Chapter I: Strange Places, Dark Passages
"For us, death is stronger than life, it pulls like a wind through the dark,
all our cries burlesqued in joyless laughter;
and with the garbage of liveliness stuffed down us until our guts burst bleeding green,
we go screaming round the world, dying, in our rented rooms, nightmare hotels,
eternal homes of the transient heart."
- Truman Capote
This story begins, like many others, with the unquestionable doubt that things could be worse:
Worse than the dingy bar, with its dirty amber lighting and the gouges in the bar top; worse than the stink of unwashed truck drivers, sweaty from too many ephedrine-all-night-cocktails and washed down with cheap beer from filthy glasses.
Rogue hunched lower, her elbows skidding out to the sides and nudging her empty pint in the direction of the barkeep. With her hood pulled low over her eyes, her anonymity was a guaranteed assurance – save for the single strip of white spilling over her cheek. She swatted it out of her face, and with the same sloppy grace of the inebriated, tugged the green wool lower over her eyes.
She tasted stale alcohol and highway grit imbedded into her skin from hitching three hundred miles and taking the backlash the rain spat up from the cars driving too close to the shoulder. Her opera gloves tugged against her lip when she pawed at her mouth. The taste lingered. Her fingers felt strange in the satin, like they didn't belong to her.
Still, she was no more aware of the tightness in her jaw than the steady weight of the odd glances thrown at her from the bar's occupants. The alcohol had seen to that.
Yeah, it could be worse, she decided.
Worse would be the fact that Bobby Drake had been dead for nearly five hours beneath her arm before Rogue had awoken to the sorry, stiff sensation of the cold body.
Dr. McCoy, now a permanent fixture at Xavier's Institute for Gifted Children, had noted with clinical astuteness that rigor had set in unnaturally fast; a medical anomaly that indicated Bobby's mutation would probably preserve his body longer without the need for refrigeration in the morgue.
She thought it darkly ironic that, should she return to the Institute at any given moment, which was not soon, she could share her final grievances with him face to face. The parlour would be more than sufficient to lay him out, open-casket, just like they did back home in the South.
The thought trailed errantly, leaving a dull echo in its wake. Home; that indefinable place that cast her out three years ago; that shifted and mutated to accommodate her own ghastly deformity; that welcomed her, that she grew to love, where she found love, where she returned to even after she'd suppressed her very nature with genetically-altered suppressive x-gene derivatives.
Rogue sucked in a breath, her stomach roiling with the sudden swirl of her noisy surroundings.
…And the home that had alienated her for her choice though she continued to live under its roof and in the arms of someone who'd cared for her despite her own selfish incentives.
Since then, "home" had become something else entirely.
She could have stayed. She could have apologized for thinking everything would have been alright – leaned over Bobby's casket, seen her own breath turn to steam as it touched his face, and given him one final kiss that could hurt him no more than it hurt her to steal. A fairytale ending; future imperfect with a prince who can't wake up.
That was twelve hours ago.
"Honey, I think you've had enough."
Bobby Drake was dead, and she had killed him.
"Home" ceased to exist with the insistent snap and recoil of her genomes as they reverted to their monstrous state. Some cure. Snake Oil, more like.
Sniffing heartily, Rogue barked a throaty laugh, and fumbled for her glass – now conspicuously out of reach from her struggling, shriven fingers.
"So long as Ah'm still sittin' upright, mister –"
Gesturing slovenly, she lurched, chin nearly hitting the pitted wood as her arm gave out from under her, and pushed the tumbler towards him. Its base rattled across the counter top where her gloved hands failed to trap the slick surface.
"Ah ain't even done."
Rain. The pissing-wet, unending, dreary downpour coaxed a grimace from the young man as he stalked up to the phone booth. Water slid into his collar, drenching the back of his cowl and the skin beneath like being brushed with Spanish moss. It strove to stiffen his muscles and make his old aches burn with wanting for the humidity and the heat of the swamp.
Dieu, days like these he missed New Orleans something fierce.
Remy LeBeau stepped into the phone booth, shutting the door behind him with a fluid snap of rattling glass and groaning metal, took one look at the ordinary dial-a-box with its faded numeric keypad and unsecured connection, and pulled out a cell-phone.
Three rings and he was getting impatient.
Two more and the steady beat of rain on the aluminum roof made it seem like there was a tin drum settled neatly between his ears. Her voice, however, was as clear and rich as if she were standing right before him when the line went live:
"Tante." Remy smiled into the phone, peering through the wet shag that stuck to his forehead at the flickering neon lights of the truck stop beyond. He shook his head, loosening his plastered ponytail, and yanked the cowl off in one deft tug.
"Ah, Remy! Been waitin' t' hear from y', chile. Jean Luc's frantic."
He smirked into the mouthpiece, cramming the last vestiges of his Guild markings into a deep interior pocket. "Tell him t' quit burnin' a hole into that rug he likes t' pace so much – the one in front of his desk. M' fine. Bit wet 'round the edges, but -"
Her sharp inhale gave him pause. Remy braced himself.
"Missin' y' cookin' already –" he tried.
"Oh, don't y' t'ink I don't know dat," she replied, her air instantly pompous in the motherly way only Mattie Baptiste could master. She'd had years of training dealing with him and his kin, after all.
"Y' run off whenever y' feel like long enough and de whole family begins t' expect dis sort of behaviour from y' – an' at de worst time, no less –"
"Tell that t' père," he cut her off flatly. Adding in a deadpan, he muttered, "An' Marius Boudreaux, while you're at it."
"Dey could have reached an agreement, Remy," she replied plaintively.
"That they did. Didn't need t' be in the room t' hear the verdict any clearer past the shouting. Whole damn town heard it clear to Shreveport."
Remy frowned. He scrubbed at the steamed window panes with his sleeve to cast a cautious glance around the parking lot, as if any of them had followed him this far North.
It was full, packed with enough semis to blot out the highway. Their bulk was a steel fortress that surrounded a small, ramshackle, roadside dive bearing the name, "Berty's Bucket."
Seemed fitting that the Bucket boasted a Tuesday night special: all the slop you could swill, providing you forgo the glass and take the tin. It blared at him from a large, flickering neon pressed crookedly against one of the front windows. Its electric crackle was an on again off again melody, accompanied by the deep, guttering laughter of the bar's patrons. In the background, beneath the steady patter of rain and stable sounds of life, he imagined he could hear strains of Joan Jett issuing from a battered speaker or two.
He'd go in there, like he always did when that old itch presented itself: He'd find a table in a dark corner, or a bench against a far wall, or perch below the dimmest light at the bar, and he'd sit there and sip his drink and smoke his cigarettes and smile at whatever leggy thing perked his interest, and like always, the strain of solitude would ease.
Tonight would be no different. It didn't have to be New Orleans, he reassured himself. This could be anywhere in the world.
Tipping himself against the interior of the phone booth, Remy peered upwards into the night sky through the small, fogless patch. Different sky, he thought grimly, but at least the storm was letting up a bit.
"Chile, don't you sass me none. Y'd think I haven't been serving both families f' all these years de way y' talk sometimes. I know dere rules, don't mean I gotta like 'em, and lord knows, y' don't abide by dem longer den y' want."
A pause, little more than a quick reach into his sleeve, had him producing a cigarette and pressing it between his lips to smother a sigh.
On the other end of the line, back where it was warm, and the air was laden with the scent of night-blooming jasmine and heavy crepe myrtle, where the balmy calm of a sunset over the bayou painted the tops of the cypress the colour of freshly oxidized blood, Tante Mattie hesitated.
"When y' comin' home, Remy?"
He shut his eyes briefly, trying to remember with difficulty what home felt like after several days of exposure from his motorcycle. The wind and the rain beat those memories into a fine silt that clung to his worn leather duster. For neither Tante nor himself, he had no answer.
"Sometime," he said at length, watching with calm acceptance as a bead of rainwater rolled off his nose and drenched the filter of his Marlboro. "Got some life left t' live before I commit suicide," he added.
"Remy –" she began, her voice taking on a strained quality that he attempted instinctively to dismiss as a failing wireless connection.
He dropped the cigarette and reached for another, only to find his pack had run out along with his luck.
"I seen Belladonna –" she continued. The name was like sweaty fingers dragging over a raw wound. "I imagine she wearing the black clothes for you much as her brother -"
In the dim cast from the bar, beneath the steady onslaught of the storm and the abrasive babble from inside, something settled with difficulty; it was a jagged, icy pith that spread like frost from the center of his chest outwards.
"Tell père everything'll be fine," he said. "Just do his thing, keep Marius settled, and the boys in line. Things'll cool off. Always do."
Static returned to him. It was little more than a stunned pause by his wager, and even less than that if he measured out the silence with the steady thrum of his pulse. He could almost hear the intake of breath from the other end of the line as Tante readied to soothe him.
He wanted none of it.
The cold slid its wiry way down his spine, curling around the base of his tailbone and forcing the numbness into an even hum. It pulsed once, twice, and settled into his bones with the white-cool of an easily acquired anesthesia. Memory seldom failed him in that respect.
"Just callin' t' say I hadn't been assassinated crossin' the Lake. Bye Tante," he said evenly, snapping the phone shut without waiting for a response.
He'd snaked out of the rattling, tin-drum-roofed phone booth and crossed the parking lot before noticing where his feet were leading him. It was the cold that drove him inside, he told himself. The chilled stupor of stiffening muscles, particularly in the chest area, he blamed for keeping his stance straight, his slight grin fixed, and his lids lowered as he took one step closer to the promise of oblivion at the bottom of a bottle.
The blare of the stereo, the roar of the crowd, the heat of the place sluiced off him in rivulets as he took in the raw hamster-cage smell of the place. The sodden woodchip and pungent stink of unbridled testosterone was familiar, even here in the middle of nowhere, even though he was disenfranchised and displaced. The screen door had barely banged shut behind him before he'd sought out his night's company.
His gaze fell squarely on the warm curve of a wide mouth, smiling with the lopsided grace of someone who's already had a few too many of Berty's Buckets. The flash of white teeth, and the feminine line of a scarf-covered neck laced the parts together: some fallen goddess.
A brunette this time. Fine by him. Better than a blonde. Better to forget. He dipped his head, flashed a wolfish grin and ducked into the crowd, coming up just short of the girl's elbow moments later. She was still peering around the crowd unsteadily, trying to sort out where he'd gone as he leaned into her ear and whispered, "Bonjour."
Brushing against her side as she turned to stare, surprised and more than a little glazed over, the heat from her body was a distinct, living presence that ignited his most basic intuitions. Still, he thought, motioning for two more drinks from the barkeep, the pins and needles feeling was as persistent and automatic as his grin.
She'd do, he decided, turning away from her uninviting fish-gape, and absorbing the push and sway of the bar's occupants. A man in a red and black checked flannel overcoat brushed him; another in a bomber jacket pressed him closer to the countertop in the attempt to place a slurred order. The bar was packed; full of men and women huddled close together with their problems tucked tightly between them. A good show of feigned interest kept the girl's attention.
"How are ya doing tonight?" she shouted, tipping into his side, a hand on his shoulder to keep from losing her balance in the bustle. "I'm Lettie!" She spoke in exclamations. Constant surprise. Giggles.
If he were being honest with himself, Remy LeBeau would have said he'd never felt more alone in his life.