Homecomings: Chapter31

by Alex Cartwright

Chapter Thirty-One: Don't Dream It's Over

Ororo Munroe finished watering her favorite African violets for the morning. She was pleased to see they were continuing to thrive under her care. As an experienced gardener, she was all too aware how delicate these beautiful flowers were. She also knew how difficult they were to take care of. It was a matter of the right temperature, the right amount of water, the right acidity in the soil, and the right amount of attention and care. African violets were notoriously temperamental like that. Her long, slender fingers touched the petals of one of the violets with pride.

The semester at the Institute was soon drawing to a close. Students and teachers were staring down at the mid-way point of the end of the school year. Heavily weighted assignments and final exams were already being discussed in addition to summer plans (whether to return to their respective homes to live with their families or to continue living at the Institute). Needless to say, the atmosphere around the school was rather dichotomous---relief that the school year was almost over and anxiety that the school year was almost over.

During these times of stress, Ororo was happy she had a place to retreat to. Being in here allowed her to reflect, decompose and recompose herself. For her, it was better than hitting something and working out her aggression and tension. She was cultivating, nurturing life in this space-- -activities more congruent with her personality and the identity she had carved out for herself.

The graceful weather goddess stood in the sanctuary of her greenhouse, placing aside her half-empty, tin watering can. Usually known as a stylish dresser, she wore jeans and a navy, baby T-shirt for her time in the greenhouse. No sense in getting her nicer clothes caked in dirt and fertilizer.

She was about to prune dried leaves from one of her ferns when she heard the door behind her open. Startled, she whipped around, white ponytail swinging. Who could it be?

"Easy, ch・e," Gambit said in greeting, holding both his palms up in mock surrender. His red-on-black eyes glittered with amusement as he peered around the greenhouse. Not a particular fan of the foliage surrounding him, he shook his head. While he missed some things about life in the swamp like his old friends, the music, and the food, he did not long for the leaves of the many weeping willows that populated that area.

A fond smile tugged at the corners of her lips as she gave her friend a nod in greeting. "What brings you here, Gambit?" she asked, returning her attention to her potted fern.

"What? Gambit can't visit his ami to say hi?" He feigned a wounded look across his perfectly sculpted features. The tall, lean Cajun thief sauntered over to where the weather goddess stood. He leaned against the table where her favorite fern was located. "Dat hurts, Stormy."

Her exotic features drew themselves together in a wry expression. "My apologies." Then she added, "And for the last time, please do not call me Stormy."

"Sorry. Dis ol' t'ief's memory is not so good dese days, non?" A lock of auburn hair flopped over a raised brow. He began to watch her clip the dead leaves from the plant with faint interest.

After several minutes in silence, the white-haired woman from Cairo finished grooming the plant. She turned to him, putting down her shears. "I know you did not come here to watch me garden," she remarked dryly. "Something is obviously weighing on your mind."

"Hah. Now Storm t'inks she can read minds, now?" The light sarcasm in his voice belied the flat expression in his demon eyes.

His friend shook her head. "No," she replied, "but I do know you well enough to know when you have something you want to talk about." Turning to face him, she said, "I am all ears."

"What do you want Gambit to say, Storm?" he scoffed lightly, taking out a deck of cards from the pocket of his leather duster. He began to shuffle them. "Mebbe you find a couch in here for dis boy to lie down on, eh?"

She shrugged her slim shoulders nonchalantly, ignoring his attempt to be funny. "I'm not sure, but do know that you are safe to tell me anything. I trust that you know that." Her eyes were gleaming with sincerity.

Remy did not doubt how genuine Storm was being at that moment. It was not that at all. His background as a thief---a profession where trust was practically nonexistent---did not afford him the familiarity to speak freely about his feelings. He operated on cunning and action, not emotions. Jean-Luc and the other thieves had taught him that. Even if he had the capacity to be open with Storm now, Gambit wasn't sure if she would understand his current predicament. He was still having a hard time understanding it.

For as long as he could remember, Remy LeBeau always had abundant amounts of self-esteem. After all, who could blame him? He was good-looking, charming, intelligent, and a damn good thief. His confidence exuded in almost everything he did from his past activities in New Orleans to his time as an X-Man. Sure, he broke the occasional rule, much to Scott's chagrin, but at the end of the day, he got the job done.

This certainty also extended to interactions with other people. His charisma and magnetism allowed him to read other people like open books. He prided himself in knowing what them tick and how he could get them to do what he wanted them to do. Not so much a part of his mutation, but maybe a mix between that and his upbringing in the sultry French quarter. This primarily applied to his dealings with the fairer sex. Gambit never had to worry about where he stood with women. It was almost automatic that he should be placed on some pedestal in their eyes. He could do no wrong.

However, he was beginning to doubt this. He had been wrong about Rogue in the past. His abandonment in Antarctica was a testament to that. No amount of charming and wit could undo the unspeakable horror in her eyes. She called him a murderer and dispensed her own brand of justice once she became aware of this. Gambit thought their relationship---everything they shared over the time they spent together---would ultimately save him. He could not be more mistaken. For the first time, he had lost and paid dearly.

Then there was the petite. Gambit had only wanted to protect her and make sure she would never know the hurt he had knew during his years away from the mansion. He had read Drake's intentions and immediately saw himself in the younger man for some reason. Since he himself was not good enough for the one he loved, then the same conclusion could be made for Drake. They both shared troubled pasts with women. To Gambit, Jubilee deserved better than that. Her youth and innocence begged for someone better than him, better than Drake. So he intervened, convinced that he was righteous in his cause.

It was only recently when the Cajun thief realized the error of his ways. Hearing her say Iceman's name as she regained consciousness was like a slap in the face. She wanted Drake to be there by her side. While Jubilee never explicitly indicated this, she appeared to be disappointed to find him there instead of Iceman. In the days that following the attack and Drake's return to the mansion from his native Long Island, Gambit noticed something different about the young girl. Usually cheerful and teasing whenever he was around, she was preoccupied---almost forlorn. When he asked her about her down mood, she had denied any basis for his concern and would put on a bright face to assuage his fears. However, Gambit knew better. She was in love with Drake. For his part, Drake was distancing himself, hurting her but believing that Gambit was right. Looking back, Gambit bitterly realized the irony of the situation. In wanting to protect the petite and act as her self-appointed protector and guardian, he had actually hurt her.

Given how he had misread that situation, Gambit was unsure of where things stood with Rogue. His mind dictated that he take things slowly with the Southern Belle. Try to build the trust that had been destroyed between them; try to see if there was still something there between them after all this time. He kept his distance, opting not to crowd her and not to explicitly make his feelings and intentions known. No, it would be better to have her come to him. In the end, she would be the one who needed to realize there was a chance to pick up things where they had left off.

As much as he did not want to admit it, Remy believed he was closer to what he wanted once Joseph had left the mansion. He assumed that as soon as Rogue's companion was gone, she would immediately come back to him. There was no longer any competition or barrier. With him out of the picture, she should have realized her feelings for Remy. It had been so clear through the tension that existed between them. Even he knew that.

Yet, she did not.

Even more disturbing, was that the Cajun thief had no idea as to why.

It was then that Gambit began to reevaluate his approach to the situation. He found himself doing things he had never done before. He was questioning his decision, second-guessing himself and how well he really knew his former lover. Perhaps she wanted nothing to do with him in spite of the signals she had given him during those moments since he had returned--- coming to his room to apologize for her behavior, commenting on his taste of music, and being trapped in the elevator together. Maybe she was still wary of him even after all the time that had passed. By taking the slow, methodical approach, perhaps Gambit had allowed her to truly slip away for good.

Or maybe it was time for something different.

"Do you know what is one of the benefits of gardening?" Storm's soothing voice interrupted his brooding abruptly.

He tried not to show how startled he was. "Non, ch・e. What dat be?"

The weather goddess began to transfer one of her bamboo plants into an empty ceramic, red vase. "It hones one's patience," she explained nonchalantly. She found a bag of black, river stones and began to scatter them in the vase with the plant as a form of bedding.

"Dat so?" Gambit wasn't sure where his good friend was going with this. He paused in shuffling his cards. Then he promptly stuffed the deck back into his pocket.

"Yes, it is. Nurturing a plant takes time and work, Gambit. A plant does not grow and bloom overnight." She put down her stainless steel trowel. "At first, one plays a guessing game as to how much water and sunlight are appropriate, what kind of food should be given, and so on. There are no set guidelines for all plants. Each one is different from the next. The process is much like other things in life."

He did want to immediately to meet her steady gaze. It was almost unnerving as to how Storm could read him sometimes. Gambit just wondered what gave him away. Instead of acknowledging she was on to something, he drawled, "Ch・e, you know Gambit don' have de green t'umb. Gambit prefers city life to nature."

She looked rather amused, knowing full well he was being evasive. "Perhaps it is time that you try something new."

Red-on-black eyes were quizzical. How she know..? "And what do you suggest, ch・e?" he asked coolly, crossing his wiry arms over his lean chest.

Storm finished patting down the stones over the ends of the seven bamboo stalks. Then she brushed the minute amount of dirt from her graceful hands. "Here," she said, presenting him with the bamboo. "My gift to you."

He gave her a long and hard look, and then gave one to the plant in his hands. Then he chuckled softly. "You don' have to do this, Storm. Dis is one of your babies. Gambit don' deserve dis. Mebbe dinner at Caf・Marche in town?"

She shook her head, white ponytail swinging behind her for emphasis. "No, please take it," she told him firmly, "I have plenty of others in here. I am presenting this to you for a reason."

He raised a brow at her. "And why dat be?" he asked, bracing himself for a sermon from his friend---something he was not in the mood for.

Her eyes were solemn and thoughtful. "This plant---the bamboo---is a traditional symbol of happiness and good fortune." She placed her hands over his and patted them affectionately. "I thought you might be able to put this one to good use, Gambit."

That afternoon, Rogue stood in the garage of the mansion with Rahne and Kitty. Her head was cocked to the side as she and the Scotswoman exchanged curious looks. After receiving a happy phone call from Kitty, the two were studying the latest purchase their friend had made, unsure what to make of it. However, neither wanted to say anything either lest to hurt their friend's feelings. There was a long, awkward silence before anyone said anything.

"It's interestin'." Rogue managed finally. She cupped her hand over the lower half of her face. She wasn't sure if she was frowning or grimacing at what she was staring at.

"It's unique, lass." Rahne added, but did not look convinced regarding the truth in her statement.

Parked in front of them was a boxy, square hybrid of a truck and jeep, but more antiquated than the modern and sleek SUV Kurt drove. Just below the hood and between the dusty headlights was a clunky letter-and-gear logo, which seemed to indicate that it came from a company whose lineage led directly back to Cyrus McCormick. It was the kind of car that might have been sold with combines and threshers at an agricultural dealer on the outer edges of some midwestern city. Surprisingly free of rust that might have accumulated over the years, the sunshine yellow paint had faded substantially, almost appearing cream in the afternoon sun that streamed in from the open door. The interior was quite clean and appeared comfortable with its bucket seats. Other than that, it appeared like something that had been salvaged from the junkyard.

"It's a Scout," Kitty explained, eyes bright with excitement and oblivious to the bewilderment her friends were experiencing at that moment. "It was first made in the 1960s during the JFK years. Kind of like the first sports utility vehicle, but even cooler. Totally retro, huh?"

"Totally," Rahne echoed, who looked somewhat retro herself in a slim- fitting, vintage, red T-shirt with 'Redheads Have More Fun' printed across the chest over a pink long-sleeved thermal shirt and flared jeans with black Converse all-stars. She brushed her carrot-red bangs to the side, curious. The Scout reminded her of the many motorcars some of the Scottish sheep farmers drove in and out of the city. Studying Kitty's latest purchase now, she wondered how much her friend really missed Europe.

Rogue's green eyes were thoughtful as they studied Kitty's beaming face. "What made ya get it, sugah?" she inquired, still perplexed. A few weeks ago, she had been watching a B-horror movie with a few of the students and Kitty. She could have sworn she had seen a couple of Scouts in that film.

Kitty patted the roof of the car. "I was watching some documentary on cars with Logan and they were profiling the Scout. Everyone was driving them--- housewives to Bing Crosby. I fell in love instantly. It's way better than any SUV or jeep out in the market. You know, it's less cheesy than the stuff you see on the roads nowadays. The Scout is roomy and dependable.."

"And old," Rogue finished for her wryly.

Kitty pouted at her friend's comment.

Rahne laughed, playing with the silver hoop in the cartilage of her right ear. "You bought the car already. No need to try to sell to us again." I don't think we're not crazy enough to buy that, I'm sure, she added inwardly, shaking in her head in disbelief.

"Very funny," Kitty pretended to grouse, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her faded jeans. She was hoping for a little more enthusiasm and support from her best friends. "I love this car. So sue me."

Rogue exchanged another look with the Scotswoman. Then she asked, "So how much ya pay for it, sugah?" She knew if Logan had gone with Kitty to wherever she had bought the car from, he would have pulled her aside and growled some sense into her.

Kitty tried to be evasive; avoiding her friends' amused gazes. The computer science graduate popped open the trunk of the Scout. "Enough," she said vaguely, "but it's worth it." She began to cough loudly as a cloud of dust wafted in her face. There was no way she was going to tolerate listening to the two women laugh at her beloved Scout.

Rogue struggled to hide a smile. "Well, as long as ya say so, sugah," she said, waving her hand in front the girl's face to send away the dust. "Besides cleanin' it out, what do ya have to do to have it pass inspection?"

Kitty wiped the tears from her catlike, brown eyes. She backed away from the car slightly to get some air. "Not much," she replied hesitantly. "The steering wheel jams every once in a while, among other things." Her cheeks flushed pink with embarrassment as she made her admission. The list of needed repairs almost ran a mile in her mind.

"Kitty, you're a computer expert, not a car mechanic. These repairs are gonna cost a fortune, lass," Rahne observed skeptically, pale green eyes incredulous. She hoped the Professor was paying her friend enough as an instructor to be able to fix her new prize.

Kitty waved her hand at the former Excalibur member. "No biggie, though. I can always get Logan or Scott to help me out with the repairs. They like that kind of stuff. Look how they take care of their cars and bikes."

It was true. While the men had many differences, there was only one thing they shared---their love of cars and motorcycles. Jean used to joke that her husband sometimes doted more on his Fiat Spider and vintage Harley Davidson more than he did on her. Scott had even picked up Forge's shop class as an excuse to spend even more time with his bike and car. While he was happy to use both vehicles as demonstration models, he was wary about allowing any of the students and even some of the instructors to touch them.

Logan seemed equally focused on his own motorcycle lately, spending long, solitary hours in the garage doing what he called "minor tweaking". If anyone dared to disturb him while he was in the midst of his repairs, they were rewarded with a flash of adamantium. Bobby Drake and Hank McCoy could certainly attest to that fact. Both had returned from the garage after trying to ask Logan about spare keys to one of the vans with frightened expressions on their faces.

"Maybe so," Rogue said, crossing her arms over her chest. "But why didn't ya buy somethin' new? It would take less work.."

"And maybe less money." Rahne added, trying to be helpful and wagging her brows wryly. She stopped when she received a silencing look from her friend. Chewing ruefully on her lower lip, the Scotswoman began to play with the black Swatch on her wrist.

"Just because something's new doesn't make it better," Kitty argued, nervously pulling at her University of Chicago T-shirt. "Yeah with a new car, you get the latest features---the bells and whistles.."

"But ya can drive it around now as opposed to later, hon." Rogue pointed out gently, pushing up the sleeves of her fitted, red-and-white baseball shirt.

Kitty ignored her friend's remark and continued. "But this is a great investment. Sure, there'll be money and work to put in. Once everything is done, it'll all be worth it. Underneath all this dirt and decay, is something great. Anyways, that's what you've got to do sometimes for anything you really want, isn't it? Besides, flashy and fast cars don't impress me. That's not my style. I'll take something that's reliable and known to me over anything else any day."

Rogue brushed white tendrils from her green eyes. For some reason, her friend's defense of the decrepit jalopy she had just bought hit too close to home for some reason. If she didn't know better, she could have sworn the younger woman was sending some kind of subliminal message about her personal life. Glancing at Kitty's catlike, brown eyes, which were focused on the hood of the Scout, that was not the case.

She supposed if she were to read deeply into her friend's defense of the Scout, the old, dependable car would be Joseph. Meanwhile, the new, flashy and fast car would be Remy? Or perhaps, the familiarity of the Scout would be her relationship with Remy and the new, less work intensive car would be Joseph? No, that didn't sound right either.

The Southern Belle's bow mouth twisted itself into a grim line. It had been several days since she had thought about Joseph or Remy. For some reason, she could not bring herself to call or write Joseph in Guatemala. Not that he had initiated any contact himself, but as someone he had been seeing, one would have assumed she would have made any attempt to communicate with him. Yet, she did not. It was almost as if the prospect of doing so, filled her with such anxiety.

Not that dealing with Remy LeBeau was any easier. Since the night they talked in the infirmary, Rogue found it difficult to face her former lover. In spite of the fact that he had talked about how some things were easier to deal with alone for Wolverine, she could not help but think he was referring to himself as well. So, she had given him space to think and sort whatever he was grappling with. It was the only thing she could do.

Apprehension had become a recent companion to the woman who had great physical strength. The last time Rogue could recall being this anxious was when her father had found out she was a mutant. There was no physical danger to her well-being. Instead, there was the fear of being rejected, which she was in the end by her father. Would Remy do the same?

Reject me as what? she asked herself, brows furrowing together in deep thought. I don't know even know what the hell we are anymore. Not romantically involved, I know that for sure. Not even friends, I don't think. I've got to stop doing this. He wants to be alone now and I don't blame him. He said he forgives me, but how could he? I took years away from him that he can never get back. Maybe I'm better off going back to something that's reliable and safe. Maybe I should be with someone who lets me know where I stand in the end. Wouldn't that be so much better?

She sighed, shoulders hunching. No, because it's easier doesn't make it right.

"Rogue?" Kitty waved a hand in front of the dazed woman's face. "I thought we lost you for a moment there."

Rogue smiled nervously. She could feel her cheeks suddenly burn with embarrassment. "Listen, sugah, Ah gotta get some air. All this dust is makin' me space out, so Ah'm gonna take off. Let me know if ya give up and want me to take this car to the junkyard."

With that, she stepped out of the garage and slowly ascended into the bright sky overhead.

The weather in upstate New York was growing increasingly warm over the next few weeks. Students at the Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters found themselves quite distracted from their studies as a result of the mild temperatures and picturesque days. Many of the instructors had also become preoccupied about spending time outside in the glory of the late spring air. It seemed as if everyone at the mansion was experiencing some sort of euphoria related to the nicer, temperate weather.

Well, almost everyone.

Remy LeBeau exhaled a swirl of bluish-gray smoke, stomping out his cigarette. Despite the warmer temperatures, he still wore his trademark leather duster over his black T-shirt and faded jeans. Not only did it serve to hold his cards and cigarettes, but also the coat was like a second skin to the Cajun thief. Being without it, was like being naked.

He smiled to himself as he made his way towards the pool. That might not be so bad in some cases, he mused, his auburn hair shining under the afternoon sun. Least that's what the femmes tell Gambit.

His red-on-black eyes surveyed the scene before him. The peaceful picture almost undermined the turmoil inside of him. Many of the students were either in or lounging by the Olympic-sized pool. Some of the instructors like Storm and Kurt joined the children by the pool, dressed in their swimsuits. Cool drinks were being passed around as loud music blared from the outdoor speakers that flanked the French doors that led inside the mansion. Laughter and eager chattering of the young students mingled with the thumping beats of the CD playing.

Gambit almost envied the children. While they had to follow rules and pursue their studies, these children had yet to know the harshness of the world outside of the gates. They did not know what it was like to be persecuted to the point where people were willing to hurt you just because of what you were. They did not what it was like to experience pain that was beyond something physical. He hoped that they would never know these things.

Several weeks. Several weeks since Joseph had left the mansion. And what had happened?

Absolutely nothing.

Gambit pursed his lips. He had wanted to take a different approach in addressing the situation. He had wanted to be more aggressive. He had wanted to make something happened.

Yet, every time he had worked up his nerve, the Cajun thief stopped himself.

He cursed his futility---something he never knew or experienced before. It shook him to his core and unnerved him. He felt as if he were regressing in some way. In the past, he had always been so sure of everything. If there was something he wanted, it was his for the taking. He was confident in whatever means he used to get it, whether it was his infectious charm or his skills as a thief. Nothing would ever stop him. Nothing.

Until now.

His own uncertainty as to where things stood with Rogue. She was still continuing to avoid him like the plague. The only time she would speak to him was during Danger Room sessions and that was only to direct him as to where she was in the simulator ("Watch ya back, swamp rat!"). Other than that, he had barely seen her around the mansion.

Initially, Gambit had chalked up her behavior to the nervousness she might still be feeling as a result of his return many months ago. Soon that gave way to a different conclusion. Perhaps, he had underestimated her relationship with Joseph. Perhaps, she had been telling him the truth all those months. She was in love with him. She was finally happy. Given this, who the hell was he to take that away from her by revealing his own feelings? No, it was better this way---her not knowing.

While Gambit was still in love with her, he wanted her to be happy, even at the expense at his feelings. There was nothing more he wanted in the world. However, it didn't mean seeing her everyday and not being able to reach out to her hurt any less. Just watching her seemed to bring him back to Antarctica all over again. She was slipping away from him now as she did when she left him alone.

Inside, he ached to be with Rogue again. Inside, he felt they were supposed to be together in spite of the obstacles. Inside, he also realized that he was doing the right thing by allowing her to find happiness with someone else. It was just going to take some time to make his peace with that decision. He simply had to move on.

Then why was it so hard to do?

The tall, lean man from the Bayou sighed, exasperated with himself. He craved a stiff drink to clear his mind of his troubled thoughts. Gambit figured it was close enough to early evening that if he were to grab a beer; he would not have to endure a lecture from Storm. Settling with this idea, his long legs began to carry him towards the mansion. He was stopped when he heard his name being called out as he strolled past the pool. Turning around, he was surprised to see who had been calling to him.

Tabitha Smith jogged over to him, grinning. She was one of the older students, a year or two older than Jubilee. While he never interacted with her all that much, Gambit was aware of her reputation as someone who often liked to "spice things up" by freely tossing globes of explosives she generated and flirting with almost every available male in the mansion. That day, she had joined her fellow students at the pool and wore the proper attire for the day---a navy, bandeau-top bikini with white polka dots.

Gambit flashed her an easy smile, guaranteed to have her melt at his feet. "Allo, petite. Nice suit."

"Do you like it?" she asked, twirling around for him to get a complete view of her swimsuit. She also pushed her choppy, blonde locks in her face, wanting him not to see her blush.

He nodded lightly, noticing something on her lower back. His eyes narrowed to focus. It appeared to be a tattoo, outlined in black, of a snake swallowing its own tail so that it formed a ring. "Dat's some artwork, petite," he told her. "Did it hurt?"

Tabitha giggled, aqua eyes following his gaze. "No, it's not real. It's only a henna tattoo. Kitty, Dani, Rahne, and I got them when we went to the beach last week. They're really cool, huh? I think I might get a real one when this one washes away."

"Might be different when it's real, petite. Gambit hear dey not so fun to get." He raised a brow skeptically, recalling a documentary he had watched with Jubilee in the infirmary about body modification. After the graphic special, he was relieved to hear that she was never going to partake in any of that given the amount of pain many of the people seemed to be experiencing.

"Can't be that painful. Lots of people are getting them now and all over their bodies."

"Mebbe so. Do you want to be like everyone else, petite?"

"No, but this pattern won't make me like everyone else. I thought of it myself."

"Still, it be kinda permanent---something you have to live with it forever. You really want dat?"

"It might worth it, though. Besides, don't you think it makes me look kind of dangerous? Maybe even sexy?" Tabitha's dark lashes lowered slightly, as she wiggled her bottom at him.

Gambit suppressed a smirk, knowing full well what she was trying to do. She has no idea who she's dealing with, he thought smugly, considering himself the King of the Flirtation game.

He leaned towards the young girl, demon-like eyes glittering. "You want Gambit's opinion?" he asked huskily. "Is dat what you want, petite?"

She stood still, swallowing hard. Her heart was beating wildly, thudding in her ears. From the tone of voice he used and the sly expression on his face, she never found him more appealing. It took all her restraint not to immediately jump into the water. She was sure he was going to tell her that she would look sexier. A small part of her was hoping that he was going to take her in his arms and kiss her at that moment. "Um, sure."

After a long, intentional pause to make her wait, he drawled, "Gambit t'ink you interestin' enough already wit'out de tattoo, petite."

Tabitha crossed her arms over her chest, pouting. "Are you saying that because Scott or the Professor would want you to say something like that?"

"Non, Gambit bein' honest wit you, petite. No need for you be rough on your body." Then he winked at her, turning on his heel to walk through the French doors. "Less you like dat sort of t'ing, petite. Den you could get someone else to do dat for you."

Her blue-green eyes widened in confusion and mild fury as she watched him leave. "Are you volunteering?" she yelled at his back.

"Non, dis ol' t'ief has enough trouble to deal wit." He gave her another wink before disappearing inside. He almost gave himself a literal pat on the back, but fought off the urge. That would be a little too much, even for him.

He quickly made his way to the kitchen. It was then that he realized that Cook had recently refused to allow the instructor to keep their alcoholic beverages in the common refrigerator. Several students had been caught drinking after-hours by Cook. He cursed under his breath, racking his brain as to what to do. Not in the mood to drive to a bar to drink, he struggled to come up with another idea.

His face then brightened when he remembered that Logan had purchased a small fridge for his room to keep his beer in. Good thing Gambit's never rusty when it comes to thieving, he thought, smugly. His fingers retrieved a small, metal pick from his pocket. Satisfied, he strode out of the kitchen and into the hallway, towards the stairs.

Gambit stealthily climbed the stairs, keeping a lookout for his friend. He knew that the old man had taken Kitty to an auto parts store earlier that day. As far as he knew, the two were not back from their adventure. It was almost too easy. Where was the challenge? Then again, he wasn't sure if he really wanted to have a set of adamantium claws pointed at the favorite part of his anatomy.

He was outside of Logan's door when he suddenly heard footfalls behind him. Shoving the pick into his pocket, the tall Cajun thief froze for a moment. Then he turned around, feigning an expression of nonchalance.

"Rogue?" he inquired, nonchalance turning into concern as he stared at the Southern Belle. She was crying, tears streaking down her face and smearing her make-up. Her eyes were puffy and pink, as her curvaceous body shook with racking sobs. Her clothes---purple hooded sweatshirt and black leggings---were quite rumpled. In all the years he had known, he never seen Rogue this distraught, this vulnerable.

"Ch・e, what's wrong?" Gambit reached out to touch her, but she pulled away, crossing her arms over her chest and hunching over.

She sniffed, lower lip trembling. "Ah---Ah can't talk about he---here," she stammered, cheeks stinging with the bitterness of her saline tears.

He nodded empathetically, placing a hand on her back and guiding her to her room. "Come, ch・e," he said soothingly, wanting to pull her in the circle of his arms. "We talk in here and you tell Gambit everyt'in." Whatever it was, he would have done anything to take her pain away.

Rogue didn't answer, but covered her face with a gloved hand. She allowed herself to be herded into her bedroom. She didn't even remember seating herself on her bed or Remy closing the door. By the time she removed her hand from her face, there was sculpted face of the handsome thief close to her. His expression was one of great concern, similar to what she had seen the night they spent in the infirmary.

Gambit grasped her gloved hand in his. "Now, Rogue, you tell Gambit what's de matter." He was praying that whatever the source of her grief was, he would be able to handle it. He needed to.

She shivered, sniffling. Her green eyes were disconsolate as she peered into his face. It was almost as if speaking about what was causing her to cry was overwhelming for her. She drew her knees to her chest, rocking back and forth. "Ah---Ah don't know if---if Ah can talk about it now," she finally whispered, shaking her head.

"Take as much as you need, ch・e. Gambit will stay." He leaned over and grabbed a box of tissues from the bedside table. He handed it to her and she took several sheets gratefully.

"No, Cajun.. Ya don't have to." She blew her nose and then attempted to smile up at him. It came out as a crooked grimace, which looked rather strange against her tear-streaked face.

He shook his head. "Non, ch・e. You're not goin' to get rid of Gambit dat easily." As much as he wanted to hold her, he stopped himself. He wasn't sure how that would be received.

"Ah never could, could Ah?" Her tone was rueful as she struggled to collect herself.

"Non, ch・e. Non." Gambit sounded equally somber. His calloused fingers longed to touch her hair; his arms longed to hold her close. Just seeing her in this state and not being able to do anything about made him feel so useless---something he hated. "Gambit won' leave until you tell him what's wrong."

Rogue's emerald green eyes flooded with tears once again. "He's gone," she said, her voice shaking.

"Gone? Who's gone, Rogue?" Gambit demanded, confused.

"He---Joseph's gone."

"You mean.."

"He's dead, Remy. He's dead." Her shoulders shook again with sobs. She buried her face in her hands.

Stunned, Gambit released her hand. "How dis happen?" he asked, a mixture of emotions washing over him---shock, sadness, and to his shame, some jealousy. From her reaction, there was something there between the two of them; something he could never have with her again.

"Ah got a call from one of the nuns from the orphanage he was helpin' to rebuild," she began, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. "Ah got the call this afternoon.. She said he was at the site where they were buildin' the school for the kids when there was some kind fire.. She said it spread real fast, but there were all these kids inside.. So, Joseph was tryin' to get them all out. And, he did.. Least he thought he did.

"Then one of the sisters hears someone cryin' from inside. Turns out it's one of the younger kids. So, he goes back inside to pull her out. A few minutes later, she comes out.. After she does, there's a big explosion and the fire grows. B---but he never comes out. The nun said when the fire department finally came and put the fire out everyone knew he was gone. Couple hours later, they find his body in the ashes."

She shook her head, balling her hands into two fists. "This is all my fault."

Gambit stared at her, incredulous. Then he grasped both her hands, squeezing them tightly. "Non, ch・e, it's not your fault."

"Yes, it is," she insisted, snapping her head up to face him. Her expression was a combination of guilt, pain, and sorrow, which was highlighted by the tears that continued to stream down her face. "It is, Remy."

"How dat be, Rogue?"

"Because Ah made him go. Ah drove him away."

"Non, ch・e. Homme made de choice to go. You didn't force him to do anything."

"No, but if Ah.. If things were different, he would still be here. Ah coulda made things different. Ah coulda kept him alive and safe, not dead in another country, where he didn't know anyone."


"Ah coulda begged him to stay. Ah didn't. Ah just let him go. Ah made him think Ah didn't care."

"And homme would have gone regardless."

"How you do know that?"

"Gambit don'. Just you like you don' know if begging him to stay would have kept him alive."

"Ah don't know. Ah guess."

"Gambit t'inks so."

"But if Ah only.."

"But if you only what, ch・e?"

She bowed her head down, sighing wearily. "If Ah only loved him," she murmured, a tear sliding down her cheek. "If Ah only loved him, then he wouldn't have left and then he wouldn't have died."

Gambit's red-on-black eyes widened incredulously. He almost doubted his hearing had she not repeated her statement. She wasn't in love with him?.. Part of him wanted to be relieved at this admission, but felt incredibly guilty at the thought of it. This was not the time to be happy about something like this. Rival or not, Joseph was a person who deserved to be happy like everyone else in the world, who deserved to live.

Instinctively, he extended an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to his chest. He rested his chin on the top of her head. "Ch・e, it's not your fault," he whispered. "None of dis is your fault. Just like de fire wasn't de nuns' or petites' fault. In de end, de homme made his decision. Nothin' you can do about it."

She shuddered against him. "Ah just wish Ah could agree with that, Remy."

"It simply take time, ch・e," he said reassuringly, cradling her. "You just in shock is all. Of course you feel upset, you two were close." He was surprised that he did not grimace when he said the last sentence. "If you weren't, Gambit be worried."

Rogue raised her wet face. There was a warmth and understanding in his voice that was now reflected in those demon-like eyes. She had seen that before when they were together. It was at that moment when she felt relieved that he had been the first person she had run into after discovering the news. For some reason, the Cajun thief always knew the right way to make someone feel better. While she could have easily attributed it as part of his charm, there was a part of her that thought he knew and could empathize with another's sorrow in a way that no one else could.

She bit her lower lip, which was trembling. "Ah know," she said finally after a brief pause so she could catch her breath. "It's just that it was sudden and Ah just can't believe he's gone."

Gambit pushed tendrils of hair from her face. "Not exactly somethin' you were expectin', ch・e."

"Ah know. You're right, Cajun. Ah'm still not.. Ah still can't accept he's gone." The Southern Belle shook her head again emphatically. Joseph, a younger version of Magneto, had been in the prime of his youth and strength. He shared the same invincibility with the mutant terrorist. Why should she have expected for him to die so young?

"Give it time, ch・e. Time heals all wounds. Take it from dis ol' t'ief." His red-on-black eyes echoed the sincerity in his deep voice. He certainly knew that was true after his own experience---his failed marriage, guilt over his part in the Morlock Massacre, losing Rogue all those years ago. Loss wasn't something one got over immediately.

She nodded in agreement. "Ah suppose you're right. It's hard now." She found herself sinking into the bed even further.

"Of course," he replied huskily, stroking her hair tenderly. The longer he had her this close, the harder it became to resist the urge to disclose what he had been feeling for so long.

"Ah just don't know.."

"You don't know what, ch・e?"

"Ah just don't know if Ah could it alone."

"You not alone, ch・e. Gambit here for you. Always."



"After all Ah put ya through.."

"Don', ch・e. Dat was a long time ago. Gambit don' t'ink about dose years anymore."

"Ah do."

"You shouldn't. We talked about it months ago, Rogue. It's over and done wit. You need to move on and t'ink about yourself and all dis, not about de past.."

"It's hard. There are so many things Ah regret doing, so many things Ah wish Ah could take back and redo. Do ya know what that's like?"

"Oui, ch・e. Gambit spends time doin' dat, but dat don' mean it's de right way to live life."

Rogue blew her nose. "It's easier to say than to do, Remy."

"Vraiment," he responded, rubbing circles on her back in a soothing motion. "Can only try, t'ough."

"Ah guess so," she said, green eyes filled with tears. "Ah'm gonna have to do it now, won't Ah?"

He gave her a somewhat puzzled look. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"Ah have to leave. Ah have to go to Guatemala.. For the body." She shook her head, a sob escaping her lips. "Ah've never done this before. Ah don't know what Ah'm gonna do. Ah don't know what Ah'm suppose to do."

Gambit drew her closer to him, both arms secure around her. "Shh.." he whispered. "Gambit don' know if dere's a right way to do dese t'ings, but Gambit knows you have his help in anyt'ing you need. Anything. If you need dis ol' t'ief to come wit you to Guatemala, he will."

Her pale, drawn face was surprised. "You will?"

He nodded. "Oui, ch・e."

"Why?" she asked, pulling away slightly in disbelief. Deep inside of her, there was the answer she wanted to hear, but was not sure if that reason. Even thinking about the possibility, frightened the Southern Belle, which was an uncomfortable addition to the grief and guilt she was also experiencing.

Gambit sighed, staring deeply into her eyes. "Because Gambit don' want to see you go t'rough dis alone," he finally managed quietly, "Because Gambit wants to do everyt'in possible to help you out, ch・e."

Rogue's bow mouth formed a line in the hopes of keeping her sobs or any other uncontrolled cries in her throat. She nodded her head gratefully at him. It was rather ambiguous as to whether or not he meant anything beyond the words he had just uttered.

Suddenly, his whiskey-and-cigarettes-soaked voice breathed, "Because Gambit still cares about you, Rogue."

She raised her head to meet his gaze. "Remy?" she inquired, doubting her own hearing.

"Gambit still cares about you, Rogue," he repeated, confident in his statement. Suddenly, it didn't dawn on him as to why he should hold back any longer. As soon as he told her, there was a huge weight that had been lifted from his shoulders and chest. It was like tasting freedom for the first time in months.

He cupped her face in his own gloved hands. "Because Gambit still cares about you, he will do anyt'ing---dat is, if you want dat."

Rogue's lower lip trembled, despite her effort to keep it still. She wanted to question him as to why he did. She wanted him to specify what he really meant by his statement. She wanted to make sure he really knew what he was saying.

Yet, she did not do any of those things. Instead, she simply sighed against him, burying her face against his muscular chest. Then she nodded resignedly, feeling uncharacteristically weakened. "Yes," she finally said, her voice muffled against his shirt. "Ah would like that, Remy."

Gambit tightened his arms around her. Relief washed over him. While not the most ideal circumstances, he was closer to what he yearned for so long. He knew further work to get her trust was going to be entailed. But at this point, that was the furthest thing from his mind. All he was concerned about was easing her pain and sharing the burden she thought she would have to shoulder alone. The rest of whatever lay ahead of them would fall into place.

"Looks like you takin' dis Cajun boy wit you, non?" He forced himself to sound light.

"Ya don't have to go."

"Gambit wants to. Dat's dat. End of de discussion, Rogue."

She nodded, peering up at him. "Ah was plannin' to take one of the X-Jets this afternoon. The Professor and Cyclops already know. Ah just have to pack some things for the trip." Shaking hands brushed away more tears from her raw cheeks.

He offered her another tissue, which she took. "How about Gambit leave you to pack so he can get t'ings together, and den we meet back here?" he suggested mildly.

Rogue managed another grimace, probably meant to be another small smile. "That sounds good," she agreed, dabbing her eyes again.

Before he rose to his feet, he kissed her hair, making sure he did not touch her scalp. He could smell the familiar shampoo she used. It was like a welcoming embrace. "Gambit be back, ch・e," he murmured against her head and squeezing her close to him. Then he released her reluctantly and walked to the door, watching her to see if she was all right, to see if there was anything else.

She rose from the bed and followed him to the door. Her green eyes stared into his red-on-black ones deeply as she opened the door. "Thanks," she said softly, "for everythin'.."

Gambit took her gloved hand and pressed it firmly against his lips, his gaze passionate and true. "No need to t'ank Gambit."

It was then that Rogue realized how relevant and insightful Kitty's words were now. "I'll take something that's reliable and known to me over anything else any day .." Gazing into the demon-like eyes of the Cajun thief, she saw past the flash and charm and the flirtation. What was left was the past they shared together, the good times they had until Antarctica, and the unconditional safety and warmth he offered then and now.

Her fingers gently brushed wavy, auburn locks from his forehead. "Ah wasn't just talkin' about comin' with me, Cajun."

A subdued smile touched his perfectly sculpted lips. "Gambit wasn't either, ch・e."

Remy LeBeau was aware that for some people, packing for travel was an art form. He had watched Jean Grey-Summers prepare for long trips to promote the school a couple of weeks ago. She took great care in packing her garments, using tissue and dry-cleaning bags and layering clothing in the suitcase or garment bag. She had confessed to him that one of her pet peeves was dealing with wrinkled clothes.

However, for Remy, such care was not needed. As an experienced traveler, he learned the importance of being able to prioritize what to take with him. Over the years, he learned that nice clothes could always be bought later and at times, left behind, depending on the circumstances. Whatever could be tossed in his trusted travel bag was good enough for the Cajun thief. The necessities included several decks of playing cards, his Bo- staff compacted, several pairs of jeans and shirts, another pair of boots, gloves, and toiletries. As an afterthought, he grabbed a fresh pack of Cloves from his bedside table. Who knew what kind of cigarettes were going to be available in the country?

Gambit checked his room to see if there was anything else he needed. His eyes locked onto his dresser. There was the bamboo plant and next to it, was the metal collar he had taken from Hank McCoy's laboratory. He frowned thoughtfully, deliberating his choice.

The metal collar, inhibitor of mutant powers. The easy way out. A symbol of a dishonest mean to get what he wanted. A symbol of the old Remy LeBeau.

The bamboo plant. Perhaps a metaphor for what kind of hard work laid ahead for his relationship with Rogue. A symbol of hope and happiness.

Sighing, the Cajun thief made his decision. He tucked the plant under his arm and silently exited his bedroom, towards a new future.