Grubs on a stick turned out to taste exactly the way they sounded. Even roasted they were barely palatable. Hank found small comfort in the fact that they were still better then Bobby’s infamous ‘Spam Surprise’, but only just. As he chewed away, McCoy recalled every article he had ever read touting insects as the food source of the future. He now sincerely doubted the authors of these articles had actually ever eaten any damn bugs. Still, as dreadful as they were, the grubs were somewhat filling, and Hank enjoyed the sensation of a contented stomach.
Remy totally refused to have anything to do with the experimental cuisine. Hank was surprised at this display of squeamishness; it was a bit out of character. After all, he had witnessed the Cajun down platefuls of crawdads, teasing the rest of his teammates that they didn’t know what they were missing.
Gambit had helped Hank construct a small fire-that kinetic charge could light the dampest wood-then he huddled near a rock, playing a moody game of solitaire. Remy seemed almost angry, which also puzzled Hank. His friend had been in fairly good spirits since the crash, there was no logic to this sudden emotional sea change.
Hank, tired of the thick silence, decided to lighten the atmosphere a bit. “Well, this certainly adds a new dimension to the term ‘grub’.”
Not even a chuckle or small smile. Hank knew it wasn’t the greatest line, but it deserved SOME reaction. Instead, Remy seemed fascinated with placing a black Jack on a red Queen.
Undaunted, Hank took another stab at it. “ I must admit, this hasn’t been my most brilliant idea. I certainly could have used the addition of a few herbs and spices. Perhaps with the proper seasoning, ‘Grubs ala McCoy’ would be a tad tastier. A touch of garlic or tarragon would have certainly brought out a more piquant flavor. In any case, it’s nice to feel actually full. Insects are almost pure protein and-”
“For de love of God, will y’ stop talkin’ about it!” Remy snapped, glaring up from his cards. “Ain’t gonna try it, de whole idea makes me wanna puke!”
Hank was startled by the vehemence in the Cajun’s voice, as well as hurt. He frowned, and his tone was huffy. “Really Remy, there’s no need to yell. I understand a certain repugnance on your part, but so much of that is social conditioning-”
“Social conditioning?!” Remy’s tone was furious. “Yah, I guess you could call it dat. When I was a kid, I had to eat out of garbage cans, and I hadda pick de bugs off of stuff. Den one time I found dis body in a dumpster, all crawlin’ with maggots and-” Remy suddenly clamped his mouth shut, realizing perhaps that he had said to much. His pale skin flushed red.
Hank was shocked to the core, by a number of things. Gambit never spoke to him about his childhood, so this was a startling admission. Hank had heard a few harrowing stories from Storm who was apparently the only person Remy had discussed his early life with. The angry confession brought home to Hank how ugly and terrible his boyhood must have been. It hurt Hank’s compassionate soul to think about it. He guiltily thought about his own life as a youngster on the farm, a happy and carefree period supervised by adoring parents. It probably would be as alien to Remy as life on Mars.
Hank got up, and knelt beside the Cajun. “Remy, I do apoligize. I had no idea.”
Remy seemed to want to avoid looking Hank in the eye for a moment, but those strange ruby embers finally locked into Hank’s blue ones. His voice was strained. “Henri, it’s dis idiot Cajun who should be apoligizin’. How de hell were you supposed to know? Had no call to snipe at y’ like dat. Just in a mean, bitchy mood. Hot, tired, hungry, and my leg, it hurts. But dat’s still no excuse.”
“Actually it is Remy, but we will say no more about it.” Secretly, Hank wished to ask Remy a little more about his past, but decided this was neither the time nor place. “ Do you think after you finish your solitaire game you could be persuaded to continue our gin rummy tournament?”
A slight grin from the Cajun. “Dat sounds like a good idea, although you a pretty slick player.” Gambit picked up his cards and began to shuffle like a slight of hand magician. “Y’ been beatin’ ol’ Remy pretty regular, and dat don’t happen too often. One of dese days I gotta take y’ to Vegas. We’d clean up.”
Remy started to deal, and Henry made himself comfortable. The doctor was happy to see LeBeau’s mood improve.
“I concur, my Acadian cohort. Perhaps after this little adventure, we should make Sin City our next stop. We’d be the deadliest duo to hit the strip.” Hank picked up his cards, tiny in his enormous hands. “And now Miseau LeBeau, prepare to get your Cajun derriere whupped.”
Remy smiled wolfishly over his cards. “We’ll just see about dat, Dr. McCoy.”
They played about eight hands, and were locked in a dead heat. But in the midst of the ninth hand, the day finally took its toll on an exhausted Hank. He nodded off, cards fluttering to the ground. He was awoken several minutes later by a gentle hand on his arm. Henry blinked in confusion, seeing Gambit kneeling beside him.
“Mon ami, t’ink it’s time to get y’self some shut-eye, neh? You all in.” Gambit chortled a bit, looking down at Hank’s dropped hand. “ ‘Sides, y’ were about to skunk me anyways.”
Hank laughed and then yawned hugely. “I suppose you are right, Remy, I should turn in. Too bad about missing that hand, drat it. Definite whup-ass material.” Hank yawned again.
“ Dere’s always next time.” Remy made a motion with his head “ Got a bed together for y’.”
McCoy was deeply touched to see that his friend had assembled a resting place constructed of dried leaves and moss, Gambit’s legendary duster folded and intended to be used for a pillow. “Many thanks, Remy. That was very kind.” Hank rose stiffly and then tried to get comfortable on the makeshift bed. “Now, don’t let me sleep past my allotted time.” Early on, they had agreed to sleep in shifts, as there were enough dangerous creatures in the basin to be concerned about.
“ I won’t, Henry.” Gambit positioned himself near the fire, shuffling cards and starting another game of solitaire. “ Bon nuit, and pleasant dreams.”
“And a very good night to you, my friend.” Hank replied quietly.
Hank rested his head on the duster, letting the smell of leather and the faint residue of Remy’s cologne fill his nostrils. In spite of himself, he found himself studying Remy through half closed eyes. It was early evening, and Gambit’s sharply elegant profile was etched in the gold of the firelight. Hank marveled at the fact that even sweaty, dirty and unshaven, Remy LeBeau was still astonishingly beautiful. At the moment, he looked bewitchingly unworldly, like he stepped out of a poem by Yeats, a wild, fey creature that would be at home in the court of Oberon. Remy casually brushed a heavy lock of auburn hair from his foxy face and Hank wondered what it would be like to touch that silky hair, or press his lips to that soft, utterly sensual mouth. Hank felt his heart beat painfully against his ribs at the very thought.
Then his common sense kicked in. Even though Remy looked like he was a character from some old Gothic romance, Beauty and the Beast was still very much a fairy tale. Hank really needed to stop torturing himself with unrealistic fantasies.
With a sigh, Hank McCoy rolled over and drifted to sleep, Remy’s scent still teasing his senses.
Piotr Rasputin was dying before his eyes. The tall Siberian farmboy with the gentle blue eyes and shy smile was presently choking on his own blood. Crimson pooled over the white, white tiles like ugly Rorschach blots. He lay on the floor of Hank’s lab, severe convulsions wracking his giant frame. Hank could smell the coppery tang of the blood and the sharp odor of urine. At Peter’s side lay the hypodermic needle the Russian had suicidally plunged into his willing vein.
He had injected himself Hank’s Legacy virus serum, a deadly formula indeed. Hank had finally unraveled the puzzle of Stryfe’s horrid disease, but the cost was much too high. In order for it to work, the first person injected with the serum would have to die; creating suitable antibodies that could be harvested for the ultimate cure. Hank, frustrated, abandoned the serum as a noble failure. Piotr deemed otherwise.
Hank frantically pushed down on the Russian’s strong chest, trying to keep that brave heart beating. But it was no use. Peter gave a choked, liquid gasp, and an agonizing shudder. Then the spark that lit those somehow eternally innocent blue eyes vanished. Piotr was gone.
But Hank refused to give up. He kept thumping away on the still chest, willing Peter to breathe again. He was a doctor, a healer; he should never have allowed this to happen. It was on his watch, it was his stupid, fucking formula that poisoned Piotr’s blood. Peter was a good man; he didn’t deserve this sordid end. It was unthinkable that they would never hear his Russian folk songs in the early morning, or watch him paint his shimmering landscapes. Piotr Rasputin couldn’t be dead.
But he was very, very dead. Hank finally stopped punishing that cooling body, his breath coming out in ragged sobs. Thick blood oozed down Peter’s chin, and Hank reached over to shut those open, staring eyes.
“Piotr, please forgive me, forgive me…” Hank found himself chanting over and over like some kind of painful mantra.
Hank was still moaning this when he woke up. He was shaking all over and he realized that two strong arms were holding him, wrapping him in a tight hug.
“Henri, it’s okay, it’s okay,” a low, smoky voice murmured in his ear. Hank slowly remembered where he was, and tried to get under control. But all he could see was Peter’s dead face from his nightmare. His eyes filled with hot tears and he buried his big head into a lean shoulder.
“Henry, y’ should go ahead and cry. Let it out, mon ami.” Hank wanted to argue, to say he would be just fine after a minute, but instead he silently sobbed. All the grief and sadness and frustration just poured out of him. And he was held even closer by wiry arms, soothing Cajun nonsense softly whispering in one ear.
When he was finally drained of emotion, Hank dazedly wondered at the unexpected situation he now found himself in. He usually never broke down like this, although deep down he knew it had done him good to finally cry. And the person comforting him was also a source of wonder. Remy continued to hold him even though the storm had passed, rubbing the back of his neck with those long, clever fingers. They had never touched this intimately before, and it felt so damn good. Hank allowed himself to nuzzle the Cajun’s neck even closer. He could smell Gambit’s warm masculine heat, and it was unbelievably reassuring. “Oh, Remy…” he whispered inside himself. “My dear…” He hugged the young man back, trying to convey all his affection and gratitude.
But as wondrous as this moment was, it had to end, especially before Hank made a total ass of himself. It assuaged his wounded heart to know just how much Remy obviously cared; the Cajun certainly didn’t go around hugging everybody. But any more of this, and Hank was convinced he’d ruin a very good friendship.
He very gently pulled out of the embrace, patting Gambit softly the back as he did so. “Thank you so much, Remy. Obviously I had a rather upsetting dream.” Hank removed his glasses and wiped at his reddened eyes. “That should teach me to eat larva,” he added weakly.
Remy wasn’t deflected by Hank’s lame joke. He looked soberly at the doctor. “ Henri. Listen to me. It wasn’t your fault.”
“What?” Hank tensed, not wanting to talk about it.
“Piotr. You were sayin’ his name over and over in your sleep.” Remy lightly touched Hank’s forearm. “ Y’ shouldn’t torture y’self over his death, mon ami. It was his choice, his sacrifice. You not to blame.”
Some buried knot deep inside Hank uncoiled, he fought the urge to burst into tears again. “ It’s so hard not to feel responsible, though. If I hadn’t made that bloody serum, Peter would still be alive!”
“But you didn’t t’ink he’d go and do what he did. You a precog now? Peter never really got over Illyana, Hank, y’ know dat. I was shocked at first, but afterwards it made sense. He did what he t’ought he needed to do. But don’t make his dyin’ your fault. We all got enough burdens to carry.”
Hank took a deep, painful breath. The knot continued to uncoil. “ I know, and I’m damn tired of it! Why does everything in our lives have to be so hideously difficult? I’m sick to death of it, Remy. There was so many times when I was working on Legacy that I wanted to quit, beat my head against the wall. Then, when I finally thought I succeeded, another appalling disaster.” Tears began to trickle down Hank’s cheeks. “Fuck it. Fuck it all.”
Remy suddenly pulled the startled McCoy into another hug. “Yeah, Henry, it’s all fucked up sometimes. Bein’ mutants mean we get a bigger shit pile den most. But dere’s one t’ing dat you taught me dat gets me through. We not alone, we got each other to hold on to. Y’ not ever alone, Hank.”
Hank was incredibly moved to hear this, and from Remy LeBeau, of all people. And Gambit was right, they did have each other to get through all the pain, all the shit. It was the only thing that ultimately mattered.
He moved his head so he could look Remy fully in the face. “I can’t thank you enough, dear Cajun. You’re right, although we need to be reminded of it once in awhile.”
Hank was rewarded with a tiny, soft smile that made his heart beat faster. “ Me too, Henry.”
And for a brief second, Hank was sorely tempted to pull Remy even closer and kiss him, kiss him as if his very life depended on it. But Gambit was still too beautiful, Hank was still Hank, and again, that sort of thing only happened in fairy tales.
McCoy extricated himself from Remy’s arms, and took a glance up at the sky, noting the position of the moon. “Well,” he began briskly, “ It looks as though you let me sleep far too long. I think it is high time you get your fair forty winks whilst I stand guard.”
“Y’ gonna be okay?” Worry covered Remy’s face.
“ I will be fine, thanks to you. Now please get some rest.” Hank was really starting to feel uncomfortable.
“Okay. Learned long ago not to argue with Dr. McCoy.” Remy gave Hank another Mona Lisa smile, and started to stand. But before he rose, the Cajun did something so unexpected that Hank almost keeled over in a dead faint. LeBeau leaned forward and ever so gently, pressed a kiss on McCoy’s mouth. It was butterfly soft and ever so sweet, and it cased Hank’s insides to whirl around like the contents of a cuisinart. The Cajun then gave a strange, unreadable look that Hank couldn’t even begin to analyze.
As Remy went about the business of getting ready for bed, Hank tried to remember just how one breathed. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the Cajun stretch his long frame on the moss bed, like a tiger lying down after a long hunt.
“ ‘Night again, Henry.” Gambit said in his Mississippi mud drawl, slow and casual, as if nothing peculiar had just happened.
“Goodnight, Remy.” Hank made a tremendous effort to keep his baritone normal, but it sounded almost Mickey Mouse- squeaky to his ears. “ I certainly hope you have pleasanter dreams.”
A low chuckle. “ Dey should be. Didn’t eat no grubs, me.”
Hank stared into the fire, his mind jumbled like an unopened jigsaw puzzle. After a couple of minutes, he detected the sound of Remy’s even breathing, he was asleep.
He gnawed on a lower lip, sharp incisors causing a bit of pain. It kept him from screaming. ‘Remy LeBeau just kissed me,’ a fuddled inner voice said. ‘ He kissed. Me. Hank McCoy. Remy KISSED me!’
Hank knew Remy to be a physically affectionate person, albeit only with the female half of the mansion. He and Jean sometimes teased and innocently flirted with each other, he loved to tickle Jubilee, and Gambit was the only soul on the planet that could get away with swatting Storm on the fanny. And Hank once had his midwestern sensibilities shaken when he witnessed Remy kiss his adopted father. So it could have been a cultural, southern Cajun thing, an expression of friendship.
Hank desperately tried to convince himself that this was the reason, as the other possibility scared him to death. That Remy wanted something other than friendship; well, it couldn’t be. Part of Hank wanted to go over and curl up next to that long lean body, pull Remy into his arms, and return the kiss on that warm, sleepy mouth. But Hank couldn’t make himself move. He found himself thinking of fairy tales once again, knowing that there was never going to be a miracle. Remy’s kiss, sweet as it was, would never transform Hank. The Beast would always stay the Beast.
With a sigh, Hank fed a few twigs into the fire; watched a couple of sparks chase themselves lazily in the air. He contemplated the irony that he could unravel the secrets of DNA and understand the enigmas of the Chaos theory, but the mystery of his own heart eluded him. As well as the feelings of the young man sleeping quietly near him.
He decided to just not to think about it anymore. He slowly picked up Remy’s card deck, shuffled, and laid out a game of Klondike. He played until early dawn.
Continued in Part 3
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