Bella Donna Boudreaux, her long blond hair arranged in tiny braids and pulled into a ponytail, walked down the second floor hallway of the Guild safehouse on her way down to the kitchen. It was nearing midnight, and Bel was on the hunt for a late-night snack for herself and the rest of the Assassins before bed. She passed an open bedroom door, merely catching a glance inside out of her periferal vision as she passed, and then paused. The occupant of the room was not happy; his elbows rested on the computer desk, his head buried in his hands, his shoulders slumped. Bel was an observant young woman, as befitting a trained assassin, and she had noticed all that in a mere glance. But what really caught her attention was the fact that the young man in the room was crying. She couldn't hear him, but she was a telepath. She knew. That was why she stopped.
'Remy ain' here...an' when he ain' here it's my job to help ensure de T'ieves are okay.' Bel thought to herself with a reserved sigh. 'Derefore, I have an obligation right now to find out what's makin' Emil so sad an' do somethin' 'bout it.'
For his own part, red-haired Emil Lapin knew the Guild viceroy was standing outside his room and would soon be joining him and trying to get him to tell her what was wrong. Like all the Thieves, Emil had been trained since birth with a keen sense of proximity among other things, and he could tell without looking that Bella Donna was there. And he knew it was her because he could smell the perfume she almost always wore. It smelled like an apple orchard. Not that Emil knew what an apple orchard smelled like, but the perfume smelled the way he imagined an apple orchard would smell, given how bags of apples at the grocery store smelled.
Within moments, Bella Donna knocked lightly on Emil's door. Emil didn't look up. In fact, he didn't even move or say anything. Bel sighed. Of course, he had to be difficult.
"May I come in, Emil?"
Emil shrugged his shoulders and sniffled in response. Part of him wished she'd just leave him alone, but the other part of him knew she couldn't and wouldn't. He didn't believe she could help him, but he also knew he couldn't stop her from trying.
"I'm gon' take dat as a yes, if it's all de same to you." Bel said, calmly walking into Emil's room and sitting down on his bed. The layout of the room meant that Emil's back was to her, but she didn't mind. When he felt like it, he'd just spin around in his chair so he was facing her. And if she said something he didn't like, he'd be just as quick to spin back around and ignore her. That was one of the things the Assassins had learned about the young computer hacker thief during the nearly four years since the unification of the two guilds. Sure, Emil had a big mouth and the reputation of speaking before thinking, which often got him into trouble, but when he was upset about something he was more likely to keep it inside and try to ignore it, rather than talk about it. Bella Donna had a feeling he was trying to do that with whatever was making him cry, and it wasn't quite working.
After sitting there staring at Emil's back for a few minutes, Bel decided enough was enough. "Emil, talk to me. What's wrong? Gris didn' beat you up 'gain did he...?" Bel prayed the answer to that question was no. The personalities and dispositions of Emil and Gris-Gris mixed like oil and water. The two men just did not get along, and Gris took any opportunity, no matter how small, to rough Emil up a little bit. He called it "teachin' dat obnoxious little brat a lesson". Bella Donna called it a pain in the butt because it usually resulted in Remy getting upset with her for not being able to control Gris.
Emil shook his head. Bel had to strain to hear his whispered reply. "Non."
"Den what is it? What's got you so down? Is dere anythin' I can do to help you?"
"Gotta give you credit, Bel. You really are workin' hard at keepin' de peace in dis household." Emil chuckled half-heartedly. "But did you ever t'ink dat maybe I'm jus' tired of bein' Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky right now?"
"Didn' Jean ever tell you it's impossible to lie to a telepath?" Bella Donna retorted. "Now you wan' try 'gain?"
Emil sighed. He'd momentarily forgotten that lying to Bella Donna was just as hard as lying to Tante Mattie. It couldn't be done. His voice grew quiet again and again Bel strained to hear him. "You wouldn' understand."
Before Emil had a chance to even begin to explain his problems to Bel, they were interrupted by the arrival of the other four Assassins in the doorway of his room. Fifolet shrugged at Bel. "You said you were gon' bring back food. When you didn', we came lookin'."
Singer frowned in Emil's direction, having noted the tears in his eyes and the general upset vibe he was giving off. "What's wrong? Can we help?"
Emil looked at the ceiling. "Oh you have got to be kiddin' me! Now dey all wan' help?! What is dis, de Twilight Zone?"
"Well I, for one don' wan' help for what it's worth, mais I'm here an' if dey're gon' stay an' listen, I will too." Gris-Gris commented darkly.
Emil raised an eyebrow. "Nope, can' be de Twilight Zone. If dis was really de Twilight Zone, he'd care an' he doesn', so I ain' in de Twilight Zone. T'ank you for not carin', Gris. I was startin' to worry."
"Anybody else in de room t'ink dat was a little backwards?" Questa quipped. "But nevermind dat anyway. What's got you so upset, Emil?"
"It really ain' dat big a deal, guys..."
"Uh...huh. Dere you go lyin' 'gain." Bel complained. "It's a big enough of a deal to leave you cryin' 'bout it in de middle of de night, 'member?"
Emil sighed. "Would you jus' turn off de freakin' telepathy for once, Bel? B'sides...I jus' don' see how any of you guys could possibly understand a single t'ing 'bout dis."
"Won' know if you don' tell us." Fifolet reminded. He and Questa made themselves comfortable on the floor on either side of Emil, while Singer joined Bella Donna on the bed. Gris-Gris remained where he was, leaning in the doorway.
"It's jus'...I feel completely...worthless. Like no matter how hard I try, nothing I do is good enough. And it doesn't even matter what it is. I could work my tail off on something, it could be the absolute best I can do...and it's still not good enough. I try so hard...I do the best I can at everything...an' for what? For nothin'. I'm jus'...I'm tired of tryin' an' comin' up short t'rough no fault of my own. I'm sick of it...sick of feelin' lost an' worthless an' not good enough for anyone or anythin'." By the time Emil finished speaking the tears were flowing freely down his pale, freckled face once more and his five listeners weren't sure what to do or say.
"Uhm..." Bella Donna stammered.
"Told you." Emil mumbled. "You don' understand."
"Well..." Four of the five Assassins replied. One remained silent, but none of the others noticed.
"Go get your food, guys. It's late. I'm sorry for takin' up your time. Won' happen 'gain." Emil said, burying his head in his arms on his desk, blocking them out of his vision. He listened as they left and frowned when he realized one of them stayed behind. "T'ought you didn' care, Gris."
Emil sat up and looked curiously at the black man still leaning in the door way. "Den what...?"
"I overheard a bit of what Marceaux said to you earlier, 'bout dat program you been workin' on for weeks."
Gris raised an eyebrow. "Does he realize de t'ings he says hurt you?"
"If no one else can help you an' you want to help yourself, den maybe you should tell him, non?" Gris suggested. Emil blinked in shock and when he opened his eyes, the Assassin was gone, silently, as if the conversation had not taken place.
The next morning found Emil standing outside Theoren's bedroom door. Three times, Emil raised his hand to knock on the closed door. Three times, Emil didn't knock. He had not slept the entire night, but had rather spent it staring at the ceiling in his room trying to figure out exactly how to say what he had to say to his cousin. He had finally given it up as a bad job shortly after five a.m. and popped in a movie in an effort to take his mind off the whole thing. But not even "Shrek" could keep his mind from wandering back to his problems.
Eventually, Emil knew he had to get it over it, before Theoren opened the door on his way out somewhere and discovered him standing there like the fool he'd been called so many times. So he raised his hand for a fourth time and actually knocked on the door, his heart pounding in his chest, a fleet of butterflies doing the macarena in his stomach.
"C'min..." The sleepy voice of his cousin drifted out from behind the door. Emil swallowed hard and opened the door. He was not looking forward to the conversation he was about to have and wished he was anywhere else.
Theoren Marceaux, oldest thief in the guild and Emil's first cousin, was lying in bed when Emil opened the door and entered the room. When he saw his young cousin, Theo reached up and turned on the lamp on the bedside table. "Not like you to be up dis early, kid. Somethin' on your mind?"
"Well..." Emil sighed and sat down at Theoren's desk, swinging the chair around to face his cousin. "...Yeah. We need to talk. Or, well, I guess I need to talk...an' I'm sorry for wakin' you up, but I don' t'ink it can wait any longer."
Curious, Theoren rubbed his eyes and sat up. "Okay...dis sounds serious."
"It is. I can' keep goin' t'rough life feelin' de way I do...or I'll never make it to thirty. I'll be beggin' Gris to kill me an' get it over wit' long b'fore den." Emil was only half-joking, and Theoren knew it.
"It ain' dat bad, is it, Emil? I mean..." Theoren asked hopefully. His instincts were telling him that he was somehow tied into all of this and it was a little scary.
"See dat's jus' it. Maybe to anybody else it wouldn' be such a big deal...but to me, it is. Theo, tell me somethin'. Why did you agree to be my guardian after Papa died?"
Theoren blinked in surprise, his brown eyes confused by the question. "For cryin' out loud, Emil, he was my best friend. He had asked me a long time b'fore dat to look after you if somethin' happened to him."
"Figured as much." Emil said quietly. "You felt obligated to take care of me b'cause he asked you to."
"Emil what is all dis 'bout? You say you need to talk, but all you're doin' is beatin' 'round de bush an' confusin' me." Theoren said. He was beginning to lose patience and it came through in his voice, much as he didn't want it to. He had a feeling it would only make things worse, and he was right.
"Look jus' forget it, alright?" Emil got up. "I knew dis was a mistake. Sorry I woke you up."
"Emil..." Theoren started. He got no further, though, because Emil, nearly at the door, whirled on him and blurted everything out in one shot, his face and voice contorted with pain and misery.
"You wan' know what dis is 'bout, Theoren? Fine. Dis is 'bout de fact dat for my entire life I idolized you, looked up to you an' wanted to be like you. It's 'bout de fact dat since Papa died, I've practically made it my life's goal to make you proud of me, to do somethin' to earn me your praise, love an' respect. An' it's 'bout de fact dat no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I bust my butt on somethin', I never succeed. Nobody else in dis family seems to have a problem praisin' an respectin' me when dey t'ink I d'serve it, an' none of dem have a hard time makin' sure I know dey love me. De only one who seems to have a problem doin' dat stuff is you, an' I don' know why. You shoot down an' criticize everythin' I do an' whether you're talkin' to me or 'bout me, most of de time I end up feelin' like a useless, worthless little brat who don' d'serve nothin' from nobody. De long an' short of it is dis. De way you treat me hurts me. I can' be any better'n I am...I give everythin' my all an' it never seems to be good enough for you, but I can' change dat. I'm tired of feelin' dis way...an' I can' handle it anymore. I can' keep cryin' myself to sleep every night b'cause nothin' I do pleases you. I'm sorry I can' be perfect...I'm sorry I'm such a miserable failure to you...I'm sorry I'm jus' an obligation to you...an' I'm sorry my father died b'cause at least even when he wasn' happy wit' somethin' I'd done, I still knew he loved me."
Emil bolted out of the room upon finishing what he had to say, tears streaming down his cheeks. He raced blindly to his room and collapsed on his bed, sobbing.
For a split second Theoren considered going after Emil, but he didn't. Instead he sat there in stunned silence, Emil's emotional words playing over and over in his mind. Finally, he got up and went over to the shelf Claude had built him and picked up the framed photo of Francois Lapin, Emil's father. "I am so sorry...you asked me to take care of the most important person in your life and I let you down...I let you down an' I failed him...I'm sorry..."
"Y'know, chil', I never met a person yet who was perfect."
Theoren jumped, startled, and looked at the doorway. "Tante Mattie!"
"You've always been a bit too hard on Emil, Theoren." the stout elderly black lady said, shaking her head at him. Mattie was the spiritul healer and mother figure of the Unified Guild, and while she loved them all, she had a special place in her heart for the thieves.
Theoren sighed and looked back at the picture of Francois in his hands. "I jus' want him to do de best he can, y'know? 'Specially now...it feels like we're constantly havin' to prove ourselves 'gainst de Assassins. I don' want dem to find any reason to kill any of us, an' you know he'd be one of de first dey'd find fault wit', b'cause of dat mouth of his."
Mattie sat down on Theoren's bed and folded her caloused yet surprisingly soft hands in her lap. "Dat's jus' it, t'ough, Theoren. He is doin' de best he can, in everythin' he does, an' you don' seem to recognize dat. Aside from dat, it was de Assassins who listened to him when he was upset las' night, an' it was Gris-Gris who suggested he talk to you 'bout de whole t'ing. Don' judge dem too harshly. Dey're only human too."
"So what...I'm s'posed to jus' stop pushin' him an' let him fall flat on his face?"
"Do you really t'ink he will? You're forgettin' who taught him what he knows. Three of de mos' influential men in his life. Jean-Luc, his father an' you. You're de only one left an' all he wants is to make you proud of him." Mattie laughed softly. "Sure he acts de part of de class clown mos' of de time, but he is not a stupid young man. In fact, he's very, very smart. An' he idolizes you above all else. You don' have to stop pushin' him, Theoren. Jus' go 'bout it a little diff'rently."
"How?" Theoren asked, putting the picture back on the shelf. "I feel like I let him down...like I failed him."
"You could start by tryin' to approach him diff'rently. You're always so quick to criticize him...why don' you try bein' quick to praise him when you know he d'serves it too? An' maybe you could try givin' him suggestions an' pointers when you know he can do better at somethin' but he can' figure out how? He may be smart, but he's not perfect. An' neither are you."
"Why does he want me to be proud of him so badly?" Theoren mused.
"Why don' you ask him dat?" Mattie sighed. "He's hurtin'. He needs you. Don' ignore de problem. Go talk to him. Everythin' will work out, but it won' happen if you don' talk."
With a heavy heart, Theoren walked down the hall to Emil's room. He wasn't surprised when he got there to find that his young cousin wasn't alone. In fact the only thief who wasn't in the room was Zoe Ishihara, who had decided to let the others deal with whatever was wrong. She still felt weird butting into what she considered to be their business. She was only a transplant from Japan, after all. They were all family by birth.
"Theo, what exactly is goin' on b'tween you two, anyway?" Mercy LeBeau demanded. She was sitting on Emil's bed, doing her best to comfort him, with little success. "He won' tell us what's wrong...he jus' keeps cryin', no matter what we do."
"Guys, he an' I need to talk. We got some t'ings dat need to be worked out. Can you leave us alone for a bit?"
"Yeah...sure." Mercy hesitated, but agreed. She nodded at Claude Potier and Genard Alouette and they led the way out of the room. "We'll be in de library if you need us."
"T'anks." Theoren smiled half-heartedly at them. Once they left, he sat down on the chair and faced the bed. Emil, sniffling, looked back at him, his blue eyes filled with hurt, fear and helplessness. The sight of it nearly broke Theoren's heart and he sighed. "You were right...dis can' wait."
Emil said nothing. He'd already said quite a bit and in his eyes, it was Theoren's turn to do some talking. So he waited. It didn't take long for Theoren to realize it was his turn.
"Emil...I'm sorry. De truth of de matter is, I don' know what I'm doin' an' I don' know how to do it. I never tol' you dis, but I have a daughter...she's 'bout your age. Her mother took her not long after she was born...I guess b'cause she realized dat I'm not real great father material. I don' know how to be a father...an' back when Francois asked me to look after you if anythin' happened to him...we were young an' stupid enough to b'lieve dat nothin' would happen to us. We t'ought we were invincible. So I agreed, figurin' you'd be grown up long b'fore anythin' went wrong. But we weren' invincible, an' I was wrong. I've been scared out of my mind for de past twelve years b'cause I don' know what I'm doin' wit' you. An' I found out today dat I know even less'n I t'ought I did. You scare me, y'know dat?"
Emil blinked. "I...I do...?"
"Yeah, you do." Theoren laughed. "An' not jus' b'cause you know more 'bout hackin' dan I do. You say you idolize me? I can' for de life of me figure out why you'd do a silly t'ing like dat when you're a hell of a lot smarter'n I've ever been."
"No I'm not." Emil protested miserably. "I'm jus' a fool wit' a big mouth who don' know when to shut up."
"You really b'lieve dat, kid? I don'. Sure it might be true from time to time, but you wan' know what de rest of us see in you? We see someone, who, at de age of eleven was smart enough to figure out how to get a jet into de air..."
"We crashed it! Nearly killed ourselves!" Emil exclaimed. "You sure as heck weren' proud of me at de time!"
"Emil...you an' Remy were eleven an' you flew a damned plane. Sure you crashed it an' nearly killed yourselves an' Etienne, but de point is, you had de brains to figure out how to do it. An' dat's not even close to bein' all. But I won' go over all de crazy capers you three got into...an' you can' tell me dey weren' all your idea, b'cause I know better. You been hatchin' hair-brained schemes since you learned how to talk."
"If dat ain' all den...?"
"I look at you an' I can help but wonder what Etienne would be like right now if he'd lived. You're de closest I can come to knowin'...an' I actually t'ink he'd be a lot like you. De two of you saw t'ings diff'rently dan de rest of us, maybe b'cause you were little kids an' de rest of us were grown up an' set in our ways, but de reasons don' matter now. You've somehow managed to carry dat way of t'inkin' into your life as an adult, an' I wish I knew how you did it. You are one of de mos' loyal an' open-minded people I've ever met an' I couldn' be like you if I tried. Lord knows I'd love to be."
"I don' understand...if you t'ink all dis, den why...why do...you...?" Emil choked on the words, unable to get them out. Tears formed in his eyes again and he looked down, refusing to meet Theoren's gaze.
Theoren got up and moved over, sitting beside Emil on the bed. He reached up and rested his fingers under Emil's chin, gently lifting, forcing his cousin to look at him. "Hey. I don' hate you. I never have. In fact, if anythin' I admire you for bein' who you are an' for not lettin' anyone else's ideals change de way you t'ink. Yes, it bothers me when I see you gettin' into trouble you don' have to get into. Now, I know you're de baby of de fam'ly an' are prob'ly in a habit of usin' trouble to get attention, but you're not a kid anymore, don' you keep tellin' us dat? You might have better luck gettin' de right kind of attention...positive attention...if you use your knowledge instead of your troublemakin' skills."
"Is dat why you keep pushin' me so hard?" Emil asked, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt.
"De reason I push you so hard is b'cause I want to see you use all dose smarts I know you have locked away under dat mop of red hair. I want you to do de best you can at everythin' you try to do. No one ever pushed me dat hard, not really, an' dat's why my skills are rather limited to certain t'ings. Emil, you're only twenty-seven years old...you've got a very long life ahead of you...I don' wan' see you get to be my age an' be limited to a few t'ings. I wan' see you have de ability to do anythin' you want, dat's why I push you so hard."
"But sometimes I can' do any better'n what I've done..." Emil said. "Like dat program I showed you las' night...Theo dat's de best hackin' program I ever came up wit' an' I been makin' 'em a long time. I can' make it any better'n dat...not unless someone comes up wit' more advanced software."
"An' eventually, someone prob'ly will." Theoren laughed, then grew serious again. "One of de t'ings I have to work on is recognizin' when you've done de best you conceivably can on somethin'. It's not fair to you for me to be criticizin' somethin' you can' make any better an' I'm sorry for doin' dat. I guess I get so caught up in pushin' you to do de best you can dat I forget you're not perfect. An' I shouldn' expect you to be. I'm not. Hell I wouldn' know perfect if I ran into it in Jackson Square."
Emil gave a half-hearted smile at Theoren's attempt at a joke, and sighed. "So what do we do? How do we fix dis?"
"Hearin' what you said earlier nearly broke my heart...I felt like I had failed you, let you down...an' dat's not an easy t'ing to come to terms wit'. I wan' make dis better...but I honestly don' know how." Theoren sighed.
"Maybe we can'..."
"Oh I don' b'lieve dat, kid. I know I have a lot to work on so dat you don' end up feelin' de way you've been feelin' ever 'gain. De idea dat you t'ought I hated you...was always disappointed in you...Dieu...dat wasn' s'posed to happen. I felt like I had huge shoes to fill...an' I went 'bout it de wrong way, focusin' on de negative instead of de positive...I gotta stop doin' dat, to start wit'."
Emil looked up sharply when he realized what Theoren was essentially saying. "I never wanted you or anybody else to take his place, Theo. Never needed it. What I wanted an' needed was for you an' Jean-Luc an' everybody else to jus' be dere for me an' help me move on wit'out him. Dat explains so much...you changed after he died, 'specially towards me, an' I never could figure out why, b'cause no one else did. Now I know. You were tryin' to be a father figure, when all I needed you to be was...you."
"I'm sorry, Emil. I screwed up big time...can you forgive me?"
"You hurt me, Theoren. An' it's not de same as when Gris beats me up. Dat kind of hurt goes away. Dis kind doesn'. I can' jus' forget dat, y'know?"
A somewhat uncomfortable silence fell between the two men. Emil looked down, studying the pattern on the blue bedspread intently. Theoren started to get up and move back to the chair, but Emil suddenly reached up and stopped him.
"Part of me wants to hate you for treatin' me de way you have." Emil said, his voice low, as Theoren sat back down beside him. "But I can'. Papa raised me better'n dat."
"I'm really gon' work hard at dis Emil...I know I can' change what I did, or how I acted towards you, or de t'ings I said. But I can change how I behave in de future, if you'll give me de chance to try." Theoren said. "I don' wan' our relationship to deteriorate any more'n it already has...I wan' try'n rebuild it."
"Okay." Emil agreed.
"Hey...I nearly forgot. Tell me somethin' would ya? Why on earth is my being proud of you so important?"
"You were Papa's best friend. B'sides, I look up to you, remember? If you're proud of somethin' I've done...it makes me feel good 'bout myself, boosts my very badly bruised self-esteem up some. B'lieve it or not, I'm harder on myself dan you are."
"Hmm...yeah. I'll keep dat in mind." Theoren said as he got up and left the room.
"Is everythin' okay, Emil?"
Five minutes after Theoren left Emil's room, Emil found himself rejoined by Mercy, Claude and Genard. Genard was the one who asked the question as they entered. Emil shook his head.
"Non, but we bot' understand some t'ings now, an' can work on fixin' de problem."
Mercy sat down where Theoren had been just minutes before and ruffled Emil's hair. "He does love you, y'know. He jus' doesn' know how to say it."
"Mmm-hmm." Emil replied.
"An' y'know what else?" Genard grinned. "We love you too." He and Claude tackled Emil, knocking him on his back on the bed and pinning him down so Mercy could tickle him. And tickle him is what Mercy did, until his laughter and pleadings for her to stop could be heard throughout the safehouse.
Downstairs in the living room, Gris-Gris looked at Bella Donna. "Y'know, I might not like de kid, but hearin' him laughin' like dat is a lot better'n hearin' him cryin' like he was last night."
Bella Donna's violet-blue eyes twinkled at her old friend. "Sometimes I t'ink you an' Theoren forget dat we're not all as old as you, an' dat sometimes we need to have fun an' be childish 'gain. B'cause we're not so far from our youths as we pretend to be. An' if I didn' know any better, I'd say you care 'bout Emil more'n you're lettin' on."
Gris-Gris glared at her and stood up. "Don' get such foolish notions in your head, Bella Donna. I was merely makin' an observation." He said sternly before walking out of the room.
Bel shook her head as she watched him leave. Once he was out of sight and hearing, she chuckled. "So was I, mon ami. So was I."