Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break
Alfred, Lord Tennson, In Memoriam
I have known them all already, known them all
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
TS Eliot, The lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock
If there had been any larks the following morning, Gambit would have been up with them. As it was, he made do with the sounds of the ducks and geese and other inhabitants of the swamp. They sang much less prettily than larks, but to his ears it was a welcome sound. The bayou was never really silent and he realised how much he had missed the ever-present background noise of life.
Since the Assassins' house never really slept, he wasn't surprised to find the kitchen already occupied when he got down. Out of habit and instinct he turned his head towards the large cooker. Tante Mattie would normally have been standing there, making breakfast, lunch dinner or supper for whoever happened to be passing. Belle said that the old woman had taken to her house by the lake more and more lately, only coming by on brief visits. To Gambit it felt like the heart had been cut out of the place. Mattie had been, and always would be, a surrogate mother to most of the Guild. With her gone, there were few left who could remember old times and ways, a whole generation lost at last. His father, Belle's father, Mattie, the Antiquary; everyone from the old order was gone, leaving the young generation to put everything back together again. That might explain why Mattie was keeping to herself. The Guild house must seem awfully empty when you were the only one of your contemporaries left.
Gambit felt a little of that himself. He kept expecting his brother, Henri, to appear round a corner or through a door. It was crazy because during Henri's life time, this had been the enemy stronghold. Still, Gambit found himself looking over his shoulder for a well remembered voice or friendly smile. Coming into the kitchen, full of faces he didn't know, he felt the burden of responsibility weigh heavier than ever.
There were a few he could name. Most of the Clan Heads were known to him by sight, if not personally. He spotted Fifolet lurking in a far corner, keeping to himself. By the looks of him, he was no more of a morning person than Gambit was and so keeping out of the way was probably the best thing for all concerned. There was a young man standing at the cooker and another rummaging in a cupboard. Both stopped what they were doing at Gambit's entrance and a hush fell on the whole room. Gambit grinned to himself and waved for them to carry on. He went to pour himself a cup of coffee, only to find a steaming mug pressed into his hand and himself ushered to the seat at the head of the table. Someone else proffered a bowl, which he refused.
"Maybe later." He sipped the coffee and closed his eyes as the hum of conversation started up again. He was sitting in what had been his father's place, in Belle's kitchen, surrounded by people who didn't know whether to bow to him or stab him in the back. Taking another mouthful of his drink, he allowed himself an actual smile this time. Whatever else, at least he wouldn't get bored.
The distinctive perfume wafting from the next seat down meant that Gambit didn't even need to open his eyes to know its occupant.
"Bonjour, Mercy, ça va?"
"Not too bad. Y'self?"
"Better f'r de coffee." Gambit opened his eyes to look at his sister-in-law. Since Henri's death she'd seemed to have a constant anger at the world, glaring out at it from behind her beautiful blue eyes. He had hoped that the unification of the Guilds would soften her, force her to work for something outside herself and maybe ease her bitterness. Judging by the narrowed look she was giving him, he had miscalculated.
She bore with his scrutiny for a few minutes then tossed her hair and looked down at her cereal.
"I'm not goin' t'apologise for yesterday, just in case you were wond'ring."
"Good. Neither am I."
She turned on him with such fire in her eyes that he gave her a warning glare. This was neither the time nor the place for that kind of discussion. It was bad enough the newly unified Guild trying to tear itself apart without their having a family row at the breakfast table.
She accepted the warning and turned back to her breakfast. He was about to make a mollifying comment, if he could think of one, when Lapin came in. For all his joking and play, he was as sensitive to atmosphere as any good thief should be and you could have cut the one in the kitchen and served it up with breakfast. Gambit was immensely grateful when he responded with even more foolery than usual. He juggled a few eggs at the young man at the cooker, who snatched at them, breaking one. He teased the other apprentice for the night before (some kind of in-joke involving an alligator, a girl and a pogo stick. Gambit decided there were some things he was better off not knowing.) He even ruffled Gambit's hair before taking his own seat opposite Mercy. Peering at his cousin, he whistled softly.
"You're really not a morning person, are you?"
"I ever mention how much I hate people who are?"
"Nope, an' it's too late now." Lapin turned his attention to his plate, eating with a hearty appetite. Gambit looked away in time to see Rogue and Storm come in together, escorting Louisa between them; apparently they had decided there was safety in numbers. Some of the tension that had bled away with Lapin's antics returned with them. Coming to the rescue again, Lapin waved at them with his fork.
"Bonjour, ladies. Grab what you want – it's pretty much a free for all in the mornings."
Someone else pointed Rogue in the direction of the coffee pot. She poured herself a cup and took a sip. Gambit grinned at her grimace.
"Too strong for you?"
"Not hardly. It's gone cold, tastes like Mississippi water."
"Full of nutrients and fibre."
"An' dead animals." She shuddered and went to put a new pot on when Louisa stopped her.
"No need to waste good coffee. Or what used to be good coffee." She set the pot on the worktop and wrapped her hands around it. The others watched her in silence for a moment, then Lapin, no better at quiet than Gambit was, leant over to his cousin.
"You think she's communing wit' dose dead animals your girl was talkin' about?"
Gambit shook his head and gestured with his teaspoon. A thin tendril of steam was rising from the coffee and a familiar aroma was filling the kitchen. Louisa moved her hands away from the pot and opened her eyes.
"Try it now."
Rogue took another, more tentative sip of the coffee and raised her eyebrows.
"Almost tastes like coffee now. Thanks."
As the girl took the seat next to his, Lapin asked,
"How long you been able t'do that?"
"Pretty much always. It's not hard as long as you don't move the coffee molecules too fast."
"What happens if you do?" He asked.
"It tends to explode when you break the surface tension." She told him
"No, Emil." Gambit said, without even turning to look at the other man.
"Did I say anything? Although you've got t'admit it'd be a great practical-"
"No, Emil." It was Mercy who cut him short this time, pausing between mouthfuls of cereal.
Lapin's magic was still working and the kitchen noise levels rose to a normal level again. Someone asked Louisa what else she could do and Gambit prayed she wouldn't mention diamonds or didn't think he'd ever get her out of the kitchen again. For her part, she paused before answering, clearly with too much sense to tell a room full of thieves that she could produce unlimited wealth.
"I guess I can do pretty much anything that involves moving molecules around. Heat things up, cool them down, sharpen pencils, mend things."
"All kinds of things?"
"As far as I know. I can see where the join should be and make the atoms link back together again. I don't know how to explain it any better than that."
"And sharpening pencils as well." Lapin was mock-thoughtful. "Rem, we must have an opening for that somewhere in de Guild."
"I'll take it under advisement."
One by one, Thieves, Assassins and clan heads wandered from of the breakfast room, leaving Gambit alone with Rogue, Storm and Louisa. He was grateful to Mercy who grabbed Lapin warmly by the ear and dragged him out. He loved his cousin dearly but there was such a thing as too much of his company when he was in one of his playful moods. Once they were alone, Gambit subjected Louisa to a close scrutiny which she bore without comment. There were dark circles under her eyes and her shoulders were slumped forward. She'd put on a good show for the crowd, and now they were gone she took the chance to relax a little.
Rogue seemed to have noticed this as well.
"You ok, sugah?"
"Didn't get much sleep. I never do when I move about. I can't just turn off my senses so I'm always aware of what's around me. Until I get used to new surroundings it makes me a bit unsettled. I'll be fine."
"Any after effects from yesterday?"
"None that I can tell, apart from that headache which is hanging on something fierce. I took more aspirin so that should kick in soon."
"Can' you jus' use your powers to, I don' know," Rogue waved a hand, "make it go away."
"I try not to use my powers on myself when I can avoid it, particularly not inside myself. I changed my appearance and it took me three weeks and a world of agony. I haven't worked out exactly what part of the mind controls pain and I'm scared I'll move the wrong bit. So moving my own cells about was not pleasant. I'm not Jake."
At the mention of her cousin, she seemed to sink further, swirling the dregs of her coffee. Glancing at the others, Gambit changed the subject.
"You ever had any kind of trainin'? Wit' your powers I mean."
"I learned how not to use them, if that's what you mean. I had to learn to control myself all the time or my mind couldn't cope with all the information."
"How'd you managed when they first emerged?"
"Uncle Jacob." Gambit cursed silently for bringing them back to her family again. She coped better this time, and only the dull note in her voice indicated that she'd rather not be talking about this. "He found a telepath to pull me out and shut off my powers at first. Then she helped me to use them properly, at a level I could manage."
"Given what you've been doin' over de past coupla days, I'd say it was time t'look into a bit more than that. Get better control an' you might be surprised at what you can do."
Storm also nodded.
"I do not believe we can do anything until we hear from Sage and Bishop, so we might profitably spend the time in exploring some possibilities."
When Louisa hesitated, Rogue added.
"S'alright, Storm's had lotsa practice at this trainin' lark. Ah warn you now though, don't mess with her. She's one hard taskmaster."
"Thank you, Rogue." Storm, unperturbed as ever, turned back to Louisa. "It is up to you."
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to try."
Whatever Gambit might have said to this less than enthusiastic response was lost as a faint siren began to wail. He had jumped almost to his feet when he realized it was coming from within the room. Storm smiled and reached into a pocket, ignoring the finger that he wagged at her.
"Not nice t'do that to a person, Stormy. Good job the others weren't around or you might've gotten lynched."
"I would have relied on you to protect me, Remy." She put the glasses on before he could answer. "Yes, Bishop."
The other end of the conversation was just beyond Gambit's hearing so he watched and waited while Storm nodded and made appropriate comments to the X-men in New York. Her face grew grave as the conversation went on and she was frowning as she took the glasses off again.
"Well?" Rogue asked.
Storm glanced at Louisa and weighed her words carefully before speaking.
"Bishop and Sage gained access last night to the office of Mr Gavin snr, hoping to learn something from his files."
"As good a place to start as any, Ah guess. Did they find anything?"
"Bishop did not know?"
"'Scuse me? How could he not know? How long did they try for?"
"They were there all night. Bishop does not know because it was Sage who went through all the files. Apparently they were written in some kind of code which she hoped to break."
"Hoped? She didn't manage it?"
"That is what Bishop was unsure of. He found her this morning unconscious and she has not yet woken up."
She sleeps a charmed sleep:
Awake her not
Christina Rossetti, Dream Lord
Bishop put down his glasses and met Neal's questioning gaze.
"That's all we can do for now. If there's no change in twelve hours, we'll have to contact the professor."
Neal's expression clouded over.
"That may not be an option. Haven't you seen the news?"
"Not yet. Why?"
For answer, Neal reached for the television remote. Over the weather forecast, he said,
"It's been coming up about every half hour or so. It's not good."
Bishop waited for the weather girl to finish predicting sunshine for the city – he could have done that by looking out of the window – and sat down as the anchor man came back on.
"The latest reports from Westchester suggest that the riot taking place at the Xavier School for Mutants shows no signs of abating."
Bishop watched the images of the battered school gates and walls, and heard the screams coming from inside. Finally, he looked at Neal.
"When did this start?"
"About 5am. Latest theory is that some kids pumped up on Rave got a bit carried away and don't know how to stop. Whatever happened, I don't think the Professor is going to be able to help. He hasn't been seen since this all started."
Bishop took a deep breath, considering all the options. It didn't take long.
"We've no choice then. We'll have to wait for her to find her own way out."
"And what about-?" Neal jerked his head towards the corner of the room. "You didn't say anything to Storm."
"Wasn't sure how to. I'll think of something when the time comes, but she's not going to be happy."
"Are you sure it was a good idea?"
"In the first place or not telling Storm?"
"Both, I guess."
"Excuse me." Their guest in the corner finally spoke up. "I'm sitting right here."
Bishop ignored this and answered Neal. "I didn't have much of a choice. And I wasn't sure who was listening in. I'll tell Storm when the time's right."
"You make me sound like an unpleasant disease." Courier tossed his hair and glared at Bishop.
"I agreed to bring you here. Period."
Agreed was perhaps too strong a term for it. Knowing full well that Courier could cause all kinds of problems if left to his own devices, Bishop had taken the only option left and brought him along.
"Well if you want to know what I think-"
Bishop was grateful, both that he didn't and that the statement was interrupted by a knock at the door
Both X-men froze.
"Who else knows we're here?"
"No-one. I know I wasn't followed." Bishop leant over to his jacket and pulled his gun out of the pocket. Neal clenched his fist so that it glowed.
The bigger man crossed to the door and leant to peer through the peephole. Tucking the gun into his waistband he opened the door.
"Let me guess, you must be Bishop."
The speaker was slim and not too tall, with brown sandy hair and brown eyes. He was wearing jeans and a polo neck, managing to seem both business like and casual at the same time. He was holding a satchel in his left hand and extended his right towards Bishop.
"And you are?"
"David Matthews." The friendly smile faded and the hand dropped. "Remy didn't warn you I was coming?"
The obvious hostility had no visible effect.
"Never mind then." He held out his hand again. "I'm David Matthews, from the New York Thieves Guild. Remy asked me to do some digging for him."
"Right." Bishop didn't even try to hide his scepticism. Still unworried, David shrugged, and a card appeared in his outstretched hand.
"Remy gave me this."
Bishop took it and look closely at it. It did look like it had come from one of Gambit's deck and, although he couldn't swear to it, he thought it was probably Gambit's handwriting.
"This has only got a number on it."
David looked hurt. "Please. Would you trust a Thief who couldn't find your address just from that?"
Bishop rolled his eyes. This was why, on occasions, he really hated Gambit. The card was probably enough proof, and his instinct was telling him the guy was straight as far as it went.
"You'd better come in."
As the smaller man entered, Bishop knew instantly he was right. Despite his harmless appearance, everything about him set off the policeman's instincts. The way he moved, the way he looked round the flat and even the way he held himself rang alarm bells in Bishop's mind. Suppressing that instinct, reminding himself that on this occasion knowing a thief was not a bad thing, he introduced Neal.
"And this is?"
"Jackie." Courier held out a hand and met David's eye, challenging him to ask more. Showing no outward interest, David shook the hand and his friendly smile reappeared.
"Jackie? As in Jackie Gavin? If I'd known I could go straight to the source, I could've saved myself a lot of time."
"You know me?" Jackie asked.
"The day I don't know something that happens in this town, worry."
"And what do you mean, straight to the source?" Bishop wanted to know.
"Maybe I should just start from the beginning and Jackie here can chip in if necessary."
Bishop asked him to wait and had Heather come down off the roof. She was using the image inducer, so she wouldn't alarm their visitors too much, although Bishop wasn't sure that even a six foot tall golden Shi'ar could ruffle the Thief's calm.
David had made himself comfortable at the desk and began pulling papers out of his satchel as he spoke.
"Gambit asked me to look into some people for him. We got nothing on Louisa Gavin. Jacob junior" he gave Courier an acknowledging nod, "we know a little about. A high class courier, possible mutant powers, able to get pretty much anything anywhere if you're willing to pay enough. No contact with the New York Guild, although we heard rumours about him and the New Orleans one. Scalphunter we know even less. Just the name really, no details. Only an 'avoid on sight' command on the file. Jacob senior? We've got this," he passed a thick brown file to Bishop "and this." He held up a disc.
"The legend goes that Jacob Gavin started out as a mailman forty years ago. Within ten years he had his own courier business in New York. Within fifteen, it covered the US and twenty years ago, he went global. A lot of what the Guild does involves getting things from one place to another without being spotted, so we kept a close eye on him. He specialises in the grey areas. Things that aren't exactly illegal, but that aren't exactly legit, either, know what I mean? He's pretty private, only deals with elite men and companies, and has a reputation for honour and secrecy. You tell him your secrets, they go no further, but you'd better hope you're not doing anything he doesn't like, cos he has ways of dealing with that too."
"Fair but ruthless?"
"Not exactly. We don't know of him actually taking anyone out or anything like that. Some people's names might happen to find their way across a certain detective's desk or a business might find all their partners suddenly stop talking to them. We have dealings with him every couple of months. Taking cases he won't touch or the odd bit of industrial espionage."
"In the courier business? You're kidding."
"Not at all. There's big money in it if you know where to look. In the last few years, we think he's been specialising in more tricky packages."
"What kind of packages."
"The kind that walk on two legs and have a tendency to talk when they've had one beer too many."
"People trafficking?" Bishop's eyes narrowed. "I thought you said he wouldn't touch that kind of thing."
"We're not talking about bringing Mexicans over the border or shipping people in for extortionate sums of money. I'm talking about individuals who want to relocate without anyone knowing they're relocating. At first we thought it was just people trying to leave their pasts behind or make a fresh start or just hide until the statute of limitations runs out. We've got a list of people who've travelled with him over the last 2 years. Once the list hit 200 we got suspicious. A friend of mine went digging a little deeper. Turns out most of the people on the list had very good reason to hide. We think most of them are mutants."
Bishop sat back, only keeping surprise from his face with an effort.
"What makes you think that?"
David was too good to flinch. Instead he shook his head.
"We have our evidence. You're not getting more than that, sorry."
Bishop considered. The implications of Gavin shipping mutants were making his head spin.
"Where did he take them?"
"All over. Some into the country, some out, some across. There's no pattern or suggestion that they're gathering anywhere in particular. He's not trying to set up a mutant colony if that's what you're thinking. We actually helped some of them at his request. Gave them new identities and such like. Most of them just seem to have wanted to live somewhere else as someone else without anyone else knowing about it. That's the lot unless you want to fill in any gaps for us."
All eyes turned to Courier, who waited a long moment before speaking.
"You already know most of it. I knew Dad was involved with the mutant underground to some degree. I helped with moving some people and did the scouting work for others. I'd no idea it went so far, though."
Bishop, recording the contents of the file for Sage, looked up at this.
"Are you sure? I don't want to find out later something that had conveniently slipped your mind."
"'It may harm your defence if you do not mention', kind of thing? I've told all I know. I've helped Dad relocate about six mutant families in the past year. I don't tend to get very involved in that side of the business."
"Alright." Bishop closed the file and handed it back to David. "Thanks for your help."
"No problem." David put the file back and got up to leave.
"If you don't mind my asking, why are you being so helpful? I expected the Guild to be more protective of its secrets."
"It is." For the first time, Bishop thought he had managed to break the man's cool. "If the Guild master knew what I was doing, he would not be a happy bunny. But I owe Gambit."
"And this settles the debt?"
David laughed. "Not even close. It's more of a down payment."
"That big, huh?"
Giving in, Bishop held out his hand. "Well I'll be sure and tell him how helpful you've been."
"You do that. And if you need anything, just call." He produced a card from an inside pocket – Bishop was grateful he didn't use the appearing card trick again – and passed it to Bishop before shaking his hand.
When he was gone, Neal shook his head.
"You know, this just keeps getting more confusing. Someone who owes Gambit so much that he's willing to go behind the backs of his own Guild to help him, a man smuggling mutants all over the world, just to give them a new life, and a girl so powerful that Sinister sends his best for her, only to find that she can't even control what she's doing." He rubbed his face. "Jump in with an explanation any time."
"Wish I could. Right now, our best bet is to wait until Sage wakes up and let her match what's in her head to what we already know from this. Hopefully then we'll have a better idea of what's happening."
"That's it? That's the grand plan? We wait and see?"
"If you think of anything better let me know."
"I really hate to ask this," Heather spoke for the first time, "but is there any point my going in to her?"
"I don't think so. She's not in trouble this time. Her memory's just too full, that's all. Until she can process the information, she's shut down everything else. She'll come back to us given time."
"I guess I'll go make coffee then." Heather wandered out into the kitchen, joined by Courier and he could hear the two of them talking in low voices
"You do that." Bishop sat down at the desk and dropped the disk into the computer. He could sense Neal staring at his back and resisted the temptation to turn round. Eventually he heard the door open and close behind him. He knew that Neal had been waiting for a brilliant plan or at least some plan of action. Instead, he was coming up blank. Without more information, they were stuck again. Pushing his frustration aside, he decided to see what he could do with what they knew so far. It wasn't a lot, but it was all they had.
And life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
and a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight,
And who dies fighting has increase.
Into Battle by Julian Grenfell
It might have just been the blood rushing to his head, but Gambit always found that he thought better upside down. Combined with the physical exertion, he could focus much more clearly.
The gym below the Guildhouse was well-equipped, with everything either Guild could have wanted. It was large enough to have a full scale sprung floor, as well as all the usual gymnastic apparatus. Unable to face the breakfast table again, he had decided mindless physical exertion might help.
He'd started on the floor to warm up; tumbling had always come easily to him, and after a few lazy combinations he'd decided that it was actually too easy and so he moved to the pommel horse. He swung himself up and round, settling into a comfortable rhythm. Finally he pushed up into a handstand, shifting his shoulders to balance. He fixed his eyes on a point on the horse below him, focussing so completely that the rest of the room began to fade away. He had always known that he was better at this than his peers, faster and more agile, and it was only later that jealous tongues had suggested that it might have something to do with his powers. In truth, he thought it was probably more of a natural gift than an extra power – he'd met people who were far more talented than him. Through a combination of training and necessity he'd honed those skills to a greater degree than most, although he was out of practice at the moment.
Despite the fact that it was unwise to get too distracted his position, a stray thought made him smile. The last time he'd pushed himself like this it had been out at the boathouse at the mansion, wondering whether Rogue could ever forgive him. She'd always been able to turn his head, but this was ridiculous.
Sensing movement, he ducked his head to look between his arms. Unmistakable, even upside-down, Belladonna was watching him. She put her head on one side and he resisted the urge to copy her. Instead, he looked down again to regain his balance and gradually lifted his left hand, lowering his leg to counterbalance. He heard Belle moving again and had to make an effort not to look round as she appeared in his peripheral vision.
"You really need the work out, or are you just hidin' from Theoren? I heard he threatened you with paperwork."
The handstand dipped a little but he managed to lock out his elbow before he fell. His feet waved around as he steadied himself.
Belle tried again.
"The clans have called a conclave for tonight – I hope you're ready."
He was ready for her this time and remained rock steady. Apparently oblivious, he lowered his hand and lifted the other one, adjusting for the new position. She shrugged and moved back out of his vision.
"I'm impressed." He felt the horse under him shift minutely and risked a glance. She was leaning on the end, just watching him as though he were a particularly interesting lab specimen.
Still resisting the temptation to look or reply, he focussed on the brown suede of the horse. He was so focussed that he almost missed the small silver bolt flying across the gym towards him. Instinctively he brought his free hand down and pushed up and out of the way as the missile flew through the space where he had been. As he somersaulted over it, he put out a hand and plucked it out of mid-air. The movement threw his balance off and he landed with a jolt. This turned out to be a good thing as it made him fling his arms wide to steady himself, which meant that the extending end of the bo-staff missed his ear instead of catching him on the side of his head.
When he had recovered enough to glare at Belle, he saw that she too was holding a staff. She tipped one end towards the practice floor.
"It's been a while. Fancy your chances?"
He considered for a moment before coming round the horse to join her. Belle was as quick as him and just as skilled both with and without weapons. All that meant was that it would be a fair fight and it might even be fun.
They saluted and began to circle, making experimental feints and touches to see how the other would react. Belle was quicker than he remembered, the years of training and experience showing as she warded off both the obvious and less obvious strikes. They danced round for a while, getting the other's reach and measure. Gambit worked out that they last fought like this, just for fun without any lives depending on them, when he was eighteen years old. It felt good to be back.
"That was some stunt you pulled on me yesterday, you know that?"
"Sorry." He pushed her back and resumed his defensive stance. "There wasn't time to warn you."
"About what? Your plans to rip my life apart?"
Gambit frowned and ducked in time to miss a swipe at his head. He returned it by sweeping his own staff towards Belle's feet. She took the bait by jumping, so that Gambit's upswing would have caught her on the way back down if she hadn't turned her leap into a back somersault. She landed and grinned at him.
"What are you talking about?" He asked, starting to move carefully towards her.
"Your grand scheme to obliterate all traces of the Assassin's Guild from New Orleans. Or is it the world?"
"There is no Assassin's Guild now, any more than there's a Thieves' Guild. We're all supposed to be one big happy family, remember?"
"With you as our loving patriarch? Spare me. You have to earn the right to come in and do things like that, Remy."
"I already have."
His voice was harsher now as he moved within arm's reach. Instead of replying, she let loose a flurry of blows that made him step back again. Rallying, he pushed at her, concentrating on the fight before everything else. With two people as skilled as them, it would be a question of who made the first mistake rather than who landed the winning blow, and he was determined that she would blink first.
Belle retreated under his renewed attack, her eyes narrowed and hard. He remembered that this was not her favourite weapon. The only way to kill was with a brutal blow rather than the elegant stoke that had always been Belle's style. Not that she wasn't one of the best he'd ever met, but he didn't think she was better than him. Of course if she beat him, he might have to revise that opinion.
Finally he managed to force her off the sprung floor, the slight slope making her stumble a little. He tried to press home the advantage, only to have her scramble out of his reach. He drove her on until she had her back to the pommel horse. Their staves locked and he brought his face close to hers.
"You remember that whole thing we went through with 'oui's and 'non's? And me nearly getting my head cut off by that damn Neo? I thought we settled it then."
"Think again. You went off again, didn't you? Oh, we're happy to have you here, don't get me wrong, but you're supposed to back us up, not tear us apart."
"That's what I'm trying to do!"
"You could have fooled me. You may not think much of us, but we're part of this Guild too. And we're assassins, Remy. It's all we know how to be. And there are people out there prepared to pay us a lot of money to do what we do best. You're not tellin' me you never thought of this." When he didn't reply she pressed on, "We do what we have to do to survive. If we stop makin' our mark, it's not goin' to be long before everyone out there decides they don't need us anymore. And where will that leave us?" Her hand slipped down to cover his. "This is about survival. If we don' keep provin' our worth out there, sooner or later we're goin' t'die out. Thousands of years of history lost, because you suddenly have an attack of conscience?"
"Thousands of years of fightin' and feudin', killin' and maimin'. Is that really what you want t'leave behind us? We could really make somethin' of this Guild, really make a diff'rence. I don' want to turn my back on that jus' cos it upsets a few people. Even if they're assassins."
"We're going to be a bit more than upset. You're talkin' about destroyin' our way of life."
"I'm talkin' about makin' somethin' of our lives. We helped save the world, Belle. You're not tellin' me you didn't enjoy it jus' a little."
"Not the point. Remy, the Guild is not the X-men."
Their eyes locked and it was only because of this that Gambit was able to dodge her next blow. He caught the flicker in her eyes and pushed away so that her fist passed through air rather than into him. He rolled, coming to his feet a metre away. Belle leapt after him, bringing her staff down towards his head. He raised his in both hands and caught the blow, wincing as he pushed her off and got to his feet. His hand hadn't completely healed, despite Gris-Gris's foul smelling ointment, and Belle had deliberately angled her blow to impact on the bandaged cut. There was less humour in her eyes now, more a grim determination.
"I'm not tryin' t'make us into the X-men, but you gotta admit we got skills the world could use."
"So you're sayin' we should abandon millennia of tradition jus' so you get the warm glow of knowin' we played the hero? Sorry, Remy, it don't work like that."
"The Guild can' stay as it was, Belle. We gotta adapt or die."
"You're not talkin' about adaptin'. You're talking about suicide. An' I will not stand by an' let it happen."
"Stand aside or get run over, Belle. I won' let you trap us into some dyin' past for the sake of tradition. It's not worth it."
"It is to me."
They circled each other again, both aware that their friendly conversation had turned into a real fight. He also became aware of an audience on the sidelines, a small gathering watching in silence. If Belle beat him, here and now, in front of other Guild members, it would seriously harm his chances of being taken seriously at the conclave. Despite himself, he smiled. Combat had always been the way to settle differences in the Guilds. Deflecting a stab at his head and looking into Belle's grim expression, he knew he would have to win this the old fashioned way if he was going to have a chance for the future.
The realisation did wonders for his concentration. He didn't need to hold back, not with Belle, and he decided he could do with the release. Stepping into range again, he swung his staff up to meet hers. She blocked but was forced back by the strength of the blow. He readjusted his grip and continued to rain down strikes, forcing her to reatreat. Neither of them were managing to actually land any hits, and Gambit kept his focus on Belle's eyes, trusting his instincts to keep off her staff. If he was going to win, he needed to know what she was thinking, not what she was doing.
Ducking, he remembered that she preferred to aim for the head, the assassins' way of ensuring a swift end. She was much happier with a knife in her hand and was using the staff as though it was a blunt sword. There had to be a way he could use that. An idea came to him, and he began to retreat towards the edge of the mats again. It might have worked except as he stepped off the floor a wave of nausea swept over him. He braced himself, knowing that Belle would take advantage of whatever had happened, but no blow came. Looking up, he saw that she had taken a step back, putting a hand to her head.
Louisa. Swearing under his breath, he caught his balance and began to run towards the door. His fingers brushed against the handle, when a sound behind him made him spin, dropping into a crouch. He felt a few splinters brush the back of his neck as Belle's knife hit the door roughly where his head would have been. She was standing in the centre of the gym, breathing hard and already holding another slim dagger.
"We're not finished here."
Gambit straightened up, not taking his eyes from her face.
"This is important, Belle."
"So's this. You're hardly qualified to help her, anyway." She kicked her staff to one side and began tossing the knife from hand to hand.
Looking around, Gambit knew she was right. If he didn't finish this now, any chance he might have had to lead these people would be gone. Bending down, he retrieved his staff and came to face her. Belle armed with his favourite weapon was one thing; Belle armed with her own favourite weapon was quite another. He saluted her again and stepped back, his guard up.
Her first two feints were obvious, designed to calculate speed and reach rather than do damage. He responded with a few jabs of his own, making her flinch away without really doing any harm. On the third try her blade contacted the staff, pulling away before he could take advantage of the fact. He had a height advantage, and the staff would reach further than her knife, but he also knew that if she got inside his guard, he might as well cut his throat himself. He hoped she would opt for humiliation rather than actually killing him, although judging by the fire in her eyes, he couldn't take any chances.
To the observers, it must have seemed as though they were dancing, each move perfectly choreographed and executed. They knew each other far too well to be fooled and had been trained too well to show a crack in their defence. They drew closer together, kicks and punches coming into play as well as their weapons, and it was Gambit who pulled away first, shaking his hand out.
First blood to Belladonna.
From a distance, it was hard to tell how bad the injury was; watching them engage again you wouldn't have known it existed at all, apart from the few drops of blood that had fallen onto the mats. Gambit's own face had become hard with concentration and there was no sound except the ring of steel on adamantium and the occasional grunt of effort. Neither turned as the door opened and Storm slipped into the room. She made her way almost silently to the group of spectators and whispered to Theoren, standing in the front row. He shook his head.
"They have to finish this, or Remy'll lose everythin'."
Storm nodded and joined him in watching the fight. Gambit was on the attack, forcing Belle to retreat or risk a numbing blow to her hands or head. This time she was ready for the manoeuvre and stepped neatly down the slope from the sprung floor to the wooden boards. They were moving towards the parallel bars, and as the crowd shifted round to get a better view, Storm's eyes narrowed. She had an idea of what Gambit was planning.
Belle ducked under the first bar, knowing the apparatus interfered far worse with a staff than with a knife. She made a sweeping blow that made him jump backwards and she took advantage of the space to duck under the other bar. To follow her, Gambit had to stand between the two bars, limiting his movements. He couldn't swing his staff fast enough, and Belle saw her chance. It was a risk to commit herself, but it was the only chance she was going to get. She drew back her hand and thrust her dagger up and under the bar towards Gambit's unprotected throat.
The crowd gasped, although the combatants didn't seem to notice. Faster than she would have though possible, Gambit's staff also swung upwards, catching her hand before it got near him and driving the knife point first into the underside of the bar. Before she could recover, he lashed out and swept her feet from under her. She looked up into the end of his staff.
"Bang. You dead."
He made it all the way to the top of the stairs before the next wave hit him. Stumbling a little, he hurried down the corridor to Louisa's room. Outside her door he found Rogue kneeling over Storm who looked to be out cold. Rogue looked up at him, relief in her face.
"She's ok, just knocked out."
"What happened?" He crouched beside them, just about managing to keep his balance.
"They were training. Storm was using the wind to blow things around the room and Louisa was reaching out to stop them. I think she musta been getting tired or Storm pushed too hard or something because next thing we know, Louisa's lettin' loose again."
"Like when we first found her. Storm's lucky to be alive." He got back to his feet and had to steady himself against the wall as the overwhelming force crashed into him. Rogue caught his hand.
"Be careful, Remy."
"You know me." He bent to kiss her fingers and gave them what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. Then he pushed open the door to Louisa's room.
At first he wondered if the blast had done something to his eyes because the room was in almost total darkness. The next step and the light coming from the corridor reassured him that it was the room, not him. The shutters and curtains had been pulled tight shut and a crunch underfoot suggested the bulb that should have been over head was now lying pieces on the floor. Waiting a moment as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he tried to see what else had been broken. There was no other obvious damage apart from an overturned table in one corner and the shattered remains of the vase that had been standing on it. What worried him was that there was no sign of Louisa. As he stood no chance of seeing her, he closed his eyes, focusing on what he couldn't see. After a moment, he turned and took two steps across the room, hunkering down beside a big old armchair. From behind it he could hear faint gulping sounds of someone trying to breath quickly and quietly at the same time.
There was a break in the sobbing, then it began again. Ever so gently, Gambit pushed the chair to one side. Behind it, Louisa was curled up in the corner of the room, eyes closed and hands pressed to her head. Gambit began to reach out a hand to her, moving closer to hear what she was whispering. As he had done before, he put his hand first on her face, then moved it down to her neck and around her shoulders, drawing her to him. When she was in his arms, he bent his head down towards her, still only just able to make out what she was saying.
"Louisa? Can you hear me? You got t'come back to us, p'tite. You got t'trust us."
He caught her shoulders and pushed her upright, trying to make her look at him.
Hoping that she was responding to him not just talking to herself, Gambit put two fingers under her chin and lifted her face towards his.
"Can't do what?"
"Can't make it stop." She collapsed against him again and he patted her shoulder vaguely as his mind raced. Several things began to fall into place at once. Unfortunately, if he was right, Louisa was the only one who could help herself and she was hardly in a fit state to do that right now. Where was a telepath when you really needed one?
Outside in the corridor, Rogue helped Storm to sit up.
"How you doin'?"
"I have felt better. Is Louisa alright?"
"Remy's in with her. There's been no sound for a while so I'm gonna assume that everything's ok."
"I'll live." Both women jumped as Gambit appeared in the doorway. "Storm, could you go get Gris-Gris, Theoren and Belle? If you're up to it, I mean."
"I believe I will also live." Storm accepted Rogue's hand to help her up, carefully ignoring Gambit and Rogue's worried glances. Not long ago, it had been doubtful that Storm would ever stand again and however much she hated to admit it, she was a long way from 'better'. As they watched her walk away, Gambit shook his head.
"Ain't the time or the place for that talk. She'll just have t'manage for herself for now."
"I'll live too." The voice that came from the room was quiet but steady. Rogue came into the room to see Louisa sitting in the oversized armchair, head in her hands.
"Mind tellin' us what just happened?"
"Sinister's cleverer than we gave him credit for." Gambit answered. "Whatever he gave her to knock her out also knocked her control off balance. The trainin' wit' Storm only made it worse."
"And what?" He gave her an innocent smile.
"Remy, I can always tell when you've got an 'and'. And what?"
"And it's possible that it was made even worse by someone givin' her more of whatever it was last night."
"Last night? Here in this house?"
"I'm pretty sure, yeah."
Rogue turned to Louisa. "An' you didn't notice."
"I can't turn my powers off." Louisa's voice was muffled by her hands. "To get to sleep, I have to shut down as much of my awareness as possible. It's like putting myself in a trance. I become oblivious to everything around me. And like I said at breakfast, I tend not pay too much attention to what's going on inside myself. Until he made me look." She gave Gambit a weak smile.
"So you just lost control?"
"I got scared. There was too much in my mind and I couldn't make it stop."
"I know that feeling." Rogue put a hand on Gambit's arm. "So you charmed her into getting control back? Didn't know you could do that."
"That's not it exactly, but I guess it's close enough."
"What about the whoever-he-is who drugged her last night?" Rogue asked
"He'll have to wait for now. Theoren's gon' ambush me the minute I step outside the door and I think she could use someone to talk to. An' I think you could help her."
Rogue nodded her understanding. She knew better than most what it was like having a whirlwind in your mind and she also knew how to stand calm and strong at the centre of the storm.
"I'll stay. Go play with your friends."
"Somehow I don' think fun is high on Theoren's agenda." He gave a mock shudder and kissed the top of her head. "Merci, chère. Dose who are about to die salute you."
He had been right about the ambush. Theoren had the decency to wait a ways down the corridor, half-hidden in a doorway. He fell into step as Gambit tried to stride past him.
"Remy. You got a coupla minutes?"
"Minutes or hours?"
"Up to you. Only there's lot of stuff I want to run past you."
"Awww, Theo, you know paper's never been my strong point. Lessin' it's green and bill shaped, o'course."
"Look on this as a chance t'improve."
Theoren's hand clamped on his shoulder and Gambit found himself escorted to his father's, no, his, study. Something told him it was going to be a long afternoon.
Gambit wasn't the only one enduring rather than enjoying the late autumn sunshine. Bishop, Neal, Heather and Courier also spent the day surrounded by piles of information. Somehow, Bishop had thought it would be a good way to show solidarity with Sage. If she was having to wade through a sea of data, the least they could do was join her. Unfortunately, it left them all frustrated and cranky, even though Courier had been able to flesh out parts where the Thieves' files were bare.
At eight, Bishop decided it was time to call it a day. He flicked the news on, checking the latest on the riot. Pundits were speculating that it could run into a second or even third day, with all normal enforcement agencies powerless to act against a bunch of super powered school kids high on Rave. They were all so focused on the TV screen that it wasn't until a shadow fell over him that Bishop realized they weren't alone.
Sage looked like she could do with something stronger than the coffee she was cradling, preferring the caffeine to her usual glass of wine. She listened to their account of David's visit and only raised her head when he told her about the files the Thief had left them. She demanded to see them, despite everyone's objections, and spent the next hour flicking through it and the images Bishop had recorded, pausing only to sip her cooling coffee. The others could only watch in concern until she took off her glasses and met Bishop's eye.
"Well?" He asked.
"Well. As ever, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that I've now managed to decipher all of Jacob Gavin's files and crack eighty-five per cent of the code names. The bad news is what I've found out. And it means we need to be on the next flight to New Orleans."
"We as in all of us, or we as in you and Bishop?"
"All of us." Sage answered Neal's question without hesitating. "Gambit may not have wanted company, but he will when we tell him what we knew."
"Right now, you're the only one who knows anything."
"Of course." Some of her tiredness started to show again. "I'll tell you on the way."
Once they were safely in the car and Neal was speeding them to the airport, Bishop turned in his seat and fixed Sage with a expectant look. She ran her hands through her hair, trying to pull her thoughts together before answering. Then she reached into her pocked and produced her glasses.
"I would rather not have to repeat myself." She said by way of explanation and called through to Storm. Their leader answered almost at once, relieved that Sage's mind was in one piece and demanding to know what she knew.
"We were wrong to believe Louisa's story so completely." Sage began bluntly. "I found lengthy files detailing negotiation with the government for Louisa's protection. There were people interested in purchasing her services and several of them were quite persistent."
"How did they find out about her?"
"Gavin wasn't entirely sure. He suspected a governmental leak although he couldn't prove it. Reading between the lines and having an information advantage? About eighteen months ago, Louisa's powers went haywire, worse than when they first emerged. She could barely control them and Gavin was forced to hire the services of a telepath again to help her put her mind back together. Either the telepath let it leak or someone who's interested in mutants picked up on the increased activity. We know Sinister can track mutant powers and it is possible that he detected the flare. Either way, it started as a three horse race; Boston, Seattle and New Orleans."
"New Orleans!" Storm shook her head. "Wonderful. So this was the perfect place to bring her then."
"Exactly. Then the government stepped in and two of the others bowed out. Gavin didn't even consider the New Orleans crowd and struck the best deal he could get with the government."
"So he did sell her to them."
"Not exactly. They promised minimum interference in return for access to her. They also promised to help train her and pay a retainer."
"So he sold her." Bishop said again, earning him a sour look from Sage.
"A retainer which would be put into a trust fund, which Louisa would have access to at the age of twenty one. In addition to the money she'll get from her parent's will next month, that's a tidy sum. She could do whatever she wanted."
There was a moment's silence. Bishop didn't know whether to be pleased or more worried. He had felt Courier's sigh of relief that his father wasn't the villain of the piece. On the other hand, they had all assumed the worst and believed Louisa completely. By the look on Sage's face she was thinking the same thing. They saw enough of the underbelly of the world, the traffickers, the criminals, the power-hungry and the just plain crazy to assume the worst every time. Most of the time that didn't matter because they were right. This time it mattered a lot.
Storm nodded slowly.
"I think I can confirm that Louisa is definitely in danger down here." She told them of the incident of the afternoon.
Bishop whistled under his breath.
"You weren't kidding about the danger, were you?"
"There's more." Sage added. "I've got an address that Gavin suspected was the headquarters of the New Orleans bidders."
"If it's the Guildhouse, I may have to burn it to the ground myself." Storm didn't sound like she was joking.
"It's not. The address is in the French Quarter." Sage recited it for Storm.
"Gavin only suspected it was their location?"
"It was all a bit hazy on detail, which makes me suspect that Gambit may know more about this than we do."
"I'll ask him. You're on your way?"
"We should be in New Orleans about midnight your time." Sage told her.
"We'll arrange our own transportation." Bishop added.
"Understood. I'll tell Gambit to expect company." Storm said.
"You don't think he'll object to our invading their precious privacy?"
"He can object all he likes. Storm out."
Neal gave Bishop an amused glance in the mirror.
"Why do I get the feeling that Gambit is going to be lucky to get out of this in one piece? Storm sounded pretty ticked off."
"Rookie, where the cajun's concerned, we're all lucky to get out in one piece."
Despite Bishop's prophetic pronouncement, it was Gambit who won the first point. When they arrived at the desk to by their tickets, they found first-class seats to New Orleans were ready and waiting for them.
"How did he know?" Courier asked.
"Monsieur LeBeau wasn't able to specify the exact time of your flight," the girl explained, "nor exactly which passengers would be travelling. But he does have special privileges with the airline."
"Clearly." Bishop took the tickets and hurried everyone through to the plane. While they were queuing, Neal tapped him on the shoulder.
"You think Gambit will have arranged a limo for us at the other end?"
"Knowing his sense of humour, it will probably be a pick-up."
"I don't know." Heather looked again at the ticket in her hand. "If this is anything to go by, it'll be a limo and champagne."
Bishop disliked this kind of travel, being too used to advanced jets or mutant powered flight. The seats were always too small, the cabin too quiet and there was nothing to do on the way. So he was surprised to find himself with enough room, a comfortable seat and a complimentary drink in his hand. Sage accepted only water and, when the stewardess had gone, met his questioning gaze.
"Lucas, if you have a question, please ask it."
He studied her for a moment without speaking. She was even paler than usual, dark circles standing out under her eyes and a weariness in her usual controlled manner. Still, all things considered, she didn't look too bad.
"I have two questions actually. How are you really feeling and how on earth did you break that code?"
"I really am fine. Neither my body nor my mind are operating at peak efficiency it is true. There should be sufficient time on the flight to replenish both."
"And the code?"
"Are you sure you want to know?" His set expression told her that he did. "Fine.
"It was much harder than I had anticipated. Jacob Gavin senior is a remarkable man, with a remarkable memory. His files are, I suspect, more for occasional reference than regular use. The first thing he did was create a letter substitution code for all important details. Some files were written entirely in this code, others just have the occasional word. Breaking this code was relatively simple, despite his use of the more sophisticated version. Rather than regular shift, where each letter might be encoded as the next one or the fifth one from it, he chose the order at random so that cracking one letter does not give you the whole code. My best guess is that he has this code memorised. It would be far too risky to write it down anywhere. Then he has ordered the files in such a way as to make cracking them really difficult."
She paused to take a sip of water and Bishop noticed that some colour had come into her face with the explanation. He knew she loved this role and was interested enough to let her enjoy herself.
"I've never seen anything like this system. It is unique in my experience. No-one would think of it or be able crack it without doing what I did."
"And no-one else could do what you did, so he's pretty safe."
"No-one is a strong word, Lucas. Let's just say no-one we know of. The concept, like most truly brilliant ones, is very simple. Each file has a date in the top right-hand corner, the drawback being that it is written in words and encrypted with the same substitution code. So May Twelfth Nineteen-Twenty-Nine, which was the first relating to Louisa, is written as 'xfm ygtwayu jzjtyttj ygyjym jzjt'." She reeled off the letters as though they were the alphabet. "That's why I think he's got the code memorised. Otherwise the files would be too hard to find."
"I don't see how he can find them at all. And 1929?"
She smiled. "That's the really clever part. Each file has a day and a month assigned to it. Louisa's is May twelfth, which I think is her birthday. The earliest file of all went back to 1901 and none start later than 1935, but I think he just chooses the year at random. The second page of Louisa's file is dated 1930, the next 1931 and so on. Then he files all but the last page in date order by year month and day. The last page is kept in a single file, near the door, so that he can keep track of what year he's up to."
"That gives him 365 days to choose from." Bishop mused. "366 if you count leap years. He must have a good memory."
"Exceptional. He is up to 297 files so far, although I suspect he destroys ones that are no longer relevant. He probably also has all the code names written in a diary somewhere, telling him who belongs to each day and which code name is who. If written in his code, even if it fell into someone else's hands, they would not be able to make sense of it."
"Unless they're you."
"Quite. But it's not too remarkable a feat of memory to know more or less where nearly three hundred files are. What is remarkable is to find the boss knowing it rather than the secretary. As it happened, it was the date marking that proved to be the weak spot. I realised they must be identifying each file and dates were the logical conclusion. From there, it was much simpler."
That earned him another smile. "The dates from January First Nineteen Oh-One onwards contain all the letters of the alphabet but three."
"K, Q and Z" There was no hesitation in her answer.
Bishop laughed aloud and offered his glass to hers for a toast. After the obligatory clink and sip, he became serious, looking past her out of the window.
"Did the files give you any idea what to expect when we get there?"
"Not in detail. Between what I've already told you and the re-analysis of Louisa's story, that's it."
"Except our account of Louisa's powers may not have given her enough credit. We all based our assessment on what we could see. According to her file, she has to potential to be much more powerful. It is possible that she could create a chain reaction with catastrophic."
"So when you say more powerful, it's as is 'capable of destroying the world' powerful?"
"It would not be unreasonable to think that she could extend her powers to a worldwide scale."
"That would put her in the same category as Xavier."
"That is surmise only. Bishop, I am aware of those who fall into the category. Louisa is currently limited by age and experience."
"But given time and practice she could do more than just turn pencils into diamonds. I wonder if she knows."
"I do not see how she could not at least suspect. That episode eighteen months ago must have given her a clue. And for further demonstration, we need only ask Vertigo."
"I hadn't forgotten that."
"Good. Accident or not, she killed someone and she will have, she's got face that. She has to be made to understand the dangers that her powers could pose to herself and others."
"You intend to tell a strong-willed seventeen year old girl what she should do? You're braver than I thought. Now," he added before she could reply, "get some of that replenishment you said you needed. We're going to need you at one hundred percent when we land."
The moment for indignant replies having passed, Sage settled for a haughty silence instead. Turning her face to the window, she closed her eyes and when Bishop looked over a moment later, she was asleep. He resisted the temptation to tuck a blanket round her and smiled to himself. Even Sage managed to look peaceful and innocent like that, without the painful knowledge that you could see every time you looked in her deep blue eyes. Out of habit, he looked round to make a visual check on Neal and Heather, giggling together and trying out the comforts of first class travel, and Courier, staring unhappily out of the window. He was very aware of being part of a team, trusting people as he was not used to doing. It was not a comfortable feeling for someone who had grown up relying only on himself, but then that was what all the people on Storm's team had learnt. They weren't natural team players, any of them, but out of them, she had managed to form a group that could take on anything. That was what he was counting on.
"Let me touch you for a while."
Finally able to shut the door, Gambit also shut his eyes in the dark of his room and took in a deep, refreshing breath. He held it for a long moment, savouring the peace and solitude as snatches of the evening flashed through his mind.
Belle's high laugh and witty comebacks over dinner.
Lapin's latest joke that he couldn't be prevented from telling to everyone in the room.
Mercy's serious tone as she discussed her concern for the new female apprentices.
Gilbert Conrin, one of the clan head's challenge as to how much he thought the Guild would make this year.
Genard Alouette wanting advice on the new security system protecting the painting he and Lapin were going to lift.
Zoe telling him how her brother was doing at school.
Each flash was punctuated by Theoren's quiet, respectful and insistent, 'And now this one'. It seemed that each time he finished with one piece of paper, another was waiting for him.
'And now this one.'
There were clan members and Guild members to be soothed, encouraged or disciplined.
'And now this one.'
Through it all there was the vague worry about Louisa. Had they done enough to protect her? They'd already put plans in place to get her out of the country and hopefully to safety, at least in the short term. It was ironic, thought Gambit, that the Acadians had been kicked out of Canada to settle in Louisiana and here he was, a few centuries on, trying to send someone back. Nothing could be done on that front until the morning, though. He had no doubts that Louisa would protest at being 'shipped off' as she would no doubt see it. What she didn't know was that she was going, even if he had to bundle her in a blanket and carry her north himself.
He found the energy to pull off his shirt and glanced at the clock. Neither he nor Rogue had had a good night's sleep since their powers had starting flaring. It'd happened again during dinner and he'd been grateful for the roaring log fire in the dining room. The faint pop of his knife exploding would hopefully have been mistaken for a cracking log by most people.
As he stood under the spray of the shower, another of the evening's events drifted past his closed eyelids.
Storm, grabbing him as he was leaving dinner, emotion showing in her usually pacific blue eyes, telling him that Sage and the other X-men were on their way. That would have led to another row with Belle if Gris-Gris hadn't stepped in. He said he had felt around and in the house, something dark and dangerous and waiting to strike. He didn't like having so many X-men in their home either, he told Belle, but, like Gambit, he could sense that it was the right decision. Sure that he would have fallen over, Gambit was suddenly grateful that he was already sitting down.
Storm speaking to him privately afterwards, telling him of Sage's full findings and the address that had come up. Gambit hid most of his surprise, only confirming that he knew the address. Despite the street name, he knew it was in the Garden District rather than the Vieux Carrier and he wasn't about to admit how he knew that. Storm wasn't convinced but had acceded to his request for secrecy. The warning glare she gave him before leaving worried him a little and he kept expecting to walk into a rain cloud round the next corner.
He stepped out of the shower, wrapped a towel around his waist and picked up the pile of discarded clothes. As he did so, a small box fell from a pocket. He bent to pick it up, another memory washing over him as his fingers wrapped around the black cube.
Mercy, unsure and determined at the same time, cornering him as he had headed for the stairs and sanctuary in his room. She held something out to him, pressing it into his hand. He knew what it was before he opened it and started to shake his head. The fire flared in her eyes and she raised her chin defiantly.
"Mercy, I can't. It's yours, Henri-"
"Would have wanted you to have it. If you ever decide to make an honest woman of that girl of yours, you'll need it. I'm through with all of that. It should belong to someone who's got a use for it."
Now he dumped the pile of clothes on his bed and sat next to them, cradling the box in his hand. It was stupid to be scared of it and he forced his breathing to deepen and his heartbeat to slow before he flipped up the lid.
Although the ring inside appeared to be silver, it glowed with a burnished light that told him it was platinum. Besides, it had belonged to Jean-Luc's grandmother and gold wasn't durable enough to last 250 years of constant wear. Mercy had taken it off the day after Henri died, swearing never to wear it again. He'd always assumed she'd change her mind yet now it was his. It was strange, he had the ring, he had the woman, he had the reason. All he needed now was the courage. What was the Shakespeare line? 'To bind me or undo me, one of the two'. Much Ado About Nothing, he thought, or maybe Comedy of Errors. He'd read the whole works at one time, more to see if he could than out of actual interest. The main things he'd learnt were that comedies always ended with a wedding while tragedies ended with everyone dead. He'd also learnt that 'the course of true love never did run smooth', although he'd found it little comfort. As long as his own drama had a happy ending, he thought he'd cope. Maybe not with a wedding, not yet anyway, but sitting in the semi-dark, watching the glint of the ring in its black velvet case, he couldn't help admitting that there were definite possibilities.
Footsteps in the corridor jerked him out of his reverie and he acted quickly, stowing the ring in a bedside drawer for now. He was already behind the door when his visitor knocked and he pulled it open to find Storm waiting for him. He'd been expecting Theoren, wanting to follow up on something that was said at dinner and was relieved to find there was nothing more to be signed. The smile that played on Storm's lips suggested that she had expected to find him a little more dressed than this. Ever the gentleman, he gestured for her to enter, making sure he was well out arm's reach as she did so. He wasn't embarrassed in front of her, knowing her and her rather relaxed attitude to clothing too well. Rather, her half smile suggested mischief as well as revenge and he wanted to avoid the obvious risk. Once inside, she ran her eyes round the room, assessing the bookcases, ornaments and paintings. It was a little unnerving to watch her summing up his life in the exact manner he had taught her, so he cleared his throat significantly.
Storm seemed to remember herself and turned to look at him.
"I came to let you know that Zoë has offered to drive me to the airport. Although in theory we do not require transportation, I thought it best to accept."
"You did the right thing. The more we can get the Guild to play nice with the X-men, the better. Just make sure you take a car big enough to fit Bishop in."
"I'll remember." She was assessing him now, just as she had done the room. A crease formed on her smooth forehead as she stepped forward and ran her fingers lightly over the line where his scar had been.
"I got one on the back to match if you wanna see." He caught her hand and held it away from him. "What you thinking, Stormy?"
"How fortunate we are that Rogue is so stubborn. That I nearly lost my best friend. That unless you are very careful, I will find a way to make you stop using that name ever again."
A faint breeze blew through the room, flapping the bottom of his towel.
"Play fair, chère. That means no powers."
"Who said it was her?" The voice came from the window where Belladonna perched, watching the couple inside.
Still unruffled, Storm leant and kissed Gambit's cheek.
"We will see you later." Then with a respectful nod to Belle, she was gone.
"Does she often come round when you're only wearing a towel?"
"No more than you do."
With her usual grace, Belle climbed into the room and wandered round it, much as Storm had done. Gambit maintained the same cool exterior as he watched her. Belle had seen him in less than a bath towel before now and there didn't seem much point in getting worried about it. When she was done with the room, she too turned her eyes to him, her gaze drawn to the spot that Storm had touched. Tiring of the inspections, Gambit waved a hand at her, deliberately holding it at head height.
"Hello? Belle, chèrie, I'm up here. And I thought it was men who didn't look you in the eye first."
She smiled up at him, unembarrassed.
"Was there something you wanted, or did you just drop in for the view?" He asked, knowing by her expression and the way she turned from him that he had used the wrong tone. For all their fighting, his feelings for her were still strong. Not the passionate love they had once shared, it was true, but there was too long a history between them for him to feel nothing. He was about to say something to make up for it when she got in first.
"I just came to say that if you don't want to stay after the conclave, I understand. It might even be better that way."
Feeling he had missed a whole chunk of conversation, Gambit blinked in confusion.
"What I mean," she went on, " is that what I said earlier about the Guild not needing a hands on Guild master? It's true whether I lost the fight or not. Theo and me can handle things from day to day."
"Stay in touch. Go on with your double life. Send clients our way. I know you believe in the X-men, that what they're doing is worth it. So go out and prove it to us."
"And take Rogue with me?"
"That'd be a good start." The words were out before she realised. Her mouth snapped shut as though she could bite the words back and she glared at him. "Play fair. No powers, remember?" Showing what she thought of his innocent 'who me?' look, she turned away again. "I thought I was going to cope. Seeing her again and seeing you. Seeing you both. Maybe I'm just not a big enough person. I don't care much. So yes, when you and she are gone, it'll make my life much easier."
Gambit held himself in check as she spoke. He could flirt and play all he liked with Storm without fear or hesitation, both of them enjoying the game and knowing its rules. To do that with Belle might prove fatal. Instead he took a deep breath and a step towards her.
"I never meant to hurt you and you know it. And once we've got Louisa safely out of the way, I'll be gone too. But there's someone at work on the inside here, Belle. I can smell it and so can Gris-Gris, else he wouldn't be so keen to have the X-men here."
"Do you know who?"
"A few suspicions and that's about it."
"When you find him, I'll kill him with my bare hands and I'll do it for free."
"Maybe, maybe not. What matters is getting proof. I'm hoping Sage and me can do that when she gets here. It'll mean letting her in on a few guild secrets, but I trust her not to tell."
This was the moment where it could all fall apart and Gambit almost held his breath. Finally, Belle nodded.
"Good enough for me."
"I also need to tell about mon ami Bishop. He is, or was, or will be, a cop."
"It's always so hard to tell. Everyone'll spot it the minute he walks through the door and I didn't want you taken by surprise."
"Appreciated." Belle paused and he caught in her eye something that cut him to he core. Without thinking, he reached out a hand to her.
"Don't, ok? Just don't. I already said all I'm going to. Everything else is off-topic. Whatever else you got to say, or think you got to say, just leave it. What I'm feeling is my business, not yours, until I say otherwise."
"I know." He let his hand fall to his side and they stood for a long moment, just looking at each other. The seconds ticked by as they locked gazes and the years passed between them. He remembered her as a cute, pigtailed girl; a sultry, sexy adolescent; a troubled, tortured soul; and now a strong, beautiful woman. The pain in her eyes burnt away, replaced by the determination he always associated with her. This determination made her break the contact and head back towards the window. As she put one foot on the sill, she looked over her shoulder at him. This time, he got in first. Raising a hand to his lips, he blew her a kiss.
"Merci, mon amie."
This might or might not have been a good idea. He had no chance to find out because she was gone before he had finished speaking. The curtains flapped in the breeze as did the towel around his waist, reminding him of more prosaic matters.
The bundle of clothes on the bed got scooped up and each garment laid neatly over a chair. It was a habit so ingrained that he hadn't even realised he did it, until Rogue had watched him lay out first his, then her cloths and commented that he'd make someone a fine housewife some day. He'd explained that it was something all Thieves and possibly Assassins did. If you had to make a quick getaway, you didn't want to be fumbling around for your clothes. Those precious seconds could cost you your take or your life. Now, the routine helped to calm him and he decided a few hours sleep would be a good idea. Tomorrow was going to be a long day and he wanted to get a head start.
He'd actually untucked the corner of the towel when there was another knock at the door. Deciding that someone was having far too much fun at his expense, he put his head back and closed his eyes.
His visitor opened the door and slipped almost noiselessly into the room. Without turning, he tucked the towel back in and asked.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est?"
"And here's me thinking you'd be glad to see me."
He spun to see Rogue standing by the door, hands behind her back and even more amused than Storm had been. She began to walk towards him, taking her time, hips swaying and fingers playing with her shirt buttons. The look she gave him would have made even most men blush.
"What you doing here, chère?" he managed to ask.
"You really asking me that?" She raised an eyebrow. Some of her archness fell away as she stopped just beyond his arm's reach and he could see something hidden in her eyes. "Louisa and me had a real long talk. She said that my powers got knocked out again when she rocked the house. They'll come back again but it'll be fourteen, maybe fifteen hours before they do."
"Oh? Oh." Only too aware that this was ridiculously inadequate, Gambit felt his own coolness fading away, pinned by her gaze. With most women, he could be glib and charming, even with Rogue under normal circumstances. Here and now, he couldn't think of a thing to say. Then she had closed the gap between them and somehow it didn't seem so important any more.