Fall 2006 - Salem City, NY, USA

Once upon a less troubled time, Xavier's School for Gifted Children glowed. Dark green ivy thrived, tamed, on the brick gates. The herringbone pattern edged the driveway from the main northwestern entrance to the circular parkade, every stone filled, every dandelion tuft plucked from the grout. Water used to flow in the parkade's fountain and fish swam in the reflecting pool. The centuries old mansion was a fallen noblewoman, shabbily proud and fighting to stay unbowed. For that reason alone, Remy was apt to give it a chance.

He patted Etienne's knee. "You sitting good, ti'Yen?"

"Weh." The boy's helmet muffled his answer. "Y'friend needs a gardener."

"We're lucky, he don't sharpen the lawnmower on my ass."

Etienne laughed. "Ah, one of those friends. Shoulda known."

"Gonna pass a slap, me, if you keep going on like that."

"Pfft. Gotta catch me first, vieux."

Remy revved his Kawasaki through the gates then, very deliberately, dipped to the left until their knees skidded over grass. "Who you calling vieux now?"

Etienne yelped his glee.

"Tell me who you calling vieux?"

"Not you, not you! Look out!"

He jerked the bike upright in time to miss a hug pot of something overgrown. The wheels spat gravel as he raced to up the driveway and around the mouldy fountain to the front doors. Etienne hopped off as soon as they stopped. He took his helmet off, shaking his hair ragged. Remy dismounted more slowly, scanning the building. Small faces disappeared from windows. Leaves shushed all around them.

"Ain't no one told these people schools are supposed to be loud?" Remy pulled his helmet off and hooked it on the rack beside Etienne's. With the same movement, he slipped on a pair of sunglasses. He brushed his fingers through the worst of the tangles in his hair. "Let's have a look at you."

Etienne stood. The boy had an unnatural way of staying still as a post when need be. Remy brushed the worst of the road dust from the boy's jeans. He rubbed a smudge off his cheek. Tied half his hair back away from his face. Stalled some more.

"You can just use your power and make them like us," Etienne whispered.

"This many people?" Remy shook his head. "Gonna be up to my gilded tongue."

"We're doomed."

Remy smacked his cheek lightly, playfully. "Who taught you them manners?"

"Pas te, fo sho."

Shaking his head, Remy straightened. "Stay here. I'm going in first." Etienne snapped out of adult mode but Remy ended that whine before it began. "Recon, remember? When it's safe, you come in. Otherwise, you know how to run."

"And where you hide the bombs," Etienne muttered knowingly.

"Right." Impulsively, he dropped to one knee and squeezed the boy hard, letting go before he could wriggle out in pre-pubescent outrage. "Everything's gonna be fine, hein?"

The boy nodded.

***

Spring 1996 - Reno, NV, USA

Remy studied the man he'd been hired to capture. The suit who contacted him said Wolverine was a berserker who'd kill a hundred people if they got on the wrong side of his mood. Nothing about the man read berserker except maybe the hair. And Remy read people well.

Wolverine took a chair at the poker table. The other players leaned away. He looked Remy in the eye. "I know who you are, Gambit."

"My reputation precedes me. Gotta tell you though, you ain't my type." He held his hand out to the back. Two women jostled to hold it. "Now, Steve over there to my right is a real bear man--"

Wolverine slammed a hand on the table. Towers of chips rattled and collapsed. "Tell your boss if he doesn't mess with me, I won't mess with him. I don't care what he thinks I know. I don't care what he thinks I want to do. I want him to-- I want them all to leave me the hell alone."

"Now, hommes, no one wants to be alone."

"I do." The man exhaled as though in exhaling he breathed every last essence of his past life away. "I just want… to be alone."

The scary thing was Remy believed him. He read it in every line of the Wolverine's body. He'd never been more sorry to finish a job. Creed took position near the entrance. Deadpool had the scaffolding at three o'clock. Remy flipped a stack of cards between his two hands. A real shame, him. A man with real regrets wanting to make it better. Remy understood too well. But between his life and Belladonna's, the choice was clear.

Crackling magenta lines traced the intricate patterns on the back of the ace of spades.

***

Fall 2006 - Salem City, NY, USA

Four pairs of very loud sneakers called Logan out of his office--fucking-a, he still couldn't believe he had an office!-- before they yelled "Mr. Logan! Mr. Logan! Mr. Logan!" He opened the door to four panting, wide-eyed students.

"There's someone on a bike in the driveway," said one girl.

"He's kind of cute," said another.

"And there's a boy, is he a student?" asked the sole male in the gaggle.

"What's his power?" the final student asked.

Thankfully, Ororo saved him. "Children, back to your classes. We only needed one person to call Logan." She ignored their dejected moans as she made her way to his side. "Expecting anyone?"

Shrugging, Logan said, "Hell, 'Ro, you know I can't keep up with my extensive social circle. Stay ready when I answer the door."

"As always." She activated her hands-free. "Places everyone. Stay sharp, teachers."

The doorbell clanged. Once upon a brighter time, the sound warmed the entrance. Now it made Logan's shoulders tense.

He opened the door. The first thing he saw were red-on-black eyes. The last time he saw such a pair, he'd been blown half to hell by a deck of cards so he could be forgiven for extending his claws. Gambit's reaction to the "snikt' of six adamantium blades was just as expected. He drew his bo out of his belt and slammed the charged end into Wolverine's throat.

The explosion flashed through the foyer. Other staff members ran into the fray. Ororo threw a gust of wind at the door. Gambit flattened then rolled on his back into a spin kick up. Three charged cards left his hand. Wolverine ducked the first, tore the second in half and blocked the third half a second before it exploded. He ran for Gambit's throat.

A helmet slammed into his stomach, stopping him flat. A miniature Gambit glared up at him.

"Don't touch him!" Gambit swept the kid away. A whole deck of charged cards fanned out in his free hand.

"Stop it!" Rogue slapped her bare hand of LeBeau's cheek even as she pushed Logan into Colossus's metallic chokehold. He ducked down before she could get a good hold but even then, she absorbed enough of his energy to make him light-headed. He tripped on his backside, gasping for breath. "You two want to hash it out, take it outside! There are kids here and God knows we can't afford to replace any more furniture."

"He started it! He hit my papa first!" The kid pointed at Logan.

Logan peered at the kid. Then he let out a chuckle. "Jesus, LeBeau. You have a kid?" He laughed harder. "You only have one kid?"

With a shake of his head, Remy said, "You crazy as a bugfuck, Wolverine. Crazier than Deadpool and they invented a special new type of crazy when they pulled him outta the tank. They let you 'round kids, shouldn't have a problem with me."

"I didn't blow a whole complex down."

"Me? I disappeared like a good thief. Was that skinny Corey Hart wanna-be blew up your complex."

Logan stared him down. "What skinny Corey Hart wanna-be?"

***

Summer 1996 - Alkali Lake, AB, Canada

Steel and cement hailed down. Fire lapped at their heels.

"Here!" Remy shouted, waving at the open door.

The other boy followed, arms over his head to protect his glasses, limping on a twisted ankle. "How do you know this is the way out?" he gasped.

"I don't. I just know it's not on fi--fuck me sideways!"

His companion just gaped. Tanks of cloudy liquid stood five rows deep. Inside, barely discernable, were tiny bodies. Some tanks were lit up in yellow lights, others had reddish-brown liquid trailing through the fluid.

"Please tell me I'm not seeing this," Remy said. But the other guy had left his side, going through the tanks row by row. "What're you doing?"

"There might be some that're alive," he said.

"Then what? We pack 'em in our pockets? In case you didn't notice, this whole damned building is on fire."

"I'm not going to leave babies in a burning building!"

"They probably ain't even real--"

"Real what?!" For a nerd with a sprain, he moved fast. "Real people? Isn't that what they say about us?"

Remy couldn't find a retort to that. The other guy went back to his search. Two steps later, Remy followed. On the other side of the wall, the fire continued to rip through the hallways. Even so, the sweat on his forehead had less to do with the temperature and more with the atrocities in these tanks.

With one tank left to check, movement caught Remy's attention. He leaned closer to the glass. The thing-- the baby-- inside kicked its skinny legs. "I found one," he said, his voice raspy. So louder, he repeated, "I found one."

His companion ran to his side. "Thank God. Take your coat off."

"What? Why?"

"We're going to need something to wrap him in."

Remy knew water damage on leather meant nothing to the boy so he obediently shed the coat. The other guy climbed on top of the tank and, after studying the lid, took off his glasses. Red bolts fired from his eyes, crushing the locks off the solid metal lid. Before the baby sank to the bottom, he reached in and pulled it out.

"It's a boy," he said.

***

Fall 2006 -Salem City, NY, USA

Fist to his mouth, Remy studied the pictures of Scott Summers plastered all over the walls of the main floor study. He only smiled at the candid shots; when he posed, his face stiffened. It couldn't have been a lack of self-esteem; his shoulders were straight, his gaze (such as it was) direct, his chin never dipping down. The stiffness seemed more like impatience. This was a man who preferred to be doing something-- anything-- other than mugging for the spotlight.

"The students get the most work done here." Rogue spoke over his shoulder. "He's still watching them, making sure they stay in line."

"He was strict?"

"Yeah, sure. But not in a mean way. He had really high standards for everyone but only because he really believed we could reach them. My first day in shop class, he gave me the engine, a couple of camshafts and the handlebars from a Ninja ZX-6R and told me my entire grade rested on putting the whole bike together." She smiled, reaching up to brush specks from the glass. "I was petrified for all of five seconds. Then he told me that he could tell I absorbed everything he'd been saying in class and, if I did a good enough job, the bike was mine."

"He why you teach shop now?"

"He piqued my interest in mechanics. He couldn't get me to love trigonometry though. My second subject is English."

"You? A teacher? You can't be much older than your students."

Rogue's smile hardened. "We don't exactly have teachers ramming the doors down and I'm willing to be paid in room and board."

He let some of his charm reach out. "I didn't mean to offend. I'm just amazed; it's a big accomplishment for someone your age."

"And what age would that be, Mr. LeBeau?"

This was going to be dicey. "Twenty-two?"

"I'm twenty." Laughing at his discomfort, Rogue said, "That wasn't a fair question. I didn't mean to be one of those girls."

"One of what girls?"

"Y'know. The Cosmo-reading, Sex in the City-watching alley cats. I just couldn't resist what with you trying to make the moves on me."

"Bad habit," Remy said. "Poor self-esteem. Absent parents. Rock music. Have I covered all the reasons I'm a jackass?"

"You forgot genetic arrogance."

"That's a given, hein?"

Their circuit of the room ended at the window over-looking the basketball court. Etienne dribbled the ball with unusual clumsiness. His new classmates yelled for a pass or blocked his view. He'd played basketball before, in urban and rural settings. Etienne had always thrown his everything into the game, knowing this could be the one chance to show his skills to this particular group of contemporaries. The way they moved around, he was lucky if he played in the same court for two consecutive weeks.

"He's lucky to have you," said Rogue. "It's good for the other kids, too. They can see not all parents reject their children just because they're mutants."

Etienne lobbed the ball to his teammate, an older girl, who dribbled, faked a shot then passed it back. The play was perfect for a lay-up. Etienne took it. Together, they watched the big orange ball weeble around the rim before sinking into the basket.

"He's fitting in real well."

"He's had a lot of practice. We moved dang near once a month the past couple years. It'll probably do him good to have friends, family of sorts. I ain't a good man or a particularly brave one," said Remy. "But I'd die for that boy. 'Course, I'd whine about it a lot. Probably haunt him afterward, too."

Rogue smiled. "It's the thought that counts. Now, unless you were real precocious in middle school, you don't look old enough to be Etienne's father."

He kept from wincing by digging his nails into his palms. "That's them good genes again."

***

Spring 1996 - Hillsview, SD, USA

A gun cracked. But he wasn't dead. He was just damned close. Remy didn't even try to open his eyes. Better not to know what they were going to do with him.

Striker's cigars and Old Spice wafted near his nose. "I know you can hear me, LeBeau. And I know you're shitting your shorts, like the candy-ass you are, so I'm going to make it worse by telling you what's going to happen to you. Deadpool shot you at a specific angle through the base of your 'll live but you'll be a vegetable; you can think like you always do but you won't be able to hold your piss. If you hadn't double-crossed us, this could have ended much better but you had to pretend to be smarter than you look. Usually, we'd leave it at that but luckily for you, your DNA has some significance. You're one of the few mutants with multiple unrelated gifts. I don't know what else you can do besides activate potential kinetic energy but I want to find out.

"So this is what we're going to do: I'm going to plant a safety device in your brain, right in that hole Deadpool made for us. Then I'll give you that healing factor you wanted so badly and you're going to wake up whole. You won't heal all the time but you'll age a little slower which should appeal to your massive ego. If you try to leave before the mission's finished, I'll blow your brain up. If you try to double-cross us again, I blow your brain up. If you insult my cigars while you're working for us, I blow your brain up. But if you finish this mission and capture the Wolverine, you're free to go. I'll throw in another 5cc's of healing factor if he comes back alive.

"Do we have a contract?"

***

Fall 2006 - Salem City, NY, USA

After basketball came dinner and after dinner, a half hour more of free time before the middle-schoolers trooped upstairs for curfew. The high school students didn't have to go to bed until ten. They took over the rec room while the staff met in the headmaster's office.

Ororo didn't change any of Xavier's furniture but she made the study her own by filling it with plants. Remy swatted a hibiscus branch away as he sat down. Wolverine-- Logan-- took the biggest chair next to Ororo and Rogue beside him. The head of the high school classes, Forge, took the seat on Ororo's left leaving Betsy Braddock, the resident telepath, closest to Remy. She made his skin crawl. He didn't trust psychics.

"Logan has told us what little knew about you," said Ororo. "Our recent past keeps us from being overly trusting so while I assure you that we will give Etienne the best education we can offer and a home for as long as he needs it, I'm afraid you'll have to convince us to extend the invitation to you."

"Ain't a problem to me," Remy said. "I'd do the same in your shoes. Hell, I don't trust you half as much as you seem to be trusting me. What I know of him--" he nodded at Logan-- "he shouldn't be let near anyone within a mile unshackled."

Rogue bristled, leaving Remy to wonder exactly what her relationship was with Logan.

"If I had a choice, I wouldn't let him stay here. My gut, it says keep moving. Don't rest. The minute I rest, they find me and they find ti'Yen. I blow this whole damn school up before I let them get their sick paws on that boy again."

"We'd like to stop them before you reach that level of desperation," said Betsy.

Ororo nodded. "Sadly, we've had practice. Please continue, Mr. LeBeau. What exactly is Etienne's gift?"

He shrugged. "No idea. Don't think it's come out yet."

"Stop wasting our time, Gambit," Logan snarled. "Either you're dumping your kid on us or--"

Remy gripped the armrests on his chair. The upholstery's threads crackled with kinetic energy. "Don't you question my love for that boy. You ain't got the right. Not until you raise your own kid, you ain't got any right to assume things like that."

He felt a hand on his arm. Rogue stroked him gently, her gloves slick on the sleeves of his shirt. "Logan's just jaded," she said. "Like 'Ro said, we've seen it so often, we assume it's normal. That's wrong of us and we won't do it again." Her tone left the "right?" implied.

"It started last year after Black Tuesday," he said, calming into her touch. "I fell on the first wave, of course, and when I came to, Etienne was still out. Expected that so I just carried him back to our hotel room, let him sleep it off. When it got dark and he was still asleep, I started to worry. Was about to pack him to a hospital when he just popped straight out of bed, screaming and holding his head like he wanted to tear his scalp off."

The hairs on his arms stood as memories rushed his senses. "I never heard such crying. Went on for almost an hour before he tired himself out and someone called the cops on us. The older one was nice enough but the rookie was positive the big bad mutant had kidnapped him and was--" He shook his head. "I got out of there right quick. Next time it happened was a month later. Then two weeks after that, never any pattern until this past September. Then it started happening every night."

"What did the doctors say?" Ororo asked softly.

"You think I get anything from any doctor? With the goddamn government on my tail, my devil's eyes and a boy looks like I been dragging him 'round the house by his hair? Fuck!" He slammed a fist on his chair. "I give him cough syrup before bedtime and hope to God it takes the edge off when his headaches near split him in half 'cause the only other thing I can do, goddamn useless father that I am, is tell him that it'll go away and it'll be over soon, all the while thinking one day, it'll be true and--" His throat closed.

***

Summer 2006 - Alkali Lake, AB, Canada

Remy knew water damage on leather meant nothing to the boy so he obediently shed the coat. The other guy climbed on top of the tank and, after studying the lid, took off his glasses. Red bolts fired from his eyes, crushing the locks off the solid metal lid. Before the baby sank to the bottom, he reached in and pulled it out.

"It's a boy," he said.

"Congratulations," said Remy in a deadpan. "Now can we go?"

He nodded as he wrapped Remy's leather jacket around the wriggling infant. Something that might have been shame sliced through Remy's chest.

"I ain't the one limping. Give him to me," he said. When the guy hesitated, he let out a huff. "I ain't gonna drop him when he's wearing my jacket."

"Make sure you keep his neck steady," the other guy said.

"I know, I know, I watched ER before."

His companion cracked a grin. He looked lot younger when he wasn't grimacing in plain.

"What're you called anyway?" Remy asked.

"Me?" He shrugged. "I'm Sc... Call me Slim."

"Gambit."

"You play chess?"

"Shh, family secret. Nerds don't get girls." The continued threat of fire broke the newfound peace. Remy didn't have to turn to know it had now entered the room. "Can you see any other exits?"

"I can make one," said Slim. "Which way do you think is out?"

"There." Remy jerked his chin west.

Slim lifted his glasses. Red bolts slammed through the wall and kept going. The fire spiraled at the sudden intake of air. Tanks all around them creaked and shattered. They ran.

***

Fall 2006 - Salem City, NY, USA

Up until this moment, Remy believed the most heartbreaking sound on earth was Etienne's screams during one of his episodes. It paled next to his muffled sobs. He lifted the boy on his lap and smoothed his hair.

"Now why you looking like I made you hunker down in the train station toilet? This here's a grand old house with plenty of friends and a Playstation hooked up to a big TV. I ain't ever seen a TV that big, hein?"

Etienne clung to his shoulders. "I won't scream no more, Papa. I be real quiet. I promise. I even drink all my medicine so I keep quiet. Don't leave me here."

Ah Jesus. Ah Christ on a fucking stick. He was tearing Remy's heart out by the roots. "None of that, ti'Yen, me bebette. This ain't something you did. This is me and the bad men I used to work for. Remember I tell you about that?" At his son's small nod, he continued, "I need to get rid of the microchip in my head so they can't follow us any more. The minute that happens, I swear to you, I am back here with you and I'll never leave. Not even when you a teenager with a girlfriend and begging me to leave."

"I don't care! Don't go, please, Papa, don't leave me alone."

"I don't want to but I got to." Remy kissed the top of his head. "You know what you do for me while you're here? You learn a lot. I know you miss your books and here you got it all the time and--"

"No! I don't like it here if you ain't staying either!"

"Ah, ti'Yen!"

"NO!"

Just outside the door, Rogue paused, one eyebrow up in inquiry. Remy gestured her in. "Etienne," she said, her voice soft and sweet as chocolate. "We've started a movie in the rec room."

Etienne locked his fingers around Remy's neck. "No!"

Remy hardened his tone. "Etienne Christopher LeBeau, you know better than this. Now, have I ever broken a promise?"

He shook his head.

"So when I say I'll be back as soon as I can, you know I mean, it, hein?"

He nodded.

"Out loud now."

"Weh, Papa."

"Byen." He thumbed the tear tracks from Etienne's cheeks. He'd never been a chubby child but even his few baby features were fading now. Ten years old going on thirty most days as was needed with their kind of life but Remy wished time could stop while he took care of his business. "I love you, boy. You know that."

He drove away that night, his ears ringing with those muffled sobs.