Title: Written in Stone
Hank bundled the thick wool coat more tightly around his bulky frame and leaned forward a little more to make some progress against the strong, frigid headwind. It was thirty below with the wind chill today, which made the short walk from his office to his condo daunting, even for someone with a thick, natural fur covering. As he struggled the final few yards to his building, he hoped that Marie had taken his advice and had taken a taxi instead of waiting for the bus today. Hank wondered, not for the first time, if he could convince her to just quit her job at the Art Institute. It wasn't as though they needed the income, and, after all, they were lovers now, and taking care of her was his rightful role – and it was something Logan would've done.
Logan – now there was something Hank didn't like thinking about, but it was a subject he could scarcely avoid these days. Trying to push thoughts of his erstwhile rival from his mind, he let himself drift back to nearly a year ago, to the first Christmas he and Marie had spent together. They'd both confessed their feelings and had become physically closer soon after. Those memories always brought a smile to his face, but the feeling that Hank had to be ever-vigilant to be all that she needed, to make her as strongly bonded to him as she once had been to Logan, was always close on the heels of those pleasant thoughts.
It still worried him that Marie might find him lacking in some way, might fault him somehow in comparison to the man who'd saved her life and had been the first man she'd loved. He didn't talk much with Marie about it, not wanting to put her off by seeming overly insecure (Logan definitely wouldn't do that) but he wondered again what Marie really thought of him in her deepest heart. Was he sufficiently protective? Supportive? Caring? Passionate? Hank had never had the opportunity to prove that he would give his life for Marie's, but surely she knew that he *was* that devoted to her. Did she think him too intellectual? Too boring? Too mild-mannered? In comparison to Logan, he was certainly so. But was that all right with Marie? Was it what she was seeking in a relationship, or was it something she merely tolerated? Hank sighed. As best he could tell by all outward signs, she was very happy with their current romantic partnership. But only Marie knew what was really in her heart.
Feeling frustrated, Hank shook his head and tried to push away those thoughts. Marie had been good to him – beyond good, and a smart man would take it at that. He shouldn't worry himself needlessly, especially now. With some effort, he concentrated on cheerier thoughts and his lips curled into a smile, revealing the barest hint of gleaming white fang underneath. He was almost home, and he didn't want to come in bearing nothing but gloom and doom for his much-cherished girlfriend. Marie definitely preferred a HappyHank. Finally, he reached the revolving door of his building and stepped in out of the wind and cold.
With a clipped but polite nod to the doorman, Hank headed for the elevator and punched the button that would bring him home to Marie. If she *had* taken his advice and taken the cab, she should already be home. He wondered what they'd do tonight – most nights found Marie cooking some delectable, hearty meal for him, which they usually followed with some quiet time talking, watching television, or discussing plans for the next day. That triggered a reminder, one that brought up exactly what he'd been so scrupulously trying to avoid thinking directly about – they should probably discuss plans for this weekend, and Logan's visit.
He'd called about a week ago, saying that he'd be coming to Chicago on some business for Xavier over the weekend and asking if he could stop by. Marie had said yes without even asking Hank. That still stung a bit - even though she did say (after she'd hung up and seen his stricken expression) that she would call Logan back and change her answer if Hank wanted. Of course, Hank couldn't take her up on that. He was supposed to be secure in their relationship and her love for him, wasn't he? So he'd put on a smile and said it was fine, and if the smile Marie gave him in return seemed a little too relieved, Hank tried to put it down to nothing more than his own paranoia – paranoia which had grown with each passing day until he had built up an absolute dread of his former teammate's arrival.
Hank knew Marie loved him, Hank – he had no doubt of that, but he also knew that she might not love him enough or that her romantic feelings might have been prompted by being on the rebound, as it were, from Logan and Jean's marriage. Maybe, deep down, she didn't really love him beyond a friendship kind of love. And why should she, a small but persistent voice asked from somewhere in Hank's psyche. Do you really think that big, blue, awkward, and furry can compete with tall, dark, confident, and handsome? Even in Hank's more rational, analytical psyche, there were parts of him that kept insisting that Marie's tolerance of his appearance would reach an end - that one day, and one day soon, she would realize that she could do far better than a repulsive freak. Logan's visit stirred up all of these voices in Hank, no matter how much he tried to ignore or suppress them.
"Hey, you're home," Marie greeted as Hank entered. He'd been so lost in thought that he hadn't quite been aware that he'd opened the door, but he immediately and forcefully banished his dark thoughts and tried to lighten his mood. "How was your day?"
Still working at cheering himself so as not to alarm Marie, Hank gave his lover a smile and shut the door behind him. "It was very good. We made great progress on the experiment, and I am hoping for a bit of a breakthrough tomorrow." He and his colleagues were working to create a drug that could correct genetic deficiencies – they were in the early stages, but if they succeeded, this drug could normalize genes that carried a disease or defect. Things like sickle cell anemia, certain cancers, and maybe even things like Spina Bifida, or Down's Syndrome could someday be preventable or reversible. The promise of the drug was unlimited, and if their preliminary animal trials succeeded tomorrow, they would be ready to take a significant step forward.
"Oooh…." Marie commented, helping him shrug out of his coat. Hank had tried not to bore her with the details of his work, but the way she always seemed so *interested* in what he was doing was far too tempting to resist. She probably knew as much about the drug as some of his colleagues. "I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for you."
Hank smiled down at her as she finished taking his coat. "I can hang that up if you like." He always offered, but she always gave him the same soft smile and shake of her head that she was giving him now. She'd once told him it was a small way in which she could take care of him, and that she liked doing things like that for him. He didn't argue and in fact he quite liked the small sign of care and affection too, but, especially now, he didn't want her to think it went unappreciated. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," she replied as she finished her task and planted a gentle kiss on his furry cheek on her way to the kitchen. "I made beef stew tonight – hope you like it."
"It smells delicious," Hank commented as he followed her.
"I used the crock pot – I just tossed it together before I left for work. I hope it's good." There was something that always made him feel warm inside when he saw her readying their meal. Something about the way she gathered plates, utensils, napkins – it was intimate, in its own way, watching her do this for them. It made Hank feel at home, and like Marie felt that way too. Still, the warm feelings didn't keep him from noticing the opening that she'd unknowingly given him to bring up her job.
"How was work today?" Hank hoped one of these days she'd say something along the lines of it being tedious and awful and that she desired to quit, but no luck so far. He sighed. Logan probably would've just told her to quit and she would've miraculously taken it as some kind of protective measure instead of a bossy order. Hank didn't think he could pull that off; it just wasn't him, but sometimes he wished he had Logan's gift for it.
"It was OK. Some cranky people lost their coats in the coat check. We found them, but not before they made a huge stink." She blushed and shrugged as she dished out the stew. "It doesn't compare to engineering a super drug, I know, but it was about all the excitement there was in my day today." That she'd said it with a light-hearted smile told Hank that she wasn't seriously upset by anything, and he wondered how he could now segue into talking about her quitting her job without making it seem like he devalued the work she did. "I'm so glad you had the idea of just taking the cab today – brr! It was really cold out there."
"Indeed it was," Hank agreed, as Marie brought their dinner over to the table and they both settled in. "And I am very glad that you took the taxi as well. I very much desire you to stay frostbite-free." She smiled and laughed, and Hank basked in the success of making her happy before embarking on his next suggestion. "You know, if you were to decide that you did not enjoy the daily public transportation pilgrimage to the Art Institute, I would be more than amenable to you taking a leave of absence…."
Marie scrunched her nose up and gave him a mock-glare. "We've talked about this, Hank, and I really feel like I need to work and contribute. And I do like my job, a lot. Well – most days. The non-coat-losing days. I don't want you to feel like I'm not trying to contribute financially."
"I am unconcerned about your financial contribution to this relationship. You contribute amply, in many ways."
"I know," Marie soothed, seeing that Hank was trying hard to convince her. "But the financial ways are important too. I already feel bad that you have to carry most of the mortgage and utilities and – "
"And you should not. I do not mind." Hank reached out for her hand and squeezed it. "I do not want you to feel as though you must work if you would rather do something else. We are not in a position that necessitates an income beyond my own. If you would like to invest some time in exploring painting, or taking classes, I would be more than happy to have you do so." Those were the only two things Marie had ever mentioned as possible reasons to leave her job, and Hank tried not to feel too devious for deploying them for use in the discussion now. Reminding himself that he was doing it for Marie's benefit, he pressed on. "We are together now, yes? And as you are often fond of saying, we are a team. You need not feel badly if you decide not to continue working."
"Hank," Marie began, her eyes sharp and knowing, "What's really the reason you don't want me to work anymore? Why are you bringing this up tonight?"
"I only wish for you to have time to pursue your own interests." Marie frowned, but Hank honestly couldn't find an ulterior motive within himself. Well – maybe a small one. "I like having you here," he demurred. "I like having you here when I return home for lunch, and I like having you here every night for dinner – Saturdays included." That was the one night she worked, and he hated spending a weekend evening alone on a regular basis. "I suppose I am a bit selfish, but I find myself yearning for a high degree of constancy in your presence."
"That's sweet," she whispered, squeezing his hand. "I find myself yearning for a high degree of constancy in your presence too," she cooed with a wink, making him smile. "But are you sure bringing this up again doesn't have anything to do with Logan's visit?"
That snapped Hank's head up, and he blinked. "Absolutely. What would it have to do with his visit?"
Marie shrugged. "I know it's making you a little edgy. I – I wondered if maybe you thought that you had to be extra-nice to me or something because of Logan coming. I don't mean to sound egotistical – I'd feel the same way if it were Trish coming for a visit. I just want to make sure you know you don't have to do anything special. I really love you, Hank, and I'm not going anywhere."
"I know," Hank responded, still feeling a little unsettled. Was that what he was doing? Had he been responding to the threat of Logan's visit subconsciously?
"He's just staying in the city one night, and I won't even be here most of Saturday to see him – I'm working, remember?" Hank nodded numbly, still lost in his own internal assessment. "I am glad he's coming, but Hank – this doesn't have any bearing on you and me."
Hank had a sudden, sharp urge to beg her for further assurances that she wasn't going to leave him for Logan, and that she didn't harbor any romantic interest in him whatsoever anymore, but he couldn't risk appearing childishly insecure, so he bit the urge back and gave her a smile instead. "I did not mean to seem jealous. I am glad you will have a chance to see him. I know he remains your friend."
"That's exactly right," she replied with a steady but kind gaze. "He's a *friend.* You're – you're my……you know…….." she blushed.
"Lover?" Hank teased. He loved seeing her squirm a bit under a good teasing, and she was still more than a little shy about all things romantic and sexual. Hank sometimes thought it was because of some trepidation about him, his appearance, but he also thought that perhaps Marie was just that way. In any case, he did enjoy the opportunities for making her blush that it presented.
"Yes," she purred, only a trace of reluctant embarrassment still lingering in her tone. "My lover." She raised big brown eyes to meet his, batting her eyelashes a bit, unconsciously. Her expression quickly melted into a sensual one, and any of Hank's lingering unease about her job and Logan's impending arrival was drowned beneath a surge of desire. It happened this way sometimes – he just had to have her. He tried never to be too animalistic, too wild, too demanding. He usually succeeded in holding back. But the feelings were still there, and strong.
"Did you have plans for the evening, my love?" he used a husky voice, asking in the code language they'd fumbled into early on in the relationship when one of them wanted some physical affection. Marie's smile warmed and widened as she shook her head. "That is most fortunate. I find myself entertaining a few thoughts on how we might occupy our time." He reached out to take her hand across the table – her bare hand. She was now so comfortable with him at home that she never covered herself beyond normal clothing. Hank was very glad that he could make her feel so at ease.
"Well, you'd better eat up then," she suggested softly, giving his hand a squeeze. "You'll need the energy." They exchanged smiles and went back to their dinner.
Logan packed the last of his few things in the duffel bag that was his constant companion on these kinds of trips. This trip was a little different from his usual – he didn't ordinarily volunteer for courier missions. He generally left it up to the junior team, or some bored X-Man to handle that kind of thing. But this packet of documents and cash was headed to Chicago, and Logan was definitely interested in going there.
He knew now that Jean had been a mistake – a big, only fleetingly satisfying, costly mistake. Some part of Logan still couldn't believe she'd cheated on him – on *him*. Just what the hell had he ever done to give her reason to stray? Sure, some of his friends said it didn't have as much to do with him as it did with Jean, but that was little comfort. And what stung even worse was that he hadn't seen it, hadn't realized it for himself. Marie had to tell him what should've been right under his nose, literally. Had he really been so blinded by love or lust or whatever it was between them that he'd missed the scent of Jean's lies and betrayal? Logan didn't like to think of himself as someone easily led around by 'little Logan,' but he couldn't refute the cold, hard facts.
After it had all come out, he'd done a lot of thinking. Looking back, he realized that maybe he'd not only made the mistake of pursuing Jean, but also the mistake of turning Marie aside. She was the one he talked to, the one he shared parts of his soul with, the one his mind and heart kept circling back to. He'd thought of her as a kid, as too young, but she obviously wasn't too young to move cross-country and take a lover of her own. She wasn't too young to correctly peg Jean, something he himself had failed to do. The only problem now was that she wasn't his any more – she was Hank's, and although Logan knew well that he had no one but himself to blame for that, he also couldn't help wondering if there was some way to change things, to recover at least one of his mistakes.
He'd kept his distance from Marie for more than a year – yes, he'd technically been married to Jean for a lot of that time, but most of that time was spent simply waiting for the divorce to be final. He knew that continuing to keep his distance was the right thing to do, the noble thing - Marie was involved with Hank now, and Big Blue obviously made her happy, at least on some level. Still, he couldn't help wanting to see for himself whether there was a chance to be with Marie, however remote. And deep down, Logan thought there must be *something* of a chance – after all, how serious could it really be between Marie and Hank? Marie was only Hank's second real girlfriend and probably his first real lover. Hank might very well be Marie's 'rebound guy' – as Jubilee called it – someone she was leaning on because she'd been rejected by the man she really wanted. Maybe they were together more out of convenience or comfort than passion. Maybe, just maybe, there was still a chance for Marie's affections to be turned another way.
Logan hefted the bag over his shoulder, cracking his neck and clearing his head. Whatever happened, he told himself, he had to make sure he didn't alienate Marie further from him. This was a chance to repair their relationship and improve it, and that was the main thing. He also had to be sure he didn't do anything underhanded or manipulative - if there was still an attraction there between himself and Marie, she would have to be the one to decide to pursue it. Of course, that didn't mean that Logan couldn't try to be convincing – but his own sense of honor would not permit him to try to steal Marie away from Hank. Hank was a friend, and he'd been good to Marie. It wasn't fair to pay him back by stealing away his woman - not unless she wanted to be stolen, that is.
Sighing as he trudged toward the waiting Blackbird, he steadied himself for the trip, and what he might find at the other end of the flight.
"Whoo-hoo!" Hank smiled at his colleague's unabashed joy. He shared the sentiments, even if he did not indulge in the same kind of outburst. The experiment had gone *very* well. All of the fetal mice that had been injected with the drug and delivered their young thus far were free of any genetic defects. Of the adult mice they'd injected to try to reverse the effects of a defective gene, they'd only lost about ten percent to adverse reactions with the drug; the other ninety percent were showing rapid signs of improvement. It was a miracle, and it deserved some celebratory outbursts. "Just think! This could fix everything – everything tied to a gene!" his colleague, Frank, enthused, still jumping up and down a bit.
"Indeed," Hank agreed, tidying up his things. It had been a long, long day – he'd missed dinner by hours – and as exciting as it was, they still needed many, many more trials and much more data before they'd know if they really had a miracle on their hands or not.
"It could fix cancers, birth defects, all those rare, oddball diseases that one in a billion people get! It could fix everything! Hemophilia! Growth disorders! Huntington's! Even – even color blindness, male pattern baldness, mutations – " Frank cut himself off just after the word was out, just after Hank's head snapped up to glare at him. "Not – not that mutations are a defect or disease, I didn't mean that, I just meant……."
Hank blinked. He blinked again. Frank was unenlightened in his attitudes, but in all probability quite correct in his assessment. This could 'fix' the X-gene. It could erase mutations from the face of the species. "The mutant mice – are they – are they – where are the mutant mice?" Hank remembered how he'd insisted on including mutants of every animal species in the experiments at work – consequences to mutants from new drugs or treatments could be appreciably different from those in humans, something often overlooked by medical research facilities and pharmaceutical companies. There had been ten mutant mice included in this experiment, and Hank had been so caught up in the excitement of their success that he hadn't examined what had happened to them. "Where are they?"
Frank, still abashed, scrambled to look at the charts. " Uh - ten. We had ten mice in the experimental group and ten in the control. Ten mutant mice."
"Yes, I know that," Hank rumbled. "What happened to them?"
Frank looked up into Hank's massive frame then slid his gaze up past his fangs and to his yellow eyes. "Um, you know I didn't mean any offense, before, right? I'm as pro-mutant as the next guy."
"What. Happened. To. The. Mice?" Normally, Frank's hollow, patronizing tolerance of mutants was beneath Hank's notice. The man had other admirable qualities, and a sharp intellect, if not an open mind. But now Hank was desperately impatient, and was far from being in the mood to indulge Frank's self-serving behavior.
Frank started a little at the tone Hank had used, and flipped through more pages. "Here we go – control group – all normal, no change."
"And the experimental group?" Frank flipped through more pages and Hank resisted the urge to bare his fangs to hurry the man along. "Frank?"
"The – the – wait! Here it is – the experimental group had a success rate nearly identical to that of the human group – a fatality rate of ten percent with some – with the others displaying no X-gene twenty-four hours after injection."
Hank found himself slumping into a chair, his mind spinning. He'd helped to create a drug that could wipe out mutancy – and he could all too readily envision someone thinking that the ten percent casualty rate was a small price to pay for a 'cleansing' of the 'mutant problem.' They would all be human again, or dead, and that would suit altogether too many people just fine. On the other hand, he'd helped to create a drug that could wipe out diseases that have plagued mankind for millennia and – "Wait a moment," Hank said aloud. "Go back." Frank, mistakenly thinking that Hank was addressing him, began flipping through the data, re-reading the work. "No, no," Hank corrected. "Sorry. Thinking out loud."
Frank nodded and took a step or two back as Hank retraced his thoughts. Ten percent fatality rate, but a ninety percent cure rate. Ninety percent. There was a ninety percent chance that mutations could be reversed. There was a ninety percent chance that *his* mutation could be reversed. There was a ninety percent chance that he could be a normal human again. A normal, handsome human. A normal, handsome *man*.
"Um, you know I didn't mean any offense, right? I mean – this is just the first trial and who knows? The mutations could recur, the others could get sick and die…..there's a lot we don't know yet and – "
"Ninety percent," Hank whispered.
Hank finally broke from his thoughts to take notice of his colleague. "You are correct," he soothed. "It is still early." But in Hank's mind, the wheels were already turning.
"Yeah, and I didn't mean to offend you, you know, with what I said about curing mutancies. I – I – "
"Of course not," Hank politely responded, noticing that Frank's eyes were fixed to the fang-points that his cordial smile had revealed. "No offense taken." He could almost see the relief rolling off of Frank in waves. "I, ah, I am going to head home now. I shall see you in the morning."
"Yeah – see you in the morning." Frank put on a smile, and quickly left the lab. As Hank gathered up his things, his mind kept coming back to one thing, over and over – ninety percent.
Hank entered his apartment silently, hoping only to gather himself a bit before the inevitable wakefulness his arrival would bring to Marie. She always seemed to sense when he crept into their bedroom, no matter how deeply she might have been sleeping. She would smile at him, and extend her hand, beckoning him to bed, but this time, Hank would have to wake her instead of snuggling up with her and falling asleep.
He moved slowly, making sure he was as contained and level-headed as possible before breaching the quiet of the bedroom. As predicted, Marie sighed and rolled over as soon as he entered, blinking open her wide brown eyes. "You're really late," she smiled. "I hope that means the experiment went well."
"It did," Hank temporized, shedding his clothing except for his boxers in preparation for joining her in the bed. He'd considered not telling her, briefly – he'd entertained the thought of just administering the drug to himself tomorrow and surprising her when he came back as a flesh-covered, normally-proportioned, human-looking man. But then he remembered the ten percent chance, and knew with certainty that he had to say *something* to Marie. On the off-chance that he didn't come back, he didn't want her to think it had been an accident, or God forbid, one of the X-Men's old enemies that had done him in. She needed to know that it had been his choice, and done on purpose. She would understand, Hank was sure of it.
"Mmm……good……." she sighed, already going back to sleep.
"Marie," Hank said in a firm but quiet voice, "there is something we must discuss."
"Yes." Marie rolled over to face him fully, and tried to blink the sleep out of her eyes. Hank's heart panged in sympathy – he hated causing her discomfort in any way, large or small, and a very big part of him wanted to just forego the difficult conversation in favor of snuggling up against her. "I am sorry, my love. I know you have a long work day tomorrow." He reached out a furry, clawed finger to stroke her cheek, inwardly bubbling over with excitement that this may be the last time Marie needed to suffer his furry exterior. "But there is something I must tell you."
"Is this about Logan's visit tomorrow?"
Hank's nose scrunched up. He'd forgotten all about Logan coming tomorrow, really. "No. It is about the experiment we conducted today."
"Did something go wrong?" She was wide awake now, and worried. Hank spoke quickly to allay her fears.
"No. I am unharmed. But, Marie – we did discover an unexpected benefit from the drug, one that I – I find myself desperately wanting to try."
"But Hank," she whispered, "isn't it an experimental drug? Isn't it still – aren't there still a lot of things you don't know about it? You said that today was just the initial trial and – "
"Yes, my love," he interrupted gently. "But it was a very successful trial, and once I explain the nature of the benefit, I think you will see why I so strongly desire to avail myself of it without needless delay." Hank wiggled around a little so that he and Marie were eye-to-eye. "The drug can correct genetic deficiencies. This was one of the hoped-for results, and we have seen it borne out by the mouse population. Those with existing genetic maladies exhibited remarkable signs of symptomatic improvement, and, upon examination, we found that this was due to a complete repair of the faulty gene. The drug actually repaired the damaged gene." Marie nodded her understanding. "When we discovered this, it occurred to Frank that the drug may not only act to remedy genetic defects, but that it may also 'normalize' the X-gene." Marie's eyes widened and she let out a little gasp. There were more than a few moments of dead silence between them before Hank continued. "When we tested the mice, we discovered that Frank was correct – they no longer showed the X-gene in testing." He paused again to let it sink in a bit. She was still just looking at him, gaping. "Marie, I know – I know that there are great dangers inherent in that discovery. I know that the moral and ethical questions surrounding whether mutations should be corrected are vast. I know that it will open a veritable Pandora's Box of social, political, and even religious issues. But, Marie, it also means that I can remedy *my* mutation, that I can have a normal appearance again. I can look normal, for you. We can be a normal couple." When she didn't say anything, Hank prodded, "Do you recall what I looked like before the onset of my mutation?"
"Yes," Marie managed, in a stricken voice. He'd shown her pictures of himself as a teenager. There was a resemblance between the two versions of Hank, she'd thought, even though Hank didn't seem to realize that. "But, Hank – you don't need to change your appearance. I don't want you to change it because of me. You – "
"I know that you do not wish to hurt my feelings," he countered. "You have been more generous and supportive than I ever dared dream possible, but, Marie – I yearn to be free of this appearance. I yearn to walk anonymously among strangers on the street. I yearn to be someone that people look upon with – with desire or admiration or even boredom – not, not fear, not repulsion. I have wanted this for as long as I have been trapped in this body, in this appearance. I have wanted to be free of the effects of my mutation for years."
"Oh, Hank, I understand that, I do. So have I, you know – wanted to be free of my mutation." Marie whispered, eyebrows knitted together in thought. "Hey – could I – "
"No," Hank cut her off before she could finish asking. All of a sudden, that ten percent seemed like an awfully large number. "There are dangers," he began, mentally scrambling how to give her enough of the truth to dissuade her from trying the drug herself while still not scaring her so much that she'd be worried for him.
"Hank?" she prompted.
"There are some dangers. Some minor dangers. Small dangers. It is still early. There are – there are – we do not know the long-term effects. The mice have only been twenty-four hours out and we do not know if the effects are lasting, or as comprehensive as they seem. And, there were – well, there are some dangers."
"Hank, tell me," Marie insisted. Hank knew that he couldn't hold back all of it from her, but he still wanted to find a way to blunt the downside.
"A very small percentage of the mutant mice, and the non-mutant mice did not survive to reach the twenty-four hour mark. This is not necessarily due to incompatibility or rejection or an adverse reaction to the drug. It may be due in part to normal mortality caused by – "
"What percentage?" Marie held his eyes, unwavering. Hank didn't respond. "What percentage, Hank?"
"Ten," he breathed, and watched her eyes go wide. "But, statistically speaking, that is not at all a large – "
"Yes. But as I was saying, that is quite a small – "
"No, Hank, no. Please, no. Don't do this." Hank huffed, and Marie pressed forward. "I don't want to take a ten percent chance of losing you. Please, Hank. I need you in my life."
He was touched by that, and by her concern for him, but the pull of something he'd wanted so much and for so long was very strong. "I shall be all right. It will turn out all right."
"You don't know that," Marie protested, her eyes tearing up. "Can't you wait? Can't you wait and see what happens, gather more data? Does it have to be now?"
"Logan will be here tomorrow," he answered without thinking, then hung his head. "I mean – I mean to say that I do not see a reason for delay."
Marie wiggled closer to him, and took his face in both hands. "Logan is here tonight. He landed hours ago. And he doesn't have to come over tomorrow, he doesn't. Hank, if that's why you're – "
"It is not why, I assure you. I promise," he answered, with more certainty than he felt. If it wasn't a factor, why had it popped out like that? "I – I do not know why I said that. I – I must have been thinking that it was a good time to try the drug, with Logan here. That way, should you need any emotional support, he will be readily available. But I do not wish for you to worry. I shall be fine."
"You don't know that," Marie pled. "He doesn't have to come over, Hank, he can just stay at the hotel. I don't want you to do this because of me, or him, or anyone."
Hank swallowed hard and gathered all of his composure. "I am not. I am doing this for myself. I want to be someone different, Marie, I have since this mutation befell me. You know how critically important this must be to me, for my own reasons. Please do not think you or anyone else are the cause of my haste. I am – I am being handed something I have desperately - *desperately* - wanted all of my adult life, and I cannot resist taking it as soon as it is available to me. Please understand, my love. Things will be – I shall be fine, and things will be so much better."
"Things are good now," Marie whispered, losing her battle against the oncoming tears. "Hank, please………"
"Hush, my love," he whispered, gathering her into a tight hug. "It will all be all right, you shall see."
"But that's what you thought the last time," she argued gently, her voice muffled by his furry chest. "And it didn't work out like you thought."
The memory of his spectacularly failed self-experimentation made him wince. No, he certainly hadn't expected to turn himself blue and furry, but this time it would be different. Hank's scientific mind niggled at him that there was no rational basis for thinking so, and that he should not rely on his hopeful heart to make medical decisions, but he ignored it. This time would be different. It had to be. Fate could not be so cruel to one person twice in a lifetime, could it? "It will be fine," he repeated. "Please, my love, do not worry." He felt her hug him tighter and sob.
"Hank – " Marie abruptly stopped whatever argument she was about to try next. She wiggled apart from him enough to look up into his eyes. "I – I guess I understand why you want this so much. I know what I would feel like if someone came up with a pill that would take away my mutation, that would fix my skin. I guess I can't tell you not to take the chance." Her voice got tight, and the tears really started to fall now. Hank wanted to comfort her, to pull her into his embrace once more, but she resisted. "But I don't want you to. I don't want to take a chance – not *any* chance – of losing you. I love you so much, and I don't know what I'd do without you. And even if it works out and you change, I don't know – " A sharp sob cut off the rest of the words and she couldn't control the tears well enough to continue. Hank stroked her side, trying to soothe her somehow, and racking his brain for what she could've been about to say. Finally, something occurred to him.
"Even if I change, my love, I will not leave you. Nothing between us shall change." Perhaps she feared that once he returned to 'normal,' he would no longer desire a partner with the limitations her skin made necessary. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth – he was in love with *Marie*, the whole person. Her skin made not a bit of difference to him now, and it wouldn't later, either. But she didn't seem comforted by that – she only cried harder. "Marie, please, love, talk to me."
"No," she replied, and wiggled away from Hank. For a moment, it didn't even register with him – she'd never refused to talk to him about something – about *anything* - before. "No, I don't want to talk – I – I can't." She sat up and wriggled out of her t-shirt. Hank soon realized that she was next sliding off her panties. "Please, just – just take off – " Her breath hitched on a sob, and Hank was really beginning to get alarmed now. This just wasn't like her. "Please just take off your boxers, OK?"
"Marie, what – "
"Please," she sobbed, and Hank, confused and frightened by this uncharted emotional territory, complied. When he had tossed them out from beneath the covers, Marie put both hands on his chest and slowly pressed him down to lie flat on his back on the bed. She sometimes did this as a prelude to making love, but he thought she couldn't possibly be interested in anything sexual at the moment, and he was soon proven right – she simply laid her naked body atop his, resting her head on his broad, blue chest and entwining her arms and legs around his body so that they came into contact as much as possible. She breathed in and out, once, deeply, and said nothing more.
"Marie," Hank hazarded in a whisper, "please tell me what is wrong."
She only shook her head against his chest and choked out, "Just this – please, just this." She squeezed him tighter and he felt her small body jump with muffled sobs.
In the end, his creative genius failed him – he resigned himself to simply doing as she asked, out of ideas on how to draw her out any further. He held her tightly, and comforted himself with the knowledge that tomorrow, it would all be different. Tomorrow, Marie would have a much-improved mate, and he would be normal – blessedly normal – once again.
Logan hurried over to Marie's building, trying to make good time despite the wind and snow. She'd surprised him with a call at his hotel this morning, saying only that she'd called in sick to work and asking if he could come over early, while Hank wasn't there. Logan didn't know if that boded well or ill, but there was only one way to find out.
He rushed through the revolving door of the building's lobby, stomping some of the snow off of his feet as he made his way inside. Seeing the doorman already eyeballing him, he shrugged off the urge to give the man a scowl and instead tried for a neutral expression. "I'm here for apartment 2301."
"McCoy?" the doorman inquired, never taking his eyes from Logan. Logan nodded, wondering if the man had the whole building memorized or if the condo containing the blue furry guy was just especially easy to remember. He tried not to think about the fact that the residence was apparently known as the McCoys' – Marie wasn't a McCoy yet, dammit. "Take those elevators to the twenty-third floor and take a left. It's at the end of the hall on the lake side."
"Mph." That would have to suffice as a thanks – Logan was in a hurry, after all. He followed the doorman's directions and soon found himself outside the door marked 2301. It bore a snowflake-decorated 'Welcome' sign on the door, undoubtedly one of Marie's touches. Logan frowned, and knocked.
A few moments later, a red-eyed, disheveled Marie appeared in the doorway. "Hey," she greeted weakly, rubbing at her eyes.
"You're sick?" he asked, stepping in to the well-appointed apartment. If he could've taken his eyes from Marie, the tasteful, lived-in atmosphere of the apartment might have given him pause – both of its occupants obviously enjoyed living here, and had made a home of the place.
Marie shook her head. "I'm fine – I just – I didn't think I could go in to work today." At the end, her voice turned into a squeak and fresh tears came. "Please – come in, sit down." She shut the door behind him and gestured him over to the kitchen table.
"Marie – what's wrong?" Logan wasn't a patient man under the best of circumstances, and an upset Marie definitely did not represent the best of circumstances. Still, some part of him hoped that her distress might signal a break of some sort with Hank. "Big Blue do somethin' to make you upset?" She nodded, and Logan scowled. "Goddammit," he cursed in a hushed voice, already mentally planning just how hard to kick Hank's ass for whatever he'd done. Sure, it might mean an opening for himself with Marie, but that didn't mean that Hank should escape punishment for causing Marie-tears. "What'd he do?"
"Oh, Logan," Marie sighed, trying to gather herself. "I think I'm going to lose him."
"Why? Some other woman?" She shook her head no. "He mad at ya for somethin'?" No again. "What, darlin'?"
Marie took a deep breath. "He's off at his office now, trying some experimental drug – some *dangerous* experimental drug because he – he wants to look normal again. He thinks it can fix him, but, Logan, he told me that there's a ten percent chance it'll kill him instead of fixing him." Her voice broke and she had to take a few moments to recover while Logan processed what she'd told him. "Logan, I love him so much – I don't think I can stand to lose him but I couldn't stop him because – well, because who am I to say he can't try it? I mean, I might do the same thing, if it would mean being free of my skin. I might take the chance. But, God, I – I just can't imagine my life without him. If I lose him, I……I just don't know what I'd do."
Logan frowned and sat back in his chair. Her words were so obviously sincere, and so anguished, that he couldn't doubt that she was really in love with Hank. Real love – not rebound comfort or infatuation. Not something frivolous or insubstantial. Every muscle, every tear, every waver in Marie's voice told Logan that she loved the man. And in that moment, Logan knew – he'd lost his chance with Marie. At the very least for now, and maybe for good. He'd lost her.
"I'm sorry I called you over here while I'm like this," Marie continued, "but I couldn't stand being alone and waiting to find out what happens one minute longer. I – if he does come back, he'll be – he's so jealous of you, you know, even though I keep telling him that you don't even think of me that way and never have. Even though I keep telling him we're not – we're not – "
"Hey," Logan interrupted softly, shaking off his own sadness and reaching across the table to take her bare hand in his gloved one. She gave him a watery smile at the thoughtful gesture, and he quirked a grin back at her despite the deep disappointment in his heart. "You tell Big Blue he don't have nothin' to worry about. He's gotcha. And you and I………well, darlin', I'm an honest man and I gotta tell ya that I – " Logan looked into her big, wet, blinking brown eyes, and when he saw the worry, love, and anxiety there – all for Hank – he swallowed down the words that had been about to come out and substituted in ones equally as true but ones that would be far less distressing for Marie than an outright declaration of his feelings. "You and I will always be somethin' special. I wantcha in my life, Marie, however you wanna be in it." He had to say at least that – he'd promised himself on the flight over that, if nothing else, he wanted her to know that. "You remember that, huh? Always remember that. I'll always be here for you, darlin'."
"Thank you," she said sincerely, and Logan felt his heart clench. "I'm really glad you're here. I just wish – I just wish there was some way to hurry up the time, you know what I mean? Or to convince Hank to – to just forget it."
"Where's he at? His lab? You could go down there and talk to him." Logan didn't think anyone could withstand Marie-tears; Hank would be agreeing to put down that vial or injection or whatever in a matter of moments.
"I talked to him last night. I told him I didn't want him to do it, that he didn't have to change, but he – he wanted to try and now I can't – I can't ask him to forget about it. He'll just hate me for the rest of his life if I mess up his chance to get what he's wanted so much and for so long. I can't ask him not to. It's selfish."
Logan mulled that over for a moment. His first thought was that Hank must be as crazy as he was blue if he hadn't listened to Marie's pleas. But then his ear caught on the word she'd used, 'selfish.' Something about her tone made him think that she was referencing something other than 'selfishly' wanting him to live through this damn fool experiment. In a moment, it hit him – it would be selfish because only Hank's furry exterior could give her touch. That's why she wasn't pushing him harder, that's probably why she'd backed off after her attempts at convincing him hadn't worked last night – she felt selfish for wanting him furry so she could have touch. A rush of affection shot through Logan – God, he really had fucked up in letting someone like Marie get away. She was a good woman, a damn good one. Knowing her, she'd not only give up the only touch she might ever have if it would make Hank happy, but she'd also been beating herself up over and over for wanting that touch nonetheless – and she was right, she couldn't ask Hank not to do it, she literally couldn't. Her own sense of honor wouldn't let her. But, Logan thought, there was someone who could ask Hank not to go through with it. "Where's his lab at?"
"'Cause I'm gonna go kick his furry ass then pound some sense into that big brain of his." Marie blinked at him. "C'mon, darlin', time's wastin'."
She stared right into Logan's eyes, deciding. "Three blocks north, two blocks west. He's on the twelfth floor, east wing. There's security – " Logan gave a derisive snort at the warning, and Marie smiled a little. "Right. He hasn't been gone that long yet – maybe…….."
"Maybe," Logan allowed, rising from the chair. "I'll be back with him one way or another, darlin'. You just sit tight and dry your eyes, all right?" Dutifully nodding, Marie rose with him, then, after a brief hesitation, launched herself at him for a hug. He hugged back tightly, taking advantage of the moment and imprinting her scent in his mind. Reluctantly, he let go, and turned toward the door. "Sit tight," he repeated, "I'll be back." She watched him go, hoping against hope that he wasn't too late.
Hank held in his hands a small Dixie cup containing what might be the answer to his most fervent prayers. He was ensconced safely in his office, behind his desk. He was within easy reach of his phone should something go wrong. He was ready for this, he was. So why was he hesitating, just staring down at the orange-yellow fluid that could deliver his every hope and dream?
He sighed, and put the cup on the desk for a moment, trying to clear his mind. He let it wander freely, having found that this kind of mental recess often led to the source of whatever was consciously (or subconsciously) bothering him. It didn't take long for his thoughts to settle on Marie.
She'd been very quiet this morning, and Hank knew she was concerned, but there was something odd about her behavior, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. In all honesty, he'd been quite surprised by her reaction overall. While he knew she'd be worried, he never dreamed she'd have the kind of solemn, despairing anxiety that he'd seen in her. After all, if worst came to worst – if he was one of the ten percent instead of the ninety, Marie would be just fine. She could go back to Xavier's or stay in Chicago as she saw fit – Hank had long ago changed her to the beneficiary on his life insurance and pension, so she would be financially set, whatever she decided to do. She wasn't in any danger of losing life or limb – he was the one taking the risk. There was no logical reason that she should have the kind of low-grade, muffled, panicky terror that Hank sensed in her, but she did.
Feeling at a dead-end for rational reasons why she might react this way, Hank pondered her recent behavior and words. The way she'd cuddled up to him last night, insisting that they both undress, niggled at him, but the reason why it worried him remained elusive. He went back to the beginning of their conversation, replaying what she'd said and done when he'd told her the news.
"You don't need to change your appearance. I don't want you to change it because of me." Pained expression, worried eyes. Well, of course she would say something like that, Hank thought. That was perfectly understandable, logical, and predictable – Marie was always careful not to hurt his feelings, especially in any way related to his unconventional appearance. She knew how much pain it caused him, and studiously avoided adding to his burden. That shouldn't be troublesome.
"Don't do this. I don't want to take a ten percent chance of losing you. Please, Hank. I need you in my life." Even more worried then, almost frantic. The words – 'a ten percent chance of losing you' – struck Hank. He wouldn't want to take a ten percent chance of losing Marie – in fact, that's why he'd told her she should not attempt the drug. But – wasn't he taking a ten percent chance of losing her this way? The only difference would be that Marie would be left to go on without him, instead of he without her.
"He doesn't have to come over, Hank, he can just stay at the hotel. I don't want you to do this because of me, or him, or anyone." Ah, yes – the 'him' that Marie could go on with, in the event of Hank's unfortunate demise – Logan. Hank frowned. While he usually tried to tell himself that he would understand and accept it if Marie went back to Logan, something in him rankled at the thought of Marie with his ex-teammate. But in his heart of hearts, the idea of Marie going back to Logan was somehow ensconced as an inevitability, something as sure as the tides or the stars. Deep down, Hank believed that he couldn't hold Marie – yes, he might've been astoundingly lucky in getting a chance to be with her at all, but surely someone like him couldn't hold her. The day would come when she would turn those big, brown eyes up at him and explain in her softest voice that she'd really loved Logan all along. Hank's heart would break, and he'd go back to a life of desperate loneliness. It was a sure thing – the only question was when.
"I love you so much, and I don't know what I'd do without you." Serious eyes, set mouth. She means those words. Hank harrumphed. How inconsiderate of his brain to use Marie's own words as a counter-argument against a good, indulgent bout of self-pity. Hank tried to remind himself that the cold, hard reality of his life was that Marie *did* really mean those words, but just for now, just in the moment. Logan was her destiny, her fate. They were the meant-to-be-together couple that would eventually reunite and have their happy ending; Hank was the one destined to be cast aside, just an obstacle in the way of the main storyline. Marie, even as loving and attentive as she was, had herself given him some clues that she would eventually return to Logan. It wasn't all his own insecurity and paranoia. His brain didn't like the idea, or the eventuality of it all, but it didn't seem to have any other options to offer him.
"Wait," Hank muttered aloud, "Go back. What clues?" He blinked, trying to think of an evidentiary example to back up the thought that Marie would eventually return to Logan, that she still harbored some feelings for him. He wracked his brain, but when he thought back on her words, and more importantly, her behavior, he found: Marie painting his room, even before they were lovers, making him feel cherished, understood, at home; waking up to Marie caressing his face – his furry, fanged face – with gentleness and affection; Marie standing naked before him for the first time – shy, but trusting, letting him explore her body to his heart's content, not fearing his claws; Marie, whispering 'I love you's as he drifted off to sleep; Marie, first thing in the morning, all wild hair and sleepy smile – she always smiles when she sees him; Marie, saying she wants to contribute, that she wants the relationship to be even; Marie, carrying over homemade dinners to their table; Marie, snuggling up against him last night and whispering 'just this, just this'; Marie –
Hank abruptly jumped in his chair at the last memory he'd called up. *That's* what was really stuck in the back of his mind – that was very odd behavior by Marie, and Hank knew it should be telling him something, but for the life of him, he couldn't hear what the memory was screaming at him. He reviewed the scene in his mind's eye, more closely this time, moving with slow-motion memory through each detail. Marie took her clothes off, then told him to take his boxers off. She lay atop him, pressed tightly to him, entwining her arms and legs around his, pressing every bit of her skin to his –
"Good God," Hank whispered. "Her skin." He stood up and looked back down at the desk, and the cup with the orange-yellow liquid. "Her skin," he whispered again, this time with a voice infused with understanding.
"That's right, her skin." Hank's head snapped up, recognizing the voice. "Tell me somethin', genius," the voice continued as its owner slowly came into view through Hank's office doorway. "What are you plannin' on doin' if that little anti-mutie potion of yours works? Plannin' on havin' Marie take it too, plannin' on havin' her take the ten percent chance? Hmm? Or didya think she wouldn't mind givin' up touchin' for the rest of her life?"
"I – I did not consider – "
"You didn't consider anybody but your own damn self. That's pretty fuckin' obvious." Logan leaned against the door frame, his hazel eyes never leaving Hank's amber ones. Neither man spoke for several long moments. "Well – are you gonna be a dumbass and take the magic potion or what?"
Suddenly, Hank felt quite on the defensive – and stung. He realized in a rush that Marie must've talked with Logan, must've told him what was going on. That was supposed to be private. "That is none of your business, and in any case, why should it concern you? You would probably like nothing better than to have me out of the picture."
"Not true." Hank snorted in disbelief. "That'd hurt Marie, and that's what I'd like to avoid more than anythin'."
"Ah – is that why you married Jean?" Logan's eyes narrowed and a low, warning growl rumbled out of him, but Hank pressed on. "Is that why you treated Marie so rudely? Is that why you accused her of trying to sabotage your marriage out of her own jealousy? Were these things designed to make Marie feel happy? You have been the one who has hurt her the most. Where has you concern for Marie's emotional well-being been hibernating all this time?"
"I made some mistakes," Logan gritted out. "Big ones. Don't mean you're not makin' some too." Hank opened his mouth for a retort, but the plain hurt behind Logan's angry expression brought him up short. "Look," Logan continued, "she don't wantcha to take the drug. I know you wanna look normal again – hell, nobody blames you for that. But not this way. It's too risky. Givin' God or the powers that be or the universe or whoever ten percent of a chance to screw you is temptin' fate, Hank. It's just plain old temptin' fate. Does Marie really mean so little to you that you'd be willin' to take a one in ten chance of givin' her up?"
"You have no idea what she means to me," Hank replied, a bit of the anger back in his voice.
"Yeah? Well, one of us is tryin' like hell to get away from her and one of us would give anythin' for *half* of a *one* percent chance to work somethin' out with her. You tell me, genius – which one's which?"
"Aha! I *knew* you had feelings for her! I knew you wanted to get her back!"
"Yeah, I do. But you're the one she cares about. Can't you see that? Why're you so hell-bent on takin' away the person she wantsta be with?"
"I am not 'hell-bent.' There is an excellent chance that this drug will work, a ninety percent chance." Hank couldn't keep the defensiveness out of his tone. Why didn't anyone have faith in his scientific judgment anymore? "I am a genius, you know. I *have* thought this through."
"You're actin' more like a dumbass than a genius today, Hank." Hank rolled his eyes, but Logan ignored it and continued. "OK, genius. OK, Mr. I-can-see-into-the-future. Think about this - what if you're right? What if it does work, then what? It's not only her skin, Hank – if this thing works, you'll change and not just on the outside. Your strength, your agility – hell, even your big IQ – they're all gonna go. Didya ever stop to think that maybe, if you change that much, you won't be the guy Marie wants anymore? Maybe she'd rather have ya blue and smart and strong than normal-lookin' and a weeny dipshit?"
Hank gave a frustrated huff and let his gaze fall from Logan's. There was more truth in those words than Hank cared to admit at the moment. Still, the allure of being normal – normal, at long last – was strong, and perhaps, just maybe, there would be enough of him in the 'new' Hank that Marie could still love him. He would still be smart – just not *as* smart. He would still be strong, a little. And maybe his new and improved appearance would make up for some of what he would lose. Maybe that would come to mean more to Marie than his other qualities. Maybe. And if not, Marie could be happy with Logan, the man she'd loved from the beginning. She'd be OK. At length, Hank's eyes came to rest on the small Dixie cup. Slowly, he picked it up in one hand.
"She loves you," Logan argued. Hank was still staring down into the cup, holding it only a few inches from his face. "She would give it all up. She would give up ever bein' able to touch and be touched again if it meant makin' you happy, if it meant givin' you what you wanted. But not like this, Hank. Not this way."
"She could be happy without me," Hank began in a whisper, raising his eyes from the cup to meet Logan's once more. They held no more anger, no more indecision, only pain and insecurity. "She could be happy with you."
Logan considered Hanks' words. "Yeah, she could. I know I'd do my damnedest to make her happy every minute of every day. But you know what – she ain't gonna be happy without you. You do this, and she loses you – Hank, dammit, dontcha understand? There's no do-overs. You can't erase a stain that you put on that girl's heart. I know that better than anyone. You do this, and she loses you – she'll always hurt for you, she'll always cry when she thinks about you. She'll always blame herself for it somehow. Is that what you want?" Hank didn't answer, and when he didn't lower the cup either, Logan began to coil, preparing to spring across the wide oak desk and physically prevent Hank from taking the drug, if need be. But he had a few more words to try first. "Hank - she told me no."
"What?" Hank blinked, attention diverted to Logan once more.
"She told me there was no chance of me and her. Nothin'. She wants you, but you're too damn sorry for yourself to see it. She wants *you*, as-is."
"She told you that?"
Logan nodded. It was the truth – Marie's scent, and her demeanor had told him that loud and clear. Hank didn't need to know that she hadn't said it in words.
"Yeah, Hank, really. What the hell do you think – do ya think she'd be with you if she didn't love you?" The words hurt to get out, but Logan could see they were working. Hank's hand lowered the cup – it was almost back on the desk. "She wouldn't. So stop all this bullshit, huh? Just take your head out of your ass and go back home to her before she gets any more upset."
The tension left Hank's body, and his hand finally brought the cup to rest on the desk. Logan relaxed a bit, but not completely. "There's somewhere I have to go first."
Logan's eyes were still on the cup, even as Hank's blue fingers uncurled from grasping it. "Huh?"
"There's somewhere I have to go first, before I can go home to Marie."
"Where the hell – "
"Logan – thank you." Hank came out from behind the desk, extending his large, blue-furred hand. After a moment, Logan shook it. "Thank you," Hank repeated, smiling a little at the man he'd considered a powerful rival until just seconds ago. "And I am sorry." Now, he could afford a little empathy for the man who'd lost Marie.
Logan simply nodded, and turned to go, knowing that Hank had made his choice. "Tell Marie I said goodbye. And that I'll be around if you fuck up again or if she needs me."
Hank whispered, "I shall tell her," at his retreating form, taking the warning in Logan's parting words for what it was. He left his office with relief and joy warring for dominance in his heart. He had one errand to run, an important one, and then it was right home to Marie. There was much he needed to tell her.
Marie heard the elevator ding for what seemed like the thousandth time this afternoon. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for what was to come. Logan was taking too long; something had to be wrong. It had been three hours and forty-five minutes since he left and if he'd been able to prevent Hank from taking the drug, they'd have both been back by now.
Her brooding was interrupted by the sound of footsteps nearing her door. They sounded a lot like Hank-footsteps, and a shot of hope surged through her before she realized that he would probably weigh the same and move with the same gait even if he had outwardly changed. She heard the doorknob turn and took another deep breath.
When Hank opened the door, he wasn't sure what he should expect, but the sight of Marie covered head-to-toe wasn't on his list of possibilities. She never covered up at home, but here she was - wearing a turtleneck, gloves, socks, the whole nine yards. It dawned on Hank that she'd expected him to come back changed – that's why she was covered. He looked up at her face, and, seeing her bloodshot eyes, felt a strong pang of sorrow.
"It didn't work?" she asked, moving closer and frowning in sympathy for his failed hopes. Hank's heart fell another few notches.
"No, ah – it, ah – I did not - " Feeling awkward under her intense scrutiny, he swung the door shut behind him and tried to start over. "Good afternoon, my love. I very much desire to speak with you about a matter of great importance."
Marie cheered at that. "OK – yes! I mean – yes, let's talk. Let's talk about this some more. You really don't have to feel like you have to do the experiment again. You know, I was thinking of all these things I meant to say yesterday, but I was so thrown and so sad and then I got all – "
"I do not wish to discuss the experiment."
"It didn't work?"
"I did not attempt it." Hank watched as Marie's whole body relaxed. She wavered and nearly fell over in relief, and it hit home, finally, exactly how worried she'd been for him. "I am so sorry to have frightened you. I – Logan arrived and told me that you were concerned. I realized that you were concerned, of course, but I – I – oh, dear. Nothing is coming out right."
"It's fine, it's fine, it's all right," Marie assured, as she moved forward to take one of Hank's massive hands in her gloved ones. "It can come out however you like. Just – talk to me."
Hank nodded, and kissed her gloved hand before slowly stripping the leather gloves away. "You do not need these. You shall never need these with me. Marie, unless there is a way for both of us, there is no way. I apologize – oh, my love, I apologize for scaring you so."
"You scared the crap out of me, Hank," Marie exhaled, finally letting it register that Hank hadn't done it and wasn't thinking of going through with the experiment now. "I thought I was going to lose you."
"I know. I am so very sorry. I do not want to lose you either."
"You won't, you won't I promise." She hugged him, squeezing until Hank thought he might be short of breath. He loved it, and grinned. To think he'd almost missed this……."And you know," she said, pulling back to look up at him, "I only sent Logan because I thought maybe he could convince you not to do it. I wasn't – there's no other reason."
"I know," Hank soothed. "He asked me to deliver his goodbyes and to – to let you know that he shall always be there for you, if I should ever, ah, well, let us just edit it to say that should I ever err with this kind of magnitude again or should you ever need him, he will be there."
That got a small smile from Marie as she hugged him again. "I'm so glad he convinced you."
"Indeed," Hank replied, still feeling a twinge of jealousy over Marie's admiration for Logan. But it was a small, far-away twinge this time, almost unnoticeable, and Hank was determined not to let it get in the way of what he wanted to discuss with her.
"But – if he convinced you, why did it take so long for you to come back?"
"I had a stop to make. Marie – I wish to discuss something of importance with you." She nodded, and Hank gently parted her from him.
"OK." Hank shrugged off his coat, flopping it over the recliner in the living room. He looked nervous, and Marie thought that whatever it was, it couldn't possibly be as nerve-wracking as this whole experiment thing had been. But now Hank was just staring at her, and fishing in his sport jacket for something. "Hank?"
"A moment, please, my love. I wish to do this right." When he got down on one knee, and reached out for Marie's bare hand, she finally realized what might be more important than the experiment.
"I love you dearly. I love you completely. I love you with all my heart and soul. I would be overjoyed if you would consider doing me the honor of becoming my wife." He'd composed the simple words on the way back from Cartier, and he hoped that they were the right ones for Marie. They said all the important things in his heart. He held up the ring he'd been looking at for months – a large, square-cut diamond in a platinum setting. He wanted the best for Marie.
"Oh, Hank…….." He could see tears forming in her eyes and for a horrible moment, he thought he'd made yet another huge mistake. But in the next second, she took the ring then jumped into his arms with so much force that she sent them both sprawling to the floor. "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, I will."
"Yes," Marie repeated, pulling back so that he could see her joy for himself. "Yes." He smiled broadly. "But, Hank – you have to promise me you won't endanger yourself. If we – if we do this, get married – it'll be all the worse if I ever lost you. Please promise you'll be careful. Please promise you won't do anything like this ever again – please promise you won't take any chances with yourself."
"I promise," Hank replied, running his hands over her back. Her smile was back on, and he basked in it a moment before asking, "Do you like the ring?"
"The ring?" Marie held it up between their faces. "Oh! The ring! It's beautiful – Hank, this had to cost a fortune – you – you really shouldn't have spent so much money on – "
"On my wife?" he teased. Her eyes got that soft, wanting look over them, and she wiggled around in his arms until her legs straddled his hips.
"I like the sound of that. Oh, I definitely like the sound of that." She leaned down to gently kiss his cheek, but as soon as her lips left his face, she suddenly buried her head in his shoulder and burst into sobs.
"Sorry. Sorry. I'm just – thank God you're safe." She was still crying in earnest, despite the words. Hank wrapped his massive arms around her and held her tight, hoping that he could repair a little of the damage done. Logan had been right – there are no do-overs with Marie, and she would probably be feeling the effects of this close call for a long time to come. Hank tried to soothe himself with the knowledge that he would be there with her to take care of her, and to give her what she needed. With a final silent thanks to whatever higher powers had decided to intervene in the form of Logan, the unlikeliest of all saviors, Hank began murmuring words of comfort, and promises that he would never again risk losing her.
Logan returned to Westchester on Sunday, looking to all the world like the same man who'd left a few days ago. His heart was heavier, though, and his spirits darker. It was a comfort to his sense of honor that he'd done the right thing in convincing Hank not to go through with the experiment, but the knowledge that Marie was now beyond his reach blackened any solace he might take from his noble acts. He knew that he had himself chiefly to blame for the state of things, but he still couldn't help hoping that maybe, someday, things might change. After all, Logan had nothing if not time. Even if Marie was in love with Hank now, even if she was inclined to stay with him for the foreseeable future, Logan had long since learned that in life the only constant is change. Marie's heart wasn't any more immune from that universal law than anything else. That small shred of hope would have to be enough. And in the mean time, there were always willing women and strong liquor to help him drown his sorrows. He was going to need a little, or a lot, of both tonight.
Monday morning Hank called in sick to work, leaving Frank to open the lab. The first thing he noticed was the smell. Some of the animals had definitely gone to the great lab in the sky over the weekend. Frank sighed. He wasn't looking forward to telling McCoy that. The poor guy had really wanted this drug to work. Hell, so had Frank – it would've meant wealth and accolades beyond even those dreamt up by his hyperactively busy imagination. Still, Frank knew that science was a harsh mistress, and a hell of a tease sometimes. It's just the way things go.
As he settled in for a long morning cataloguing and autopsying dead mice, Frank started the coffee before taking a closer look. When he finally did get around to surveying the damage, his rough estimate put the casualty rate now at fifty percent. The survivors didn't look too good, either. Many were having difficulty moving, or breathing and even Frank, far from being a vet, knew those things to be Very Bad Signs. He sighed, wondering why they ever thought they could successfully tinker with mother nature to this kind of degree, and turned to the last group of mice, the mutant ones. Hank would want to know the numbers on this group for certain. Peering into the cages, Frank counted dead mice, realizing only as he reached the last cage that there had been no live ones. Hmmm, he thought, what do you know – mutant mortality rate, 100%. Hank definitely wouldn't like that news, Frank mused, turning his attention away from the debris of the failed experiment. No, he wouldn't like it at all.