Chapter 30: Mistigris: Part III

Title: The Ante

Chapter 29: Mistigris – Part III

Fandom: X-Men: Evolution

Author: Lucia de'Medici

Summary: When Remy LeBeau left Rogue on the shore of the Ripper's bayou hideout, he slipped a solitary playing card into the palm of her hand. It was a conciliatory gesture — an offer for friendship, an unspoken apology, and the beginning of a less-than-friendly game between rivals. A year has passed. The stakes have been raised, and Remy is not a person who enjoys entertaining the idea of folding before the bluff gets called.

Rating: Teen/Mature

Pairing: Rogue/Remy

Secondary Pairings: Gambit/Belladonna, Henri/Mercy

The Ante
Chapter XXIX: Mistigris
Part III

With two inches of space between the tip of his nose and the ventilation shaft, Remy draws his head backwards, shuts his eyes for a pause, exhales, hunches his shoulders into himself to offer a little slack, and fixes his fingertips into the soldered edge of aluminum. He pulls: sliding five inches with his heels lifted, his trenchcoat dragging beneath him, and waits for it -

Waits for it:

Silence from below.

Silence from above.

Silence from the left and the right.

He lifts his fingers, moving his arms carefully in the cramped space, and finds the next joint with the artful care wrought from too many years of practice.

Finger pads brush the next purchase, finding the sharp lip of aluminum, careful not to snag his gloves, and he inchworms himself forwards once more: patience of the ages propelling him towards his final destination.

It's a matter of composure; its like playing a game: one breath, two breath, stop. Listen. Wait.

Its like poker: keep your cards to your chest. If your opponent falters, if they look like they're withholding something, don't go in for the kill just yet — wait it out. Wait until the very moment where they think they've got it won.

Then, and only then, is it truly yours.

Just like the diary has always been his. Jean Luc's only been holding it for a time. So kind of him, he thinks. The patience of eons are at his disposal, and surely something that is fated to fall into his hands will eventually turn up if he takes his leisure at find its hiding spot.

Can't be too hasty, he thinks to himself.

Remy hauls himself, hand over hand, through the ventilation duct, dust motes falling into his face, catching the light between the cracks, hands groping for the thing that's been kept just out of reach for his entire life — his existence, his being, his meaning. That damnable book: His birthright.

How do you steal something when you don't even know where it is?

He doesn't know yet, but he's certain of one thing: there's no harm in trying.

One thing's for sure — he knows it's here someplace. He can feel its presence as acutely as he can feel his powers burning beneath his fingernails; waiting to be released, waiting to be set free.

The closed space around him groans with his weight, and he wedges his knees into the corners a fraction of a second too late. The duct buckles, giving way beneath him to bright, fluorescent light flooding him from below.

He hears startled voices.

Smiling, and seeming as if he's becoming resigned to dramatic entrances, he drops from the vent, the duct behind him catching a charge like a wildfire consumes a forest. It balloons out in an unintentional explosion, licking his shoulders as he rushes downwards: a fiery angel falling from heaven, wearing the grin of the devil himself.

The Iberville Projects look down atop a scattered, walled-in cemetery. St. Louis number one is the oldest burial ground still standing in the city. It's all but wholly neglected, and from Remy's perch on a rickety, rusting fire escape half-sinking off the side of the redbrick building throwing shadows across the gapped patchwork of wavering alleys, he can see one or two derelicts setting up shop for the night in the abandoned tombs.

Cozy, he thinks.

"There ain't nothin' like sharin' your pillow with bones and dust," he murmurs below his breath.

Henri looks on at his side, his lips pinched. "Don't make fun, Rem. That could be any of us in a few years if we don't get our shit together."

"Mmmhmm," Mercy agrees. "Gettin' sloppy."

"Will slop get me a weekend off?" Remy asks, amused.

"Slop'll get y' jailed, boy. Or worse —"

"Not exactly Club Med, but I wouldn't be complaining: concrete bed n' breakfast —"

"With Bubba th' masseuse on standby on th' bunk beneath you, waiting for lights out t' give you the 'special' —"

"Good thing I got a 'get outta jail free' card," he hums, absently flicking out a deuce from the inside of his sleeve. It flashes pink, illuminating the planes of his brother's face from the darkness: The look Henri wears is a cross between mild consternation and wrinkle-making disappointment.

"How 'bout the morgue?" Henri asks sharply. "That a good enough vacation spot for you?"

Remy doesn't trip on the jibe, but he can feel his easy smile hardening. Henri's moved from toeing the line to leaping over it. He seems to catch his mistake, looking momentarily ashamed of himself, but its too late: the damage is done. So much for a pleasant evening.

They've been having a few of those lately; the sort of nights where the jobs never sour, but the company turns bitter right quick. Like bad wine, 'cept Remy can't get drunk on barbed comments.

"You're reckless," Henri tells him, not for the first time. "Taking unnecessary risks turns you dangerous t' be around."

"You ask me," Lapin interjects from his other side, his attention still fixed on the dilapidated cemetery and its squatters; he juts his thumb over his shoulder at the line of red brick complexes at their backs, "That ain't much better than the apartments in these parts. I swear, I just saw a whole family of rats go marchin' across a window sill not two minutes ago." Lapin shudders theatrically. "I'd take a few corpses over 'em any day."

"Good thing no one asked you." He smirks, staring Henri down until his brother looks away. A bit of humility never hurts, Remy reasons. But still, it does well to remind him of their growing difference of opinions when it comes to work and play:

Remy throws the card. It sails straight upwards, singing with a high-pitched whine until it explodes over their heads.

Mercy purses her lips. Henri looks as if he wants to chew off part of the inside of his cheek, if it'll keep him from yelling outright. Far from relaxed, Remy slumps over the rail, a parody of nonchalance.

"Takin' the job seriously, now, homme?" he asks his brother, eyebrow cocked, daring him to push the issue.

"One of us has to," Henri murmurs. Père'll be so proud, Remy thinks snidely. Père, who's grown increasingly distant in the last year, but who's taken Henri under his care like a spoiled christmas goose; getting fatted for the slaughter. Idly, Remy wonders if Henri'll start shitting gold eggs anytime soon - but maybe, he thinks bitterly, that's really his job.

Sensing Henri's tension, it's Mercy who shoots him a warning look.

"We gonna keep talkin', or are we gonna run this?" she asks, jutting her chin at the curving alley below. For a moment, the ground pulses before Remy's eyes – a swirl of vertigo making him want to tip himself over the clanging rail to kiss pavement. Grinning, he gives Lapin a nudge and leans out far enough to swallow up the feeling; take it into himself, make it his so the fear doesn't win out. It feels good. Emil senses nothing of the momentary hesitation, and Remy finds his mood bolstered by his cousin's look of appreciation.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Henri balling his fists on his hips. LeBeau restraint is genetically inherited - but even he would want to give himself a shove.

"Might as well. If we don't, Remy might toss himself over like he did the last time," Lapin says over his head.

"I was gonna be late for a date."

"You were gonna be late for your own funeral," he shoots back.

"There was an awning last time," Mercy amends, answering for him. "Though it was a lucky coincidence that y' didn't break your neck."

Remy grins into the night, his eyes slanted against a balmy breeze that singsongs its way through slats of broken glass and fluttering boards that patch up the doors like half-peeling Band-Aids.

Lapin hums a few bars of "Luck be a lady" for Remy's benefit.

He chuckles. "Life ain't no fun unless y' willing t' take a few risks along the way."

"Couldn't agree more, brah. S' why I think it's so kind that y' volunteered t' run drills on a perfectly good Saturday night. Our grandkids are gonna be talkin' about it for years t' come. 'Oooh, that Remy LeBeau was a handsome devil! Too bad he done broke his neck 'fore he was old enough t' buy beer without getting carded.'"

"Make a pretty corpse," he says.

"Not prettier 'n me," Lapin challenges.

"Only if we're scrapin' you off th' ground too," he returns.

Mercy clucks her disapproval. "Only these two'd argue over who would look better as a stain on the middle of Basin street. Henri, cher, these fools'll be at it all night. What's the plan?"

Seeming to appreciate at least a little bit of focus, Henri takes charge — expanding like a blowfish in the chest area to compensate for being the shortest of their motley crew.

"Regard." Henri motions for their attention, shifting in next to the nearest drain spout and the best vantage point to take in the route through the old District. He gives Remy a warning look, and continues. "Final destination is the border of the sixth ward; th' objective is t' collect the bounty, and make it t' the roof of th' Walgreens on th' other side of Clairborne first."

Lapin yawns.

Remy mutters, his eyes closed, "Are we there yet?"

Henri somehow manages to remain stoic. "This wasn't my idea, y' know."

Mercy cracks her neck, and Remy peeks open an eye to watch her stretch. He's met by the baleful glare of his increasingly quick-tempered half-brother.

"Jean Luc's orders," he insists.

"But we've been runnin' perfect pulls!" Lapin protests.

"'Cept that one time —"

Remy can feel Henri's gaze boring into him. He's referring, of course, to a trifle of an incident last month — barely worth mention — in which one over-zealous spark took out half the mark's living room wall-safe and its contents. He smirks to himself, recalling the scantily-clad mistress of the household who'd caught him in the act of burglarizing her private art gallery. It had been worth it: the lady had owned a half-dozen original sketches by Escher. Had owned. Past-tense. One of them was now hanging in a prestigious place across from his bedroom.

"Ain't no sense in gettin' over-confident."

"What's the pay out?" Mercy asks, her attention flitting over the route she intends to take: Remy sees it, it's a jagged seesaw over the rooftops of the nearest developments, down a gutter, to the nearest and most stable-looking rail, then through the iron lace created by the numerous tumble-down fire escapes. He gives her three minutes, twenty seconds.

"Exemption from th' next job and a weekend without bein' called back, wherever y' want," Henri promises. Like most things, this is a dubious assurance at best: to trust a thieves' word at the best of times is a questionable practice for even the most sound-minded individual.

"Jean Luc tell you to say that?" he asks.

Henri ignores him; Mercy is nodding decisively, her ponytail bobbing in time with her foot: she'll finish in three minutes even, he appends. Moreover, she won't complain if Jean Luc calls her in on her time off. She's a good kid — a favourite — just like Henri; they're two peas in a pod.

Remy swallows the momentary bitterness.

Pere's been working them all too hard for free time to be worth its weight in gold; himself more than the others, but he isn't complaining — there's a payout he's working towards: information. Jean Luc's never said it outright, but the implication is there: pull a few clean jobs, find out who he really is. It would have been an easy tradeoff, if he hadn't screwed up. Like he gave a damn. Jean Luc is slipperier than a water snake and twice as mean; he was the best, once upon a time, until he taught Remy everything he knew. Hope, in this line of work, doesn't quite meet the grade — but like a thieves' promise, sometimes that's all a guy's got to string his sanity together.

Lapin's eyes have gone glossy, and Remy can guess what he's imagining: forty eight hours of Star Trek and all the crawfish boil you can suck out from beneath your fingernails. His grin widens when Lapin turns to him, sizing him up.

"Fat chance, homme," Lapin says preemptively. "It's all me." He gestures to himself, circling his face. "All Lapin, brah. So you can wipe that smug look off y' face, 'cause me n' Spock got a deeper bond than you can possibly imagine. Ain't no punk cooyon gonna come between me n' the Vulcan. No way. No how. No sir."

He gives him two minutes ten, if only for the rigging he knows Lapin's already set up through the District; the Lapin "specialty" is two parts lazy and one part clever. Remy's already decided which callipers to blow out to prevent Emil from finishing: snap one, the rest of his rigging will drop like dominoes.

"Remy?" Henri asks, a tentative note of question cooling his tone. It occurs to him then that Henri doesn't expect much of him this evening… which isn't any surprise. What Henri braces himself for is mirrored in the brief, crazy flash in Lapin's eyes as he waggles his eyebrows.

Evenly, Remy levels his gaze on his brother. There's a challenge, there, one that Remy will readily accept, though not for the reason any of the devotees to the Guild hope: if he pushes himself, if he goes bigger than the others, if he throws himself in harder and Henri and Jean Luc can still see him grinning in outright defiance as he plummets over the edge, maybe they'll come to realize that he isn't special. Maybe it'll take one more permanent vacation in the family to finally understand the futility of pinning their hopes on a teenager with a warped case of the Midas touch. It makes him reckless, knowing his own worth; knowing that it's all a blunder of fortune that he was born below such baleful signs.

It's unfortunate that only Theoren seems to agree with him, in that regard.

"Henri?" he says, mimicking the inflection to a tee.

Etienne was the only one to ever look on him with admiration; what Henri's offering him is reluctant dissatisfaction that he can't take any of it seriously. Hope keeps Henri from complete despair, he thinks, though it doesn't stop the arguments between them that have been cropping up with increasing frequency.

He smirks, pretending that it doesn't bother him.

"Rules?" he asks, though he already knows the answer: there are none.

Regarding him with a look that's meant to be measuring, Henri shows the smallest glimmer of that old willingness to throw Jean Luc's orders to the wind; a peek of his old self shining through the ugly patina of wannabe-adulthood.

"Lotta good that'd do," Henri concedes, glancing quickly to the rooftops to ensure that Theoren isn't skulking around somewhere to hear it. His eyes seem to glint in anticipation as he pulls out his bo, tapping the rail once in warning. Lapin and Mercy grin at each other, taking ready positions.

"On three, then," Henri seems to ask, punctuating the order like a question, directed at Remy. It goes unnoticed by everybody else. "Is there any sense in tellin' you not t' blow up the block?"

Remy lifts a shoulder, shrugging with a crooked smile.

"Lesssgolessgolessgo!" Lapin chants, clinging to the rail. His knuckles are already turning white.

"One," Henri counts off, but prematurely, Lapin lets out a "Yip!" and flings himself over the ironwork.

Remy can hear him bellowing the entire way down, until his rig gives a springy, tensile, boing! and Lapin crows his success from the landing three floors below. There's a zip! as the line is pulled taut, a clack! as he fastens his callipers and gives a yank on his harness, and a screech of pure pleasure as the rigging snaps him forwards into the night.

Remy can hear Emil's, "Live long and prosper!" as it fades into the architectural patchwork of the Projects.

"Hey!" Mercy protests. A second later, she drops between the buildings, her arms shooting up over her head, trailed by the banner of her ponytail. "He wasn't finished!" she shouts after him, making nary a noise as she sprints to the next row of houses.

"Two," Henri says, though it comes out more like a sigh. Amusement makes Henri's lips twitch, not unlike an involuntary spasm — early onset sarcasm — but it's tired.

"Oh, no," Remy leers, folding his arms across his chest. "After you. I insist."

"You know, it's y' ego that landed you here," Henri informs him. "Y' don't think Père woulda much preferred that we were runnin' an actual job instead of drills? Tch."

"'Cause linin' Pere's pockets is m' top priority," he shoots back. He hasn't yet moved from his position against the security rail. The fact that Mercy and Lapin are moving farther away doesn't trouble him. He can make up the distance faster than anyone, and truly, Remy considers the small head start necessary to keep the odds at least a little bit even.

Henri doesn't try to argue.

Frowning, Remy's brother looks down his nose at the cemetery below them. It appears for a moment as if he's struggling with himself, contemplating how much he can say to Remy without intimating anything too explicit. Sometimes, Remy realizes, silence is the best sort of diplomacy: that's Henri's biggest failing, that he can't outright lie to his own brother, and that he feels like he has to offer some sort of consolation. At least some things in the world are still set rightways up. Pity it'll never serve him in this profession, Remy thinks.

"I think it's good t' have a goal, Rem. If we don't have somethin' t' work towards, how can we ever become better than who we are now?" He glances at him, seeming to reach a decision. "It's your choice, what you do with yourself in the end, whether or not y' can attain that sorta grace. It ain't always so easy for the rest of us, but we — I — will do whatever's in m' power to try and help y' get there. That's m' job."

'That what Jean Luc told you to say?' he wants to scoff, but he holds back. There's an earnestness about Henri that is more shining and genuine than Remy himself can muster, and it doesn't feel right trying to crush that out of him. The possibility that Remy could fail him like he's failed Etienne — even if everything that's ever been said about the Legacy were true — doesn't seem to register with his brother, or with any of them, really.

The shadow of that reality still lingers in Remy's mind, a mark on his conscious that he wouldn't rid himself of even if he could. It carries an expiry date of twelve years, eleven months and three weeks, and wears the face of his dead cousin. The fact that the Guild is absent one member who ought to be running this stupid drill this evening with them is logic enough for Remy to realize that no amount of devotion to the cause is enough to turn a legend into reality.

"Three," Henri counts off. He waits for Remy to make a move, the epitome of patience. Just like his father, Remy thinks, especially in the way that Henri says so much more about the circumstances when he says nothing at all. Jean Luc's trained them all so well that it's impossible not to see what he's gradually shaped his children into; the Guild kids — no longer rightly entitled to the appellation — have grown into young mercenaries; their hardened looks filling out with each day that goes by. It's impossible not to become suspicious: The Thieves Guild is mortared with secrets, forever entrusting its members to the shadows in which they've been forced to walk. It's the Way, Belize would say, were he still alive to contribute an opinion.

"Three and a half," Henri counts. "It's something t' do, Rem — somethin' a shade healthier for us all than provoking Julien Boudreaux."

"Wasn't m' fault that he showed up when he did."

"I don't wanna know."

Remy cocks an eyebrow. "Ain't this where you're supposed t' chew me out for sleepin' with the enemy?"

"Really don't wanna know, Remy." Henri draws back, cringing. "Your exploits are not m' business… Though I will say y' done a fine job of upsetting the tentative peace we got going. Just last week, Fifolet and Questa went out searchin' 'round Bayou Segnette."

"That's miles away from the house —"

"They're lookin' just the same. That's the problem. They've never been so bold as t' come out snoopin' around where they're not supposed to: had you left Belladonna to her business, Julien wouldn't be all up in yours, and his minions wouldn't be calling for our blood because we're family…"

Remy doesn't object to the family comment, though it gives him a funny twinge in his gut that he doesn't altogether care for. Like it feels wrong, somehow. His thoughts point back to Jean Luc, but he brushes the discomfort off.

"I can take care of myself," he says flatly.

Henri sighs, scrubbing a hand through his hair fretfully. "You're missin' the point."

Grinning, Remy returns, "There ain't no 'i' in 'team'?"

"Can you take care of all of us? There's no room to make the whole family bleed because y' got a chip on y' shoulder," Henri shoots back. "You hurt, we all hurt. You fuck up, we're all fucked. Salaud. Ain't that clear, yet?"

"This is startin' t' sound like an after school special."

"We got enough t' worry about without another brawl with th' Rippers. Julien turns out more and more like his daddy each year that goes by. He's crazy, Remy. He's crazy like a bull, and you're dancin' around in front of him wearin' a pair of red boxer shorts." He pauses, then adds, "Belladonna Boudreaux. Shee-it. I swear t' god, homme, sometimes I think you're actively tryin' t' get yourself dead."

"Well, sometimes it does sorta feel like she's tryin' to do me in in th' boudoir, if you get my meaning —"

Aghast, Henri splutters something barely intelligible about the saints preserving him. It looks like he's trying to cross himself, like such a concept is sacrilegious in some way.

"Is Pere as pissed off as you as he is with me, right now?" Remy asks, thoroughly entertained by their brother-to-brother 'chat'.

Henri gives him a warning look.

"Is it your fault, somehow, that he's having a harder hold on me than he thought?"

Henri opens his mouth to object, but Remy silences him with a gesture.

The faintest scrape of gravel on tarmac roofing overhead has snagged his attention. Remy reacts instantly, his kinesthetic awareness shooting out around him — it flushes through the apartment at their backs, through the floors below, and above to the rooftops. It's a haze of subtly moving particles superimposed upon the visible of his mind's eye. A moment later, it flickers and disappears, but not without leaving behind the ghostly trails of moving bodies in its wake.

Tipping his head back, he smirks, but the rest of his body has stilled to the point where Henri takes notice. He follows the direction of Remy's gaze, seeing nothing.

"Belle's not an exploit, Henri," he says beneath his breath. Belladonna's something else entirely. "But she sure does know how t' make an impression."

Instantly, Henri is alert.

"Quoi? What's wrong?" his brother demands.

"Jean Luc's plan for th' evening involve company?"

Their answer arrives with the sound of whizzing air, punctured by the thock! of an arrow wedging itself into the mortar over Henri's shoulder. The feathers of the fletching graze his collar.

Henri bares his teeth in a grimace; he ducks from beneath the arrow, the fabric of his shirt clinging stubbornly. It tears with the snap of a few strings; these Henri winds around his fingers: careful not to leave any trace of his being there.

"An 'impression', hein? More like a hazard t' your health." He leaves the arrow behind. There isn't time to hesitate. It's not their mess until the Rippers make it their mess.

Remy raises an eyebrow at the arrow, taking note of the dayglow orange and green coloring, and squints upwards.

"That'd be her brother." Belladonna prefers pink. "Looks like th' night's just gotten a bit more interesting."

"Deadly, more like," Henri amends hurriedly. "He's drawn first blood."

Julian sneers, leaning over the lip of the roof, a block due South, one arm propped on his knee, the other holding his weapon of choice: a drawstring bow. Remy can see the white of his teeth, even at this distance. Remy surmises: it was a warning shot. Something begins to simmer inside him at the fact that Henri wants him to run instead of fight.

"Not hardly," he mutters. "Julien's just sayin' hello."

Henri seems to understand the impulse to stand their ground, but Remy already knows that its foolish; he can't be certain that Belle is here too, and that's not a standoff he wants to contemplate.

"Allez!" Henri commands, dropping to a crouch. "I don't want a fight, tonight." His hands on the rail though Henri favors his left side, and shunts himself feet-first through the narrow slats of the fire escape. "I mean it, Remy. Leave it alone."

Remy has only time enough to see the first, thin well of blood through the tear in Henri's uniform before he himself is airborne, moving on instinct into the tangle of the Projects.

Beneath him, the concrete and the muted shine of windows without curtains in the darkness open to him invitingly as he hangs above it all, breathless, tempered, and then he is falling, curling into himself, ricocheting off the brick and the crumbling cement sills and slamming effortlessly into a disorienting spin that buffers his descent. He reaches, unconcerned, grinning even, as his fingers snag an electrical cable. It dips with his weight, sears raw the parts of his fingers exposed by his gloves as he slips a few inches, and with a yell, he sparks the rubber and alloy mix and severs the cable with a crackle. The deafening pop! of the transformer blowing at the end of the line from the conflict of interests created by his mutation trails his descent like a gunshot.

Remy laughs as he wraps his other hand around the wire, careful to duck out of the way of the hissing, serpentine tongue of electricity that's become his jungle vine; Tarzan of New Orleans, he laughs wildly, kicking his legs out before him as he races to meet the ground with his heels.

Slamming into the banquette behind Henri, he takes off at a sprint, easily coming shoulder to shoulder with his brother in a few short strides.

"My bad," he calls, loud enough that the Rippers can hear, "What I shoulda said was that Julien tries: Homme's got shitty aim!"

"Remercier dieu!" Henri laughs, a touch hysterically. They're running elbow to elbow. "I'm the one who's bleedin'!"

Making a sharp right and leaping across a cracked front stoop, Henri snaps, "Somethin' tells me y' new friends might not be playin' by gentlemen's rules."

Remy follows, his legs and arms pumping, the tails of his trench flying out behind him. He makes a quick survey of the area and takes note of all three of their tails: Fifolet, Questa and Gris-Gris, he figures. Julien will try to head them off. Bella… he shoves the thought aside. He doesn't want to think about what Belladonna will do: kiss him or kill him, hard to tell. The thought sends an unwilling spark of excitement down his spine. Suddenly, he's not so sure he wants to avoid her after all.

These are just war games, not an actual war, he reminds himself, despite Henri's harried expression and bleeding shoulder. Despite the inter-Guild problems, and the emphatic complaints from just about everyone in the family, no one's been killed as a result of a skirmish in at least two decades. They're teenagers, all of them. Hot-headed and some smarter than others, but just kids.

"How many are we dealin' with?" Henri shouts, his bow whipping out of nowhere as they zip beneath the cover of a narrow alley, a dilapidated balcony giving them temporary cover from their pursuers.

They stop, flattening themselves against a wall. In response, Remy grins and shakes out his sleeve - flashing one, two, three cards, and holding them up for Henri's inspection.

"Merde," he breathes, grimacing as he twists around to inspect his wound.

"And two more, I'd guess."

"The Olsen Twins."

Remy recalls a younger Belle who still wore pigtails. The thought makes him chuckle.

"You couldn't call her off, could you? Ta copine? Your girlfriend?" Henri asks, making sure he isn't dripping anywhere. It won't matter if the Rippers leave evidence of their being there all over the Projects, but the Thieves need to keep it clean: a thief with a record is useless in the field, and a liability in the home. Jean Luc's words, not his. No blood. No mess. No trace.

Remy doesn't bother trying to correct him; he and Belle don't fit into the conventional definition of "sweethearts".

"Gotta get to Mercy," Henri says, exhaling sharply out his nose. He sticks his neck out, his butt flattened against the wall, and cranes his neck to peer upwards. Remy registers the surprise in his expression before Henri yanks himself back into the wall once again.

There's an arrow, still vibrating, in the ground in the general location of where his face hovered a moment before. Gaudy, pink feathers decorate its fletching.

"Somethin' tells me makin' a collect call ain't gonna do it for you, huh?"

Henri uses his bow to crack the arrow in half, just as another half-dozen are shot down, pinging off the metal as Henri deflects them clear away and into the street harmlessly.

Remy frowns.

"Non," Henri mutters angrily. "Fish don't have fingers to dial the number."

"Big ocean out there," Remy says, his tone suggesting a reasonable solution as he fans the three cards in front of his face, "I vote we bust outta this barrel."

"Oui. Certainement. The Rippers are tryin' t' kill us and you're makin' jokes."

The cards ignite with an excited whine, bathing Henri's features in manic pink light.

"Maybe so, but I prefer to be the one who's laughin' last." Gambit grins.

Henri looks as if he's about to launch into protest, but its too late; Remy's propelled himself off the wall and twisted around before he can get a word out. A trail of fuchsia light stripes outwards from his hand as the cards soar, defying gravity with unimaginable force as he hurls them upwards towards their mark: In short order, the cards connect with an upper level balcony, rocking both Questa and his aim hard enough to send an arrow soaring off into the night.

"Hey!" Fifolet yells from two stories above, his pock-marked face a pepperoni-inspired afterthought as Remy yanks Henri out into the open. For good measure, just to ensure that he's making his point clear, Remy flips him off, wearing a smile.

"Fifolet!" Questa screeches.

Looking down at the smoking balcony and his dangling Guild-mate, Fifolet snarls, "What the f —" BOOM!

Another card makes contact with the brickwork below Fifolet's feet and above Questa's head. It disorients the Rippers long enough for the Thieves to make a break.

"Pere is gonna have m' maudite head for this," Henri whispers, eyes shining in the bloom of the explosion. People are sticking their heads out of windows, curtains drawn to the side. Remy watches Henri watching them: categorizing them as witnesses.

"Non," he whispers.

The look on Henri's face is illuminated by the rising plume of firelight from the explosion. Its one of stunned awe mingled with dread that Remy decides he'll have to appreciate later.

"Heels on fire, mon ami! Time to bookity-book!" he yells, shoving a wide-eyed Henri into a jog. Thankfully, his brother doesn't need more prompting than that. They pelt through the buildings, racing for Clairborne and the Guild's designated meeting point at the Walgreen's.

Snatching at him, Henri drags him under the veil of shadow. "Keep your face hidden!" he hisses. Like Remy needs a reminder.

"Which is worse: personal injury or public recognition?"

Henri's lips disappear into a pinched line of white.

"Where'd you learn to throw like that?" he demands instead, still trying to look over his shoulder at the sagging balcony and the flailing Ripper as they make their escape. In the growing distance, the concrete groans in protest, pattering the pavement below with pebbles from its fractures, as the scrambling would-be assassins fling themselves out of harm's way — scrabbling for purchase on the building's facade. Startled Iberville residents have begun poking faces out of their windows and doors.

Remy can't manage a shrug. "Couldn't let the gator beat me to th' pond!"

"We're so dead!" Mercy calls from overhead, catching them up.

"Mercy!" Henri bellows, trying to find her. Remy yanks him backwards.

"I'm fine!" she calls back. "Keep cover!"

They duck into a narrow alley that reeks of refuse, but Remy lags behind. Silhouetted overhead, he can see the poised figure of his girlfriend, a bow to match her brother's held before her. In the dim cast of a streetlight, Remy strains to see it's decoration.

Above him, her feet rooted in an aggressive stance, she draws back and takes aim. Holding, Remy waits in wonder as the business end fixes in a spot slightly higher than his sternum; it's an aim that readies to pierce vital organs, but still manages to calculate the eddies of wind currents.

A lethal shot, he thinks, worthy of the woman wielding the weapon: he knows firsthand that the tip of Belle's arrow is dipped in her namesake.

Grinning, drinking her in, Remy mock raises his hands in surrender.

Henri is hollering at him from two blocks away now, but something keeps him rooted to the spot. Bricks brush his shoulders; it's a tight fit, and it'd be easy to take him down.

He thinks, for a moment, stupidly, that she'll lower her bow. A heartbeat later, and the string is still just as taught, and the arrow is still pointing at his chest. A heartbeat, and Remy's confidence does something its never done before: it dips, taking a small scoop of his surety that Belle won't kill him along with it.

"Belle?" it comes out a whisper.

In the streetlight, she angles herself just slightly, and Remy can see the dye running through the fletching at last:

Bright pink, just like the arrow that had near pinned his face to the pavement.

She'd shot at him, he realizes. It leaves him feeling curiously cold, like a cube of ice being swallowed too early.

He doesn't run. He can't move. For a moment, he's not sure if he wants to. It won't feel real until he sees the damage immortalized on the cover of The Times Picayune, and even then,Remy will second guess himself. Some scars don't leave marks on the skin; some burn to the core like the look from his lover's glare and leave their traceries on the heart.

Its not the first time he's made this request, yet the answer is ever the same. His focus shifts in recent days, growing into an obsession. The things he's known are as changeable as the weather; the things he's relied on all his life are uncertain.

He wants the book. He needs it to reinforce all the things he's come to doubt about his life with the Thieves.

"Patience, mon fils," Jean Luc assures him, "The time will come."

Remy notes that Jean Luc doesn't promise, though he wonders if its implied in the platitude. He swallows the lingering doubt, along with the unsettling ripple in his belly that makes him want to pull out from beneath Jean Luc's hands; they are heavy on his shoulders.

Like a flayed bit of cord, pulled on too much, he feels the wear of these reassurances just as surely as his father is beginning to look his age.

Uncomfortable, his hands hang at his sides, itching to dig into his pockets and graze the edges of his cards, if only to make sure they're still there. Belatedly, he realizes the flare of nerves comes from Jean Luc's proximity, and Remy must swallow hard on what this means:

He no longer trusts his own father.

Even now, Remy can recall a time when Jean Luc had no trouble picking his pockets, leaving new and interesting things in the place of his candy wrappers as a joke; or further back, a pocket watch, nicked from a rich man during Mardi Gras... Its silly, of course, and its surely just sentiment making him uneasy, he tells himself.

"Think of all that you've accomplished; look around you," Jean Luc continues, gesturing to the fineries the Thieves' skills have brought them — the artwork, the books long out of print, the priceless artifacts that decorate their home — the trophies of their work; his skill.

"Think of all the things we'll do, Remy, together."

With these words, Remy's awareness slides to a crawl, his insides curdling with the underlying meaning:

Not "we". Jean Luc means all the things he'll do for the family: because all Remy's worth, it seems, can be measured by the bills lining Jean Luc's pockets. He's the easy solution to their growing wealth, the answer to their prayers, but not because that's what Remy is, but because that's what they've made him into — how Jean Luc has fashioned him singlehandedly: Saviour. Legacy. Myth.

He realizes why he's become so disconcerted: this moment smacks strongly of their first encounter. The difference, Remy realizes, between then and now, is that he no longer cares so much for this shining life offered to him; its the sting of Jean Luc's touch, that of a skilled puppeteer, and not of a father, that weighs so much more heavily on his shoulders.

He longs, suddenly, to cut his strings.

With a smirk, he slips fluidly from beneath his father's touch, his hands dropping deeply into concealment beneath leather where they slide against cardboard: fifty two sheaves of paper in their original packaging. He feels no more secure than he did a moment ago, but the presence of the cards permit him the illusion of the contrary: Remy half-smiles at Jean Luc, he role well-rehearsed.

Cairo. New York. Sydney. Marrakesh. London. Rome. Rio. Montreal. Tokyo.

He wonders vaguely where they are tonight. He wonders if the life is losing its lustre. He wonders if he cares.

Wordlessly, Henri slips him the stub of his plane ticket.

Nevada. Not even Vegas. Merveilleux.

Remy slumps backwards into his seat, legs splaying unconcernedly, deliberately brushing the knee of the man on his left. The man, a stranger in a rumpled business suit with a messy briefcase open on his lap, tires vainly to hide his folded Penthouse magazine between two manila folders and shuffles over wordlessly, uncomfortable with the contact. Remy's smirk holds even as Henri starts whispering in furtive French, trying to explain something that doesn't immediately concern him.

He's grinning even as the insides of his eyelids falls to deeper black, and dreamless sleep claims him.

The gutter creaks its rickety complaints beneath his heels, the worn chucks he wears scuffed and soft in the soles from pounding pavement. Overhead, thunderheads stumble onwards, rolling their warnings for the undeterred, approaching hurricane season.

The air smells of exhaust fumes, ozone, pollution and the wet, turned-earth smell of approaching rain. Below the spire he's claimed as his own, a few stragglers scurry before the gathering storm, searching for shelter before the first fat drops can fall.

He hears the rafters creaking, out of sync with the wind; determined, in its own way, to bring down the bell tower of St. Louis Cathedral at least once more to prove to the good people of New Orleans that Mam'zelle Nature still holds court in these parts.

Remy sighs, pulling out a cigarette and a playing card. He glances at it and thinks nothing of the sorry-looking deuce, but doesn't ignite the card immediately.

The eaves aren't too silent not to know what lingers just beyond his peripheral vision.

He waits.

A silhouette falls beside him outside the half-busted shutters, and Remy shakes his head.

"Bonsoir, Lapin."

Silence and stillness return to him, and Remy considers for a moment, and then two, and then three.

"Y' best come inside. It's comin' up a bad cloud."

Still, no response.

The eaves shift a fraction, and with a "Ha!", Remy sends the card spinning with a flourish. The two of clubs hits its mark and with a small explosion that propels the iron latch, clattering, into the middle of the room. The shutters bang outwards.

Remy cocks an eyebrow.

Lapin, upside down and clinging to the suspension cable with his ankles, releases the tension line around his midsection long enough to clap his hand to his mouth and exclaim in a falsetto, "Remy! Quelle surprise!"

"What are y' doin' here, Emil?" he asks, it comes out half-sighed.

"Oh, you know…" Lapin gestures absently. "Just hangin' around."

Barely blinking, he appraises Emil's rigging: the harness around his waist looks too tight. He tells him as much.

"That must be cuttin' off th' circulation to your head," he deadpans.

"Boo?" Lapin tries again.

Remy just shakes his head.

"Merde," Emil mutters.

"I'm gonna smoke this whether y' run back t' Père and tell or no," he assures him, waving around a pilfered cigarette. Emil raises an eyebrow, but the effect is lost, given that he's still inverted.

"Got another?" he asks after a moment.

Remy looks at him blankly. Lapin doesn't smoke.

"Share?" Lapin tries again. He's now been hanging upside down so long that Emil is turning pink in the face.

Remy half-shrugs, mindful that Lapin is at least trying to put in the effort of talking to him. Emil, at last, unhooks himself and swings inside the St. Louis Cathedral bell tower with about as much effort, it seems, as it took to get up the spire. Landing nimbly beside him, the pair of boys hunker together, settling into the dust on the warped pine floors.

Remy taps a finger to the end of the cigarette, and Emil nods his approval at the trick.

"S' new?"

Remy shrugs again. His mind is on Belladonna, not whatever parlour tricks he's picked up to make use of his deformity.

"She's done fixed ya," says Lapin, peering at him queerly, and guessing right with an odd moment of Lapin-specific psychicism.

"What?" he demands after a prolonged moment's scrutiny. "Like some hoodoo love spell?"

"Wouldn't put it past a Boudreaux," Lapin returns with a decisive air.

Remy does his best to shrug off the weird feeling that someone's stepping over his grave.

"Nah, no bad juju, I don't think — its the mopey look you're wearing that gives it away."

He takes a drag from the cigarette and doesn't appreciate the too-full feeling in his lungs, nor the following headrush.

"Trust me, mon ami, this is not about Belle."

"Oh," Lapin huffs. "Sure it's not about Belle now, but what happens when th' day comes that Papa Marius decides 'that no good mutant boy of Jean Luc's' is a bad influence on his sweet, unsullied lil' girl?" Incredulous, he asks, "You think daddy's girl'll say no t' daddy when daddy tells her t' put an arrow between y' eyes because you're causing problems with the neat lil' blood feud he's got going? Pshaw." Lapin waves off the curling cloud of smoke, frowning. "Don't hold y' breath, Remy. Family comes first. The Rippers an' all their back-asswards inbred bayou cousins? They're no different; Guild politics."

"Guild Politics? Family comes first?" he echoes, dripping sarcasm and thinking of his own father's lack of comment, on Henri's tersely meted lectures on duty and obligation; on Theoren's abject, unfaltering hatred, and on Lapin's wide-eyed, diligent dreams of the mythical Old Kingdom. When had any of them ever asked what he wanted?

Giving Lapin a pointed look that says he doesn't want to hear it, he concentrates on his cigarette; on the repetitive movements of bringing slow death to his mouth.

"That ain't much, Emil." Its certainly not enough for him.

Lapin looks to the thunderheads and shrugs. "I like y' well enough, cous. I'd say that's something."

With a sigh, Remy nods. He needn't tell Lapin he's got his cousin's back, and Henri's, and Theoren's — for what its worth —

"But that's not th' point."

Considering, like he's calculating a new approach to a subject they've broached a thousand times before, Lapin hesitates only a moment before deciding to play dumb. Remy recognizes that Belle's just as big a part of it as anything, but its beyond him to explain how he knows this. Remy understands only that the discomfort of not being able to fit the pieces of the puzzle together sears slightly less than the fact that no one in the Thieves Guild is willing to help him arrange what they know just so — just enough to give him clarity, to force him to believe its all been worth it, to believe that despite all the crap, he still fits into the greater gestalt of the picture Jean Luc's painted in their heads…

Instead, he turns to doubt: its far easier a creature to handle:

"It's just a book," Remy mutters. There is no prophecy. It's easier to lie to himself. It's easier to doubt everything than to keep up hope.

Lapin snorts, mimicking him, "Just a book! It's got power, brah – that goes beyond words on a page."

When Remy continues to glower at nothing in particular, Lapin ploughs onwards, numbering off on his fingers: "The Malleus Maleficarum, The Book of Black Earth, the Book of Am-Tuat, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Qu'ran, the Bible… It's the people that believe in them that give them power."

"Belief in something doesn't make it true," he counters.

"No, but we can hope, no?"

Hope isn't enough to make it real enough for him to swallow anymore. Hope is the thread stitching together the dreams of children, it lines their pockets; keeps them warm at night.

"I don't wanna be here no more," he mutters, more to himself than Lapin, though his cousin hears him perfectly. "Don't belong."

"This is our city, Rem," Lapin says, pointing out the obvious. "An' try as y' might, y' can't work it out of your blood. You were born to it, which puts a piece of it in you. It might not always be so comfortable, but y' know that even with the growing pains, there's always gonna be a part of being here that fits better than any place else." Lapin holds a hand out, catching drops of rain in his palm, cooling his fingers.

What he hesitates to say is that he wants to live in a world where children remain untouched by their parents' best-laid, most fucked-up plans.

"Just like th' Guild, brah," Lapin continues softly, rubbing the rain into the back of his neck. "No one else in the world ever gonna understand why we do what we gotta. It's our destiny."

Given the chance to do it again, he'd never have let himself get caught. It's been seven years to the day, and though the sun's not out to cast a shadow over the spot where it all began, Remy is staring at the spot of road below the Cathedral where he stepped through the one door that changed everything. He was so easily bought, he thinks bitterly. A little flash, a little show of Jean Luc's obvious skill, and he'd been too naïve to see for himself that it had all been a set-up – the pocket watch, Fagan's mob... Belladonna? Dieu, how much of his childhood was arranged, he wonders? How deep does Jean Luc's influence need to cut before he bleeds for it?

"I never asked for it," he protests. It's a stubborn response for the one thing a man can't possibly argue with: fate's agenda doesn't always gel with individual plans.

Lapin shrugs. "So? Y' think Joan of Arc asked t' hear the voice of God?" he asks. "Didn't hear her complaining."

"They killed her, Emil," Remy retorts.

Lapin waves it off. "Toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe."

Remy falls silent; half-shocked, half-surprised Lapin's momentary glimmer of wisdom lasted as long as it did. One thing was for sure, the Guild would have his life if Jean Luc had his way – just like it claimed everyone else's for the sake of something so arcane and impossible that it became little more than inculcated dogma.

What made it all so difficult was that Remy knew, in Lapin and Henri and maybe even Theoren's heart of hearts, they wanted to believe that he was their saviour. Worse, they'd half-convinced him too.

"Th' point," Lapin continues, "is that by th' time you accept it, y' already know that in making that choice you've taken a step down that road. Ain't no point in comin' back when you're as far as y' are, Rem. There ain't no short cuts, neither." He gesticulates, cutting a path back and forth with two fingers in front of him – a traffic cop signalling for him to proceed. "Just keep movin', brah. Rest of us'll follow you… 'cept maybe Theo, but he's an idiot anyway."

How easily they'd joked about it when they were younger… How much more of a burden it became knowing they all believed it, now that he was grown. The Guild Prophecy called upon a saviour with red eyes, born to parents unknown and taken in like so many prodigies before him, reared in the Guild's ways solely to fashion a fate that would unify the families once more and reinstate the Old Kingdom.

This was all Jean Luc's doing, he realized distantly, too numb to embrace it fully for what it means.

"Lapin?" Remy murmurs.

"Yeah, brah."

"There any way t' find out if th' hospitals in the area keep records of unusual births?"

"How far back?" Lapin asks. There's a shift in his posture; to an untrained eye, it appears as if Lapin's slouching over himself. Remy knows that the slight droop to Emil's broad shoulders is a bad sign. He's forcibly keeping himself loose, a trick passed off to convince a mark that you're trying to hide your tension if you suffer the misfortune of getting caught. Remy's willing to bet that not only does Lapin know what he's angling for, but he doesn't like it.

"Early eighties," Remy says anyway, knowing that it's already a lost cause: Jean Luc's fervor's gotten to his cousin.

Carefully, Lapin explains, "Theoren's th' only person who can get into records data bases that old, Rem."

That's a lie. Lapin's the best hacker he knows.

Remy frowns to himself, his gaze unfocused on a point on the glistening, rain-washed street below – blurred to a glimmering, grey-black sheen.

"Macintosh encryption's a bitch," he hastens to add, letting slip an falsely easy chuckle.

"'Sides," he continues, "places like ol' Charity? DuPaul, before it became DuPaul/Tulane? The old old records aren't stored digitally." Remy glances at him out of the corner of his eye. Lapin keeps talking, unaware of his tendency to ramble when he gets nervous. "Hell, no. No funding f' that sorta thing. Damn shame, y' ask me… hard drives are infinitely more secure than keepin' all them dust-collecting files around… Waste of trees. No such thing as sustainable records keeping… Data entry, you know. Me? I'd set up a few server's in the basement, train a few monkeys, get them clacking away at the keys instead of flippin' burgers at McDonald's... Put 'em in a room with concrete walls. Fire and flood proof it, titanium vault storage, maybe…" he continues, his expression faraway with possibility.

"Where do they keep them?" he asks.

"What?" Lapin looks genuinely surprised that Remy's still sitting beside him at all, much less paying attention. He's never outright denied him before. He looks as if it physically pains him to do it now.

"Remy -"

This is not something Lapin can joke his way out of, and true to his name, he bears a strange resemblance to a caged animal that wants to run.

Remy swallows, doing something he finds himself getting very good at: he smirks. He lets it go.

"No worries, homme," he says, clapping Lapin amicably on the shoulder. He hitches a broad grin on his face, and turns away before Lapin can see how brittle his smile is around the edges. He thinks he might take off for a while, take a break, get a little physically lost to match his heart's displacement; there's a shiny new toy parked in Jean Luc's garage: a cherry of a thing - a Harley Davidson FXDX with twin cams - so new the leather creaks.

He will make his own fortune, Remy decides; write his own story from now on, not having to rely on someone else's interpretation of his destiny. There's no hand that he can't cheat; no odds he can't make even.

Lapin senses this need to run, though Remy doesn't vocalize it.

"You can love this place, you can give y'self over to her, mind, body and soul, but in doin' so, you let th' Big Easy become your cage." Lapin pauses, raking his fingernails through the scrub on his chin contemplatively. "I tried t' leave once," he offers.

"Yeah? How far did y' get?"

Emil wipes at the corner of his eye, taking a moment to decide for himself whether the droplet of water is from the rain or from a tear. He licks it off his knuckle to be sure, and forgets about it entirely a moment later.

"Shreveport," he says with a frown. "Damn near broke m' heart."

"Th' fuck did y' do?" Theoren bellows.

Behind him – the towering wall of muscle and rage that is Theoren Marceaux – an enormous, billowing cloud of smoke and flame licks upwards from the thirtieth floor of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

"They'll call it faulty wiring," Lapin says automatically, finding the first excuse to available to defend him.

Remy grins, his eyes narrowed at Theo, whose head is now haloed by the firelight.

"Or fireworks," Lapin squawks, hands ripping into his scalp. He's nodding frantically, as if to convince himself. "Fireworks!" he says again. "S' what I'd call it."

"The contract was for a no damage, no distractions pull!" Theoren snarls. "You can't help yourself. You're always showin' off!" he shouts. "Always makin' a spectacle of yourself just t' prove that you're a little bit better than th' rest of us, that Jean Luc chose you."

Mercy is staring at him, unspeaking, her hands slack at her sides. She looks back to the building, concentration making her stiller than a stone statue. Lapin, by contrast, is gesturing furtively, illustrating with clarity each and every jangled nerve he has. It's a little embarrassing, actually.

"The Vegas Guild wasn't supposed t' know we were even here, much less find a calling card!"

"Henri?" Mercy croaks, her eyes fixed on the tower of flame spilling out of the building.

It stops him cold.

He was tailing Lapin. Remy had been sure of it.

Mercy seems to realize this in the same moment as Remy. "Lapin? Where's Henri?"

Lapin, owlishly gaping between the pair of them, begins processing, his mouth forming an 'o' of startled realization before he can formulate a proper defense. Emil mouths soundlessly, casting his worried stare at Remy just as Theoren knocks him out of the way. Remy staggers, righting himself quicker than he thought possible. Sending one damning look in his direction, Mercy whirls back to the building, but Theoren lunges for her before she can sprint away.

"Lapin!" Mercy asks, her voice rising an increment. "Where's Henri!"

They've lost him, but Henri will pull through. He'll pop up any second, Remy thinks. Surely he wasn't caught in the explosion.

Theoren bears down on him, his breath hot in his face.

"It never crossed y' mind, did it?" Theoren's mouth spreads in a rictus grin. "That if y' weren't what y' are — a freak, a monster — Etienne would be alive today?"

It's the one unvoiced condemnation that Remy's never admitted to himself. It stops him cold, and the only thing he can hear, apart from Theoren's amplified accusation, is the sound of his heart pounding in his ears.

Monster. Mutant. Murderer.

"You killed m' brother," he sneers. "Just by bein' what you are."

"It wasn't like that," Remy whispers. Where is Henri? His heart pounds.

It doesn't matter. Like the tangled pattern of his genetics, he can no easier undo the parts of his past where the threads that bound him to his family have been frayed.

He finds Henri in the second floor bathroom of the Guild mansion, the door standing ajar. It doesn't creak when he eases it open, though to be polite, he clears his throat as he leans against the doorframe to take in the scene before him. Bandages wrap his chest, his neck, his arms. It makes movement difficult. The look Henri wears is stoic. He doesn't show the pain.

Stringy strands of shiny black hair cover the sink, clinging wetly to the tile and making the white porcelain look like an alpaca recently coughed up an afghan over the vanity.

His brother, towel sliding off his left shoulder, has slowed at his task. The water's still running, steaming up the sides of the sink. Henri doesn't raise his eyes, though the shadows shift behind him where the door closes.

Staring at Henri's freshly shaved, shining head, Remy hesitates only for a second, uncertain what to make of the two men standing before him. For a second, they seem little more than two strangers sharing the bathroom at the end of the hall.

"Who's your hairdresser?"

Henri stares back at his own reflection, the pair aligned together in the mirror over the sink: for a moment, Remy questions the identity of the rangy-looking sixteen year old over Henri's shoulder; he's a shade too lean, and the sunken look about his eyes makes him appear more sinister than diverting. With lingering dismay, Remy discovers that the troubled, hollow expression belongs to him.

They look nothing alike, he and his brother, at least not in physical characteristics; but the biggest difference between them at that moment is that the look Henri wears is far too old for his age, and Remy? Remy's not wholly ready to grow into his shoulders, nor his brother's expectations.

Saying nothing, Henri demonstrates his disappointment with a terse swipe at the foam clinging to his temple. He inspects his fingers, rather than acknowledging that Remy's invaded his privacy.

It takes another minute before Henri reaches for the towel to wipe the straight razor down; it slides off his shoulder to slap wetly against the counter, leaving an errant streak of foam behind to decorate an old scar neither of them has forgotten; it's the marks that remain that hurt less than the reminders of their origins.

"A hundred thousand hairs on th' human head," he says, "and all it takes is one t' drop in the wrong place."

Remy cocks an eyebrow, too familiar with Henri's recent mood swings to think much of his sullen tones. "Not so sure the Sinead look works for y', mon ami. I think I can see myself in th' reflection between th' folds of fat."

"You're spendin' too much time around Lapin. Startin' t' sound like him." Henri pauses, seemingly selecting his words with great care. "We can't afford another link back t' the Family. I had to get rid of it. When my ponytail pulled free from throwin' myself out that window —" He gestures impotently. "No matter."

As if Henri's real concern is only getting caught, and not the fact that he dropped from ten stories and survived to tell about it.

"Your good health is our eternal concern, homme." He forgets for a moment that such words can frequently be mistaken to carry a cayenne-like bite. Henri's movements slow to the point of being painfully precise. Remy regrets instantly trying to add levity to the situation. Henri's mistaken his jesting for something more malicious.

"Strange," remarks Henri, not meeting his gaze, "I was under th' impression that your only concern was your own well-being, Remy. Would explain why I suddenly found myself, mid-job, with half a flamin' ceiling crashing down on m' head."

Remy controls the urge flinch. His brother's gaze settles on him finally, like a measuring weight, trying to test his strength to gauge how close to the truth he is by applying pressure in the places that appear the weakest: in this case, Remy's conscience.

"I needed a diversion." Its the truth; the unplanned, accidental whole of it.

"But you didn't stop t' think what that 'diversion' woulda cost us —"

He cuts him off. "I know exactly, Henri."

"Ça suffit!" Henri shouts. "It's not about you anymore! It stopped being about you the instant you decided that for all y' bravado, y' couldn't afford to risk your pride for the sake of the Guild. Everything we've done is t' protect you, t' ensure that you never got picked up by th' cops, never got a record written up, and that no one — god forbid — figured out what you are."

Bristling, Remy smirks, folding his arms across his chest, across his sinking heart that those words, sounding so much like Theoren, should fall from Henri's mouth: Still, Remy remains defiant; challenging; "An' what th' hell am I?"

In the mirror, Henri is forcibly trying to restrain himself from snapping something he'll regret later. Remy doesn't care. Living in this house has given him callouses in all the places it counts: most of all over the parts of the heart that bleed quicker and with less prompting. He can handle it. When Henri doesn't answer, Remy chuckles to himself.

Mutant, he thinks. Monster. Murderer, the tiny voice of his conscience whispers: the old refrain.

"Jean Luc's favored," he answers for Henri instead; sparing him this ounce of truth, but still calling him out. "Like I could ever care about that, Henri. I'm not in line for Patriarch. I don't want the title or th' responsibility that comes with it —"

Henri glares. Stonily, he corrects him, "Jean Luc's number one asset. You need t' be blood t' be Patriarch; unless half th' family dies 'fore you can claim th' title, you oughta know by now, Remy, there ain't nobody in this house who'd willingly see the day that'd happen."

Remy's too stunned to respond, so Henri continues.

"We all know who you are to the Guild," Theoren interjects. "Nothing more, if we could be so fortunate."

Henri turns away then, his shoulders rigid though vaguely, Remy recognizes that his hands are trembling.

"Laissez moi."

He does as his brothers asks: he leaves.

One more day, one more job, one more dollar for Jean Luc's well-padded pockets.

The pebble pinched between his finger and thumb glows pink, and Remy finds himself reminded of days when things were a lot less complicated, before he'd known Jean Luc, before he'd known he was a mutant; days before he'd found fifty two pocket-sized best friends who didn't squabble over his obligations or abilities, and who didn't make him feel worse for being what he was. Those were days when his only concern was keeping a pair of sunglasses long enough to keep his freakish eyes hidden from the good people of New Orleans; when only superstition followed him around and he could still keep track of the misdeeds contributing to the long shadow that he casts.

Sins he could confess away and atone for with a prayer to St. Jude, a psalm or two and a splash of Florida Water on the back of his neck.

He douses the charge, though it sears his fingertips and leaves them tingling. Remy hurls the small stone with a practiced throw, mindful of its arc and the light wind carrying it two inches left to rattle off the windowpane to Belladonna's bedroom.

"There's no future for us here, Remy," she'll tell him again. He's certain of it. But this time its different, this time he plans to argue.

There's a song beating around his brain by some punk band Lapin's been blaring through the mansion; something about burning a candle at both ends that seems to be appropriate for the moment.

She lifts the window to find him perched on the knobbly magnolia tree, his feet dangling, trench coat collar up.

Smirking at her state of undress as Belle leisurely crosses her arms beneath her breasts, her negligee barely covering the swell of her hips, he extends to her the biggest, droopiest bloom he could find on the tree.

She frowns. Doesn't say anything, but only shuts the window on his so he won't have to beg.

Remy lingers in the tree a little too long afterwards.

It takes a steady hand and a whole lot of mettle to keep his gorge down, staring into the wavering bottom of his whiskey glass at the amber dregs of his eighth… ninth... Remy chuckles half-heartedly to himself… Number whatever-th drink.

It's his fifth night away from home, and with Jean Luc probably pacing his office like a panther waiting to spring on him the instant he walks in the door, probably with some other menial task to take care of that'd risk his life or his sense of honour, and with Julien doing the rounds at the Ripper's bayou hideout because, as Remy suspects, the coyoon has finally found the pirogue he'd been using to sneak in to the compound to visit with Belle, Remy has opted for door number three.

The bar at Coop's is an obvious choice. It's a dive. It's got counters that never quite get clean, no matter how many wipe-downs they see: his elbows stick to the bar no matter what. Damned good fried chicken – the best in the South – but nonetheless… If this were a halfway house for the disenfranchised, he'd fit right in, he thinks to himself bitterly. The place is near-deserted, and besides, the kitchen closed hours ago. He's not here for the food; he's here to forget… for a bit… why he'd come here in the first place.

It's half past two, and the bartender's looking as if he's gunning for last call: Just a kid from Tulane, he thinks; just a kid with a greasy nose, glasses sliding off the end, already smeared with his fingerprints. There's a textbook on the counter next to a freshly washed rack of glasses that he's not paying attention to; he's focus too fixed on the Coke-a-Cola clock hanging next to the television on the wall. Probably just wants to get home to his girl.

Remy can't blame him.

If he had it his way, he'd be home with his girl too, but the chips rarely fall like that. Besides, ownership's a tricky thing, and Belle's not a girl who'd readily admit to being… whatever it is she is to him.

"Hey there, baby. Why d' you look so glum?" the bottle blond sitting four seats down and half falling out of her halter asks him. Her voice sobers him a bit.

He could tell her, in all her brown-eyed, root-showing glory that the love of his life can't put him up for a night 'cause her daddy's head of the Rippers, and they're likely to butcher him like a pig if he were to crawl into Belladonna's bed and spend the night wrapped up in her arms; that he can't go home 'cause his adoptive father thinks of him as an asset that he uses to increase his holdings, and he's "expected" to obey Jean Luc out of sheer gratitude for having this life and all its obligations foisted upon him; that he's an orphan and a pawn and a rascal and he's got no place to go, save maybe a squat or a park bench or the golf course, if he's real adventurous. Cement as a pillow, the New Orleans night sky his blanket, because that's better than damned well anything else he can think up for himself.

…That he's only sixteen, despite all outward appearances, and it feels like a hundred.

Dieu, he's drunk. So he smiles at her, this girl with her eyes half-sunk into her own pain, whatever that may be.

He could tell her that he's a mutant, a murderer, a sleaze, and she'd likely still stare at him with that self-same desperate longing. He knows that look, knows the feeling behind it; the only difference being that he hides it better.

"Was startin' t' figure th' whole night'd go by before you even looked my way, girl. That's all that's got me down, is all," he murmurs.

He hides it real good.

"That so?"

The rest doesn't matter – the whys and the wherefores, Remy thinks blearily, sliding from his stool to face her, to let her take his measure. She likes what she sees, and there's a glimmer of hope there that wasn't before when she finally regards him less with suspicion, and more with the fleeting hope of the friendless. What matters is the understanding that only alcohol can take you so far into forgetting the mess you're in.

Once you start making a bed out of concrete, you lie in it. It's a hard way to find rest, and the world is full of bad puns when three a.m. rolls around. He much prefers the beds of strangers, when possible; much prefers the temporarily desperation of things when you know that late night passes to morning quicker than the embraces shared in that time frame.

There's no cure that he knows of, but the remedies for the hurt? Remy is familiar with several currencies in this type of exchange.

"Why, sure, chérie," he hums, his voice hoarse from the liquor. He'll tell her whatever she wants, touch her in just the right way to help her forget whatever's kept her up to this late hour, in this dark place, where folks find oblivion with far too much ease. "I couldn't possibly lie t' a girl with a smile like yours."

Stale peanut shells that don't crunch anymore because they're sodden with too much spilled liquor, pad the floor beneath his boots. Wrapped in his trench, elbows on the bar, he pulls down further into his collar, comforting himself with a sweating glass of Kentucky bourbon that he shouldn't rightly be drinking. He's only seventeen, after all.

There's a hardness that cuts into the planes of his face that keeps the bouncers in places like these from asking for his I.D. No one sees his eyes, hidden under the complaint of a "sensitivity to light" and complimented by dark-tinted shades.

He smirks; he only comes out at night.

No one asks too many questions in places like these; not after folks like him, though they sure like to talk an awful lot.

Remy wonders what'd happen if he traded in his trench for a black cape and ditched the glasses; would stories spring up in his wake about the man from the bayou, drinking blood instead of bourbon? Probably.

Maybe he ought to hit someplace bigger, next. Seattle? He hates the rain. Detroit, maybe; any city big enough where the Guild won't track him would be best, he thinks. Any city big enough where he can stay long enough to forget those few precious moments that shine too brightly in his memory, that make him want to turn away.

He's had her sad smile on his mind for weeks, and the weight of the rejection on his heart like a thick coat of lead. It's the handful of dirt thrown into his grave; Remy LeBeau is dead, he thinks. The daughter of an Assassin killed him.

The glass, warmed beneath the tips of his fingers, finds a better fit against his mouth. He knocks back the drink, catching a wayward ice cube between his teeth, and gestures to the bar tender for another coffin nail.

Not Detroit. Jean Luc has contacts in Detroit. Maybe Philadelphia. Maybe Portland.

He crunches the ice, knowing that there's no place he can fit in, no place that wants him, and no place he wants to be.

Truthfully, were there a place in the world where he thought he could fit in, he'd feel less hardened by the effort it took to walk away. While he can claim a pocketful of reasons for leaving his family, his love and his life behind, only spite has seen him this far from home: Without him, Jean Luc's careful planning and meticulous manipulation is ruined. Having left the Guild, the prophecy will never see fulfillment.

Serves them right, he thinks.

Remy scowls at the pitted wood, unconsciously scorching a neat line with his pinky through the melting ice water. Before he realizes it, the line has morphed into the letter "B"… for a name he dares not think. Fitting: at this point it could turn into "-eautiful" or "-itch" with a few errant flicks of the wrist ("-roken heart" comes to mind too, but this last, he shoves aside with surprising force.)

Having left the Guild, he's meted out his own brand of justice and punished the entire family for Jean Luc trying to reap the benefits of his mutation.

"Impressive."

He doesn't look up, though years worth of training has him mentally illuminating every path of escape from the bar the instant those three syllables roll off the tongue of the man standing to his right.

He has to agree: this is impressively stupid, having blown his cover. The temptation to nuke the entire countertop has him flashing a low, smoldering grin into the mirror behind the row of bottles stacked above the bar. A Jack is angled between his solar plexus and the old wood, and turning just so, he nudges a charge into the card — a delicate thing, blushing a pretty shade of pink, before he douses it and reaches for his fresh drink.

"Merci." He nods at the bartender, though his gaze is trained on the clean-shaven, silver-haired, surefire midlife-crisis candidate standing just behind his elbow.

"I was referring to your uncanny ability to appear as little more than a shadow when it pleases you, Mr. LeBeau." He regards him with an interest that seems more speculative than cordial, though the refinement certainly would suggest the old man has seen his share of upscale dinner parties. "It has been an… interesting… experience, attempting to make your acquaintance since your abrupt departure from New Orleans."

Mark bent on vengeance, Remy considers? Not that he can recall. Must be a possible patron, then, Remy decides, correcting him with equal composure: "Gambit."

There's no use keeping a name that sears the inside of his skull when he hears it.

He smirks to himself, raising the tally of people dead to him to two: Requeiscat in pace, Remy LeBeau.

"Gambit." The man seems to savor the name, amusement quirking the corner of his mouth. "In my many years, I've learned that it always serves to remember with vivid and painful clarity the trials from which we've been hewn, Mr. LeBeau. To forget, indeed, to deny out of shame or grief is the one marker that reduces our kind to the inferior status they try to foist upon us."

At the distinction, Remy looked up sharply to find the man smiling.

"We must never forget who, or what, we are," he said simply. "My name," he paused, as Remy turned to face him, suspicion making him wary, "is Erik Lensherr." He offered Remy his hand. "But you may call me Magneto."

Hunched in on himself, an unlit cigarette dangling off his lower lip, Remy casts his gaze around the room with calculating interest from a slip of shade hanging between two stacks of crates. The boxes create just the right angle of shadow to cover his slouching appraisal of his new "teammates":

The big Russian does little more than stare stoically ahead of him. From where he is seated, ram-rod straight, on the couch in what Remy assumes is intended as their living space; the room's dome ceiling sends bisecting slats of light into the circular chamber, glinting off his body armor. The room doesn't look like much, given the sparse furnishings and the cluttered array of boxes, but the Russian is clearly giving the Australian enough amusement to pass the tense atmosphere off as carnivalesque.

Magneto didn't bother unpacking, it seems, but that hasn't daunted the ginger-haired mutant from setting three fires so far, each drawing increasingly closer to the statuesque metal-man on the couch.

"Py-ro," he enunciates again, clacking his lighter open. "You know, like the loo? Cor. If your accent got any thicker, I'd need me a translator."

The Russian gives him a look befitting his body armor. (It's steely.)

Pyro sighs heavily. "Why don't we just stick with John, mate? Worlds easier, it is — what with it being one syllable and all."

"Colossus," is all the Russian offers in return.

The lighter clacks again, and John throws a hasty glance to the doors as they hiss open, admitting three more to their party.

The first narrows his gaze on him. A man in a business suit, a steel briefcase in hand. He removes his hat and extends his hand for a shake, which Remy does not accept. Something in the way the man's gaze shift unsettles him — something hidden.

"Gambit," he greets him. "I am acquainted with your father."

He's not my father, Remy thinks obstinately, but he reigns in the comment before he can offer up the sore spot for anyone to poke at. His eyes flash yellow, and the illusion dissolves with a rippling roll of skin. In a blink, a blue-skinned woman stands before him. Her yellow eyes are laughing.

"Not surprised," Gambit says languidly. "Jean Luc likes t' keep a retinue of femmes on call."

She catches the insult. It hardens the lines around her mouth imperceptibly.

In all honestly, Jean Luc is the reason he's taken up Magneto's contract, though perhaps not for the reason Mystique imagines.

"Raven," Magneto sounds indulgent.

"Magnus."

"This is a surprise." Magneto sounds as if he's wholly expected this visit.

Sabretooth growls.

"Allow me to introduce my Acolytes. They may be of some interest to you."

"I have my own team, Magnus," she says evenly.

"Hardly a competent lot, yeh ask me," Pyro mutters with a sneer.

Remy's only acknowledgement that he's heard him is a glance out of the corner of his eye. Pyro deflates a little, expecting at least a smirk. Mystique is watching them too closely to give anything away in front of her.

"Familiarize yourself with your adversaries, then," Magneto invites instead.

She's trying to be quiet. Truthfully, Remy sensed her approach minutes ago before Mystique had even turned down the hall. Ever the gentleman, he's even left the door open for her. The printout he's been studying with covetous eyes, however, he has carefully shifted beneath the folds of his trench coat, thrown haphazardly across the chair beside him.

Remy just didn't want to extend the extra courtesy of standing there and waiting while Mystique attempted espionage-worthy stealth.

"Isn't there something more pressin' that y' ought t' be doing?" he murmurs, not looking up from the console. Images flit past on the monitor, and every so often, he directs the screen to load on the overhead projector by flicking a card at a crossed pair of clubs he's lodged between the enter and shift keys. It spares him the trouble of having to sit up and manipulate the mouse each time he wants to click through to the next page of data.

The image before him hasn't changed in several minutes. He sighs inwardly, deciding to let the tranquil scene go as not to arouse Mama Raven's ire. Not that he cares what she thinks, but Mystique is particularly good at making everyone's lives miserable when she wants. Passive aggressiveness, or something. Didn't get enough hugs when she was a kid. Whatever.

Remy supposes Mystique is aware of his studious interest, as the footage flicks from a profile view of Rogue hunched over on a stone bench, her fingers working a clumsy piece of crumbling charcoal to dust against her sketchbook, to an impressive loop of the same single-minded girl engaged in combat tactics. The change isn't bad at all. Now, Remy's found himself with a pleasing eyeful of flexing muscles, lean limbs, and a string of poses that could outsell the Kama Sutra for the flexibility involved. Damn, he thinks. The fille's practically pornographic when she gets a little sweaty.

Each jab, hook, strike and punch is accompanied by a grunt of satisfaction, a heavy exhalation, or an indecipherable sound of vicious pleasure.

Remy hits the mute button before he can embarrass himself. The soundtrack needs an R rating, he decides, glancing over his shoulder at Mystique and flashing a smouldering grin.

"Magneto requested that the system be upgraded with the recent data my Brotherhood has collected," she says, bristling as she sets several discs beside his boot heel on the console. He doesn't offer her a seat. "See to it that it is done by the morning's briefing."

Barely glancing at the stack, he waves her off. "Already done. Colossus can confirm."

Just behind his left shoulder, Mystique stills. "Are you quite certain?"

"Y' left them right out in th' open. Figured whatever comes into this commune's public property, non?" He sizes her up speculatively, and losing interest almost as quickly, Remy returns his attention to the screen. "The data's not current, by th' way."

"It was obtained last week," she counters, agitated.

Amateur, Remy thinks.

"Talked to Magneto about reconnaissance," he continues, as if he hasn't heard her at all. "We'll be better suited if we break th' Institute's encryption settings and patch into their security grid for the sublevels. It'll give us a live link into their surveillance system." Remy rolls his shoulders languorously; leaving out the part about how he'd volunteered to modify the mansion's feeds himself. On the blue prints Mystique has supplied them with from her recent stint posing as Charles Xavier, he's counted six perimeter cameras, and eight on the blue prints for the first and second floors. It's the ten in the sublevels they need, but the two that ought to be installed in the third floor dormitories that he wants… hence, Remy's volunteering for the job.

"It'll be like watchin' the live game."

"I see you've taken Magneto's instructions to the letter," Mystique says imperiously.

Deciding that Mystique has no intention of letting him be, Remy leans back further in his chair into a slouch that defies gravity on several levels, and uses the spade between his fingers and a deft flick to pause the reel.

"Best way t' anticipate th' competition is t' think like them… can't think like them less y' can get into their heads."

He doesn't mention that the driving force behind his burgeoning interests. Mystique's abrasive personality is complimented nicely by too sharp a mind — and a nice set of legs, but that's besides the point entirely — he isn't about to give her anything to stab at just yet. Not when it comes to the adopted daughter who seems to favor fighting against her mama rather than alongside her.

"Jean Luc has trained you well." It's not appreciation in her tone. It's condescension. She thinks of him like a puppet, Jean Luc's favourite toy sold to the service of the highest bidder. She'd be half right, he thinks to himself, bitterly.

It gives him the advantage, letting her believe that he can't think for himself, so he lets it slide. "Just following protocol. Magneto wants us briefed before we do any fieldwork. Me? I'm just bored. No cable set up in th' living room."

Besides, Rogue's file has proven to be far more entertaining than any television sitcom.

As if sensing this, chagrined, Mystique forces out, "You have… a particular interest in my daughter?"

It gives him pause, though he keeps his slouch loose and his expression mildly amused. That's a loaded question, if he's ever heard one; a question that only a concerned parent would ask if she were trying to ascertain a threat. Mystique, however, is a sociopath trying to fit into the big girl shoes of Evil Villain, so that rules out motherly affectation. What Mystique is looking for is a soft spot, a weakness, a point of sensitivity to be manipulated and exploited… And here, Remy thought he'd managed to escape Jean Luc. Inwardly, he rolls his eyes. Somehow, it always manages to come back to dear old dad: they've not been properly introduced, and already, he and Rogue have something in common besides devastating sex appeal.

"I have interest in many ladies, chére," he returns smoothly. "It's difficult f' a man like me t' pass up the appreciation of fine things."

What he has is a benign sort of curiosity regarding Rogue. Must be worth it, he thinks, to have Mystique treat his "curiosity" as something that was likely to turn malignant if left unchecked. Be that for her or for her daughter, he couldn't rightly say.

"Your predilections would serve you best if you kept them at a distance from Rogue, Gambit."

He chuckles, compelled to test a new theory that the vein pulsating in Mystique's neck might cut off the blood flow to her head if he pisses her off enough. "That a threat?"

"That is most assuredly a promise."

"Didn't think you th' type t' meddle with y' girl's affairs, Mystique. Y' don't strike me as the nurturing sort." He lets his gaze travel down her body, contemplative and utterly suggestive. "Though I can see how one plus one must equal two in th' most basic biological sense."

Unruffled, she retorts, "I've nursed her potential. My role in Rogue's life is greater than the likes of a two-bit backwater hustler such as yourself could possible conceive of."

"That why she's with the X-Men instead of th' Brotherhood?" he goads.

Mystique smiles cooly, conviction oozing from her in a way that seems eerily familiar. "Part of a greater pattern, and as utterly necessary as my non-interference…" She pauses, adding with particular emphasis. "And yours. "

That seems to put an end to their conversation, though Remy's mind is racing. Regrettably, he finds his heart willing to catch up — the beat tripping over itself in surprise. Though his expression exposes nothing, the realization of what Mystique is suggesting strikes too close to home for comfort. Remy makes a mental note to review her file for any mentions of precognition once she's gone.

As Mystique turns to circle behind his chair, taking one last look at his research before she leaves, he finds himself unable to resist one last parting jab. Centering himself, he turns back to the screen, pulling a new card to ping off the play button. "Don't see what harm'd come from bein' polite; where I come from, the least a man can do is introduce himself."

The desktop rattles with the force at which Mystique slams her fist into the control panel.

Remy's smile widens, having gotten exactly what he's wanted.

"Do not trifle with me, boy," she seethes, her composure momentarily forgotten.

"Wouldn't imagine it." Tipping his head to the side, he regards her over his shoulder. "Just followin' th' boss' orders."

"'Familiarizing yourself with your adversaries' does not constitute calculating the best possible way to ensure that your voyeuristic tendencies are fulfilled by spending your Friday evening in the basement, watching footage of a child whose uncultivated power is more precious than your sordid imaginings could possibly conceive of. You will fulfill your contract with Magneto, but so help me, if you defy me, I will exploit the expendability clause firsthand… and the only memento left for that human who presumably raised you to put your worthless existence to better use as a trained monkey in his ridiculous circus will be your reeking carcass, shipped back to the bayou in several small tupperware boxes."

Remy touches himself lightly, fingers sliding down his chest with calm certainty and coming to rest on his lap. He doesn't turn away as he extracts a cigarette from his pocket and presses it between his lips.

"Do we have an understanding?" Mystique demands.

Raising an amused eyebrow, he lights the tip with his middle finger.

Eyes narrowed to yellow slits, Mystique curls her upper lip in the semblance of a grin.

"Of course, such promises may be extraneous. That is," she amends, straightening, "if you survive my daughter's particular… charms."

Remy can only smile, puffing languorously on his cigarette.

As Mystique turns to leave, he exhales out his nose, lacing his fingers together behind his head. He doesn't bother asking for clarification. In truth, he thinks he'd much rather find out for himself firsthand.

Mystique, however, seems to toy with the idea of spoiling the surprise as she lingers just behind him, her shadow falling across his legs from the backlight in the hall.

"Let's hope she didn't get none of those 'charms' from you, hein?" he murmurs, before she can resort to hissing and spitting before the night's out.

The smile in her voice is apparent as she replies. "No, I'd think Rogue's particular gifts put her a cut above nearly everyone, present company in particular." She hesitates. "Thank you, Gambit," she says after a moment. "This has been most… enlightening."

He represses a groan of gratitude as her footsteps fade down the hall; no louder than a sibilant whisper, but as irritating as a hissing gas leak just the same.

Remy turns back to the tape, and pulling the Jack of Diamonds from his deck of playing cards, he sends it sailing. It bounces against the play button, and the combat training reel begins to play again. In the same motion, he reaches for the print out tucked beneath his trench coat on the chair next to him, smoothing it out one-handed as his attention in divided between the paper and the computer.

On screen, Rogue yells; the heel of her foot slamming into a punching bag, making it sway backwards violently. She catches it, breathing hard, drives her knee into it at rib-height, hooks it with a fist, an elbow, a cross across her body, and a jab where a neck would be were it a man. She flashes a grin at Wolverine, who says gruffly, "Again." And so it goes.

Capoeira, Silat, Jujitsu, Aikido, Karate, Kuen Do, Krav Maga, Kung-Fu (mostly Northern forms, Remy figures the bigger movements allow for the most contact if Rogue were to bare her arms and swing wide). It doesn't surprise him that the emphasis in her training regimen falls on the Asian styles. Wolverine's influence, he guesses. A lot of it is defensive, but the inclusion of Krav Maga is interesting: it's the only grappling style that emphasizes no quarter. Remy smiles to himself. Rogue's mutation must take care of the offense. She doesn't need to fight, not when a brush of her finger could take down a fully grown man, but he's intrigued that she does – and apparently, with a fair level of skill. Idly, Remy ponders what she's preparing for; could it be that all this work, this training, is in expectation of the day when she won't need to rely on her powers? Curious.

"Just a little curious, is all," he hums to himself, fingers brushing his upper lip as he takes another drag.

Glancing at the print out, he grins at the words printed in faded grey dot matrix blocks:

"…It is no surprise that Rogue's lack of control over her primary mutation has lent to her tendency towards introversion, and occasionally, hostility, willfulness and/or rebelliousness. It is presupposed that her reproachful attitude in regards to furthering both her interpersonal relationships and the development of her primary mutation as a tactical weapon is the result of the trauma incurred upon the manifestation of her x genome (sic. See ref #204, re: Robbins, Cody.) Her emotional growth, retarded only inasmuch as Rogue's willingness to experiment by inflicting potential damage on those closest to her, has impeded further investigation into the manipulation of her ability to absorb the thoughts, memories, feelings and personalities of those who she has imprinted via dermis to dermis contact…"

Peering up to catch a flash of an arm, bared from shoulder to wrist by a tank top, worn inside the relative safety of the squash court, Remy takes a moment to appreciate the creamy bisque undertones to her skin: for the moment, they are his alone to appreciate, knowing that such a thing is rare to behold and rarer still to be near.

Chuckling low under his breath, he shakes his head. Bayville just got a whole lot more interesting.

"Just a little curious, and just a little crazy."

A pretty redhead, a smurf and a bleached blond gather at the opening of the alley below: there ought to be a joke in that, but Remy can't find one. Maybe if Magneto had chosen a different setting for this particular tête-à-tête – a bar, perhaps. Remy smirks. A pretty redhead, a smurf, and a bleached blond mutant walk into a bar…

From between the oil drums emerges a girl; a lithe little thing with hair striped white. She moves easily, though he can tell that each step she takes is controlled, coiled, and wary, her hands are fisted at her sides in a pair of scuffed leather gloves.

Ah, Rogue.

"You know, Ah don't get this," she says, and Remy freezes, his hand halfway to his pack of cards. Magneto has voice recordings on file for each of the X-Men and each Brotherhood member, of course; video footage and fight simulations, strengths and weaknesses measured by delicate machinery and recorded to be studied; but the information is patchy at best, and the audio files are tinny. They're nothing to match the heady, smoked-out cadence of her voice now that he hears it.

He's appreciated Rogue's rudimentary combat skills, sure; and hell, the girl's going to be a knockout in a few years, but there's something that's drawn him out of formation to spy on the Southerner before making his grand appearance at Magneto's side.

For a moment, he feels like Romeo, willing Juliet to speak again, except he's on the balcony and she's down below. That's not right, he thinks: angels ought to be above him, way out of reach – she's directly in his line of fire.

Remy chuckles to himself, taking in the smear of kohl around her eyes; the heavy gash of purple lipstick that makes her fair skin paler than it actually is: a fallen angel, then.

"Look up, chére," he wills her. His fingers are already reaching for his calling card, determined to make himself known, to give her a fighting chance to see what she's made of.

"Yeah, they've gotta know we're here," Spyke says, breaking his moment of appreciation.

"Oh, but I do, mon ami," he assures the X-Man below his breath, eyes narrowing at his quarry. Silently, he marks the girl. Rogue's Sabretooth's type; all wilful defiance and gritty grace – the sort of girl Victor Creed would gleefully destroy, given the chance.

He's been hanging out with the big kitten for the past three weeks, and nothing's changed: they mix about as well as oil and water. Fat chance he'll let Victor sink his claws into Remy's claim, no matter how sordid his interest in her has become from watching a few tapes and reading a few files. It hasn't been nearly enough, and still, Remy finds himself too far away.

With a cloud of sulphurous smoke, the teleporter appears. "Now what?" Nightcrawler asks. "There's no sign of them."

Best send them a sign, Remy thinks, peering over the lip of the roof and charging an Ace of Spades. A freefall of at least a couple dozen feet separates them, the wind carrying on a north-easter – poor conditions to make a clean hit. He doesn't need one; this is just a bit of firework.

"C'mon, girl," he says to the open air, and like she's heard the whisper across the great gulf that stands between them, Rogue turns.

The Ace is already earth-bound, sailing gently downwards on a light breeze, but Rogue is looking past the glitzy brilliance of the smouldering card:

Is it possible, Remy wonders, grinning to himself before launching backwards from the edge of the roof, is it possible to catch a glimpse of such shining innocence in those huge green eyes – is it possible that she hasn't been hardened by the need to fight for what she is? It's a wonder, he thinks, and it warms him to think that she's seen him too.

"Run!" the redhead yells, but Remy is already moving. He sees Pyro cavorting around their meeting spot, scrambling out of his way, and Remy flings himself off the roof. For a second, he's soaring, buoyed by the breeze; his bo out at his side, arms spread and knees tucked beneath him.

"It's a trap!" someone yells as the card he's thrown explodes behind him, blocking off the alley as the X-Men scatter.

Naturally: It's their grand entrance.

"The hell have you been?" Pyro asks, petulance turning his garbled accent into a squeak. He seems worried that Remy's hogged all the pre-game fun. Jets of fire lick upwards from Pyro's fists as Remy launches himself up unto the pile of crates with the other Acolytes.

"Nowhere." Remy smirks, taking a seat to wait out the proper introductions, his cards a blur of movement in one hand as he claps Piotr on the back in greeting.

The big Russian frowns, disconcerted that both Remy and Pyro have found sport in the service that he himself doesn't enjoy.

Remy's heart is hammering, though he masks the thrill of seeing her for the first time, in the flesh, with a sly half-grin.

No one knows the better as his cards begin to fly, and the battle begins.

Pyro shouts behind him, scurrying – scurrying – for cover. The sight's almost laughable were it not for the fact that Remy finds himself running too.

He's tracked her, waiting for the moment when Rogue would break off from the group, fighting in a careful loop to keep her constantly in sight as she tries to support the psychic's defence.

An oil drum gutters, spewing forth a billowing cloud of black smoke as it burns, and Remy's vision is obscured.

"Merde," he says under his breath, covering his mouth and nose as he bolts for the clearing.

Legs pumping, he dives in front of an enraged Sabretooth who snarls at him for missing a swipe against Beast, and then he sees her: jaw set, Rogue is pounding across the cracked asphalt towards him, unmindful of the rippling ground beneath her feet or the burning patches of kerosene she leaps over.

Remy stops short, his breath catching for one beautiful, Baywatch moment, and finds the gall to grin outright at her approach.

Bracing himself, he drops into a fighting stance, staff spinning in invitation, and offers her a gentlemanly half bow from the waist, his eyes never leaving hers as Rogue kicks up her speed.

"Enchanté, Rogue," he says below his breath, beckoning her forwards with two fingers as he jogs backwards to the battalion of freight cars walling in the warehouse district.

Divide and conquer, an old ploy for an old scoundrel. The flash of determination in those green eyes is enough to make his heart speed up a notch: the girl means business, and he means to give it to her.

There's a muffled sound of surprise as Pyro retreats with his flamethrower steaming, water from a short and sudden rain dousing his flames. To compensate, Remy flings a fistful of cards behind him with a triumphant shout, tossing himself bodily into the cover of the rusted metal labyrinth at his back. Explosions shake the ground, catching oil drums and setting them afire easily. He can hear the ground-shuddering blasts as he loses Pyro entirely, hauling himself hand over hand until he is atop the uneven boxes, gaining the advantage as Rogue's direction changes.

She's aiming for surprise, but he sees the route she'll be forced to take like they were playing chess, and he is already three moves ahead. Queen's Gambit, he thinks, stifling a chuckle – and isn't that utterly fitting?

He spots a glimpse of auburn streaked white in the shadows below. She's moving cautiously, drawing closer to him with each second.

Remy pulls a card he hadn't intended to give her. This is his little joke – a King to a Queen for Rogue's little self-sacrificing risk. Gripping the card between two fingers, Remy steps off the highest point of the freight cars, landing soundlessly and kicking up a small cloud of dust. He flattens his shoulders into a shaded alcove made by the hulking steel crates, and waits, knowing that this split second decision will define the first moment of their entwined history. It casts a flickering shadow, outlining his silhouette.

This is where it begins, he thinks; it brings a wry grin to his features as Rogue steps out into view, and for once, words seem to fail him.

Her lips part in surprise, and Remy, silent, eyes half-lidded, relishes the sudden thrill of being this close to her — so close, in fact, that he can smell the light scent of her shampoo; can feel the warmth radiating from her taxed muscles.

The exchange is soundless. Rogue is wide-eyed, unable to stop herself from leaning into him as the pads of his fingers gingerly brush the leather gloves she wears. There's nothing that needs to be said as he dips his head, smiling invitingly, eyes half-lidded as if to kiss her – as if he didn't know the graze of those supple lips would leave him defenseless, as if it wouldn't bother him if she did —

Somehow, he doubts it if it would, but just to avoid any confusion as to where he stands, Remy hands her the last of its kind in his deck: the King of Hearts.

It ignites with a flourish: a sizzling, brilliant, dangerous thing to behold. Sparks fly from the card, but these are less incredible, than perhaps, those unseen things igniting between them.

It is another moment before Remy begins pacing backwards, unwilling to turn away from her yet, and gives her a little bow and tip of his imaginary cap.

Brown leaves crackle and fall around him, papery whispers that endeavour to forsake him as the foliage thins which each passing day.

They offer him no explanation for his habits. He doesn't elaborate to himself why he keeps coming back here, especially having received "direct orders from Magneto" to be elsewhere.

There's not much left to look at. Rather, the ruin that was the Xavier Institute offers little compensation for his trouble. Twelve cameras, trashed; twelve eyes into the hallowed halls of the Xavier Institute, blinded. No wonder Mystique didn't put up more of a fight when he made that proposal, the woman was constantly calculating. Granted, he couldn't say he liked her all too much, but he had to admire her thoroughness, keeping him always at arm's length from her adopted daughter… It had taken an entire forty five minutes to establish that security by-pass, duplicating the video feeds to broadcast to a satellite, then to the headquarters' wireless. What a travesty that the result of Lapin's meticulous instruction now lay, wrecked, amidst cinderblock and cracked cement.

Not to mention, Mystique had impeccable timing:

A bulldozer pushes the refuse with patient persistence. They're already clearing the land, getting ready to rebuild. If anything, these X-Men are tenacious. He'd seen several of the kids head off with their backpacks that morning, likely going to school en masse to spare themselves the possibility of getting clipped off one by one by the fanatics gunning to come out of the woodwork.

Must be nice, having that sort of familial unit to rely on.

"You'd abandon y' family, Remy? When we need you th' most?"

He hadn't left New Orleans; he'd escaped, his freedom not so easily surrendered.

He lights another cigarette, his bitterness calcifying into something sordid that hurts to chip away at, and narrows his eyes at the spot where Rogue's window ought to have been.

She lives below the foundations of the school now, somewhere in the titanium catacombs of Xavier's ruined Institute; too far away for his curiosity to touch her. There's something — some insistent thing that lives in his chest, that gnaws at his awareness — that says that this is both too far for him, and too close. He ought not be here, and yet, he can't seem to help himself.

In his pocket, his cellphone vibrates persistently.

He doesn't say hello when he answers. It's just as well; Sabretooth isn't one for requisite niceties.

"Avalanche is at the high school."

He hangs up without another word.

Well, well, well... It looks like lady luck's on his side, after all. Who knew playing messenger would yield such rewards?

He glances at the tiny digital display, dropping from his perch with the slap of his trench coat against his calves.

Turning his head, he offers his profile to the school, raises a hand, and gives Charles Xavier a parting wave.

Out of the corner of his eye, Remy sees the telepath smile to himself, his wheelchair unmoved from his post in the gazebo where he simultaneously oversees the progress on the estate, and Remy's obvious spectating. At Xavier's side, the weather witch, Storm, doesn't look up from her newspaper.

It's a sickness, Remy thinks, crushing the butt of his cigarette into a knot in the oak tree's trunk. Rogue's poisoned him. The want of her is like venom – burning its fatal course through his veins. Surely, it'll kill him eventually, but Dieu, if it wouldn't be a good way to go…

Settling the discarded butt on the steadily growing pile propped between two joining limbs at shoulder-level, his focus doesn't waver from the gilded rectangle of mixed shadows and dim light: Second room on the North side of the Xavier Institute, third floor.

The glow's muted, dusky and flickering; Rogue's got her candles lit again. Must be Thursday. She'll be re-reading Poe.

The faint waft of sandalwood incense carries to him on the air, and with it, Remy imagines the slightest hints of her natural perfume: calla lilies. A funeral bouquet. He wonders if she knows that her efforts at subverting mainstream fashion make her seem like she's in perpetual mourning. He wonders why she does it. He wonders if part of her sorrow could be spared on him; shared with him.

When the fluorescents come on in fifteen minutes, Rogue will tuck the book away into the safe spot between her mattress and headboard, just behind her pillow, sit up in bed, and offer the expected responses while her roommate chitters animatedly to avoid the falling silence.

Remy won't move closer, breaking his nightlong vigil before her window. Rogue's reticence with her friends doesn't unsettle him.

Obsessively following this routine offers him some comfort, and he relishes the fatigue woven into her sighs. She lives long nights, just like him. Remy learns these things for himself when she dreams aloud, speaking in her sleep, giving voice to her secrets; then, and only then, does he dare upset the balance by drawing nearer and settling himself on her balcony; at the foot of her bed; in the corners of her room where the shadows keep her safe from the knowledge that he's watching her.

The familiarity warms him, draws him closer to her though he won't yet leave his perch in the oak tree.

He's been doing this for what feels like forever, but he needs to be certain. He needs to be sure:

Sure about the compulsive way she tucks her hair behind her left ear; sure about the punishing regimen she maintains under Wolverine's careful scrutiny; sure about the way her gaze drifts after a moment of spent sarcasm; sure about that sense of quiet as she looks inward at herself and seems to not like what she sees.

Such a strange girl, this Rogue.

She's something.

Its in that moment of musing that his cell vibrates in his pocket; the screen displaying an unlisted number. "Restricted" blinks back at him, and his skin seems to crawl: they've found him at last.

Affording one more glance at Rogue's window, he can see her keeping her distance from Kitty as she changes into her sweatpants, offering her roommate little threat of her briefly bared skin. Remy realizes his mouth has gone dry, though not for the right reason, as he flips open the phone and puts it to his ear, saying nothing.

"Remy."

He forces a smile into his voice. "Long time, Henri."

His brother exhales, and Remy can practically see his brother rubbing his big old bald head with anxiety. "We've got a situation."

Snapshots of greater Pennsylvania flash by beyond the opened box car door. For a moment, he drops his guard, distracted by the fact that Rogue's expression has shifted from utter loathing to unguarded incredulity as he leans over her. He gives in to the unwholesome inclination to reach around her the long way, getting as much of her lithe body into the circle of his arms as possible.

"It's just time you took charge of your own destiny, is all," he murmurs, the last of her bonds singing through with a benign crackle. The irony of the statement isn't lost on him. Dieu, he's just full of that home-grown wisdom today. Penance for his mountain of life experience; why not spend your time pushing that boulder uphill in the company of someone else who can relate?

Still, he can't help be a little disappointed that she's acquiesced so quickly. It only took four hours of glowering at him over his game of solitaire to agree to play by his rules. He'd imagined Rogue had more fight in her.

"Good idea." There's something about the way she says it that reminds him why it's never safe to get too cocky too fast. The second notice arrives with the worn sole of her Converse sneakers connecting with his sternum. He announces his oversight with a grunt, and the reflexive clap of his fingertips into rusting iron before he can fly out of the train entirely. To drive her point home, Rogue's slams his knuckles with his own quarterstaff, sending firey pain straight through his metatarsals.

Never a dull moment with this girl, he thinks, grinning around the pain. It nullified his earlier though: she's plenty interesting; plenty slippery — like snot on a glass doorknob, Lapin'd say; 'cept prettier, with the wind whipping her hair into her face like that, half-smile and narrowed eyes making it seem like she thought she'd bested him.

Beneath him, through a triangle cut by his legs, he can see the gravel shoulder blurring beneath him as he hangs half-out of the car.

"I don't like getting pushed in any direction, got it?" she snarls.

He reigns in an impulsive comment about pushing her between himself and a wall, preferably with her legs wrapped around his midsection, and takes the next best option:

"Point taken. Now here's mine."

The flare of a kinetic charge digging into the boxcar is bright enough to illuminate the planes of her face. Rogue appears nonplussed by the show. Her insouciance stirs something in him — something old and mostly forgotten, carefully and deliberately tucked away with childhood's end. He realizes distantly that its been a long time since he's wanted to impress anyone. Its been even longer since he's had to try.

"Pull me in before I blow this boxcar off the tracks," he says, and grudgingly, she obliges.

He's smarting, though he doesn't show it — nor does Remy offer her any indication that his heart's pounding a mile a minute. There's a fire burning in his limbs, and despite her cool demeanour, he knows that this girl is the cause of it. She might as well have lit him up with a match.

For a moment — just a single one — his earlier doubts surface; its a serpentine, constricting thing that slides in coils around his chest. It lingers there, mixing pleasure and excitement and regret altogether into one.

"So what now?"

She hesitates. It stops him cold in the way that hope often does. What a cocktail: one part anticipation, one part expectation, and three parts the knowledge that it was a bad idea to even ask. Dieu, she hesitated like she was considering her options… as if she had options – like he had anything to offer her.

"Ah'm going back with the X-Men. Ah don't care what you do."

His heart chooses that moment to restart, and smirking, he smothers its stutter: "Sure, y' don't."

She'll be okay. He wants to believe it. He wants to convince himself of it, and as if it'd make it true, he gives the words form:

"Y' will be fine, chérie. You've got people watchin' for you," he tells her, although it doesn't have the conviction he'd hoped for. The X-Men have good intentions, but he knows Rogue in ways that she doesn't quite yet understand herself. It should be him, he thinks. Worse, he wants to be the one at her back, a few paces behind. He'd happily become her shadow if it meant staying nearby, if it meant the bittersweet downturn to her mouth could be turned away with a promise and the press of his thumb.

Her mouth: Remy's imagination lingers there.

These are impossibilities. Improbable. A terrible idea.

Jean Luc, emerging from the gloom of the bayou, shrouded in swamp stink and satisfaction, appears in the shadows on the outskirt of his peripheral vision. Their time's run short, all of a sudden. The X-Men are waiting, and Rogue is turning from him. Helplessly, he memorizes what details he can: Its in his nature to inscribe into his brain the jut of her collarbone, the slope of her shoulder, the dimple in her chin… The shy, sweet smile that appears for just a second, that makes him want to forget all about the Family and all about the bitter twist of events that have brought him back to this place.

This is quick desperation, the desire to keep her here a moment longer, and to say more than the things that are possible. (Impossible, this. Them. But dieu, does he crave otherwise…) Impossible, but just in case, he gives her the Queen – pressing the card into her palm on a desperate whim, making it their talisman – a secret passed between them; a little luck that their paths should cross again someday.

If he wants it enough, if she wants it enough…