Pila suddenly turned into a tiny five star general, barking orders left and right. While Remy ran for the first aid kit, the Quetzal shaman had a group of men heft Hank to his feet and half-carry him to Pila's hut. Despite the situation, McCoy was impressed by their strength, as moving his bulk was not an easy thing. He briefly thought about trying to get there under his own steam, but he was starting to feel quite strange. His legs were like limp pasta, and that weird metallic taste in his mouth had increased. A queasy dizziness also began, like riding the roller coaster at Coney Island far too many times.
Once they reached the hut, the men lay the doctor on a pile of woven grass mats. Remy arrived moments after Henry was settled, the precious first aid kit in hand, as well as his much-used leather duster. Gambit threw the latter over Hank, and got his feet elevated with several folded mats. The thief found the puncture wounds on Hank's upper bicep. Using their knife, Remy carefully shaved the fur away, and cleaned the punctures with what was left of their antiseptic. With dexterous fingers he wrapped a bandage tightly above the wound. Hank examined the bite himself; it seemed such a small, insignificant thing. He began to have the faintest hope that things really weren't as bad as they appeared to be.
Pila, in the mean time, was also very busy. She mixed up a poultice that had a sharp, pungent smell, like a mixture of caraway and licorice. She smeared the paste thickly over the bite. When it was applied to her satisfaction, she gave Henry a terribly bitter liquid to drink, one that numbed his whole mouth. It was incredibly difficult to get down, and he gagged several times before swallowing. He had no idea what she was giving him, but he trusted the little woman implicitly. There weren't many other options anyway.
As time passed, Hank tried to stay on top of things, (he really did.) He took his own pulse, which was very rapid; had Remy take his temperature, which grew higher and higher. But about an hour later, all comprehensive thought left, except for the fact that Hank finally understood what `sick to death' really meant.
He vomited a number of times into a large turtle shell; one that Pila had set-aside for just such a purpose. Each time he was sick, Remy held his head, rubbed the back of his neck. His entire body ached; the pain made him clench his jaw so tight the muscles cracked. He had uncontrollable shakes, and his fever raged like a burning building. Time got slower and slower, and things suddenly seemed far away, as if watched from a distance. He could hear his own voice, shouting senseless things, and his lover's heavy accent, soothing and warm.
And all of a sudden, a moment of perfect, crystal clarity. The world came back into focus, sharp and hard. He saw a tiny fire in the corner of the hut, weaving golden light. It seemed very late-there was nothing but inky blackness outside. Remy was still beside him, cross-legged in elegant origami, the glow of the fire bathing his features as he stared at the flames. So beautiful, so beautiful, like a grave angel hovering near. Hank loved him more than ever.
"Remy…" he croaked, his throat dry as sand.
Remy immediately turned to him, cool fingers brushing his burning forehead. "Henri." His voice was gentle and infinitely sad.
"I've been delirious, haven't I?"
"Oui, cher." A small smile. "But y' said not'ing incriminating. Mostly ranting `bout Bobby getting into y' Twinkie stash."
Hank laughed, a strained, weak little thing, but still a laugh. He gave himself a few more seconds, just gazing at Remy's dear face, gathering his strength. "Where's Pila?" he finally asked.
Gambit gestured with his head to the right of the hut, where Henry saw the old woman curled up, quietly asleep. "She been with y' through most of dis, Hank, tryin' hard to keep y' fever down. But she's old, needed a rest. Y' want me to wake her?"
"No, no - please don't." Hank looked into Remy's eyes, and slowly lifted his hand. Gambit took it, long fingers wrapping around Hank's big paw. "I need to talk, to tell you some things, before I become delirious again. Important things."
Remy kissed Hank's knuckles, his gaze never wavering. "I'm listening, cher."
"First, practical matters: being an X-Man, I have a will and a pretty trustworthy lawyer. I don't have a huge estate, but there are a number of fairly lucrative patents. I want my parents to get them. They have had a hard time holding on to the farm; I want them to be able to live there as long as they wish."
"I'll watch over dem, Hank. Y' got no worries dere."
Hank experienced a surge of relief; this was a huge load off his mind. "Please give them my love. I was so lucky to have them, such special people. They loved me with or without the fur. I was always just Henry." Hank's eyes began to grow wet with tears; he allowed them to flow freely. "And tell my other family – Scotty, Jean, Warren, Charles, `Ro, Logan, and my God, dear, dear Bobby. What an honor it was to stand with them, fighting the good fight. It was indeed both the best and worst of times, and I am utterly grateful to have been allowed to share it with them."
Hank swallowed hard; he was starting to feel really bad again. But he had to stay strong and focused, as this was the most important part.
"I think I really have only one regret, when it all comes down to it."
Remy wiped the tears away from Hank's cheeks; he could feel Gambit's hand trembling. "And what's dat, Henri?"
"I waited far too long to tell you how I felt. I should have been braver and trusted my heart. I would give anything to have had more time with you, Remy. I'm glad I finally said something, but now it seems too late." Hank took a long and painful breath. "I love you so very much."
His lover shut his eyes for a moment, and two tears trailed down his sharp face. Hank had never seen Remy cry, so he knew what a precious gift he was being given.
"Hank, we were both foolish," Remy whispered. "I could have said something much, much sooner, too, but I was afraid. And Henry, I am sorry from de bottom of my heart for not saying dis when y' wanted to hear it: J'taime, mon brave. I will love you forever." And Remy bent down and kissed him, an angel's kiss, and Hank tasted his lover's tears.
There were no words after that, just a silence, both sad and joyous. Remy lay down beside Hank and held him close. Henry's thoughts started to become more and more muddled; he was terrifyingly weak. But the fear was gone somehow, and the pain did not matter. He was probably going to die in his lovers' arms, a sweet way to depart from this life.
He began to slip further and further away; there were dark spots before his eyes. And he had one final thought before he slipped into blackness; he realized that Pila's vision had come true. He had committed a brave act and paid the highest price. And for this he had been rewarded; Remy LeBeau loved him. Somehow, it made it all worthwhile.
Darkness. Endless darkness, so peaceful and quiet. Womb dark. And all of a sudden, a small pinpoint of light. Closer and closer, finally filling everything, blinding and warm.
And Hank McCoy found himself standing in the middle of a very familiar gravel road.
It was early summer and a light breeze was blowing, ruffling his fur. He was on the road between Old Man Pulaski's place and the Abernathy farm. Young corn sparkled in fields as far as the eye could see; Queen Anne's lace and blue cornflowers crowded the roadside. In the distance, a red winged blackbird was singing, and the grasshoppers droned.
Hank stood still, not sure how he had gotten here or why. He blinked in confusion, trying very hard to puzzle it all out.
A loud honk of a horn jolted him from his thoughts, and Hank turned around to see an old green Chevy pickup barreling towards him. Hank stepped to the side of the road, a grin splitting his face. The Chevy slowed, and leaning out of its window was his Grampa Claude, big as life. Same leathery face, same white walrus mustache, same twinkling blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, same battered John Deere cap.
Claude spat and smiled at Hank. "Hey there, ya gol' durn Greenie! What in the Sam Hell ya standing in the middle of the road for? You must get it from the other side of the family."
"Hi, Grampa." Hank chuckled.
"Well, get that big hind end of yours in the truck. We're burnin' daylight." Claude spat again.
Hank laughed and quickly obeyed, running around to the other side of the truck. When he opened the door, he was greeted by a joyful bark. A furry brown and white missile leapt into his arms, and Hank's face was covered with dog slobber.
"Scout! How are ya, boy?" Hank said to the dog, part Springer, part Jack Russell, the rest a mystery. Scout gave Hank a wide doggy grin, small dynamo body vibrating with happiness.
Holding his dog tight, Henry clambered into the cab, which smelled like tobacco, motor oil, dust and fish. As soon as Hank slammed the door shut, Claude put the truck back in gear and they lumbered off.
"So, Buddy, ya busy this afternoon?" Claude asked as they bounced along.
"No, Grampa, can't say that I am," Hank answered as he pulled a cocklebur from Scout's pelt.
"Good. Just so happens I have your tackle in the back. Thought we would mosey over to the lake for a spell. I was just talking to Bill Baird out at the feed store. Said he caught a twenty-five pounder the other day. Now Bill is usually full of horse hockey, but I thought it might be worth checking out."
"That sounds just great."
Claude squinted a bit down the road. "I thought we might stop by your Aunt Tildy's place and see if she would pack us up a picnic basket. Ya can't fish without proper sustenance."
"Especially without beer." Henry added, scratching Scout behind one ear.
"Buddy, that goes without saying. `Gainst the law." Claude winked.
Henry chuckled and glanced out the window. He felt so good and carefree, and it seemed like ages that he had been this happy. There was a small, nagging thing at the back of his mind, like the feeling he had forgotten to lock the door, or left the iron on. But it didn't detract from this wonderful sense of well-being.
They passed by a large open field, all rolling hills and green grass. A man was out there, riding bareback on a wild looking brown and white pinto. He and the horse galloped near the fence, the man's long ebony hair streaming out behind him. Hank's breath caught at the sight; the man seemed so gloriously free. Henry waved and the man waved back, and Hank finally recognized him: John Proudstar.
As John and his mount headed back over a hill, that nagging feeling returned, a lot stronger now. He had forgotten something very important. But Hank ultimately decided not to worry it to death; it would come to him soon enough.
Grampa Claude turned down a winding lane, edged by spreading elms. At the end of the road was his Aunt Tildy's place, a tall and narrow farmhouse, white with neat blue trim. Claude stopped the pickup in the circular drive, and when he cut the engine, Hank could hear the lowing of cattle and the clucking of hens. Good sounds, farm sounds.
Hank opened the truck door and Scout bounded out, Henry following. Claude disembarked after refreshing his chaw of tobacco. "Buddy, I'm gonna head down to the barn for a minute. Tildy's got a new bull, I wanna have me a look-see."
"'Kay, Grampa." Hank said as the old man stumped away to the barn, big and red in the distance. The doctor stood awhile in the drive after he left, admiring his aunt's colorful crop of snapdragons and four o'clocks decorating the plot in front of the porch. He had to scold Scout for pestering Tildy's regal calico, Queenie, seated in feline splendor on the porch steps. Queenie took it in her stride, and after giving them both a disdainful look, she stood and headed up to the front door. Henry followed her lead.
He was about to open the rickety screen door, when a sweet, slightly accented voice halted him.
"Hello, Dr. Hank." Henry turned and saw a little blond girl, seated in the shadows on the porch swing. She was wearing a bright sundress; her bare legs and feet tanned brown, a daisy chain woven around her neck. She grinned, revealing teeth that would need braces. Hank's heart melted instantly.
"Illyana!" The girl gave a happy squeal and Hank gathered her in his big arms. Tears stung his eyes as they touched noses.
"My dear darling girl, it is so lovely to see you!"
"And it is good to see you, Dr. Hank!" She kissed him on the cheek.
"Tovarish!" A big voice boomed from behind. Hank whirled around and there was Piotr Rasputin. The young Siberian was clad in dusty overalls, a red bandanna around his throat, heavily muscled arms streaked with dirt and sweat. He bounced up the porch, making the boards creak, and wrapped both Hank and his sister in a grizzly bear hug.
"Hey! Stupid! You happen to be totally squashing the both of us!" Illyana protested after a moment.
"Sorry, Snowflake." Piotr laughed. "Just got carried away seeing Hank here. He is, as they say, `A sore sight for these eyes.'"
"That's `a sight for sore eyes', dope." Illyana said, rolling her own. She shook her head at Hank. "His English is just hopeless at times."
Piotr chuckled and Hank joined him. "As you can see, my baby sister is still a brat." The Russian thumped Hank on the shoulder. "So come inside and we shall have a long visit, a glass of tea. I have been helping your aunt out a little. I put in a couple acres of barley and soybeans."
Illyana wriggled out of Hank's embrace and on to the floor. "Oh boy, here we go. I'm sure Dr. Hank would LOVE to hear about soybeans, brother." She took Hank's enormous hand in her small one. "Let's go see if Tildy made cookies."
Hank let her lead him inside, Piotr, Scout and the still miffed Queenie in tow. He blinked a bit, eyes adjusting to the cool, dark interior. They walked past a big Victorian hall tree and Tildy's neatly hung collection of calendar plates. As they went by the parlor, a loud voice rang out.
"Why, Henry J. McCoy! Is that you? My stars and garters!"
Hank grinned. "Yes, ma'am!" He turned to Illyana and Piotr. "I think I should say hello to Tildy first, before raiding her kitchen."
"Of course, tovarish." Piotr smiled back, and Hank felt himself inexplicably happy at the sight. It was so very good to see him, solid, dependable, gentle Piotr. "I will try and save you some cookies."
"I'll make SURE he save some cookies," Illyana commented archly. She pulled her brother in the direction of the kitchen, Scout following, perhaps hoping for a treat as well.
Hank watched brother and sister for a moment, and then ambled into the parlor. Tildy greeted her nephew with a loving look. She was seated on an old horsehair sofa, her hair a determined beehive, a blinding pink sweatshirt on that said `Born to Bingo'. She was holding a huge photo album in her lap, showing it to the woman seated next to her.
And Hank was suddenly completely fuddled. The woman on the sofa was dark brown and small, wrinkled as a winter crabapple and totally naked. There were feathers in her snowy hair and she gazed up at Hank in a calm, knowing way.
"Pila." Hank whispered, and he then knew what had been bothering him all this time.
Grampa Claude was dead, felled by a stroke two years ago. Tildy had passed away when he was fifteen, a victim of breast cancer. Scout was his childhood dog, killed by a milk truck on Hollings road one tragic winter day. And John Proudstar, Illyana and Piotr, they also were…which meant he must be…
Pila smiled up at him and spoke, and Hank was not sure if it was her native language or English. "No, Henrymccoy, not just yet. And I have come here to speak with you for a moment." The shaman stood and lightly touched Tildy's pink shoulder. "I thank you for showing me the magic picture things. Your nephew was a very fat baby."
Tildy beamed. "Wasn't he though? A real porker. We thought about entering him in the State Fair."
Pila laughed. "And now I must talk to him alone, if you do not mind."
"Of course." Tildy got off the sofa and smiled at them both. "After you're finished, we can have some iced tea and molasses cookies out on the porch, have us a nice visit. That is, if that Russian boy hasn't emptied the cookie jar." Tildy reached up and pulled Hank's face close to hers. "Lovely to see you, honey," she said as she planted a bright lipstick print on his cheek.
Hank couldn't answer her; he was still in shock. After his aunt left the room, he turned wondering eyes to Pila.
"That - that felt so real! This all seems so real!" Hank touched his cheek where Tildy had kissed it.
Pila sighed impatiently. "Of course it did. The Land of the Dead is just as real as the Living World, my friend."
She took Henry's hand. "You should know that there are many places a soul can travel to, different worlds, different paths. All these places have their own mysteries and challenges. And I would have let you follow this road, Henrymccoy, but my own soul was touched. I consulted the spirits, and they said, perhaps, that it wasn't quite your time to leave the Living World yet."
Pila began to lead Hank towards the hall. "Come with me now. I wish to show you something."
Hank allowed Pila to lead him to a room across the hallway, Tildy's sewing room. But when they entered, instead of finding a jumble of quilts and fabric, they stepped into another world, another place. A small hut woven from leaves and grasses, the sounds of the Amazon rainforest outside. And in the center of the hut lay…himself. Sick to death, sunken-eyed, chest barely moving.
Hank gazed at his body with both fear and wonder, and then stared at the young man kneeling beside him. Remy. Somehow in all of this, he had forgotten Remy. His lover's face was marked with such terrible grief and suffering, Hank's heart broke at the sight. He was murmuring soft French to the inert form beside him, a prayer of some kind. He stroked a blue, furry forehead with infinite care, hand shaking as he did.
Hank had to close his eyes; it was almost too much to bear. "He is a strong man, your heart brother, but he has also had an unfair share of burdens in this life. I do not know if his poor spirit can stand to lose you. That is why I brought you here, to make you remember."
Almost angry, Hank turned on the shaman. "What can I possibly do about it, Pila -?" Whatever else Hank was going to say was suddenly forgotten. For she had changed. Gazing up at him was a young woman in her early twenties, lovely as a summer's day, golden brown skin, her hair an endless river of midnight. Only the dark eyes were the same, full of Pila's kindness and wisdom.
Hank gasped. "What?!"
She gave him a dazzling smile. "I told you that I was beautiful."
Henry was reduced, for once, to single syllables. "How?"
Her expression was amused. "Because at the place we are now, time has no meaning. We are at a crossroads, where the Worlds meet. And it is here you can change your destiny, Henrymccoy."
She cupped his hand in hers, traced the lines in it. "The Wheel turns and turns my friend, that is the only constant thing. You have been brave and kind in this life, and have earned a rest. But you are also joined to this man, your lover, in spirit. Do you want to come back to him now?"
Hank took a deep breath and thought. On the one hand, staying with Grampa, Tildy, and Piotr…it all seemed so peaceful. No hatred or fear or struggling, just an endless afternoon out on the lake, with the water lapping against Claude's boat.
But turning back to look at his lover once more, Hank realized he had no choice. Remy was suffering. And the love he had for him made it worth coming back to a world full of chaos and anger. With Remy at his side, he could endure it; he could endure anything.
"Pila, I would like to go back to the Living World. Thank you for giving me this chance."
"You are most welcome, Henrymccoy, although this is all your doing, you understand." She suddenly wrapped her arms about his waist. "Now kiss me."
He was more than a little startled by the request, but he did what he was told. He bent over and brushed his lips against hers. It was a sweet kiss, and she tasted like honey, and for a tiny second, Hank sensed all of her bright, glorious soul. He seemed to dissolve, become liquid, falling far into that peaceful darkness once again. But he wasn't afraid, and he smiled at his last sight; of Pila's lovely face; the green and blue feathers glinting in her hair.
Henry slowly opened his eyes. The light hurt; in fact everything hurt. He lay there quietly, trying to remember. After awhile he recalled the plane crash, the trek through the rainforest, Pila, and being bitten by the snake. And most importantly, he remembered Remy. Who was suddenly bending over him, his face so worn and haggard that Hank was shocked.
"R…em…y." Hank didn't recognize his own voice; it was so hoarse. His throat ached and was as dry as a desert riverbed.
"Cher?" His lover's thin face took on an expression of hope. "Y' know me?"
"Y.. essss…" Hank was finally able to choke out.
"Oh, Hank…" Remy own voice shook. "Don't try to talk no more." With infinite care, Remy slowly brought a cup to Henry's parched lips. Hank swallowed; the cool fresh water was the best thing he had ever tasted in his life.
"Try not to drink too fast, Henri…dat's it…" Hank finished the water, and felt Gambit's fingers touch his forehead. The Cajun stared down at him in wonder. "Praise de saints…y' fever's gone!"
Gambit continued to stroke his forehead. "T'ree days, mon brave." He swallowed hard. "T'ought…t'ought I was gonna lose y' for sure."
"I was lost…" Hank said, his thoughts all jumbled every which way. "Had the strangest dream…thought I was back home, my childhood home. Saw my Grampa Claude, my Aunt Tildy, my old dog Scout, Illyana, Piotr, even John Proudstar. It was so real, Remy."
Remy nodded slowly. "Maybe it was, cher."
"I loved it there- it was so beautiful and peaceful. But I couldn't stay Remy; I had to come back. I couldn't leave you behind, my dear."
Suddenly his lover's face crumpled, and all of Remy LeBeau's defenses
vanished. He curled into himself, hands covering his face, and just sobbed.
Hank's eyes grew wet too. He understood that this was all the fear and
terrible heartbreak Remy had undergone in the last few days, finally being
released. Hank managed to find a little strength, enough to grab hold of
Gambit and pull him to his chest. There, Remy dissolved in a flood of tears,
clinging tightly to Hank like a life
preserver. Henry was able to stroke his back, and although the evident pain was hard to take, Hank knew Remy needed to get it out. No one should have to carry such an awful burden.
When Remy finally calmed down, he peered up at Hank in shame. "Sorry," he whispered. "You de one dat almost dies, and I go and act like a fool."
"Crying is never foolish, my love, and you need to do it more often." Hank smiled. "Doctor's orders."
Remy didn't smile back or laugh at the lame joke, for a second, Hank thought he was going to cry again. But he got himself under control and instead, brought his face near Hank's. "J'taime, Henry McCoy. Was like to die myself wit' de t'ought of losin' y'."
It was now Hank's turn to burst into tears, but he didn't quite have the energy. Besides, Remy began to kiss him, and everything fled from his head. Hank kissed him back, hoping that the sudden flood of joy didn't cause them both to explode. `So glad to be alive, so glad to be alive', their sweet kisses said.
They were eventually interrupted by a soft and familiar chuckle. The lovers broke apart, and Hank saw Pila entering the hut. Her small figure was outlined by the morning sunlight, and for a second or two, Henry thought he saw her looking like a young girl of twenty years. He blinked, confused, and the odd illusion was gone. The old shaman smiled her wide, toothless smile.
<So, you two did not waste any time. > She sat beside them and pressed a hand to Hank's head. <Welcome back to this world, my dear friend. > She then patted Remy's face. <This one missed you so much. >
Hank was amazed when Gambit replied in nearly- flawless Ge dialect. < I thank you for bringing him back to me, old mother.> His words also caused Henry to wonder just how much of a hand the shaman had in his recovery. There was this strange image in his head of Pila standing in his Aunt Tildy's parlor, although it did not make much sense.
Hank shook himself out of his daze. <Yes, thank you, mother. I will be forever grateful. >
<You are welcome. > Pila stood again, and Henry marveled at her spryness. < And now, this old and annoying woman will leave you alone for a little while.> Her dark eyes twinkled as she gazed at Hank.< My, you were such a fat baby…> Laughing to herself, she left the hut.
Remy glanced at Hank, eyebrows raised. "Did I hear that right? Did she just say you were a fat baby?"
Hank frowned, utterly at sea. "Yes. And I most certainly was, bless my poor mother's heart. But I have no idea why Pila just said it…" He sighed and smiled, looking into his lover's garnet eyes. "No matter. Now, could I be terribly needy and ask you to hold me for awhile?"
Remy pressed his lips to Hank's furry face. "Oui, mon couer. Remy hold y' for de end of time."
Continued in Part 8
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