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Save a Horse, Ride a Cajun; Episode Two: "Breaking Away"

Mac O'Roni

Big rigs are throwing rain on my windshield
And I feel like they’re laughing at me.
Finally the storm’s breaking up
And the morning is breaking free.

It’s a brand-new day.
It’s a second chance.
Yesterday is just a memory
For me and Emily.

—“Me and Emily,” Rachael Proctor

     “Sweetheart, look at yourself! Look what he’s done to you! You have to leave him, darling, and right now, before it gets any worse!”
     Serenade pushed a lock of hair out of her bruised and blackened eyes and sniffed, keeping her attention firmly focused on the scallions she was chopping and ignoring her mother’s passionate pleas.
     “Sweetie, please, listen to me! You can’t go on like this, there’s no reason you should stay here and keep on taking this sort of treatment. You have to leave him. You have to come home with me.”
     She shook her head firmly, though her heart quailed and her body trembled. “No, Mom. I can’t do that. I could never do that.”
     “Why not?!? Darling, if you can’t do this for yourself, think of Emily Rose. Even if he never lays a hand on her, think of how it will be for her to grow up watching her daddy hurting her mommy. And what if he starts in on her someday? What if one day he starts smacking her around the house?”
     Serenade dropped her knife with a choked sob and clutched at the counter with both hands. “For Emmy I would do anything. Except go home. I can’t go home, Mom. I just can’t.”
     Although she didn’t want to, her mother could understand where the girl was coming from. It wasn’t because she didn’t love her parents, because she did. She knew they loved her and they for their part had always shown her that. What Serenade couldn’t face, what her unpardonable O’Reilly pride wouldn’t allow her to consider, was presenting herself as an object of attention and gossip for the old home crowd, the snooty country club set that made up her parent’s upper class neighborhood. She had provided enough such fodder for them growing up.
     “Then go somewhere else!” Mrs. O’Reilly said desperately.
     “Where?” Serenade cried out, losing it completely and throwing herself into her mother’s arms. “Where, Mom? I don’t have anywhere else! I don’t know where to go. Please, Mommy, tell me where to go.” She sobbed bitterly in her mother’s tender embrace.
     “I think I know where you can go, baby; a place where you and Emmy will be safe and happy. Come with me, just for now, and I’ll have your father make the arrangements.”
     Serenade sniffed and nodded, wiping her streaming eyes on the fine embroidered handkerchief her mother provided for her. “Just let me gather up some of Emmy’s things,” she said.
     “All right, baby, but hurry. I want to be out of here before that…that monster gets back.”
     Serenade went upstairs and rummaged through the baby’s dresser until she had filled a diaper bag with the little girl’s clothes. She tossed a few of the child’s favorite toys in another bag and hurried back downstairs.
     Her mother checked the time on her sleek ladies Seiko watch. “He doesn’t usually get back from that club he spends all day lounging at much before five, does he, dear? Maybe you could pack a few things for yourself before we go.”
     Serenade shook her head. “No, Mom. We have to go now, before I lose my nerve. If I start shuffling through my things I’ll get to thinking it’ll be easier just to stay.” She grabbed her keys out of the crystal tray on the foyer mantle. “Do you want to take Emmy with you? I can change the car seat over to your car.”
     “I thought you were coming with me?”
     “No, I want to take my car. It’s the only thing I want to take away with me, except for my girl.”
     “A good idea, dear. But you better take Emily, just to remind you to keep driving away.” She picked the little girl up and passed her into her mother’s arms. Emily Rose, not quite old enough to know exactly what was going on but aware that it was something momentous, didn’t protest although she usually resented being carried now that she could walk on her own.
     “Come on, Munchkin,” Serenade said. “Let’s go see Grampa!”
     Emmy grinned. “Gwampa!” she crowed, bouncing enthusiastically. “Gwampa, Gwampa, Gwampa!”

     Jonathan O’Reilly was a short, burly man with thinning carrot-colored hair and an obstinate, pugnacious face that gave the lie to the generous, loving soul within. He couldn’t have looked less like either of his two daughters, and the only resemblance the former Sarah O’Reilly bore to her father was her height—barely five feet, three inches tall. Her little sister Laurayne was more like their mother; tall and willowy.
     Right now her father’s face was deep red and clouded with anger. Her mother had to restrain him from setting out in his expensive executive Mercedes Benz to hunt down Serenade’s husband and “beat the living piss out of him,” as he had threatened to do. He punched the buttons on his touch-tone phone as though his son-in-law’s face was imprinted on each.
     “I’d like to speak to Professor Charles Xavier, please,” he grunted. There was a pause. “Yeah, Professor, my name is Jon O’Reilly, and I have a problem I’m hoping you can help me with.”
     His eyes widened as he listened to the other half of the conversation. “Well, yeah, but I’ll be damned if I can tell how the hell you knew that.”
     “Oh, right. I understand. So you can help her? Great! Yes, I understand that, but if you’re going to take my little girl in I want to be able to do something for you in return. A donation, maybe, hey? Money always comes in handy for any organization, no matter how well funded.”
     “Well, thank you very much, sir. Yes, I’ll certainly consider it. Thank you. Good bye.”
     He hung up and looked at his wife and daughter. “Well, it’s all settled. You and Emmy have a place all ready and waiting for you at the Xavier Institute down in Westchester.”
     “Westchester…New York?” Serenade asked.
     “Yup. It’s not all that far away, though, really.”
     “What is this place exactly?”
     “It’s a sort of boarding school for mutants, though you won’t have to attend any classes, per se. By reputation it’s probably the best thing we’ve got going in this country—it’s not out to segregate, it’s aiming to educate public sentiment and protect mutants from a hostile society at the same time. Professor Xavier is the founder, and he’s a mutant too, so he ought to have a lot of sympathy for the cause. The whole staff is mutant, I believe, or just about. You’ll be safe there, well provided for, and the social environment ought to be a bit freer for you, too. Maybe you’ll make some good friends,” her mother said.
     “I should have sent you and Rayne there from the start, I suppose,” her father said glumly. “If you hadn’t been surrounded by all those nasty, snotty cliques at school you’d probably have better self-esteem, and maybe you’d have married a better grade of man.”
     “Daddy, no man would have been good enough for me in your eyes,” Serenade said, smiling for the first time in quite awhile.
     “The only man who could ever be good enough for you is a man who’s smart enough to realize he could never be good enough for you,” he pointed out. “Frankly, honey, I could care less if you married a bank robber, as long as he treated you like gold.”

     The big mansion was a little intimidating, even though Serenade was well used to the sprawling opulence of the wealthy. She unbuckled the safety harness on her daughter’s car seat and lifted the little girl out of the car. She carried the child on her hip up to the big double doors and knocked. To her relief, no well-pressed professional servant answered, but rather a pretty and slightly tousled teenaged girl with big hoop earrings and wearing a bright pink tank top and cutoff jeans. The very picture of enthusiastic youth, she was even chewing vigorously on a piece of bubble gum that smelled strongly of artificially flavored watermelon.
     “Well, hey!” the girl greeted. “You must be Sarah, right? And who’s this little cutie?”
     “This is my daughter Emily.”
     “Oh, she’s a sweetie!” the girl gushed, positively bubbling over with good-natured energy. “I’m Jubilee. Come on in, I’ll show you around! You’ve got your stuff out in the car, don’t you? Hey, Wolvie, get the lady’s bags, wontcha? Wow, cool! Is that a Jag? You must got money!”
     “Mommy, she’s noisy wike Auntie Wayne!” Emily giggled. Serenade stifled her own laugh. Jubilee did in fact remind her very much of her sister, though the similarity was entirely in the speed and frequency of their rapid-fire and extremely one-sided conversations.
     The short, burly and pugnacious-looking man the girl referred to as “Wolvie” stalked to the door. He was no taller than Serenade herself. He gave her a cursory inspection and growled into her face, a low, menacing, and entirely animal sound. Then he stalked past her and to her car.
     “Don’t worry, he wasn’t really growling at you,” Jubilee explained quickly. “He was growling at the…at the bruises. He doesn’t like people who hurt ladies.”
     “Gwowly wike Gwampa,” Emily observed astutely. She was on a roll, two for two.
     “Traveling light, eh?” the stocky little man growled, back already. That was an understatement. Serenade had only three small bags, two of which were filled with things for the baby. The other bag, still with the price tag dangling from the handle, had a few changes of clothes she’d purchased on the way down from Massachusetts.
     “Come on, Sarah,” Jubilee said. “I’ll show you the major points of interest and then I’ll show you your room.” The girl led her out of the main receiving hall to a large open common area with a state-of-the-art entertainment center and a couple of nice cream-colored sofas. A broad-shouldered and extremely tall young man was sitting there watching television. He was good-looking, in a severe sort of way, but he was sitting rather strangely. At first she thought he must be perched stiffly on the arm of one of the sofas, but then she realized that he was, in part, lying down on the floor. Only his torso was regimentally upright. From the waist down, his body became the body of an enormous, shaggy tiger. With wings, no less. Suddenly she didn’t feel so bad about her own unusual appearance. The program on the big screen plasma television was a documentary about tigers.
     “Hey Cajun; company! Come and meet the newbies!” Jubilee called.
     The strange young mutant turned off the television and stood up, a smooth vertical motion. He was extremely tall—Serenade thought he must be somewhere close to ten feet. His movement drew Emily’s attention to him for the first time. “Tigger!” she cried, identifying him immediately with her favorite storybook character.
     A thin smile touched the young man’s lips. “An’ de mos’ wunnerful t’ing about Tiggers is dat I’m de only one,” he said. His voice was a thick, smoky, and undeniably sexy purr. Except for the accent, which was extremely thick, he sounded to her like a masculine Janis Joplin, voice ruined, or at least rendered extremely distinctive, by hard living. “‘Cept dat de name is Gambit.”
     Handsome as he was, there was little or nothing in his manner to suggest that he was disposed to be friendly. Certainly the name he gave conveyed no sense of warmth or camaraderie. Mutants usually chose their nicknames (or had them chosen for them) to describe their physical appearance or their mutant powers. His seemed to convey his personality more than anything else. A chance-taker. A rambler. Someone who didn’t set down deep roots or forge strong relationships. He probably had a trail of broken hearts in his wake as long as his tail.
     “Gambit, this is Sarah O’Reilly, and this little cutie here is Emily,” Jubilee introduced.
     “Nice t’ meet you, Sarah O’Reilly,” he said, smiling vaguely in the general direction of her face. His weird red and black eyes were cold and distant. He could have made a bit more of an effort just to be polite. “Boston Irish, hahn?”
     “Yes,” she said, bridling a little. What did he mean by that?
     “Gambit is New Orleans Swamp Rat,” Jubilee supplied. “Just so you know. He’s a big jerk, but he’s our big jerk and we love him.”
     Serenade wasn’t quite sure how, but supposed the residents must be used to him. Or just possibly she was missing something. After all, she didn’t really know him. It could be that she was just as guilty of judging by appearances as all the bitchy prep school preppies who had written her off as a mutie freak without ever exchanging a single word with her. She’d taken a dislike to him, but she would try and reconsider.
     Emmy wriggled and held out her arms to him. “Up!” she demanded.
     He plucked her out of her mother’s arms and twisted at the waist to plop her down on his back between his great wings. “Hol’ on tight, petite,” he said. Then he took her for a slow trot around the room. She giggled and snuggled her little face into his fur. A tiger trot, or at least a Cajun trot, was apparently a much smoother ride than an equine one, and the child did not bounce. Nor was there any danger of falling off, because he held his wings up like guard rails.
     “Big and Rich should rewrite their song,” Jubilee said. “It should be, ‘Save a Horse, Ride a Cajun.’”
     “Hey, I love that song,” Serenade admitted. “I heard it on the drive down.”
     “Ain’t it just awesome?” Jubilee asked. “I especially like the second verse. ‘Bling-blingin’ isn’t something one generally hears in a country song.”
     Gambit came back around and lowered himself smoothly to the floor so that the little girl could slide off safely. The short, growling “Wolvie” stalked in and nodded at him. “Hey, Tiger-tush,” he greeted.
     “Canucklehead,” the Cajun returned. “Have you been properly introduced t’de ladies?”
     “Not exactly. But then, Jubes was talkin’ so fast there wasn’t much room t’say anything.”
     “I’m Sarah, and this is Emily,” Serenade offered.
     He nodded at her. “Nice t’meetcha. Name’s Logan. Most people call me Wolverine, though,” and he held up a hand. Three sharp, foot-long metal claws popped out of his knuckles, and then back in.
     “This is what I can do,” Jubilee said. She held up her hands and bright colored lights exploded from them. “Gambit’s a little bit like me—show her, Stripey-pants.”
     “Considerin’ I’m some years older dan you, petite,” he said, “I t’ink mebbe you a li’l bit like me, n’est pas?” A playing card appeared in his hand, quite suddenly. It looked like a perfectly ordinary card, but suddenly it began to glow bright fuchsia pink. He tossed it lightly back in the direction of his tail and it exploded in midair with a miniature fwoosh-oop fireworks sound. They all looked to Serenade expectantly. Apparently a demonstration of mutant power was part of the official introduction process around here.
     “Here’s how mine works,” she said, and took a step back from them. She closed her eyes, concentrated, and felt her body split apart into billions of tiny particles as her power operated. Seconds later she opened her eyes again. Jubilee and Wolverine were both agape, and for the first time she seemed to have the Cajun’s full attention.
     “What the hell was that?” Wolverine asked.
     “A song!” Jubilee exclaimed. “She turned into a song!”
     “Nifty trick,” Gambit observed nonchalantly.
     “Yes, well, now you know why they call me Serenade,” she said, suddenly shy. She was always shy about her “little talent,” as her mother called it. Her parents were actually rather proud of her mutation—an unusual thing for baseline humans—but Serenade was certain that everyone else perceived it as a flaw. Most people did, but she was among other mutants now, and her power was almost ordinary compared to some of the weird and wild things she would see once she’d settled in. Goodness knows, she’d already seen plenty of weird and wild just in Gambit.
     As if to illustrate the point, a pair of men walked up who, together or separately, could give the Cajun a run for his money in the weird category. Both were blue and furry. The big one looked like a two-legged lion in a clean white lab coat and wearing a pair of small round-lensed spectacles. The smaller man had yellow eyes and a long, spade-tipped tail. “Ah!” the big one said. “Our new friends from Boston, I presume?”
     “Beast, Nightcrawler, this is Sarah O’Reilly and her daughter Emily. Serenade, this is Dr. Henry McCoy and Kurt Wagner,” Jubilee introduced. Gambit suddenly tensed and sprang to a window. Instead of looking out, he pressed his ear against it. Seconds later, Serenade was spared a repeat of the power demonstrations by a loud, authoritative crash. “Who de hell is workin’ security today an’ why de hell didn’t dey have de front gate closed?” the Cajun groused, heading for the doors. The others were fast on his tail.
“My cah!” Serenade exclaimed, and in her agitation her Massachusetts accent was thick. The rear end of the black Jaguar was totaled; a silver Cadillac Escalade was the reason. She recognized the SUV and her heart sank as her husband wrenched open the door and bounded out, looking mad enough to kill. How had he found her already? She knew her parents would never have told him anything.
     “Sarah!” he shouted. “You get your fat ass over here, you filthy bitch!”
     “Whoopsie,” Dr. McCoy muttered. He picked Emily up and carried the toddler back through the doors. “Here, sweetie, maybe you should go back inside.”
     “You too, Chica,” Jubilee whispered to Serenade. “Let Wolvie handle this jerk.”
     “Actually, maybe ya should stick around,” Wolverine growled. “Maybe watching me rearrange this asshole’s face will be a cathartic experience for ya.”
     “Now now, frien’ Logan—remember, dis be dat li’l chile’s daddy,” Gambit cautioned. “You ain’ got no finesse, mon ami. Let Gambit handle dis. If savoir faire don’t work, den I turn ‘im over t’you.”
     He held up his hands and addressed himself to the new arrival, a big smile on his face that didn’t even shake hands with his eyes. He started down the front steps. “Now, mon brave, le’s jus’ calm ourselves an’ sit down an’ talk dis over like rational adults, an’ I’m sure we can clear up dis li’l misun’erstan’in.”
     “The only misunderstanding here, you French Fried Freak, is the one my wife had when she misunderstood the idea that she had the right to leave me, and it will be all cleared up the minute she gets her ass back home where it belongs.”
     It was at that moment that Gambit’s paws tangled and he pitched forward, taking the last few steps at a shambling run, and his shoulder slammed right into the advancing man’s chest. Serenade couldn’t tell for certain, but it looked entirely deliberate to her. Perhaps she just couldn’t imagine a tiger, or any derivative thereof, tripping over its own feet. Not to mention the fact that he hit her husband like a football linebacker, dipping down from his great height to just the right level to send the smaller, and considerably less athletic, man flying. He hit the side of the Escalade and slid to the asphalt, almost bonelessly, but he wasn’t really hurt. He was well padded.
     Fat ass indeed! Serenade thought indignantly, with a sudden burst of righteous, if slightly belated, anger. Look who’s talking! Chunk E. Tuna!
     “Goddamn it!” her husband shouted. “What the fuck, asshole, you blind or something?”
     Gambit stopped trying to apologize, which attempt hadn’t seemed terrifically genuine anyway, and shrugged, laughing. “Yeh, actually.” He gestured to the wreckage in front of him. “Wha’s yo’ es’cuse?”
     Blind! Serenade’s brain shrieked. In spite of the circumstances she was horrified. What she had mistaken for rude disinterest was in fact a physical handicap. But he hadn’t seemed blind, goddamn it. Then she realized that she really had no basis for comparison. She had no idea how blind was supposed to seem. Considering this new information, the Cajun had really been very nice to her, and especially to her daughter. She had misjudged him.
     And now he was taking care of the problem of her husband, and quite handily. Lester had no chance at all, even if he wasn’t really dumb enough to try and fight this creature—for so Lester surely thought him. She’d spent the last three years of her life hearing how mutants like her weren’t really human at all.
     “Serves me right for marrying a guy named Lester,” she muttered. He habitually lived up to the name. Had she ever really thought she was in love with him? With chunky, graceless, zit-faced Lester Murphy, who’s most salient personality trait was his depthless bigotry? Couldn’t be. Her cataclysmically low self-esteem had merely convinced her that she could have no better. But surely having nothing at all was better than this. Still, he’d given her one good thing; a good thing that had sneaked back out of the mansion and was now tugging urgently on the tail of her Red Sox T-shirt, demanding to be picked up.
     “Is Tigger gonna huwt Daddy?” she asked, her little face set in a concerned pout. Serenade looked down at the driveway, where Lester Murphy had just taken a rather ill-considered swing at the big half-cat. It was perhaps his fifth or sixth, and so far Gambit had only blocked them, grinning with increasing unpleasantness and keeping up a steady stream of commentary that was swiftly degenerating into open insults. His eyes had begun to glow eerily, though interestingly only around the iris, as if there were shutters over that part of his eye. As if glowing eyes—in broad daylight, no less—weren’t interesting in the beginning.
     “No, I don’t think so, honey,” she lied glibly. “But I think you’d better go back inside, don’t you?”
     “No! I wanna watch Tigger!” the little girl crowed, as if relishing the idea of seeing her father take a beating. This was one time Serenade felt she needed to put her foot down.
     “Get back inside, Emmy,” she ordered, setting the girl down and pointing her toward the doors. The girl went obediently enough, though she threw a reproachful glare back over her shoulder as she did. A willful child, and Serenade knew she was a weak parent. She could have her work cut out for her, raising that little one all alone. She usually wasn’t able to deny the child anything, and she was apt to spoil her rotten.
     She was still turned away from the action below when she heard a solid, meaty thwock sound. She turned and Lester Murphy was on the ground, wiping at his bleeding mouth and looking up at the towering figure looming over him. From Lester’s perspective, Gambit must have seemed a hundred feet tall.
     “Now really, M’sieu,” the Cajun said, his voice light and conversational, “would you walk int’ de tiger pit at d’zoo an’ pick a fight wit’ a big ol’ Siberian tiger? What make you t’ink you got a better chance a’ survivin’ dis li’l encounter?”
     “You can’t hurt me,” Lester sneered, but he didn’t sound totally convinced of that. “I’ll have the law on you!”
     Gambit broke down laughing, almost literally rolling on the floor. Apparently the threat was a very funny sort of joke in his world. “De law?” he gasped. “De law? Oh, Margaret! He’p me, Lawd, he gon’ get de law on dis poor Cajun!”
     Surely it was a funny joke in his world, which was clearly the world of the Xavier Institute. Jubilee giggled, Beast and Nightcrawler both laughed outright, and even Wolverine got a chuckle out of it. An inside joke, apparently. Serenade thought she knew what Gambit was going to say next: he was the law. A cop, maybe, or a federal agent. Though how a man like him could possibly have gotten a government or even a city job with the current pervasive anti-mutant attitude was beyond her ability to guess. Unless he, too, had a wealthy and influential father, like Serenade’s.
     “Sonny boy, I ain’ never exac’ly been much afraid a’ de law,” he said then. “Occupational hazard. A t’ief learn de ins an’ outs a’ evadin’ de cops before he learn anyt’ing else. An’ I’m de bes’ t’ief dere be, blind or not.”
     Serenade’s eyes widened in shock even as did Lester’s. She looked to her companions but they seemed completely unfazed by this bold admission. They already knew, she realized. He’s a criminal and they don’t do anything about it. Jesus Christ, if I stay here I’ll be some kind of accessory!
     “Bein’, as I am, a low-down, dirty, black-hearted crook,” Gambit went on forcefully, “I don’ have many moral scruples. De only t’ing dat’s kep’ me from rippin’ yo’ damn-fool head off thus far been de fact dat dey’s un jeune fille in dat mansion back dere who probably wouldn’ like dat very much, an’ if dey’s one t’ing I kin’a got a sof’ spot for, it’s li’l chirren. So how ‘bout you take your crunched-up li’l Caddy-lac an’ poin’ it back t’ords Mass-Atch-Usets an’ mebbe, jus’ mebbe, take you a li’l second t’inkin’ de next time you get a hair laid jus’ so ‘cross your asshole an’ you start t’inkin you mebbe jus’ oughta come back here an’ start some more trouble. We used t’trouble ‘roun here, b’lieve me, an’ we real damn good at finishin’ it.” He herded the scuttling figure around to the driver’s side of the SUV, opened the door, and pushed him inside. “Ta ta, now. Don’ forget to write, an’ all dat.”
     Lester wasted no time in his ignominious departure, squealing the tires on the asphalt. He probably wouldn’t get too far before breaking down—the Escalade’s engine protested loudly, and there was white steam coming out from under the crumpled hood—but Serenade doubted he’d be back. Another of her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s salient characteristics was a coward’s sense of self-preservation. She felt suddenly elated, a heavy burden falling off her shoulders. A little more of feelings like this and she’d just float away. Lester was gone. He was really, really gone.
     Gambit was tracing the crumpled metal of the Jaguar’s rear bumper with the fingers of his left hand. He whistled and shook his head sadly. “Damned shame,” he said. “Dis one sweet ride. Still, yo’ insurance oughta handle it.” He turned toward the mansion and tromped back up the stairs as if exhausted.
     Wolverine stopped him at the top and cocked a sardonic eyebrow up at him. “Savoir Faire?” he queried gruffly.
     Gambit shrugged, grinning again. “Cajun style.” That made Wolverine laugh. Serenade already had the impression that was a hard thing to do. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant laugh, though it was good-humored. It had a bitter and slightly predatory edge. Everything about this human Toby jug had a bitter and slightly predatory edge. A nearly rabid Red Sox fan, Serenade mused that the team ought to sign him for catcher. Probably wouldn’t have to spend any money on equipment for him. He looked like the kind of guy who’d refuse on general principle the protection of the aptly named “tools of ignorance.” He looked tough enough to take fastballs directly to the face without flinching. Or maybe hockey pucks.
     Gambit trudged inside—he really looked tired, she didn’t think he was faking that—and the others followed him. Serenade followed a little too close, and got slapped in the face by an errant tail twitch. “Sorry,” he said over his shoulder.
     “S’okay,” she said. “I’m used to cats.” She slapped a hand over her mouth, chagrined, but he merely chuckled. It was a tired sound, but it did sound genuine. He returned to the little rec area and flopped down on the floor, curling his legs under him and leaning heavily against the arm of one of the sofas. He yawned openly, showing a mouthful of very white teeth. The upper canines were rather lengthy and extremely pointed. They had a strange, newly minted look. He must take excessively good care of those choppers, she thought.
     The others sat themselves on the sofas. Emily gravitated naturally toward fur, and had already decided that “Tigger” was her especial property. She plopped herself down on the floor beside him, threw her little arms over his back and petted him like a housecat. He ignored her with tacit approval. “How are you feeling, Gambit?” Dr. McCoy asked, sitting down on the near end of the sofa he was propped against.
     “Tired, doc. But not too bad. I’m gettin’ used t’ it.”
     “Quickly, too, I’m gratified to observe. No problems getting around anymore, eh? Except…”
     “Es’cept what?”
     “Was that tumble off the stairs deliberate?”
     Gambit laughed again, and it was a strange sound to hear coming from such a feline person. It sounded like a bark. “Yeah, dat was deliberate,” he said. “Cajun savoir faire, y’know.”
     “Oh. Good.”
     “Sarah, come and sit down!” Jubilee said, drawing her over to one of the couches. “You’re making me nervous, standing over there like that! How are you feeling, huh? You okay? Don’t take this the wrong way, but your husband’s a real jerk! I mean seriously!”
     Serenade laughed weakly. “Yes, you’re right. He is a jerk.” She sat down, and it felt good to do it. The reaction was setting in, she supposed. Making her jittery and weak-kneed. Plus the fact that her daughter was currently snuggling up to an admitted criminal. That had to have been a bluff; surely the Xavier Institute wouldn’t knowingly harbor thieves. He’d just been trying to scare Lester. It had worked, and she should be grateful.
     But she didn’t really believe it had been a bluff. If it had been, then it was a bluff he made often, because nobody had shown the slightest indication of surprise. She couldn’t imagine Jubilee being particularly skilled at dissemination, yet the girl hadn’t even twitched at mention of his professed occupation.
     “Are you really a thief?” she blurted out suddenly, unable to stop herself. Gambit looked at her, or rather turned his face in her direction, since he never really made eye contact—how could he?—and there was no surprise or guilt in his perfectly neutral expression. He nodded slowly.
     “Sure am, cher,” he admitted. “D’ough your definition an’ mine prob’ly ain’ quite de same.” In his accent, his voice reminiscent of dark, smoky blues bars deep in the Bayou country, the words were exotic. “Cher” was shah, “mine” was mahn, “quite” was quaht, and “same” somehow became two syllables long. Serenade became aware of a strange thrumming sound in the background, like the motor of a fishing boat. Maybe there was a lake nearby.
     “Thieves are thieves, aren’t they?” she said boldly, though her mouth was desert dry and cottony.
     He nodded again, insufferably calm. “Sure enough, I reckon,” he said. “But cher, dey’s t’ieves, an’ den dey’s t’ieves. I’m one a’ de latter.”
     “I don’t quite follow.”
     He gestured to his friends to explain for him, and Wolverine stepped into the lurch. “He’s a Master Thief,” he growled. Everything he said was a growl, really. “From the New Orleans guild. They’re the best there is. Sometimes they even work for the good guys.”
     “Sometimes we even be de ‘good guys,’” Gambit clarified. “Dey’s good t’iefs an’ bad t’iefs. Ma’ Papa taught me t’be one a’ de good ones, but I ain’ as good at dat as he is. Tell me, cher—am I really all dat differ’nt from a lawyer or a politician? Jus’ more honest, dat’s all. I’m right up front about my stealin’.”
     “His profession is easier to stomach than his personality, believe me,” Jubilee said, rolling her eyes. She blew a bright pink bubble gum bubble and he tossed something at her, fast and hard, like a tiny knife. The bubble popped, startling her, and she picked the thing he’d thrown out of the sticky tangle of gum. It was a toothpick.
     “Oh, that’s just great, Garfield! You could have got me in the eye!” she said, her voice quavering indignantly.
     He shrugged and took a second pick out of a little cylinder in his shirt pocket, handling it in the unmistakable manner of an inveterate smoker now trying to kick the habit before sticking it in the corner of his mouth. Serenade watched him reach absently for the lighter he no longer carried with no surprise. “But I din’t. Ain’ you got no faith in ma’ aim, petite?” he said, abandoning the search.
     “Not right now, I don’t!” she shouted, and then clamped both hands over her mouth, her eyes wide and dismayed over them. “Oh, gosh—I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have— I mean, it’s not like—”
     He held up a hand. “It’s okay, petite, Gambit unn’erstan. Je suis desole,” he apologized. “I shoul’nt have done dat.”
     Jubilee sat back, her hands limp in her lap, her expression one of sympathetic unhappiness. Beast cleared his throat in the uncomfortable silence, which was rendered incomplete only by the resumption of that strange thrumming sound. “An excellent shot, though. You’re adjusting well. Perhaps I could talk to Cyclops about letting you start training in the Danger Room again, if you feel up to it.”
     He shrugged, just a little tilt of the head. “Whatever you t’ink, doc. I don’ min’ one way or t’ ot’er.”
     Wolverine growled, a real growl, ramping up to a snarl. “What is that damned noise?” he snarled, eyes darting around as though to locate the source of the deep bass thrumming sound. Emily giggled.
     “Tigger puwwin’,” she cooed happily, continuing to pet his tiger shoulder. Every eye turned to look at the Cajun, who for his part seemed just as surprised as everyone else. His mouth gaped momentarily, toothpick dangling, and then he cleared his throat.
     “Yeh, well, I’m awful tired. I t’ink mebbe I’m gon’ go upstairs an’ take a nap. Ms. Sarah, Miss Emily, it been a real pleasure meetin’ ya. I hope y’ like it here.” He carefully disengaged the two year old from his side, stood up, and fairly fled away up the stairs, making only the barest pretence of walking. Jubilee started to laugh riotously, falling off the couch onto the floor where she rolled, clutching her sides.
     “Now, really!” she exclaimed, when speech became possible. “Gambit, purring!”