Author's Note: My apologies for not replying individually to those who so graciously leave reviews or add me to their alerts or favorites. I have my reasons for withholding, reasons I won't go into here, publicly, but I hope you will forgive me and continue to read and comment. Each and every one of them mean a great deal to me—even the criticisms, which often get me off my bum so I can get it better next time. Thank you.


Chapter Two

Tile gleamed in the flickering candlelight. The bathroom was spotless. No evidence of torture or sickness remained. Lulling, sensual jazz played on a small portable cd player that rested on the counter beside the sink. Its cord stretched carefully from it to the wall nearby, carefully out of reach of the danger of water. Everything about the room, the moment, was supposed to soothe, to relax, to comfort. Death understood that there could be great cruelty in the midst of inappropriate tenderness.

Vanilla. The decadent, yet innocent scent permeated the air, the water, and most especially her skin and hair. The candles wafted the fragrance in wispy tendrils of smoke. The bubble bath frothed the water with it. The shampoo and conditioner he'd used to lather and rinse, and detangle and rinse, added another dose of the rich, succulent smell. Deliberately coordinated lotion would come later too, but for now, he carefully caressed away the dried blood and flaky love from her shapely torso and lithe limbs.

Much as she tried not to, Rogue half-dozed in the warmth of the bath, the rolling rhythms of the music, the pale golden glow of the candles, the moist, sweetness of the air, and even the silky strokes of the washcloth—as sensual as the buttery, praline crawl of his voice. With her eyes closed, she could almost pretend that things were different; that Remy hadn't raised the adamantium tipped dart with the same graceful pinch of fingers as his alternate had; that she hadn't believed the confessions given, hadn't already suspected them, and in some cases, already had the memories of them stored inside her as if they were her own; that her wrists and ankles weren't bound by adamantium chains; that her body hadn't ached in ways that should have been reserved for happy morning-afters; that the gem wasn't double-edged as a lemon, sharp and sour as biting the inside of her cheek while chewing her favorite food, yet stringent and cleansing as the healing sunshine; and almost pretend that she had the strength of will and the forgiving goodness to avoid holding a grudge when all was said and done. Almost pretend.

"Remy may be de t'ief, chère," Death said in the oozing quiet tones usually reserved for post-coitus, sleepy children, or the dying, "Mais, I t'ink I stole dis from him."

What stung the worst was the humble sincerity braided into his prideful satisfaction. He believed it. Believed that every soothing moment, future or past, little there had been or would be, shared with Remy would now be usurped by the memory of that very moment with Death. She was adamant that he'd be wrong on this account. She was not a novice with this type of survival.

For all that Death shared Remy's knowledge of her, neither knew that she'd been broken before from baseline torture. Once, long ago, the amateurish fumblings of Genoshan soldiers sent her cowering deep into her own mindscape, allowing Carol to surge forward and take control. She had survived their inexpert torments and rescued Logan in the process. Well, Carol was the heroine in that escapade, but then, if it wasn't for Rogue's powers—loathe them as she so often did—the succeeding option wouldn't have been available. So, in a round about way, Rogue had a role in it. She sometimes leaned on that when she was in the mood to feel optimistic about her stake in life. Sometimes, her by-proxy powers had been the thing that allowed her to save those she cared for. Sometimes, that idea had actually lightened the burden of the minds that had come with them. Sometimes, it even aerated the guilt. Sometimes.

Regardless, she had suffered torture by the Genoshan hands, mild as they were in comparison to the bittersweet skills of Remy's incarnation as Death, and survived. Sure, because of it, she was halved, forced into time-sharing her own body, but she endured. The resulting Carol/Rogue tug-of-wars following the Genoshan prison later ended not on her own doing, but from the intrusion of another, one who thought she was worth it, one who had been determined to prove her own worth to her: Magneto. Those days and nights had stayed with her. It was why she so often felt compelled to try and return the favor to him when he went all cockeyed with schemes of world (or Genoshan) domination. It was why she couldn't help but feel a steady, heady warmth in the center of her chest and the lower depths of her abdomen when he looked at her a certain way. He reminded her of such normal (for most) possibilities, for he had been the first one who showed her that there were reasons someone would risk so much for her esteem and affection… for her companionship. It helped her hold on to hope sometimes. Sometimes.

She was grateful to Erik for giving her that. She owed him for it, to an extent. Most of all, she respected him and appreciated him and felt continual affection towards him for it. He opened pathways for her by reaffirming a brighter, hopeful, even somewhat expectant perspective on having romantic love in her life. If not for Erik's persistence back then, those doors may likely have been closed, iron-clad, double-barred, welded, against such possibilities. Against Remy. Persistent as Remy was, if he had been the first, he would've probably found himself in Erik's place in her esteem instead.

Second place had a more realistic chance at survival than the flashiness of first place had.

In a way, Remy was lucky that Erik had burrowed so significantly into her first. Erik had paved the way for him. But, if second place had higher chances, what would third place have? No, no, Rogue wasn't a third place kind of girl. She would only sink so low. And Remy, well, he wasn't one to stand for taking second place. He'd been bound and determined to be on top. What was the point of taking on a challenge, if he didn't get the grand prize, after all? He felt the need to take that number one spot, to warily keep an eye on her other affections. She supposed he may never understand the importance of them, how they enabled his chances with her, and she would just have to live with that. He would just have to live with that. She was her own person. Even now.

But Erik… Magneto… he didn't just lie down and lose either. Which was why he had gotten through to her in the first place.

That type of determination was also why, despite all her better judgments, she held on to Remy, held on for Remy, survived these indignities and pains Death inflicted upon her. More than Erik before him, Remy excited those tiny shards of hopeful expectation that someone would stick it out, excited them as much as he charged her hormones, as much as he changed potential kinetic energy into actual kinetic energy with his powers. And even then, she was cautious. She wouldn't go easily. It took an adrenaline-junkie, a thrill seeker, a risk taker, a gambler, and a thief of her heart. Imagine her luck, these qualities just happened to be wrapped up so nicely in lean cords of muscles, tanned planes of skin, a smoky breath-hitching drawl, crooked smirk, and smoldering come-hither gaze. Her libido too often betrayed those last vestiges of caution, wearing her down. Sometimes.

Other times it was purely that she wanted Remy. Screw the morality of such a man. Screw the longevity statistics. Screw her sanity, his sanity, his ex-wife, Mystique's plans, Candra's tithes, one-eye's clenching sphincter, Sinister's meddling, Logan's growling, the Guild's prophecies, Professor's promises… Screw all the risks. She simply wanted Remy. Now. And perhaps, until she died.

She'd never wanted like that before.

Untrue. Fleeting fractions of seconds, come and gone, and likely to come again, she'd wanted Erik. First place had its merits, after all. Besides, he'd done more than just open her up for romantic paths. He'd also obtained her esteem for him in other plainer, and maybe even more secure ways. Oddly, these ways worked against him more than they had worked for him. Magneto's influence in the Savage Land had done more to bind her to the X-Men than the Professor had ever done. Magneto hadn't dangled the prize of control before her. He dangled her self-respect and self-worth and self-esteem instead. Not just dangled, but worked for it, and eventually (though she'd probably never admit this out loud to him or anyone) uplifted her. He had made sure she could not misconstrue that it was a serious goal of his. In doing so, he became Erik to her more than Magneto. And Erik had successfully proven to her that she could belong to a family, mishmash as they may be, a group of unlikely associates linked by shared needs, shared purpose, and the intense and formidable will to persevere, together. When Erik's lesson had finally hammered home, it had been the X-Men that had filled her vision in a rush of giddy hope and cozy hearth fire. Much as Erik was probably loathed to realize it. That much was obvious in their clumsy, head-butting interactions that followed the Savage Land. Persuade, convert, recruit. Her to his side. He to hers. A spring-loaded cycle without an end in sight. Erik could say otherwise as much as he'd like. Put them alone together, hell, not even alone, and those push-pull sparks went a-flying. Passion wrought and welded in stubbornness and futility.

Another time and place, perhaps, though…

But this was here and now, and for the foreseeable future. Erik had accomplished his pursuit and purpose with her too well in that short, steamy time. She had thought herself tough and resilient before, but he made her face her self-consciousness, her self-doubt, her self-worth, all those things she'd thought she'd shoved to the back of her thoughts. What he cultivated in her had been one of the last nails in her coffin in giving her the means to stick it out with the X-Men on her own. To stick it out, as abrasive and jarring and scary and exhilarating and cozy as it may be, with Remy. For Remy. On her own.

Erik had failed to gain her blind, appreciative loyalty when he succeeded in making her more whole. His plans had backfired on him.

And then Remy had crumbled her. He chipped away at all her hard-won resilient resignation. The man sure had stamina. Sometimes she believed she'd crumbled him as well. She sure gave him a chase. Splintered and shattered by each other and outer facets of their lives, they both had picked up their pieces and glued themselves back together. Sometimes together. Sometimes on their own. Sometimes, bits of the other got mixed in with their own, binding them in ways they were both scared and urgent for. Sometimes they rued the next cycle of it. Sometimes they thrilled for it. Sometimes they just meandered. Funny how that sometimes was stretching into years, now.

In the interim, sometimes had become immeasurably important.

Erik had recognized it and loathed it. Whether it was jealousy, arrogance, the loss of the efforts he'd once put into Rogue, his frustration in his adversaries, or something else altogether, he'd seen it in them and did his worst to break them apart beyond repair. He could claim any excuse he wanted to, but Rogue was convinced, Antarctica had been personal. She pitied him for it. She mourned the tiniest dulling of their shared sparks that had resulted from it. But mostly, she had finally owed Remy in return. She'd found a sick equality in owing him. It was suddenly okay to want him.

And she wanted him to love her, to be hers, with no ambiguity or slyness in the admission. Just say it and do it. Give the playful banter a foundation to build upon.

But now she owed him…

She'd thought she'd paid that debt after Vargas, found a healthier balance of equality, when she'd pulled him from the brink of death. But now, now she faced the real debt, the real need to save him from Death. She had to save him from his own worst opinions of himself. Just like he'd tried so many times to do for her. He'd exposed what remained of her walls, made her war with herself, illuminated those remaining scratches of shaky self-worth that had surfaced when she found herself wanting and fearing.

Torture, the attempt to break her down and rebuild her to another's purposes… this was a playing field she had tenure in.

Mystique had failed with her psychotic, unhealthy, and genuine-in-her-own-creepy-way mothering. Xavier had failed with his fight-for-the-greater-good while never advancing solutions to her dilemmas. The Genoshans' had failed with their blunt and superficial fumblings. Erik had failed with his proud, circumspective, patient, and penetrating conversions. Hundreds of displaced personas had failed with their inside-out wittlings, haranguing, usurpings, and by-proxy power buzzings. And Death, with his corrosive application of Remy's nimble fingers, molasses drawl, boring gaze, searing sensuality, and simmering, undulating, hesitant, self-conscious tenderness, would fail to warp her too.

She would survive.

She would sift Remy out of Death's greasy clutches and into her sticky, hiccupping embrace. She was determined. She had to be. She. Wanted. Remy.

Remy would thrive.

Screw faith and fate and win or lose and love and loss and chance and luck and gambling. Hearts. Diamonds. Clubs. Spades. She wanted out the other side. She wanted Remy.

These were her musing mantras that kept her face soft, her flesh pliable, and her will adamant from moment to moment since she first set foot in Death's chambers. She sank into them slowly and was often jolted out of them.

Splash.

She heard the water slosh as Death dipped the plush cloth into the bubbly water and drew it out again. Jaws clamped tight, she curled away from the movement, lest he brush some intimate part of her beneath the soapy surface. As if it could get more personal, she snorted in her own thoughts. He sighed contentedly at the show and she suppressed a shiver. She suspected (hoped) that he misunderstood the reasons for both. When he gently grasped her ankle above the cuff and lifted it, she wished she'd had the strength to kick out at him. But, with the suppressor around her neck, the weight of the chains, the hours of torture, the three days of brief, fitful sleeps (and the knowledge that Remy, twisted up Remy, could possibly, remotely, but possibly, be the gross recipient of her efforts), she just didn't have it in her to shove out of Death's grasp let alone physically strike out at him. But, she wrangled with the idea of it over and over again in her mind. When the time was right to do so, she would be more than ready. Let him have his way for now, she reasoned to herself stubbornly, let him get confident and clumsy with it.

He draped the cloth on her lower leg and languorously slid it up along her calf, her knee, her thigh, and her hip. There he trailed it in a circle before delicately tracing back down the way he had come. He took particular care with the circlet of skin at her ankle because the cuff was slowly rubbing it raw. He had done the same with her wrists.

"De pain," Death continued in that secluded tone, "Dat be like childbirt', in a way. You can forget it, after awhile." He'd deliberately thinned Remy's accent the littlest bit, as if it proved his distinction, his imminent success in this particular pinch against his rival. "Women got de knack for it built right into dem. Mais you," he tapped her temple, signifying the tensile durability of her to store all those foreign personas, "You got it extra."

He lifted her leg higher.

"People assume your fragile wit' dem. Weakened. A fault in your powers."

He repeated the languorous stroke on the underside.

"Dey be wrong."

Her inner calf.

"It's a testament of your strength."

Her inner knee.

"It take subtlety to subdue."

Her inner thigh.

"I get it."

A few inches from her junction, he circled, careful of her privacy and dignity in his nurturing (sadistic) ministrations, and slid down again.

"Mais dis, dis," he cooed, lavishing the moment for himself, "Dis will stay wit' you."

He utterly believed it. And so, for now, she let him. She told herself so.

He set the cloth aside so he could gently take hold of her by her shoulders. One hand dipped into the water and passed her crossed arms to wiggle a grasp of her on that side. The other hand grasped the shoulder that peaked up over the peaks of the bubbles. With patient tenderness, he turned her towards him. Midway, he paused, and almost like he couldn't resist, he glided an arm around behind her back. He cupped her cheek affectionately with his other, now freed, hand.

"Dis he won't forgive," he said as he pressed the softest of kisses to her forehead, "Especially, not if y' forgive it."

She had forgotten his charm. His empathic abilities were practically a mutation on their own.

He feathered his lips against her left eyelid.

"It's not his way. Not when he's bound and determined to suffer for it."

Feathered her other eyelid.

"An' he's sure of it for dis, because it's his idea, his compulsion, his desire to take care of you and put you to rights."

She shivered involuntarily. She caught it and reset her jaw in grim determination to rally against it.

He kissed her nose.

"And so I indulge it, 'cause in de end, dis compassion, dis affection, dis is de sumptuous discrimination dat will damage de most."

He pressed her to his chest and spoke the last against her slick, vanilla scented, striped hair.

"It will blend and congeal—he and I, pain and pleasure, love and hate, atrocity and redemption."

He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly.

"It will linger. For him."

She bit her lip.

He went silent while he resettled her in the tub to cleanse and caress her other leg with just the same attention he had on the first. He stayed silent as he pulled the plug to allow the water to drain away. He watched as it tugged on her skin, pulling at her, loosening her muscles underneath. If she'd opened her eyes to face him she would've noticed the inquisitive, measuring and appreciative gaze he leveled on her as he watched it. She would've wondered if he imagined that the sensation of the cloying, dragging, haul of the emptying water was as close to experiencing her own powers as she would ever get. But she didn't, so she didn't. Yet, he still did.

When all that remained was thick, stalking puffs of soapsuds, he turned the faucet on again. He caught the plunging water in a large cup (small bucket) and poured it over her, rinsing the last vestiges of scum and soap off of her.

"Y' should rest," he said, sinking back into Remy's thick, praline drawl, as he toweled her off. It was a longer process than he had originally expected since he had to hold her uncooperative body upright, half-leaning against him as if she were still pretending, disassociating, as he patted her creamy skin dry. After that, he swathed on the purposefully chosen moisturizer, expensive, luxurious and, of course, as deliciously planned, vanilla scented. It wasn't what she would have chosen for herself, least of all from him, after all.

Finally, he took a fresh towel to her hair until it was fluffy. Then he combed it tangle free and smooth.

He tucked her into the bed, between sheets of silk, beneath a quilted duvet stuffed with down. He plumped the pillow for her head. It would've been the picture of serene comfort if not for the adamantium chains that linked her wrists before connecting her to the wall at her head and the floor at her feet; there were several latch points he'd bore into the foundation supports throughout the room. He'd slipped the chains—clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink—between the curvy brass rails of the headboard and footboard to do so.

"I envy you, I t'ink," he told her as he gazed upon her in complicated adoration, "You have more influence over him dan you believe. More dan I have over him, more dan Poccy, or Essex, Scooter or Stormy. Hmm, Stormy." He simmered on that a bit before continuing, "Even more dan he has over himself sometimes."

He double-checked that the suppressor was active. He tucked the gem under her pillow. He left.

Rogue worked her jaw. It was cramped from keeping it clamped shut, both around that vicious gem as well as her whiplash tongue. The things she'd almost told him… For as much as she was able, she had kept her whimpering pleas and scathing exclamations all to herself. Sometimes she slipped, and she berated herself afterwards each and every time, but for the most of it, she'd kept her resolve. She refused to give him the benefit. The satisfaction.

Her stomach grumbled.

On the other hand, she might just have to voice her opinion on that topic when he came back. She had every intention of coming out the other side of this whole and with Remy intact, after all. Starvation would impede that plan. Just a smidge.


Thank you for reading. Please review.

Posted February 28, 2009.