Note: This story is based on one of the Ages of Apocalypse (yup, those crappy stories not worth anyone’s money), Uncanny X-Men #378 in fact.  It had a nice setting for a concept that’s been bugging me lately, namely, the nature of Rogue’s touch.  Enjoy.


:: V :: Touch and Go

 

“Now my fingers are cold, but I have touched you – you’re all I need to know.” (Bursting Through, Bic Runga)

*     *     *     *     *


       Beside him, on the black leather passenger seat of the taxi, Remy’s cellphone began to ring.  He picked it up and looked at it – there, in stark capitals, the screen read, BELLE.  He frowned, his natural inclination to switch the whole damn thing off.  Nevertheless, for some inner logic quite unknown to him – and perhaps out of a lingering sense of duty – he accepted the call and held the phone to his ear.

      “Remy.” Her voice was breathless, thin and watery, betraying both her tears and her desperation. “Remy, you’ve got t’ come back.   I love you.  Please, let’s just try an’ work dis out.”

       “Belle,” he expelled her name on a quick, agitated breath. “I’m already in de taxi.  I’ll be at de airport in half an hour, an’ I won’t be comin’ back.  I’m fed up Belle.  Of everythin’.  Of us, of dis whole X-Men gig, of every damn t’ing.  Don’t try t’ call me, an’ don’t come lookin’ for me.  It’s final.  G’bye, Belle.”

       He switched off the phone, dropped it into his coat pocket along with his cigarettes, then leant back into the car seat with a violent sigh.  This was it – the end; release, escape.  He wasn’t going to surrender his life to anyone anymore!  Not to his wife, not to the X-Men, not to anyone!  He was going to race out of the past four years of madness and back into the arms of the life he had once disclaimed, the life of freedom and delinquent irresponsibility, his own comfortable niche in the criminal food-chain.  No more!  The end!  From now on the only person he was going to answer to was himself.

       Belle, the X-Men; all love, morality, responsibility… Left behind.  Gone.

       Closing his eyes with a weary sigh, he slept…

      

       He awoke not long after from a recurring dream; a dream he would never remember, that was never finished.  Sitting up straight he wiped his mouth with his hand, looking out the window.  The world outside was indistinct, speeding away from him, taking away with it all petty hurts, confusions, frustrations, the past four years he had wasted masquerading as something he was not.  Now he was going back home – he was going back to the life and the skin he had always felt most comfortable in, that of the thief.  It was a life that had ended abruptly the day he’d tried to pick the pocket of a certain Professor Charles Xavier when he was eighteen, a man who had taken him away from a life of squalor and made him the first pupil of his Institute for Gifted Youngsters.  Behind the respectable facade of the school, however, lay a world as secret and shrouded as the one Remy himself had not long emerged from.  He was soon to learn of the Professor’s dream of harmony between human and mutantkind – and of the X-Men, whom he, along with Hank McCoy, Bobby Drake, Ororo Munroe and Jean Grey, was to serve, as its first recruit and leader.

       Back then, Remy had been young, idealistic, newly married, and had wanted to make an honest man of himself.  It was less for his sake than for that of his wife and childhood sweetheart, Belladonna – she’d long harboured dreams of white picket fences and two point four children – although going to the Institute hadn’t exactly turned out to be what he’d had in mind when he’d told her he was going to get a decent education.  Still, the thrill of playing the superhero had bitten him hard, and after a year, he’d been too committed to break free.  Thinking Belle would be none too pleased at his extra-curricular activities, he’d made a conscious decision to keep the truth from her, which, of course, had made the whole sorry affair more disastrous once the truth came out.

      

       Belladonna was a mystery to him.  Although he loved her, and loved her dearly, she was as impervious to him as solid rock.  He loved her more than he’d ever loved anyone or anything – but then, he was the kind of man who had had little love in his life and didn’t really know what to do with it.  So he loved her, yet he did not understand her.  And likewise, she did not understand him.  They were two people from two different worlds, brought together by a bond tempered by a tempestuous childhood they had both shared, a life where the only stability they had been able to find lay in each other.

       Her conception of him was as it always had been – a simple, uncomplicated little boy with the eyes of the devil and a combustible, contagious smile that was both charming and dangerous; he was a boy who became a man whose shape she had already preconfigured in her own mind.  By that time, she had grown under his skin, and he under hers – their attachment had been forged and sealed.  Yet her understanding of him remained so limited, so confined to one single point in time that when he was with her he began to think he did not know himself – and when he tried to find himself in other women, he found he could not give the entirety of himself to any of them, and so none of them could comprehend the whole that was Remy LeBeau anymore than Belle could.

       No good – he would ponder on it no longer.  It was all over and done with; he had to let it go.  The taxi stopped outside the airport with a jolt, jarring him out of all inner reflections.  He got out, paid the fare, picked up his bags, looked up at the grey and imposing edifice that was the airport.  No turning back.  From now on there could be no more lies; no false regrets.


       The flight down to Louisiana was cramped and tedious; it was also non-smoking, which grated on his already frayed nerves.  He managed to distract himself with some desultory conversation with the girl sitting next to him – a redhead with freckles, a newly graduated college-student.  She was flirtatious and talked a lot; her smile was dimpled.  Presently the conversation became somewhat suggestive and Remy sensed that perhaps something more would come of their banter; he slipped the wedding ring off his finger without her even noticing, and secreted it inside his pocket.

       After a while their conversation dwindled, each satisfied with the promise of a further encounter once the plane had landed.  In the ensuing silence his cravings were once more allowed to resurface – the glaring light of no-smoking sign became an unbearable torture to him, and presently he excused himself, thinking perhaps a splash of cold water on his face would relieve him.  As he made for the bathroom, a woman came down the aisle towards him; he stopped, shifting sideways to let her pass.  She too slipped sideways, but the gangway was so narrow their hips connected as if suddenly magnetised – his eyes raised to hers, hers to his – red to green.  Her hair was thick and auburn, cascading down over the shoulders of a threadbare, antique carpet coat; she wore tight black pants, a green silk shirt, 80s-style ankle boots.  An unruly lock of white hair had been tucked behind one ear, but now slipped free as their gazes locked involuntarily for a single split second that lasted a lifetime.

       “Hi,” she said, at last.

       “Hi,” he replied.

       She slid past him without another word, grazing her hips meaningfully against his before turning away and carrying along down the aisle to take her seat three rows down from him.  He stared after her, momentarily dumbfounded.  Wow.

       He made his way to the bathroom, his confounded mind and body both caught in sensory overdrive.  Once inside he splashed his face with some cold water, leant back against the door, and pondered heavily on this latest chance meeting.

       Rogue.

       She was no stranger to him, of course.  In fact, he knew her pretty well – as much as adversaries could anyhow.  She was a member of Magneto’s Brotherhood, a group whose militant activities had brought them into constant conflict with the X-Men.  Her being on the same flight could only mean one thing – she had to be tailing him, and it had to be for some mission Magneto had sent her on.  But as to the nature of the mission, and why it should be necessary to follow him all the way to Louisiana, Remy was, for now, in the dark.

       One thing was certain.  Her presence had ruined his vacation, and if he had ever planned to clear his head of all things X-Men or Belle related, having a mutant terrorist on his case was not the way to go about it.

      

       The rest of the flight passed uneventfully; he caught glimpses of Rogue several times at her seat in front of him – her white streak made easy work of that.  But there was no further encounter.  By the time the plane had landed and they’d disembarked, he’d lost sight of her completely and she was nowhere to be found.  That fact instilled little confidence in him, and he was jumpy all the way through passport control and baggage retrieval.  Still, she made no appearance – it was as if she’d vanished.  He walked out the airport suddenly remembering the redhead, but she too had left in disappointment long ago, and was also nowhere in sight.  Feeling somewhat cheated, he called for a cab, still ruminating on Rogue’s unexpected arrival.  He’d never thought much of her – even Magneto preferred to keep her on the fringes of his group.  He wondered whether that was because he didn’t find much use in her, or because she herself preferred to take a back seat.  It was certainly the first time that Remy had ever seen her up close and personal.

       He leaned an elbow against the taxi window, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, remembering the electricity in their brief but eloquent collision.  The movement of her hips against his.  He shook his head in wonder.

       Wow.


       It was more than a two hour drive to Holly Beach, and by the time he’d arrived there he was exhausted and in need of a shower.  The beach house was light and airy, decorated in a modern minimalist style, all glass and chrome and cream-coloured walls – his bachelor pad, the place he’d used as a hideaway before he’d signed his life away to Belle’s.  Since then he’d had it done up, and rented it to rich, old couples in the summer.  He had an odd sensation of displacement, standing in the middle of a house so extravagant – though he was by no means poor, and had a great eye for all things rare, antique, or expensive, his own personal tastes were more comfortable, functional and homely.

         He decided to settle himself in the smallest bedroom in the house – it was sparsely furnished, but completely suited to his needs.  He unpacked what little items he had brought with him, took off his jacket, threw it over onto the bed.  In doing so, the wedding ring fell out of the pocket, glanced off the edge of the bed and onto the wooden floor, circling twice before landing in the middle of the room.  He stared at it a long moment, thinking of Belle, thinking of the infidelity he’d planned on the plane, and somehow oddly relieved that it had never happened.  Nevertheless, it still did not change the way things stood between him and his wife.  With a sigh he picked up the ring and threw it into the drawer of his bedside table, intent on forgetting both Belle and the X-Men, and promising himself a week or two of drink, thievery, womanising, and not a single rational thought in between.

       He showered, dressed.  When he got back into the bedroom, he noticed an unusual fragrance on the air, a lone trespasser on alien territory.  He frowned, sniffing.  Lavender, mixed with tobacco.  Now where had he smelled that scent before… …?

       Ah.

      “All right, Roguey,” he called aloud, arms crossed, expression sardonic. “You can come out now.  Plannin’ t’ jump me, were you?  Come on, chere, we can sort dis out all nice an’ civil-like, non?”

       She emerged from behind him, unexpected, with such silent and feline precision that he realised only a split second too late.  In a trice she’d launched herself at him, bowling him over onto the wooden floor; she followed him down to the ground as he swivelled round onto his back to face her, his fist swinging up to connect with her face just before he recognised his fatal error – any flesh-to-flesh contact with her, and he was out for the count. But to his surprise she caught his hand before he could strike her, tan-gloved fingers seizing his fist, keeping him in the bout.

       “How’d you know Ah was here?” she asked, breathless, a playful grin lighting her face as she clamped strong thighs about his hips, imprisoning him somewhat gratuitously beneath her.  He returned the smile, wrenching his hand from her grasp.

       “Simple, chere.” He clutched her hips with both hands, swivelled round, taking her with him.  With a wordless cry she yielded, the back of her head thudding against the floor as she found herself trapped as he had been. “Your scent.” He leaned in, clasping her arms to stop them from flailing, and she squirmed underneath him, only serving to heighten the delicious tension between them. “So you gonna tell me what makes me worth de effort of bein’ stalked ‘cross several states, hmm?” he inquired conversationally.  She struggled, her playfulness dissipating as she realised with frustration the way he’d so quickly turned the tables on her.

       “If Ah told you, would you let me go?” she asked him insolently.  He grinned suavely at her, putting every ounce of charm he could into the smile as he perused her, bringing his face within an inch of hers.

       “I dunno, p’tit, I think I’m likin’ dis position a helluva lot,” he murmured seductively.

       Her eyes flickered, dimmed.

       “You’re charmin’ me, y’ low-life Cajun swamp-rat,” she half remonstrated, half purred; half fought, half surrendered.  Her voice was low, thick.

       “But o’ course, p’tit.  A beautiful woman like yourself, what man couldn’t help but…”

       He was cut off mid-sentence, sent reeling by the powerful force of a resounding right hook to his left jaw.  In a matter of moments he was pinned once more underneath her.

       “Sorry sugah, but bullshit like that ain’t gonna work on me,” she informed him caustically.  Against his hips he felt the muscles pulsing in her thighs; her elbow dug sharply into his throat. “This gal ain’t the kind t’ go slaverin’ after some slippery Cajun swamp snake, not like that redhead on the plane.”

       “So how comes you didn’t take me out when you had de chance?” he retorted breathlessly, intrigued at the degree to which she’d been watching him. “Y’ coulda just let me touch you, chere – or did y’ just want for us t’ have a l’il tumble on de floor t’gether, y’know, engage in a l’il bit o’ horseplay?”

       She hissed in exasperation, knowing the extent to which he’d outdone her.

       “Damn you, Cajun!” she seethed. “You’re enjoyin’ every minute of this!”

       His smile was wolfish, predatory. “Gambit never complains when his woman’s on top,” he returned outrageously.  She went suddenly pale at the suggestion, green eyes filmed with confusion, confusion and distress as she realised how he had outmanoeuvred her.  The pressure of her elbow against his throat slackened, and she hesitated, not knowing how to react.  He read the signals, precise, imperceptible; his right hand slid in under her coat, touched her waist, moved upward to brush against her breast.  Beneath cool silk, against his hips, her body and thighs trembled involuntarily; a gasp escaped her lips unbidden.  Her elbow tightened at his throat again, but the movement was perfunctory, uncertain.

       “Ah could touch you,” she warned, but now her face was so close to his they could taste one another’s breath, and without intending it, her threat became a proposition.

       “Maybe I wouldn’t mind,” he murmured in reply, seeing the way her eyes clouded at the contact of their gaze, at the unfamiliarity of his touch, at the warmth of his lips only inches from hers…

       A chain reaction had begun; neither was wilfully conscious of it, not in a manner intrinsic to reason, or logic.  Rogue jerked back, achingly aware of a terrifying and nameless commitment she had made, as if taking the first step on a journey towards a destination unknown.  With the greatest alacrity she backed away from him, her countenance betraying both consternation and perplexity at their unexpected chemistry.

       She scrambled off him, breaking their contact.

       “You’re crazy,” she muttered, standing up and brushing herself off, still visibly trembling. “Ah touch you, you end up in a coma.”

       “Funny, I got de impression dat puttin’ me in a coma was what you were here for,” he remarked, rising to face her.  She shot him a look, her eyes meeting his only briefly before she stole them away again.  He sensed that she was distressed both by their encounter and the sudden and undeniable attraction that had so abruptly sprung between them.  He frowned, finding her reticence both bewildering and amusing.

       “You don’t know nothin’ about it,” she levelled, baring her teeth at him.

       “Dat’s true enough,” he agreed. “All I know is, I meet you on de plane, and den you follow me here.  But dat pretty much speaks for itself, non?  Magneto sent you, didn’t he.”

       Her green eyes narrowed.

       “Ah don’t have t’ tell you anythin’,” she spat.

       Non.  I guess you don’t.” He considered her a long while, marking the turn of her countenance, revising the memory of her body against his.  She was beautiful, but it was a beauty she wore self-consciously, as if she was at a loss to know what to make of it.  He found her artlessness appealing, but then, he would have been the first to admit that he found most sorts of women attractive. “But maybe you want to,” he finished decidedly.

       She passed him a look, half-questioning, half-interrogative, opening the way to compromise.  He made no reply, lighting himself a cigarette casually, then, remembering the scent on her, he offered her one.  She took it warily, then slipped it inside a filter.  When he lit the cigarette for her, he came in close, almost allowing their bodies to synchronise the way they had on the plane, holding her eyes, waiting longer than was necessary for the cigarette to light.  The moment was highly charged, erotic.  There was something about her, about her face, unreadable yet betraying an inner sadness… And about her eyes, about the way they challenged him to see past her and into the stranger locked inside.  The stranger… Yet why did he find her so familiar…?

       “Why do you keep starin’ at me like that?” she asked, removing the cigarette from between her lips and blowing smoke between them as though to fend him off.

       “Just tryin’ t’ work out why you’d come here an’ den let me off de hook, p’tit,” he answered huskily.  Those eyes… He took a step back, gave her a lop-sided smile. “Shall I tell you what Gambit thinks?” Her mouth remained flat and he didn’t wait for an answer. “Gambit thinks Mags sent you t’ carry out a mission, an’ you were gonna do it straight, no questions asked.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth made a gesture with his hand. “But somethin’ happened on de plane, didn’t it?  Somethin’ dat disrupted your little plan.” He paused, allowing his voice to drop a note, his eyes to burn. “You realised dat I had somethin’ you wanted.”

       A short breath caught in her throat, fluttered; she expelled it quickly, audibly, saying nothing, but it was enough to give her away, enough to tell him he’d spoken the truth.  He smiled in self-congratulation, moving to circle her as a predator stalking its prey, closing in, brushing his shoulder against hers, stepping behind her.  As he leant in towards her ear, he scented the auburn curls of her hair, feeling the soft tendrils caress his face.

       “You weren’t bankin’ on it, were you, Rogue?” he whispered, trailing his breath on her neck, the low, seductive purr sending tremors through her limbs. “What happened on de plane was mere chance, completely unforeseen… You know what I’m talkin’ about, right?  We both felt it, didn’t we.  You just wanted somethin’ more, non?  De reason why I’m still standin’ right here, right now, dis close t’ you… is b’cause you want me to.”

       She was still trembling, from pleasure at his closeness, from anger that he should find her so transparent.  At the final statement she whipped round to find he’d taken a step away from her again, as silent and ephemeral as a wraith; the memory of his breath on her neck played upon her nerves as if he had plucked every single string in her body.

       “Damn you,” she cursed, but there was an edge of helplessness to her voice, a quivering desperation.  He ignored it.

       “What’s dis game you been sent t’ play, Rogue?” he asked her bluntly, tired of fencing with her. “Why did you come here?  An’ what does Magneto want wit’ me?”

       Normally, she would have refrained from answering him, but now their attraction was a palpable thing, and she could no longer deny it.  She crossed her arms tightly about her, as if they could offer her some sort of self-defence from him.  Her eyes went hard, refusing to meet his as she finally gave in.

       “Magneto got it into his head that Ah could imprint people permanently,” she explained grudgingly, after a moment’s hesitation. “He figured…maybe Ah could imprint the powers of the X-Men and make them mine.  That maybe…Ah could use those powers against y’all.” She paused, uncertainty on her face, the whiff of indecision in her enough for him to read the deception in her words.

       She’s lyin’, he thought. But why else would she come here?  Dere’s somethin’ else here, somethin’ else she ain’t tellin’ me…

       “And you’d be willin’ t’ take such a risk?” he asked her, one eyebrow raised sceptically. “Couldn’t a permanent imprint be harmful t’ you?”

       She shot him a look. “Ah don’t know,” she replied after a moment. “Ah never tried it.  But maybe… Perhaps…”

       They both fell into silence, another bout fought, the clash of wills withdrawn, the both of them retreating back to reassess the situation.  Both now knew the score, the impasse for which there was only one conclusion.  Remy drew on his cigarette, said very calmly: “So.  How can I convince you t’ go back t’ New York an’ leave me alone intact, hm?”

       She was suddenly composed again, her face a mask of equanimity, revealing nothing, sealing off anything he might have espied in her green-eyed glance before.

       “Don’t play with me, Cajun,” she replied coolly. “You said you felt it too.  Therefore…” and her smile was tight-lipped, “you must know what Ah want.”

       He shrugged, passed her an easy smile.

       “Maybe we could come t’ some sort of agreement.”

       “Maybe we could.”

       “Name it,” he said.

       Her green eyes raised to his furtively, the play of sunlight on auburn hair, the flash of a breath in her throat, the mirror image of a moment replayed constantly in that dream he always had, the one he’d never remember in the morning…

       “Let me pretend that Ah’m your girl,” she said, and this time her gaze did not falter from his. “Just for one day, let me pretend that Ah’m yours.”

       Ah.


       For the longest time afterwards he would look back on this day, mentally attempting to dissect every little detail of it.  Much later – when his life had changed once more and he was old and wise enough to reconcile himself to it – he would give up on his analysis, because it would always be missing a certain part of the equation which, at the time, he had never bothered to acquaint himself with.  Namely, the woman inside the disguise that was Rogue.

       Isn’t it strange how two people can spend a day together in the most intimate of circumstances and never learn a thing about one another?

       From the outset he was fated never to discover much about her.  From the very beginning all she would impart to him were half-hidden truths, veiled glances, inscrutable expressions, facts that left him no closer to discovering her inner machinery, the clockwork that made her tick.  She fell into her role with a stoic nonchalance – he had the vague impression that while she acted her part she was performing some sort of private drama within her head, something so personal and intrinsic to her being that he could not even glimpse it in the subtle shading of her countenance.  She was the starring role in her own tragedy – he, a mere actor; his house, her set.  She cooked him an abominable meal, washed dishes, rearranged the study, cleaned the bathroom, placed all his clothes away in drawers and cupboards – she had a penchant for colour coordination that he found both baffling and unnecessary.  In return he taught her to play poker, to cook gumbo, to waltz, and later, he walked her down to the beach.  By this time, there wasn’t a lot he had learned about her, save that she was born in Caldecott County, Mississippi, that she shopped in thrift stores, that she liked the sea, and that the only thing they seemed to share in common was a partiality for coffee and cigarettes.  And then there was the way her body moved against his…

       Nevertheless he learnt more about her as the day progressed: - that wherever she sat she would sit cross-legged; that she liked port where he liked bourbon; that she never used her knife when she ate; that she disliked eye contact when she spoke; that that offensive lock of white hair had a perpetual habit of falling onto her face.  All these were inexact signals and brought him no closer to discovering what the real Rogue was truly like.  Each new thing he learned led only to his own private and subtle reinventions of her.  On deeper reflection – which he would only indulge in later – the greatest clue to her character lay in the bargain she had made with him.  She was lonely, untouched, an unplayed instrument.  She was a passionate and romantic woman for whom passion and romance could never become a reality, a woman whose passions must remain fantasies, and for whom their pretence was the ultimate fantasy which had no substance and no conclusion, for in the end, he could give her nothing.

      

       Rogue, however, seemed quite content to play out the fantasy – this was the furthest she had ever got to realising it, after all.  She was quite happy to ensconce herself on his sofa and watch the entirety of Gone with the Wind, which he found to be the height of tedium.  It did, however, afford them time for contemplation, to watch one another from the sidelines.  He found himself questioning his fascination with her, why he relished the hypocritical nature of their masquerade so much.  Was it that their relationship, such as it was, was stark and uncomplicated in its arrangement, and would always remain so?  Was it because he would never discover any more of her than what he saw now; that when the day was over she would remain to him as insubstantial and transient as a ghost, as a trace of perfume caught but fleetingly on the breeze?

       It seemed irrational to him, that he should be running from the woman he loved and yet find himself here, sitting next to another woman, one who held no points of comparison to Belle at all, except that he understood neither of them – and yet he was drawn to Rogue, and he had no idea why.

       “Why do you keep lookin’ at me like that?” she asked him, halfway through the movie.  He caught himself mid-ogle, his reverie interrupted.

       “You’re a beautiful woman,” he found himself saying, for the first time without artifice, so that he was shocked by his own sincerity.  She, however, laughed and shifted sideways to face him, her expression artfully coy. “Don’t you wish you could sleep with me?” she asked – or rather challenged – him.

       “I’d be lyin’ if I said I didn’t,” he answered, straight-faced.  She smiled, for his admission pleased her.  Then she seemed to pause a moment, looking down at his hand, which lay on the sofa between them.  His fingers were long – elegant, artistic, sensitive.  The hands of a thief, of a lover.  She found them to be the most interesting thing about him.

       “So what is it that you really want out of this?” she asked him curiously, capturing his eyes once more.  The entire day she had asked no tokens of him, and he in turn had asked none of her – this was the first inquiry she had made into his own private world.

       “I dunno,” he replied, shrugging – he thought of Belle, of his infidelities, of how far apart they had grown.  If Rogue had been another woman, he would have wanted nothing more than to sleep with her; but she was unattainable, and so his real need became plain to him.  He sighed, ran a finger over the diamond pattern stitched into her glove. “I guess what I want… Is t’ be understood.”

       She laughed. “Ah don’t know a thing about you,” she said.  Apart from his name, the place where he had grown up, the family of thieves that had fostered him… she knew nothing else.

       “I guess that makes us equal,” he replied.  Silence.  Stalemate.  There was nothing she wanted to give him of herself, and there was nothing more she needed from him – except that she had the sudden desire to put his hand on her, to guide him to all the secret places, to feel him feel her.  For half a moment there was an invitation in his eyes and she thought she would reach out, take his hand and place it upon the space where she ached… He wants it too, she thought.  He wants it.

       She was suddenly flustered, frightened at the intensity in his gaze and in her heart.  Without another word she jumped to her feet, padded towards the kitchen with short, agitated steps, where she turned on the coffee machine and began to cry, silently – she’d long ago refined the art – she enjoyed the privacy of her tears.  She stood there for fifteen minutes and cried, hot tears sliding down her cheeks, hardly knowing why she did so – perhaps she was angry for imposing herself on the life of a man who she could expect nothing from.  Yet all the romances she had ever read had taught her that true love can be born from adversity; and how could she deny the attraction they felt for one another?  How could it be all for nothing?

       Glistening on the other side of the kitchen window was the sea, lapping in onto the beach under a mid-autumn sun.  As she watched it she felt calmed, calm enough to finally pour out the coffee and dry her tears.  When she went back into the living room, he was asleep, head placed gently upon the armrest, one hand laid out in front of his face like a slumbering child.  She padded over silently, placing the cups onto the coffee table before kneeling down to look at him.  There was a certain something in the asymmetry, the sculpture of his sleeping form, the arrangement he had so unassumingly placed himself in – so vulnerable, so unguarded.  Who was he, what did he think, what lay behind that dreaming face?  A horrible notion suddenly came to her, and she drew off one glove, fingers trembling as she reached out to touch his cheek, to finally know all there was to know about him.

       But could she do it?  Could she live knowing she had unfurled his story, his history, all his habits, nervous tics, pet-hates, his tortures and tragedies, his dreams, his sordid fantasies…his loves?  No.  She could desire no part of his past, for she knew she could own no part of his future.  Anything more than this one single day would stay hidden safe inside him.

       She pulled her glove back on; only then did she reach out one hand and shake him lightly on the shoulder.

       “Remy,” she spoke softly.

       He stirred, fingers clasping the armrest as if for something unseen, and said hoarsely: “Belle?”

       She withdrew her hand from him slowly, her mouth suddenly flat.  Belle.  Oh.  So there was something he loved…

       “Ah made us some coffee,” she continued lightly, evenly – although her throat had begun to burn again, and her heart ached. “Wake up, sugah.”

       He woke up, unwillingly, from that dream, that same old dream, of soft, smooth arms about him…  The scene that now greeted him was jarring, unexpected, a scene from another story, one he barely recognised.  Rogue was kneeling beside him, face upturned, Scarlett O’Hara mimicking her image in the background.  At last reality grounded itself.  He was almost surprised.  So he had left New York after all.  So he had left the X-Men, Belle, everything, for a life he’d surrender to no one…

       “Is dat damned t’ing still on?” he grumbled, confused and disorientated, frowning at the TV screen, unaware of the thing he’d imparted to her.

       “It’s nearly finished,” she assured him; there was a curious weight to her words he could not read.  She turned her profile to him again, her features bathed in the flickering light of the TV; but her eyes were elsewhere, shutting him out, an exhibition of her own unassailable sense of privacy.  Through reams of sleep he caught that flash of her again, that tilt of the chin, that arch of the brow, something half obscured… The two images moved in sudden tandem, a synchronisation, and suddenly he had it, that fleeting realisation…  The woman in the dream, in whose arms he would cradle, before awakening only to forget… That woman was her


       Late in the afternoon they stood on the veranda, watching the sea and the circling gulls in silence.  She hadn’t said a word since she’d awoken him back in the lounge – her withdrawal completely mystified him.

       “S’gettin’ late,” he said.  It wasn’t so much a statement as a warning.

       “Y’want me to leave?” she questioned.  She rarely looked at him when she spoke.  Now she leaned on the railings, letting the wind play with her hair as she looked out to sea.  He watched her in momentary silence.  He found her intriguing and beautiful, but impenetrable.

       “No,” he finally admitted.  It occurred to him that he hadn’t touched her since their tussle back in the bedroom.  Now he reached out under her coat and placed a tentative hand on the small of her back, waiting, gauging her reaction.  She froze, sensing the inherent danger in accepting the contact, but she wanted it, and so she said nothing.  His hand remained a long time, so that after a while each could feel the warmth of the other’s skin across the thin barrier of silk.  She shuddered at the imprint his hand left on her, a pattern yet to be matched.

       “You’re cold,” he said.

       “Yes,” she lied.  Such futile untruths, and they both knew it.

       When he put his arms round her she thought she might shatter, be utterly annihilated by the tide of desire and triumph that so suddenly overcame her.  But still she felt it her duty to practice restraint; she buried her head in his chest and made not a sound.

       He held her close, feeling her heart race, the way she tried to hide it.  He was perplexed by his attraction to her, to a woman he could not touch, to a woman who would remain a closed, unread book.  He found her desire for this play-act of theirs touching but foolhardy – for a man who was a connoisseur of chance, her gamble was one in fool’s gold.  Tomorrow, when she woke up alone in bed, she would remain as cold and untouched as she had been the morning before, as bleak and maudlin as a winter’s day.  He wondered what she thought during her long nights spent alone loving and hating herself, what tortured dreams consumed her every waking moment.  The riddle of her character titillated him in a way that no other woman’s had before – she was virgin territory, an enigma unto herself for she felt no need to divulge her secrets to him.

       But for Rogue, no man she touched was a mystery, and she knew that if a man thoroughly understands a woman he cannot love her, and so she remained silent.

       And there, waking, Remy relived a fleeting moment of that recurring dream, the dream where he held her in his arms an infinite amount of times over…

       He stirred, unsettled by the memory, pulling away from her.  His gaze was inquisitive yet tender as he brushed the hair from her face, his fingers almost teasing her cheek, so close that she felt the tips of his nails tickle her skin.

       “It wasn’t Magneto’s idea for you to come here, was it,” he murmured softly. “It was yours.”

       Surprised, she unclasped him, not daring to ask how he had found her so transparent.  But his hand held fast onto hers, refusing to let her go.

       “Tell me why you came, Rogue,” he persisted, gently, gravely.  She dared make no reply, turning her back on him, facing the window, seeing the somnolent dusk beginning to fall.  Desperation flooded her – if only he hadn’t asked, if only they could’ve parted without interrogation, allowing this perfect mystery to remain.  How could she trust him to understand any explanation she had to offer?

       Wordlessly she reached inside her old coat, pulled out a cigarette, lit it with shaking fingers.  When she drew on it, it was only an exercise, an exercise in self-control, otherwise she knew she would cry, and she was afraid he would see her propensity for childish petulance.  When she finally spoke her voice was once again calm, passionless.

       “You’re right,” she said. “It was my idea.  But the idea itself… Ah never lied t’ you about that, Ah swear.”

       “You came t’ touch me?” he remarked incredulously

       She swivelled round to face him again, a mirthless smile on her face.

       “To imprint you,” she corrected him dryly. “Y’think touch itself gives me any kinda pleasure?” Her smile wavered; her throat contracted and she swallowed, her blasé mask temporarily displaced. “It’s all so borin’, y’see,” she began again quietly, contemplatively. “Bein’ me.  Ah ain’t got no special powers, not the kind the kids in the comic stores would like to have anyhow.” She sucked in a mouthful of smoke, exhaled it sharply, allowing her eyes to meet his, communicating to him that her explanation was enough and that she had no desire to elucidate any further.

       But it was not enough.  He regarded her with an odd excitement, with a sense that some secret door he could not see was opening, revealing the thing within.

       “So,” he probed, “you wanted to imprint my powers?  Why?”

       She sighed heavily, half-turning, stopping so that the veranda framed her profile, a feverish sun illuminating her features in an image so elegant and melodramatic that he was quite stricken.

       “All Ah do, Gambit, is steal other people’s powers,” she continued miserably, stubbing out the cigarette on a wooden beam. “Their thoughts, their mem’ries – their entire beings.  Erik finds me useful, now and again, but not the way he does the others.  Ah can’t do anythin’ but steal information for him, and every time Ah go home Ah got nothin’ t’ keep me comp’ny but a bunch of people runnin’ round mah head, drivin’ me crazy.” She paused, glanced over at him with a wry smile. “Funny how lonely a gal can be, Gambit, livin’ like that.  S’like bein’ a sad, pathetic spinster who immerses herself in soap operas every evenin’, just t’ give herself the illusion that she has a life.”

       “But how exactly would imprintin’ me be any different?” he questioned.

       She shrugged. “You had somethin’ Ah wanted.  Powers that would make me special, useful, in one way or another.”

       He was sceptical, knowing she’d only told him a half-truth. “An’ dat was worth followin’ me all de way down here?”

       She was suddenly evasive.  He was probing more than she had expected, yet how could she deny that all the while they had been asking constant questions of one another, words without spoken articulation, formed only in looks, caresses, expressions?  She was loath to give up any admission of her weakness to him, but she knew she had been formulating that admission from the moment she had made her irrational bargain with him.

       “Is it so hard t’ believe,” she began in a low voice, “that sometimes you just feel a connection with someone, one that you can’t explain?”

       “No,” he replied.  In light of the circumstances, he could give no other answer.  At his confession she was heartened somehow, and for the first time she gazed at him with clear, sad eyes.

       “When we touched on the plane, it was like…” She paused, cheeks colouring, her tone dropping a notch as she remembered that first thrill of passion. “Up until that moment, Ah never knew Ah could want somethin’ so bad.” She lowered her eyelids, withdrawing her gaze from his. “Ah ain’t ever goin’ t’ be with a man, Remy,” she explained, stumbling over the words and belying an inner sense of shame. “Ah ain’t ever goin’ t’ know what it feels like t’ be with someone.  The closest Ah can get t’ bein’ intimate with someone is by touchin’ them an’ imprintin’ them.” She lifted her head, green eyes wistful. “Ah came round to figurin’ that mah power could bring me closer to someone than touch itself ever could, that it could make me more intimate with a man than…”

       “Than sex?” he offered when she faltered.  She nodded, swallowing, her eyes flitting to his and back again nervously.

       “It’s crazy, Ah know,” she continued, emotion cracking her voice. “But Ah thought, if Ah could just have someone inside me, really inside me, Ah could have them there and keep them forever… So that Ah wouldn’t be lonely anymore…”

       He sensed her humiliation, her certainty of the disgust he must feel at her confession.  Any other man may indeed have found her disclosure disquieting, but he understood her, for in reality her quandary was not so different from his own.  All his roaming, all his wandering, and at the end of it he found himself isolated and misunderstood.  He felt petty and mean for his perceived alienation from Belladonna, Belladonna whom he could love and touch and kiss.  His mind wandered involuntarily to the drawer where he had thrown his wedding ring with such casual indifference.

       “If dat’s de case,” he asked quietly, “den why didn’t you touch me when you had de chance?”

       It was a question asked in fairness, but for some reason his words angered her.  She rounded on him, eyes blazing green fire, hair wild.

       “Don’t you get it?” she snapped. “If Ah touched you, Ah was afraid that Ah might…”

       She snapped her mouth shut, easy tears springing to her eyes – for she knew that what she had feared had happened already, and she had been powerless to stop it.  Without another word she spun on her heel, storming off the veranda and onto the beach.

       In the remaining silence Remy was left to contemplate on what he had glimpsed on the other side of that open door, the door she had slammed so unceremoniously back in his face.


       With the onset of dusk the sky had begun to bleed, deep crimsons, tawny russets and fervent purples.  Rogue sensed an omen in the sky as she walked the beach – there was something in the colours that moved her and yet filled her with a sense of dread.  She stopped, bare feet in the surf, toes curling in wet sand, as she looked up at the sunset, watching the orange sun score the last leg of its trail through a voluminous, violet sky.  There was something too profound, too passionate about it; all the things she had spent her life running from suddenly swelled in her breast, and for the first and last time she felt alive; she felt like a woman.

       Yet with the nightfall came the end of that small beginning; in the sunset, in the turn of the tides, what she saw was the day coming to an end; their pretence folding in quietly upon itself; her pitiful attempt at normality tumbling like child’s bricks into one ungainly pile.  All her life she had fought so brazenly against anyone and everything that had ever stood in her way; small wonder then, that the person she had most cause to fight was herself.  And what she saw with the day’s end was a return to her cocoon, to the place where the only demons she saw were the ones that wore her own face.

       What did Rogue want?

       What she wanted was intimacy, was to be free of her fear of intimacy; she wanted to be loved and ravished.  She longed more than anything to be torn asunder and placed back together again, gently, lovingly, reverently.

       And suddenly, it became clear to her, and she understood herself for what she was – that she was a woman, that the only thing she wanted was a man brave enough to tear her apart and rebuild her again.

       It was the secret in her, the secret she’d almost let him in on.

       If she touched him she was afraid that she might love him.

       But what she feared had already begun.

      

       Framed inside the rectangle of the window, Rogue walked across the beach like a young girl seeking seashells, the legs of her pants rolled up to her calf, feet bare in an unfamiliar display of pale, untried, untested flesh.  Remy downed the rest of his third glass of bourbon, placed the glass heavily on a side-table, his teeth pulling at his lower lip.  There was something mysterious and whimsical about the way she looked in the tawny sunlight, so uncomplicated, so innocent, so child-like.  She stopped halfway and suddenly looked out to sea – the result was as if a painting on canvas, a snapshot in time, a moment captured, an infinite secret.

       Back home, he’d always wondered what Belle thought in those moments when she would not speak to him; she liked to do that, to hold her words and thoughts to ransom, knowing that silence would thus render her even more unfathomable to him.  They would never understand one another – it was as if, in her stillness, she would taunt him with the fact that they would never be able to comprehend the mystery of one another.  It frustrated him, for he had known her longer than any other woman, seen aspects of her no other was privy to, and it was this, in fact, that he has always thought rendered their love unbreakable.

       He leaned against the windowsill – his head felt heavy.  What did he want?  Was he so afraid that he was negating his own existence by sharing it with Belle’s, that his personality would slowly become engulfed by hers, until there was no Remy LeBeau left?  Was that why he wanted her to acknowledge him, to recognise the person he was inside?  And did any of it really matter?  Did any of it matter when he loved her?

       Outside, Rogue half turned as if to look back towards him; but then she turned away again, unconsciously retreating, as she always did.  And suddenly he knew what he wanted.  He knew, and the answer so simple he wondered that he’d never seen it – for it had lain in her all along.

      

       The sand was cooler now that the evening was drawing on; he too walked bare foot out onto the shore, to the place where she was standing.  The Alice in Wonderland quality she had held, when he had seen her back inside the frame of the window, evaporated; under close quarters she was no longer a girl – she was a woman, a woman with whose life he would only barely intersect.

       “Y’ like de sea?” he asked her, making a tentative step towards a reconciliation.

       She shrugged – acceptance.

       “It’s okay.”

       He lit them each a cigarette.  She was cool, detached, her eyes dull as she looked upon inky waves flecked with ashen foam.  He passed an inquiring look towards her profile, but she said nothing, imparted nothing, relinquished nothing.  He thought she was angry with herself for making a bargain that left her with so little, that perhaps she blamed him for taking advantage of her.  Maybe she would touch him after all.  Maybe she would steal away his thoughts, his memories, his soul, his self.  Maybe she would learn to understand him.

       But there was no agitation in her features.  She was calm, meditative.  He followed her gaze, out to sea.  Whatever it was she saw, he could not see; but he could feel it.  He had often felt it when he stood here – an emotion he could give no name to, a thing he could not interpret into any language he knew.  He shuddered, feeling suddenly, inexplicably moved, overcome with a deep and penetrating sense of dread.

       “You ever been in love, Remy LeBeau?”

       Her question was slight, though unexpected; she said it without contrivance, though her words unsettled him.  He hid his discomfit behind a small laugh. “Chere, I’m de kind of man who’s always fallin’ in love.” His lips contorted self-deprecatingly. “My Tante Mattie used t’ say, ‘ain’t nothin’ wrong wit’ fallin’ in love; it’s what y’ do wit’ dat love dat makes de difference.” He halted, feeling embarrassed that he should have allowed himself to be so sentimental in her presence.  He looked over to her, quickly changing the subject. “And you?”

       She shrugged again with feigned indifference. “Ah don’t think Ah really know what love is,” she replied.

       He merely grunted his agreement.  His mind was once more on the ring he’d hidden in his bedside drawer; he wondered what Belle was doing right now.  Beside him, Rogue shifted, the bare toes of one foot marking a nervous pattern in wet sand.

       “So what’s it like then?” she asked, “T’ be in love?”

       It was his turn to shrug. “Can’t say.  S’one of those things you only know when you feel it.”

       Her silence was short, analytical; he sensed the question that would follow, but it was not the one she asked.

       “An’ what’s it like, to show someone you love them? What’s it like when you kiss them and touch them and hold them close?”

       His throat tightened.  He felt pity for her – pity and something more.

       “It feels…good, chere.  Real good.” Anything else, he couldn’t find the vocabulary to explain.  He sensed her frustration, the kind of frustration he felt when he wanted to reach out to Belle, knowing he couldn’t, knowing it was impossible because their conceptions of the world were so different…  She frowned, tossing her head back towards the sea.

       “If Ah was to touch someone Ah loved,” she began slowly, ruminatively, “someone Ah really loved, Ah think Ah’d be terrified half t’ death.” She took one last drag on the cigarette, tossed it into the surf. “Ah just wouldn’t know what t’ do, y’know?  Wouldn’t know where t’ put mah hands, or mah arms, or mah lips, or…” She faltered, not so much from embarrassment, but from a sudden thought that had led to some inner thread of contemplation.  She was silent for a long moment, her face as still as if she were in a coma.  What she meant to say was, she had no memory of skin, no recollection with which to judge the interaction of flesh.  But she too lacked the words to describe her train of thought.  It was a full minute before she seemed to awaken.

       “Y’ know what Ah like about the sea?” she spoke up, less to evade the disconcerting topic than to reply to his previous question.  She cast him a playful glance, a cryptic smile, before turning away again. “It’s the fact that it’s always changin’.  Each moment is different from the last – nothin’ stays the same.” She paused, and when she spoke again her tone was low, enigmatic. “Whenever Ah stand here, on the beach, whenever Ah look out t’ sea, and see the tide comin’ in, it feels like all the past, all the future’s rushin’ right in at me.  It’s like…Ah’m right in the centre of everythin’.” She turned back to him, forced a small, wavering laugh out of her mouth. “Ain’t that crazy?”

       He remained perfectly still, only his eyes moving over her face with a probing intensity as her gaze found his in the lengthening shadows, in the encroaching night. “No, Rogue,” he said at last, “it ain’t crazy.” His eyes shifted, to some point in space over her shoulder. “Sometimes, I dream –”

       He did not finish.  She looked back over her shoulder to see what he saw, the breeze catching her hair, cinnamon curls caressing pink cheeks.  It was the sun, dropping beneath stars, extinguishing itself in the sea, taking with it the last vestiges of the day.

       Last call.

       “Rogue,” he began on impulse, “if you want t’ touch me…”

       “Ah don’t want t’ touch you anymore,” she interjected quickly, too quickly, too tensely.  She found his eyes again, searching desperately, waiting for their cue.  And suddenly it was there between them, so abruptly, so imperceptibly that they were both confused.  There was no time left to heed it.  Without thought she reached out with sudden hunger, taking his face between gloved hands, pressing her lips, her body, greedily against his.  And for one moment it was everything she had ever imagined it would have been – later, she could not bear to think that maybe it was her imagination that he kissed her back; that for the first time she shared a kiss of passion, that for the first time she was a woman and a man kissed her back.

       But as for him, the only thing he would ever remember afterward with stark clarity would be the taste, the texture of her, unlocking the stranger in him, guiding him upward and outward to the nameless space where, suspended for one moment in time, Remy LeBeau would cease to exist, except inside her.

       No hurting, no running, no borders, no bounds, no masks, no secrets, no lies.

       He imagined or felt that he pressed her closer, before he slipped away, and a part of him became a part of her forever.


       When he awoke, it was to the calls of seagulls and the rhythmic cadence of the tide playing upon the shoreline.  At first he thought she had left him where he had fallen, but as his vision cleared he recognised his makeshift bedroom, the ivory-coloured walls coruscating in the pallid, morning sunlight.  He sat up slowly, nursing his aching head – the rest of his body felt unaccountably light, like a featherweight.  As he sat upright, her threadbare carpet coat slipped off his shoulders and into his lap.  He stared down at it, took the textured material between his hands, for the first time noticing the tapestry of roses someone had once stitched into the antique piece of clothing, long ago.  His heart felt emptied, consumed.  He pressed the fabric against his face, as if to awaken a memory of her that he could recreate into solid, tangible reality, his very own Galatea.  The old material smelled of her scent, of her hair.

       “Rogue?” he called out, his voice hoarse.  He cleared his throat, called again. “Rogue?”

       No answer.

      

       He wandered downstairs as a man who sleepwalks, finding each room he went into new, remote and alien, places ripped out of his normal schema and replaced as subtle distortions.  All bare.

       She was gone.

       He trudged back upstairs, feeling disorientated and disconnected from the reality he now found himself in, a reality without her or any token of her but the coat she had left him.  He sat down on the bed heavily, staring across to the place where she had stood, unconsciously replaying imperfect recollections of every word they had said.  When he rubbed his face, his fingers grated against a thick crop of stubble.  It slowly dawned on him that he was entirely without reference.  What day was it, what was the time?  He glanced at the clock on the bedside table, saw that it was 08:36 of the following morning.

       And that was when he noticed the note, flapping gently in the breeze from an open window.

       He stood up and went to it, surprised to find that it was his wedding ring serving as a paperweight.  Underneath the gold band, written entirely in inelegant capitals, she had left him her last cryptic message:

       YOU DON’T NEED TO UNDERSTAND.  UNDERSTANDING ISN’T LOVING.

       He picked up the ring, weighing it thoughtfully in his hand before dropping it in his pocket, not yet feeling ready to put it back on.  Then he picked up the note, folded it once over, and slipped it inside the pocket of her coat.

      

       Later, he went out onto the beach, walking golden dunes bathed under the light of a new day.  The spot where they had kissed was now buried beneath shifting sands and foam-flecked waves, waves that found their journey’s end a place far from home.  Perhaps they had intended to meet the shores of another land, across some vast distance he could not tell, nor would ever see.

       Perhaps they would have led him to another conclusion, and washed him up some place else, on the shores of a life where Rogue was a stranger no longer.

*     *     *     *     *


Next: Rogue and Gambit have a decision to make at the epicentre of all the Threads…

 

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