Title: Portraits in a Gallery: Better
Logan pulled into Canmore, deciding that this was far enough for one day. Marie and Hank had both been very quiet most of the drive. Hank hadn't asked about the nightmare, but he hadn't been as easy with small talk as he had been. Marie didn't seem inclined to conversation much either; she spent most of the drive staring out the window and casting uncertain looks back at Logan. He tried to give her reassuring ones in response.
"Whaddya think 'bout over there?" He gestured to a nondescript roadside motel. Marie nodded, and so did Hank, carrying the nonverbal theme of the evening along. "Looks good to me."
Logan pulled in to a dimly lit parking spot and walked across the lot to the office. He didn't want to risk anyone seeing Hank, and this, along with Hank's slinking down in the seat, helped. Marie watched him go wordlessly.
"Are you feeling all right?" Hank wasn't sure that talking was any more of a good idea now than it seemingly had been all day, but he was beginning to be concerned about Marie.
"I'm OK," she answered, in a tone that was a pale approximation of her usual cheerful one. "I just – I hate getting the nightmares, you know. And I wonder if Logan thinks – if he thinks I'm a little on the loony side."
"Certainly not," Hank said confidently. "You are perhaps the most non-loony person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting."
Marie smiled at that, and more of her usual buoyancy returned. "Thanks. I think you're quite non-loony too."
Hank chuckled and the silence turned comfortable. Emboldened by his ability to raise her spirits, he added, "You know, you are quite fortunate - it is very plain that you love each other very much."
"I love him a lot," Marie answered, smiling and shifting around in her seat to see Hank a little better. "But I think he's still kind of getting to know me. To be honest, that's why having the nightmares so often is shaking me up a little. I don't want him to get scared away or freaked out by them, but they just seem to come when I'm not sleeping at my own place." She didn't add that she was beyond relieved that he hadn't actually seen one of them through the link they shared – she didn't know if it was possible, if it worked that way, but her first thought when she heard his gruff 'You're not gonna take her away from me' was that he'd somehow seen Sabretooth kidnap her and worse, had seen everything that had followed. It wasn't that she was embarrassed or ashamed; she just desperately didn't want him to have to find out that way. She didn't want him to ever have to deal with seeing those things, and finding them out for the first time that way would've been especially horrible, for both of them. If she could tell him in words instead of having him see it, feel it for himself, she could blunt some of the anguish and guilt she knew he might feel.
"I do not think he is 'freaking out,'" Hank replied after giving it a little thought. "He simply seems distressed that you are distressed by them. He is concerned for you."
"I just want to be sure not to – to be unintentionally making him get closer to me because he's worried or feels guilty. I want him to *want* to be with me, you know? For good reasons, not sad ones. The last thing I'd want is to have him be with me while all the time he's thinking – God, I can't stand her, or God, I'd really like to be with that person over there."
"Marie," Hank said softly, reaching out to place his hand atop her shoulder. "You have nothing to worry about on that count. It is quite obvious that Logan very much wants to be with you. In fact, he seems uncomfortable only when you are not nearby. You are – you are an exceptional person, Marie – someone that would be much-desired by any right-thinking, caring potential suitor. And I have found Logan, despite outward appearances, to be very much in that category."
"That's very kind of you to say, Hank. I appreciate it." She had no illusions about her general desirability – toxic, uncontrollable skin wasn't high on anyone's list – or her track record of attracting caring suitors, but she was touched by Hank's sentiments nonetheless. "You're a pretty exceptional person yourself."
"Ah, you flatter me, my lady," he joked. In a sense, he agreed with her – one of the meanings of 'exceptional' was out of the ordinary and he was definitely that. "But I have had little luck in the affairs of the heart."
Before Marie could respond, Logan returned, peering into the SUV, room key in hand. "We're around back. I'll drive around." He noticed the lighter atmosphere in the car, and was glad for it. "You guys doin' OK?"
"Better," Marie smiled.
Kitty rounded the corner and promptly smacked straight into Scott; she'd had her head buried in her physics book and hadn't been watching where she was going. "Sorry," she mumbled, then scurried out of his path.
"Kitty – wait!" He'd been on his way to debrief Charles, but that could wait a moment. This was the first time he'd seen her in person since the fight, and he desperately wanted some face time, a more meaningful way to apologize than flowers and phone calls. "I'm glad I caught you. I – I was hoping we could talk. I just got back from the mission."
"How did it go?" she asked, her eyes darting everywhere but him.
"OK. The kid didn't wind up coming back with us but once the family has had a chance to really think it over, I think in a few weeks – "
"Great," Kitty said succinctly, moving to go around him. Scott stayed her progress with a gentle hand on her arm.
"I meant, I wanted to talk about us. Kitty – I'm – I'm really just so sorry. I treated you horribly, and I – I'm sorry."
"OK," she said softly, fidgeting in his grasp. Scott sensed her discomfort and released her. "We've kind of been over this."
"I know. I just…………" He really didn't know what other words he could say that would make a difference. It dawned on him that what he probably really wanted was for her to say she forgave him, and the selfishness of that struck at his heart. "I'm sorry," he finished feebly. "I won't – I won't bother you again. I never meant to hurt you. You were very good to me. I just want you to know that I – I regret how I treated you, and I'm sorry for it."
She said nothing, but finally met his eyes, giving him a hard look before she walked away. As soon as she was well out of the hallway, Scott slumped back against the wall. His mind flashed back on the first time he'd ever met Kitty – she was just into her teens and the brightest kid in his class. How had he ever managed to wind up here with her? Scott ran a hand through his hair, the debrief with Charles forgotten. He needed a drink, or several, and he needed it right now.
Marie fluttered her eyes open in the middle of the night. She had no idea exactly what time it was, but she could tell it was well after dark. Blinking a few times to try to focus her sight and find the clock, she realized she was lying on her side, face-to-face with a wide-awake Logan.
"You all right?" he whispered. As her senses came on line, she heard the muted snores coming from Hank's bed, and the traffic on the highway outside their window.
"I'm fine," she mumbled, still not fully awake.
"Bad dreams?" Marie felt Logan's warm, gloved hand begin to stroke her side.
"No – just, I woke up."
"Hmph." He stilled his touch but kept his thumb moving back and forth over her waist.
"Did I wake you up or something?" she whispered, leaning a little closer to him.
Her eyebrows knitted together, and a worried expression settled over her. "Have you gotten any sleep?"
"I'm fine, darlin'."
"That's not what I asked." That made him grin, and she couldn't help letting a little smile of her own show in return. "Logan, I'll be fine. You can't stay awake all night watching over me."
"Sure I can."
The smile playing on his lips vanished, and he gave her side a squeeze. "I know what happened to ya was real bad. I know I can't go back and fix it and I know I can't keep the bad dreams about it outta your head. I just – I feel like I gotta do somethin', you know?"
Marie was silent, but after a moment, she scooted closer to him and laid her head on his chest. "I remember this one flash of you. You were fighting, but not in the cage. You were fighting with other people beside you – your teammates, I guess. I remember feeling how hard you wanted to fight, how much you wanted to protect them. Even the ones you didn't especially like." She smirked as she thought about the man with the strange glasses. She wondered if she'd get to meet him in Westchester and what he'd be like. "I remember being so awed by that, by how much you wanted to protect them, just because they were yours, your team. It made me think of one of those old nature specials, the kind you see on the Discovery Channel or PBS, the ones that explain the social structure of the animal groups. I guess I always knew you were the alpha male kind of guy, but that flash made me think that you weren't the kind of alpha that people usually think of - not the kind that takes the first meat of the kill for himself, not the kind that gets the best spot in the pack. You were more like a gorilla alpha – the kind that always goes first through the jungle, the kind that always sleeps at the bottom of the tree. The kind that always protects the tribe, the pack, and takes the most risks to do it." Marie paused to wrap her arms around his broad back. "I know you want to protect me from what happened back then, even now. I really love that about you. But I also know that even the alphas need to rest once in a while. We've got a long drive ahead of us, and you need some sleep, sugar."
"And if the dreams come?" he asked, shifting her bit by bit until she was in the perfect position and molded tightly to him.
"I'll wake you if they do." She had a feeling they wouldn't – having Logan bodily shielding her as she slept seemed antithetical to the notion that she could possibly be reached by anything even remotely upsetting. Still, she didn't want to say that she wouldn't have a nightmare – if it turned out that she did, Logan would likely blame himself for not watching over her well enough, even though both of them knew that made no logical sense.
"Marie – after it happened, after it was over and you got yourself together a little bit, did you wish for me?"
"I did," she admitted.
"I'm sorry I wasn't there." Marie was too – and yet she wasn't. She hadn't been fit for human company for some time after it had happened, and she wasn't unhappy that Logan had been spared the sight of her in such desperate straits. "What didya wish for me to do?"
"What do you mean?"
"Didya want me to show up and – " He cut himself off – he'd been about to say 'and kill them all' but she'd apparently already done that. He really was kind of at a loss for what other comfort he might've offered her, aside from vengeance. "What did ya wish for me to do?"
"I wished for you to hold me, actually, pretty much just like this." She hugged him tightly to punctuate the words. "Feels really nice, you know." She said the last words in a lighter tone, not wanting this to turn into another sob-fest for her. Logan had seen enough of her tears – and look at how that had already impacted him. He was lying awake at night, watching her for signs of bad dreams.
"When all that shit happened to me – all that cuttin' me open and shit – I think I probably killed most of the bastards who did it to me. But that didn't really fix things." Sure, revenge did have a certain therapeutic value, but in the long run, you were still left to deal with the aftermath, the scars of what had happened. "I wonder if havin' someone to hang on to like this woulda."
"I think it helps," she whispered in a quiet voice as she began to stroke his back. "It doesn't make everything go away, but it pushes it way back. It makes the pain small enough so that you can deal with it, manageable enough so that it doesn't scare you as much."
"Yeah," he agreed quietly.
"I wish I could've been there for you when it happened. I wish I could've prevented it or at least – at least given you some comfort when it was over."
"Me too," he said wistfully, before he could stop himself.
"I'm here now," Marie ventured. "What would you have wished for me to do?"
"Nothin', darlin', nothin'." Logan tensed – here he was dredging up all of his baggage when what he'd set out to do was to make her feel better, make her feel protected and soothed.
Marie didn't respond in words, but her small, gloved hands began working their way across his back and up into his hair, stroking it, petting him. She kept her touch light, slow, even. When she felt his body begin to relax, she pressed her lips to his chest, safely shielded by his t-shirt. It wasn't meant to be a sensual kiss, and nothing about it felt arousing to Logan. It was affection, not sex, that she was bestowing upon him, and even Logan, who'd never experienced a touch that wasn't designed to culminate in either searing pain or a satisfying orgasm, knew it for what it was. He clutched at her tighter, half-hoping to make her stop and half-hoping to urge her to continue.
"I would've wanted to do this," she whispered. "I would've wanted to touch you and hold you and tell you that I was going to make it all better, even if I knew I really couldn't." Her voice thickened, but she went on without the tears that threatened. "I would've whispered to you that you were strong, and good, and that nothing that other people ever did could change that. I would've told you that I might not be much, but you'll always have me. I would've sworn to you that there were things you could still trust, things you could still count on, and that I was one of them. And then I would've stopped talking and just listened to your heartbeat, your breathing. I would've been so glad that you survived, that you were still here, and with me."
"I woulda liked that," he struggled out in an awed whisper. "Things mighta gone different for me if – " He stopped himself again, not wanting to drag her through some pointless round of what-ifs. She knew what he'd been like – she'd seen him as the animal and the cage fighter. That's what he was, what he'd become, and even if he liked to think he had distanced himself from all that now, he knew in his heart that it lurked just beneath the surface. Maybe things would've gone differently for him if Marie could've somehow been there, but that's not how it happened, and he couldn't change things for himself any more than he could for Marie. "I woulda done the same things for you, you know. I woulda done all the right things. I woulda been just what you wanted, just what you needed. And I woulda kept you right by me the whole time after, I woulda told you I wanted you with me always." Marie shuddered, and Logan knew she was fighting to hold the emotion in. He had no idea how profound it was for her to hear him say he would've wanted her so much despite what she'd gone through, but he could tell it was a strain for her to keep her reaction in. "Just let it out, darlin'."
Marie reinforced her hold on him and muffled her few brief sobs against his chest. She got herself together quickly, despite the powerful, surging emotions, and gave him one more gentle kiss over his heart. "I'm really not this emotional all the time."
They both laughed a little and Hank shifted in his bed, interrupting the steady hum of snoring he'd been producing. "Let's both get some sleep, huh?" Logan whispered. He felt Marie nod, and they both dropped off within the minute.
Jean was noticeably late to breakfast, which was unusual, but wasn't unheard of. No, the unheard of part was that when she did finally show up, she was disheveled, looking pale and like she hadn't slept a wink despite her late arrival. She listlessly worked her way through the food line, grabbing a muffin, some yogurt, and coffee. Ororo watched her procession, and hailed her when she came to the end of the line.
"Jean, over here." Jean paused, seemingly a bit lost for a few moments, before heading to 'Ro's table. "How are you?" the weather goddess asked.
"Fine, fine. I'm fine." Jean forced out a smile after the words. "How was South America?"
"It went well, all things considered. I believe the family requires some time to make a decision, but in the end, I believe the child will come to us."
"Good." Jean took a small bite of her muffin, and a sip of the coffee. When she showed no signs of speaking again, Ororo took a more direct approach.
"Are you feeling well? You look like you may be coming down with something."
Jean let out a soft snort at that. "My stomach feels a little iffy, I guess. I threw up yesterday."
"Oh," 'Ro replied, not sure where to take the conversation from here.
"How was South America?" Jean asked earnestly. Again.
"Jean," 'Ro whispered, leaning across the table, all of her red flags going up now, "what is wrong?"
Jean let out a long, watery sigh, and a sniffle or two. "Things went badly with Warren yesterday. I don't – it's over between us."
"I am sorry," 'Ro answered, with genuine compassion, sprinkled with more than a bit of confusion. Jean seemed much more distraught by this breakup than she had been over the ones with Logan and Scott combined. And she'd only been dating Warren for a few days, not even a week – 'Ro surmised that either Jean's feelings for Warren went much more deeply than she'd thought or that something quite bad must've happened. "Would you like to talk about it?"
"No," Jean said, a little too quickly. Seeing her friend's expression, she amended, "I just don't feel like it right now. Really, I'll be fine. It was just………it was just a shock, that's all." Her eyes got very far away with those last words, and that didn't sit well with 'Ro. But before she had a chance to decide on another approach, she saw Scott pacing toward them with a worried look on his face. With the sight of him, 'Ro's face now held an even darker look of her own. She could guess at the source of Scott's apprehension – he feared that she might've told Jean something about their interlude. But she was shocked to see him now, at this (for him) late hour, and looking every bit as disheveled as Jean did. It was equally as uncharacteristic for Scott as it was for Jean, and if 'Ro hadn't known better, she'd have guessed that this was the morning after the breakup of their years-long relationship, not a random morning nearing the one-year anniversary of their separation.
"Can I join you ladies?" Scott inquired pleasantly, the tone in his voice at odds with his pinched expression.
"Certainly," 'Ro answered gracefully. Scott sat, and nodded his morning greetings to Jean, who did not return them. "We were just talking about our mission," 'Ro supplied, hoping to put Scott at ease.
"Right, our – oh, damn!" Scott started. "I forgot to debrief the Professor!"
'Ro frowned. If his appearance and demeanor were uncharacteristic, Scott forgetting a mission-related duty was a hundred times more so. However, 'Ro knew that criticizing him over it wouldn't do any good. And something was telling her that he and Jean might benefit from a moment or two alone. If nothing else, they could commiserate over whatever had really brought each of them to this scattered state. "It is all right. I was just finishing up. I shall stop by and speak with him." If she knew Charles – and 'Ro prided herself on knowing him better than anyone at the mansion - with the possible exception of Jean – he had probably sensed Scott's distress and had foregone an explanation for the time being. He would already know that they had not returned with the child.
"No, I said I would, and – "
Ororo rose, interrupting him. "Really, Scott, it is not a problem," she said kindly. "I shall see you both later."
Jean's eyes were still staring down at her tray, as Scott gave 'Ro a goodbye wave. Finding himself suddenly alone with the object of most of his current thoughts, he wasn't sure how to handle it. Jean didn't seem inclined to speak to him at all, and Scott wondered if she was mad that 'Ro had offered him a seat. Biting back some snip about being used to eating alone by now, Scott tried the high road for a change. "I, ah, didn't mean to interrupt your breakfast. Would you like me to take mine to go?" He fully expected Jean to answer 'yes' – it had been a fairly direct question after all, and Jean was a pretty damn direct person, in Scott's experience. However, what he got was a raised head and a sorrowful expression.
"I wouldn't mind some company at the moment. Thank you."
Scott blinked. "Um, OK." Deciding not to tempt fate with further conversation, he began tucking in to his breakfast. Jean did the same, and they wordlessly emptied their plates. At the end of it, Jean leaned back in her chair and took several deep breaths. It wasn't until then, when Scott was nursing his coffee and felt brave enough to chance another direct glance at her, that he noticed how awful she looked. "Hey – are you feeling all right?" He knew the answer to that question already – he didn't think he'd ever seen her look quite so pale and he had definitely never seen dark circles like that under her eyes. She wasn't even wearing makeup to try to cover those blights – and Jean never appeared outside of her own room without makeup, regardless of the hour or circumstances. "Jean?" he prompted when she didn't answer.
"I threw up a lot yesterday," she said, in a small, shaky voice. Her lips worked themselves into a trembly smile. For a moment, Scott wondered if it was Mystique sitting across from him – the Jean he knew never cracked her composure. "I don't feel well this morning."
"Oh. Well, um, I hope it's just one of those twenty-four hour things," Scott ventured conversationally. Jean smirked and nodded. "Maybe you should have some more juice. Keep up your fluids." That put a strange look on her face, and Scott remembered with a start that Jean hated to be told what to do, especially if it involved anything remotely medical. His knee-jerk response to the look on her face was 'I was only trying to help, dammit' but he made, "Of course, you know best, you're the doctor," come out, infusing it with only the barest trace of bitterness.
"Right," Jean replied, with a tight jaw. "I'll be fine. No need to worry about me."
"Jean," Scott replied. "I was being serious – I hope you're OK, that's all." Her eyes softened even though his words still held a bit of a defiant, defensive tone.
"Thanks," she whispered. "I – it was nice of you to notice I wasn't – I mean, I – thanks." Jean flashed him a pinched smile then rose to leave. Scott stayed her departure with a gentle hand to her arm.
"You know, if there's – if there's something really wrong, you can tell me. I know we haven't been close or – or even on speaking terms lately, but – but if you're really sick or something……."
"I'm fine." Jean's eyes were warm and watery but otherwise, her usually implacable mask of composure had finally slipped back into place. "It'll pass," she said, "But I…." She searched for the words for longer than Scott had ever seen her. "I appreciate what you said. Thanks." Scott nodded, then released her. Watching as she made her way out of the dining room, he reflected that, although he was technically in no better shape than he had been when he came down for breakfast this morning, his spirits were much-lifted by Jean's non-contentious exchange with him. He finished off his coffee, and headed to the garage. He felt like he was on a hot streak – maybe some tinkering would help him settle his mind and spirit little more.