: HOUSE OF CARDS :
PART SIX : COMPLETION
(26) - Endgame -
Suddenly, there was sunlight.
Sunlight searing its way across the tail end of a dreamless sleep whose beginning he could not remember.
Remy opened his eyes and tasted it like a man lost at sea. Flinching, uncertain, and with the tentative curiosity of a newborn. An expanse of ceilinged whiteness encompassed his world, greeting him with clinical and objective impassivity. He had no reference for this. No reference with which to place himself here, lying in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, his head pounding with an ache that should have been recognisable but was not.
He stared up at the ceiling and squinted.
There was a crack in the whiteness; a haphazard, zigzagging crack that meandered its way across the periphery of his vision in a solitary pattern that he felt as though he had seen before. He blinked and followed it slowly, searching for a link, searching for a connection to bridge the gaping void, finding nothing. Finding only the dull ache in his head, behind his eyes, replaying itself like a memory begging to be retraced, with all the intensity of an impatient lover.
That was when it came back. Lying in the snow with a knife in his hand and her beneath him… and then the pain in his head, exploding out of nowhere before he'd tumbled gracelessly into blackness…
Remy touched his forehead gingerly. His fingers found and explored the memory of an old wound, an uneven tract of scar tissue that unfurled and blossomed into a tight crescendo of pain. Wincing, he raised a hand to the sunlight and stared at his fingers, expecting to see blood staining the tips - but there was nothing.
He dropped his hand again, closing his eyes, feeling the scar she'd left him throb with a dull, consuming ache. The irony was not lost on him. Rogue had been willing to die at his hand in order to save Rachel. And he… he had been willing to do anything in his power to keep Rogue alive. Simple math. It hadn't needed a genius and a degree in rocket science to figure out where his priorities lay.
Yet somehow she'd still figured that he'd been willing to off her out of some twisted obligation he held to an egotistical maniac.
And the knowledge of that stung.
Remy sat up against the pillows, wincing as his head jarred painfully, and looked around. Walls of cracked plaster, dingy and cobwebbed, enclosing a room that was empty but for the bed he lay on, a low table and medical supplies. A window opposite, masked only by threadbare curtains of a faded floral design that did little to contain the light. He squinted in the unfamiliar brightness. Okay, so this wasn't any of his apartments. It wasn't anywhere he knew, and even though he'd been in a lot of bedrooms he would've remembered this one. He opened his mouth slowly as if testing an unknown invention; when his voice came out it was unrecognisable, hoarse and cracked.
"Where de fuck…?"
"Brotherhood headquarters," an icy voice to his left promptly replied. "The latest one, anyhow."
Nice, he thought vaguely, tiredly, and even his own thoughts seemed to be tinged with a dazed and strangely bitter taste. Question answered before y' even have de time to spit it out. 'S shapin' up to be a good mornin'. Or whatever de hell time it is. He turned as much as his aching bones would allow, and wasn't surprised when he saw Raven Darkholme standing in the doorway.
"Water." He pieced the syllables together with an effort. "M' thirsty."
Raven didn't break a smile. He hadn't expected her to. Instead she crossed over to the low table, picked up a jug of water standing there, and poured it into a dirty cup standing nearby. When she handed it to him, he drank it. It rolled down his throat with the flavour of copper and chlorine, but he couldn't remember the last time anything had tasted so sweet.
"Didn't t'ink you could be so generous," he thanked her begrudgingly; his voice didn't hurt so much anymore. He handed her back the mug; she laid it on the table and stared at him coldly.
"You have my daughter to thank for that," she returned frostily. She paused and stared at him a little more intently, reminding him briefly of a mantis. "She loves you, LeBeau," she finally stated, unable to hide the contempt from her voice. "That makes her a fool, but I suppose it makes her a noble one."
He said nothing, but his face said everything. A corner of her mouth curled.
"But then, I don't suppose you'd know much about nobility, would you thief?"
"And you would?"
"You ruined my daughter."
"So did you."
Quiet. Mystique's face convulsed, then crumpled in on itself. She turned and faced the sunlight - her silence told him he'd won.
"Are you gonna throw me out now?" he asked her disdainfully.
She almost looked back over her shoulder at him.
"Much as I'd love to throw you back to Sinister, if you're going to leave this place, it's going to be of your own volition, LeBeau."
"And is that choice something I owe Rogue too?"
Again, Raven remained silent. And he was getting frustrated.
"Where is she?" he asked.
"She's next door. Recovering." Before he could make any comment on that she'd turned to him. "You don't know how much that girl was willing to sacrifice for the both of you, do you? And I don't suppose you'll be grateful for it either."
He ignored her jibing.
"You mean… she didn't…?"
"Carry through with the mission? No." Raven's eyes were blazing again. "She screwed the whole goddamn thing up! Years of careful planning, years of quiet machination, years of striving towards the one end purpose, and she threw it all away! For you!" She spat out the word with a revulsion she could barely contain, and there was a light, a madness, a despair in her eyes…
"What did she…?"
"She couldn't break Rachel's brainwashing alone," Raven interrupted before he could ask the question. "So she did the next best thing - she absorbed her herself. She was going to use Rachel and her powers for entirely selfish purposes. She was going to chronoskim the two of you out of here - to God knows where. Anywhere, I suppose, that wasn't here." She finished, her chest visibly heaving with rage, but after a moment she held it down, closed her eyes and inhaled a deep breath. "She could have lost her life, but I don't expect she would've cared about that either," she continued in a bitter undertone. "Luckily we came just in time to despatch of the guards - even a couple of Hounds - grab the two of you, and make a quick exit - thanks to Forge. I thought I was going to lose her all over again." She opened her eyes and he was surprised to see real tears in them. "I've already lost one child, goddammit, and I'm not going to lose Rogue, not even if there's hell to pay!"
She glanced away, her jaw tightening, and for the first time he realised that, deranged as Mystique was, she really did love Rogue.
"Is she okay?" he asked at last, uncertainly.
"She's still unconscious," Raven murmured. "But she'll be fine. As for this world, as for this timeline… who knows?"
She turned away again, paced the room in a disconnected, agitated air while he sat and mulled over everything she had told him. Ever since he'd walked into the Brotherhood's operations room and seen Rogue sitting there, he'd been banking on one thing. That the Brotherhood was going to make it. He had had no intention of bringing Rachel back to Sinister, not now that he knew exactly why Sinister needed the Hounds in the first place. He knew Sinister now. He had him figured. His demented scheming revolved around one thing - Jean Grey and Scott Summers. The quest to find the ultimate super being, the highest pinnacle of evolution, the ultimate mutant - Rachel. And Remy wanted out. He wanted out, he wanted to be free, he wanted to be responsible only for himself. He was done with working for Sinister. He was done with small steps. He was done with Sentinels and Hounds and anti-mutant governments. He was going to walk away from it all.
Give Sinister the finger, hand Rachel over to the enemy and saunter off.
And if the Brotherhood was right, maybe Rachel could have fixed the world. Maybe she could have made it better. Maybe his renegade plan would've been worth something. If Rogue hadn't gone and fucked it all up, for some pipe dream that so nearly could've come true.
For a better them.
Remy sat up and pulled the comforter aside. His legs were weak but they were still there. He sat on the edge of the bed and gathered his strength. Mystique stopped pacing and stared at him.
"Where are you going?" she demanded. There was a harshness in her voice, but also a fear. A fear of what?
"To have a smoke," he answered wearily, defiantly. "M' dyin' for a smoke."
He stepped into his boots, got up and pulled on his trench coat, which had been hanging on the door. He was only wearing his boxers underneath, but he didn't care how ridiculous he looked. He patted his pockets, feeling his cigarette packet and lighter.
Well whaddya know? We're back in business.
He reached out and put his hand on the doorknob just as Raven asked him irately; "That's it?! You're just gonna walk out of here?"
"Mystique, you an' I both know you're dyin' t' boot me outta dis place for good, even though it ain't your call. Figured I'd do us both a favour and get outta your hair."
"We're not finished yet, LeBeau," she seethed behind him.
"Yes, we are. I'm here under sufferance until you convince Rogue to kick me to de kerb. Seems pretty clear-cut t' me."
He swivelled the doorknob, ready to go.
"Tell me if you love her," Raven suddenly spat out behind him.
"I don't trust you, LeBeau, and I don't believe for one second that you could ever make her happy," she continued, and this time there was an eagerness, a desperation in her voice that surprised him. "But if you tell me you love her, we can forget our differences and you can stay. If you don't and if this is all just a game…If she's just a game to you… then you can walk out of this house whenever the hell you want - the sooner the better."
He opened the door.
"Do you love her?!" Mystique's high-pitched voice demanded, but he didn't answer, he walked over the threshold and slammed the door shut firmly behind him.
It was snowing again. Thick clumps sailing across the window without a care in the world. Rogue stared at the dancing flakes and tried a smile. Her heart was heavier these days, and yet more unburdened than it had ever been - she dreamed a lot of Time, of the indescribable feel of it, of the ability to master it and subjugate it to her every whim. Each snowflake fluttering past her window seemed to represent another world to her, unknown, untouchable, inexplicably beautiful in itself. Another Rogue who had walked a happier path was out there, somewhere. She was near, she was close enough to touch and yet she was too far away to see. But then, she supposed, it was enough that she was out there, and that there was a happy Rogue at all. It gave her hope that within her own future, all was not lost.
"Ah need to get outta this bed," she spoke up decidedly. "Bein' an invalid makes me think too darn much. Ah'm startin' t' get the feelin' that Raven's prolongin' mah stay here because she likes nursin' me."
Sitting beside her, Remy laughed, charming and easy as always. He lightened the monotony of the days for her, but nevertheless something had changed between them and she couldn't tell what it was.
"She jes' likes playin' de over-protective mother, chere," he drawled. "Can't fault her for dat."
"Pfft," Rogue grunted. "Her attempt at over-protective mother comes across more like a chainsaw-wieldin' maniac."
"And I ain't gonna disagree wit' you on dat one. Your mom's one scary lady, Rogue."
She raised an eyebrow.
"You only just noticed?"
"Hmph. T'ink I noticed de time she tried t' kill de X-Men back on de Golden Gate Bridge eight years ago. You remember dat?"
"You kiddin'? How could Ah ever forget the first time you asked me out to dinner?"
"No better time than a life-threatenin' situation to get a girl to say yes to you," he remarked suavely. She pouted at him.
"Ah was the one who saved your ass that day, remember?" She sighed and stared out of the window again. "Seems a lifetime ago…"
"It was a lifetime ago, chere," he pointed out. She didn't reply. Sometimes she had the sense that, severe as her injuries had been, none was as grave as the one that had been dealt to her heart. It was for this reason that she often fell into deep silences. He had become accustomed to them. Quietly he leaned over, toyed with the butterfly pendant at her breast. It was the one thing that still lay unbroken between them.
"You're gonna go, aren't you," she stated softly, still watching the snowfall. He gazed at her profile for a long moment, then nodded.
"When de wanderin' mood sets in, yeah, I guess so." He stared at the butterfly between his fingers thoughtfully. "Much as your hospitality is appreciated, dis house gives me de heebie-jeebies… or maybe it's just Raven…"
"Or maybe you just don't wanna get bored," she finished for him.
"Maybe." His mouth twisted wryly.
"It's okay," she assured him. "Ah don't want yah t' stay. Domesticated Gambit don't do much for me."
It was meant as a joke, but he didn't laugh.
"Rogue… dere's some stuff I gotta sort out on de road…"
"Like Sinister?" she asked. He looked up at her sharply.
"How did you know?"
She shrugged evasively. "Just a hunch." She paused and looked up into his eyes. "You ain't stayin' here to hide from Sinister, are you? Because you don't really believe he's gonna kill you, do you?"
He stared at her a long while, his mouth set in a straight line; then he shook his head.
"No. I don't t'ink he will. For some reason, Rogue, he needs me. For what, I dunno. But I mean somethin' to him, and I don't like dat fact. It leaves too many questions unanswered - about myself."
"You said he rescued you from the mansion that day," she probed gently.
"Oui. I was meant to be infiltratin' de X-Men for him… wasn't doin' a very good job of it by all accounts… thought he'd be pissed. But then he managed to get wind of de military's attack and pulled me out de mornin' it happened… It was stupid of me, but I never questioned it at de time… was too fuckin' grateful, I guess."
She nodded. He averted his gaze from hers, looking once more to the butterfly between his fingers.
"If I'd'a known what was goin' down dat day, I wouldn't have high-tailed it like I did. Would've warned you all, if Sinny had given me a chance to… But by de time I found out, it was too late… I wanted to go back and find you, but I figured you were dead… Maybe it was easier to t'ink dat…"
She touched his hand gently.
"It's okay," she murmured. "Ah guess things worked out kind of okay in the end anyhow." She paused, added tentatively: "Ah know how you feel about me, Remy."
He smiled then, wry as ever, let go of the butterfly and settled back in his chair.
"Subtlety's never been one of my finer points." he remarked dryly.
"You told me. Ah believed you."
"Still doesn't make sense why you'd crack me over de head wit' a rock after I said it," he half-joked.
"Think about it. Ah'd set myself up to make a big sacrifice for the future generations, and you give me a reason to go on livin'. What was Ah s'pposed to do?"
"I dunno. Kiss me passionately and walk off into a dusky sundown?"
"Woulda been preferable to concussion and a fractured skull. And to you nearly gettin' your leg amputated."
"Don't remind me."
"So why'd you do it?"
She thought a moment.
"Ah guess you were offerin' me the only thing in the world Ah ever wanted," she answered slowly. "And suddenly Ah had to make a choice between savin' the world and savin' what Ah wanted."
"And duty won out?"
"At first. But when Ah thought Ah'd killed you… Ah realised Ah couldn't have done it, not without you. Ah couldn't carry on the mission if you weren't gonna be there to do it with me." She paused, stared out of the window once more. The snow had thinned, was flitting like sawdust to the ground. "You were s'pposed to make it," she murmured. "You were s'pposed to get to Rachel, even if it meant killin' me in the process." She looked at him again. "Ah knew you wouldn't give her to Sinister. Ah knew you'd cut her loose."
His expression softened.
"You really believed I could've hurt you?" he asked, looking a little offended.
"Well, after what you did to Kincaid… And Guess…"
"So you're tellin' me dose guys coulda held a candle to you?" he voiced in disbelief. "Chere, you piss me off sometimes, but I ain't gon' kill you 'cos of it." She couldn't help it. She laughed.
Ah was so stupid… Of course he wouldn't have done it. But back then… with all the bullshit he came out with about bein' in the business… About not bein' able to feel, about havin' no attachments… Ah bought into it. It seemed so real. But sittin' here with him, like this… It's hard t' believe we ever pushed one another away so hard…
And yet they both knew instinctively that there was a moment when both had thought they would kill the other…
…That it was the only way either could have held onto the other forever.
An awkward silence followed, one that engulfed them as each digested this sombre realisation. But then he smiled, and it was as if the thought had never occurred to them.
"Think I'm gonna go now," he said softly. "Let you get some sleep."
"Ah don't wanna sleep," she protested grumpily, although in truth she was tired…
"Raven's waitin' outside, I can feel it," he grinned. "And if I don't come out soon she's gonna get suspicious."
"Let her," she murmured, holding onto the lapel of his coat, not wanting him to go. "Ah don't care."
"Rogue…" he reached out and touched her cheek tenderly, "you need some rest. And I really don't wanna get m' ass whupped by Mystique again."
"Liar," she muttered with a pout. "You could have Raven any day, she knows it, Ah know it, and you know it. Yah just wanna be on the road again…"
"I'll be back," he assured her.
"One day, you won't."
He said nothing but smiled, kissed her forehead, got up and left quietly. Rogue sighed and shifted onto her side. Outside the snow was faltering, dwindling to tiny white spots flitting pitifully across a patch of grey sky. Soon it would be gone altogether, just as all the threads of Time had fluttered past her and disappeared out of reach. She thought of Rachel; she wondered where she was and what she was doing, and whether she really would become a mutant saviour, the heroine of a blind old woman's prophecy.
She wondered about the phoenix she'd once seen at the very end of Irene's Diaries, and whether she'd simply dreamed what she had witnessed when she had absorbed her foster-mother what seemed such a long time ago.
The phoenix, rising from the ashes. The symbol of rebirth, of resurrection, of new beginnings.
Maybe there was hope. Maybe she could have her own personal phoenix and make her penance after all. Maybe she could silence the voices in her head, and finally lay Kincaid and Rifkind and Guess and Xavier and all the others to rest.
She stared up at the window. The snow had stopped.
Closing her eyes, she slept.
By the beginning of February, the edge had gone off the winter - the snows had stopped, and the world was beginning to thaw.
He came back to see her, now and then. She didn't know where he was or what he did when he was away, but as always, she found she could bear it as long as he was doing whatever made him happy. Not once, from the very beginning of their acquaintance, had she ever envisaged a happily-ever-after for the both of them. Somehow it was enough to know that they possessed a connection stronger than their separations. Sometimes, she thought, it was better for them to be apart, so that they didn't hurt each other anymore.
Still, it didn't stop her from wishing for something more.
By February's end, the voices had stopped haunting her altogether, and she was up on her feet once more. Their new headquarters were often silent and empty - Mystique and the others still occupied themselves with 'the cause', and spent most days out on missions - and so Rogue often had the place to herself, with the exception of Irene, who spent most of her time holed up in her study anyhow. Although technically Rogue was fit enough to participate in 'the business' once more, Raven didn't push her into it. There seemed to be a tacit understanding between them that something in Rogue had changed and her place was no longer truly with the Brotherhood. It wasn't a conscious decision on Rogue's part to draw that line between herself and the others; rather it was a gut feeling inside her, a thing that manifested itself gradually over time. Even she didn't know what the difference was, but it was there. She spent more time in her room, by the window, thinking. There were times when she felt Raven's eyes on her back, boring into her, considering her, wondering what the new Rogue was and what she would do. But Rogue could give no answers, because she didn't know either.
She wondered, sometimes, whether Irene was the better person to ask.
At last the time she'd been waiting for came; the familiar purr of his motorcycle outside on the driveway, the tread of his boots on the gravel. This time she went down to greet him; she put her arms round him and they kissed without saying a word. Then she took him by the sleeve and led him into the house - for the first time they ate together and talked together and laughed together just as it always should have been. But she sensed a change in him too, one she couldn't pinpoint; a restlessness, an inner agitation that manifested itself in his sudden silences, his absent gazes, his plaintive expressions. She had expected it all, of course, and it made her a little sad; but she had long come to accept that he was a slave to his whims, that if there was one thing he was born to do it was to be fickle, to roam.
Later they made love.
There were no more heartfelt fumblings, no more desperate kisses. They had all the time in the world, and it felt good. It felt so good she thought the world was going to stop. For a few precious hours, she'd never felt so happy in her entire life.
Afterwards they lay there tangled together as she let herself drift into sleep without fear of losing him again come the morning. When she woke up an indeterminable amount of time later, it was to find the room shrouded in darkness and him still awake, his hand in her hair.
"Yah still 'wake?" she mumbled drowsily.
"I'm an insomniac at de best of times," he rumbled back comically. She chuckled and ran the back of her hand absently against his bicep.
"Sugah, yah think way too much."
He made no assent or disagreement. After a while she placed her hand on his chest and stroked him lightly, running her fingers inquisitively over the maze of old scar tissue that marked his flesh. It felt good, to touch without being afraid.
"What's it like?" she asked him sleepily. "On the outside? Has anythin' changed?"
He was silent a moment.
"Ah thought not." She yawned. "Mystique and the others talk about it sometimes, but Ah try not to listen. Maybe Ah'm scared of goin' back out there." She paused and opened her eyes, her finger tracing the dip in his collarbone. "Ah feel bad for not helpin' the Brotherhood out anymore," she continued thoughtfully, "but Ah guess Ah finally figured out it ain't for me - that it never was for me in the first place."
He looked down at her, his fingers gently cradling the nape of her neck.
"So what are you gonna do now?"
She stared at her finger, resting ghostly and pale upon his flesh, her brow furrowed.
And she really didn't know…
His fingers began to move again, massaging her with a languid cadence. And suddenly she had a question.
"Did you find Sinister?"
He frowned and shook his head.
"Nope. I looked, o' course, but when I got to his place, he was gone. Guess he found out what happened down at de Hound pens and took precautions in case de government traced t'ings back to him. De whole place was trashed, dere wasn't anyt'ing left."
"And you haven't heard from him?" she persisted.
"Non. But I get de feelin' he'll find me, when he needs me," he answered wryly.
"And if he does… you'll go back to him?"
He thought about it.
"I dunno. Fact is, I don't owe him a thing anymore, chere. He knows it, I know it. But he'll be back, one way or another. I got somethin' he wants, and when I find out what it is…"
He trailed off, lost once more in his own thoughts. She knew it was best not to push the subject. When she had absorbed him, she'd got an inkling, the faintest intimation that his relationship with Sinister bothered him more than he was ever willing to reveal. Because there was something deeper in that relationship than even Remy himself couldn't understand, and probably never would.
On the contrary, my dear boy, I find myself quite attached to you… in more ways than one… …
Outside rain had begun to fall; the air was cooler now, making her shudder pleasurably, making her draw closer to him for warmth.
"Nights like these," she whispered, "they remind me of Storm."
He held her close.
She wondered if Forge was awake, and whether he thought so too. She wondered whether Storm was alive somewhere, waiting for someone to come, waiting for them. And suddenly she thought, Ah'm gonna find you, Storm, Ah'm gonna find you and all the others that are left. Ah promise.
The promise gave her strength somehow. She had a purpose, and it didn't need to be dictated by some diaries or visions or hopeless prophecies. Her life held some meaning after all.
"Have you been back to the safe house?" she asked him in a sudden whisper - even though she didn't really need to hear the reply. Somehow, she knew the answer already.
"No," he returned. She nodded. There was no reason to go back, not anymore. But she would miss it, in a way. She would miss their little cocoon, their little safe haven, the place that had hidden them for so long.
"Ah'll miss it," she told him decidedly. Somehow, she could almost feel his smile penetrating the darkness.
"Was nice, while it lasted. We had some good times, chere."
Good times. The best she could recall. All the pain and the passion and the heartache, and yet nothing else in those few short years had ever made her so happy. A smile flickered across her own lips, pale as a candle wavering under moonlight. Somehow he seemed to sense it. His palm cupped her cheek, his thumb smoothing across her lips as if to capture that smile in his hand and hold it tight. He said nothing, made no promises. She expected none. Like Rachel they were free in the world now; she no longer constrained to the narrow worldview the Brotherhood advocated, he no longer bound to the man named Essex. Neither tethered to a little room where they had played their earnest games of make-believe once a year. The circles they had trodden – those well-worn paths that had led them back to one another time and time again – had now been left behind. There was no reason to tread them anymore. No reason for them to be together, here, now, except for habit and a lingering sense of mutual need.
She wanted to ask him, where to now? She wanted to ask him where his path would lead him to, whether he knew where he was headed, whether he knew what was waiting for him out there.
She wanted to ask him if, from here on in, the path they'd walked together so far would branch off into different directions, into different futures.
But she remained silent, because she wasn't sure she wanted to hear his answer.
His hand on the small of her back; his kiss replacing his thumb upon her lips. She reached for him in an embrace as languid and resigned and familiar as summer siestas and sleeping out under stars. If they were living on borrowed time she felt no sense of urgency. Neither of them had to be here. But they were; they were still here together, and that was all that mattered.
A little while later she slept again, curled up against him like a bird, dreaming of a world that was a vast tapestry of thrumming, shining, burning, interconnecting threads; dreaming that she was a butterfly, flitting silent and luminous, overhead.
He stayed a couple more days, and it was more than she could have ever expected or asked for. She wasn't surprised, then, when on the morning of the third day she went outside to find him loading his few belongings onto his bike.
"You're goin'?" she queried, sidling up beside him.
He secured the last of his bags to his bike and nodded.
"Yup. I'm hittin' de highways. Until Essex calls on me there ain't a lot I can do round here. S'all right for you. Mystique's family, she'll keep you round no matter how mad she gets at you."
He paused, not looking at her. She was oddly reminded of their previous partings, furtive and reluctant.
"You'll be stayin' in New York?" she asked quietly.
He shrugged, non-committal.
"I'll go wherever I'm needed. I'm tired of small steps, chere. Dat kinda thing's best left to de Brotherhood, hahn? I think I'm gonna find me some X-Men." He paused, produced a cigarette seemingly from thin air and lit it. "You wanna come?" he asked her. At the unexpected question she merely stood and stared at him; but he said nothing, blowing smoke, so perfectly nonchalant, waiting for her answer just like he'd waited for her to make her choice outside the Ritz nearly three years ago.
And suddenly the incandescent flame that had awoken in her was blazing, leaping, and the animal hope was flaring once more…
"What - now?"
He sucked on his cigarette and considered her through wreaths of smoke.
"Sure. Why not now?"
She still couldn't believe it.
"You mean… right now?"
"Well, I was gonna go back to my place first, pick up a few things I need. Like cards and cigarettes maybe. And then… I guess it's goodbye NY." A small, conspiratorial grin touched his lips. "So. You comin'?"
She didn't even have to think.
"Ah won't be five minutes."
She ran back to her room and threw a few of her things together - although there wasn't much to decide on, because nothing she owned really mattered anyway. She had no connection to anything in this house, and only to very few of her possessions. And as for the rest of the Brotherhood… they were out on a mission, and perhaps it was better that way. There was little she could have said to them, and apart from Raven she bore no especial attachment to them.
She tried not to think about her as she packed the last item of clothing into her small carryall. Raven had twisted her, perverted her, made her into the monster she'd always dreaded becoming. From the very first moment of their acquaintance she had used Rogue as a means to some unfathomable end. And yet she had nurtured her, shielded her, loved her in a way Rogue had never experienced before and never would again. She had shaped her in so many ways, made her into the person she was today.
And for the first time, she didn't regret it.
She didn't regret being Rogue at all.
There. She was finished. It was better that Mystique wasn't here, that she didn't have to prolong the separation with farewells and the possibility of recriminating glances. She was going her own way now. Wherever this road took her, it was going to be her choice, her decision, her path. She wasn't going to be a pawn anymore. She wasn't going to be an instrument of destiny any longer.
She swung her pack on her shoulder and turned to the door.
Somehow, she wasn't so surprised to see Irene standing there.
"So," the old woman remarked in the same amiable and inoffensive tones she always did, "I see the time has come already."
Riddles, riddles, always riddles. It was one thing Rogue wasn't going to miss.
"Ah'm leavin'," she declared, a little defensively - was Irene here to stop her, or otherwise?
"So I see," came the ironic reply, and yet there was a smile on that thin little mouth. Rogue stared.
"So you're not gonna stop me?"
"Would you want me to?" Irene queried with a raised eyebrow. Rogue shook her head.
"It wouldn't make any difference. Ah'm done with it, Irene. With all of this. Ah played out your game and y'know what? Ah failed. Looks like your prophecies were just wishful thinkin' after all."
The words were defiant, but to her surprise the smile on Irene's face didn't even flicker.
"On the contrary, Rogue, you did exactly what I expected you to do. And no," she added gently, "I don't expect you to stay now, nor to want to. Your job here is done, child; and so is your penance. Are the voices not gone yet?"
There was little left that surprised her about Irene, but she hadn't been anticipating that. She knew her foster-mother expected no answer. She looked away. There was a long pause, thick and pregnant - presently she heard the soft tapping of Irene's cane as she crossed the creaky wooden floor towards her, felt her hand on her shoulder.
"Did you think you'd made the wrong choice?" she questioned softly. Still Rogue did not look at her.
She paused. She didn't know what she had thought. Suddenly there was a lump in her throat; but Irene's lined and aged hand patted her shoulder with a vigour that not even the strongest man would have possessed.
"The Brotherhood doesn't have Rachel, that is true - but perhaps it is just as well. She is free in the world now. Free to make her own destiny. As are you. As are we all."
It was only then that Rogue looked at her, into the pellucid eyes behind the rose-tinted glasses.
"The phoenix…" she breathed in a hoarse and sudden rush, "is it real?"
Something glinted behind the shades; the smile on Irene's lips was knowing.
"The phoenix is creation, the phoenix is passion. You feel it in your heart to be real, Rogue, because it is inside of you. Of course she is real."
That isn't what Ah meant…
"You should go," Irene murmured. "He's waiting."
Rogue nodded and placed her hand over the old woman's. It was withered and bony, but it was warm; she could feel the blood beneath the skin, pulsing inexorably onward.
"Say goodbye to Raven for me," she whispered. "And to Forge," she added as an afterthought.
"I will," Irene nodded, smiling as if there would be no parting, as if there would be no separation and that before long Rogue would return to the fold. For all the time that Irene had lived on this sad and sorry earth, perhaps it would not be long before they met again after all. But for Rogue, she honestly hoped that it wouldn't be any time soon.
And now there really were no more goodbyes to be said. Irene's hand dropped; she smiled once more, encouraging, and stepped aside.
And Rogue was walking out the door without once looking back; because this time she was moving forward of her own volition, and not even the past, not even the shackles of her own memories could tie her down.
She knew what Raven would say.
You'll walk a circle, Rogue.
It didn't matter. In a way she had come full circle already, and if all circles inevitably led back to this point then there was nothing to fear from life anymore. Nothing at all.
It had taken her years of slog and hardship, but finally, she'd laid all her ghosts to rest.
It was still something of a surprise to find him waiting for her when she got back outside; but then, he had always been there for her every morning after the night before, and whenever he had disappeared out of her life, it had always been in the knowledge that sometime, somewhere along the line, he would return. And he had returned, every time.
She watched him a moment, standing a little way off with his back to her, still smoking, gazing off into the middle distance. Looking at him now, with all the barriers lowered between them, she honestly didn't know how long they would last or whether they would ever truly learn to reach out for one another. But one thing was certain, and that was that she was going to try.
"Ah'm ready," she greeted him, adding her bag to the rest of his stuff. He looked back at her and frowned.
"Dat all you're bringin'?" he asked. She shrugged.
"Ah've got everythin' that's important t' me, sugah. Not a lot else matters." She paused and grinned at him. "Thought you woulda preferred it if Ah didn't bring the kitchen sink with me anyway…"
He grunted humorously.
"As long as you bring your beautiful self, chere, I ain't complainin'."
He turned and stared back into the distance. There was something on his mind, she could sense it a mile away; but she didn't want to pry. She walked up beside him and followed his gaze. The same broken buildings, the same roiling clouds, the same ashen skyline. What he saw she didn't think she'd ever see. She turned slightly and tugged on his sleeve.
"C'mon, Remy. Let's go."
He turned and faced her. It was starting to rain.
"One last t'ing, Rogue," he began, so seriously it took her off guard.
"What?" she asked. He paused; his fingers brushed her hair from her shoulder absently.
"Your name, chere," he murmured.
Another memory, dredged up from a past long since abandoned, long since buried, a place no one had touched in over fifteen years, a little nugget of truth she'd never been able to confide to anybody. Because the memory was dead, and it wasn't her anymore - and yet it was, and it always had been, and now she didn't know why she had hidden it away for so long. And so she screwed up all her courage, opened her mouth and said:
He considered that a moment.
"Anna, hahn? I'll haveta get used to dat."
She scrunched up her nose in distaste.
"Ah prefer Rogue."
"Really?" He grinned, lop-sided. "So do I."
She knew what he was thinking of. That first meeting round the pool table, what seemed like a lifetime ago. She knew because she was thinking the same thing too. She tugged on his sleeve again.
"Let's go," she whispered.
He walked to the bike with her following close behind.
And for the first time in her life, she had the courage to reach out and hold his hand.
- END -
Continued in 'Twist of Fate'...
And many thanks to all my readers, reviewers and friends for enjoying the ride as much as I have, and for encouraging me so much. Your support has meant the world to me and will continue to do so. -Ludi x