Prologue

Remy LeBeau—lord among swordsmen and prince of thieves—was a force to be reckoned with. Few men were brave enough—or foolish enough—to test his luck against this legend's skill with a blade, and those who did scarcely spoke aught of the experience afterwards.

In character, he was a loner, for so his adolescence had taught him to be. Life was simply another game with a list of opponents just waiting to overthrow the player. Letting oneself become too absorbed into the game's details, lowering his guard, could be a fatal mistake, a losing mistake, one that he made sure to avoid. He always took care to have an ace up his sleeve, no matter how dark the corner he had been backed into. He prided himself on this perception, and watched with a sense of pity as those who failed to see his view fell after only a few moves.

The man was a warrior, a survivor who laughed in the face of danger. He chose to build rather than dwell on the emotions left by his losses, using Death itself as it struck down those ill-fated souls whom he had known all his life to expand his limits. His patience and wit were envied by many, and his physical abilities had earned his possessor scores of offers over the years.

But neither his valued personality nor revered talents were as sudden to the first glance as his appearance: amid his fair face burned eyes of ember, terrifying in his wrath and dangerously enticing during his usual periods of tranquility. Wherever this trait was not feared or despised in society, it was seen as a price. It was an age in which the unnatural was expected, and to many hunters, Remy LeBeau was as unique as they came.

Individuality is not limited to one's character alone, however, and those who sought to own him for his exclusive characteristics were oft attracted by the word of his specific skill. That is, the cursed blessing that every one of his kind received at the Age of Evolution, the alleged gift that made him what he was. But the small number of people of the town who were actually aware of his existence were always disappointed to learn that he had not once used his gift in public, and, as it is with any community, it had not taken long for rumors to spread among them as to what that gift could be.

At first, the wiser presumed that Remy's prodigious strength and speed—which seemed to come as naturally to him as the instinct to breathe—were part of his development. When the simplicity of that explanation lost its charm, the more creative came up with endless possibilities to satisfy the minds of any who would listen.

One of the first accounts declared that one look into his crimson gaze would cause the onlooker to burst into flame, the reason as to why he always walked with his eyes cast down. Others claimed to have seen him burning some shrubs in his master's courtyard as a boy, with streams of fire flowing from his fingertips. A few who knew a little more of Remy's nature supposed he had the very concept of seduction under his control, an assumption closer to the mark than many. One story had found itself among the most accepted of these theories, although no one could say where it originated: it was said that he could create his own flame, a type to which he himself was immune, that would obliterate anything it came in contact with.

So it was that Remy became something of a living legend of his time, even if he was treated like anything but. No amount of local myths could make up for who and what he was; it never did. Not even his rank excused him from the prejudice of his father's people, who had deemed him an abomination from the start. But he had learned over his two and twenty years to rise above their scorn, hating it for its brutality but subconsciously desiring it—for it was probably their contempt that helped him survive. Without it, he would have grown up soft, blissfully ignorant of the trials of the world. With it, he had learned all the tricks of the trade, seeing through the veils of a man's half-truths and in turn gradually gaining his own knowledge in such crafts. Each blow he received began to reverberate, adding layer after layer to his psychological barricade, until at last his scarlet eyes saw the world for what it really was and what it took to endure its cruel reality.

Before he had even reached his Age, Remy was training himself for that reality with such vigor and passion that he obtained his soubriquet long before most men could claim. It was the vow he took upon himself—to survive of his own accord, and never depend on another lest he be betrayed, like so many he had seen—that hardened him most, and it was this, along with his sharp intellect and slowly maturing abilities, that earned him the codename Gambit.

:xXxXx:

The sun illuminated the forest path in a thousand individual rays of light, scattered every which way by the boughs of the trees above. Bluebells ran alongside the trail like sentinels, inviting the wanderer along the guarded way with an innocent wave of their blue and white petals. The clouds, scarcely to be seen through the young leaves of spring, drifted idly across the clear sky, every now and then casting a shadow over the surrounding land.

Oblivious to this scene, Gambit continued along his course silently, his face impassive. The only thing to be heard was the steady step of his horse behind him—for he himself walked without a sound—and the occasional calls of birds overhead. Presently, the familiar din of the town crowd reached his ears, and he paused to brace himself against the memories that came flowing back. His steed snorted nervously and butted his head against his master's shoulder.

"Easy, boy..." Gambit stroked the horse's forehead comfortingly, and with the other hand loosened his neck cloth. "I know it's been a while. But even loners like us need t'face life sooner or later." The grey stallion tossed his head before suffering himself to be led along again.

The remaining two miles were passed swiftly, and it was hardly midday when the open gates of town reared up before man and horse ominously. Gambit watched as people bustled about the many shops and stands, bargaining for food and other goods, unaware of his presence. He would have to act quickly to remain unseen; tightening his grip on the reins, he made his way into the market and stole into a nearby crowd of other horsemen so perfectly that no one gave him a second glance. It was a move only a thief could make.

His three years of exile seemed to have improved his skills rather than tarnish them in a way that made him almost invisible whenever he wished. But now his mind was buzzing with old concerns, and more than once that cover slipped, leaving him bare in the eyes of any who chanced to look up. Luckily for Gambit, the townsfolk were too absorbed in their own matters, as he had guessed they would be at this time of day, and no one took notice of him.

One old vender happened to catch eyes with the newcomer briefly, an event that made him hesitate in his dealing to study the person. But in the next instant the mysterious man and his mount had disappeared, lost in the crowd. The vender shrugged and went back to his business.

Gambit strode along the well-known streets, completely unnoticed for the most part, and once he came to the fountain that marked the center of the settlement, he began to relax and take in more of his surroundings. Every building of the small city was etched into his memory, each one holding its own significance, but there were a few new shops here and there that had been built in his absence. He was eager to get through as fast as his speed would allow, but then noticed that one booth near at hand had caught the attention of a fairly large amount of people.

Gambit's hands itched with an old talent, replacing his resurfaced emotions with the usual coolness required to carry out what he was about to do. Casting a look around, he fastened his horse's harness outside a tavern before joining the throng of onlookers. He lingered at the crowd's edge indifferently, pretending to pay heed to the merchant at its head. Once he had a feel of the group, Gambit concentrated on the nearest victim: a young man, perhaps two or three years older than himself. The string of the man's change purse was in plain view. A thoughtless mistake. In a movement too fluid and casual for anyone to think suspicious, Gambit passed behind him, and a moment later slipped his hand into his own shirt as he drew back. The man showed no sign.

Satisfied with his winnings, Gambit repeated the action half a dozen times before allowing himself to remember why he was here. Not daring to count his money in the open, he returned to where his horse was waiting, content that he had not lost his title, and in slightly higher spirits went to untie the reins from their wooden post. A flash of black to his right caught his eye. Curious, he looked over, and found himself observing what appeared to be a crime in the making.

A small figure, swathed in a black cloak from head to foot, was crouching on the edge of an alleyway, just short of the corner of one of the larger stands. The merchant was turned away from him, but Gambit could tell from his attire and broad size that he had never seen him before. The figure in the cloak waited until the stand owner was distracted with a customer before making his move. Carefully, he crept forward, and Gambit immediately saw his advantage: the location of the booth made it easy for a quick getaway back down the alley, which was no doubt the idea.

As an expert on the matter, Gambit was able to pick out the main error in the whole attempt: the pickpocket was not watching the surrounding crowd nearly enough as he should, a move that would have given him a hint as to how long the merchant would be preoccupied. It was this blunder that cost him the game. The amateur thief's gloved fingers were just grazing the moneybox on the stand's counter when the owner turned back around. The figure tried hastily to retreat, but a large hand closed on his wrist and pulled him to his feet.

The noise around Gambit prevented him from hearing just what was being said, although he could guess. Losing interest, he turned away and busied himself with unfastening his horse's strap, but at that moment an unmistakable crack shot through the air. He looked back and saw the still-cloaked thief on the ground, clutching his left shoulder. Above him stood the merchant, wielding a long whip in his right hand.

The abruptness of the attack, even if it was not on himself, unearthed a memory right before Gambit's eyes ere he could even think of stopping it.

:xXxXx:

He was bleeding. That was the part he always remembered the most clearly—blood. Blood coming from his nose and mouth. Blood trickling down his chin to puddle beneath him on the floor as he waited on hands and knees for another inevitable blow. Blood seeping through the remains of what had been a shirt only moments before.

Then came the pain. Blinding, searing pain, surging from the fresh welts on his back as his fingers dug into the plush carpeting defiantly. His dark hair, hanging damp with more blood as he trembled with fury and hurt, obscured everything from his view except that red carpet.

The red carpet stained with his blood.

He heard footsteps approaching…without warning he was lying on his back in his own blood, gasping for air, his left side throbbing madly…His blurred vision managed to make out a dark silhouette above him, holding a whip…A cruel hand seized his hair and pulled his battered body into a sitting position. A voice hissed coldly in his ear,

"Mind your manners, you little monster. Another remark like that, an' you'll be lookin' on this beatin' as an act a' mercy." He did not answer, and winced as the grip on his hair stiffened further. "You're a brave boy…haven' shed a single tear, have you? Answer me!" The back of his head connected solidly with the floor.

He tried to reply, but only succeeded in coughing up more blood. Disgusted, his captor released him and raised the lash for another blow…then there was a voice, a different voice…older, softer…he knew that voice…its tone was scolding…he was being raised, away from the red carpet…someone was supporting him, helping him in his vain attempt to stand…

The last blow never came.

:xXxXx:

As Gambit watched, the rage from that night flowed once again through his veins like fire, and forgetting anything else he hastened forward. He was halfway to the stand when the merchant, having pulled him back up, gave the thief a violent shake, and for the first time the black hood fell back. Shoulder-length auburn hair tumbled out around a face that made Gambit stop.

Putting the subject mildly, she was beautiful. He had seen and temporarily owned many a fair maiden in his years, but very few came to surpass her loveliness. Despite the distance between them, Gambit could see her bright green eyes flashing heatedly between the two strips of white hair on either side of her pale face as she struggled.

Suddenly the merchant shoved her back, making her stumble and hit the stand wall. He lifted his whip again, and the girl removed the hand from her shoulder to shield her head.

Gambit only just caught the whip as the merchant drew it back, and in one swift motion pulled it from his grasp. At a loss, the man turned around, and his face glowed crimson when he saw Gambit, who could not have been paying less attention. His gaze was fixed on the young woman crouching against the wall, her hand returned to her bleeding wound. She seemed to be just as engrossed in him, although confusion dominated her features. She looked down at the whip in his hand and back to his face, and it was then that Gambit realized how the situation must appear: with his long hair drawn back above a casual ruffled shirt, he knew he must resemble some type of wealthy slave owner, rather than the exact opposite.

With some difficulty he turned his eyes away from hers to the angry merchant, who had opened his mouth to speak. "Ah, Monsieur, you must pardon her for her ruthless actions," he said apologetically, putting a hand to his breast and giving a half-bow. His words were calm and polite, showing no hint of the wrath that boiled within. He was somewhat thankful to find that the fat merchant knew the French tongue, and was hoping that the girl knew naught of it.

"She belongs to you?" he demanded, jerking his head.

"I'm afraid so. I only received her last week, so as you can guess, she's not fully trained yet." Gambit risked a glance in her direction. She still had not moved, and was observing the two men with an impatient expression that told him she could tell nothing of what they were saying. It took several more bows, and about five more minutes of apologies, before the merchant was contented.

He nodded. "Very well." He switched over to the Common Tongue to add, "Don't let me catch her around here again." These last words were accompanied by a stern glare. He moved aside, and Gambit stepped beneath the stall's canopy and extended his hand to the girl in debate. She hesitated, and then catching the merchant's face took Gambit's hand, guessing some of what was going on, and allowed him to take her gently by the upper arm as he led her out. Gambit bowed once more to the merchant, and placing a hand on her back, he said in an undertone,

"Bow."

Grudgingly, the girl obeyed, and held her tongue as she was escorted away and around a corner out of sight. There she tore from his grasp as he turned to face her.

"Who are you?" Her voice was rimmed with frustration and annoyance, but Gambit imagined it could also be soft and kind when it had to be.

"The man who jus' got you out of a world a' trouble." He took her arm again. "Follow me."

"Hey!" She tried to resist. "What d'you want with me?"

"You don' sound too thankful." The girl frowned as she was pulled along behind him.

"Where're you takin' me?"

"Quiet—" Gambit stood still, ignoring her struggles, and listened. They had stopped just short of an old, rundown building. To many, it was a lost cause, but to Gambit, it held all sorts of memories. "This way." He slipped around its side, out of view of anyone on the street, and began to run his hand along the cool stone. Immediately he located the familiar notch, and inserting two fingers pulled. A small patch of stone fell forward at their feet, leaving a hole just wide enough for a grown man to fit through. "Ladies first." He bowed. The girl looked at him, unsure. "Trust me," he said good-naturedly, stepping aside. Seeing no other option but to obey, she ducked and entered the old building, and Gambit did the same, his hand still clutching her forearm.

The place was just as he remembered it—collapsed beams here and there, old furniture scattered throughout, the chipped and weather stained bar in the corner. He guided her to the best seat he could find—a moth-eaten old thing, with stuffing protruding from the cushion—and released her. "Sit—" He jumped back as she whirled around, faster than he ever would have guessed, seized the hilt of his sword and drew it out of its sheath. She placed the tip at his throat.

"Ah'll ask you again: what d'you want with me?" Her tone was dangerously composed as her eyes looked him up and down.

"I didn' jus' save you t'bring you here an' kill you myself, if that's what you're thinkin'." Her gaze hardened.

"You did not save me," she said sternly, retreating the blade a few inches. "You interfered."

"With what? How well you were doin' on your own?" His sarcasm abated slightly as he continued, "If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead by now. But you're hurt, an' I'm willin' t'help you, if you'll let me."

She blinked, and then recovering growled, "Ah don't need help."

Gambit raised his hands. "Fine, then. How about you jus' put the sword down, an' I'll—" His heel met with the sword's hilt and sent it flying. The maiden gave a cry as it skidded to a halt across the room, and simultaneously the two of them leapt for it. But she was smaller and lighter, and hitting her knees she slid and wrapped her fingers around the handle. Gambit, landing next to her, saw the opportunity and reached down. She saw his plan and jumped up, but not before he withdrew the hidden knife inside her boot. He had just enough time to bring the dagger up and lock blades with his own sword as she came down on him. "Look, I don' want t'fight—" With a twinge of guilt he used his legs to propel her over him, and got to his feet as she hit and shattered an old wooden table. "Don' make me."

She stood up, panting. "Your choice." She came at him again, and soon the two of them were locked in battle, Gambit doing his best not to do any more harm to her. Normally, he would have gone for her injured shoulder, but it was the first time he had ever dueled against a woman, and it was then that the rules of a swordsman clashed with those of a gentleman.

"I'd say your skills could rival a man's," he commented, using a chair to step up onto the bar.

She followed, smirking. "The same applies to you." Her skill surprised him: he was soon backing up as far as he could go, barely able to ward her off. Yet the revival of a favorite pastime put him at ease, and Gambit began to fight back more efficiently. He may have had only a dagger at his disposal, but such was the man's talent that it was as deadly as any sword.

There was a brief second in which they met at the hilt, and their faces came so close that they almost touched. He could see a wild look in her green eyes, the look of a cornered animal summoning every survival instinct it possessed. But in the next second she thrust him back, and Gambit staggered dangerously on the edge of the bar. He kept his footing and chanced a triumphant smile at his adversary, only to have it fade as the counter beneath him cracked and split. He landed amid the dust on the floor on his back, his only weapon soaring out of reach. Then she was on top of him, sword at his heart, catching the dagger in her left hand as it came back down. The two of them remained unmoving, their ragged breathing the only evidence of the previous battle.

"Whoever you are, ah should kill you where you lie." She jerked her head to remove a strand of white hair from her eyes as she glared.

Gambit opened his arms, making no effort to protect himself. "Go ahead." She faltered then, scanning his face as if to determine what trick he was playing. When it became clear that this man was serious, she scowled and dropped his sword.

"It's no sport to kill the defenseless." She stepped away from him. "However arrogant they may be." She shifted the knife to her left hand and made as if to sheathe it once more, and then for the first time gave a hint that she was even aware of her injury. Her hand flew to her shoulder as she lowered herself to her knees, gasping with the sudden onslaught of pain. Gambit put away his sword before dropping to her side.

"Here—" She recoiled as if he had struck her, her breath hissing between her teeth as she stared at him coldly. "It's alright…" He gripped the unharmed shoulder—firmly, but gently—and pulled her up. At first she fought, and then gave in and followed when his hold did not relinquish. "Let's try this again: sit here." He had to almost force her into the chair, where she continued to send him a look of dislike as he crouched down in front of her. The entire left shoulder of her cloak was stained with blood, although it was hard to see against the black coloring. Gambit reached toward it and was rewarded with a cry of half fear, half anger as she shrank back. He took one of her reluctant hands in his as he looked into her eyes. "Look, I want t'help you. You're hurt bad, an' it can't get much worse, anyway." It was a lie, but a lie that worked. She permitted him to lean forward and examine the wound silently, saying naught. Finally he turned to her. "I can't see much…may I?" In reply she tried to unbuckle the brooch at her throat by herself, which proved difficult one-handed, and she had no choice but to let him do it. Once that was done, he pulled the cloak over her head as tenderly as he could and laid it aside.

The top portion of her torso was covered in black leather, a top that left her pale waist and arms open, the latter to the shoulder. The majority of her legs were bare, too, at the courtesy of what appeared to be a dress of the same material, cut about two hands' breadth above her knees. The shirt's skintight collar reached halfway up her neck, making Gambit wonder how she managed to merely turn her head.

What perplexed him most was the thin, veil-like material that covered any exposed skin, save that on her face. Her legs, arms, and stomach were all protected by it.

He took in all of this in less than a second before shifting his concentration to the wound. The whip had split open the thin cover as well as the flesh underneath, creating a tangled mess of blood and black netting. Unlike the usually light lashings given to discipline a slave, this blow had been made to bleed. He moved to try and peel the clothing away from the gash, but as soon as his fingers neared her shoulder, the girl seized his wrist. Gambit's astonishment came from the fact that her fierce glare had softened.

"Don't touch mah skin."

"What?"

"Just don't!" she snapped, releasing him. As strange as this request seemed at the time, Gambit took care to avoid brushing her skin as he attempted stripping the tattered mesh from the cut. He studied it without a word until her impatience got the best of her. "Well?"

He shook his head. "It's still hard t'see." Gambit looked at her. "Beggin' your pardon, m'lady, but…are you wearin' anythin' underneath?"

She took her time in answering. "…Yes."

"I know it's a lot t'ask of a stranger these days," he said earnestly, "but I need you t'trust me. Trust me when I say that I know what I'm doin'." She sighed.

"Do ah really have a choice at this point?"

"Of course."

She searched his eyes momentarily. The pain he could see in hers must have been excruciating by this point, despite what she said, for she muttered "Fine" and turned, allowing him room to reach behind her and undo the cords that held the top to her body. Gambit did this swiftly, and with as much care as he could conjure pulled it away from her. What he saw made his eyes widen in surprise.

Several inches above the white breast band, lying in the midst of her right collarbone, was the small silhouette of a black bird, its head turned to the left with wings outstretched. It was here that Gambit wavered.

"Dark Ravens," he said blankly. She nodded stiffly, and he then understood her words from earlier: Whoever you are, ah should kill you where you lie.

Of course…the Dark Raven clan was a woman clan. Any man who so much as touched one of their slaves without permission from her master could suffer serious consequences; as for someone in Gambit's rank, the sentence of death was not uncommon.

Gambit could only imagine her shock as he ignored the tattoo and went back to her wound. It was not as deep as he had guessed, but he knew too well how it would ache for days. He drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around his hand, and not waiting for her consent pressed it against her shoulder. She turned her groan of pain into a cough as she looked away. For a moment all was silent.

"Do you have a name?" Gambit put on an expression of innocent curiosity as she turned back.

"Does it matter?"

He removed the bandanna from her injury to glance at it. "We might be here for a while." She started to make a sound of annoyance and ended up sighing.

"…Rogue," she said at last. She caught his gaze as if daring him to say something about it.

"Rogue?" He nodded. "I'd say it fits." It was an honest confession. Silence fell again, and he tried not to smile as she asked at length,

"What about you?"

He considered carefully which name to give her. "Gambit." As he predicted, her head snapped in his direction.

"Gambit…?" With her right hand she lunged forward, and gripping his collar pulled it down. She gasped, and he let her study his own brand speechlessly. He could see her tracing the mark with a look of awe, forgetting her bleeding arm altogether. After a few moments he covered it back up and went back to work on her shoulder. "You're a…but you…" Rogue shook her head. "Ah thought you might be…when ah saw your—" The word eyes died on her lips as he looked up. She dropped her stare, ashamed. "Forgive me. Ah didn't know."

"Would you have treated me any different if you had?" Gambit saw the look she was giving him and understood.

"It's…what ah've been taught," she explained. He nodded. He had seen that case before. Stillness fell between the two of them. "Thank you," she said suddenly.

"De rien, Mademoiselle." Gambit smiled. "Now…mind tellin' me why I can't touch you?" he asked, tightening the handkerchief around his hand. He had been looking for a way to distract her from the pain, not really expecting an answer, especially when her eyes flashed with the light he had seen during their battle at the question. But it diminished quickly, and in a low voice she said,

"Ah don't rightly know. Ah just know that…whenever someone does…they…get hurt." Gambit detected the self-hate in her words and stopped. Rogue was staring absentmindedly at a corner, deep in thought. He was too familiar with the burst of emotion in her voice, and decided to leave her alone for the present.

Once the cut was as clean as he could make it, he pocketed the bloody rag and drew out another, the last one he had until he fetched his things from his horse. He tied it around her arm as securely as possible, considering he had to avoid any flesh contact between them.

"That should hold it until you get home." Rogue looked down at the dressed wound loathingly. "…You've never been hit b'fore, have you?" he said slowly, reading her face. "Not by a whip, anyway." As if just seeing him for the first time, she stared, her eyes traveling over him mutely. No words were spoken, but he could see a suggestion of emotion—respect?—become clearer, followed by what looked like an implication of something similar to admiration. She blinked, and her face hardened. Now that she was no longer at his mercy, the personality from before began to resurface.

"That's none of your business." She stood, and then remembering that she was no longer wearing a shirt, stiffened and quickly pulled it back on.

"My horse is jus' outside, if you need a ride," Gambit offered, coming up behind her to help tie the top's strings.

"Ah'll walk," she replied briskly. "Just because ah'm a woman doesn't mean ah can't take care a' mahself. Get off, ah have it—" Gambit backed down. "Look, thank you for your help an' everythin', but ah really have to go." She buckled the brooch of her cloak and turned to him.

"Lady or not, no one should walk the streets alone an' injured, chérie."

"Ah'm not unarmed," Rogue reminded him. "Besides…ah've lingered too long," she said quickly, moving to leave.

"I know—" Gambit stepped in front of her to block her path. "But I'd feel better if I knew for sure that you were safe." Rogue knitted her brow as she looked up at him. She seemed puzzled by his concern, as though the very concept were new to her. Little by little, she began to shake her head.

"…Ah can't."

"Wait—"Gambit moved, placing himself in front of her again as she attempted to go around. "Jus' let me walk you there." She still looked doubtful, and taking advantage of her hesitation he added, "I still need t'get my horse, regardless, so I'll be back in a moment. I won' try t'stop you, but I jus' ask that you consider it." With that, he slipped out the hole in the wall and returned to where his steed was waiting. The horse whinnied irritably as his master appeared. "I know, I know…" Gambit quickly undid the harness. "Got a little tied up…I'll make it up t'you…" He led the beast back to the abandoned building, and leaving him at the corner went back to the secret entrance. "Rogue?" He was not surprised in the least when no one answered. He entered and looked around.

She was gone.

:xXxXx:

"I won' try an' sugarcoat the truth: things haven' gone too well since you left." Jean-Luc LeBeau studied his son solemnly. "I suppose I deserve some a' the blame for pushin' you too fast. You weren't ready."

"None of us were." Gambit kept his eyes on the roaring fire before his armchair, unblinking. The night was still warm, but three logs had been thrown on, anyway. "But I don' recall you havin' a problem with pushin' me too fast b'fore." Not even he could keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Jean-Luc sighed. "I don' blame you for feelin' that way. But you have t'understand: I was younger then…surrounded by enemies on all sides…then your gift comes along. It was like a blessin'."

Gambit looked at him. "For you, maybe. But what about the boy who had a death list on his hands b'fore mos' men even pick up a gun?" He stood up and strode to the window.

"Remy…" Jean-Luc's words hung in the thick air. "I don' want t'get into this with you on your firs' night back. You comin' back is the only thing I've had t'look forward to for the past three years—"

"How's Belle?" Gambit interrupted, not looking away from the grounds below. His father was silent.

"…No one knows." He watched his son for a sign. "She disappeared about a week after you left."

Gambit avoided Jean-Luc's eyes. Even if he had not known his arranged fiancée that well, guilt chewed at him for the way he had left her: no explanation, no farewell. No hint whatsoever that he even cared about her. He had done it before, with numbers upon numbers of other women; but the reality that this particular one had been his future wife made a crucial difference. "Julien?"

"Dead. At least, that's what they're sayin'," Jean-Luc went on, seeing Gambit's shock as he looked back. "There was a fight with another clan by the river. No one's seen him since. You would've thought that'd be the end of it." He laughed grimly. "Not a chance. They blame us for it. Sayin' he went mad after his sister disappeared's what drove him t'become so reckless. That, an' the shame a' his defeat." There was no question in Gambit's mind what defeat he meant.

He resisted the instinct to go rigid at the sound of a soft voice.

"Well, if it isn't the black sheep? Couldn' stay away from his flock forever, I suppose?"

"Nicolas," he said flatly, turning around. The old man stepped through the doorway with clasped hands, watching Gambit with a mixture of respect and wonder.

"You're a brave boy, comin' back here."

You're a brave boy…haven' shed a single tear, have you?

"Especially after the two Boudreaux children's disappearance." Nicolas stopped next to Gambit, his wrinkled face creasing in a thousand places as he grinned.

"He's no boy anymore," Jean-Luc cut in. "Hasn't been for a long while." Nicolas tilted his head courteously to acknowledge the comment, and then putting an aged hand on Gambit's shoulder said quietly,

"We'll jus' have t'see about that, won't we?" His tone was light, but Gambit felt the man's hold constrict, too stealthily for Jean-Luc to notice, as he brought his face close to his, waiting for a response. Gambit forced a narrow-eyed expression that was as close to a smile as he was going to get.

"Guess we will."

Nicolas laughed pleasantly and patted him on the back. As if excited by the touch of their creator, old scars sent a wave of pain over Gambit's body. He ignored it and held Nicolas' gaze.

"You'd best put this one back t'work soon, if he's not already out of use," Nicolas added, passing Jean-Luc.

"Of course." Neither spoke until the old man was gone.

"He didn' die yet?" said Gambit disappointedly. Jean-Luc smiled.

"Don' count on it. He's got plenty a' spirit for another two score years."

"Pity." Gambit pushed himself away from the wall and bent down to pick up his worn leather bag. "Guess I'll head up. Busy day t'morrow."

Jean-Luc followed his son to the door. "You sure you don' want t'take the day off? Get readjusted?"

" 'Course not. I daresay Nicolas wouldn' take it sittin' down." Jean-Luc must have decided to leave the matter be for the moment, for he acted as though he had not heard Gambit's last words. Instead, he sounded relieved as he said,

"Then I won' bother hidin' that I can't wait for you t'get back into the kitchen. Eatin's been a torment for the last three years, though I haven' had the heart t'tell the poor souls responsible." Gambit shook his head, smiling, and turned to go, but Jean-Luc caught hold of his arm. "Remy," he started in a low voice, "there's somethin' I jus' don' understand about this whole mess." Gambit reluctantly raised his eyes. "That night…you could've killed Julien then an' there an' gotten away with it. You knew he wouldn't quit until he'd taken you down. Why didn' you?"

Gambit thought back to that night. It was true: he had had Julien at his sword tip…his rival's own blade had been tossed aside seconds before… Julien was taunting him, telling him to prove his courage and kill him. But Gambit had stepped down, saying that murder was no way to prove a man's worth.

He broke out of his thoughts and looked at his father. "It's no sport t'kill the defenseless."