Note: This fic contains mature content and strong language pretty much throughout.  It’s a crossover with a certain movie starring a Mr. Keanu Reeves.  This story drove me up the wall, round the bend and certifiably insane.  It turned out to be waaaay longer than I thought it would be.  Another one of those could-write-a-novel-on affairs. Ugh… I promise the next story will be shorter.

 


:: IV :: Real Love

 

“And everything and nothing is as sacred as we’d want it to be when it’s real; make it real.  Compared to what?” (Central Reservation, Beth Orton)

*     *     *     *     *


       Liquid sliver of gunmetal snaking through the darkness, a glimmer caught too late before he felt the barrel press against his temple, waking him from his stupor, filling him with that dreaded sensation, of a half-forgotten memory, or a recurring dream.

       No.

       Déjà vu.

       “To be or not to be,” she said, voice like cream liqueur in the velvet blackness. “That…is the question.” Her laugh, the texture of silk.

       He’d been here before.  He often got this feeling, this duplication of events; he got it because his brain was fucked, because he spent way too much time in cyberspace, because his past was a maze he couldn’t navigate, because he couldn’t remember anything that had happened to him before the age of fifteen.  But this was different.  This wasn’t just a blocked out memory.

       He’d been here before.

       “Dat you, Rogue?” he slurred.

       The gun withdrew, curtailing that ephemeral sense of familiarity.

       “Time was,” she began in the darkness, “you could’ve sensed me a hundred yards away.  My scent, you said.”

       “Lavender,” he agreed, sitting up and switching on the side lamp.  The light stung his frayed nerves, itching painfully at the vestiges of a raging hangover.  The motel room was cold, damp and reeked of beer.  Or was that just him? “Jesus,” he groaned, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.  Cans of Grolsch were scattered on the covers beside him.

       “You’re drunk,” she remarked.

       Non.  Fuckin’ shit ain’t real, is it.” He swiped the cans off the bed.  They clattered off the edge and onto the floor. “Although I’m tryin’, chere.  I’m tryin’ real hard.”

       She was sitting on her haunches beside him, as if she’d been watching him sleep, dressed in the usual black PVC leather, bodice, pants and a bolero, the shiny material glistening liquidly in the lamplight.  He found himself gazing at the square canvas of flesh that extended upward from the slope of her cleavage to the smooth ridge of her collarbone.  He swallowed. “Jesus,” he repeated dumbly.  She really was something.  His neighbour’s wife, to be precise.  That’s right – the one he wasn’t supposed to covet.  Dammit.

       She stood, placing the gun back inside her bolero, nonchalant.

       “Why didn’t you call?” she asked, only one green eye partially visible behind black shades.  Her voice was flat, the kind of tone that told him she was concealing what she really wanted to say.

       “Didn’t want t’ come back,” he admitted, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and eyeing her butt.  She had already crossed the room and was peering out of the window, one white hand delicately peeling back the corner of one olive curtain.

       “Magnus an’ Storm were worried about you,” she said, after a moment.

       He gave a non-committal grunt. “An’ you, chere?”

       “An’ me?” She shrugged, dropped the curtain. “Ah don’t give a shit what you do, Gambit.”

       He stood shakily, some sense of normality returning to him.  A few seconds of swaying and he was right as rain.  That was the good thing about this place.  Hangovers didn’t mean shit. “Ah,” he replied morosely to her statement, searching his pockets for his packet of Camels. Of course, why should she give a shit?  He was a lonewolf; like so many of his memories he kept on popping up like a bad card.  Over time, he’d figured it was best to keep out of everyone’s way.  Block himself off, just like he’d blocked off so much his past from private speculation. “So,” he began, finding the Camels and lighting one up after several flicks of a cheap, neon green lighter. “You come t’ get me out?”

       She was facing him again, one hand on a well-rounded hip. “In a manner of speakin’.” She paused, glared at the cigarette in disapproval, continued. “We got a mission t’ run.”

       “Fuck.”

       “Courier job, Gambit, real simple.  Pick up, drop off.” She watched as he shrugged on his black trenchcoat. “We got a time limit as well, cowboy,” she informed him. “An hour.  Sentinels are after the Blackbird.  Sixty minutes before they attack, Gambit.  Think you can handle it?”

       “Don’t sweat it, ‘sugah’,” he replied from between the Camel, checking the magazine in his PPK. “Courier job I could do in my sleep.  What I’m wonderin’ is why your other half put me on de job at all, dis here Cajun bein’ de prodigal son an’ all.”

       “Magnus needs your ‘expertise’,” she replied after a moment. “Far as Ah know, the goods could be – ah – volatile.”

       “Expertise, huh?” he smirked at her. “Only one t’ing I’m good at, chere, an’ dat’s charmin’ de panties offa femmes like yourself, non?”

       Her expression behind the shades was inscrutable.

       “In case you’ve forgotten, Gambit,” she levelled at him coolly, ignoring the comment. “You an’ Ah both happen to be spoken for.”

       As if he didn’t need reminding, he pouted.  As if it mattered.  All this was nothing more than harmless fun, harmless flirting, and this was the first time the two of them had been out on a mission together, alone, since…Well, since forever, really.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her dressed like that.  It was giving him a hard on.

       “So?” He shrugged. “You’re spoken for an’ I’m spoken for.  What’s de big deal?  Storm an’ I, we ain’t nothin’ serious, jus’ havin’ a bit of fun.  An’ Magnus… Well, ever since I saved his ass back in Tokyo dat day, he owes me one, know what I’m sayin’?  It’s not like any of dis is real anyhow.”

      “Intentions, Gambit,” she reminded him dryly, tapping her forehead. “It’s what goes on in your mind that’s more real than anythin’.  An’ it’s our desires that make us most human.”

       Mais oui,” he agreed, sidling up to her, tracing the ridge of her bodice suggestively with a finger, his nail lightly grazing the slope of her breast. “An’ what I ‘desire’ right now is one kiss from you, p’tit.  Where’s de harm in dat?  S’not like I’m gonna keel over an’ die now, is it?”

       She batted his hand away, her mouth suddenly hard.

       “Ah ain’t here to kiss yah sorry ass.  Ah’m here t’ take you back.” She spun on her heel, brushed past him towards the door. “Now we’d best get movin’, sugah.  We don’t make the sixty minutes, we get stranded here.  Permanently.


       The ‘goods’ turned out to be 5’10”, 142 pounds, and a redhead.  Her name was Mystique.  At least that’s what she called herself – not that names really mattered.

       She was one of the oldest sentient programs ever created, a prototype for the Agents, a shapeshifter.  She was a curious artefact; her existence now all but redundant, she was a cast-away, something extravagant and Roman.  To escape the monotony of a life spent running from inevitable deletion, she would relieve her frustrations by becoming others, by slithering through a plethora of lives with the reptilian precision of the serpent; only to crawl out again, hideous, amorphous, a non-entity as nameless and faceless as a clockwork puppet.

       Mystique was violent, capricious, schizophrenic – and that made her more human than her makers deemed necessary.  She’d lived too many lives to be one coherent, integrated whole.  She was a creature of gestalt, a nine-headed hydra, as malleable and protean as molten lava.

       Gambit had played with her before, and he didn’t trust her.  But then, very few did.

      

       Twenty minutes into the mission and they’d found her living in a decrepit mansion on what used to be the posh side of town; 1407 Graymalkin Lane.  She’d once been married to a Baron, she said, back when her life had had some meaning, some purpose.  Now she sat in a chair of faded, burgundy leather, legs crossed like a man, one foot resting on her knee, jerking backwards and forwards in an oddly mesmerising nervous tic.  One hand calmly held an ancient .22 Walther in their direction.

       “Now let’s get one thing straight,” she told them conversationally, pleasantly.  She was beautiful, her face all sharp contours and hard angles, glacial, Arctic.  She had the watchful calm of an insect. “I ain’t your fucking goods.” Her free hand opened the side of her black leather bomber jacket, giving them a view of the veritable arsenal of guns and ammunition she had inside. “This is business for me as much as it is for you.  You pick me up, you drop me off at the safehouse and I won’t give you any trouble.” She closed the coat again, smiled. “Bastards have been searching for me for days now,” she continued by way of explanation. “Can’t be too careful.”

       She gave Gambit a marked look; old acquaintances renewed in that one glance.  No, he thought, not volatile; but definitely dangerous.  When Mystique struck, she struck with lightning speed, with composed venom, so as to be motionless, soundless.  The fire in her burnt cold; she had all the soul of chrome circuitry.  She was the machine world’s quintessential black widow.

      

       The mansion was a sprawl of halls and passageways and antechambers whose old world familiarity tickled the nape of his neck with a crawling paranoia he longed to itch.  Rogue was scouting out ahead; she liked to do that, she sniffed out trouble like a bloodhound.  He, on the other hand, took it as it came.  That’s why he was left trailing behind through the crumbling corridors with the goods.  Once, about a year ago, she’d poached him in Tokyo, introducing herself as Raven Darkholme.  They’d spent the best part of one week together, drawn to one another by the fact that both knew, instinctively, that the other was not what they seemed.  Professional curiosity, she called it.  He’d deemed her psychotic enough to be insensitive to the inner machinations of the criminal underworld.  Bad mistake.  By the time he’d worked out what she really was, she’d used him, appealing to his inherent sense of kleptomania, partnering up with him for some big heist before leaving him in the none too capable hands of the Yakuza.  Storm had come to the rescue.  Rogue, like she’d said, hadn’t given a shit.

       She’d told him it was his fault he’d allowed himself to be done over by a pretty face, but he’d refused to believe it, because Mystique was a machine, and machines weren’t women.  Nevertheless, as she’d sat there on that leather seat and parodied the posture of a man, there had been something about her, something wily and feminine.  He’d known then, from the very moment he’d walked in and seen her face, that last year’s ‘business’ had been far from concluded.  And, judging by the way she was walking beside him now, smug strut and all, she knew it too.  Well, fine.  If that’s the way she wanted to play it, he was only too happy to compromise.

       Once Rogue was out of earshot, Gambit grasped her by the collar and thrust her back out of sight against a marble pillar. 

       “I don’t trust you, ‘Raven’,” he seethed, jamming the PPK against her ribs.

       Quid pro quo, bro.” She was smiling; calm, remorseless. “I don’t trust you.”

       He growled, jabbing her roughly with the barrel of the gun so that she hissed.

       “So de machines are huntin’ you, eh?” His finger involuntarily caressed the trigger. “How much you wanna bet I could do their job for them, right here an’ now?  Been itchin’ for some payback, Mystique.  D’you know the Yaks like to break fingers?  Lucky for me dis place ain’t real, huh?  Means my fingers still get t’ pull dis trigger.”

       “You won’t kill me.” She grinned, a mirthless, toothy, canine grin. “I know what you want.  I can even give it to you.” The lines of her face submerged, rearranged, resurfaced; latex quicksilver.  In the blink of an eye Mystique had disappeared, features displaced.  He gaped.  Rogue’s face.  Even down to the small mole on her left cheek.  Only the smile wasn’t hers – the upturn of the lips stretching into Mystique’s sly, conniving grin. “Rogue, the untouchable,” she cooed. “Do you know you used to talk about her in your sleep?” She gave an insane chuckle, Rogue’s laugh, a perverse parody. “You ever fucked her, Gambit?  You know what it’s like to be inside her?”

       Then the smile was gone, and the face was Rogue’s, all Rogue’s; the plaintive mouth, the beseeching, green-eyed gaze, unassuming seductiveness, the face he imagined she must have worn in her old life, the life he had never touched.

       “Ah’m here, Gambit,” she taunted him quietly, so quietly her voice seemed to tremble – and it was her voice, every inflection perfectly pitched, music poison in his veins, the voice she used when she came to him, warm and willing, in all his dreams.  His pulse quickened.  So real, so goddamn real… One small, soft hand climbing his chest, eerie, spider-like; the imprint of five, warm, insinuating fingers upon his chest. “Touch me.” She gripped his shirt, pulled him closer. “Kiss me.”

       Rogue’s breath.  He hesitated, knowing she was false, his senses perplexed, telling him otherwise.  Her hand was on his collarbone, crossing the neckline of textured nylon and onto his skin, fingers trailing the column of his neck, making him shudder.  Dieu.  Rogue’s breath.  Rogue’s breath on his lips, the heat of her skin on his, Rogue’s tongue flicking, snake-like, against his mouth, her body, lithe, lissom, all the curvaceous contours he’d mapped out with hands and mouth in fevered imagination, pressing against him, delicious contact, cracking open the memory of their first kiss…

       His eyes snapped open.  No, no, no!  Not true!  They’d never kissed – there was no such memory.  It was false, all lies!  Anger, desolation, raw bitterness burst through his sudden bewilderment, and he grasped the woman by the hand, throwing her to the floor, whipping out the gun in her direction as she rolled over onto her back, grinning wildly, her own gun flashing out to mirror his.  That insane grin, marring Rogue’s lips.  He seethed.  She was still wearing Rogue’s face, taunting him, goading him to make his move.

       “I got your number, ‘Raven’,” he growled, trying to hold the guttering image down.  Memory of her lips, her mouth… “You don’t take her face off right now, I’ll…”

       She giggled, training the barrel of the gun over his heart, licking her lips.

       “Maybe Ah could delete you, sugah, before you delete me.  Wanna see how fast Ah can shoot?” She spread her legs, touched herself obscenely over the leather pants. “Or why don’t we make it, right here, right now?  Maybe she could join us.  Y’ think she likes to do girls, Gambit?”

       Something flamed in him, rage, confusion; a memory he knew wasn’t real had been splintered open, the fissure scoring through his mind… The non-Rogue’s face was looking up at him, mocking him, jeering him, seducing him…  The flame spurted.  He cocked the hammer back.

       “GET HER FACE OFF, YOU BITCH, OR I’LL FUCKIN’ SHOOT YOUR GODDAMN BRAINS OUT!”

       The words reverberated down the corridor, jarring his head, closing up the wound in his mind, the false memory of a kiss.  The flame died, withered in on itself, back into the small, burning coal in the pit of his stomach.  No; in his heart.  His hand trembled in the aftermath.  He couldn’t keep the barrel on her forehead; it danced all over that beautiful, familiar face so that he thought he was drunk on the onslaught of sudden sensation and recollection.

       “Gambit.” It was Rogue, the real Rogue, wading through the shadows of the corridor to stand behind her doppelganger, voice calm, even. “Put the gun away,” she ordered. Pure, unadulterated Rogue.  He took in a shuddering breath, lowered the gun.  When he raised his eyes to hers, he saw himself reflected twice in the dim light playing off her shades. “What the hell are you doin’?” she asked him coldly.

       He couldn’t answer.  The flame had exploded so intensely that it had incinerated his faculty of speech.  There was a knot in his throat.  The doppelganger got to her feet, gazed on him with narrowed eyes.  Mystique’s face.

       “He’s crazy,” she addressed Rogue, brushing herself down with one, broad sweep of the hands.

       Rogue passed him a questioning look over Mystique’s shoulder, but he dared say nothing.  She sighed, shook her head and swung round.  The corridor framed her, a tunnel on into seeming infinity.

       “We don’t have time for this shit,” she said. “Let’s move.”

      Mystique followed, looking back at him over her shoulder, once.  As the shadows slid over her face, he caught the eyes, the nose, the mouth of Rogue, rippling over her features one after another in fluid succession.  Silently, and with a leering wink, she blew him a lingering kiss, before turning away once more.


       Forty minutes.

       Forty minutes and counting, and they’d just dropped Mystique off at the safehouse.  Now Rogue sat in the passenger seat of the car, face upturned towards the open window, sensing the premonition of rain from thick, concrete-coloured skies.  At the wheel, Gambit was still mulling over the episode in the mansion.  Mystique’s words, before they’d left her.  Know something, Gambit?  You spend too much time jacked in.  You even smell of fucking grease.  Something you’re trying to run from, Gambit?  Something you’re trying to hide?

       He turned a corner, burning rubber, teeth gritted violently.  Should’ve killed the bitch, he thought.  Should’ve taken her fuckin’ brains out…

       “What’d she say t’ you?” Rogue asked, out of the blue.  He said nothing, only clenched his teeth tighter.  His jaw ached.  What Mystique had pulled back in the mansion had unsettled him, disturbed him more than the time he had first seen the fields, or the deserts of the Real – but he couldn’t say why.  That vague, resurfaced memory had left a bitterness on his tongue, a nagging persistence in his mind he couldn’t pin down.  Recollection of Rogue’s kiss, heated passion in her embrace…  He shook his head.  Had to be false.  Just like all the other memories he had.

       “Okay,” Rogue said wearily, resignation in her tone. “Okay.” After that she ignored him.

       He expelled a pent up breath, glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard.  20:28.  That left… Eighteen minutes.  Eighteen minutes left alone with her.

       Rogue picked up her cellphone, began dialling.  He found himself brooding absently on Mystique’s words again, on the replica of Rogue’s face with its insidious smile, her rough tongue on his lips, lustful, languid.  The small coal inside him flamed, faded.  When he got back, he’d need a stiff drink.  And a cold shower.  Mystique, the déjà vu, the false memory… Too much weird shit for one day.  He glanced back at the clock.  20:30.  Not much time left.  Depending on where the exit was, they’d be cutting it fine.  Beside him, tiredness was radiating from Rogue’s pores like a cold sweat; he’d pissed her off, and she wanted to get back.  Him, all he wanted was the thing sitting right next to him.  The pale contours of that beautiful face between his hands, the delicate recollection of touch.  Face it, Cajun, he thought bitterly, you jus’ sore ‘cos she wouldn’t level out the score.  De femme’s taken, and dis was your only chance to be goin’ somewhere wit’ her.  Even if it wasn’t gonna last an hour.  Is it too much to ask for?  Just a few stolen minutes of make-believe?

       Beside him, Rogue spoke into the phone, that lazy and voluptuous Southern drawl, the soundtrack to most of his sleepless nights.

       “Forge?  Yeah, we’re closed.  Slim’s team will take care of her when she gets out.  Plain sailin’ from here on in, sugah.  Listen, think you can set us up an exit?  Somewhere close, we’re cuttin’ it fine.  Okay, got it.  Tell Magnus Ah’ll be back in ten.”

       Gambit frowned at the name.  Magnus.  The neighbour whose wife he wasn’t supposed to covet.  It was one of the first rules for any man who wanted a sane life, and the amount of times he’d broken it and got away with it, he reckoned he could’ve made it with her.  No.  Their first meeting had passed through the both of them like a jolt of electricity, but she’d always fended him off with almost brutal determination.  It’d all come to a head that night, that night that had not quite yet joined the daze that the rest of his life had become.  Him, dragging Magnus’ half dead ass back from that kamikaze mission back in old Tokyo, himself in need of fifteen stitches to a cracked skull and with one rib sticking into his left lung.  It was Magnus’ face she had cradled, Magnus’ lips she had kissed.  Magnus’ bed that she had sat beside, hour after goddamn hour, not eating, not sleeping.  He hadn’t seen her for weeks.

       After that he’d jacked in so fucking much he couldn’t tell what was real anymore.

       His hand gripped the wheel, knuckles white.  Back then, he’d spent six days in virtual Kabuki-chou, screwing virtual whores in twisted revenge before he’d realised that she didn’t even care.  It had been Storm that had called him up, telling him he’d starve to death, demanding that he come back.  He’d returned, but only because by that time he’d lost all sense of anything.  Numbness.  A black hole.  He took a corner, tires squealing in protest.  And yet still he couldn’t bear to cut his losses and run.  He was still so madly in love he would’ve been willing for just one minute shared with her, right there and then, even if not a single second of it was real.

       “Gambit?”

       Her voice broke into his train of thought, and he found himself staring out onto the road, racing the powerlines up into a murky, looming sunset, dense clouds gathered like thickly daubed paint upon an open canvas.

       “You okay?” she asked again.  Real concern.

       “I’m jus’ fine, chere,” he replied, tight-lipped, eyes on the road.

       She sighed, turned away.  Then said: “You need to take a right here.  Forge got us an exit.  That club they built on the old warehouse.”

       Ah, yes.  That, he remembered, with oblique clarity.  One dingy little room, techno, cheap booze and even cheaper women.  How could he forget?  The memories left a stale taste in his mouth, a sour thickness.  He wondered, fleetingly, what she’d used to do in her former life.

       Funny.  Three years and so much of her remained a mystery.

      

       20:36.

       The club was pounding sweat and hormones, sleek and shimmering with gunshot metal, PVC, leather.  So early in the night and already that single, dingy little room thrummed with the twisting, gyrating bodies; the tidal wave of teenage delinquency crashing in on a crest of pheromones – no pretence at romance.  The room was a clarion call, a discarded memo of the dirty, tawdry little things he could never get back; slick skin, the tang of liquor mixed with sweat, a certain rotation of the hips no one seemed to be able to master back in the real world.  Back there, dancing was more like tribal warfare.  Here, it was an art.  Not an especially refined or accomplished one – but it took a certain finesse, an ambidexterity that came instinctively with the underworld and all its shady inhabitants.  Pushing their way through the surging bodies, he felt the aching frustration that had been building in him the past forty minutes work itself into something of an inner frenzy.  The memories this place threatened to conjure up – overload.  Just too damn much. 

       In front of him, Rogue waded, seemingly impassive to everything about her.  She had the artfulness of a dolphin, the way she swam past those grinding hips.  Elegance.  Grace.  Flowed through the human architecture like water, body twisting, back arching, buttocks swivelling.  Weaving.  In, out, in, out.

       He must’ve made contact with twenty half-naked girls by the time they’d reached the other end of the room, but he’d hardly noticed at all. 

      

       He followed her into the back room, shut the door quietly behind him, switched the light on.  It buzzed into sickly, olive-hued life.  Few broken chairs, an ancient stereo-system, the metal scaffolding of a discarded bedstead.  Musty odour of uninhabitation.  The phone sat squatly on a table at one end of the room.  Black, old-fashioned, with a clock-faced dial.  He held his breath, vaguely remembering the numbers 2,0, 3, 6.

       He caught her before she could reach the phone, arms encircling her waist, his blood pounding to the staccato rhythm of the techno as his arousal pressed into the small of her back.  She exhaled sharply, arching against him with primal instinct, baring the angle of her neck to him, white against black.  He leaned in, kissing her there feverishly, catching the faint acridity of sweat, the subtle, off-purple shades of lavender.  Dieu, she smelled so real.  So damn real. 

       She moaned softly at the contact, emboldening him, spurring him on further than he had intended.  One hand moved to capture her breast, unyielding through the smooth, inflexible PVC.  It was a move too far.  She twisted away from him, wheeling round, placing one hand warningly against his chest, holding him back.

       “Are you out of your fuckin’ mind?” she seethed.

       “Only if you’re gonna keep holdin’ out from me, Rogue,” he answered breathlessly, desperation edging into his voice.  She heard it.  It only made her more angry.

       “You fuckin’ son-of-a-bitch, this ain’t about me, is it?  You know they can see us back on the ship.  You tryin’ t’ call Magnus out or somethin’?”

       “Dis ain’t b’tween me and Mags, Rogue,” he insisted. “It’s b’tween you an’ me, always has been.  Mags don’t figure into any of dis.”

       She pushed him back once, fiercely, fire in her eyes.

       “Magnus is mah husband!  Ah think he figures into this a whole damn lot, you bastard!  Don’t you dare touch me like that again or Ah’ll cap you, y’ hear me!”

       She whirled round but he caught her hand, pulling her roughly into his arms.  She struggled violently, but he only clasped her all the tighter.  After a moment she gave in, the length of her body trembling against his.

       “Why won’t you let go?” she whimpered into his chest.

       “B’cause we got somethin’, Rogue,” he murmured into her hair. “An’ we both knew it was a good thing, from the very beginnin’.  Tell me how t’ let go of it the way you have an’ I will.” She did not answer, but the trembling in her body stopped.  Her arms hung limply by her side.  So, he thought.  She hasn’t let go either. “Listen, Rogue,” he began, “you swear t’ me there’s nothin’ b’tween us, I’ll believe you; it’s over.  Just let me hold you ‘till dat phone rings.  I ain’t never gonna have another chance wit’ you, chere.  Just until dat phone rings.”

       The phone rang.  She stirred, but lingered a split second too long, just one split second, enough to make all the difference.  Then she expelled a long, quivering breath, pulled away from him, picked up the handset and placed it against her ear.

       Nothing happened.

       She slammed the handset down again, face ashen.

       “What?” he asked.

       “The line went dead.”

       “Shit,” he cursed under his breath.

       “The Sentinels must’ve got t’ the ship.” She halted, lifted a hand to her mouth. “Oh God…”

       He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

       “S’okay, chere.  We’re still here.  Dat means dat… …”

       The tidal wave of pain that hit him was as intense as the recollection of that kiss they had shared, every stark second of their embrace suddenly shattering through the wall of enforced dream and into suppressed, but very real memory.  It caught him in a tailwind, sparking in his solar plexus and then radiating outward, dragging him under with climatic brutality so that he wasn’t even able to discern whether it was the pain or the memory that he felt, pain or pleasure.

       He heard her call his name once, the way she had done that day, before he was tugged away, helpless, by the tide.


       Somewhere in the darkness, the weight of the recollection swam up to the surface from the place where the pain had embedded itself deep inside the core of his thrumming body, the memory he’d denied and disowned.

       Him, back in her room, sitting at the table, finger absently rolling a matchstick back and forth across smooth steel; her, walking across the room to fetch him a drink; nameless, synthetic alcohol with the pungency of tank fuel.  Idle chitchat punctuated by too much silence.  Furtive stares.  Funny – she walked the same way in the real world as she did here – that sway of the hips, artfully seductive, feline.  Her, telling him Magnus would be coming back soon, placing the drink on the table; baleful thud, the pretext ended.  Him, taking the cue, drawing her into his lap, kissing her fiercely, her mouth responding with all the lust and passion she had hidden away for so long.

       The thrill of transgression, and something more.  She cradled his head in her hands, lips on his forehead, saying his name, yearning, wistful.  Breath quivering as she tried not to say it.  As she tried not to give her heart away when it already belonged to another.

       Three little words, trembling, tumbling, breaking the barrier; no return.

       Magnus’ face framed by the doorway, ashen, aghast.

      

       And then, the memory drowned.


       The first thing he caught was her scent. The lingering fragrance of her skin, permeating the heavy, ponderous odour of moisture on the air, the promise of rain.  Then the warmth of her body, the dark outline of her shape beside him, the sensation of her hand, touching his cheek.  For a moment he was confused.  There was an odd symmetry between the memory and electronic reality – neither of it grounded in anything more substantial than neural patterns and brainwaves.  The only thing that seemed real and tangible was the pain.  It had localised in his abdomen, a white-hot flame that played havoc with his senses, sending the two dichotomies of past and present into explosive collision.

       “Gambit?  Gambit, you’re okay,” he heard her say.  Consternation.  Relief.  Bitter cocktail.  He didn’t care.  Her voice.  She splashed water in his face.  Evian, some such shit.  It didn’t matter.  All the same.  Immaterial. “Damn you, cowboy, tell me you’re okay.”

       “I get it,” he muttered, delirious.  He could swear he could still taste her lips. “I get it.  Magnus saw us.  Dat’s why he went nearly got hisself killed.  Bastard saw us.”

       He opened an eye, feeling intoxicated with pain.  Her face was white, deathly white.  What, he thought.  Somethin’ I said?

       “Tell me you’re okay,” she repeated after a moment, with forced composure.

       “Hah,” he croaked. “Feel like I got skewered by a pole.”

       She hissed. “Shit.”

       Sensory systems, coming back online.  Her face, jaundiced under the green-hued light of some street lamp.  He was lying propped up against a wall, her coat rolled underneath his neck.  He caught the tickling sensation of water droplets coursing down his cheekbones.  It made him want to laugh deliriously.

       “Listen,” she began slowly, enunciating every word with a calm, temperate clarity. “Somethin’ must’ve happened t’ the Blackbird.  Sentinels, crash, virus – shit, Ah don’t know.  Bottom line is, we’re still here.  Dialled up Forge, no response.  Either the others have been kayoed, or they’ve croaked.  Called the emergency hotline.  They’re sending one of our boys down for us.  Twenty minutes, they said.” She glanced at her watch. “That leaves us five.” She paused, her smile taut.  The words had come out like a mantra, an exercise in self-control.  She touched his cheek briefly, tenderly. “You’re gonna be okay, sugah.  Just hold on in there.  Remember, the pain ain’t real.  It belongs to the meat.  An’ the meat ain’t here.  Only your mind.”

       He took her advice, finding himself lucid enough to steady his breathing, to concentrate on dulling the gruelling agony in his abdomen.  It worked.  After a few minutes, the stabbing pain subsided into a throbbing numbness.

       “You okay?” he managed to ask at last, as she helped lay him out on the floor, shifting her coat to pillow his head.  She grimaced.

       “Ah’m just fine, sugah.  Looks like whatever got you didn’t get me.”

       She took the bottle of Evian, held it to his lips.  Her movements were measured, efficient, mechanical almost.  He sensed she’d gone into automaton.  It was her way of dealing with the gnawing persistence in both their guts.  What had happened to their crew?  And why were they still alive?  Storm.  For some reason, he thought of Storm.

       “Dat shit ain’t real,” he protested weakly as she tilted the bottle, letting the water run into his mouth and mostly down his chin.

       “Shut up an’ drink,” she ordered, business-like. “It’ll help you focus.”

       He obeyed.

       He was still chugging down water four minutes later when they heard footsteps approaching.  Rogue stood, silent as a panther, whipped the gun from her belt and pointed it in the direction of the sound, arm straight and taut as machinery.  Moments later the disembodied footfalls stepped out of the shadows and into the ring of crackling lamplight.  Short man, stocky, muscles built like bricks – no amount of blowing was going to bring this little piggy’s house over.  A thick mat of dark hair sprung out from under the short sleeves of his tight black nylon shirt and over onto his exposed arms, arms the thickness of tree trunks.  An antique Stetson graced his head; a cigar was stuck in the grimace that was his mouth.

       “Y’can put the piece away, lady,” he growled between his teeth, eyeing her with only passing interest. “I’m the cavalry.”

       Rogue dropped her arm, exhaling silently.  Relief was playing across her mouth but she managed to hide it.

       “Ah could smell the cigar smoke,” she explained, sniffing. “Thought you were a civ.  Didn’t know one of our own would be into nixons.”

       The short man grinned. “Cheap, nasty and totally ineffective they may be, but you can’t beat the taste.” He paused, looked down at Gambit lying on the floor. “Ain’t that right, pup?”

       “Nice t’ see you too, Logan,” he slurred sarcastically.

       Rogue placed the gun back in its holster. “You know each other?”

       “Sure,” Gambit shrugged. Something seemed to have happened to him; the memories were becoming less and less hazy.  It was disconcerting.  So much running; he didn’t want it all to come back now.  “Five years ago,” he told her, “Las Vegas, was pullin’ a heist, big con game, easy money.  Wolverine, contact name Logan; put me in touch with the head honcho, the ‘X’ man.” He stopped on a sudden stab of incandescent pain, held it down with a spluttering cough. “Bald dude, friend o’ Magnus.  Went back all de way t’ ‘Nam – like dat ever happened.  Naturally I’d heard de word on de street, was curious.  Bastard here asked me whether I wanted to know.  Like a fool, I said yes.  Shouldn’t’ve trusted a man who was one of the first t’ be unplugged, someone who likes the taste of RAM so fuckin’ much he has to be intravenously fed through a drip, ‘cos he’s jacked in so fuckin’ much his brain’s more machine than human.”

       “You done yet?” Logan asked him calmly.

       “No I’m not fuckin’ done yet, it’s your fuckin’ fault I’m still not plugged into fuckin’ cyberspace!” he raged, ending on a groan of pain and twisting onto his side, clutching onto his stomach.  Rogue got to her knees beside him, cradled his head. “Meat,” she reminded him softly, then looked up at Logan. “What news on the Blackbird?”

       Logan chewed on the cigar a brief moment before taking it out of his mouth. “Sorry kid.  The Blackbird went down.  Got into a scrap with Sentinels and managed to shake ‘em off, but it looks like Cable wasn’t the pilot we all thought he was.  Crashed.  Forge managed to send out a signal just before they went down.  Wreckage down some shafts in old Hong Kong.  Got a rescue team headin’ your way as we speak.” He grinned, skeletal-like. “Guess you two were the only ones to survive.  Now ain’t that a lucky break?  You should be thankin’ the man upstairs, or whoever the fuck it is that created this sorry excuse for an existence.”

       “Lucky, my fuckin’ ass,” Gambit muttered hoarsely, rolling onto his back.  Rogue was clutching onto his bicep roughly, her nails digging through the nylon fabric, her knuckles white.  She shuddered, hiccupped.  Two big tears slid off her cheeks and onto his chest.  Crying.  Rogue was crying.  Had to be a first.

       “Aw, p’tit, don’t cry now,” he begged breathlessly, unlatching her hand from his arm and grasping it with his own.  With her resolve gone he suddenly felt lost. “Please don’t cry now, baby…”

       She pressed his palm against her cheek and wept silently, so that she might not have been crying at all, if he hadn’t felt the moisture of her tears gather between his fingers.  He swallowed hard, fighting the dull throb that the pain in his abdomen had now become.

       “What now?” he asked Logan softly, looking over his shoulder, cupping her cheek.

       “Here’s the deal,” the older man replied stoically, leaning in.  He’d long ago given up beating round the proverbial bush. “I take you two to a safehouse.  You stay there and don’t move your asses a fuckin’ inch, y’ hear me?  All you two gotta do is wait for the phone t’ ring, okay?  Call’ll be your ticket outta here.”

       “How long?” Gambit persisted grimly. “Whatever’s happened to me, most likely I’m bleedin’ out an’ in serious need of attention, know what I’m sayin’?  I might not make it.”

       Rogue dropped his hand, said nothing.

       “We’re workin’ as fast as we can, bub, believe me,” Logan answered, face contorted into something that resembled sympathy. “This ain’t the first time we’ve done this.” His eyes went hard as he rose and placed the cigar back in his mouth. “And so help us God, it won’t be the last.”


       Fresh pain clamped in on his muscles like a red-hot vice as he staggered to the waiting car, and he’d passed out by the time they’d bundled him in.  When he awoke again, he was lying on the wide, floral-printed expanse of some king-sized bed, in a room that reminded him of a hotel he’d once stayed in back in Paris.  Magnolia walls and plain, oak-hewn furniture.  Gaudy prints.  Old world.  European.  It was weird, all too weird.  He felt as if he’d slept only to wake up five years before.  The air smelt of something familiar from his old life – white musk, the feminine fragrance lingering on the atmosphere like an intense and voluptuous memory.  He remembered, involuntarily.  Skinny girl, freckles, black hair, in the back of a car; Lafayette, September.  Rain.  Rain.

       He rebelled against the memory, fighting back the sour edge of vomit in his throat.  Don’t want to remember.  Don’t want to face it.  Don’t want it all to come back.

      

       Rogue was standing, framed by the open window, her back to him, hair slicked back, baring the sinuous nape of her neck, loose strands brushing her skin faintly in the breeze.  Outside, all he could see was sky, a thick, viscous grey.  Drops of rain shuttled intermittently past the window and down to the ground, destination unknown.  The air was moist, almost chilly.  She was hugging herself tight, looking, thinking.  Whatever she saw, whatever she thought, it was all as much a mystery to him as everything else about her was, except for the taste of her mouth on his own.

       “He saw us, didn’t he,” he rasped in her direction.  She half-started, dropped her hands to her sides, turned to face him.  There were dark rings round her eyes.  However long he had slept, she hadn’t succumbed at all, not for a moment.

       “Who?” she asked, flat.

       “Magnus.” He stopped, a spasm of pain jolting through his nerves.  She said nothing and he looked up at the ceiling, avoiding her gaze as he continued, no perturbation with the truth. “Remember when I caught up wit’ him in Shinjuku.  Dat wasn’t no kamikaze mission he was on.  Bastard was just takin’ time out.  Started beatin’ on me an’ I took it.  Guess I felt I kinda deserved it, y’know?  Told me he wasn’t goin’ t’ let you get hurt by a good-for-nothin’ joeboy like me.  I told him I’d never hurt you, dat I couldn’t b’cause I…” He halted, unable to say it.  She didn’t push him, and he continued after a breath. “He got pissed, real pissed, told me he knew I was tryin’ t’ screw you over, dat I’d been tryin’ t’ screw you over since de first day we met, dat I wasn’t capable of…” Pause. “Well, anyhow, dat’s when I lost it.  Gave back as good as I got, beat him good an’ true.  Jesus H. Christ, we nearly killed each other.  Afterwards though…never spoke ‘bout it again.  By den, you’d already made your choice.” He closed his eyes, stars bursting behind his eyelids. “I woulda let go den, if you hadn’t kept on givin’ me a reason t’ carry on.”

       She moved to sit beside him on the bed.  She was quiet a long while.

       “It took you eighteen months to remember all that?” she mused at last.  There was incredulity, sorrow in her voice.

       “No shit,” he muttered.  Her mouth jerked, one corner curving upward, crescent-like.

       “You jacked in too much,” she replied, studying the pattern of his hand on the duvet. “Thing’s like a drug, fries your synapses if you go it too long.  Logan, when he comes out, he’s gonna be a fuckin’ zombie.” She paused, eyes moving to his again, a bitter smile on her face. “Cable thought you’d lost it, told Magnus we should have you certified.  But Magnus wouldn’t let you go.  Said you were dynamite jacked in, that we needed you.  Guess he was feelin’ kinda guilty too.” She looked away, the muscles in her throat tightening.

       “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.  She glared at him then, eyes blazing green fire.
       “What the fuck do you care ‘bout Magnus?” she spat sharply, suddenly angry. “You two, the both of you, you were like boys with toys, fightin’ over somethin’ neither of you could have!  You, mah body, and him, mah…” She halted, almost choking on the word she’d almost allowed to escape.  He knew then.  He knew how it was.  It wasn’t over.  It never had been.  That small, red-hot coal inside him burned.

       “So I didn’t like de guy,” he finally admitted quietly, reaching for her hand; she didn’t resist. “But dis…” He paused, drew in a laboured breath. “He loved you, p’tit.  He made you happy, an’ I only gave you grief.  I didn’t want t’ hurt de two of you, I just… Goddammit, Rogue, don’ make me say it…”

       She turned away from him, shoulders quivering; the sculpted shoulder blades above the black line of the PVC shuddered involuntarily.

       “You don’t understand,” she said, voice muffled.

       “I understand enough,” he said.

       She turned then, buried her head in his chest and sobbed.  After a long while, the rhythm of her sobs lulled him into a delicious daze, and he fell asleep.

      

       He awoke again to razor-sharp agony, screaming into the night, feeling the very fabric of his nerves rupturing under an incision of pain that was molecule-fine in its precision.  As if his body was unravelling.  In a trice she was beside him in the darkness, her fingers touching his bare chest, his shoulder, his face, finding him.

       “It ain’t real,” she spoke urgently, breathless as he thrashed beneath her. “This ain’t your body, only your mind.  The pain ain’t real!”

       She repeated the mantra over and over, until he began to hear her through the buzzing crescendo in his ears.  He rolled sideways, quaking, sweating, curling himself up tight into a ball, falling into the lullaby of her voice, whimpering into the pillow, feeling for the pinpoint of pain and trying desperately to hold it down.  The world swam inside that pulsating, nauseating, green expanse.  Oh God.  Can’t focus anymore.  Can’t separate.  Can’t do it…

       Rogue had been right.  He’d been jacked in way too much.  Not enough time in his real body.  Not enough time to get used to real pain.  He just couldn’t fucking separate.  The green expanse tunnelled as he succumbed to the agony, a rotating chamber from which he could not escape.  Yellow pinpricks stabbed the back of his eyes, burning his retina.  Then red.  Swarm of lights, green, yellow, red.  Green, yellow.  Red.

       “I’m dyin’, Rogue,” he gasped, closing his eyes, opening them, feeling the world spin. “I’m gonna die.”

       “You ain’t gonna die,” she told him, firm, calm. “You’ve got t’ focus.  Focus an’ you’ll be fine.”

       She rolled him back over onto his back, passed a hand over his cool, clammy forehead.  Her touch was insubstantial as smoke, the impression of her fingers barely human – something ethereal and frightening.  He felt as if her touch had drained him dry.

       “I’m dyin’,” he moaned, closing his eyes again, feeling his head swim with the premonition of blissful release. “Dieu, Rogue, let me die…”

       She slapped him once across the face, hard.  His eyes snapped open, pupils dilated.  He caught the scent of her, shower gel.  Her hair, brushing his face.  Her breath on him.  Her hands on his shoulders, one end of a tug of war he could feel but dreaded to name.  Death.

       “No, no, no, no!” she wailed. “Don’t you dare fuckin’ die on me, asshole!  You die on me, Ah ain’t got no one left!  No one!  Y’hear me!  Ah’ve already lost Magnus!  Ah ain’t gonna lose you!  Y’hear me, Gambit?  No way in hell I’m gonna let you go!”

       “Fuck you, Rogue,” he drawled, closing his eyes again, breath coming sharp, staccato. “Let me go…”

       She shook him then, wildly, but he couldn’t open his eyes.  He felt her nails tear into his shoulders, the brutal savagery of her fingers as she shook him with unrestrained violence, clinging on, talons hooking him in, reeling him back.

       “No!” she screeched somewhere in the background. “No, Ah can’t!  Ah’m your reason, goddammit!  Yah told me Ah was your reason…!  Please don’t leave me, Gambit!  Please!”

       Sobbing.  Damn woman was crying again.  All those tears stored up inside of her, it had to have been the first time she’d let them out in years.  They weren’t real.  But they were for him.  For him.

       And then abruptly, the agony wracking his body dwindled into a blazing streak that centred down in the pit of his stomach.  Excruciating, but bearable.  Just about.  He opened one eye, then another.  Something was wrong.  Really wrong.  The fissure inside him was splintering under the agony, the flow of memories heaving behind the dam he’d created to block it all off.  He could feel it, churning beneath the tight vortex of pain in his stomach.  The burning lump of coal in his heart, about to implode in on itself.  He was going to remember.  He desperately held the tide back.

       “Rogue.” He needed her help, more than he ever had done.  He reached for her, finding her arms, clutching them.  The sobbing stopped.  He felt her, vaguely, hovering somewhere above him.

       “Ah’m here, cowboy,” she returned shakily. “Right here.  Focus, sugah.  You can do it.  Your mind’s free of your body.  It don’t have t’ take the pain.  Let the meat deal with that.  Focus.”

       “Can’t,” he muttered.  But he was, somehow.  The green tide was steadying.  Just that bright spot inside of him…

       “Shhh,” she whispered.  It took a phenomenal force of will to even begin to attempt to regulate his breathing.  She saw him struggling, eased her arms out of his grip, knotted her fingers into his own.  He felt her squeezing his hands, gentle, encouraging. “Tell me your name,” she urged him, her voice barely a notch above a whisper.

       “My name?” he echoed, confused.

       “Your name.  Your old one.  Tell me what it was.”

       He sucked in a quivering breath, remembered.

       “Remy.” With that single strange, alien word, he felt the floodgate open, the memories sift like silt through a sieve, the displaced conglomeration of muddled sensation shifting, rearranging itself into one, smooth, complete tract of whole.  Stark uniformity.  He half sobbed, allowing himself to crawl back into the skin he had discarded what seemed a lifetime ago.  His old life, broken wide open, the lie he had been trying to run away from ever since he had got here.

       “Remy,” she repeated reflectively. “Remy.”

       She said it with an edge, with a modicum of familiarity, making it sound as if it really could have been his.  He wept.

      

       It must’ve been an hour later when the world swam into focus again, when the pain had disintegrated, when he had stopped shuddering from the brutality of the experience.  Pain and memory, intrinsically tied.  Falling out the apple tree as a boy.  Scent of the bayous in high summer.  The Creoles singing hymns.  J’irai la voir un jour……  Maman hurtling across the room, blood streaking wetly across the air in her wake.  Cowering in a cupboard, creak, creak, creak; poppa filling up the crack in the door, calling for his little bastard, plank of wood in hand.  Then: bolting, running, just running.  Years of delinquency in Nawlins before the head honcho had taken him to New York.  Predilection for smoking Camels, bad habit inherited from the fraternity of criminals into which he had been irreverently initiated.  First time with some skinny, waif-faced girl by the name of Ruth.  Lies, all lies.

       “Oh God…” he whimpered.

       She was beside him, rubbing his bicep gently.

       “Hurts,” she agreed.  An edge of sympathy to her voice.

       “Yah.” Though not so much, not anymore.  Like breaking on through, to the other side.  Obstacle shattered. “So intense,” he murmured, falling into the comforting rhythm of her hand on his arm. “It was all like… I really lived it.”

       Her fingers squeezed his arm.  Encouragement.  Understanding.  “Tell me about it,” she said.

       He did.  She listened, silent, her hand never leaving his arm.  Only his voice in the darkness, the solitary drone an ode to the sprawling masterpiece of his life, an edifice of falsities and fabrications piled precariously one on top of the other.  When he had finished she remained quiet, an unmoving silhouette in the blackness.  He rolled onto his back.

       “And you?” he asked her hoarsely.

       Her outline shrugged.

       “Marie.  Runaway.  Pickpocket.  Workin’ girl from the age of sixteen.” She said the words as if reading off a cold list of facts. “Oh yeah, Ah was your kinda girl all right.  We would’ve been dynamite, back then.”

       Always had been.  He refrained from saying it. “Marie, eh?” he mused instead. “Dat your real name, or your professional one?”

       Pause, implying a wealth of locked secrets. “Doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t mean jack anyway.  ‘Bout as real as callin’ a horse with a horn a unicorn, or a lizard with wings a dragon.”

       He still sensed an edge of regret.

       “An’ Magnus?”

       Sigh, soft and faint as a whisper.

       “Saw me gettin’ beatin’ on by a john.  Came in all chivalric like, just the way Ah like ‘em.  Took me to some safehouse, patched me up, treated me like a normal human bein’.  Real easy to fall for him then.  He was goin’ t’ let me go, but Ah had no one else.” Her fingers rested motionless on his arm, leaving a tingling imprint on his nerves. “Ah told him wherever he went Ah’d follow.  Ah was a dab hand on the streets by then.  Guess he figured Ah could hack the truth.  So… he took me out.  Treated me like Ah was his daughter.” Soft, mirthless chuckle. “Ah was a kid, an’ Ah wanted more.  Couldn’t get used t’ bein’ without a man, y’know?  An’ Magnus was a good man.  Never beat me.  Never forced himself on me.  Never roughed me up when Ah spoke mah mind.” Her fingers shifted, disappearing into the night. “Life was better out in the real world.”

       He said nothing, understanding.  Magnus’ over-protectiveness was suddenly cast in a different light.  He found her arm, stroked it.  Fine down on her skin, so soft.  The pain was malleable now, a warm glow.  Here, in the dark, in the quiet, lost in the comfort of illusory touch, it was almost pleasant.

       “Y’wanna know how I got unplugged?” he asked, after a moment.

       “Y’ already told me,” she replied. “Logan.”

       Non.  Before dat.  How I knew.  Why they came after me.” Deep breath. “I saw a glitch.”

       “Y’ saw a glitch an’ you were plugged in?” Empathy, compassion in her voice.

       “Yeah.” He half-smiled at the freshly resurrected memory, bitter wonder touching the corners of his mouth, an expression she could not see. “Fifteen.  I was small fry, back then.  Got myself caught by some jockey on enemy territory.  De guy chased me blocks, but I was a kid, kids run fast.  Some back alley in Harlem.  Saw dis rose stickin’ out of de concrete, real unnatural like, t’ought I was seein’ t’ings.  Was unreal.  Y’know, like in dat song…?”

       Ghost of a nod.

       “Most goddamn beautiful thing I ever saw,” he breathed, closing his eyes and remembering. “Blood red, almost black.  Like if you could prick it, it’d start bleedin’.  Den it just disappeared.  Fuzzed out, y’know, de way programs do?  Days after, couldn’t get it out of my head, couldn’t eat or sleep.  Like my mind had been blown wide open.  I knew den.  Fuckin’ hell, I knew.” He opened his eyes. “Never saw nothin’ like dat again.”

       “Funny.” Her voice was light, almost cajoling. “Y’ always told me Ah was the most beautiful thing you ever saw.”

       He grinned. “You come in a close second.”

       He sensed her smile, brief, like a candle flickering out.  Her arm stirred, as if for the first time she realised that he touched it.  Then: “You should’ve let me go,” she said, plaintive.  His hand dropped from her arm, rested over her palm.  The recollection that he’d hidden away, of that day, in her room, her kiss searing against his lips… No, no dream.  His mouth was suddenly dry, his body aching.

       “Y’ told me you loved me,” he replied. “No woman I met ever said dat t’ me.  Was I supposed to let go?”

       Hesitation. “Ah didn’t want t’ hurt him.” The words belied the trembling of her mouth.

       Chere, when you met him, you were just a fille.  You were frightened, lost, alone.  You needed him.  But you a grown woman now.  An’ things change.  Dat day, in your room, nothin’ ever felt so right as when you told me…” He halted.  The memory was so clear now, it perplexed him that he’d ever forgotten it.

       “That night you brought him back from Tokyo,” she confessed slowly, “he was goin’ t’ let me go.  Said he only wanted me t’ be happy.  Ah begged him not to.  Guilt, Gambit, the goddamn guilt.  For so long, he was the only thing Ah had, the only thing that ever treated me right.  An’ he was mah husband.  The choice didn’t seem so hard then.”

       “Choice, what choice?” he mumbled. “From de start we were always so goddamn obvious.” He remembered first laying eyes upon her, the confused familiarity. “It’s been three years, Rogue,” he continued, quieter, “an’ I ain’t gonna wait no more.  Remember the first day we met?  Three goddamn years.  Ain’t never felt dat way, not before or since.”

       He reached out, touching her cheek.  Soft, subtle touch.  Not her skin, only a replica, but close enough.  This was all he had ever wanted anyway.  She clasped his hand between her own, kissed his knuckles, the joints of his fingers, her lips lingering, so smooth, so warm…  He moaned softly, pulling her down against his chest, feeling the suppleness of her body under the cotton shirt as she yielded, pressing kisses along the line of his jaw, grazing her nose playfully against his stubble before bringing her lips down against his, exploring his mouth with sudden need.  He responded, pulling her closer, fingers in soft, scented hair, legs reaching for hers in the darkness.

       The embrace, nothing more than cold, callous binary code, cascading down a computer screen; but as they pulled apart, as she cradled against him and sighed and fell into a deep sleep, nothing had ever felt more real in his entire life.


       The sound of rainfall pattering on the windowpane greeted him the next day, drawing him out of coma-like unconsciousness.  He shifted, confused, the frayed edges of his injury licking at his solar plexus.  He felt groggy.  Not in agony, just groggy.  His body was pulsing from his mid-section upward.  His throat felt brittle.

       Rogue, Marie – whoever the fuck she was – was lying beside him on the bed, fully clothed and back in her leathers, one arm slung over his midriff.  He closed his eyes, willing back the dull throbbing in his temples, telling himself it was all immaterial; the time-worn defence-mechanism.  He remembered last night, the need of her kisses.  Oh God.  The taste of her was still on his tongue, like the thick, metallic tang of sleep.

       Was unreal, Rogue, he thought.  Totally un-fucking-real.

       His eyes wandered to the window, perused the square canvas that had come to frame his fevered waking hours.  Same sullen skies.  Colourless as the room itself.  Apart from a bunch of crimson roses, arranged neatly in a glass vase on her bedside table.  He stared at them, catching their scent on the breeze coming in through the open window.  Lush, somnolent almost.  Like drugs.  Not real, he told himself sternly.

       “Rogue,” he grunted. “Rogue, you ‘wake?”

       She opened one green eye, smiled. “Never was asleep, cowboy,” she answered.  Her hand slid across his waist, imprinting his bewildered senses with something warm and smooth as batwings.  Then she sat up, shrugging the fatigue from her shoulders. “Ah was worried you’d flatline,” she explained too evenly, too neutrally.  As if to make an excuse for the fact that she had touched him, held him close. “Wanted t’ be close by.”

       He swallowed, not knowing what to say.  Last night was still hidden behind an almost impenetrable shroud of both pain and bliss.

       “You got them?” he asked, nodding over at the roses on the table.

       “Uh-huh,” she answered, stretching, reaching her toes with the tips of her fingers. “For you.  Thought they’d make you feel better.” She paused as if suddenly embarrassed, looked back over her shoulder at him. “How are you feelin’?”

       “Thirsty,” he admitted.

       “Don’t worry,” she replied, stretching out beside him again, head cradled in her hand as she looked at him. “Logan came in this mornin’.  Said they’d reach us by this evenin’.  All we’ve gotta do is keep our mind off all the physical shit.  Meat’s meat, sugah.  Mind’s mind.”

       “Physical shit.” He laughed weakly.  For a moment back there, he’d almost kidded himself into believing her touch, her kisses, had been real. “Last night…” He faltered.

       “Ah know,” she murmured, jaw tightening as she looked away. “Ah wish it was real too.”

       “Real compared t’ what?” he asked.  She didn’t answer.  Her collarbones tensed above the black bodice.  It reminded him of a crossbow he’d once seen in the inner sanctum of the head honcho in old New York.  Guy liked to collect them.  PPKs were disposable, functional killing machines, but swords, daggers, lances, longbows, crossbows; they were all works of art.  The crossbow he’d seen had been old, medieval, the real thing restored to its former glory, polished and hung up like a stuffed stag’s head.  There’d been something elegant, graceful about it.  Like her collarbone.  He bit back on the memory.  Lies. “I dunno, chere.  It felt goddamn real t’ me,” he finished.

       Her mouth twisted.

       “Ah used to have a dream,” she began softly, contemplatively, “of bein’ with you.” She paused, ruminating. “Ah guess this ain’t much different.” Green eyes lifted to his, her glance grave and inquisitive, the face she must have worn all those years ago when Magnus had first met her.  Child-woman.  Without words her hand snaked back to his bare waist, curious, child-like, slipping under the waistband of his boxers, stroking him, making him groan.

       “Rogue…” he breathed.

       No more questing.  She moved to straddle him, unzipping the bodice while he fumbled with the zipper of her pants, fingers uncoordinated.  She touched his hands briefly with her own, pushed them away.

       “S’okay,” she assured him. “Let me.”

       He’d never seen her naked before.  Her body was thin, elegant, economical, fluent and streamlined as art deco architecture, her skin luminescent in the watery sunlight.  She watched him silently as he tasted the texture of her skin on his hands, the unfamiliar contours that, nevertheless, felt achingly familiar to him and always had done.  There was a scar on her left breast, long and sharp, a knife-wound.  He thumbed it lightly, considering.

       “Feels like I’ve seen dis before,” he murmured.

       “A john gave it t’ me,” she explained softly. “An Hispanic joe.  Thought Ah was goin’ t’ die.  That’s when Magnus came.” She moved his hand away, to her hip; her expression was stoic. “Mind made it real.”

       She pushed him back against the covers gently and he pulled her down with him, groaning as their skin connected, as her nipples pressed urgently into his chest and he brought their mouths into feverish union.  He reached downward, finding her soft folds, sliding in, familiarising himself with her.  Slick, warm.  She whimpered at the intimacy of his touch, breaking their kiss as he stroked her, long, languid, and she leaned into his caress, body arching, breath quickening, punctuating the flinty slap of the rainfall outside, the whirlwind, the whirlpool.

       It was all cyclic, life funnelling life, old to new.  The Oracle had once told him: As your old life begins, so it ends.  The scar on her breast, that was old life; the rose in the concrete, that too was nothing more than a symbol, a crossroads he had passed, long ago.  A fine line, like death.  He wondered about her old life; he wondered that he knew so little about her; he wondered that he knew enough.  That he had always known enough, so much more than what was contained in three years worth, and he didn’t know why.  He didn’t know why her breath in his ear felt so familiar, nor the softness of her hair in his hands, nor the way she moved against him, nor the delicacy of her touch as she guided him past wet thighs and into the molten core of her.

       Synthetic synthesis.

       He’d been here before.

      

       All the countless hours bleeding into this one moment, this endless error where she made love to him and he to her, and he knew with calm certainty that he had been here before, that he had trodden all those idle hours a million times before, in another life, in another story.


       He stirred only in the evening as she rolled away from him, jarred into wakefulness by the loss of the now familiar warmth of her curled against his side.  His senses were confounded by an acute and synaesthetic onslaught of memory – shapes, sounds, textures, colours.  The symmetry of her body in the pallid sunlight as she had straddled him; their communal groan as he had entered her; the taste of her kisses and the liquid embrace of her tongue; the white-hot intensity of their shared orgasm as it had shuddered through them.  None of it more or less real than a dream; but this time, a memory worth keeping.

       She was sitting on the windowsill, naked, hand extended, catching raindrops.  He watched her a long moment before sliding out of bed himself.  His body protested, but he felt strangely lighter, unburdened.  Detached.  He joined her at the windowsill, watching her catch the rain, her expression questioning.

       “It all seems so real,” she mused, withdrawing her hand, palm wet.

       “Yeah,” he agreed, pulling her into his embrace and kissing her hair tenderly. “Real work of art.” For the first time he saw the world outside the window.  That patch of ashen sky, now an expanse, unfolding out over the grey-green masonry of the city, the backdrop to a drab and foreboding masterpiece.  Below them was a stone courtyard, its only source of colour a bed of ponderous red roses, as if the sky had bled onto a barren earth.

       “You picked them yourself?” he questioned.

       “Ah asked Logan to,” she replied; the voice of Marie haunted her words. “You said they were beautiful.  Ah just figured, maybe this was the last time you’d ever see them.”

       He was oddly touched.  Reaching out beside him, he plucked a stem from the vase on the bedside table, held it against her, looking on in fascination at the contrast between creamy skin and blood red bloom.

       “Is this really it, then?” she asked him. “Is this for real, Remy?”

       Remy?  Why did she keep on talking to that part of him, the part he had discarded what seemed a lifetime ago?

       “What,” he asked, “you still thinkin’ love is all ones and zeros in dis place?” He paused, trailing the rose downward, smoothing the petals across the underside of her breast, circling upward to tease softly against the dark bud of her nipple; simple perfection, not natural, not even man-made, but perfect nonetheless. “When we get back,” he began reflectively, “I show you dis is for real.”

       The rain suddenly intensified, running against their arms and their cheeks, making them smile.

       “I take it all back,” he decided, at last, raising the blossom to her cheek. “No rose I ever saw ever compared t’ you.”

       He was finally beginning to understand.  The bloom he had seen that day in Harlem, it had signalled the end of his old life; and in giving the roses to him, she had signalled the end of this life.  Now they would go on to a new life, a life where they would face this brave new world together.

       Wordlessly he tossed the rose out of the window, into the breeze, watching it flutter down to the pavement below, to the place where he had first seen it grow.  In the rain, in the growing darkness, they drew closer without thinking, instinctive as birds flying home to nest.

 

       Across the room, the phone began to ring.

*     *     *     *     *


Next: Two enemies are forced to reach an unlikely compromise …

 

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