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Sinister Intent: Chapter Five

Mac O'Roni

     The pigeon appeared to have been recently injured, or was simply a very poor flyer. Perhaps it had difficulty keeping its great bulk airborne—the thing was quite as large as a raven.
     With much fuss and waste effort it flapped toward a first-story window in the MediLab wing of the Xavier Institute. It banked frantically, looking for all the world as though it were consciously terrified of bonking beak-first into the windowpane as it scrambled to perch its massive body on the narrow ledge. One might not have been too shocked had the bird then wiped its brow with one shaky wing.
     It thrust its beak forward tentatively, but the muscles were designed to make that motion with considerable power. Startled at its own sudden movement and the lack of any resistance, the bird overbalanced and nearly fell into the room—the window was open. It pinwheeled its wings wildly to maintain its precarious grip on the woodwork.
     Feathers fluffed and swearing vociferously in trilling pigeon-speak, the bird flapped into the room and landed on the floor. Lady Luck was on its side—three rooms in the Intensive ward had windows, and on pure chance it had blundered into the right one. It took a hop toward the bed and then propelled itself backward in startled surprise to see it rear up high above its head before it.
     The pigeon fluffed and swore and hopped wildly over the floor in a comical dance of anger and frustration. Stealth was long by the wayside; it was inevitable that someone should look in to see the source of the disturbance. That someone was Dr. Cecilia Reyes, making her afternoon rounds.
     “I knew I shouldn’t have allowed them to leave that damn window open,” she muttered ill-temperedly. “All right, you filthy little flying shit-factory, out of my hospital! Shoo! Shoo!”
     She advanced upon it, flapping her heavy aluminum clipboard threateningly. The bird hopped away, swearing colorfully; loud trilling squawks that would have utterly scandalized any self-respecting flock of real pigeons.
     Dr. Reyes drove the bird into a corner and made as if to scoop it up on her clipboard and chivvy it out the window, but recoiled in shock and horror as the bird’s body began slowly, terribly, to change.
     Sharp, tiny bones dislocated, pushing the bird’s skin into ugly points, and the bones themselves began to grow, turning an over-large but otherwise normal-looking rook into a freak show grotesquerie in a matter of moments. Feathers shrank and disappeared into the creature’s knobbly skin or thinned and lengthened into dark, ginger-colored hair. The beak softened, grew, and stretched across the face until it became a horrible mockery of human features—an anthropomorphic nightmare still mostly avian, a dreadful hell-beast straight from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Bright oil-drop eyes turned blood-red and began to glow.
     It took nearly three minutes for the thing to reach what appeared to be its full size—terrifyingly huge, much bigger than the doctor herself. All the while the room was filled with a horrible firecracker popping sound, rapid and bloodcurdling, the sound of bones and muscles stretching and reshaping. The air around the creature’s distorting body seemed to glow faintly with eerie crimson light, and the tinged by a sharp, electrical aroma: the smell of frying ozone.
     Her back pressed against the wall next to the open door she was aiming for, eyes peeled wide and mouth set in a hard rictus of paralyzing terror, it took Cecilia Reyes several pounding heartbeats to realize that the squawking terror had at last resolved itself into the panting, sweating, trembling, and unaccountably fully-clothed figure of a man she knew.
     “Gambit!” she shouted, when she found her voice. “What the hell was all of that? And what the hell are you doing here? Come to finish the job?”
     He couldn’t answer at first. He was absolutely exhausted. Sinister was right—this was damnably hard work. The pigeon was his first attempt at transfiguration since leaving the madman’s lab, but getting into that form and particularly coming out of it had been infinitely harder than before. Maybe it was because he was turning into something so much smaller than himself.
     “Relax, doc,” he panted at last. “P’fessa X done tol’ me t’get m’ass back here so’s Doc McCoy can examine me.”
     “Dr. McCoy is still a patient, thanks to you,” Dr. Reyes said severely. Gambit was not affronted—she was always severe.
     “I know, an’ I’m sorry,” he said. “I din’ wanna hurt anyone.”
     “From what I’ve been dealing with these last few weeks, I’d say that’s the biggest damn bald-faced lie I’ve ever heard.”
     He looked at her through his sweat-soaked bangs from where he squatted on the floor. “You mean you b’lieve Gambit done all dat of ‘is own free will?”
     She tossed her hair a little, a way she had of expressing doubt. “Well…no, not really. I mean, as I understand it, Sinister shot you with something first.”
     “He call it a ‘neuro-blaster.’ Make it special jus’ f’me.”
     “Well, I’m sorry if I— Wait just a god-damned minute, here. If Professor Xavier told you to come back, then why the hell do you show up in Storm’s hospital room flopping around on the floor inside a damn bird?” she asked, suspicions flaring.
     He laughed weakly. “Wan’ed t’see m’Stormy ‘fore Chuck got ‘is hooks in me an’ started grillin’ me ‘bout Sinister’s lab. An’ wit’out runnin’ int’ anyone who maybe be holdin’ a grudge ‘gainst Gambit f’all dis foolishment.”
     “Explain the bird, please.”
     He ran a distracted hand through his hair. “Sinister been messin’ wit’ my genetics. Turn me int’ a shape-shifter,” he explained for what already felt like the millionth time.
     “And how did you get away from him, might I ask? I suppose you worked some utterly brilliant escape plan and oozed your way out like the slime you are,” she snorted, rolling her eyes.
     “Non. He le’me go.”
     “And why would he do that?”
     “Because he like t’keep me scared. Gambit kep’ runnin’, always lookin’ over ‘is shoulder, be de Gambit Sinister like bes’.”
     Everything he said had the flavor of plausibility, and even though she knew he was a con artist she decided to believe him, at least for now. Of course, once she was out of here she was headed for the intercom and a straight patch to the Professor to report this feathered invasion.
     “Are you all right?” she asked. The harsh, angry edge in her voice was her way of expressing concern. “You look sick.”
     “Tired,” he admitted. “Dat wa’nt ‘xactly easy.”
     “Here, let me help you up,” she said, offering him a hand. He clambered to his feet with difficulty and stood on legs that felt like rubber.
     “T’anks, doc,” he said, once more pushing his damp hair out of his face. It flopped back in his eyes instantly. He did a double-take. “Doc? You okay?”
     Cecilia Reyes blinked and shook herself out of a trance-like state. “Uh, um…what? Oh! Yes, yes I’m fine. Uh…” she tossed her hair again, looking nervous and strangely unsettled. “What is that cologne you’re wearing?”
     “Um, I’m not wearin’ any cologne.”
     He brushed the knuckles of one hand across his stubble-covered chin. “Gambit ain’ shaved in two ‘r t’ree days, doc.” She looked mystified, and he guessed that he did as well.
     “Well, I could’ve sworn that I…I mean, you smell like…”
     She backed away from him and checked her watch and clipboard in an over-blown effort to show that she had pressing business to attend to elsewhere. “Well, I’ve really got to get going, I’ve got…other…patients…to see to.” She bolted out the door and he could hear the heels of her sensible black pumps clicking furiously down the hall.
     “What d’hell got int’ her?” he mused aloud to himself. He decided not to worry about it—she was probably off to get Wolverine, the X-Men’s one-man wrecking crew, and once that hombre got here he was probably out on his ass before he would even be able to say one word, let alone charge one card. If he was lucky, that was. Could be that Logan wouldn’t even bother tossing him, he might just decide to rip him wide open where he stood. Que sera sera. The future could take care of itself; he was here to see Storm and he intended to do it.
     He stood over her, wishing morosely for a good shower. If she were to wake up right then, she would probably oblige him—a good cold shower, complete with lightning. He felt he deserved no better from her.
     “So sorry, padnat,” he mourned, stroking back the fine white hair from her face. There was a bandage covering most of that pretty face, and what flesh remained uncovered was purple and swollen with bruising. “Gambit never wan’ hurt you. Not you. Never you.”
     He closed his fingers gently over hers. Her hand was thin and fragile-looking on the clean white sheet, with ugly tubes snaking out of her wrist leading to drip bottles and blood-pressure machines and God and doctors alone knew what else. Her skin was cold and clammy. The feel of it brought tears dangerously close to over-brimming in his eyes. He leaned over and kissed her.
     Sleeping Beauty she may have been, but clearly he was no Prince Charming. She did not open her eyes, did not miraculously waken from her sleep of death. A sob escaped his throat before he could completely choke it off.
     A smooth, low humming announced the arrival of Professor Charles Xavier in his gold Shi’ar hover-chair. Gambit straightened up instantly and jumped back, dashing the tears from his eyes with the heels of his hands. The last thing he wanted was for the Professor or any of these people to catch him crying—although he could not have said exactly why it was so important.
     “It’s not half as bad as it looks,” Xavier said, focusing his attention on the figure in the hospital bed and politely ignoring the young man’s tear-streaked face. “Dr. Reyes has been using some new Shi’ar medical equipment we were fortunate enough to receive. There will be no permanent scarring; the wounds are healing quickly and cleanly. Within a matter of days, it will be as though she was never injured at all. We expect her to regain consciousness before then. It could happen any time, actually. She’s been showing definite signs of waking.”
     Gambit nodded and backed further into the scanty protection of the room’s few shadows. “Uh huh. Good.”
     “I’m glad you decided to come back to us.”
     “Din’ have much choice. Was you or Sinister.”
     Xavier sighed. “What do I have to do to make you comfortable here?” he said.
     “You’re an X-Man, and I for one am very glad of the fact. With your skills you make an invaluable asset to the team, and frankly I rather like you. For some strange, doubtlessly masochistic reason. But you’ve never wanted to be here. I know that: indeed, you’ve said as much. I daresay I can consider that this is at least to some extent my fault. So tell me; what has to change before you feel you can really trust us?”
     Gambit scowled. He hated being put on the spot like this. Direct questions were hard to evade without lying, and he had a strangely counter-personal aversion to outright lying. “How you ‘spect Gambit t’ trus’ folks what don’ trus’ Gambit?” he said, feeling wretched all the while since he knew he’d given them precious little reason to trust him. They knew what he was. He’d never made any secret out of that.
     “You are, by your own admission, a master thief and a confidence artist,” Professor X said, almost delicately. “How do you expect us to completely trust you, knowing that?”
     “Gambit a t’ief,” he said. “An’ Gambit been known t’charm ‘is way into or out of somet’in he wan’ bad ‘nuff t’do it. But Gambit ain’ no liar, an’ Gambit ain’ no traitor, an’ Gambit don’ much like t’be ‘cused of bein’ either.”
     “And Gambit is so accustomed to constant defensive self-preservation that he can barely speak of himself without distancing himself considerably from the subject. Vis á vis referring to himself in the third person. And Gambit cannot get close enough to anyone to allow these defenses to lapse for even a moment. Not even his ‘Stormy.’”
     “Go ahead an’ mock me. I don’ really give a fuck.”
     “I think, Gambit, that you do. A great deal, in fact. It just pains me to see that you do not—can not—trust anyone enough to be really happy anywhere.”
     “You wanna know who Gambit trus’? Gambit trus’ hisself. An’ Gambit happy when he on ‘is own. Gambit don’ wan’ or need anybody else.”
     “Really? Then why are you so worried about Ororo? Why did you join the X-Men when she asked you to, even though you claimed the operation was ‘pure foolishment,’ as I remember it? Why were you crying over her when I came in?”
     He could say nothing to that. Xavier had him and the worst part of it was that the man knew it. Damn him, he would have made a hell of a con artist himself. He had an uncanny ability to manipulate any situation to his advantage and make a man paint himself into a corner with words.
     Xavier advanced a few feet, bringing the chair far enough into the room that the light streaming through the open window fell directly across the bright yellow hood of his hover-chair. He had a slight, triumphant smile on his thin lips.
     “Remy, we’re not your enemies here,” he continued comfortingly. “We’re your friends. Whether you like it or not.”
     He chuckled a little to show it was intended as a joke, but his eyes were serious. “Many of us have histories we’re not proud of. Some among us have probably done far worse than you have done. As the Dark Phoenix, Jean destroyed a whole star system, and it was inhabited! You can hardly be as bad as that.”
     “As d’Dark Phoenix,” Gambit pointed out. “Jeanne didn’t do dat entirely on ‘er own. Gambit done plenty in ‘is life he can’ put no blame on anyone else for.”
     “And yet Jean took full accountability for what happened. The Dark Phoenix was just a force—incredibly powerful, and doubtlessly corrupt, but it could not function as it did without some cooperation from Jean, even if she did it accidentally. And you, my young friend—” Gambit winced at the term: Sinister always called him that. “—take the blame for some things you really didn’t do.”
     “Oh yah? Like what, f’rinstance?”
     “The Morlock Massacre.”
     He barked laughter. “Sorry t’disappoint you, Chuckles, but Gambit really did do dat.”
     “You were not involved in the killing, and were never willing to be involved in such an operation in any capacity. The worst you could be accused of is being an accessory, not an actual murderer as you clearly consider yourself to be. Indeed, once you saw what Sinister really intended, you attempted to stop it, am I right? Failing in that, you tried to save as many Morlocks as you could. You managed to save a small child. You saved Marrow.”
     “Pretty flimsy, Chuck. Gambit still led dem killers down dere, an’ Gambit drew the Morlocks in f’ de slaughter. Trut’ is, Gambit too damn much a chicken t’ do any a’ dat kin’ a’ killin’ hisself.”
     “A ‘chicken’ does not act consciously to incur the wrath of men like Sinister and Sabretooth.”
     “An’ how you know I done it on purpose?”
     “Three simple facts. Firstly, you are not a man to act rashly in a dangerous situation without first weighing the odds and options—I’ve seen you in action, you’ll recall, and know this. You are without question the most effective on-your-feet strategist I’ve ever seen, and you’d make a fine team leader if I thought you’d accept the responsibility. Secondly, I know from my own men who were down there that day—Storm, for instance—that Sinister was absolutely livid over something that went awry with his plans. That problem was you, I feel certain. From what was reported to me, you seemed to have managed to create as much deliberate chaos as possible for the Marauders before grabbing the child and high-tailing it out of there. Not the action of a man who is particularly frightened. Third and finally, you saved the child. You did not sacrifice her to Sabretooth’s claws to save your own skin. Indeed, it would appear from the evidence that you first made her safe, and then lured Creed away from her, incurring considerable injury yourself in the process. Face it, LeBeau; you’re a selfless, heroic individual. You must be terribly ashamed.”"
     Xavier’s smug, self-satisfied little smile was insufferable. “’F you really wan’ Gambit t’stick aroun’, Chuck, you goin’ ‘bout it d’wrong way.”
     “You won’t leave. You can’t. You said it yourself, it’s either the X-Men or Sinister. And I must thank your father for helping convince you of that.”
     Gambit was now angry enough that his eyes were glowing menacingly. With an inarticulate growl, he pushed past the professor’s chair and stalked away into the mansion.

On to Chapter Six!