For the first time since they'd all come home, Gambit was making dinner.
No one in the Institute quite understood how he managed to take food so seriously and still be so macho. But none of them had been raised in New Orleans, where good food was decidedly a 'guy thing'. Food was synonymous with family and home. Food was important. It meant safety and community and happiness.
At least, it meant safety when anyone had the sense to not to give Kitty sharp knives.
"Ow!" Kitty dropped the chef's knife and jumped back from the counter, letting it clatter to the floor. There was a bright red line of blood across her left index finger.
"Git away from de stove!" Gambit ordered, his first concern for the pot of jambalaya. "You drip in anyt'in'?"
"No, it doesn't hurt much, thanks soooooo much for your concern, Gambit," Kitty griped.
Piotr snorted. "I will never understand how you managed to earn such a reputation for being smooth with women." He took Kitty by the wrist and led her to the sink. "Is there a first aid kit in his kitchen?"
"Cupboard above the fridge," Rogue told him. "Ah'll get the parsley." She picked up the bloodied knife, slipped it into the sink, and pulled a clean one out of the knife block. With the fresh blade, she finished mincing the aromatic mass of bright green leaves. Although the knife could hardly do her any harm, she still cut with it the way Remy had taught her many months ago: with the knuckles of her left hand turned towards the blade, keeping the point always on the cutting board.
Remy smiled, seeing this shadow of himself in her. It had taken this disastrous summer for him to really appreciate how much they had changed one another since that long-ago, heart-stopping moment when they'd met over a blazing king of hearts. He'd taught her how to use kitchen knives, to conjugate the imperfect, to let a secret dwell silently inside herself, to shoplift, to dance, to enjoy the simple and sensual pleasure of her hair falling across her shoulder blades, to live in the moment. And she'd taught him to bear injustice, to trick the Danger Room sensors, to take multiple-choice tests, to appreciate idealism, to be part of a team, to protect those who couldn't protect themselves. She'd taught him to be a hero. And thanks to him, she was a mean parsley-chopper.
She carried the board over to the stove and slid the leaves into the stockpot. Remy obligingly stirred them in, but his attention was focused on her bare hands and wrists. They were so hypnotic, so unbelievably tempting. As she drew back from the stove, he reached out—quick as lightning—and brushed the side of his hand against the back of her wrist, where her watch had left a band of paler skin against the warm golden tint the sun had given her.
He couldn't help it, really. It was just too much fun to see her freeze at his faint, almost imperceptible touch, to hear her gasp as fire and hormones went shooting through her whole system. He could see her reaction in the heat signatures across her body, could feel it in the energy he absorbed from her. It was delicious. She was so unbelievably sensitive to touch, after all the long years of physical isolation, that the slightest contact was enough to paralyze her with shock and pleasure and terror and joy.
He'd never imagined that such faint, isolated touches could feel so good. But, then again, he'd never imagined someone like Rogue. But she was here now, and so was he, and they had all the rest of their lives to spend together. Soon enough, there would be more between them . . . kisses and embraces and getting caught making out in the elevator . . . but there was no hurry. They had all the time in the world, and this game was way too much fun to rush through.
They hadn't told anybody yet that they could share this. Just for now . . . just for this first little while of learning one another all over again . . . they wanted it to be their secret. But Remy loved getting away with things under other people's noses. He also loved watching Rogue come up with cover stories on the spur of the moment.
"You okay?" Kitty asked, looking up from the finger that she was in the middle of bandaging.
"Stubbed my toe," Rogue muttered. She shot Remy a Don't-DO-that glare. Remy grinned and scoffed. What kind of crap excuse was that?
The kitchen was starting to smell of peppers, spices, chicken, shrimp, and andouille sausage. He was surrounded by his friends. The girl he loved was wearing his ring and was about mad enough, in a good way, to kick him in the shin. Life didn't have much more to offer than this.
He had to leave it behind again. Soon. But not yet.
Gambit refused to think about the fact that he'd been promising himself 'soon' every day for the last three weeks. Three weeks, after all, wasn't very long. He still had time. He didn't know how much time, but surely some. Three weeks was hardly any time at all.
He turned his attention back to the bisque, which was threatening to boil. He covered the pot and moved it onto a back burner, praying that it would stay warm long enough for them to get everything else onto the table.
Then, quite suddenly and silently, Rogue was standing next to him. Right next to him. And, in a movement that seemed to take forever but couldn't possibly have, really, she reached out and very, very gently brushed her finger along the back of his hand.
Remy froze. He couldn't remember Rogue ever having touched him of her own free will. She'd never initiated; just followed his lead. The touch sent lines of fire rocketing up his arm and through his chest. He didn't dare to breathe, for fear that the slightest movement might startle her away. The gentle stroke of her finger made his skin almost ache with his craving for her. She'd paralyzed him with the tiniest possible contact . . . and as her mind flowed gently into his, he started to realize that that had been her exact intention.
The potholder in his other hand burst into flames. He'd let it come to rest too close to the burner, and the copious quantities of smoke it had already made had somehow escaped his notice. Startled out of his daze, he flung the flaming potholder into the sink with one of his more eloquent curses.
"What in the world . . .?" demanded Piotr.
"Got distracted," Remy muttered darkly. Rogue had yanked open the refrigerator door and ducked inside to hide her laughter. That tricksy little mix! She'd played him!
Oh, yes. Life was good.
He couldn't give it up just yet.
Remy wasn't sure what had awakened him. The room he now shared with Piotr was silent and dark. He hit the indiglo button on his watch: it was two thirty in the morning.
He turned over in bed, trying to find a comfortable position in which to go back to sleep. His movement made something crackle. He untangled one hand from his blankets and fished for whatever it was.
Someone had put a piece of paper on top of his chest. He sat up and put his hand behind it; the heat of his body shone through the page, back-lighting the letters printed there.
Meet us outside.
Remy crumpled the paper into a ball and slipped out of bed. It was already cold: his second New York winter was fast approaching. Skipping socks, he shoved his feet into his boots and pulled his coat on over his pajamas.
How could they be here already? He'd only been back at the Institute for three weeks! Surely they could have given him more time, after all he'd already done.
No. He was a Guild Thief fighting for his Master's Mark, and once a thief declared that goal, there was no turning back. He knew he had been on vacation for too long. He kept meaning to leave again, to get back to work, but tomorrow was always soon enough for that. He just wanted one more day with Rogue. And one more, and one more, and one more.
Well, it looked like yesterday had been the last day. He snatched a pair of gloves from the top of his dresser and left the room.
He slipped silently down the hall and coaxed open the door to Rogue and Kitty's room. Rogue was asleep on her side, curled up into a ball. She eased awake when he stroked her hair out of her face.
"Some'a my people are here," he murmured when she opened her eyes. "Will you come wid me?"
She shrugged into her olive-green army jacket, more for moral support than because she could really feel cold, and snatched up a pair of gloves out of the drawer of her nightstand. Then she took his hand, and together they walked downstairs and out the front door.
The mansion's security systems had been quietly and discreetly disabled. Somebody was going to have a heck of a time setting that straight in the morning. Maybe he could do it before he left, if there was time.
Five men, all in suits and long coats, were waiting for him in front of the fountain. The first was Guildmaster Faury, of the Paris Guild. He eyed Rogue with mild surprise. "I would have added 'come alone' to my note, but I thought that was understood. And I felt it would be a bit melodramatic."
"Dis is Rogue," Remy told him. "She and I stay together."
"That isn't your choice to make, young man."
"Let her stay," ordered one of the other men. "She saved my son's life. Both of my sons." He stepped forward, and Remy had to bite down on his tongue to keep himself from gasping or jumping backwards. He'd been irresponsible; he'd neglected his work; but was that any reason to drag his father up here?
"Hello, Remy," said Jean-Luc, without a smile or a scowl.
Remy nodded his head, instinctively drawing Rogue closer to him. He was in rich trouble now. Neglecting the quest for a Mark had to be a graver crime than he'd thought; much graver. Only something really drastic would bring his father to New York, in defiance of the Assassin's Guild, to face him after two years of bitter separation.
"I don't know if you've met these gentlemen," Jean-Luc observed. "This is Guildmaster Petrelli, of Rome, Guildmaster Cooper of London, and Guildmaster Wheeler of New York."
Five guildmasters. He was going to die. They were going to kill him. What else could they possibly want five guildmasters for?
"Gentlemen," Remy acknowledged. "I apologize dat I haven't been attendin' to my studies like I should. My neglect is inexcusable, an' I'll be on my way before first light. You really didn't have t'come out in all dis state to see me on my way."
How had they found out where he was, anyway? He'd done his best to keep the Guild away from the Institute, but he supposed if someone had been really determined it would only be a matter of time before they found out his new home.
"LeBeau," Faury interjected. "What on earth are you talking about?"
Remy blinked as his brain switched gears. "I been off de game fo' three weeks. Ain't dat why y'all are here?"
"Of course not."
What else could he possibly have done to disturb the Guild so much? Possibilities flashed through his mind. Had one of the drug lords whose safes he'd emptied been some unlikely ally of one of the European Guilds? Had he left some compromising clue behind at one of his takes? Sainte Ciel, did Professor Xavier or Doctor MacTaggart have Guild contacts? He'd thought she'd forgiven him unsettlingly quickly . . .
"Did you, or did you not, steal a serum that gave you the powers of an Omega-level mutant?"
Remy nodded. "Oui. I did." Whatever was going on, lying wasn't going to help any. Not when Jean-Luc had heard the whole story from Bobby. The Guild was one of the world's best and biggest gossip chains.
"And do you, or do you not, remember one of my colleagues commenting that if you were to steal a nuclear missile, you would shortcut yourself through the requirements for becoming a Master Thief?"
"I didn't steal a nuke."
"What is an Omega-level mutant, LeBeau?"
"A person wid a mutant ability capable of affectin' de entire world."
"Are you now in command of such a power?"
"Because of the serum that you stole?"
"Therefore, is that serum more or less valuable than a nuclear missile?"
"More or less dangerous?"
"More or less rare?"
"Then you have stolen yourself a shortcut. Congratulations."
"But it wasn't a hard take. Not even close. I could've made dat pinch ten years ago widout breakin' a sweat."
"Don't flatter yourself, LeBeau. It's unbecoming. There is no other thief in the Guilds who could have made that pinch—who would have had the resources to know about that serum, to find it, to exploit it. You did the research, you made the kill. You were in the right place at the right time with the right information and the right allies. That's what is expected of a Master Thief. Or did you think that all we cared about was your ability to pick locks and outrun guard dogs?"
"But it's not fair. It's cheatin'. I haven't done near enough to earn de rank, not yet."
Rogue nudged his side with her elbow. "Remy, shut up."
Faury smiled. "Wise counsel, miss."
"The Guilds have decided that you've proven yourself worthy of the rank," Jean-Luc informed him. "You don't have any say in the matter anymore."
"I don'have a sponsor," Remy protested.
"Yes, you do," said Jean-Luc.
His father. His father had left his Guild, dared to venture beyond his home turf, had risked the wrath of the Boudreaux family to find his adopted street-demon of a second son. His father was the Master that Remy had wanted to be. And Remy had dreamed of having Jean-Luc stand as his sponsor up until the day Julian had died.
"I appreciate dat, Père, but you should know before y'go through wid dis dat I'm plannin' on retirin' as soon as I get my Mark. I got a home and a life here at de Institute. I went after de Mark for my team's benefit, not mine. My sponsor won't get much back on his investment."
"I'm not sponsoring you as an investment, DB. Your sainted mother, qu'elle reste en paix, would never forgive me if I let any other t'ief take my place fo'dis."
Remy nodded. His father was right; Christine would kill him. Remy wasn't quite sure how she'd manage it from beyond the grave, but he'd learned long ago—and Jean-Luc hard learned even longer ago—not to underestimate that woman.
Remy spared a glance for Rogue, her hand still warm and strong in his. He had his own Christine now. He knew that all the guildmasters had been studying her over these few minutes, and couldn't help but feel a pride that verged on smugness at the beautiful, fearless girl that stood by his side tonight. She answered him with a wry, patient smile. Looks like they've thought of everything.
"Take a knee, Remy LeBeau," Guildmaster Wheeler. Since they were in his territory, he was in charge of the ceremonials.
Remy did as he was told, releasing his hold on Rogue and pulling off his gloves. "Mind y'hands," he warned. "I can't be touched." He shrugged out of his coat, then pulled off the t-shirt in which he'd been sleeping, leaving his chest and back bare to the cold night air.
"Who presents this thief to be advanced within the Guild?" asked Guildmaster Wheeler.
"I do," answered Jean-Luc.
"Of what Guild is he?"
"Of New Orleans."
"Has he been faithful to that Guild, in guarding its secrets, in paying his tithes, and in honoring its history?"
"Has he proved himself superior to all other thieves of the Guild?"
"And does anyone here protest that this thief is not deserving of this rank and honor?"
There was silence. Remy could hear the crickets in the woods, and the soft, far-off murmur of the sea past the edge of the mansion's property.
"In that case, Remy LeBeau of New Orleans, take your Mark, and be called Master Thief from this day onward."
Remy squared his shoulders and raised his chin, gritting his teeth. Behind him, he heard Rogue inhale sharply—not quite gasping, but bracing herself in response to his sudden tension.
His father stood behind him, taking his sleep-tousled head in both hands as though administering an anointing or a blessing. Guildmaster Petrelli stepped forward, holding the marker in his hand. It looked like a small and intricate cookie cutter: the inverted mark of the United Guilds worked in razor-sharp metal, about two inches wide. Petrelli set it against the front of his left shoulder, just under his collarbone. Remy took a deep breath and held it.
The blades dug deep into his flesh, scarlet blood welling up around them. Petrelli pulled the marker away, and Guildmaster Cooper quickly stepped forward to sponge away the blood until the cuts themselves were visible. Then Guildmaster Faury pressed a paste of coal dust and oil into the wounds: coal was what diamonds were made of, and the blackness would stay in his skin forever.
Cooper covered the wound with a square of gauze and taped it into place. Remy stood up, pressing the bandage to slow down the bleeding.
"Congratulations, Master Thief," said Guildmaster Wheeler. Remy thanked him and shook hands all around.
The one by one, the guildmasters faded into the darkness . . . Cooper in the direction of the house, probably to turn the alarm system back on. Remy wasn't worried about having a master criminal inside the mansion: the Institute was his home, and he was a Master Thief now. No Guild member would dare target the house, no matter how much someone was paying. It was professional courtesy at this level. Professor Xavier's house would be safe as long as Remy claimed it for his own.
The only people left next to the fountain now were Remy, Rogue, and Guildmaster LeBeau.
"Congratulations, Remy," Jean-Luc told him. "I'm proud of you, mon fils."
"Merci, père." Somehow, it was harder now to be angry at his father. Jean-Luc had banished him from his home, but that didn't matter as much when he had a home of his own now, a home that he'd earned. "Never thought I'd see you again."
"Didn't know how welcome I'd be. But I had to come, to see you take your Mark like your mother always wanted. And to see your demoiselle again." He nodded gracefully at Rogue. "It's been quite a long time, miss."
"Thank you for coming," Rogue answered. "Ah know it means a lot to Remy." She pulled off her right glove and extended her hand. Jean-Luc eyed it hesitantly, but Rogue's direct, challenging gaze encouraged him to return the greeting. Their hands met, shook once, and fell. The exultant flare in Rogue's eyes was more thrilling than skydiving and more precious than diamonds.
"Bobby sends his love to you both," Jean-Luc told them.
"We send ours back," Remy told him, slipping an arm around Rogue's waist. Our love. We send. Us.
"I'll tell him."
"Jean-Luc!" called Guildmaster Cooper, quietly emerging from the house again.
"Dat's my ride," Jean-Luc told them. "Dieu te benisse, DB. Well done."
Another moment, and he and Rogue were alone.
As soon as she saw the front gates swing shut, Rogue let her shoulders sag and turned her attention to his bandaged injury. "That looked like it hurt like crap."
"It did," Remy admitted, hesitantly working the left shoulder. "But it's my Mark. My Mark, Rogue. I did it."
"You did it," Rogue agreed, letting her fingertips rest on the square of gauze. "Ah'm so proud of you. Remy LeBeau, my Master Thief."
Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, he swung his arms around her waist and pulled her against his chest. "Rouge a'de X-Men, my miracle." He smiled down at her bare hand. "Bout scared me to death, there. You're amazing. You did it."
Rogue grinned, and reached up to brush a lock of hair off his forehead. "You're all pale. You should take some Tylenol or something, and get back to bed."
Remy shook his head. "On officially de best night a'my whole life, I am not takin' pain pills and goin' to bed. We gotta celebrate."
Remy grinned, and wove his fingers into her tangled curls. "How 'bout we fly? Just you and me, while de night lasts. Let's fly out t'meet de sunrise, Rogue."
Rogue smiled, and her eyes drifted shut as he bent his head to hers. For the length one long, sweet, slow, breathless kiss, there was no one in the world but the pair of them.
There was no more gravity.
Can you tell me, monsieur, to whom belong the stars?
This morning, the stars belong to us.
qu'elle reste en paix: May she rest in peace.
mon fils: my son.
Demoiselle: This is a rather archaic term for a young, unmarried lady.
Dieu te benisse: God bless you.
And that, my friends, wraps up another exciting adventure. Thank you all so much for your wonderful reviews, comments, support and encouragement! I'm so glad that I have such a great bunch of people to share my daydreams with.
As ever, I offer no promises for any continuation . . . though there are twenty pages on my hard drive already, so it's possible that I have once again been bitten by the bug. I'll dream, and write, and see what happens. In the meantime, I wish you all a splendid holiday season! And I hope you're looking forward to/already enjoying Wolverine and the X-Men, which is a blast.
Now I'm gonna go get back to work on . . . dang, I have no idea what to call this thing. The next one.
Face front, true believers!