatly, closing the door behind her.

Still slightly disoriented, Bobby sighed. All of a sudden, he felt the need to change into different clothes. His drunken mind's logic dictated that if he wore different clothes altogether, he could immediately put the episode behind him. He stood up and stripped off the rest of his clothing, including his snowflake boxers. Then he stumbled to the walk-in closet and opened the door to step inside, the door swinging behind him closed.

Well, at least he thought it was the closet. Why was it so bright in here?

Bobby quickly sobered up when he realized he had actually walked out into the hall. Frantic, he also realized he had no key card to get back inside. He racked his brain as to what to do. He cursed the alcohol that stunted his ability to come up with a plan. His eyes darted around him, looking for anyone else in the hall. Crouching down low, he remembered that the others were next door.

On his way to the door, Bobby tripped over a loose piece of carpeting and banged into something hard and metal. He didn't bother to look as to what it was, but could feel something wet and slimy on his legs and back. This did not deter him from his mission to get to the Joel's room. He managed to form a fist and rapped it against the door.

Warren answered the door, poking his head through the door. His blue eyes widened when he saw his friend. "Bobby, what the hell?!" he exclaimed.

"Shh!" Bobby hissed, desperate for Warren to let him inside. "Don't make a scene!"

Warren acted as if he didn't hear him and continued his line of questioning in disbelief. "What happened to our room service food.... and why the hell are you standing in the hallway, buck-ass naked?" he demanded.

"I, uh, got locked out of the room." Bobby's face was now pink from embarrassment.

"So you took it out on our food?" Warren countered, staring at the room service cart behind Bobby.

Bobby sheepishly followed his friend's gaze. The cart had been knocked over and the food, or what was left of it, was scattered all over the hallway. Warren shook his head at the devastation. Something shriveled and purple that may have once been a stuffed eggplant; slices of bread, lettuce and tomato, which he presumed had been BLT sandwiches Hank wanted, only they were now missing the bacon; faint traces of the lasagna they were going to save for Bobby; lettuce from a sesame chicken salad they thought sounded good; and whipped cream from dessert was smeared on the floor like finger-paint.

"What happened, Bobby?" he finally asked warily.

"I dunno," was Bobby's knee-jerk response. Before he could stop himself, he added, "Um, it was like that when I got here."

It was then that Warren finally noticed that the younger man had a few smudges of whipped cream on his nude body. "Don't tell me this was part of some perverted sex game between you and that stripper," he groaned, looking away.

"No, it wasn't a sex game between us," Bobby snapped, gray eyes indignant. "If you really want to know, nothing happened."

"Then why the hell are you naked?" A disturbing thought popped into Warren's head and his eyes widened. "This wasn't a, um, one-player game, was it?"

"What? No!"

"Oh, Bobby..." Warren shook his head like a disapproving parent. He knew his friend was lonely, but this was ridiculous.

"For Chrissakes, Warren, let me in and give me the damn room key!" he snapped. Bobby angrily snatched up the white tablecloth from the toppled cart and wrapped it around his body like a toga.

"What's going on?" Joel asked as he shoved his wide head in the gap between the door and doorframe, just below Warren's. He immediately started smirking when he saw his cousin. He's not as innocent as we all thought..

"Bobby was jacking off with our food!" Warren exclaimed.

"Could you say that a little louder, Warren?" Bobby asked sarcastically. "I don't think they heard you in CANADA!"

Joel gave him a quizzical look. "You were jacking off in the hall, Bobby?" He knew his cousin was kind of strange, but this was kind of too much. Maybe he should have asked someone else to stand in as his best man. He wondered if it was too late to ask Peter, Richard, or Jeff.


"Are you naked under that...that toga thing you're wearing?"

"Yes, and it's a tablecloth, for your information."

"What's all the yelling about?" Hank asked from inside the room. Hungry and impatient for the room service to arrive, he had opened a can of macadamia nuts and a bag of pretzels from the bar.

"Bobby was beating off in the hallway," Joel replied, rolling his eyes. He received a chorus of chuckles from his friends inside.

"I was not beating off!" Bobby suddenly noticed that some of the other guests had gotten curious from the commotion and were peering out of their rooms to see what the commotion was about. Bobby sighed and shook his head. "Oh, goddammit."

A red-haired bellhop approached the area. He stared at Bobby, then at the service cart. "Is there a problem here?" he asked.

Warren shook his golden head. "No, everything's fine," he answered, an amused sparkle in his bright blue eyes. "Our friend is just sexually frustrated, that's all."

Bobby screamed through his teeth. With as much as dignity as he could muster, he pushed the door open, knocking Warren and Joel backwards. Then he shoved his way into Joel's room, and away from the gawking onlookers in the hallway.

"Hey Bobby, what happened to your date?" Hank asked teasingly, popping a handful of pretzels into his mouth.

Bobby stopped in the doorway. "She had to go."

"I don't blame her," Richard teased from his spot on the couch, lighting another cigar and admiring the naked brunette in front of him.

Hank instinctively put out his arm and caught Bobby in the chest just as he lunged at the bigger, muscular man. He fished his room key card out of his pocket and handed it to Bobby. "Get some clothes on," he told him, somewhat exasperated. "Nobody's paying you to be naked."

Bobby nodded. He was still confused as to what exactly happened moments ago and why. The only thing he was sure of was that he had done the right thing.