A/N: Normally, I try to reply to each review personally, but technical difficulties are making that impossible. Please know that I do appreciate them SO MUCH – knowing that people enjoy the story nudges me to keep working on it.
To recap: Rogue, still unconscious in Essex's lab, has decided to integrate Remy's psyche with Carol's help. Remy has made a deal with Belladonna – if she can find Rogue, he will return to New Orleans and resume their engagement.
She pressed her lips to Remy's, and even in her mind, his mouth was firm and warm against hers. She wanted to stop and savor him, to enjoy the strangely sweeet taste of tobacco and bourbon strangely sweet. Instead, though, the memories poured in, violent and sudden, like a dam breaking.
He is six and alone in the world. Fagin finds him useful, a talent worth encouraging, but that's Remy's sole value. His take every night is easily three times that of the others in the group, and no one can ease a nervous tourist's wallet away with more finesse. He can maneuver through a crowd without jostling a body, can slice through a purse strap like he's brushing away cobwebs. Among the rest of Fagin's charges, his skills with cards and dice are admired, but his eyes keep him from running the scams in public – they draw too much attention. So while the other boys practice three-card monte and the short con, Remy learns things better suited to the dark – how to pick a lock, how to crack a safe, how to move without being seen
"He's a Thief," Rogue said blankly.
"So?" Carol gestured at Gambit, still sitting across from them in the library, frozen. "Keep going."
"You aren't listenin'. He's a Thief." She could hear the capitalization somehow, and couldn't quite grasp what it signified.
"He can be Oliver freaking Twist for all I care. Keep going," Carol repeated.
It fit, Rogue thought unhappily. She wanted to struggle against the notion, wanted to, at least for a moment, believe him incapable of it, but all she felt was a sort of weary recognition, hope leaching out of her like color from a photograph left too long in the sun. Remy was a Thief, and she had never known him at all.
Carol jabbed at her shoulder, impatient. "Angst later, okay?"
She swallowed, nodded, and entered the fray again.
He is eight, working the crowds during a jazz festival. He's lifted enough to meet his quota, and now he works for his own profit, for practice. For the rush. Sometimes, just for kicks, he takes a mark's wallet and pores over it, and tells himself a story about the life inside, then slips it back unobtrusively, exactly as it was before. He's just returned the billfold of a harried-looking mother of four, ignoring the pang he feels when he spots the wallet-sized family portrait, when he hears an angry shriek. He tracks the sound, sees that it's not coming from an overtired preschooler – a girl roughly his own age is sprawled on the ground. Three scruffy, skinny teenaged boys with mullets and Pink Floyd t-shirts are advancing on the girl, who clambers to a crouch, her school uniform dirty and torn, blond curls mussed.
Instinctively, he scans for a weapon and finds a tree branch nearby. He doesn't know if he can take all three, but he can make trouble enough that they reconsider going after the girl. Fagin, undoubtedly, would not approve. "You watch your own back," he had lectured them endlessly. "Everyone else is busy watchin' their own, so you're the only one who'll do a half-decent job of it."
"Leave her alone!" he shouts. His voice sounds thin and small, but it is enough to catch the attention of the toughs. Behind them, the little girl stares at him.
Laughing now, two of the older boys come toward him, jeering. "Look at the big man," one of them mocks. "We saw her first."
"Ain't right," he says, hefting the tree branch. "She ain't done nothin' to you."
"None of your business," the taller boy sneers. "Get lost, little man."
The other teen, the one who has kept his attention on the girl the entire time, starts walking towards the girl menacingly. "Come on, sugar-pie. I bet Mommy and Daddy gave you plenty of money for an ice cream. Why don't you just hand it over?"
The little girl stays crouched, her eyes glittering with…anger? Remy cocks his head to the side for just a second – she looks more angry than fearful, but before he can think too much about it, the other two try to rush him. Without stopping to consider, he swings the branch across the chest of the first thug, his arms jolted by the impact. As the other teen comes after him, Remy brings the branch down on his head and then runs toward the leader.
The boy turns to deflect Remy's blow, but halts midway and screams. He stares at his leg, and Remy's gaze follows his to the small dagger embedded in the other boy's calf. They are all speechless for a moment, transfixed by the blood rapidly spreading across his jeans.
The little girl speaks first, as she puts her hands on her hips and glares at Remy. "You made me miss!" she accuses, but he can hear the quaver in her voice. Still, she tosses her hair back and stomps over to the whimpering teenager on the ground. "Buy your own ice cream," she says, and yanks the knife out of his leg, then kicks him in the stomach for good measure.
She turns to scrutinize Remy, her eyes flicking over him with equal parts amusement and disdain. "What's your name?"
"Jus' Remy," he mutters. "Ain't got another. What's yours?"
"Belladonna Boudreaux," she says importantly, as if he should know that name. "Let's go get some ice cream."
He can't help but follow.
"Well," said Carol, "he certainly has a thing for rescuing damsels in distress, doesn't he? It explains a lot about you."
Rogue ignored the obvious dig and shook her head. "That girl didn't need to be rescued. She's dangerous."
"He doesn't seem to mind, though."
"No," Rogue said, as dread unfurled slowly within her. "He doesn't mind at all."
Funeral processions in New Orleans are a grand affair – celebrations with music and dancing, a revelry that spills over and absorbs strangers. They're fertile ground for a ten-year-old thief, and he sets his sights on a thin middle-aged man who's been mingling aimlessly, taken in by the colors and the noise, oblivious to the crowd that eddies around him. He's not a tourist, as far as Remy can tell – he's not gaping at the sights, just thoroughly enjoying them. In fact, he has a lean, canny look about him, and for a moment, Remy has second thoughts. "If it looks too good to be true, get out," is another of Fagin's rules, and it has always served Remy well. Still, the thick wallet that is peeking out of the man's leather vest is too tempting to resist, like a perfect, juicy peach just begging to be plucked.
The actual grab is beautiful. Ironically, it's a police car that gives him his opening – it careens through an intersection, stopping the procession with a rippling, jostling effect. Remy stumbles against the mark, and as the man steadies him, Remy palms the wallet and tucks it up the sleeve of his sweatshirt, slipping away before the man registers that his vest is now significantly lighter.
A few minutes later, Remy stops in a favorite alley, pulls out the wallet, and starts to whistle cheerfully in anticipation of the afternoon's take. The melody slows, though, as he realizes that the money is, in fact, fake. And the tune dies on his lips as the mark, along with several other men, appears in the mouth of the alley.
"I was wonderin' where that got to," the man says, and advances toward him.
"Jus' found that," Remy protests, backing up. "Ain't no money in it," he adds. The fence along the back of the alley is just a few feet away, and he pretends to stumble over an empty milk crate, positioning himself for a mad scramble over the fence.
"I know," the stranger says, and grins, not stopping his progress. "Never can be too careful. There's thieves everywhere nowadays."
The man reaches out – for him or the wallet, Remy's not sure – and he throws the wallet, a high arcing toss.
For just a moment, the man's concentration is broken and Remy uses that second to clamber over the boxes, bounding onto the dumpster. More men appear on the other side of the chain-link fence, and in that instant, Remy leaps for the nearby fire escape, swinging his body up and around, and landing catlike on the platform overhead. Without looking back, he begins to race up the rusting stairs. If he can make it to the top of the building, he knows, he can get back to Fagin and hide. The roofs of New Orleans are as familiar to him as the streets, and more beloved. No one can catch him there, no one can find him, and escape is always just a jump away.
The shout from below has him skidding to a stop four stories in the air.
"Ain't no call to run, boy! I ain't gonna hurt you. Jus' wanted t'see if you were as good as Fagin says."
Remy considers this for a second. "And?" he calls down eventually, still breathing hard.
"You're better," he says. "Now come on down here."
Slowly, he descends the fire escape, trying desperately to steady his nerves. It was a setup, he realizes – the man had known he was there all along, and he shakes his head in disgust at his own folly.
When he drops to the ground, lightly, the other man is waiting a few feet away from the dumpster. The rest of the men have spread out in a rough circle around them. Remy leaves one hand on the fire escape. "Fagin tol' you 'bout me?"
"That he did, Remy." The man extends his hand, and Remy takes it warily. "Jean-Luc Lebeau. Good to finally meet you, son. I been waitin' well nigh forever f'this."
"I told you he'd be useful," Carol said. "Although, for your next boyfriend, try and pick someone who's not a career criminal, okay?"
Sinking back in her chair, breathing hard, Rogue glared at Carol. Gradually, she began to sort out her own thoughts from the memories flooding her. "No. It ain't what he does. It's who he is. Thieving is…it's part of him, like his eyes, or my skin." Except, she realized, that he loved it, deep in his bones and his blood, loved the deception and the adrenaline and the challenge and the triumph. She hated her skin, lived every minute of her life acutely aware of how it shaped her every move. For Remy, grifting was as natural as walking, and she wondered if he even realized how often he did it.
"Great. So there's a gene for larceny? I'm not interested in his motives, Rogue, just his skills."
"I won't be able to jump like that," she pointed out. "I'll know what he knows, but I can't just…do what he does." Wouldn't even if she could, she thought, wouldn't lie as easy as she drew breath, wouldn't say things she didn't mean.
Carol's expression was steely. "It'll be enough."
He is seventeen. Belle is lying naked in her canopy bed – a sight he doesn't believe he'll ever tire of – and pouting, which is a sight he was tired of long ago. Nonchalantly, she stands and pulls on the arctic-blue silk robe that, moments ago, was pooled on the floor. She knots the belt and sits at her vanity, holding Remy's gaze in the mirror as she brushes out her hair.
"So Etienne's got a job. Don't see why you have to go with. Can't somebody else babysit?"
He forces back a sigh. They've gone round and round about this for weeks now, to little avail. Every conversation, every interlude, ends on the same note, and it's exhausting. At this point, he suspects Belle brings it up just to torture him. "Etienne asked f'me."
She shrugs, unimpressed, and idly braids a lock of hair. "You could say no."
"Wouldn't be right," he says. Etienne's first job, the one that will mark his entrance to the Guild, is ritual every Thief undergoes, a baptism of sorts. The fact that the boy has asked Remy to shepherd him through it -- not Henri or some other blood relation – touches him more deeply than he can say. "It's an honor, bein' asked. Ain't somethin' to take lightly."
"Neither am I." She flashes him a smile in the mirror, then turns to face him. "It's dangerous."
He can't tell if he's referring to Etienne's Tilling or herself, but she's right either way. An Assassin's daughter is not a sensible choice for a Thief's girlfriend, and sleeping with her in her family's home is even more foolhardy. But what he finds most unsettling about all of it – more than the thought of her father and brother finding them here, more than the knowledge that his own girlfriend kills as matter-of-factly as he steals – is Belle's surety about their future. Remy doesn't believe in fate. He believes in luck, and odds, and impulse. And yet everyone around him is convinced that the beautiful girl in front of him is his destiny.
He doesn't quite know how to tell her that the thought of anyone being his destiny makes something under his skin itch fiercely.
"It's jus' a quick job," he says, trying to placate her. "I'll be back before you know it."
She shakes her head impatiently. "Ain't how long you're gone, Remy. It's that you won't tell me more about it. Whatever you two are up to, it's important, and you not telling me about it is flat-out mean."
The trellis outside Belle's window is covered in clematis, and he breaks off a few blossoms. "It ain't mean. It's Guild business. Couldn't tell you if I wanted to."
"But you don't want to," she says sadly. "That's the problem."
He offers her the flowers, the petals crimson and velvety in his palm. She takes them reluctantly and brings them to her face as he says, "The details don' matter, Belle. It's Etienne's job, not mine. An' once it's done, I'll come home and everything'll be jus' fine, hein? I promise. Like I never left."
Except that when he returns, it is with Etienne's body, not the take from the job. It is the brackish taste of the sea in his mouth, not the sweet effervescence of champagne. There is a hole in his family, in himself, and nothing will ever be the same again.
"He thinks it's his fault," Rogue whispered. "That boy dying…his cousin. He thinks it's his fault." She understood his guilt, knew the sour taste and gray haze that overlaid everything, and her heart contracted in sympathy.
"Because it was."
Rogue shook her head. "It was an accident."
Carol's voice was icy. "And that makes it okay? The kid's still dead."
Rogue wondered if they were talking about Remy and Etienne any longer, and she changed the subject. "It's the same girl. From the park. I told you she was trouble."
"Trouble for you, maybe. He's pretty comfortable."
The image of Remy carelessly trailing his fingers down the other girl's bare back rose in front of her, and she shoved away the hurt, focused instead on diving back into the memories.
When Genevieve falls, she does so gracefully, rose silk fluttering around her like beautiful, useless wings. But her scream is raw and terrified, and even as he urges Henri down the stone stairs, urging his battered and dazed brother to hurry the fuck up, he is listening for the dull sound of her body – her beautiful body, every curve and freckle and scar familiar and exquisite territory for him – hitting on the cobblestones below.
When they burst onto the street, he starts to look for her, but Henri has regained his senses. "Allons-y, Rem," he pants, gesturing down the street. The sky is brighter than when he had arrived at Notre Dame, the peculiar bluish quality of the light giving way to bright sun that doesn't warm the earth at all. "Safe house is only a block or two."
"I gotta find Gennie," Remy snaps.
"An' do what? You want to explain to the gendarmes how the girl you've been screwin' f'the last two months ended up splattered on the pavement? Let's go." He tugs at Remy's arm. "C'mon."
He shakes his brother off and tears off wordlessly around the side of the building. With an oath, Henri follows behind him.
When he spots her, she is lying in a pool of crimson, white-blond hair already soaked, limbs akimbo and her neck at an unnatural angle, blue eyes staring and sightless. He stumbles to a halt ten paces away and throws up. He did this, he thinks. He put her there.
Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he stands again and takes a step toward her, only to feel Henri hauling him back. Remy shoves at his brother, and Henri throws him against the wall of the cathedral, forearm across his throat. "You can't help her. An' we gotta go."
Suddenly weak, Remy struggles fruitlessly. "I can shut her damn eyes."
"People saw her, Rem. They're comin'." Outside the wall, shouts and sirens are approaching. They have a minute, perhaps ninety seconds, before they're discovered. "They'll take care of her."
Remy lurches toward the body again, and Henri slams him back against the wall. "You chose me, an' I'm grateful, but it won't make a bit o' difference if they catch us here. Girl'll still be dead, and we'll go down for it."
"Her name is Genevieve."
"Her name was Genevieve. An' she was a thief, same as you, same as me, an' she knew the risks when she signed on. She wanted a nice safe life, she shoulda been workin' at a fuckin' boulangerie, not stealin' jewels."
Remy raps the back of his skull against the stone, guilt twisting tighter and tighter inside him like a vise.
"Listen to me," Henri says. "This was a job. An' it went south, an' we got nothin' to show for it but our lives, but that's somethin' right there. You want to beat y'self up 'bout this later, I won't stop you. But right now, we cut our losses, we get to the goddamn safe house, and we go home to our women.
Now, Remy. Now." Henri nods grimly, and after a moment, Remy nods back, and together, the LeBeau boys vault over the back wall of the cloister, leaving behind the girl who was Genevieve Darcenaux.
Later, though, as their plane wings across the Atlantic towards the Gulf, he thinks that some part of him has been left behind too, shattered beyond repair and redemption on the stones of Notre Dame.
She couldn't take any more, Rogue thought as she pulled out of the memory, gasping. He didn't have any other skills she needed, didn't have any other tricks up his sleeve, and finishing the integration was just too much.
He'd told her the Guild was just a job, and she'd known he was lying. Even so, she'd seen how it had damaged him, and that had been enough – confirmation that his past was as dark as hers, that he understood how loss and betrayal and grief could break you open and crush you to dust all at once. And because of that, she'd convinced herself that his past didn't matter. Now she realized her mistake. The Guild wasn't his past. It was his family, and his calling, and his destiny. Everything else was incidental. She shuddered at the memory of the dead French girl. He'd seduced her for a necklace, and had Sabretooth not intervened, he would have walked away without a second glance, back to New Orleans and his Guild. He'd do the same to her, Rogue knew, because that's where his real life was. She was just a detour.
"That girl," she whispered, cradling her head in her hands.
"I don't care," Carol said. She'd been silent while Rogue recovered, but now she was dismissive. "It doesn't matter."
"Are you crazy? Of course it matters. He lied. About everything."
"So what?" She flipped a hand towards Gambit, as if shooing a fly. "The only thing that matters is right now, and getting out, and staying alive. You saw him – he walked away from her because he had to, if he wanted to survive. Now it's your turn."
Rogue pressed her fingertips to her mouth, unable to reply.
"Don't be stupid," Carol snapped. "Finish this, and then we move."
She nodded mutely. The image of Gambit in front of her was translucent, and through him, she could see the shelves of books, the neatly-laid fire in the hearth, the chess board with a game in progress. All the familiar bits of her life at the mansion, elements of home, and the only way to get to them was through the last memory that Gambit was hoarding. She gripped the arms of the chair and leaned towards him.
Fifteen minutes after his engagement party starts, a few miles south of Tupelo, Mississippi, Remy's phone starts ringing. It plays "Tainted Love", and "The Joker", and Darth Vader's theme song, each of them repeatedly until Belle and Henri and even Jean-Luc have given up. Only when the phone begins to play "Brown-Eyed Girl" and the lights of Corinth are fading in the distance does he answer.
"Evenin', Mercy. How're you?"
His sister-in-law's voice is an octave higher than usual, her laugh strangled. "Oh, I'm just lovely, 'cept for the war breakin' out."
He ignores this. He doesn't care about a war, or Guild politics, or a prophecy repeated so often he no longer hears it. "Belle's okay?"
"Okay is not the word I'd use," she snaps. "The woman is, as we speak, planning to kill you as slowly an' painfully as she knows how – and she actually knows how, Remy. You forgotten that?"
"The thought crossed m'mind."
"Please tell me you are out on a job. A very lucrative job. An' your cut is goin' to buy something shiny for y'fiancee." She is almost pleading, and the guilt turns his stomach for a moment. He's left behind one hell of a mess, and Mercy, as always, is going to knock herself out to set it right. When he doesn't answer, she exhales slowly. "Oh, Rem," she says, her voice thick with disappointment.
"Had to." He doesn't trust himself to explain why, that marrying incandescent, intractable Belle is an impossibility. She deserves more, and he deserves…he doesn't quite know what he deserves, but it isn't this life.
Mercy, for once, is quiet, and he finds the silence as he drives almost companionable. Finally, though, as he crosses the state line between Mississippi and Tennessee, she speaks. "Marius is goin' crazy. Julien's challengin' Henri. Your father…he's scarin' me. Mattie and I, we're doin' our best, but it won't hold."
There's no accusation in her voice, no command, but the implication is clear: he brought this chaos down on all of them, and he's the only one who can fix it. He's thought of little else since he stuffed a week's worth of clothes in a duffle bag and left the black velvet box containing Belle's engagement present sitting neatly on his bureau, but there's no way clear of the whole damn mess – at best, he can buy himself some time.
"She's still got the ring, right?"
"Of course. This is Belladonna Boudreaux we're talking about. Girl's like a magpie," Mercy says with a haughty sniff.
"That's 'nough, then."
"Have you lost your mind? That isn't anywhere near enough. You have humiliated that girl in front of her Guild, and yours, and everyone she's ever known. You've spit on the prophecy, abandoned your family, and left them to fight your goddamn battle."
He keeps his voice breezy, casual. "I missed a party, mon ange. Hardly cause to start a war."
"You've done a damn sight more than miss a party, boy. And don't you try to sweet-talk me."
The hours of back-road driving have caught up to him, and he yawns, begins looking for a motel that takes cash. "You ain't payin' attention, Mercy. Belle still has the ring."
He approaches the highway, leery of being so close to a main road, desperate enough to take the chance. "Long as she still has the ring, I'm holdin' up my end of the bargain. Ain't nobody who can say different."
"And if she throws it in the bayou?"
"Then breakin' the engagement's on her head, not mine." He waits and lets it sink in. The true engagement began when he put the ring on her finger in front of their fathers. The party he's fled is a lavish, ostentatious formality, nothing more. "Marius ain't got grounds to come after us."
"Marius ain't the only one tryin' to bring you back. Your father's furious. He wants you home."
"Tell him I can't. Got a contract." An open-ended contract to boot, so that neither Marius nor Jean-Luc can force him to return. Mercenary work for Lensherr isn't his normal gig, but he no longer cares.
"He won't allow it," Mercy says flatly. "He'll cut you off." She is absolutely right -- to put your name to a contract without the Guild's approval is grounds for exile. Remy says nothing, and she sighs. "An' that's exactly what you want."
He lights another cigarette.
"It won't work," she tells him. "You gotta come home, Remy. No way around it."
"I can't. I just…" he spots a motel sign a short distance away, heads towards it. "Just can't."
"Marry her. Stay there." Save them.
"Fine. You want to run, go ahead. Pay whatever penance you think you need to, do your grievin', find a girl who ain't Belle. But eventually, you have to stop runnin', Remy, and grow up, and that's when you come back. Because this is who you are. This is your family, and we need you here. Where you're meant to be. Fate's a funny thing, Rem. Has a way of catchin' up to a body."
"Ain't no such thing as fate," he says automatically, and pulls into the parking lot of the dingy clapboard hotel. The vacancy sign flickers, and the empty lot suggests he'll have his choice of rooms, each more decrepit than the next. It isn't his usual taste, and he hopes that fact will keep him hidden from Jean-Luc and Marius until he can get a few more states between them.
Mercy chuckles. "You tell yourself that enough times, maybe it'll be true."
"Can you handle things? You and Henri and Mattie, you can hold things together?" He recognizes the burden he's placing on them.
"For a time." Her voice is starting to crack, tears building behind the words.
He stares at the door to the motel office, squares his shoulders, swallows hard. "I owe you, Mercy."
"You saved Henri's life, Rem. I'm just returnin' the favor."
Even before the memory was fully integrated, Rogue began to sob, curling into the armchair as if she could somehow contain all the grief and betrayal that was raging inside her.
Carol tapped her on the shoulder, and stood waiting, with arms crossed, until Rogue looked up at her. She leveled a finger at the heavy oak door. "Time to go," she said.
Next up: Escape, and rescue, and the cost of both.