On his eighth birthday, Hank McCoy received the best present ever. From his laconic and quietly generous Uncle Ed, Hank got a year’s subscription to National Geographic magazine. Hank soon found himself impatiently waiting for each issue. He sometimes would park his overall clad bottom near the McCoy mailbox, squinting down the lane to see if the postman was coming. And what rapture when the magazine arrived! He would devour every word, fascinated with stories about theWatusi in Africa, Black Beard’s lost pirate treasure, the giant fruit bats of Australia. He would reverently thumbtack the maps of the exotic, far-off places on his bedroom wall, studying the geography of New Guinea, the Himalayas, and the North Pole. The world was a mysterious, wondrous place back then, far more interesting then the confines of his parent’s farm. His favorite map of all was of the Amazon Basin. He would trace the contours of that impossibly long river, and dream Edgar Rice Burroughs fueled dreams of lost cities of gold hidden in that vast emerald sprawl.
And now, the very grown up Dr. Henry McCoy, PhD was thinking just how far removed reality was from his boyhood daydreams. As he slogged through the thick Amazon mud, he never quite imagined the god awful, steamy heat. Each intake of breath was a chore; the air was thick and syrupy. The unbelievable humidity was particularly agonizing to Hank, well over 300 pounds and covered from head to toe with heavy fur. Even stripping down to his trunks did not help one bit. Hank had long ago thrown all dignity by the wayside and was now openly panting. He couldn’t sweat, and there was no sense in passing out from heat exhaustion.
Besides feeling like he was trapped in a gigantic steam room, there was also the aforementioned sticky mud and a dazzling array of bugs, snakes and other nasty creatures all seemingly determined to bite the hell out of you. Hank found himself wishing, rather desperately, that he was in his mother’s kitchen, listening to the hum of the icebox and the latest farm report while eating a large slice of Edna McCoy’s blue ribbon peach pie. That would be both heaven and Nirvana rolled into one.
But Hank was an X-Man after all, and had certainly been thrown into a lot tougher situations than this. Getting lost in the Amazon rainforest was, comparatively speaking, fairly routine. Both he and fellow X-Man Remy LeBeau had infiltrated a secret lab in South America, run by Bastion. Their surprise attack on the lab had been a piece of cake, precious data had been retrieved and Gambit had rather gleefully blown the damn thing up. But then the usual quirky luck of the X-Men kicked in. The plane that they had used for their homeward journey was faulty, and they crashed in the middle of nowhere. Happily, neither of them was seriously hurt; Hank sustained a number of bumps and bruises, Remy, a rather nasty sprained right ankle.
So now they were laboriously making their way through the forest, looking for any sign of civilization. It had been three days since they had crashed, although to Hank it seemed more like an eternity.
Hank was more than a little surprised at himself. He was normally a very cheerful and exuberantly optimistic person, and usually took hardships in stride. And he was smack dab in the middle of a biologist’s paradise, but his vast scientific curiosity had not kicked in at all. Instead, all Hank could really think of was a cold beer.
If he was really honest with himself, Hank knew he was suffering from long overdue battle fatigue. His incredibly frustrating struggle with the legacy virus, Piotr’s horribly tragic death, and his kidnapping and torture by the Black Beast had all taken their toll. Hank McCoy was tired, tired to his very bones. He was usually able to rouse himself from despair, but he had lost the will to try. Instead of the Bouncing Blue Beast, he felt more like Sisyphus, condemned for all eternity to roll a boulder up a hill, never to reach the top.
Hank gulped a big lung full of equatorial air and tried not to drool. He then squared his vast shoulders, trying to force himself out of his current melancholia. He was an X-Man, after all. X-Men do not whine, give up. X-Men Just Deal With It.
“Henri?” A very soft, Louisiana flavored drawl to his right. “ Y’ t’ink we could take five?”
Hank peered at Gambit through his fogged up glasses. Remy’s narrow, handsome face was extremely pale, and Hank knew he must be in considerable discomfort as well. There was also a look of real concern on Gambit’s exotic features. Slightly mortified, Hank realized he was probably looked like shit. He certainly felt like shit.
Hank glanced at their surroundings. They were now in a fairly dry area, thin light coming through the high canopy overhead. Near an enormous and ancient teak tree was an arrangement of logs, an excellent place to set up camp.
“Why don’t we just call it a day, my Cajun cohort?” Hank said. “We’ve been on this sojourn for a number of hours, and you really should get off that leg. As a matter of fact, it’s about time I took a gander at it.”
He didn’t get any arguing at all from Remy, which indicated how bad Gambit must be feeling. “D’accord.” Remy stated simply and sat down on one of the mossy logs. Hank thumped wearily beside him, and after a moment, he patted his lap. “So, let the doctor see, Mr. LeBeau.”
Remy wiped some sweat from his forehead and slowly nodded. The Cajun seemed to be dealing fairly well with the temperate climate, having grown up in the humid south. He had abandoned his uniform armor, and was wearing the special clinging spandex that hugged every muscle. The material was Shi’ar in origin and adapted itself to the outside temperature, so Gambit had protection from both the sun and the relentless mosquitoes. Tied around Remy’s waist was his infamous leather duster. Hank had always thought of this article of clothing as merely for show, adding to Remy’s already considerable dash. He therefore had been both amazed and infinitely grateful when Gambit had produced out of the coat’s hidden pockets a compass, a knife, water-purifying tablets, freeze dried jerky and a tiny flashlight. Hank was reminded yet again just what a surprising person Remy Eitienne LeBeau was.
Gambit pulled off his boot with a small grunt, and by the muscle twitching in his jaw; Hank knew his ankle must be hurting far more than Remy was letting on. But Remy was never a complainer, none of the X-Men were. The Cajun gingerly laid his leg on Hank’s lap to be examined.
Hank unwrapped the gauze covering LeBeau’s ankle. They had been lucky, they had a few minutes before the plane exploded; time enough to retrieve the first aid kit. It was fairly rudimentary, but in their current situation more precious than the Hope Diamond.
Henry blinked a bit at the state of Remy’s leg once the bandages were off. It was horribly swollen and discolored, much worse than Hank imagined. It was a testament to Remy’s stubborn nature that he been walking on it for so long. “Remy, I’m going to have to touch it, I want to reassure myself that there is nothing broken. Alas, if there is a hairline fracture, the only way I will be able to tell is via X-ray. In any case, I apologize for causing you any pain or discomfort.”
Remy nodded. “ Dat’s okay, Henri, I understand.” The young man went very pale when Hank carefully probed the injury, but he did not make one sound. He did, however, take a long breath when Hank was finally finished.
“Well…” Hank mused, starting to rewrap the elegant limb again, “it is my professional opinion that your bones are still sound, although a few ligaments might be torn. The best recipe for healing would be rest, but I am afraid we don’t have that as an option at the moment.” He finished with the bandages, his large clawed hands infinitely clever and gentle.
Remy gave an offhand, somehow very Cajun shrug. “Had much worse, Henri, it no big deal. T’anks for de expert TLC.” Remy turned his eerie red eyes on the physician. “So, how are you doing, mon ami? Dis heat can’t be easy on y’. When’s de last time y’ had some water?”
“I’ve been careful.” Hank experienced a feeling of both embarrassment and curious warmth. It was so rare that anyone expressed concern over his welfare. Dr. McCoy took care of everyone else; it was never the other way around.
“Well, humor me and have y’self a drink.” Remy pulled a slightly singed Evian bottle from his coat. Also rescued from the plane, it now stored rainwater. He handed the bottle to McCoy, who took a long, grateful swig. As Henry drank, Gambit stood, testing his ankle carefully. He smiled at Hank. “Dat’s much better, Henri, merci boucoup. You should start chargin’me for y’ services.” LeBeau sat back down and started to pull his boot back on. “Now den. Let’s see ‘bout gettin’ us some eats.”
“You should really stay off that leg for awhile, Remy.” Hank stated, trying to summon the energy to sound stern.
“Yah, I agree. But I’m also damn hungry, and you must be too, Dr. McCoy. So I guess I’ll have to go shoppin’. Certainly ain’t no take-out ‘round here.”
Hank started to rise from the log, every muscle in his body arguing to the contrary. He was halted by Gambit, who put two long fingered hands on his furry shoulders. “Henri, I didn’t mean you. Y’ sit and rest yourself. Let Remy take care of it, neh?”
“Remy, that’s hardly fair-”
Those odd, very demonic eyes narrowed and bore into Hank’s nearsighted blue ones. “Don’t piss me off, Henry. I can tell y’ totally exhausted, and if de situation were reversed, y’ would do de same for me. So keep y’ big hairy blue butt on sittin’on dat log. Y’ got me?”
“Errr…loud and clear, sir.” Hank was a bit taken aback by his teammate’s fierceness, as well as touched. “ I will be as motionless as Rodin’s Thinker. I will, however, take issue with your statement about my butt. I will concede that it is blue, to be sure, and most certainly hairy, but I have it on authority that it is also rather charmingly petite.”
Remy’s foxlike face was suddenly bisected by a large grin. “I stand corrected, Dr. McCoy.” With a small chuckle, he leaned forward and gave Hank’s behind a quick glance. “ You right. Y’ got y’self a heartbreakin’ piece of tail dere. Ummhmm.”
Hank felt a blush spread across his face, his little jest backfiring. Remy had the ability to make anything sound smutty in his low, sexy Cajun drawl. Fortunately, Gambit decided not to pursue the subject any further. Instead, he looked up for a moment, studying the green ceiling overhead. They were surrounded by a rich variety of plant life, and Hank identified both pepper and cabbage trees, rosewood and kapok. There were thick vines tangled everywhere, weaving through the tree limbs like a mad tapestry.
Remy removed his coat, laying it near Hank, taking the knife with him. “Gonna have me a look see upstairs.” With a slight limp, Gambit approached a rosewood tree, covered in knotty philodendron roots. Despite his injury, he climbed upwards with feline grace, smooth and sure. Hank knew that Remy could easily explore the forest overhead, the forest canopy serving as a kind of natural highway.
“Watch out for snakes.” Hank called out, rather unnecessarily. Although Gambit was a city boy, Hank could tell that Remy’s thieves training made him a total survivor. The Cajun was incredibly cautious, and his remarkable powers of observation had often dazzled Hank. It would take a very brilliant snake to surprise him.
After Remy vanished in the emerald canopy, Hank found himself pondering his teammate. Remy LeBeau was one of his favorite enigmas and Hank had been fascinated the first time the young man had strolled in to the Xavier mansion like a parade horse. He was the most unlikely of X-Men and an outcast in a group of misfits. Remy was secretive, arrogant and had a big mouth. He hated rules and any kind of authority and could get on everyone’s last nerve.
But there was another side to Gambit that Henry knew many of his fellow X-Men did not notice or appreciate. He was very loyal and completely fearless. He would walk through hell to rescue a teammate, you couldn’t ask for a better person to watch your back. The Cajun also was offhandedly generous and kind; there was a gentleness in Remy that he tried very hard to conceal. And Hank loved his sense of humor-Gambit had a wicked wit and didn’t seem to mind being the butt of a joke either. LeBeau was also highly intelligent, although he hid that behind a thick accent. But Hank knew better; he had enough conversations with Remy to know that there was a very sophisticated person there, pretending to be a dumb Louisiana swamp rat.
Hank and Remy had always been friendly. They weren’t close, but then Remy kept everyone at emotional arms length, with the exception of Storm. But Hank could tell that Remy liked and respected him, and they had never had a cross word. And for his part, Hank had a number of feelings about the young Acadian, some of them rather confusing.
Remy LeBeau was definitely the source of Hank’s greatest guilt and shame. The whole Antarctica incident had been a monstrous tragedy and Hank loathed his part in it. Yes, he had been furious with Remy for his role in the Morlock massacre, but that was still no excuse to suddenly forget his Hippocratic oath. When the anger had receded, the enormity of the crime they had committed hit Hank like a ton of lead. Remy was no murderer, yet they had staged what amounted to an execution. As soon as they arrived in Westchester, Hank and a very tight-lipped, angry Storm had turned the Blackbird right back around to the South Pole. To their surprise, they had found no frozen corpse in the Citadel. The Cajun apparently had nine lives, and had somehow escaped the death trap they had so coolly sentenced him to. Hank very privately wept both tears of relief and regret.
It was comforting to think that Remy might have survived, but it didn’t do much to ease Hank’s conscience. He had nightmares over it, and once got into a terrible argument with Warren over the subject. “Yes,” he remembered yelling into Worthington’s furious blue face, “ Remy committed an appalling act! But he DID try to stop the massacre Warren; he’s no cold killer. And I would like to remind you that none of us are saints. Do I need to mention Apocalypse? As far as sins are concerned, I think ours is the far greater one. We left a friend and teammate to die, and I sincerely doubt if Remy would have done the same thing.”
Hank had not won that argument, and Warren didn’t speak to him for at least two weeks afterwards. And somehow, as they always did, the X-Men picked up the pieces and life went on in the mansion. But Hank felt that they had lost something after Antarctica; their innocence and their sense of honor. They were no longer fighting the good fight.
And then, without warning, the prodigal Cajun waltzed back into their lives. For a period of time, things were incredibly tense, Remy even taking up residence in the boathouse to avoid unnecessary confrontation. No one wanted to talk about it even though it was on everyone’s mind. Hank decided he needed to face Remy the second night of the Cajun’s return. He remembered that night as if it were yesterday, for it was then that his feelings for Remy LeBeau changed forever.
He had knocked a few times on the boathouse door, and, getting no answer, stuck his head inside the small house. “Remy?” he called out several times. With still no reply, Hank guiltily ventured inside. He saw that the Cajun had fallen asleep on the sofa. Hank contemplated waking him up, then thought the better of it. Before he turned to go, he found himself staring at the sleeping Gambit.
The young man was very soundly asleep, long racehorse legs sprawled across the cushions. One very elegant hand was laid on top of a slowly moving chest, the sharp-featured face half concealed by a mass of auburn hair. Hank’s practiced physician’s eye could also tell that Remy was completely exhausted; his skin was too pale; circles were under his eyes. The thief’s body was horribly thin; the sweatshirt and jeans he had on just hung there. Hank experienced a surge of guilt, as he was, in part, responsible for Remy’s current state. Hank was also struck by something else. Remy asleep looked far different than Remy awake. There was always a wild animal aura about Gambit, a nervous wariness that made you think he was going to bolt for cover at any moment. This was gone, and instead Hank saw a very worn out and somehow very young man. There was a surprising innocence in that foxy, impossibly handsome face.
Hank had to tear himself from the sight, angry for giving in to such an odd impulse. But as he turned to go, a floorboard creaked under his ponderous weight, and there was a gasp from the sofa. Hank was mortified as red and black eyes bore into him accusingly.
“Merde! Henri, what de fuck y’ doin’ here?” Remy sat up, rigid and trembling, highly uncharacteristic for the usually cool and collected Cajun. And the usually loquacious Beast found himself completely tongue-tied.
Hank had to force himself to speak. “Remy, my deepest and most sincere apologies. I did not intend to intrude upon your sanctum, please do forgive me. I wished to speak to you, and I knocked, getting no answer. I found that the door was open and rather rudely entered. I am so sorry to have disturbed your slumber and to have startled you. This certainly can wait.” Hank turned to go, but Remy stopped him.
“Henri-hold it. I’m sorry I snapped at y’. Just a little jumpy, me.” Gambit ran a hand through already messy hair. Hank could see the anger was gone, but the wild animal wariness remained. “Sit y’self down. Can I get y’ anyt’ing?”
“No, no, nothing, thank you.” Hank sat down next to the Cajun, the sofa creaking. Remy cocked his head. “So…what you want to talk to me about den, Henri?” The tone was very soft, very cautious.
Henry took a deep, calming breath, and forced himself to look right in Remy LeBeau’s eyes. “First of all Remy, I wanted to tell you how tremendously relieved I am to see that you are all right, and that you have chosen to return to Westchester.” Hank fiddled with his glasses, a nervous habit. “ I also wanted to say how profoundly, deeply sorry I am about what happened in Antarctica. That I was party to such an act, well, it was the most shameful thing I have ever done. I have no excuse at all, save that I was angry. I call myself a hero, but I’m not one. You and I were friends once, and I betrayed that trust. It is a great deal to hope but I pray that you will find it in your heart to forgive me.”
As Hank spoke, he saw that Gambit looked more and more surprised with each word. Clearly, this is not what the Cajun was expecting to hear. If the circumstances were less serious, Hank might have gotten some enjoyment out of finally surprising the unflappable LeBeau.
Remy just stared for the longest time. When he finally spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper. “Y’ don’t hate me den, Hank?”
Hank sighed. “ For awhile, I did. I was furious with you. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how unfair and hypocritical I was being. You made a tragic mistake Remy. But all of us have. No one in this mansion is without sin. Why we singled you out to be some sort of scapegoat, I honestly can’t say. I wish you had told us about your involvement with Sinister from the beginning; that would have saved us all so much grief.” Hank dared to lightly touch Remy’s arm. “You are not a bad person, Remy, just very human. And you are still both my friend and teammate.”
Remy’s face was very white; he drew in a long, ragged breath. “Merci, Henri, merci. Dat’s more den I deserve.”
Hank considered not asking this next question for a moment, but decided he needed to know. “Remy-why did you come back?”
Gambit stared down at his long thieves hands. His voice grew softer yet, and Hank had to strain to hear. “Why? I’m more den a little confused about dat myself. Partly, it’s penance. I know I can never make up for what I did, but I gotta try. And I have to tell y’, Henri, despite all de shit dat went down, I am still proud to be an X-Man. When I joined, for de first time in my life I wasn’t just taking up space in dis sorry world. And yeah, de X-Men, dey ain’t perfect, but Chuck’s dream means everyt’ing, and dat’s always worth fighting for. And Hank, to me y’ still a hero. I only hope dat someday I can maybe as good a man as you.”
And for a tiny, tiny moment, Hank saw Remy’s mask slip off. And the person there was not the person he thought he knew. Remy believed in and loved the X-Men far, far more than they had ever cared for him. Hank also saw a man that would forever punish himself for a tragic mistake, someone full to the brim with pain, loneliness and longing. It broke Hank’s large heart, and he had this strong, mad impulse to hug Remy LeBeau to his chest and never let go.
But he didn’t, and Remy put his mask back on. They ended up drinking a beer together and talking about Hank’s progress on the Legacy virus. Their friendship had found its old, casual footing, at least on the surface. Deep down though, something in Hank had changed. Once he had seen the real Remy, he couldn’t let go of it, and Hank finally had to admit to himself that he was half in love with the beautiful thief.
Not that Hank would ever say anything about it. First, there was Rogue. That relationship had so many ups and downs, Hank had finally lost track of how many times they had broken up. Currently, they were on the outs, although Hank doubted it would last long. It was more like a sickness than a love affair, and Hank wished for both their sakes they just would call it quits. Some people were just plain bad for each other.
Hank fervently hoped that this wasn’t a selfish desire on his part. Even if Rogue were completely out of the picture, Hank doubted he would ever have the chutzpah to approach Remy LeBeau. Henry had long ago accepted certain truths about himself; he was a mutant, he was blue and furry and he was attracted to both men and women. But somehow, no matter how much confidence Hank thought he had, the very idea of hitting on Remy turned his knees to jello. Gambit was just so…Gambit, in a league far above the humble Henry McCoy. Even if Remy enjoyed the attentions of men, Hank doubted that he ever dreamed of being wooed by a nerdy doctor with a polar bear pelt. LeBeau could have anyone he wanted, just by flashing a charming smile and purring in his Cajun accent. Why would he want to be with someone who shed on the carpet?
Hank was suddenly jolted out of his reverie by the thump of something on top of his head. It was a piece of fruit, a papaya to be exact. He looked up, and heard a Cajun laugh from overhead.
“Hey, Isaac Newton-catch!” Hank also had to laugh as about ten more papayas fell to the ground. Remy had hit a jackpot. Hungrily, McCoy bit into the sweet yellow flesh, a little juice running down his chin. Papayas, bananas, passion fruit and roasted bitter melon had been their primary food source since the crash. Hank sighed a bit, knowing the fruit would take the edge of his hunger, but not ultimately satisfy it. Both he and Remy were starting to drop some serious weight; they needed a source of protein. On their first day in the basin, Remy had killed a small opossum with a well aimed, kinetically charged rock. They had made the greasy, gamy meat last another day. Further hunting attempts had proved futile. Hank’s entire sportsman experience was taking a .22 out to bag a pheasant once in awhile; Remy was a city kid. Henry had no doubt that Logan, the consummate woodsman, would have a hearty hoo-ha over their stalking efforts.
Hank glanced up as a group of Howler monkeys scrambled across the linnea vines. For a moment, Hank considered asking Remy to take a shot at one, quickly then discarded the idea. Raised on a farm, Hank had no scruples against killing an animal for food, but braised monkey was somehow repugnant. He had always respected their high intelligence and emotional range. With another sigh, Hank slowly started in on yet one more papaya.
Remy had by this time returned to earth, bearing a bunch of bananas. He tossed several to Hank, and made himself comfortable by leaning against a log.
“Thank you, Remy, your efforts in hunting and gathering are most appreciated.”
“Y’ welcome.” Remy answered a bit thickly, around a mouth full of banana.
“However, we need to add a bit more variety to our currently fruitarian cuisine. It is starting to play havoc with my lower digestive tract.” Hank began to delicately peel one of the bananas with his claws.
“I agree with y’ Hank, but I ain’t much of a Great White Hunter.” Remy frowned. “Saw some of dem monkeys up topside, but I just couldn’t…”
“I have a problem with that myself, Remy, being both fur bearing and digitally adept like our primate cousins. It would be like having a relative literally for dinner.”
Remy gave a slight, amused chuckle, and Hank ate his banana slowly to make it last longer. His sharp scientist’s mind started to mull over the facts he had retained about survival in extreme conditions. In due course, a light bulb went off over his head. Excited, McCoy leapt to his feet, and pushed at one of the mossy, damp logs. He overturned it with relative ease. Hank saw with a slight grin that the log’s underside was swarming with bugs and larva.
“What y’ up to, Henri?” Remy said in mid banana. “ Sudden urge to play entomologist? Damn, dat’s a lot of creepy-crawlies.”
“It is indeed, my dear Acadian. It is also a veritable smorgasbord, an excellent and overlooked source of protein.”
Remy’s fine eyebrows went very high. “Hank-y’ kidding, right? “The Cajun’s nose wrinkled, almost child-like, in disgust. “PLEASE tell me y’ kidding.”
“No, I am not, Remy.” Hank plucked a fat grub that squirmed in his fingers. “Ah, a Hercules beetle larva! I wonder if you would taste better roasted or fried?”
“Jesus H. Christ,” Remy muttered from behind him
Continued in Part 2
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