Note: Can you believe that it has been 4 and a half years since I last posted an update on this story? No, I can't either. So much has happened in those years and yet it feels like only yesterday I put up Thread number 6. Apologies for the LONG delay. The seventh tale was immensely difficult to write, because I had absolutely nothing planned for it. I waited and waited, and nothing came. Well, nothing that was right anyhow. I started stories that were based on Ultimate X-Men, the Amalgam, XSE, and then X-Men Noir (I quite like the bit I wrote for that story, I might post it up somewhere at some point). But nothing seemed to 'fit', until I got to this one. The 'official' Thread number 7. I'm still not completely happy with it, but I don't foresee myself doing anymore to it than I have here (unless it's minor editing). To be honest I just want to get the darn thing out of the way. From here on in, Threads (as a story) will likely see an end at 10 tales, as originally planned, but I don't know if the quality will be anything near as good as I once intended. We're all just gonna have to run with it!

Tale 7 is set in the House of M timeline. I would've loved to write more, but with the space constraints, of course that wasn't gonna happen. Maybe one day. A lot of this may not make sense unless you're familiar with the House of M limited series (that's all of the House of M I ever read anyhow), but I've tried to make it as accessible as possible. Enjoy.

-Ludi x


:: VII :: Touching the Void

 

“People you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore, that push, shove, won’t bend to your will… I’ll keep them still.” (Between the Bars, Madeleine Peyroux)

*     *     *     *     *


       The dream begins like this.

 

       The woman lies on the table, trussed up like a chicken while the man stands over her… And she is watching her, watching her watch the man, blue eyes wide and timorous and imploring as she sees the blade descend towards her, as it caresses the valley between her breasts in a parody of something artful and sensuous.

       All you have to do is say ‘yes’, say you’ll do it and she goes free…

       The man by the table grins, a shark-like grin of snow-white teeth, and she hears her voice, broken and unrecognisable, wailing, screaming…

       No, no more, no more killin’, won’t do it, won’t be a part of it no more…

       Her voice fades into an inarticulate moan of anguish.  There’s a sour flavour in her mouth, the bitter aftertaste of drugs.  Every movement seems sluggish, every image seems blurred and she slurs, no more…  And the row of white teeth expands, erupts, engulfs her…

       She wants to say no.  Every fibre of her being longs to say it.  No more sacrifice.  No more bargaining.  But the woman on the table, she has no part in this, and she can’t let her die.  She shouldn’t have got caught up in all this.  It wasn’t meant to happen this way.  Perhaps she could do it one more time, perhaps she could ply her trade in dissolution and death one more time just so the woman lives… And then it would be over and they could both walk free, and it’d be white picket fences and two point four kids and a pony…

       No, no more, she wasn’t going to gamble away her soul anymore…

       The grin again.  The blade flashes like strobe lighting in a darkened hall.

       Still can’t make up your mind, eh?  Maybe I can help settle the matter for you, no?

       The blade descends, deliberate and precise.  With a gesture full of macabre tenderness, he makes the first incision.

       The woman screams as the knife ruptures into soft, yielding flesh, teasing, torturing, not deep enough to kill but just enough to cause the most delicious and exquisite pain.  The scream careens through her senses, making her double over, making her retch.  She wants to be sick.  She no longer knows whether it’s the drugs or the stench of the blood or the fact that she’s so utterly helpless, that she has no control over the moment, over her powers; no way to save them both…

       Hot knife through butter.  I’m going to scar her for the rest of her life.  Do you really think there’s nothing worse than death?  Will you still love her when I tear that lovely face to shreds?  Will she still love you when she looks in the mirror every morning and sees what you’ve done to her?

       But she thinks – or she says aloud, or she screams – There are some things worse than death… Like walkin’ through life wit’ no soul left… and: - No more, I can’t do it no more…

       The woman screams, or never stopped screaming; she isn’t sure anymore.  She can feel it zigzagging through the web-like fabric of her nerves, white noise exploding through her senses until she curls up on the floor, she weeps, she wails in pure agony, in utter anguish because she knows, she knows… How can I still have a soul without havin’ her love?

       Dank, dry sobs rack her body and she finally gives in, she screams over the scream, I’ll do it!  I’ll do it!  I do anythin’ you want Essex, jus’ don’t hurt her, don’t hurt her no more!

       And then, she wakes up.


       A split second later and she had resurfaced from the depths, the nightmare spilling her out of its dank and terrible womb.  Her screams followed her to the surface, and she clawed at thin air, reaching for someone or something wrested from her before its time.

       No no no, please no!” she howled in a broken voice, and she was juddering, the whole world was juddering, shaking, exploding, shattering her into little pieces…

       “She’s going into arrest!” she heard an unfamiliar voice seem to shout from all around her, and suddenly there were hands and on her, holding her down, and then white light, black light…  She gasped a rasping breath, shuddered, and then all went still…

       Seconds, moments, hours passed.  And then suddenly there were sunlight cracks in the darkness, the frayed tatters of dreams; followed by a babbling murmur of voices and a nauseating sense of displacement.  The steady, staccato rhythm of a heart monitor somewhere beside and above her.

       Beep.  Beep.  Beep.

       Where am Ah?

       “Agent Darkhölme?” The voice cut through the clamour in her flailing mind with a cool and clinical calmness. “Agent Darkhölme?  It’s all right, Agent Darkhölme, you are quite safe.  Your sight will return in just a moment.”

       There was a pause and she blinked; her eyelids flickered and she sensed rather than saw light.  Half a minute later and shadows appeared, a body formed, and the outline of a unprepossessing male face sketched itself into existence.  She stared up at it with uncomprehending wonder.

       “Where...?”

       “S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters, Agent.  Medical bay.” The features had now coalesced into a bland, well-meaning sort of face that crowned a white, lab-coated body whose arms held a clipboard to its breast as if said clipboard and breast were part of the selfsame anatomy. “You’ve been here for a few days, Agent,” explained the voice. “Four, to be exact.”

      She blinked again; her eyesight was normalising.  The machine beside her was blipping steadily, pacing out the rhythm of her heart.  She followed the monitor with squinted eyes, traced it earnestly, feeling that what she saw was not real, was only a facsimile of her heartbeat…

       The doctor smiled genially.

       “Now there’s nothing to be worried about, Agent Darkhölme.  You’re in the very best of hands.”

       “But why –?”

       “We think the imprint ran too deep.  It seems the subject had some sort of empathic resonance with you.”

       “Empathic resonance?” she echoed weakly. “But that’s never happened before...”

       “Quite.  The diagnosis is, I will admit, currently hypothetical.  But according to our esteemed colleague, Dr. McCoy, it is the only conclusion we can come to.  And as you know… he is never wrong.”

       He smiled faintly, and looked down at his clipboard again with the very complacent air of knowing something about her that she herself – poor soul – was never likely to understand.  She bit back on her irritation, asked: “And the subject?  Did Ah...  Did Ah kill –?”

       “No.” The doctor turned away to a wall of monitors across the room. “Though for a while the subject’s brain activity was strangely... flat.” He paused, looked up at one particular screen and: “Ah,” very self-satisfied, “the subject appears to have awakened.  At the very same moment you did.” He turned back to her and smiled that faint, obsequious smile once more.

       “How very interesting.”


       The subject.  Remy LeBeau.  Gambit.  Terrorist, criminal, master thief.

       He’d been brought in five days ago by the public’s number one sweetie superhero, Captain Marvel, and half dead he may have been but he’d still managed to put up a fight.  Even with a power inhibitor clamped round his wrist he’d managed to wreak havoc in S. H. I. E. L. D.’s lobby, to the point that she’d had to crack him one on the jaw just to down him.  Justifiable force still hadn’t been enough.  The two of them had been grappling on the floor for a full minute, Raven barking out orders like a pitbull in the background, before she’d gone against protocol altogether, ripped off her glove, smashed her fist into his face just for good measure and –

       That was the last thing she’d remembered before waking up that morning in the med bay with Dr. McCoy’s stoogie standing over her.  And another bad case of someone else’s psyche pulling a Nightmare Before Christmas in her brain.

       Rogue stared at the mugshot on the screen and tried to be objective.  It didn’t help that the man’s nightmares were still colouring every single one of her thoughts since she’d first made the damn imprint.

       “He has a rap sheet longer than the Great Wall of frikkin’ China,” Raven was saying beside her. “Grand larceny, grand theft auto, grievous bodily harm, manslaughter, conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, yadda, yadda… And now we have resisting arrest and assaulting a government agent to add to the list.” She turned away from the screen, looked at Rogue and said in an accusative tone: “You shouldn’t’ve absorbed him, Anna.”

       “It was the quickest way to take him down,” Rogue replied, though with hindsight she now doubted her actions enough to regret them.  She wasn’t about to tell Raven that though.

       “It was reckless and it went against protocol,” Raven corrected her tersely. “Your powers are still unstable.  You can’t control them, Rogue.  You know you’re only supposed to make imprints under the strict supervision of either myself or Dr. McCoy.”  She paused, whilst Rogue continued to stare at the face on the screen.

       Auburn hair, fallen angel eyes, and a mouth that looked like it could do all sorts of unmentionable things.  The face he can’t bear to see in the mirror…

       “Anna,” Raven continued when Rogue didn’t reply, “the imprint ran too deep.  I’m worried about you.  I know you’ve asked to sit in on LeBeau’s interrogation but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

       “So you’ve said.  About a hundred times before,” Rogue answered wearily.  She looked away from the screen with an effort and rubbed her eyes, trying to get the bloody images – his nightmares – out from behind them.  She didn’t feel right.  Nothing felt right anymore.

       “I’m going to keep saying it,” Raven was persisting, “even if you don’t listen.  Hank’s told me how this might affect you.  Insomnia, loss of concentration, even amnesia… Random resurfacing of his memories… Look, do I have to go on?”

       “No, momma,” Rogue retorted firmly, brushing past her foster-mother and dropping down into the hard-backed chair behind the desk. “You really don’t.  Because it’s a waste of time.  Ah’m goin’ into that interrogation room and you can’t stop me.  Period.  Ah know things about him no one else does.  And that means Ah can be a big advantage to you.”

       “Or a liability,” Raven muttered under her breath.  She sighed and sat on Rogue’s desk, stared down sternly at her daughter. “Okay then, let’s assume you absorbed something useful.  So what exactly do you know about LeBeau then?”

       “Ah dunno,” Rogue shrugged irritably. “Things.  Nothin’ concrete yet, but they’ll come to me…”

       “I can’t count on you to conjure them up at the right time, Rogue,” Raven interjected pointedly.

       “Momma –”

       “No; look, Rogue.  You’ve made an imprint under completely unregulated conditions.  You could’ve absorbed anything from him.  Something too close, too personal; something that could be a liability to everything we’ve worked for.” She paused, exhaled. “We’ve been building this case for too long now for it to be jeopardised.  If you can’t come up with anything solid against LeBeau then I don’t want you in the interrogation room, Anna.  Because neither you nor I really knows what it is you could come out with.  Do you?”

       Rogue pouted indignantly.  She had something and she knew it – the thing that could nail him was right there swimming under her skull.  Along with all the other crap and baggage she had that was his and the girl trussed up like a chicken whose lips he had kissed and whose body he had –

       She shook her head violently and pressed a hand to her forehead saying heatedly: “It’s no use, momma, Ah’m goin’ in there and that’s final.  There is someone… a man…yes, a man, Ah think, who’s behind him.  Ah just… Ah’m tryin’ to find a name…”

       Beside her Raven sighed heavily.

       “All right.  I’ll let you in.  But if you pick up on anything – anything – you have to run it by me first.  Promise me that.” Rogue nodded vaguely and Raven slid off the desk, saying: “I don’t like this, Rogue.  That man’s mind could be a minefield and you have so little control over what you see.  If you were to stumble over something dangerous, Rogue…God help you, my daughter.”

       She walked out of the room and Rogue stared after her thinking, don’t worry, momma… Ah think Ah already have… …


       An empathic resonance.

       That was what Hank had said she shared with him.

      She didn’t fully understand what it meant, but she felt it.  She knew it was there.  It was something that ran deeper than the imprint, than this strange little world and everything in it.

       Rogue stood on the deck of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s floating airship and stared down over the railings onto the night time city with the breeze tossing her hair and cooling her cheeks.

       She couldn’t sleep because there was a fever on her.  His fever, and it was all his fault because she hadn’t even seen looked him in the eyes yet but he was right there inside her, a little knot in the pit of her stomach, a broken song on the tip of her tongue that had no tune.  She’d never been in love, not even close to it, but she asked herself now whether this is what it felt like.  This trembling in the night with this sickness in your stomach and your heart in your mouth.

       She thought that this is what he felt for the woman, the golden-haired woman in his dreams and his nightmares.  Love.  And devastation, guilt, shame and emptiness at her loss.

       Rogue closed her eyes and put her face to the wind.

       He must’ve killed her.  The demon in his nightmares must have killed her.  The demon had promised him her life for his cooperation and even though he’d done everything the demon had asked of him, the demon had still taken her away.  He’d promised and he’d lied.

       Belle is dead to me.  She’s gone.

       Rogue opened her eyes.

       “Belle…” She whispered the name.  A wind chime tinkling softly on a summer breeze.

       That was what he thought of when he said it.

       She buried her face in her hands and moaned softly.

       Mystique hadn’t meant it that way, but this was danger of a different kind.  And she’d stumbled on it.  She’d stumbled on it, she’d opened up the chasm and fallen through and now there was no certain way of ever turning back.


       Rogue had seen him, of course.  Several times.  The photo they had on file, on the Most Wanted lists sent out through every state and city; even in the flesh, on the day they’d first brought him in.

       But nothing had prepared her for that moment walking into the interrogation room, when she looked at him and saw him sitting there at the table, slouched back in his chair as if he were about to indulge in some desultory if not strictly friendly conversation; not in an interview with the world’s most powerful intelligence security organisation.

       He was beautiful.

       And when he looked at her with only fleeting interest he gave her such a flash of skin-on-skin, such a heady rush of warm, liquid kisses that she felt her cheeks flush and her breath hitch and her blood boil.

       He itched the strangeness in her as if he’d been born to do so all his life.

       “Remy LeBeau,” Raven greeted him in her hard-as-nails voice, taking a seat opposite him. “I’m Agent Darkhölme.  And this...” She paused and gestured to Rogue, who took a seat, jelly-limbed, beside her. “This is Rogue.”

      He looked at her, seeming a little amused at the codename, and Rogue flushed again, this time from embarrassment and indignation, trying to hide both and failing miserably.

       “She doesn’t say much,” Raven smiled without smiling. “Unless, of course, she has something worth saying.  We’re letting her sit in on the interview today.  We hope you don’t mind,” she added, with false and excessive politeness.

       He didn’t take the bait.  Just shrugged, like what the hell did it matter to him whatever they did?  He’d been ninety-six hours in a coma, had had the shakes twenty-four, had been living on whatever they poured through an intravenous drip, and he felt like shit.  All he cared about was his next bath and his next fucking lay.

       Raven smirked, the kind of smirk Rogue knew signalled danger; from her lap she produced a thick, fraying, dog-eared file and slammed it on the table with a resounding thud.  He didn’t even bother looking at it.

       “Remy LeBeau,” Raven repeated, this time her voice dripping ice, “codename Gambit, loosely affiliated with the Thieves Guild of New Orleans, master criminal, mutant terrorist, known links with the Human Resistance Movement.”  She thumbed the pages of the file, offering him a peek here and there – an offer that he didn’t particularly bother to take up.  She slapped the file shut again and glared at him. “We know you’ve been funding the Sapiens’ pathetic attempts at dissension with your tainted cash, LeBeau.  We know you’re somehow involved with this ‘genetic therapy’ the sapiens are queuing up for.  We even know why.  So let’s cut to the fucking chase.  We want to know who.” She leaned forward, eyes flaring in the dingy light. “Who’s behind these sick medical procedures that are turning sapiens into us?”

      He’d been staring right back at her, returning her venomous gaze without even an ounce of expression.  Rogue had to give it to him.  He was just about as hard as Raven was; and more than just a damn sight insolent.

       “You’re wrong,” he said at last, in a conversational tone; his voice was like whiskey and molasses and made her shiver. “You don’t know why.  An’ if y’don’t know why...” he paused and lightly thumbed the power disruptor on his wrist, “den you don’t know anyt’ing about anyt’ing else about me.” He looked away, bored. “I want my lawyer.”

       “Pfft.” Mystique scoffed. “What are you, fucking stupid?  But then I guess a busy little bastard like you doesn’t have the time to watch the TV or read the papers.  You’re being detained under the Sapiens Criminal and Terrorist Act.  We can keep you in here for 90 days without evidence or legal representation.”

       He didn’t even look at her.

       “I’m not Sapiens.”

       If he had yawned, he would’ve overdone it.

       “You don’t have to be.”

       “You mistake me for some scum off de street, Agent Darkhölme.  I do my homework, and I’ve read de new law.  I t’ink de wording’s ambiguous enough for me to contest dis in court.  What will de press say when dey see you held a mutant citizen in detention wit’out no evidence, and all in de name of our great ruler Magnus hisself?” Did she detect a thinly veiled sarcasm there, or was he just playing for the cameras? “I don’t t’ink I have t’ say anyt’ing.  We’re done here.”

       Rogue felt it.  Raven, fuming inwardly, wanting to rip out his throat and ram it up his ass – and containing the urge about as successfully as she was at containing the way he was making her squirm.

       “You can call up as many of your errant lawyer friends as you want,” Raven hissed through gritted teeth. “We are the law, and we have all the evidence we need to keep you locked up for a long time to come.”

       “So why am I here then?  You aimin’ t’ make a deal?” He paused, smiling glibly. “Cos I hate t’ have t’ tell you dis but I ain’t about to shop anyone’s ass.  And you know why?” He leaned forward and showed his teeth in an infuriating smile. “I don’ know who de fuck you’re talkin’ about.”

       … man grins, a shark-like grin of snow-white teeth… row of white teeth expands, erupts, engulfs her…

       “He’s lyin’,” Rogue cut in quickly, so quickly that his gaze shot towards her as he leaned, frozen in place; she felt that gaze as if it had scored itself right into her heart and she averted her eyes in a sudden, awkward movement.

       “An’ you’re bluffin’,” he shot back, mistaking her embarrassment for ineptitude.  Raven merely laughed, a hint of triumph in her voice.

       “We don’t need a telepath to find out what we need to know, Mr. LeBeau,” she informed him gleefully. “Especially with someone whose mind is as slippery as yours.  Rogue here has much more … ‘subtle’ ways of teasing out information.”

       She felt it this time, in more ways than one.  His glance grazing over her with a renewed interest.  Hostile, questioning, curious interest.  She couldn’t return the look without wanting... Something.  Him?  Maybe.  Oh God.

       “You’re bluffin’,” he said again, this time with more confidence in his voice. “If you t’ink bringin’ a pretty face in here to distra–“

       “We know he made you do it,” she blurted out suddenly, not knowing where the words were coming from, cutting him off mid-sentence.  Once more she felt his stare, burning her up, making her heartbeat quicken, making those silky smooth memories that weren’t her own brush against her consciousness.

       “Who?” he said, this time soft, this time testing...

       Essex...

       “Essex,” she spat out again without thinking.

       Gambit sat back in his chair with an almost imperceptible exhale of breath; she felt rather than saw the sharp, split-second glance that Mystique shot at her.

       “I don’ know what you’re talkin’ about,” he finally said.  He didn’t even bat an eyelid, but his voice was flat, controlled – too controlled – and suddenly she felt brave enough to meet his eyes.  His eyes, this time questing and suspicious; her own, tinged with confusion at the things they knew but could not see.

       They sat for a moment, staring at one another.

       Whatever Hank meant when he said ‘empathic resonance’, the both of them felt it then.

       “I think we’ve talked enough.” Mystique broke the charged silence with a frosty abruptness. “We’ll pick this up again tomorrow.” She scraped her chair back, stood in a sudden, jerky movement.  Rogue reluctantly averted her eyes from that strange and penetrating gaze.  Her limbs felt light and gelatinous as she, too, finally stood.  Raven was already at the door.

       “Rogue,” she said, almost warningly.

       Rogue followed, glancing back over her shoulder only once.

       When she did, it was to find his eyes still on her own.

 

       Raven marched down the corridor like a miniature storm cloud, neither stopping nor talking until she’d reached the nearest corner where she whipped round and faced her daughter with a recriminating glare.

       “I thought we’d agreed you’d tell me everything before we started,” she hissed pointedly.

      “Sorry,” Rogue replied. “It just came up as we were talkin’.  Ah hadn’t picked up on it before.” Mystique’s gaze was cold and level, prompting Rogue to repeat somewhat sheepishly: “Sorry.  It’s not like it’s somethin’ Ah can control, momma.  You know that.”

       Raven frowned, sighed, then relented.

       “Do you have any idea about the type of person he is, Rogue?” she questioned earnestly, pointing fiercely at the door they’d just walked from. “And just how close he could bring us to solving this case?  At all costs this ‘genetic therapy’ ring must be stopped.  It’s the decree of Magnus himself, and even if it wasn’t... such abominations cannot be allowed to continue.”

       “Ah know,” Rogue answered uncomfortably. “It’s just...” she halted, looked back over her shoulder, felt the silkiness in her mind give way to darkness and cold terror, “he’s not a bad man, momma.”

       “That may very well be, daughter,” Raven answered gravely, “but we all make choices, and this... thief …has made the wrong ones.  Time and again.  He is the friend of terrorists, Rogue.  He is our enemy.” She turned and walked away, throwing back over her shoulder: “Now, this Essex character... If you get anymore on him, come to me first.  This could be the only lead we get.”


       She sat in bed and stared at the clock blinking 02:56 in the darkness.

       She’d tried to sleep, but every time she tried they came back.  The memories that weren’t hers.  The silky ones, of Belle, of skin-on-skin and warm, liquid kisses, over and over and over until she thought she was going to go insane.  They’d shared a single real look in that interrogation room and now it was like there was a broken dam spewing out everything it had at her.  All those memories, all the good ones, all the sweet, trembling, pleasurable little ones…

       And then there were the cold, dark, terrible, unspeakable ones – flesh of a different kind, gaping and bloody and wide-open, with screams and pain and burning and twisting and oh God, oh God, make it stop, no more, no more, please...

       Rogue whimpered and pulled the duvet up over her knees, burying her face in the soft eiderdown, feeling tears spilling again, thick and fast and so hot they burned.  He’d cried like this.  Spent whole nights crying like this, during the cold, dark horror and after it, when he’d lost her.  They were right – the imprint had run too deep.  She had no right to any of this, no right to know thoughts and feelings this visceral, this indescribably horrible, even less so because she was using them as a weapon, a weapon against him...

       This is wrong, all wrong… Ah need t’ make it right…

       With sudden determination she threw aside the covers and jumped out of bed.  Wiping the tears from her cheeks she went to her wardrobe and took out her S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform.  As she dressed she had no idea of the course she was going to take, nor where it was going to lead her.  All she knew was that he had taken away a part of her, and she wanted it back.


       The guard standing at the doors of cell block Z was one she didn’t recognise, but then, she didn’t usually do the night shifts.  She smiled at him as she approached, tugged off her glove and slid her thumb over the door’s scanner.

       “You’re working late tonight, Agent,” he observed with a comradely grin.

       “Business,” she answered, slipping her glove back on. “Ah drew the short straw.”

       Beep.

       The door began to slide open.

       “Oh.” He nodded sympathetically as she walked on through. “Well, if you get any grief, just gimme a call,” and he patted the cattle prod at his thigh.

       “Thanks,” she answered dryly, “but Ah think havin’ vampire skin oughta be enough t’ keep that scum sleepin’ like babies.”

 

       He was sitting on his cell bed when she entered, eyeing her with the bleary look of someone who was tranqued up to the hilt.  There was congealed blood caking his right nostril and he needed a shave, but she still got that slippery, silky feeling when she saw him, and she still had to swallow it as the titanium door slid shut behind her.

       “Good evenin’, Mr. LeBeau,” she said, with as much formal civility as she could muster.  As soon as she spoke his glance changed to one of recognition – did she detect a sparkle in his eye?

       “Woulda been better if you’d brought de whips and chains, chere,” he grinned. “Dis cell ain’t no fun.  Would at least’a thought you woulda tied me up.”

       “Sorry to disappoint, but Ah’m still on duty.”

       Was she flirting with him?

       “Right,” he smiled, slow, sexy, like picking up on her cue was his second nature.  What the hell?  She knew it was. “So you’re de good cop.  Where’s de bad cop t’night?  Don’ tell me she’s de one who gets all de fun while you do all de borin’ stuff…”   

       She said nothing, inwardly irritated, sensing he was toying with her, sensing he knew why she was there already.  Was she really so transparent?

       “Tell me,” he asked in his best facsimile of nonchalance, “where did you get such a bitch for a mother?”

       “She ain’t my real mother.”

       “Ahhh,” he grinned again. “Dat explains it.  Couldn’t figure out how a sweet t’ing like you could be related to some fucked up psycho-bitch like her.” She pursed her lips shut, refusing to let him get to her – it was enough that his smile was making her mouth go dry and her stomach go oopsy-daisy on her... “So, Agent ‘Rogue’.  Dat de handle you go by?  Sounds pretty good – if you was a superhero or somet’ing...”

       “Are you done yet?”

       “Mebbe.  Gotta admit, you ain’t givin’ me much t’ work with, chere.”

       “That’s a shame,” she replied with a whole wealth of meaning, moving away from the door, seeing her chance to get even. “’Cos you happen t’ have given me a whole damn lot to get mah teeth into, sugah.”

       That shut him up.  Eyes that were bleary and unfocused were suddenly sharp and alert.  He’s been fakin’, she realised. Damn, he’s good.  He must absorb the drugs faster than Dr. McCoy’s findings suggested.  But how...?

       “S.H.I.E.L.D. knows a whole lot more than you think,” she continued quietly. “At least, they could do.  All they have to do is tap into your mind.  And believe me, it wouldn’t take a whole lot t’ do that.”

       He stared at her a moment, then laughed.  A short, mocking laugh.

       “You oughta know better den t’ pull dis kinda stunt, chere.  It ain’t your style, and trust me, I know a lot about style.”

       “And what would mah style be?” she asked, her eyebrows working with annoyance.

       “You got de brawn, chere, as well as de looks, but dis…” He tapped the side of his head dryly. “Dat killer punch you landed me wit’ gave me a headache and a half, plus four day’s worth in La-La Land, but you ain’t gonna get me to talk wit’ dis bull about mind-readin’ and telepaths.  Even the world’s greatest can’t get a handle on my brain.”

       “Really?” She pulled up a chair and sat opposite him. “Ah sympathise.  Ah got exactly the same kinda problem.”

       She paused; he stared at her, weighing up her words.  For a moment, he looked as though he would speak, but something stopped him.  He merely stared at her even harder.  Not with hostility this time, nor even cold curiosity, but with interest.  Real interest.  She felt her cheeks begin to redden again.

       “That wasn’t a punch Ah knocked you out with, LeBeau,” she said softly, intimately. “It was this.” She pulled off her glove, raised her hand and showed him her palm. “It was my skin.” She lowered her hand and met his gaze. “Ah was in a coma too, y’know.  For four days.  Ah woke when you woke, at the very same moment.  Ah’m sorry.  Ah know it was painful.  It does tend t’happen a lot to the people Ah touch.”

       There was a bitterness in her voice that she couldn’t quite control, and she knew he’d sensed it before she regretted saying it.  His gaze became even more intense, and she quickly averted her eyes, her breath quickening.

       “So dat’s what happened,” he murmured, still staring at her. “Shoulda known.  You absorbed me.”

       She looked up at him sharply.

       “How did you –?”

       “I told you,” he replied deprecatingly. “I do my homework.” He glanced at her askance, suddenly suspicious. “Why are you here?”

       She couldn’t hold his gaze, not for longer than a few moments.  What was wrong with her?  It wasn’t the first time she’d absorbed the darker side of a subject, but it’d never stayed with her like this, consuming her night and day, making her crave and want, keeping her awake at night...

       “The imprint ran too deep,” she answered on a breath. “You’re inside me.  All the time.  Twenty-four-seven.  Ah can’t sleep.  Ah can’t...” she blushed, “Ah can’t look at you without... without...”

       She trailed off, feeling exposed and stupid and foolish, feeling as if her breath were about to explode from her mouth in one big torrent and leave her, open and deflated, on the floor.  She couldn’t even look at him to see the slow grin cross his face.

       “Well, if dat’s all de problem is...”

       “Ah’m bein’ serious!” she cut in agitatedly, and he returned in a low voice: “So am I.”

       Something in his tone caught her off guard and she glanced up at him, this time finding herself able to look him in the eye.

       “Ah know you,” she told him earnestly, leaning towards him as a sunflower to the sun. “And it ain’t just the imprint.  Ah never set real eyes on you until today, but Ah can’t shake this feelin’... ugh!” She turned away in sudden disgust. “What have yah done t’ me?!”

      “Take off dis disruptor and maybe I can help you find out,” he murmured, cajoling, seductive; but she laughed mirthlessly and said: “You touch me again and Ah might just kill yah.  And Ah ain’t jokin’.”

       “Who says we need t’touch...?”

      “Don’t make me.  Please.” A pause. She closed her eyes, rubbed the bridge of her nose and suddenly felt silk again. “You loved her.  So bad.  That’s what Ah’m feelin’, when Ah close mah eyes, when Ah look at you, when Ah try t’sleep at night.  You loved her like it was a madness, and the only way to make it better was to... was to...” She halted, gulping in breaths, pressing her thighs together, tight together. “He threatened her, almost killed her... that was how he made you do it, that was how he made you do what he wanted you to do...” She stopped suddenly, drained, empty; when she opened her eyes again and looked at him, it was to see him looking back at her in haggard, pale-faced astonishment.  For a few moments, he was just as aghast as she was.  And then the expression left.  Turned to hate, quiet, calm, controlled hate.

       “You’re not gonna get a t’ing from me,” he told her, that whiskey and molasses voice taut and tight with anger, and she couldn’t bear it, she stepped towards him again, hands outstretched, pleading.

       “Remy…” she began, in the voice Belle had used in her – his – dreams… And his face erupted in a crescendo of sudden grief and rage.

       “Get out!” he screamed at her. “Get de fuck out!”

       Almost as soon as it had come out of her mouth she’d regretted her mistake and she stood there a moment, chest heaving, looking down at his beautiful, angry, anguished face and wondering why that look was so heart-wrenchingly familiar, more familiar even than an imprint could inform her when he was this close, when he was already this much a part of her…

       Without another thought, she turned on her heels and fled.


       Mystique was worried about her.  Truth be told, she was worried about herself.

       This had gone too far, she said.  Way too far.  She shouldn’t have taken Rogue into the interrogation room that day.  Something had happened.  Not just to her, but to him as well.  He wasn’t talking.  He’d clammed up tight as a miserly old fist round its last wad of cash.   And whenever Raven went back into that room to sort out Rogue’s mess, he’d sit there with his eyes staring at the space next to her.  As if he expected her to be there.  To plead with him in a voice that wasn’t hers and beg him to make it better if he could.

       But he couldn’t.  She was gone.  They both were.

 

       So Rogue went to Hank.  She asked him what it all meant, even if she expected no answer.

       “Empathic resonance,” he repeated after her, bounding briskly about his lab whilst singing a hymn of hmms and hahs over bubbling phials and shimmering laptop screens.  He stopped and stared at her over the top of his glasses. “Oh yes.  Oh that.  Well, I did talk to Raven about it.  How very dangerous it was.  How you should stay off any case until fully recovered.  Still, I don’t think –”

       “But what does it mean?” she interrupted him, as he examined a phial of clear liquid that slowly turned to a deep shade of lavender. “What happened?  Why is he still in my head and my thoughts and – everywhere?”

       “Hm,” Hank intoned distractedly. “I’m not sure what exactly happened, if I have to be brutally honest.  And that is oh-so-demeaning to any scientist of my calibre, but there it is…” He paused, laid down the phial, and looked directly at her. “You were both out for exactly the same amount of time, Rogue,” he said quite seriously, almost gravely. “And your brain wave patterns – exactly the same.  Exactly.  For four short days (or long, as the case may be), you shared the same slice of what I like to call ‘empathic-space-time’…” He looked like he was about to get lost in some theory of his, but stopped short and added: “Why?  Because your minds, your bodies, your (dare I say it?) souls, share some sort of resonance.  It’s not common between strangers, but it happens from time to time.  Hm, how should I explain it?  Like long-lost twins, like long-lost loves, like…”

       “Fate?” she asked, and he stared at her.

       “Fate?” He thought about it a moment, his scientist’s brain rebelling against the idea before finally, begrudgingly, he nodded. “Hm.  Yes.  Exactly.  Fate.”


       Remy was having his hour’s exercise.

       She stood outside the cage and watched him.  Doing pull-ups in sweatpants and sneakers and a layer of sweat he wore pretty damn well and knew it.  He also knew she was watching him.  She hadn’t exactly been making a secret of it, not to him, though it was certainly a secret to the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and most certainly from her mother.

       “How are you?” she asked him through the electric fence.  It was the first time she’d spoken to him in days, but he showed no surprise, continuing his exercises, not even looking at her as he replied.

       “Lesse.  I’m bein’ held without charge, I ain’t allowed my phonecall and every night I still got de shakes from dat absorption shit you pulled.” He pulled himself up to the iron bar, muscles pumping, sweat dripping, knowing he was making her squirm and not-so-secretly enjoying it. “You work it out.”

       She continued to watch him, letting him tease her.  She could afford to because she knew, on some level, that whatever he was making her feel she was doing the same to him.  Somehow.  She could sense it, but she had no name for it… the feeling that they had met somewhere, somewhen, before.

       “Tell me about Belle,” she spoke up boldly, expecting another violent reaction; but this time he didn’t even look at her, didn’t even pause in his work out.

       “You sure like walkin’ de edge,” he commented wryly. “You were anyone else, I prob’ly woulda found a way to knock de livin’ daylights outta you for dat.” But suddenly he was looking at her, grinning. “Lucky for you I gotta t’ing about ballsy women.”

       She allowed a small smile to curl her lips.  He was cute… but she wasn’t going to let him avoid the subject that easily.

       “Ah know Essex betrayed you,” she said softly. “Ah know he killed her.”

       His expression went deadly serious again. “Den you don’t know a lot, chere,” he said.  He stopped, hung from the bar a moment, letting her see as much as possible before dropping to his feet with a sharp thud. “Belle didn’t die,” he told her simply.

       “What?” she whispered to herself.  Hadn’t she felt the loss, his loss, so acute inside her as if it were all her own?  Hadn’t she felt the woman’s death as if it were his – her – own?

       “Belle didn’t die,” he repeated dispassionately from the middle of the cage. “Essex kept his side of de bargain, at least in dat matter.  But, knowing what I was, what I did and who I worked for…Dat was enough to drive her away from me.  Her and me – us – we died anyway.  If Essex killed her, dat was de way he did it.”

       She stood there, weighing it up.  Feeling a little piece of the puzzle lock into place.  It was only when she looked up at him again that he began to walk towards her.  She felt the guard – who had up till now been waiting behind her – suddenly stir at his advance; but at a motion from her he stopped there, alert, watching warily from the spot she’d told him to.

       “Ah thought,” she began, “Ah thought you weren’t gonna tell me any–”

       “I changed my mind,” he cut her off, halting an arm’s length away from her.  All slick, tanned skin and pheromones. “You’ve been watchin’ me,” he said, changing the subject, ignoring her helplessly wandering eyes. “A lot.  Even when you t’ink I don’t know you’re there.  But sometimes, I feel you.  Your eyes.”

       “Does it bother you?” she asked him in a voice suddenly low and thick…electric.  He smiled, lop-sided, and shook his head.

       “No.  At least, I don’t t’ink so.  Not in de way you mean.  Maybe in other ways.”

       He walked up to her then, right up to her, right up against the wire fence, and she held her breath, smelling him, the heat and the sweat and the raw desire making her go into a tailspin… And the guard behind her suddenly moved forward, one hand on his cattleprod, the other on the electric fence remote, and she quickly held out her hand, telling him to stop, telling him it was okay, she was safe, at least she thought so… The man halted again, held his position with a grudging silence.

       But Remy had barely noticed.  He was looking down at her with those beautiful burning eyes she knew so well, and she didn’t know why she was holding back, why she didn’t close the inch between them and press herself against the fence too, against him, but this way she had him, she had him without losing herself in the process…

       “I dream about you,” he rasped through the wire, his breath laboured, his gaze intense. “Ev’ry night.  Been askin’ myself whether it’s possible I coulda absorbed you too, chere, because you’re right there inside me… And I know you in ways I ain’t supposed to, that ain’t even possible…”

       They each took in a shallow breath, breathing in one another, making it worse…

       “Ah can help you…” she whispered through the wire and he laughed, light-headed.

       “Help me?  Tell me I can touch you right now and I t’ink either it’d dispel your ghost or make it haunt me forever…”

       “No,” she shook her head weakly. “You ain’t meant t’ be in here…”

       “Neither are you…”

       “Shh.” She put a gloved finger to his lips through the wire and said: “You ain’t a bad man, Remy LeBeau.  And you shouldn’t be here.” She did it then.  Pressed herself against the fence, against him, against all his heat and his hardness and the familiarity of him… “Ah have a plan,” she whispered. “Be ready for me tonight.”

       “Rogue…”

       “Ah mean it.  Ah’m willin’… and Ah don’t know why.  But Ah’m gonna do it anyway.” She raised her face, so close to his, so far away. “Be ready for me, Remy.  Now stand back.”

       He stood back.  She gave him once last look before whipping back round, trying to hide the heat from her face.

       “Turn it back on,” she barked to the guard. “Shock him if you have to.”

       She looked back at him as she walked away, looked at him looking at her with a wall of electricity now seething between them.


       Agent Worthington was in charge tonight.

       He stood outside cell block Z and looked down at her with concern.

       “I don’t think this is a good idea, Agent Darkhölme.  I don’t think you should go in there.”

       Rogue looked up at him, trying not to look too desperate, too imploring…

       “He’s opening up to me,” she said. “Raven said so.  He won’t talk to her, only to me.  Give me a minute with him and Ah may very well crack this case wide open for y’all.”

       “I don’t know, Rogue,” he murmured doubtfully, his tone more personal. “I heard about what he did in the exercise mesh this afternoon.  That kid has the power to charm others –”

       “Even with a power disruptor on?”

       “I mean he probably has something in mind,” the agent with the angel wings warned her severely. “You need to be careful.”

       “Ah know.  And Ah will.  Ah promise.  Just five minutes.  Please.”

       And she knew he’d sigh and relent before he did.

       “All right.  Five minutes.  Go.”

       She thanked him, slid off her glove and jammed her thumb onto the scanner with impatience already weltering away inside of her.


       He was already up, sitting on his bed, waiting for her.  She came in and closed the door behind her, looking at him, wondering if this was the right thing to do and knowing instinctively – yes, it was.

       “I won’t let you do this,” was all he said.

       “Tough,” she went to him, knelt down on one knee and went to unlock the power disruptor at his wrist; but it simply fell off in her hands as she touched it.

       “How -?” she began, but he interrupted her with a slight smile on his face.

       “I’m a t’ief, chere, and when you ain’t got de lockpicks you learn of ways t’ improvise.”

       She looked up into his face, her eyes questing.

       “How long?”

       “Long enough.  Long enough to case out dis joint and case out your people.  And you, chere.” He stood and she took a step back; not far enough to put any great distance between them, but enough for her to wish she was closer.

       “So now you know how it is, chere.  How easy it is for me to bust outta dis place.  I don’t need your help, chere.  I don’t want it.” He walked to the door, peered out to see if the coast was clear and she followed right behind him, saying hotly: “But you can’t, Gambit.  There’s one of you and dozens of them.  They’ll kill you before they set you free.”

       “I doubt it,” he snorted, pulling off his shirt and tossing it aside – she stared at him in confusion but didn’t question him. “They need me too much.”

       “Let me help you,” she insisted.  He swung round and stared her down as if a glance from him could make her back away, but she didn’t, she refused to.

       “Why d’you want to help me?” he asked her outright.  And this time she didn’t flinch.

       “Because this is one right in a world full of wrongs.  And because Ah’d rather die than see you hurt, Remy.” He stared at her intently and she continued in a lower voice: “Ah ain’t just makin’ this up, am Ah?  You feel it too, right?  That the day Ah imprinted you wasn’t the first day we laid eyes on each other.  That we’ve been here before, together  Right?”

       There was desperation in her voice and she thought he’d laugh and turn away from her but he didn’t.  He looked, he watched; he shook his head in sudden consternation.

       “Dis crazy,” he hissed. “You help me, you could lose everyt’ing you’ve worked for here.”

       “But Ah don’t belong here neither,” she shot back. “Yah said it yourself, Remy.  And you were right.  Ah don’t.  None of us do.  Somethin’s wrong here, somethin’ doesn’t fit…” She paused as he looked away, shaking his head with uncertainty, but she took his face between gloved hands, put her face within an inch of his and said: “Ah trust you, Remy.  All Ah need is for you to trust me.  Please.

       This time his stare was intimate, personal, flickering, burning, assessing every word, every look, every touch she’d given him…  And suddenly there it was again, more than just a spark, a flare, an imprint; more than just a bunch of borrowed memories she couldn't connect to the real him, the real Remy.  She did know him.  Intimately.  And she couldn't understand it but suddenly their mouths were only inches away from one another, and she felt his breath quicken against her lips as they parted and she whispered: “Remy...”

       He was so tense, as if holding himself together, as if holding himself back; and he whispered back on a strangled breath: “Oh God...”

       She felt his breath caress her face, her hair, her ear, her neck, and she closed her eyes, wanting so badly to kiss him she thought the craving might kill her.  And when she opened her eyes again and dropped her hands to his shoulders, it was all she could do to stare right back at him, to tell him she knew the risks, she knew what she would be sacrificing, that she was ready if only he was…

       And suddenly he was.  With one sharp jerk he’d spun her round, and she could feel his body pressed against her back, warm and hard and urgent… One arm locked around her neck, the other at her breast, his fingertip pressing against the S.H.I.E.L.D. badge there, giving it the slightest wisp of a charge which she nevertheless felt thrumming painfully right there inside her own body…

       “Careful, chere,” he murmured against her hair. “Feels weird, I know, but no quick movements and you’ll be fine.  Now lissen and jus’ do what I tell you.  First we gonna bang on de door, nice an’ slow.  Now go.”

       She didn’t need to second guess.  He knew what she’d had planned from the start.  No need to question why or how.  She reached out slowly and slammed her fist hard against the door, one, two, three.  She heard footsteps, heard the guard outside go for the door, and Remy swung back towards the bed, backing away from the door as it slid open with the guard looking in, seeing them standing there, the power disruptor lying on the floor, the pink, humming glow of the badge at her breast…

       His mouth dropped open.

       “Agent Worthington…” she breathed, and the fear in her voice was almost genuine. “Get Agent Worthington.”

       The guard sped off and she felt him smile against her hair, felt his hot breath there as he softly congratulated her: “Good girl…”

       He dragged her backwards whilst there was scuffling outside, whilst a formation of guards spread outside the cell door with guns and tazers and cattleprods and a whole arsenal of weaponry that was nothing compared the array of mutant powers the men themselves carried…  But he had the upper-hand, he’d turned her into a time-bomb and he had nothing to lose and there was not a single one of them there that was oblivious to that fact.  And then there was Agent Worthington in the middle of them all, gazing at her with a sad I told you so on his face…

       “This is a bad idea, LeBeau…” he began, but Remy held her tighter, increased the charge by just the smallest fraction, and it jangled, shuddered through her nerves like an electric current coursing through her.

       “I want them away,” was all he ordered, his voice calm, controlled. “I want all those other guards away, otherwise I blow your agent to hell and take everyone down wit’ her.  Do it.” There was a pause when Worthington looked at her as if to confer and Remy shouted: “Now!

       No time to think.  A flick of the hand and the guards had dispersed back into the corridor.

       “Now shut the door,” Remy barked.  Worthington’s movements were slow, measured, precise, and he never broke eye contact, just the way they’d been trained.  It seemed a painfully long time before he was done and when he was he held up his hands.  Rogue knew what he was going to do.  Negotiate, reasonable and patient, following protocol down to the proverbial letter.

       “This is a waste of time, LeBeau,” he began, softly and steadily as all his previous movements had been. “You can’t escape.  S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters is an airship – we’re thousands of miles above ground, and even if you managed to breach the titanium frame of the ship, there’s no way you could –” He paused suddenly, the simple truth seeming to dawn on him in a flash.  His mouth opened and he mouthed a silent no as Remy’s bare back hit the wall of the cell and began to charge it.  Rogue waited, baited breath, watching the anguished conflict begin to fill Worthington’s face, feeling the concentration coming off Remy like a physical thing as he tried to hold onto both charges without detonating one or the other at once.

       “Step dis way, Agent,” he almost cooed to Worthington. “Give de lady a kiss.”

       Sweat was beading on the blond man’s forehead; he stood stock still where he was, bathed in the harsh pink glow of the wall that was charging, slowly and surely, before him.

       “I can’t let you do this,” he growled, but Remy laughed, giving no hint of what Rogue could feel from him – that it was almost an inhuman effort to do this, to keep the charges going; and suddenly she realised the very real danger she was in…

       “C’mon, homme.  Let’s play dis out.  If’n we don’, she dies, you die, I die; and so does ev’ryone else in dis tin can.  Play by my rules an’ virtually ev’ryone walks away happy.  Y’know it makes sense, Agent.  So kiss her.  Do it now.”

       She saw his resolve go.  Saw it give way, inch by inch, feature by feature, on his face.  He took a step forward, then another.  He moved until he was right there in front of her, and she closed her eyes, trying to hold tight onto herself, hold tight onto her own personality as she felt his lips brush against her own and –

       KA-BOOM!

       The next thing she knew she was on her knees next to Worthington’s crumpled form, amid the screeching and the crashing and the careening; a sudden rush of air and twisted metal, dust and debris whipping her and–

       Pain searing through her body, centering into her back, her spine, her shoulder blades and–

       The wings tearing through her veins and her flesh, her voice screaming as they erupted from her in a volcano of bloody white feathers, the pain too much to bear, too much to bear, too much to–

       But hands were on her arms, pulling her up, holding her against his body whilst the skeleton of the ship lurched and creaked all around them; the wind screeched through their ears and tore at their hair and she looked up into those familiar burning eyes in the darkness and remembered, remembered…

       “Fly!” was the one word he hollered above the maelstrom, and she threw her arms round him because she knew no other way how… She spread her wings and looked up to a glossy white, lustrous moon… She stepped off into the wind and the clouds and the inky blackness, and…  She flew.

       She flew.


       A moment later, it seemed, she opened her eyes to the first grey light of dawn.

       She was lying flat on her stomach, in the dirt, surrounded by fallen leaves, by feathers, scrub and brush.  Her shoulder blades were searing painfully, her torn skin felt cool and moist.  She smelled of earth, of blood.  For a moment she closed her eyes, and then, when she opened them again – water, splashing against the wounds on her back, a wet cloth washing the blood away gently.  She was naked from the waist up and he – he was right there beside her.

       It was enough to jerk her into wakefulness, enough for her to start and croak: “Don’t touch me!” But when the pain took her again she felt his palm on her back, warm through a damp rag, holding her in place.

       “Shh, chere, lemme just finish up here.  No need to worry, I got m’self covered.  You been in an’ out of consciousness for a while.  Just been tryin’ to patch you up…”

       His voice was calm, soothing, and she settled back into the bed of feathers beneath her and remembered the wind on her face as she soared through the clouds, not even able to see where she was going, and the imprint fading, shedded feathers leaving a glimmering white trail behind her and suddenly plummeting, tumbling, doing her best to shield him, to keep him safe… Landfall…  How long ago was that…?

       Above her, he’d finished; she remained still as she heard him stand, and the next moment he’d thrown her S.H.I.E.L.D. jacket down beside her.

       “If y’need my help, just call,” he told her softly. “I won’t be far.”

       She heard his footsteps in the leaves, further and further away; when she felt the safety of silence she sat up slowly, shakily, feeling the bones in her shoulder blades as if they were jello; she pulled on the bloodsoaked jacket inch by painstaking inch, pain jarring her every movement.

       Button by button she sealed away her toxic flesh, wondering that he’d put himself in danger of another absorption by cleaning her wounds.  Wondering that he’d stayed.

 

       He’d stayed.


       He was standing under a nearby tree, leaning against the bark and smoking a battered cigarette; she had no idea where it had come from.  He didn’t look up when she approached him on unsteady feet, feeling her way around the trunk for support.  She stopped when she was about a foot from him, feeling uncertain how to thank him, wondering if he would accept any thanks at all.

       “You stayed,” she began quietly, awkwardly. “Thanks.”

       He didn’t look at her.  He was contemplating something in his hands and when she looked she saw he was holding one of her feathers, long and white and bloodied.

       “I owed you one, chere,” he answered nonchalantly. “You helped me get out o’ dat fix up there.  You put your own life at risk.  Only fair I repaid my debt.”

       So was that how it was?  She bit her lip and stared at the ground, thinking that it was probably better if it was.  They both knew the unspoken.  That wherever they were, S.H.I.E.L.D. could not be far behind.  They would have to move, and soon.

       “You should go,” she murmured softly.  He said nothing for a long moment and when she raised her eyes she saw him still staring at the feather in his hands.

       Oui,” he spoke at last. “I’m a criminal.  You’re a law enforcer.” He pushed himself away from the tree and turned to her, a bitter smile on his face. “Ain’t a whole lotta good can come o’ dat.”

       “Right,” she whispered.  Nevertheless she could feel the thing between them thick and impenetrable and real; a thing she’d stolen and couldn’t give back.  She glanced at her fingers, splayed out upon the bark of the tree, encased in cold, unyielding leather.  Anything could’ve worked between them but for that.

       The silence between them lingered for a long moment, making them wary, uncertain.  He moved first; when she dared to look up into his eyes it was to find them already on her own, just as always.

       “You stole from me, chere,” he said, no trace of a smile on his lips. “But you trusted me and for dat I owe you more than anyt’ing.  I’m a t’ief, I steal.  But trust, I give back, chere.  Always.  T’ink of me a little, if you ever get lonely.”

       He stepped closer, raising the feather to her mouth, kissing her through the soft, white down.  She closed her eyes, feeling the warm, light pressure of his lips, wishing, wishing… that there was nothing between them but flesh.  But his kiss was not alien.  It was as familiar to her as night and day; as the tides.  And for a moment, she thought, she hoped… he felt it too.

       He pulled away, too soon.  She opened her eyes and saw his own flickering, glowing in the cold, grey light.  He stood back a step, then another.  A smile touched his face, as if nothing had changed between them.  With one hand he pressed the feather to his lips and kissed it – as if for good luck – before tucking it into his waistband.

       “G’bye, chere,” was all he said.

       “’Bye,” she whispered.

       He swallowed, once.  Nodded.  Then, without another word, he turned and sprinted off  into the dimness without another backward glance.

 

       And that was the last time she saw him, before the world was unmade once more.

*     *     *     *     *


Next: A treat for House of Cards fans…

 

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