It was one of the darkest and quietest hours of the night in the heart of Paris. The frantic traffic of the day had faded, leaving the streets empty and cool and sparkling with streetlights. A few scattered people and cars still wandered the streets, going to drink the night away at one of the glittering nightclubs or simply struggling to reach home after a long, hot summer day. The large, languid Seine River wandered through the city, indifferent to the time of day, the reflected lights of Paris fracturing into thousands of brief, feeble points on its agitated surface.
Amongst all the white and yellow lights, three tiny lights glinted red—two eyes and an ember.
Remy Gambit LeBeau leaned on the railing that ran along the bank of the river, slowly smoking one of his slim white cigarettes. The smoke of it rose up in lazy curves, losing itself in the blackness of the sky. His wandering thoughts followed it up over the city, to be caught by some mighty transatlantic wind and blown far, far away . . . to a beautiful house on well-kept grounds, where the sun would just be setting now. In his imagination, the long streaks of dusky gold light poured across the lawn, making the trees and the house leave astonishingly dark shadows on the grass. It was warm there, but the air smelled cool and clean as the oncoming night blew in through the open windows. It was all so much more real than the stuffy Parisian night around him.
You're free to go, if you need to, and you're welcome to return, if you can.
"Did'je hear me when I said I was comin' back?"
"Den you got not'in' to fret about."
If you can.
The cigarette had burned down to the filter. Gambit flicked it into the Seine and stood up to stretch his back. There was no time left to dawdle. Time to put on his makeup.
He reached into his pocket and found, underneath three-quarters of a pack of playing cards, a contact lens case and a bottle of eye drops. He sighed and rolled his eyes, feeling them already start to sting. Oh, well. Had to be done.
He turned and walked into the city to find a mirror.
"Rogue, it is time to come inside for dinner."
Rogue knew that. She'd known it the second that the wind picked up over the roof of the mansion, flinging her hair around her face. Over the summer, she had learned the difference between a wind that was about its own business and a wind that was taking Storm where she wished to go. She uncurled from her position, with her arms wrapped around her knees, and stretched her stiff shoulders and back. She had no idea how long she'd been sitting there of the roof, watching the sun go down past the edge of the grounds. Storm, wearing one of her gorgeous printed robes, rose up over the edge of the house and set her bare feet lightly on the tiles. The wind stuttered and died.
"Sorry," said Rogue. "Lost track'a time, Ah guess."
"There is no need for you to apologize. But if you do not come quickly, the food will grow cold and Logan will be cross."
Rogue smiled a little at the thought of Logan being 'cross' and lifted herself up off the roof. Storm stepped off the edge of the house, and her winds caught her and lowered her to the lawn. Rogue followed her in a leisurely dive, descending head-first until she was about six feet from the back porch and then swinging her feet down underneath her.
The dining room was quiet and empty. During the school year, it was nearly always full—more than a dozen teenage mutants had an uncanny way of filling up a room. But they had all gone home for the summer. Even Scott, who had always been there to keep her company during summer and Christmas vacations, had gone to Hawaii to visit his brother. Kurt had invited her to come with him to Germany, but she'd declined, preferring the quiet of the all-but-empty Institute to a swarm of strangers in a foreign country.
So Rogue was alone in the house with the professors, all of whom were seated at one end of the long table, waiting for her and for Storm. Hank and Professor Xavier were in the middle of a debate that had something to do with biology but that was too complicated for Rogue to follow. Logan seemed to be in a funk, regardless of the temperature of the food, but Rogue had lived at the Institute too long to be troubled by his mercurial moods. She took her chair and reached for the nearest serving dish, which was full of mixed vegetables. She served herself some and set to work picking out the lima beans with her fork.
From where she sat, she could see out the dining room windows to the front lawn, where the shadow of the house was stretching out towards the front gate. In just a few weeks, everyone would come streaming back through those gates: Kurt and Kitty, Scott and Jean, Amara, Bobby, Jamie, Sam . . . everybody. Almost.
Her fork stilled as her thoughts wandered away. She knew where all the X-Men were now, and she knew when she would see them again. But there was one friend left, one who'd never worn the red-and-black X of the Institute, who had no family to go home to. Where would he sleep tonight? Would he be safe? Would he be warm? Did he miss her? Would he really come back, as he'd promised? How long until then?
"Y'know, if you stare at them long enough, you start to see pictures in them?" asked Logan, shooting a pointed glance at the bowl of vegetables in front of Rogue's plate.
"Oh," said Rogue, flinching a little as she realized how long she'd been out of it. "Sorry." She shoved the bowl across the table.
"I cannot understand your adamant refusal to eat lima beans," said Hank, Reaching his plate across the table so Rogue could scoop the unwanted beans onto it. "I would remind you of their admirable nutritional qualities, but—"
"But it's summer, and Ah'm on vacation."
"They would do you a world of good."
"She's on vacation, Hank," said Logan.
"But she's so pale."
"Mr. McCoy," Rogue pointed out gently, "you're blue."
Logan now had his mouth full of chicken and couldn't laugh, but he made a very undignified snorting noise and struggled to swallow. Even Professor Xavier fought to hide a tiny smile.
Hank smiled. "Touché."
Rogue's own smile faded and died. She wanted to leave the table at once, but knew that would cause more trouble and discomfort for her than simply finishing the meal. So she looked down at her plate and ate in silence, trying not to feel lonely at the sudden memories that Beast's casual French expression had awakened.
"Me voici, monsieur."
Gambit stepped into the light of the one working bulb in the deserted metro station. Two silhouettes, both taller than he was by a good couple of inches, lingered in the darkness outside the circle. The brown contact lenses over his eyes impeded his night vision more than he would have liked, but he was fairly confident that they hadn't brought backup.
"Vous voilà," one of the figures agreed. He stepped into the light, letting Gambit's darkened eyes have a good look at him. He was dressed in a dark business suit, well-cut and expensive, and above the collar of his shirt his face was inhumanly pale. His thick black hair was slicked straight back from his forehead, and both his eyes glinted as red as Gambit's own. "I was told you were the man to ask," he said, in clean and elegant Parisian French, "if I needed something done."
Gambit studied him carefully, still keeping a watchful eye on his unmoving companion. "Mutant," he observed, neither praising nor accusing.
"More or less," said the other, his voice suave and polite and just the slightest bit menacing. "Is that a problem?"
Gambit shrugged. "Long's you don't pay in mutant money."
His would-be employer smiled. "I assure you that the money is quite good."
"How'd you know how to contact me?" Gambit asked.
"I approached the New Orleans Thieves' Guild with my proposition, and they turned me down. Beneath their notice, they said. But one of the thieves told me in confidence that he knew of a freelancer with the skills I needed. You are the freelancer to whom he referred, are you not?"
Robert. Nobody else in New Orleans would be sending him business. Banishment was banishment, but brothers were still brothers. He'd have to contact Bobby and tell him to knock it off. Such actions were dangerous for a future guildmaster.
Gambit didn't answer the question. Instead, he asked one of his own. "What's de job?"
"The University of Paris has a very fine collection of genetic samples in my particular line of research. I want to have them. I have information on where they're stored and what security is in place around them, but I don't have the resources to remove them without attracting attention."
Gambit nodded, thinking. Compared to the bust he'd just accomplished, a university laboratory would be a walk in the park. He tried not to smile as he remembered the roll of film in his inside pocket, and what he planned to do with it as soon as this last mess was over.
"How much material we talkin' about? By size and weight."
"Fifty-six glass vials, each containing no more than a few milliliters of fluid. Fragile, but not large or heavy."
"You got de security specs wid you?"
The man held out a hand—not to Gambit, but to the silhouette at his left shoulder. The silhouette stepped forward and handed him a manila envelope. Gambit wondered idly how this second figure moved freely about in public when his whole appearance was far more flamboyant and noticeable than Gambit's eyes had ever made him. His hair was an extraordinary shade of pink that was either a mutation or a heck of a lot of work, and it extended all the way to his waist in thick, heavy waves. He wore a long, bright yellow coat with electric pink lapels. Gambit found the sight distasteful, and pointedly ignored him.
His better-dressed employer handed Gambit the envelope. Gambit opened it and slid the packet of papers out into his hand. There were floor plans, technical specifications of lock systems, notes on security cameras—just about everything he could have asked for. The things that weren't there, he could probably acquire without too much trouble.
"I'm gonna need a t'ousand euros up front to cover expenses," Gambit announced, tucking the papers away.
The client counted out the bills and handed them over. Gambit tucked them into his pocket before continuing. "I do your job. You meet me back here in one week from now. You bring ten t'ousand dollars U.S. in small, unmarked, non-sequential bills. Also gonna need a U.S. passport an' a ticket to JFK."
"Anything else?" The silky voice managed to sound sarcastic without losing a fraction of its politeness.
"Dat just about do it."
"And what security can you give me for my investment?"
"You got de reputation of de guild dat recommended me. Dat ain't not'in'."
"I could use a name."
"Dat's somet'in I don't give wit'out compensation."
The other man smiled. "I am generally known as Sinister."
Gambit nodded. "Well then, Monsieur Sinister, you have just had the honor of hirin' Gambit. I have yo' goods here in one week. Good evenin'."
Rogue kept her arms crossed tightly around her stomach to avoid touching any member of the crowd that milled around her, resisting the temptation to lift herself up a few inches to have a better look at the new arrivals pouring from the airport terminals. She could have easily avoided this task—Storm would have gladly come to the airport instead—but she wanted to see Kurt, and didn't think she could stand the extra hour of waiting as they drove back to the mansion.
She stood on tiptoe, trying to see over the shoulder of the woman in front of her. Through the crowd, she caught sight of a head of glossy black hair, a tuft of which stuck relentlessly up in back. "Kurt! Kurt!"
"Rogue!" Kurt jumped up and waved, his two-fingered hand giving the impression he was telling her to 'live long and prosper'. He was having as much trouble as she was avoiding being touched, but endless hours of Danger Room training enabled them to weave through the hordes of people and meet in the middle of the lobby.
"Kurt!" Rogue threw her arms around him, pressing her face into his shoulder so she wouldn't accidentally touch his skin. He hugged her back, and she felt his whip-thin tail lash invisibly against her left calf. "Welcome home!"
"Danke," said Kurt. He released her so she could see him roll his eyes. "I mean 'thank you.' I've been speaking German all summer. Haven't been using zis thing much, either." He lifted his left hand to indicate his image inducer. "Everyone in my village knows vhat I look like. I hope it didn't get rusty or something." He poked it experimentally, decided it was working, and let his hands fall. "I'm glad you came to get me," he continued. "I missed you."
Rogue smiled. "Ah missed you, too."
Then, just because they were brother and sister, just because it had been a long summer, just because, they hugged one another again.
"So did you get to drive the X-Van out here?" asked Kurt, as the two of them maneuvered toward the baggage carousel.
"Well, Ah wanted tuh fly yeh home," said Rogue, "but Storm said no go. So Ah got Scott's car instead."
"Zat's probably all for the best," said Kurt nervously. "There's my bag."
The bag, full of an entire summer's worth of laundry and souvenirs, was just about as big as Kurt himself. Rogue grabbed it as it approached on the conveyor belt and swung it, one-handed, over her shoulder without any visible effort. Several people stared.
"Um . . . Rogue?"
Rogue sighed and put the bag down. "Maybe you better carry it."
Kurt lifted the bag with a grunt of effort and followed her out to the parking structure.
"How vas your summer?" Kurt asked as he dropped his duffel into the trunk of Scott's cherry-red convertible.
"Nice," said Rogue. "Quiet. Did lots of training with Storm, on flyin' and stuff, and we all soundproofed the walls of Logan's room so he can sleep through the night without gettin' woke up by every little noise. How was yours?"
"Fun. And quiet. And full of amazing food. My mother wrote down some of her good recipes for me to bring with, and I'm going to try them vhen it's my turn to cook."
"Better wait until everybody gets back," Rogue advised. "If you make it now and it's no good, Logan will tell you. He's gotta be polite when the recruits are in the house. Well, politer." She swung into the driver's seat and buckled her seatbelt. Kurt sprang over the car and landed in the passenger's seat.
"Maybe I'll just try it by myself," he decided uncertainly.
"I'll join you," Rogue offered. "Gotta try another cheesecake anyway."
"Still having trouble vith zat?"
"Harder than it looks," Rogue complained.
Kurt didn't say anything until they were on the freeway, headed north. Then he asked, "So, anybody back yet?"
"You're the first. But Scott's flying in on Tuesday, and Jean's gonna pick him up, and they're gonna spend the night at Kitty's house and all be back on Wednesday. Everybody else is wanderin' in before school starts. Parents drivin' 'em up, mostly."
"Oh, good." Kurt hesitated, then plowed ahead. "And vhat about . . . vhat about Gambit? Any news?"
Kurt was one of the few people in the house that knew Rogue was waiting for news of the former Acolyte. The Professor knew, of course. Possibly Jean as well, though no one was quite sure anymore of exactly what Jean knew. She was very discreet about her telepathy. Kurt was the only person Rogue had actually told.
She shook her head, noticing vaguely that her foot was pressing down harder on the gas pedal. "Nothin'."
"Can the Professor—"
"Ah haven't asked him."
Kurt nodded sympathetically. "I'm sure he'll be back."
Rogue smiled half-heartedly. "That makes one of us."
"Just because the car can do ninety-five doesn't mean you should."
Rogue blushed and eased up on the gas.
Gambit descended warily into the metro station, a large duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Now that he had something valuable with him, this was a much riskier maneuver. But he still had surprise on his side if it came to a fight. He hoped it didn't, though. He didn't want to try flying back to the U.S. on his forged French passport. It was of poor quality, the best he'd been able to get on a small budget and short notice, and he didn't want to test his luck again by trying to make it back through U.S. Customs with the thing. Come to that, he didn't want Immigration keeping tabs on him as a French national. It would be easiest to return to his own country as a legitimate citizen.
Of course, ten thousand dollars would be handy to have around, too.
"Gambit?" asked the suave voice. Sinister was waiting for him in the pool of light, his garish companion standing as discreetly as possible in the darkness behind him.
"Here I am."
"Do you have the goods?"
"Dat depends. You got my payment?"
Sinister produced another envelope, opened it, and pulled out the contents one by one. "One United States passport in the name of one James Alexander Charpentier. One airplane ticket, coach, direct from De Gaulle to JFK tomorrow morning, same name. And ten thousand dollars in one hundred dollar bills, nonsequential and unmarked, as requested." He closed the envelope, which was rather bulgy with all the bills, and waited.
Gambit unshouldered the duffel, set it on the ground, and unzipped it. Inside were six small coolers. Gambit removed one and opened the lid. "Fifty-six vials of blood, in prime condition. As requested."
Sinister approached the cases slowly, the envelope held out. Gambit extended his hand to receive it. When the paper landed in his palm, he took it and stepped back.
"Thank you for your services," said Sinister.
"Pleasure doin' business," Gambit answered politely.
Sinister bent down and closed the lid of the sample-filled cooler. Then he ordered, calmly, coolly, elegantly: "Go."
A stripe of silver lightning flashed as Gambit extended his quarterstaff, but even he could not move fast enough. Sinister's goon opened his mouth, and something hit the thief hard in the chest. It was like belly-flopping into deep water from a thousand feet up, and it knocked him out just as quickly. He crumpled to the concrete floor, his staff skittering away from his nerveless fingers.
"Are the samples all right?" asked the yellow trench coat.
Sinister opened the lid of the cooler again. "They appear to be just fine. Thank you, Ruckus."
"My pleasure," said Ruckus.
"Would you take these to the car, please?" requested Sinister, zipping up the duffel bag around the samples. Ruckus hefted it to his shoulder and started up the stairs.
Sinister next turned his attention to Gambit. He lifted one eyelid to check that the young thief was quite unconscious, and saw the contact lens slip aside, revealing a slim crescent of the blazing red iris.
He chuckled. "Remarkably foolish, young man, to think that only your eyes reveal you for what you are." He let the lid fall and removed a case, like an old-fashioned cigarette case, only larger, from his inside pocket. Inside was a syringe and a small metallic disc, about the size of a dime. These were followed by a tiny yellow bottle and a few cotton swabs.
"Now then, monsieur," said Sinister as he shoved back the sleeve of Gambit's coat and shirt, "let's see what you can do." He prodded the inside of Gambit's elbow with inquiring fingers, making one of the pale blue veins stand out. When he'd found one he liked, he painted the site with iodine before placing the needle on the faint blue line and pressing gently in. He drew back the plunger of the syringe, filling the chamber with fresh blood as red as the eyes. Once he had all he needed, he put the sample away and pressed a bit of clean cotton gauze against the pinprick wound.
When he was confident that the bleeding had stopped, he tugged the sleeves back down and rolled Gambit over. The long coat jingled a little as Sinister tugged it up over Gambit's head, but nothing fell out of the pockets. He shoved the young man's shirt up to his neck, exposing the bare skin of his back. Then he placed the little disc on Gambit's spine, in the spot where no one could ever scratch an itch, right between the shoulder blades. The disc was pliable and very flat, the underside coated with the type of safe-on-skin adhesive used to affix heart monitor nodes to a patient's chest. Gambit would be able to remove it only if he were extremely flexible, which he probably was, and knew that it was there, which he certainly didn't.
By the time Sinister had tugged Gambit's shirt and coat back into place, Ruckus had returned.
"I have everything I need, I think," Sinister announced, standing and brushing off the knees of his expensive suit. "Let's make sure our friend does not miss his flight, and then we can return to the laboratory and see what he has given us."
Once again, we bring you "Fun with French Expressions," starring Gambit, with special guest stars Mister Sinister and Hank McCoy.
Touché: Literally, 'touched.' A fencing term used when someone has scored a point.
Me voici: Here I am.
métro: The Paris subway system.
Vous voilà: There you are.