Author: Jordanna Morgan (email@example.com)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: Mild PG, for angst and adult situations.
Characters: Emphasis on Beast, with support from various other characters.
Setting: Mainly mid- to post-X2.
Summary: The personal journey of Henry McCoy—as a mutant, and as a man.
Disclaimer: Marvel and Fox create the characters that sell. Nora is mine, and so is Kristen, who has appeared in several of my stories.
Notes: In X2, there is a brief cameo by a non-furry character who is identified as being Hank McCoy. This seems to support the novelization by Chris Claremont, in which Hank’s bestial mutation is caused by Professor X’s psychic attack on mutantkind. That concept has always intrigued me, especially after I saw and loved Kelsey Grammer’s portrayal of Beast in X3. It lurked in the back of my mind for a long time—until my friend Wabbitseason gave me the idea that Hank’s blue fur might really have been a secondary development. After a few weeks in which I was unable to shake the thought, I finally sat down and began to write. Five months later, this is the result.
If you tilt this story at a slight angle, you can easily fit it in with the events of X3. For the record, I personally do not. I acknowledge nothing of that misbegotten film except Hank himself.
When he stood in the bright morning light of Charles Xavier’s office and waited, nervously studying a painting through his reading glasses, no one knew what he felt; or at least, no one would have expected it of him. Not from the colleague who, with the possible past exception of Erik Lehnsherr, was the closest in the world to Charles. Not from the dedicated mutant-rights advocate who knew as well as anyone the acceptance and tolerance built into the Xavier School with every brick.
Yet before one can believe that others will accept a great change, one must come to terms with the change for one’s self.
But then the door opened, and Ororo came in, and she rushed to throw her arms around him in joyous welcome… and suddenly, nothing had changed at all.
“I love what you’ve done with your hair,” she said—and only someone who had known them both for many years would understand how perfect and right the words were, when they might have seemed a cruel joke from anyone else. How the warmth of the tease and the twinkle in her eye had not sharpened his self-consciousness, but instead had swept it away, and made him feel that he was home in a way he never had before.
It made him feel glad to be one of them.
Henry McCoy was a mutant.
It was hardly anything to speak of, really. His mutation manifested itself as nothing more than an enhanced physical strength, and even that was not overly impressive by mutant standards. The trait had almost no effect on his life—except that it made him even more sensitive to the cause he had already devoted his life to. It was Charles Xavier’s teaching and friendship that had instilled a passion for mutant rights in him, long before he ever imagined just how personal the subject would become.
In fact, it was in saving Charles’ life that he found out.
The mountain-climbing trip had been Charles’ idea. He was an experienced old hand at the sport, eager to share an adventure with his student and friend. Hank was nothing more than an unskilled and reluctant young amateur, who resisted the better judgment that quietly urged him to back out of the whole affair.
The mistake that nearly cost them both their lives, and did cost Charles the use of his legs… that was his contribution.
But so was the new and frightening strength that had enabled him to dig Charles out from beneath several feet of snow, and free him from the fallen tree that pinned him, and carry him back down to their base camp—all on his own.
That was many years ago now. Charles had forgiven him with his first words after the accident, but Hank had never completely divested himself of the guilt he felt. He knew it drove him to work harder, fighting to bring about Charles’ idealistic dreams for the world. It was a strange quest for redemption from a sin that only he counted against himself.
Affectionately they called him Beast. It was due in part to his strength, but more for his work ethic—the fierce and inexhaustible way he threw himself into every task he took on. He accepted the nickname with a sort of embarrassed flattery, for it could not have been less appropriate to his outward appearance: that of a robust and broad-shouldered but entirely unassuming gentleman, just settling into urbane middle age. His mutation had not altered him visibly.
Except for that nagging ghost of guilt he carried, Hank was a happy man. He was ridiculously well educated: medicine, science, psychology, and literature were all fields in which he excelled. His sophisticated charm and dry sense of humor appealed to people of every age and class, serving him equally well as a bedside manner or public-relations weapon. His days at the Lefkowitz Institute for Mutant Health were pleasantly torn between research and the day-to-day work of helping newly manifested mutants adjust, both physically and mentally. His achievements were well recognized, and he was now being consulted often as an expert on both the medical and political ramifications of mutation.
…And then there was Nora.
“You’ve been quiet,” she murmured softly in the dark, brushing her slim fingers across his chest.
With a contented sigh, Hank captured her hand in his, turning slightly to face her impish smile. “I was just thinking.”
In the two years since she had entered his life as a nurse and laboratory assistant, Nora Tanner had been a partner to him in every possible sense of the word. She kept pace with the leaps and bounds of his professional mind, without ever losing herself in scientific minutiae as he occasionally did—and when those leaps briefly got ahead of his own compassion, her gentleness took up the slack. When he became so intent on his work that he forgot to eat, she spent almost as much time looking after him as she did assisting him. He could pour out before her all his ideas, for everything from a new gene-therapy treatment to a mutant-rights speech; she would listen with attentive interest, and then give him honest, insightful feedback.
It didn’t matter that she was quite conclusively a non-mutant, with no trace of the X-gene in her. Mutants were simply fellow human beings to her, and that was all that mattered. That was the kind of person she was.
Hank remembered the night they had spent in the laboratory, waiting to see how a bacterial culture would react to a certain protein compound. The experiment was ultimately forgotten and spoiled; they had discovered far more interesting reactions to explore that night.
“What did you ever see in me, Nora?” he asked lazily, drawing her closer.
“Nothing much.” Nora smiled playfully and planted a kiss on his bare shoulder. “But I couldn’t stop myself—you’re habit-forming. I think it must be part of your mutation.”
His lips twitched as he raised an eyebrow. “That might be an interesting area of research.”
At that moment, Hank’s cellphone trilled from the floor somewhere beside the bed. He stifled a protesting groan as he leaned over and felt for it. Frantic calls in the dead hours before dawn were nothing new to him, but he had hoped that for at least one night…
“McCoy speaking,” he answered in his most professional tone, after locating the phone at last.
To his surprise, a young girl’s trembling voice responded. “Doctor McCoy, it’s—it’s Kitty. Kitty Pryde.” She paused for an audibly shaking breath. “Soldiers came to the school—there was shooting—I think they caught some of the others—”
“What?” Swallowing back a string of expletives, Hank reached for his shirt. “Where are your teachers?”
“The Professor and Mr. Summers went to visit Magneto… Doctor Grey and Miss Munroe left yesterday in the jet. I don’t know where they were going.”
“Alright.” Hank took a deep breath, forcing a calm he did not feel into his voice. “Where are you?”
“All of us that got out are at the safe house on Old Garden Road.” This was a modest house, two miles from the school, prepared by Xavier as a refuge in case of just such a situation. Still in the process of pulling his clothes on with one hand, Hank nodded as he mentally calculated the directions for getting there.
“I can be there in forty minutes. Is anyone hurt?”
There was a brief pause, as if Kitty was taking stock of the others. “No—I don’t think so. Just cuts and scrapes. I think they shot Jones with some kinda tranquilizer, but he’s coming to.”
That was a relief, at least. Hank shifted the phone to his other hand, reaching for his shoes. “That’s good. I’ll be there as fast as I can, Kitty—just sit tight. Keep everyone calm. Alright?”
A tremor crept back into Kitty’s voice. “Alright.”
Hank shoved the phone into his pocket, and turned to find Nora standing on the other side of the bed, already dressed.
“It’s happened?” she asked tersely.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he nodded.
Hank sped all the way to Westchester, defying the possibility of traffic cops roaming the highways at two o’clock in the morning, but somehow they arrived at the nondescript suburban house without being pulled over. They hurried up to the porch, and Hank’s knock at the door was delivered in code: two quick taps, then two longer ones.
There was a brief silence from within, and then the sound of bolts being drawn back. At last the door was thrown open—and Hank and Nora were engulfed in a quivering flood of frightened adolescence as they stepped inside. The younger children flung themselves forward to cling to the two adults, shaking and tearful, while the older teenagers pressed forward with anxious exclamations.
“Shh, it’s alright, you’re safe now—we won’t let anything happen to you—” Hank soothingly rubbed the shoulders of the two students who held onto him. He took a head count, at the same time looking around for Kitty, who he presumed to be nominally in charge. “Kitty?”
“Here.” The girl edged forward, with Peter Rasputin towering almost protectively beside her.
“Alright.” Hank nodded at her in reassurance. “I want you to tell us the whole story in a minute… Does anyone need first aid?”
A few students came forward with scratches and scrapes, and Jones looked up groggily from the couch. Hank confirmed that the boy seemed to be suffering no ill effects from a dose of sedative, then turned to help Nora with minor tasks of gauze and antiseptic. As they worked, Kitty recounted the full story of the siege on the Xavier School, with further details haltingly supplied by several other children.
“Why did they do it?” Nora questioned in baffled anger when the tale had been told.
“I don’t know—but I’m going to find out. I’ll have to start making some calls.” Hank sighed and raked his fingers through his thinning ginger hair, as his eyes gravely met Nora’s. “For the moment, we have to assume Professor Xavier and the other teachers have all been taken as well.”
A ripple of terrified murmurs passed among the children, but Hank turned to them with a calming gesture. “You’re all going to be alright. No one knows about this place. Nora and I will look after you until we get all this sorted out… Kitty, would you see if you can fix some hot soup or something? It might help everyone’s nerves.”
With a shaky nod, Kitty shuffled off toward the kitchen, and Hank reached for his cellphone.
The small hours slowly brightened into morning, then dragged sluggishly on toward afternoon. Hank spent that time calling every professional and personal contact he had, searching for answers that were almost nonexistent. Miniscule clues and hastily whispered inferences pointed to a suspect whose identity did not surprise him—but there was something terribly disquieting in the unanswered question of motive.
The rest of the X-Men remained unaccounted for, including Charles. That disturbed Hank most of all.
One bright spot finally emerged in the form of a too-brief call from Bobby Drake, who had somehow ended up at his parents’ house with John and Rogue. At that time he could add nothing to the facts at hand, but at least it meant three more students were safe. Hank clung to a hope that the six missing children had also fled into the night, and simply become lost on their way to the safe house—but knowing how firmly their teachers had drilled the escape route into their heads, he had a terrible feeling they were gone.
Mere children, carried off by the invaders… for what reason?
Bobby explained how the man called Logan had saved them from the same fate, and Hank met that news with mixed feelings. It was a name he knew, a name that had come up more than once in the most private and serious of conversations with Charles. They had disagreed on very few things in their long acquaintance; but the Wolverine was one of them.
He deserves to know the truth, Charles.
Now Hank could only wonder how the presence of William Stryker’s failed experiment fitted into the puzzle, when the only other piece he could see—the central piece—was Stryker himself.
In frustration, Hank turned to the news networks, where his sensibility and wit had made him a perennially welcome guest. Without being too probing, he tried to learn more about the powers behind the assault, but he met with little success. As a last resort, he even committed himself to joining a few expert panels discussing the recent White House attack; perhaps a face-to-face encounter with other sources might prove more fruitful. It meant leaving Nora and the children for several hours, but they would be safe enough for now.
By the time he pushed away his cellphone with a weary sigh, many of the children had lapsed into an uneasy sleep from sheer exhaustion. He crossed the room to Nora, who sat with a blonde-headed little girl resting fitfully on her lap.
“I have to go back into the City for a while.” Hank leaned down to give Nora a desultory kiss. “I’m going on the news later, to see what breaks. While I’m out, I’ll try to pick up a few things for the children, and some other clothes from my apartment. Give me your keys, and I’ll stop by your place too.”
“As far as I know, my keys are still on your coffee table.” Nora smiled thinly, but it did not touch her eyes, and there was a quiet note of strain in her voice. “Please, Hank—hurry back.”
Hank clasped her shoulder, and gently placed his hand on the head of the child in her arms; and then he was gone.
Hank was on the air that night when the news broke of Magneto’s escape from prison. From that moment on, the debate he was engaged in spun wildly out of control—and all his private speculations did much the same.
Another piece of the puzzle had appeared, but he didn’t know where it fitted, either.
Sitting still for the cameras, and maintaining his air of level grace when every instinct cried out portents of disaster, made him feel a hundred years old by the time he left the news studios that night. He collected a few essentials from his and Nora’s apartments, then stopped at an all-night grocery store. Charles had always made sure the safe house was stocked with enough non-perishable supplies for several days, but Hank bought an assortment of fresh meat and vegetables, and even a few sweets. At least for the time being, he knew of little else he could do to give the children comfort.
It was after midnight when he tapped the recognition signal on the front door of the house, then let himself in. Nora looked up from an armchair as if she had been half-drowsing there, but only a few of the older teenagers were now sprawled on the sofa and the carpeted floor. She must have put the rest of the children to bed in the house’s three bedrooms, trying to maintain some semblance of a normal routine.
“You heard?” he asked quietly, setting down two grocery bags on the table beside the door.
Nora nodded, wearily brushing strands of long brown hair out of her face. “We were watching you all evening—I guess we got the news at the same time you did. It isn’t a coincidence, is it?”
“I don’t see how it can be. Stryker was in charge of Erik’s prison facility—and Kitty also told us Charles had gone to visit him.” Hank paused. “But I’ll tell you one thing, Nora: I wouldn’t like to be Stryker at this moment. He’s already had enough to worry about, if any of the X-Men are still free and searching for him. But with Erik on the loose, spoiling for vengeance…”
“It almost sounds like he’s on our side this time,” Nora said, with the faintest shadow of a smile.
“I wouldn’t go that far. Erik always works to his own ends. If he can find some way to use what’s happened, he will.”
Hank grimaced, remembering the days when Erik Lehnsherr had been a friend—and the helplessness of watching that friend sink into depths of bitterness and hate. He had once admired Erik’s brilliant mind second only to Charles’ own, but somewhere along the way, the heart that guided the mind had become twisted. If Charles hadn’t recognized what was happening to him, surely Hank could not have; but somehow, he still felt there was more he could have done.
After a moment he shook his head, pushing away those old feelings of futility, and brought his mind back to the small things that could be done in the here and now. He glanced back over his shoulder, toward the car parked in the driveway.
“I’ll bring in the rest of the bags.”
Nora’s cooking provided the students with a fresh, hot breakfast the next morning, but many of them ate sparingly. Some were still exhibiting clear signs of shock, and the two adults handled them gently, keeping them warm and quiet and secure. Kitty and Peter shouldered almost as much of the responsibility, trying to entertain and reassure the younger children. Hank was grateful for the pair; already he could see in them the makings of future X-Men.
He spent the morning making another round of phone calls, but on this day it seemed there was even less to be learned. No one had heard from Charles and his people, or Magneto, or Stryker himself. Even Bobby had not called back. From all of Hank’s sources, and within his own heart, he felt an ominous sense that the entire world was simply waiting for something to happen.
And it happened shortly before noon, when he was halfheartedly helping Nora prepare sandwiches for lunch.
In those final moments before his life changed, he was watching with a sad and detached kind of amusement as Nora spread peanut butter and jelly. She handled a butterknife in the kitchen or a scalpel in the lab with the same deliberate precision; yet somehow, in this setting, he still found himself looking at her differently. In the past they had shared both business and pleasure, but what he felt now was something new—something so basic, so natural, that it made his heart ache. The work of protecting and providing seemed to create an almost primal bond, more intimate than anything he had ever felt before.
It’s a fine time to be playing house, Henry, he chided himself with a frown.
Nora noticed his troubled expression, and her lips twitched in bemusement. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh… nothing.” Hank smiled solemnly. “I was just thinking… that you’re very beautiful.”
The pensive curve of Nora’s lips began to resolve into a faint smile. She reached for his hand—a movement that was checked when they heard first one cry of alarm, and then another, and another.
Their startled eyes met for only an instant before they rushed into the living room, to find the children clutching at their heads and crying out in pain.
Incredibly, impossibly, their mutations seemed to be turning back upon themselves. Peter lay groaning on the floor, random patches of his skin shifting rapidly between its normal and armored states. Kitty clawed for a handhold she could not grasp, as she helplessly phased in and out of solidity. The lights and television flickered in time with the seizures that gripped Jones. All of the children, in their own ways, were suffering the same torment.
Before Hank could comprehend what he was seeing, he felt it himself. He felt the power that reached deep into his brain, clutching, squeezing, twisting it—the power of a mind whose touch, after so many years, he could easily recognize.
“Charles…!” he gasped, with the last of his breath.
Suddenly the pain in his head was overtaken by an astonishing new agony. It shot through his body and pitched him to the floor, wracking his whole powerful frame with spasms so violent that Nora—the only one of them unaffected—could not come close to him. He distantly heard her call his name, but he could not answer her.
His hands felt strange and heavy, and through his convulsions, he stared at them in frightened bewilderment. He watched the flesh of his palms turn hard and rough, not unlike the paw pads of an animal; he watched his fingernails grow longer and darker, curving into short, pointed gray talons.
A shocking blue pigmentation began to spread across his skin. It came on like a burning rash at first, pinpricks joining together into spots, and then blotches, until every inch of him had been consumed by the color—and as quickly as those vivid patches seared through his flesh, they sprouted shafts of coarse blue hair that lengthened and matted into a dense coat of fur. Beneath it, his muscles rippled and bulked with sudden, painful violence, splitting the seams of his shirt.
He cried out, and the sound was an animal’s tortured howl, his lips drawn back from canine teeth that had grown long and sharp.
Somehow the pain in his head had ceased, but the very different pain of metamorphosis continued. Beneath fur and flesh, all his insides seemed to writhe, bones and sinews twisting themselves into new arrangements. His facial features grew harder and sharper, deepening into half-simian crags that bore only the faintest resemblance to the face he had once possessed.
Finally, mercifully, it ended. His convulsions stilled; the burning pain faded, leaving only the dull twinging of stressed muscles, and the itching irritation of fur freshly broken through skin. It was over… but for the moment, he could do nothing more than lay dazed and gasping after that cataclysmic exertion of his body. A manifestation that should naturally have taken hours or days had occurred in mere minutes, and every fiber of his being was brutally spent.
At some point in the terror he had closed his eyes tightly, but after a long moment, he felt Nora moving to his side—and he felt her hesitation, just for a heartbeat, before she touched his face. Her voice cracked as she whispered his name, her hands slowly moving downward to rest over his heart. She moved with the numb mindlessness of shock, smoothing the new fur beneath the tatters of his shirt, as half-wordless murmurs of comfort fell from her trembling lips.
A part of Hank wanted to turn away from her, but he merely lay still, paralyzed by exhaustion and pain.
The students were slowly recovering from their own trauma. Hank reluctantly opened one eye and glimpsed a few of them, still unsteady and trying to catch their breath, even as they stared at him in fearful wonder. With a shudder he retreated once more into the darkness behind his eyelids. He was all too aware of the emotions that caused the tremor—emotions unworthy of the children’s presence. No one could understand better than they what he had just experienced.
But he was still only human. If he had not felt that first instinctive upwelling of revulsion and shame within him then, perhaps he would not have been.
Beside him, he heard Nora gasp sharply.
His eyes flew open in time to see her slim figure wrench back from him, her hands gripping her skull as if to tear out a thing that had invaded it. The nearest students flinched away as she crumpled to the floor beside Hank, sobbing and writhing in a weak, impotent human equivalent to the torture they had suffered only moments before. This time they were unafflicted; only Nora felt it now.
By a raw effort of will, Hank rose to his knees in a sudden upheaval, gathering Nora into his arms. For that moment there was no hesitation. He cradled her shaking body against his blue-furred barrel chest, staring up toward the ceiling in helpless rage.
“No, Charles, no!”
The voice was not his own as he had known it, and his futile protest trailed into the roar of something inhuman.
His plea was not answered instantly… but it was answered. In a few more moments, Nora’s desperate thrashing ceased, and her cries fell silent as her breathing grew more steady. He felt one final shudder pass through her, and then her body relaxed.
At first her stillness almost frightened Hank. Then she turned her head slightly, burying her face against the solid bulwark of his shoulder, and he felt the warm dampness of tears soaking into his fur.
He let go of her abruptly, almost pushing her away, and sank back brokenly into a half-shadowed corner of the room.
Abandoned in the middle of the floor, Nora curled into herself, her head lowered and her arms wrapped around her knees. For a time there were no words spoken. Hank’s heavy, aching breaths, and the quiet sobs of Nora and a few of the children, were the only sounds to be heard.
Naturally and understandably, it was the children who began to break the silence first.
“M-Miss Tanner?” It was the child who had slept on Nora’s lap the day before. She inched across the carpet, hesitantly touching the elbow of her trusted guardian, and her voice quivered with the tears she bravely held back. “What’s going on? What happened to us?—What happened to—?”
Nora raised her head sharply enough to make the girl flinch, but her expression softened as she wiped her eyes and clasped the small hand that lay on her arm. “I don’t know, Kristen.”
“I know what happened.”
Hank was faintly surprised to hear coherent words formed by the deep and unfamiliar voice that was now his own. Some purely clinical part of his mind was still thinking—with a strange and perfect clarity. He felt every gaze in the room turn toward him, and impulsively looked away from their wondering eyes with a grimace.
“You said… Charles,” Nora said haltingly, shifting a little closer to him. “You mean… Professor Xavier?”
“I see it all now. That was what Stryker wanted at the school. It wasn’t enough just to take Charles; he had to have Cerebro.” Hank reluctantly turned to meet her eyes. “Somehow… somehow he used Charles, just now. Used him to attack every mutant on the face of the earth…”
A few horrified gasps escaped from the older students, who understood what this meant. Nora drew a breath to respond, but Hank went on.
“Something went wrong. Someone interfered, or Charles fought back, and for a moment his mind was turned against ordinary humans instead… like you, Nora.”
Her eyes filled with pain and bewilderment, Nora swallowed hard. “But… but you, Hank…”
“A latent secondary mutation.” His voice became dull and toneless. “You’ve seen it in some of our patients. The emergence of an additional power or change is often brought on by a shock of some kind. Whatever happened, it’s only triggered what was in my DNA already… and if I’m right…”
He hesitated. Then, closing his eyes, he concluded in a deep sigh.
“I won’t be the only one.”
There was a moment’s silence. Then Kitty suddenly pushed herself up from the floor where she had been kneeling, and went to the television set. It had gone black at some point during Jones’ convulsions, but it came to life when she turned the power on—and a live news report was unfolding on the screen at that very moment. The facts filtering through from a pale and shaken news anchor supported every word Hank had said.
Simultaneously, across the world, a mysterious and painful assault upon mutants… and then humans. Reports of new mutations manifesting, or of secret existing mutations being suddenly exposed—witnesses could make no distinction, and certainly there had been countless instances of both. And perhaps worst of all, news of deaths from heart attack and stroke and organ failure, when ordinary humans with health conditions were overcome by the telepathic attack.
For a long time, the students and their two guardians sat or sprawled wherever they were, listening in horror and grief as the true scope of the tragedy became clear. The rational part of Hank’s mind that could still function was torn between the fear of another attack, and the hope that its interruption meant the X-Men had intervened; but for his own part, he knew he could do nothing now. Even if he could think of some useful action to take, he was in no condition for it. His transformation had burned every ounce of energy he had, and it would be days before he fully recovered—physically, at least.
As for reaching out to his sources of information… at this point, he couldn’t even think about the task of convincing them that this animal hulk was the Henry McCoy they had known.
When twilight fell that evening, Hank was still hunched limply in the corner of the living room. He had not moved from that spot for the entire afternoon—and while his exhausted body adjusted, he wasn’t sure he could have, even if he had wanted to. To stir even slightly was to invite a dull ache that throbbed through every part of him.
Nora, Kitty, and Peter had taken on the full burden of restoring order, and they did what they could to comfort the younger children. Perhaps to preoccupy her own mind as much as to accomplish a helpful task, Nora even went dazedly through the motions of cooking dinner. As for Hank, he was left alone to heal, and the students spoke in hushed voices around him. They knew far too well the pain of manifestation, and respected his need for physical and emotional distance.
And the changes in him had not yet completely ceased.
As the hours passed, he became conscious that his senses were growing sharper. His close-range eyesight was not perceptibly altered—he had needed reading glasses for several years now—but his distance vision seemed to be improving. More significantly, his senses of smell and hearing were intensified to an acuteness he had never imagined. With this came an entirely new level of innate, half-conscious awareness, a set of instincts that enabled him to interpret the myriad scents and sounds he had never known before. He was grateful that this development, at least, came more slowly; had its onset been quicker, the sudden flood of unfamiliar sensory input would have overwhelmed him.
Yet there was another side to those new instincts, as well: a thing that existed in murky depths between emotion and simple reflex, strange and primal half-feelings that stirred in reaction to almost every scent and sound and movement around him. It heightened his physical alertness, but to his conscious mind, it was an unnerving distraction.
There was something purely animal within him now, and it felt disquietingly at odds with his human mind.
Just after seven o’clock, Nora leaned over him. He could taste the scent of her, so intimately familiar to him even before; and in that newly feral portion of his being, it stirred a desire that frightened him. He closed his eyes and turned his face away.
“Hank…” Nora hesitated, and then her hand came to rest lightly on his shoulder. “Please. You’ve got to eat something. You’ll be sick if you don’t get some nutrition into your system.”
The thought of moving from his darkened corner made Hank cringe, as if it meant stepping irrevocably into a nightmare he had still somehow hoped to awaken from. Nevertheless, he knew Nora was right. After the devastating stress his body had endured, he needed nourishment—and he did feel hunger. His new instincts reacted to the thought of food with a fierce craving, and it was a sentiment that even his distraught mind could not argue with.
Slowly, reluctantly, he uncurled himself, wincing at the pain in his strained muscles. With the raw power they harbored, it was almost laughable that he felt like a feeble old man. Nora put her hand under his arm to help him up, and he was too unsteady to resist the aid.
Only when he gingerly straightened to his full height did Nora give a start. She did not quite let go of his arm, but he felt the surprised quiver of her fingers. Glancing down at her face, he understood just as quickly what she had realized: until today he had been only slightly taller than her, but his transformation had added another three or four inches to his height. Coupled with its sheer heaviness of muscle, his new body was a behemoth.
Embarrassed and upset, he turned away from Nora. He looked down at his hands, giving them the first semblance of real scrutiny: flexing thick blue fingers, touching leathery palms, dazedly testing the sharpness of vicious talons. Those hands felt enormous and clumsy—and at least for the present, he knew they were. He would be able to retrain them for refined tasks in time, but first he would have to adapt to their size and power.
He lowered his hands to further regard himself, and his gut gave an involuntary twist at the sight of the deep blue fur that bulged through his torn clothes. His shirt was practically in rags, and although his trousers had at least held together well enough to preserve decency, massive thigh and calf muscles now swelled through burst seams. With a pang he thought of the closetful of exquisitely tailored suits that had been his one vain indulgence, and he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
Instead he glanced hesitantly at Nora, and forced the ghost of a broken smile that felt strange on his altered face.
“I think… I should find some other clothes,” he murmured demurely, making a half-hearted effort to straighten the remains of his shirt.
Nora’s eyes brimmed again with sympathetic tears, but she nodded slightly. “Do you want me to help?”
“No,” Hank answered quickly. Then he swallowed hard and shook his head. “No. I… I want to be alone, Nora… when I see myself.”
A tear spilled onto Nora’s cheek then, and she reached up, caressing his face. Her touch felt different now, through the thick mane of bristles along his jaw… but not unpleasantly so.
Animal feelings stirred again, and Hank turned away quickly, moving toward the bedrooms to find his clothes.
With the density of muscle that had given him his original enhanced strength, Hank’s figure had not been slight even before his change. Still, in the haphazard pile of clothing he had thrown into his suitcase on the previous night, he feared there would be nothing that could fit his now tremendous frame; but he was in luck. He found the sweat pants he wore to bed, and a sweater Nora had given him for Christmas, both of which he tentatively judged would stretch well enough to survive careful wearing. Certainly they would never be the same again—but at the moment, reassembling his wardrobe was the least of his problems.
The first problem, the most immediate, the one he had to confront before he could focus on anything else… was the task of facing himself.
With his chosen clothes draped over his arm, he walked down the hall to the bathroom, like a condemned man being led to the gallows. He couldn’t think about what he was going to find there—couldn’t let himself think about it. In his mind, he scrounged for every scrap of platitude he had given to patients struggling to cope with a visible mutation: It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s simply a unique and extraordinary work of nature. It doesn’t change who you are in any way that matters.
Now that he truly knew how it felt to be marked as different for all the world to see, he was disgusted with himself for peddling such comfortless drivel.
The bathroom lay in evening darkness. Hank stepped inside, and with gravely deliberate slowness, he closed the door behind him. He switched on the light, and drew a deep breath… and at last, slowly, he turned to face the mirror.
In the living room and the kitchen, the students cringed at the savage roar of anguish that penetrated the walls; but Nora only sank her head into her hands and wept.
Hank was still capable of tears, as well. For a long time after that first real glimpse of himself, he vented them in deep, choking sobs of grief, their wetness streaming down his blue-skinned face and into his fur. He leaned his head against the wall, and his claws dug into clenched fists as he shook with a purely human sorrow. His primitive new instincts contributed nothing to this release; loss and despair and violation were far more sophisticated emotions.
When the tears finally subsided, and he had become calm, he scrubbed at his eyes with a white towel. It came away with strands of rough blue hair clinging to it, and he stared numbly at them.
At last he turned back to the mirror, and was able to swallow down the fresh lump that rose in his throat. Slowly he peeled off the ruined scraps of his clothes, and regarded the alien thing that was now Henry McCoy.
Some part of him had to admit that as a doctor, if he had observed this mutation in a patient, he would have been impressed—perhaps even admiring, in certain ways. Hesitantly he ran his hands over his body and limbs, feeling the muscular solidness beneath the unnaturally-colored fur. Once he recovered from the manifestation, he would be stronger than ever… and far more agile than he had first expected. That was evident in the subtle new configurations of muscle and bone, the increased flexibility of his joints. His leg sinews were wired for powerful leaps, and his arms had an extension and grip meant for climbing. Given time to adjust, his build promised an inhuman adeptness of movement that seemed at once both simian and feline.
His gaze drifted upward, and as he recalled the once-red hair he had formerly been losing at a dismaying rate, he swept his fingers through the luxuriant blue mane he now possessed. A crookedness that was not quite a pained smile crossed his lips. At least that’s one change I can very happily live with.
But his face…
Hank finally met the gaze of his reflection. His eyes were all that remained unchanged: palest aquamarine, clear and intelligent and desperately human.
He touched his face with the tip of one claw, tracing the hawkish nose, the jaw framed by whiskers of Victorian proportions, the deeply etched lines and shadows around eyes and mouth. Here and there, he could still find some trace of the features that had been his. Familiar creases of thoughtfulness between the now-heavy brows, lines of old and very far-away laughter at the corners of the lips; these were all his own, created not by genetics, but by time and the rich experience of life.
The rest, however, belonged to something out of a frightening fairytale.
He bared his teeth—an action that gave him, quite unintentionally, an expression of savage fierceness. For the first time, he looked at the sharp cuspids he had already felt inside his mouth, gingerly probing their points with his tongue.
My, what big teeth you have, Grandmother.
He laughed without humor and leaned against the sink, hanging his head. For a moment, he bitterly savored the vast, grand irony of it all: Beast they had called him, and a beast he was now in fact. He didn’t need to test his abilities to know that he had become something lethal, a superbly designed predator.
The question was just how well his sensitive intellect could tame the restless animal lurking in the shadows of his psyche.
Already he could think of a hundred medical tests he wanted to perform on himself—and not out of any mere scientific curiosity. He wondered what sorts of hormones were now flooding his system. Surely they played a role in the incessant instinctive reactions flickering through his nerves, and perhaps…
Hank shook his head abruptly. No.
There was a reason why those instincts had been coded into his genes. They were ingrained upon the natural balance of his new being, a part of the way this body was meant to function—as much a part of him now as the fur and claws. If he sought some medical means of suppressing them, he would be contradicting nature, as well as betraying everything he had ever tried to teach his patients.
And everything Charles Xavier had once taught him.
His jaw tightened as he raised his eyes to the mirror once more, fixing a defiant gaze upon the merciless glass.
This is what I am, and where I stand… and I will never be sorry for it.
Hank deliberately turned away from the mirror and began to dress. His powerhouse figure strained the confines of the clothes, but his only real discomfort came from having his fur rubbed the wrong way by sleeves and pant legs—as evidenced by the blue hairs that poked haphazardly through the fabric, in spite of his best efforts to smooth them. To his surprise, the clothing on top of his coat of fur did not make him too warm, and even those ill-fitting garments did not intolerably restrict his new range of motion.
He gave his reflection only one more cursory glance, knowing well enough the absurdity of the too-tight coverings. It was a trifle compared to the strangeness of his own face and body. He was sure that even the students who had faced mutation themselves, and Nora who had studied it for years, would need time to become used to him as he was now. For a while he could expect them to stare when he wasn’t looking, and have difficulty looking him in the eye. It was the understandable response of human nature, and he silently forgave them in advance.
At last, heaving a deep sigh, Hank stepped out of the bathroom. His body still ached as he moved slowly down the hall, to the kitchen and the adjoining dining room. This part of the house was fragrant with the rich, comforting aroma of chicken soup, a recipe Nora had learned from her grandmother—and without really understanding how, Hank found himself clearly differentiating the scents of individual vegetables and spices. His empty stomach proved itself to be quite unconcerned with his emotional state, and gave a hearty rumble of anticipation.
Most of the students, having already eaten as much dinner as they could be coaxed to, were in the living room with Kitty and Peter. Only a few of the youngest and most clinging children sat around the table with Nora, who had barely touched her own meal.
When Hank appeared in the doorway, Nora gave a barely-perceptible start. She began to rise, but he smiled hollowly and made a slight staying gesture. He collected a bowl from the cabinet, and—after a moment’s awkward consideration—he chose a serving spoon from the silverware drawer. The large utensil nonetheless felt small in his huge hands, and he moved hesitantly as he ladled soup into the bowl. He even felt half-skeptical of the high-backed wooden chairs that suddenly seemed so spindly and fragile, but the empty seat across the table from Nora bore his weight with barely a creak.
One advantage to his heightened sense of smell, at least, was its natural consequence of enhancing his sense of taste. He had enjoyed Nora’s cooking often, but now he perceived nuances he never had before, and he could appreciate each separate ingredient to the most minute level. Had his mind and heart not been so distressed, it could have been the most enjoyable meal he had ever eaten—and experienced gourmand that he was, a small part of him couldn’t help but look forward to exploring many other dishes on this wondrous new level.
Few words were spoken during the meal. Nora gently encouraged the children to eat, and now and then one of them would pipe up with some bit of randomness, as children do; otherwise, they sat in a silence that was inescapably heavy with awkwardness and worried tension. It was uncomfortable for Hank, but he sensed he had little to do with those feelings, at least on the children’s part. Strange mutations were nothing new or terrible to them, even when it happened before their eyes. What they really feared was that another phantom attack of violent suffering might come… and at that moment, he could hardly have promised them that it wouldn’t.
As for Nora, he felt her eyes upon him many times as he ate, but she managed to be preoccupied with one of the children each time he looked up at her. Now that the urgent shock of the day’s events was fading, he suspected she was trying to come to terms privately with what he had become, much as he had wanted to be alone when he faced himself. He understood that, but even so, it left him troubled and torn.
He wished she would meet his eyes, but at the same time, he didn’t want her to look at his brutish face. A part of him wanted a chance to talk with her alone… and a part of him feared that more than anything.
After putting away three helpings of soup, he felt a little better, at least physically. With careful movements he pushed back from the table, reaching out to pick up his empty bowl—but Nora stood quickly and gathered it herself, along with her own bowl that was barely half-empty. “Let me.”
Gingerly turning sideways on his chair, Hank watched her move to the sink in the adjoining kitchen, and listened to the splash of running water under the faucet. With unthinking, mechanical movements, she washed the dishes and set them aside to dry. Then she turned back, and finally met his gaze.
He wanted to look away from the dark apprehension in her eyes, but he did not permit himself that retreat.
“What happens now?” she asked quietly.
Hank gazed at her gently, and his vast shoulders lifted in a shrug. “We do the best we can. We… adapt.” He let out a faint, flat chuckle, staring down at the palm of his left hand. Then his eyes returned to hers.
“The most important thing is still to be here, taking care of the students. Unless we get word from the other X-Men, or even Bobby and Rogue, I don’t think there’s anything to be done tonight. Tomorrow I’ll start fresh in the search for answers.”
Nora flinched slightly and stepped toward him, automatically reaching out to place her hand on his. “You won’t—leave, will you?”
For a brief moment, Hank consciously considered withdrawing from her touch. Then he rejected the idea, and turned his hand over to grip her fingers—lightly, for fear of hurting her with his claws or his untested new strength.
“You know better than anyone that I can’t hide here forever.” He smiled sadly, and shook his head before Nora could reply. “But no—I’m not going anywhere tomorrow. For that matter, after what’s happened… I’m afraid no obvious mutant may be safe in public for a little while.”
The green-skinned boy seated beside Hank, who was old enough to understand this suggestion of danger, let out a slight whimper. Nora made a soothing noise and reached out with her free hand, hugging the child’s head against her.
Hank was silent for a moment, regarding her keenly. For the first time, he questioned why she had so willingly chosen to make herself a part of his world: the mutant world, with all its strangeness and uncertainty. Whether it could really have been because of him…
Or at least, because of what he had been.
“You don’t have to share in this, you know,” he said solemnly.
Her gaze turned back to him, and with a melancholy smile in return, she squeezed his hand. “Now you’re the one who knows better.”
A fresh and very human ache stirred in Hank’s heart. He took a breath to speak, although he was not quite sure of what he would say.
Then they heard the telephone ring.
It took Hank and Nora all of two seconds to reach the living room, but by that time, Kitty had already caught up the receiver. The safe house had a special private number, and there was very little chance that any call they received could be accidental or unwanted.
“Hello?” the teenager gasped breathlessly—and as she listened to the reply on the other end of the line, her eyes brimmed with tears. “Oh, yes, Professor!”
Hank’s heart took a dizzy tumble inside his chest, and he sat down hard on the armchair behind him, causing its springs to creak violently. Nora gave a start, and moved as if to step toward Kitty—but Hank caught her hand and held it. As she turned to him, he made a small gesture with his other hand: wait.
Kitty listened for a moment, then said into the phone, “Yeah, the rest of us are all here, and we’re okay.” She hesitated slightly. “Doctor McCoy and Miss Tanner have been with us the whole time.”
There was another pause, and then she cupped her hand over the mouthpiece, turning to look somewhat uncertainly at Hank. “The Professor wants to talk to you.”
For a long moment, Hank struggled internally. He couldn’t bear the thought of explaining to Charles what had become of him. At least not this way, over the phone, in mere awkward words—especially not when the Professor surely knew the pain that had swept the world that morning, and needed no more guilt added to that burden. If Hank spoke to him, Charles might hear the change in his voice, or sense it in some other way. Having guessed already that his friend had endured unspeakable suffering of his own in those two days, Hank longed to spare them both what grief he could, at least for a little while longer.
But he had to know.
Reluctantly Hank reached out, accepting the receiver from Kitty, and tried to lighten his voice to something that at least resembled its former tones. “Charles—this is Henry.”
“Henry… thank God.” There was an underlying strain of ragged weariness in Charles’ voice. “Are you and the children alright?”
“…Yes.” It took a moment to push the lie—which it was, at least where Hank was concerned—past his lips. “Tell me what happened, Charles.”
The Professor’s words confirmed the theory Hank had postulated. “It was Stryker. He planned to use Cerebro—to use me… to destroy every mutant on Earth.” A trembling breath escaped from the older man. “The others stopped it… with Erik’s help.”
A disquieted feeling crept through Hank’s heart. He remembered the way Nora alone was struck by the second wave of the telepathic attack, and it suddenly made a terrible kind of sense. The suspicion arose in him that at that moment, he understood more of the real story than Charles himself did.
“I suspected as much,” he answered carefully, still trying to keep his voice level. “Where are you now?”
“We’ve returned to the school.” A heavy silence held for a moment, and then Charles added quietly, “Except for Jean.”
Hank nearly dropped the receiver, and for a brief moment, the guttural new undertones of his voice were unmasked.
Jean Grey was not only a friend to Hank, but one of his most valued scientific colleagues. It was because of him that she chose to become a doctor herself—and he had done so much to guide her that she became almost his own pupil, in spite of the relatively small difference between their ages. So often they had worked together in the labs beneath the Xavier School, researching the diverse mutations of the students, seeking to understand and prepare for the unique physical needs and abilities of each one. Then too, her own powers intrigued him; she was hesitant to test them, but he had always felt she was capable of more than they imagined.
The thought that she was gone—she, with such power unrealized, yet unable to save herself—felt like a physical blow to him.
“I’m sorry, Henry,” Charles said softly. “It may be difficult to understand, but Jean made a choice… and she saved the rest of our lives.”
Hank swallowed hard, and tried to compose himself. “I do understand, Charles—I know Jean. It’s exactly what she would have done. How is Scott?”
Charles hesitated grimly. “Not well.”
A pang of sympathetic pain thumped in Hank’s chest. Before he could say anything, Charles went on, in a tone of drained dispassion born out of sheer emotional and physical exhaustion.
“Our abducted students are safe, but the school was severely damaged during Stryker’s invasion. It will take us some time to restore it. There are… certain things here, that children should not have to see.” He paused. “If you or Miss Tanner have no urgent plans, I would appreciate it very much if one or both of you could stay at the safe house, with the students who are there now.”
“Yes, I… I think that would be best, for the time being.” Hank gazed down morosely at his blue hand for a moment, then steeled himself. “If you want to send over the children you have there…”
“I’ll ask them. I’m afraid they’ve seen things far worse than the damage here… but I think some of them may choose to stay and help.” Charles paused. “In the meantime, if there’s anything you need…”
“Nothing just now.” Only time.
“Alright.” Charles hesitated, and a faint, uncharacteristic note of wistfulness crept into his voice. “There’s a great deal I want to tell you, Henry. If you want to come for the children here yourself—”
“No.” Hank’s answer was just a little too sharp, too alarmed. He caught himself at the end of the word, but he could hear and feel the tangible change of Charles’ demeanor over the phone.
“Henry… what’s wrong?”
And across the two miles between the safe house and the school, Hank felt the tentative, inquisitive touch of Charles Xavier’s mind.
It was neither furtive nor forceful, and by no means meant to be. Charles knew that after their years of friendship, Hank had developed a certain awareness of his telepathic contact. Instead it was a silent question, in search of an answer that was equally beyond words.
“Please, Charles,” Hank said quickly, mentally shrinking back from that tendril of concern and curiosity. It was not the most tactful of reactions; he knew Charles would sense his psychic cringe, and might even interpret it as meaning that Hank was afraid of him. That was not the case, and in a clumsy effort to cover his distress, he fumbled for the words to reassure his mentor of that.
“It’s just… been a very difficult day. For you even more than for myself, I’m sure. We do have a lot to talk about… but I think it will all be more clear for us both when you’ve had a chance to rest.”
He could almost feel the Professor’s troubled uncertainty—but the gentle probe vanished.
“Perhaps.” Although deep concern still lingered in Charles’ voice, he spoke patiently. “Alright, then. In a short while, Ororo will bring you any of the students here who would rather stay at the safe house.”
“We’ll be expecting them,” Hank acknowledged.
There was a long and unsettled silence then, as if Charles wanted to say or ask something more, but he wasn’t sure whether he should. At last Hank broke the spell, with words that carried the weight of a promise—to his teacher, and to himself.
“I’ll see you soon, Charles.”
After concluding his conversation with Charles, Hank faced the difficult task of explaining to Nora and the children that Jean Grey was gone. He gently did so, and went on to comfort the students as they mourned their beloved teacher. For him, there was at least some strange relief in this duty; it forced him to set aside his own anguished feelings.
Except when little Kristen chose to crawl into his lap and cling to his neck, heedless of his blue fur and savage countenance. In the face of that innocent trust and acceptance, Hank somehow avoided tears—but he wasn’t at all sure how he managed it.
Less than an hour after the phone call, there came a knock at the door in the familiar code. Hank started and quickly stood up, setting Kristen on her feet as he did so. Nora rose as well, and looked at him uncertainly.
“You see Ororo,” he said softly, and shook his head. “Jean was her best friend. I… I can’t add this to her burden yet.”
Perhaps it was only a convenient excuse, but it sounded reasonable enough.
Without waiting for Nora’s response, Hank turned and stepped into the dining room, where he uneasily sank onto one of the chairs at the table. His newly acute hearing detected every sound as Nora unlocked and unbolted the front door, then opened it to let Ororo and her charges into the house.
There was a painting on the dining room wall; one of the muted Renaissance landscapes Charles liked, but a mere art print, pedestrian enough to be mounted in an ordinary glass-fronted frame. It caught Hank’s eye, and he realized that its blurred reflection captured a large part of the living room beyond the doorway. With a dull pain in his heart, he watched the anxious reunions between the students who had been there the entire time, and those who had just arrived. It was a confusion of tears and embraces and voices speaking all at once, assuring each other they were alright, or asking and answering as to the welfare of the few students who remained behind at the school.
In the midst of them, Nora stood clasping Ororo’s hands in a somber greeting. Even in the glass, Hank could see the raw weariness of the dark-skinned beauty, and he hurt deeply for her. Ororo was a dear friend, and he knew her well enough to know the fragility behind her mask of regal strength.
With surprisingly little effort, he identified her voice through the high-strung chatter of the children. “Bobby and Rogue are still at the school. So is Artie. That’s all of them… except John. The Professor… he said he went with Magneto.”
Hank scowled to himself. He had always known that cinder-headed boy would be trouble.
“Where’s Hank?” Ororo asked suddenly, as a quivering note of unease crept into her already strained voice.
Nora answered quickly, in a reassuring tone. “He went out to get some groceries—now that we’ll have more mouths to feed. He didn’t think you’d be here this soon.”
With a vague nod, Ororo seemed to accept that explanation, rubbing her arms and looking restlessly around the room. “We brought some other clothes and things. Most of the dorms aren’t… aren’t too bad. Peter, would you…?” she asked haltingly—and her hand trembled as she held out her keys to him.
“Dah.” Peter took the keys and went out, with Kitty following him.
“You look exhausted.” Nora put her hands on Ororo’s shoulders. She glanced quickly toward the dining room, then asked the younger woman, “Why don’t you stay here a little while, and try to get some decent rest away from… all that?”
“No. I can’t.” Ororo shook her head. “There’s too much to do. The kids who are still there have to be taken care of. And… and Scott…”
The unbreakable façade of the weather goddess began to crumble. Nora reached out to hug her then, and Ororo wept on her shoulder; one of the most powerful mutants Hank had ever known, seeking comfort from an ordinary human whose only power was an open heart. His own heart broke all over again at the sight, and he looked away from the reflected image of grief.
Evidently the students also felt an instinctive impulse to give the two women privacy and distance. Most of them moved uncomfortably toward the hallway and the bedrooms beyond—perhaps herded there by those who knew that Hank had taken refuge in the dining room.
Jubilation Lee, on the other hand, made straight for the kitchen… but the dining room lay between herself and any possibility of a comforting candy stash in the cabinets.
Hank heard her coming, and he looked up sharply just as she stepped through the doorway. She was fully three steps into the room before she noticed him; then she froze in slow motion as her brain translated what her eyes were seeing, and a faint, inarticulate noise caught in her throat. His pulse quickening, Hank desperately gestured for her to be quiet.
She stared at him in a paralysis of shock for a long moment. Then, miraculously, she gave a small, stiff nod.
He watched her keenly as she edged closer to him. Her eyes were wide and frightened, as if she was afraid he would suddenly pounce on her and tear her to pieces.
“Doctor McCoy?” she whispered breathlessly.
Intrigued that she could recognize him at all, he gazed up at her with a sad smile. “Yes, Jubilee… it’s me. Wait a little while—you’ll hear what’s happened to me, when the others do.”
“I… I think I understand already.” Jubilee looked inward with a grimace, touching her fingertips to her temple. Hank knew she was remembering the terrible pain of that morning’s psychic assault… and then, to his surprise, her fingers hesitantly came to rest upon his.
For a long, pondering moment, he gazed down at her slim smooth hand against his large, blue, hairy one. Then he raised his eyes to hers with somber gratitude in his smile, and she ducked her head with a feeble grin.
Keys rattled beyond the doorway, and Hank looked up again at the picture frame that was his portal to the goings-on in the living room. Peter and Kitty had returned, carrying duffel bags hastily stuffed with clothes and a few of the youngest children’s favorite toys—Hank could make out the protruding head of Kristen’s teddy bear. More or less composed by this time, Ororo pulled herself away from Nora and took back her car keys, then smiled brokenly at the nurse.
“Tell Hank I’m sorry I missed him,” she said softly, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “And I’ll really be glad to see him later.”
Hank’s heart thumped painfully. I wonder if you will…
When Ororo was gone, Nora locked and bolted the door, then hurried into the dining room. She stopped short when she saw Jubilee at Hank’s side. “Oh… I’m sorry, Hank, I—”
“It’s alright, Nora.” He gave her what passed for a small shrug on his large frame. Then he turned to the nervous teenager beside him.
“Tell the others who came with you about me, Jubilee. Tell them—what to expect. That will make it easier, when they see me in the morning.”
“If you want me to,” she said. Then her gaze dropped, and her words fumbled.
“I’m… I’m just… sorry, Doctor McCoy.”
“Don’t be.” Hank gave the girl a rueful smile. “This was always inside me, Jubilee. I’m not ashamed of it—just as I could never be ashamed of you, or Kitty, or Peter, or any of you. I’m proud of all of you… and I’m proud to be counted among you. Remember that.”
Jubilee’s eyes were suspiciously bright. She nodded slightly, glanced at Nora, and then quickly retreated from the room, leaving the two adults alone in an uncertain silence.
“You almost sounded like you meant it,” Nora said quietly after a moment.
Hank looked up sharply. “I do. Or at least… I will, when the shock has worn off, and I adjust to this. Perhaps some good will even come of it, in the end. My fight against discrimination will be…” He chuckled flatly. “Well, more meaningful than ever before. You know me, Nora. You know I’ll make the most of what I am—of everything I am. Just as I always have.”
“I’m sure of that, Hank. It’s only…” Nora hesitated. “I don’t want you to be afraid.”
For answer, Nora gently leaned her head against his, caressing his bristly cheek with the back of her hand. The touch was purely tender and sympathetic, rather than suggestive; but that made little difference to the feelings her closeness stirred in him.
When he instinctively turned his face away from her, Hank understood her meaning—but he couldn’t bear to admit it, to explain to her what he felt. Awkwardly he pushed away from the table and stood up, placing himself just beyond her reach.
“I think it will be best if I sleep in the garage tonight. I don’t want to startle any of our new boarders if they wander into the living room before morning. Besides… I want to be by myself for a little while.” He hesitated, and his shoulders slumped as he helplessly conceded to the sadness in her eyes. “I just need time, Nora.”
With an empty smile, Nora shrugged. “I know. Just… don’t forget that I’m here.”
Hank’s expression softened, and he stepped closer. After a hesitation, he permitted himself to touch Nora’s face, gently brushing his thumb against her cheek.
“Good night, Nora,” he said brusquely, and went out.
It was just as well that Hank spent the night with a solid wall between himself and the other occupants of the house. His rest was fitful, jagged with violent nightmares about his transformation. Many times he awakened, thrashing in their grip, his throat rough from his unconscious cries. Then, as he gazed at his hands and remembered that the nightmare had really happened, fresh tears would burn in his eyes.
He was ashamed of those tears—ashamed of being ashamed. The horror and despair he felt went against everything he had ever taught and believed about mutation.
Yet Hank had counseled enough newly emerged mutants to know this reaction was an inevitable phase. The shock of such a change could be nothing other than traumatic, but he was sure he possessed the awareness and resilience to make a healthy emotional recovery. Not all mutants could accept their changes, even when they were less pronounced than his; he blessed the education and experience that gave him an informed and reasoning perspective. In time, he would learn to live with the disadvantages of his condition—and to embrace its benefits.
Even so, his own ordeal brought him new enlightenment about his work. Now he was rediscovering, from the inside out, every struggle he had guided his patients through. He vowed to himself that he would give use and meaning to that painful new understanding.
Shortly before dawn he surrendered any further effort at sleeping, and crept back into the quiet house. In the kitchen he found Nora restlessly cooking breakfast. She looked pale and worn, and he knew she must have slept as little as he had, but she greeted him with a somber smile and an affectionate squeeze of his hand—at least after her initial startled flinch at the morning’s first glimpse of him. It was a reminder that the long process of adjustment was not his burden alone.
All along, Nora had shown her readiness to touch him, to prove to him that she wasn’t afraid. He only wished he could respond to her without his own fears getting in the way.
In spite of his emotional duress and lack of sleep, his physical healing had furthered itself. The soreness in his body was fading, the sharpness of his senses beginning to feel natural instead of dizzying. He could feel his strength recovering, as well, and he made every slight movement with scrupulous care. It would take time to adjust the conscious limits he imposed on his muscles—to relearn the amount of force he could exert without breaking things. A splintered workbench in the garage, the victim of his struggles against his nightmares, gave testimony already to his power.
Hank was not alone in facing bad dreams. The children who were rescued from Alkali Lake particularly endured a night of terrors, or wandered awake through the house just as he had predicted. According to Nora, Jubilee was the only one who passed the night quietly. She was the first student to rise that morning—and Hank was moved by her apparent impulse to look after him. She had explained his change to the others, as he requested. Now as savory aromas of sausage and eggs lured her classmates out from under the covers, Jubilee settled herself close by his side, her own trusting nearness meant to soften the alarm that was still unavoidable.
When the students began trickling into the dining room, they found Hank calmly bent over the newspaper with a cup of coffee, his old reading glasses clinging precariously to a craggy face they no longer quite fitted.
From the night’s newcomers who had not witnessed his change, there were the soft gasps and hesitations and stares Hank expected, as they confronted with their own eyes what Jubilee had described to them. Then, unfalteringly, each one sat down with him at the table, unafraid and accepting.
If Hank continued to receive a few lingering, morbidly fascinated gazes throughout breakfast, he didn’t mind. His heart was full. Even knowing what these young ones had been through in their own lives, he was humbled by their tolerance for intense changes in their world—the world their teachers had tried to build as a refuge, now so shockingly exposed as a small and fragile place.
His body might have changed, but his blue fur did not obscure the memory of his years as one of the vital pillars of that world. He remained the same Doctor McCoy who nursed bruises and told stories; the same Doctor McCoy who kept secret his knowledge of teenage pranks, and gave children with frightening new powers his shoulder to cry on. Although his life and work had taken him away from Xavier’s School for some time, he was remembered and loved—no matter what he looked like.
Perhaps now more than ever, when his appearance was certain to further remove him from the acceptance of ordinary society… and bring him closer than ever to them.
Slowly but surely, his regret of that singular fact had begun to die. His well-cultivated, carefully strategic social life among the intellectual and political elite had been useful but hollow, a thin mask designed to benefit the cause he served; but his heart had never been with those people. He knew his change would turn many of them away from him, but those who possessed compassion and understanding would witness in him the struggle of all mutants.
Now that he wore his nature on the surface, he would learn who his true friends were—and in a world so brutally shaken by the events of those last twenty-four hours, that knowledge seemed suddenly very important.
One day faded into seven days, and one week became two. As the cleanup and repair of Xavier’s School progressed, the students at the safe house began to drift back to the mansion, a few at a time. Hank and Nora continued to look after those who remained—but as the house grew steadily quieter and more empty, Hank felt ever more awareness of the duties and decisions that still lay ahead of him.
He was, at least, in a better condition to face those responsibilities, for his physical recovery was complete. Strained muscles healed, and were no longer sore. The initial riot of hormones in his system gradually settled at lower (if still permanently elevated) levels—and as his nerves grew calmer, so did his emotional state. Partially instinct-driven anxiety gave way to thoughtfulness and curiosity: his own familiar traits, which he once more proceeded to put to use. The suburban residence was hardly equipped for a clinical analysis, but he did his scientific best, filling a notebook with his detailed observations of himself.
Perforce of his claws, his handwriting became slightly altered.
On some nights he ventured into the wooded lot behind the house, there to explore his new strength and agility and acute senses. He marveled at each new discovery of his abilities—and he realized just how deeply his entire physicality had changed. Experimentally attempting a few of his old fighting moves, he found them hopelessly clumsy and slow, incompatible with his new ways of moving and reacting. When he let go of his years of past danger room training, and instead trusted his nascent instincts, what emerged was a raw primal force: elegant, powerful, with the savage grace of an animal. It was one of the most exhilarating things he had ever experienced… and more than a little frightening.
By contrast, other occurrences during those two weeks helped him feel a little more human. When Nora went out to buy groceries one day, she was gone much longer than Hank expected—and he was brought close to tears when she returned with half a closet’s worth of new clothes for him. He was sure they must have run to a massive expense; they were the largest sizes she could buy off the rack, and almost everything fitted him at least passably. Perhaps the plain shirts and trousers were not the immaculate designer suits of his old life, but it still made him feel a great deal better to be presentably dressed again.
He would not have admitted it to himself… but there were some moments when those days felt strangely peaceful. The pressures of research and politics were a world away from the safe house, which had come to feel almost homelike even after all that had happened there. His ongoing emotional conflict aside, he had nothing more important to do than play with the younger children, and help Nora in the kitchen, and carry out an assortment of household chores. In a distant-seeming past, he might have found such a commonplace routine to be dull and even somewhat unbecoming, but now it held a reassuring comfort. He had lived his life immersed in the deepest complexities of man and nature, and thought he knew nearly as much of both as anyone could; but an existence stripped to such perfect simplicity was a revelation to him.
Yet the broken world outside could not be dismissed forever—and there came a bright Sunday morning when he was forced to face that fact.
“The rest of the children will have to go back to the school today,” Nora said quietly at breakfast.
Hank’s heart skipped a beat as he looked up from the morning paper, tipping his glasses down his nose to regard Nora somberly across the table.
They were alone in the dining room. It was barely past sunrise, and the five youngest students of Xavier’s who still remained in the house were not yet awake. For the past three mornings it had been this way, with both adults speaking little in those quiet hours; he was afraid to break the spell of those days of rest, and she was too considerate to rush him. He was all too aware of how much remained to be said and done, but he still couldn’t imagine where to begin.
Now, however, there was no avoiding it. On the phone the night before, Ororo had told them regular classes would resume on Monday. It was time for the last of the students to leave the safe house—and that meant there would be no more reason for their temporary guardians to remain there. Hank could no longer put off the question of what came next.
But it was a question he felt he couldn’t answer on his own.
With a deep sigh, he folded the newspaper and set it aside. “I know. They’ll be alright now… I think they’re ready to face the memories of what happened there on the night of Stryker’s attack.”
“I think so too.” Nora shrugged and gazed into her coffee cup. “I’ll take them after they’ve had breakfast. There’s no sense waiting any longer, and the house could use a good cleaning before…”
Before we leave. The unfinished thought hung in the air between them, worried and uncertain.
Hank was silent for a moment. Then he smiled solemnly and set his glasses aside, shaking his head.
“No… I’ll take the children myself.”
Nora flinched. “Hank, are you sure you’re…?” She faltered and trailed off—perhaps finding no graceful words for what was in her mind.
“It’s alright, Nora. I’ve got to start again somewhere, and a Sunday drive is as good a first step as any. Besides, the roads in this area should be almost deserted today.” He gave her a thin smile that quickly faded. “It’s time I saw Charles… for a lot of reasons.”
“Oh,” Nora said softly, and the discussion was closed.
While the children ate breakfast an hour later, Nora packed the clothes and toys Ororo had previously brought for them, and Hank made himself as ready as he could to be seen in public. He chose to wear black, with a vague thought that the color might make his otherwise casual shirt and slacks seem more professional. Any deeper meaning in it did not occur to him; but if it had, he might only have felt more sure that black was an appropriate hue.
He dressed slowly, stealing time to gather his nerve. Then he made his way to the phone and called the school, dialing a private extension that was known to no more than half a dozen people in the world.
“Charles, it’s Henry. I’m bringing back the last of the students… and I’ll be coming to see you shortly.”
The forewarning delivered, he pushed his own thoughts and feelings away for the moment, and led the children out to his Mercedes. He placed their bags in the trunk, then squeezed himself behind the steering wheel—becoming immediately conscious that the seat position and various other settings were in need of drastic readjustment.
Amidst a background of quiet giggles, Hank rearranged the car’s interior with grumbling chagrin. Nora had followed them out to the driveway, and busied herself fastening the children’s seatbelts; but he noticed that even she quickly stifled a smile, and somehow it made him feel better. It had been far too long since he had seen her smile that way.
When he was at last comfortably situated in the driver’s seat, he reached out through the open window to grip her hand lightly. “I’ll be back in a while.”
“Take your time,” Nora answered gently, and watched as he drove away.
The two-mile drive from the safe house to the school was a nervous experience. Although it consisted entirely of wooded back roads, and the few local residents were most likely either in bed or in church at that hour on a Sunday, Hank traveled the entire distance with nerves on edge. The letter of the law still gave him the same rights as anyone, but visibly mutant drivers were too often brought to grief by paranoid or simply spiteful humans—and if he did find himself facing a traffic cop, explaining the photo on his license would be an awkward proposition. I’ve only looked like this for two weeks, officer was hardly a persuasive argument.
For that matter, he was aware that the rough, leathery pads of his hands had altered his fingerprints, and his fangs would bear no comparison to his old dental records. Simply reclaiming his identity on paper was going to be a challenge, much less rebuilding it in reality.
On this morning, at least, his quiet anxieties proved to be unfounded. They arrived at Xavier’s School without passing another living soul. He slid his car into a discreet corner of the sprawling garage, then gathered the bags and led the children inside.
The school lay in an unaccustomed quietness, its usual noisy vibrancy still subdued by a sense of mourning and uncertainty. As they moved deeper into the heart of the mansion, they saw no one—but they found ample evidence of the carnage that had taken place. Bullet holes in the walls, patched but not yet cosmetically concealed. Long stretches of floor bereft of carpeting. A shattered window boarded up.
And in many places, triads of long slash marks, gouging deeply through wood and metal and concrete.
At Hank’s side, Kristen let out a faint whimper. He reached down and very gently took her hand in his, without turning his eyes away from the tragic story scrawled upon the walls. They had been washed with pungent cleansers; but Hank smelled blood.
He was angry.
He was angry that children were forced to witness this terror. He was angry that such brutal violation had happened before, and would happen again—if not here, then in other places, to other children. He was angry that he felt so powerless to make it all stop.
And more than he wanted to admit, he was angry that people who once accepted him would now bear him that same malice, simply because he no longer looked like them.
Kitty Pryde suddenly popped through the wall, apparently just passing through. She and Hank both gave a start at seeing each other, and the teenager’s eyes widened in surprise. “Doctor McCoy!”
“Ah. Good morning, Kitty.” Hank recovered his self-possession, exiling his storm of feelings to a dark place within him that he sincerely did not want to contemplate. “We haven’t seen anyone. Where are your classmates and teachers today?”
“Miss Munroe is at breakfast with the rest of the students. Mister Summers is… um.” Kitty’s gaze fell. “He… hasn’t come out of his room very much lately.”
Reminded more painfully than ever of the loss of Jean Grey, Hank felt a deep pang of sympathy—but he was guiltily relieved at the thought of avoiding both Scott and Ororo. To face Charles alone was more than enough pain for one day.
Kitty continued. “The Professor is in his study. If he knows you’re coming, I guess he’s waiting for you.”
“Thank you.” Hank nodded toward the five children clustered around him. “Will you take them to Miss Munroe?”
“Sure.” Kitty took the children’s baggage, then gathered them to herself and began to herd them away. “I guess… we’ll see you later, Doctor?” There was a distinct questioning note in her voice as she looked back at him over her shoulder.
Hank smiled ruefully. “Sometime you will. But… first, I need to see the Professor.”
When Kitty had disappeared down the hallway with the children, Hank continued to stand still for a moment, his furious frustration mingling with a far more empty, despairing emotion. Perhaps it came from the new harshness of his instincts. He wanted to fight—not in some idealistic, intellectual way, but somehow physically. Yet for now there was nothing he could strike out at, leaving his rage to simmer down into a sense of bleak futility. In his mind he knew there were other, more important ways to wage this battle, but the thought of them gave him no satisfaction or reassurance.
At last he let out a deep sigh, and reluctantly turned his steps toward Charles Xavier’s study.
The signs of damage decreased as he made his way down the hall, the nauseating scents of blood and burned metal fading behind him. Stryker would not have been likely to find any students in this part of the school at night, and it was obviously not the scene of warfare that the more populous areas were. At last Hank could smell the quiet fragrance of old wood and old roses, the elegant atmosphere that saturated the entire mansion. He had always known it, always felt it conjure fond memories and warm feelings each time he bothered to notice it. Now he breathed a richness and depth he had never known in it before… and yet that living essence was more familiar to him than ever.
For a moment the chaos behind him was forgotten, as a powerful sense of homesickness welled up in his heart.
Upon reaching the door of the Professor’s study, Hank hesitated for a moment, collecting his courage. Charles would certainly know he was there—and would be unable to help sensing the anxiety he was broadcasting. However, the telepath was by necessity an extremely tactful man, and he would always wait for others to approach him on their own terms.
It was not so much his own feelings about his new form that gave Hank pause. It was his concern for what it would mean to Charles, as the unwitting instrument of the change.
At last, knowing he would never be any more ready to face the encounter, he knocked gently on the door.
“Enter,” Charles’ voice called out from within the room, promptly and patiently.
Hank did not enter. Instead, he opened the door only a few inches. He stood where Charles could not see him from the desk, with his left hand resting on the doorknob, and his right hand almost reverently pressed against the smooth varnished wood.
“Charles, it’s me. Henry.” He tried and failed to suppress a faint quiver in his voice. “I’m sorry I’ve put you off for so long… but something has happened. I wanted to allow time for things to settle here, before I brought my own situation to you.”
From the other side of the door, the older man’s voice took on the same note of concern Hank had heard over the phone. “Henry…”
“Please listen, Charles.” Hank sighed, desperately plumbing the depths of his eloquence. “Knowing what’s happened in other cases… you may have suspected the truth already, after the way I’ve behaved. I’m sorry to have left you wondering and worrying—but I appreciate your giving me distance until I was prepared to discuss it.”
He paused, taking a deep breath, and then plunged into the heart of the matter.
“I was affected during the recent crisis. Affected physically… and I’ve changed, Charles. In a rather dramatic fashion.”
Behind the door, he heard the Professor catch his breath. “A secondary mutation?”
There was a long and heavy silence. Then Charles said, softly but firmly: “Please come in.”
For a moment more, Hank hesitated; then he stepped into the room. He closed the door behind him, and slowly moved from half-shadow into the relentless morning light that spilled through the windows.
Charles sat perfectly still behind his desk. His expression was carefully controlled, but Hank had known him long enough to read the glimmer of quiet shock in his gray eyes. For a brief instant, he even felt Charles’ telepathy brush against his mind—as if the Professor instinctively sought to reassure himself that the creature who stood before him was truly Hank McCoy.
Hank did not begrudge him that reaction. Even for a man who knew every form and facet of mutation as well as Charles Xavier did, it could not be easy to see a friend of so many years changed beyond recognition—especially in the circumstances under which it happened. Undoubtedly the thought of his own role in this development was already on Charles’ mind.
“Henry,” the Professor breathed.
With a melancholy half-smile, Hank stepped closer to the desk. “In the flesh… and in the fur, now.”
The lightness of those words was almost an afterthought, a little bit of his old personality reasserting itself. For his own sake, a part of him was glad to hear and feel it, but he knew it did nothing to soften this moment for Charles.
“Tell me everything,” his mentor said faintly.
“There really isn’t very much to tell.” Hank shrugged, carefully settling himself into the chair that faced Charles. He considered for a moment… and then he calmly reduced his experience of life-altering pain and shock to sterile scientific facts.
“When—the event happened, certain previously unrealized complexities of my X-gene were obviously stimulated. No doubt a natural defensive response to the trauma, like many cases of secondary mutation. I still have earlier samples of my DNA at the Lef… I’m very interested in making a comparative study. Until then, there’s little else I can say with certainty about the change itself.” He paused, his expression darkening faintly. “Except that it was… much more rapid than any ordinary manifestation of such an extensive degree.”
The dispassionately clinical summation failed to deceive Charles. Gazing at Hank with dark eyes, he observed, “And much more painful.”
Hank grimaced and stared down at his clasped hands, studying the points of his claws where they pressed against his knuckles.
“I won’t lie to you, Charles. It was… difficult. It still is.”
Charles swore softly and lowered his head, resting it against his hands. “I’m sorry, Henry. I’m so sorry.”
“You have nothing to apologize for. Whatever consequences all of us are living with now, they were Stryker’s crime—not yours.” Hank gave a small shrug. “Besides… I’m nothing more or less than the product of my own DNA. You know as well as I do, this must have been latent in me all along. If the psychic shock hadn’t prompted my mutation to run its full course, something else very likely would have, sooner or later.”
“Or you might have lived out the rest of your life as you were.” The Professor slowly raised his eyes. “It was my power that robbed you of that life.”
“I’ve lost nothing that was ever worth having, Charles… and I suspect I’ve gained much more than I yet realize.”
In his logical, measuring mind, Hank sincerely believed those words, even if in his heart he still struggled with his new reality. Yet as he spoke, he sensed Charles was no longer really listening. The older man’s gaze had turned inward… and his eyes reflected a memory of suffering that frightened Hank to the depths of his being.
“I didn’t know, Henry. I couldn’t see. Lost—trapped inside my mind, with him—with Jason whispering, manipulating. I could feel the pain I was causing—so much pain—but I couldn’t stop—”
The gradually rising note of strain in Charles’ voice broke sharply, and he buried his face in his hands, shaking with grief.
Almost instantly, Hank was kneeling at his teacher’s side, to draw him close and hold him as gently as if he were a child. With his head cradled against Hank’s shoulder, Charles wept deeply and wretchedly, while on his lips the words I’m sorry were repeated almost soundlessly over and over again. His raw emotions were laid bare as only a telepath’s could be, seeping through his weakened mental barriers, until Hank could feel a chilling shadow of that shame and guilt and violation.
It was only the faintest glimpse, but even that much was impossible to fathom. Linked to all humanity through Cerebro, Charles had felt the torment of an entire planet—and now he lived with the knowledge that he had been its source.
Hank knew then how correct he was in his judgment of who had suffered more.
“It’s alright, Charles,” he said softly, covering the Professor’s trembling hands with one of his own. “It’s alright.”
In a quiet corner of Hank’s mind, the memory stirred of a hospital room, years earlier. Still dazed and awkward from the much lesser changes he had experienced then, he himself was the bearer of guilt and tearful apologies. Crippled for life by his terrible mistake, his mentor’s broken body lay amid a tangle of intravenous tubes and EKG leads, too weak and overwhelmed by pain to speak; but in his mind, Charles had answered him with the very same words. It’s alright, Henry.
Now, at least for the moment, Hank felt a strange gratitude for the course of events he himself had endured. He welcomed his turn to deny the impulses of bitterness and self-pity, and try to face his own challenges as nobly as Charles had. It was his chance to repay, in some measure, the kindness and courage he had sought to be worthy of in all the years since.
And this time, somehow, he felt that it would be.
“What will you do now, Henry?”
According to the finely filigreed antique clock on Charles’ desk, nearly two hours had passed, but for Hank it could have been two minutes or two days. The wordless understanding that filled most of that time had taken his thoughts to an entirely new place.
Charles had recovered from his emotional outpouring with an enviable grace. Once again he sat up straight behind his desk, wise and serene as always. Hank knew the horrific pain he had become privy to was by no means gone; for all his power, even Charles was startlingly human, and his healing would also take time. But he had gained strength from sharing his burden, and being comforted in the most ordinary of ways: by the presence of another very human soul who cared.
Thoughtfully stirring a cup of tea, Hank considered the question he had been so hesitant to ask of himself.
“I haven’t made any decisions yet. I suppose my returning to the Lefkowitz Institute is still very much a possibility. A few of the non-mutant administrators at Mount Sinai may not take certain… developments very kindly—but there are still people I can trust there, and after everything that’s happened, the work will be more important than ever.”
“There’s another option to consider,” Charles said gently. “It appears the school is in need of a new physician.”
Hank’s heart skipped a beat, and he was forced to swallow hard before he spoke.
“Thank you, Charles… and I will keep it in mind. It would certainly be the easiest thing, to return here—to remain where I would be accepted completely.” He paused. “But I’m not yet sure it would be the most valuable use of my abilities. I’ve been given a unique opportunity to serve as an example, and I want to be sure I’m making the most of it.”
He gave in to a more pronounced hesitation. “And besides…”
The Professor smiled faintly. “And besides—there is Nora to consider.”
“Yes.” Hank nodded, his expression growing troubled. “She’s been fearless through all this, but… I don’t know if there’s anything left of what we had. I’m not even sure I have the right to bring her any deeper into what lies ahead of me. You’ve seen for yourself what mixed relationships face. Discrimination, threats… sometimes even physical violence. Now that my nature is so clearly apparent, I’m afraid of exposing her to those risks.”
He looked down at his hands, grimacing at his claws. “And beyond that… I’m still a little afraid of myself.”
“I wouldn’t be,” Charles replied kindly. “And when Nora is with you, I strongly suspect she will have nothing to fear from anyone.”
Hank chuckled. “You may be right on that point. But seriously, Charles—no matter what happens, or whether Nora is still a part of my life, I will be around. This time, I’m not going to forget what I have here.” With a firm significance in his tone, he added, “After all… you’re going to need help repairing Cerebro.”
He saw a subtle flash of understanding in Charles’ eyes, as the Professor realized what he meant. He would not allow the telepath to be afraid of himself and his abilities, either.
“I’ll… look forward to that,” Charles said softly.
A heartfelt smile crossed Hank’s lips. It looked alarmingly fearsome on his features, but that didn’t matter now.
“Well, in any case… I should be getting back. I do have a great deal to discuss with Nora.”
“You’re quite welcome to remain at the safe house for as long as you wish,” Charles said, as Hank set aside his teacup and wincingly extricated his bulk from the too-narrow chair.
“I appreciate that. And it could take me another day or two to gather my nerves for a return to the City.” Hank grinned ruefully. “But whatever decision I make, I’ll still have affairs to settle there—and colleagues who have a right to know what’s become of me. Where I stand when they do know it remains to be seen… but I’m not going to hide, Charles. Not from myself, or from anyone else.”
As he meticulously pushed the chair back into place in front of the desk, he noticed it was flecked with blue hairs—and glancing at Charles, he realized the Professor’s lapels had become similarly adorned. He felt the heat of a blush on his face, and gestured sheepishly to the errant traces of his fur.
“I apologize for the… shedding.” A wan smile tugged at his lips. “I seem to have developed an unfortunate tendency to leave a little of myself wherever I go.”
Charles returned the smile fondly. “The other qualities you leave behind you are far more important, my friend… and for that, you have cause to be proud.” He extended his hand across the desk. “Whatever choices you make—be safe, Henry. And good luck.”
For a moment Hank hesitated, gazing speculatively first at Charles’ hand, then his own. At last he accepted the handshake firmly.
“I’ll see you again soon, Charles. That’s a promise.”
When Hank arrived back at the safe house, he tapped the recognition signal on the door out of habit, then let himself in. The living room was deserted, but he could hear running water and sounds of scrubbing in the kitchen. “Nora?”
The water stopped, and a moment later Nora came into the room, drying her hands on a dishtowel. She was wearing her most faded jeans, and one of Hank’s own old shirts that no longer fitted him; the sleeves were rolled up, and strands of her long hair had fallen from the barrette that pinned it back.
She had never looked more beautiful to him.
In the days since his change, she had responded in kind to his reserve: often touching him in gentle reassurance, but never attempting to kiss him. That was still the case, as she greeted him by taking his hand in hers. “Are you alright?”
“I think so.” Hank smiled thoughtfully, and his fingers slid from her hand to her wrist, making the contact just a little more intimate. “I think I’m more than alright.”
Hearing the new brightness in his tone, she smiled. “I’m glad.”
Then her smile faded, and Hank knew the questions of what lay ahead of them were weighing on her mind. Her hand slipped from his grasp, and she brushed back her straying hair, glancing toward the kitchen and whatever chores she had left unfinished.
“I’ve… gotten a lot done here. I’m nearly finished with the housecleaning. But I haven’t started to pack yet, and I thought—”
“There’s no hurry. It’s getting late in the afternoon, and I didn’t intend to leave here any sooner than tomorrow.” Hank shrugged. “Now that all of the students are gone—I think it’s time we talked about us. That is… if there’s still such a thing as us.”
Nora’s sudden intake of breath was faint but sharp. “Hank—”
“Please, Nora.” He nodded to the sofa. “Sit down.”
Looking quietly apprehensive, Nora complied. Hank sat down next to her, settling himself sideways to face her.
“I… suppose the first question is the most obvious.” He dropped his gaze, found his hands flexing nervously on his lap, and made a conscious effort to still them before he met her eyes again.
“Nora, I couldn’t possibly have asked more of you than what you’ve already given in these two weeks. Your patience and kindness have…” He considered his words with a faint, sad smile, then went on. “Have often made it very easy to forget how much has changed. But things have changed, even more than you can see.”
Again he looked down at his hands, large and rough and tipped with sharp claws. What could be seen was more than enough to make his next words necessary.
“And as I am now, I’d understand if…”
He never completed the tentative half-question, because he knew he didn’t need to. Slowly, he raised his eyes to meet Nora’s answer.
There was a gentle smile on her lips.
“I’ll tell you a secret. Even when I was a little girl, I was always sort of disappointed by the ending to Beauty and the Beast.” Her smile took on a familiar impishness. “I thought the prince was so much more fascinating when he had fur and claws.”
Closing his eyes, Hank smiled at the swell of emotion in his heart. “I was never a prince.” He looked up at her as he took her hands in his. “And this is no fairytale. You can’t return me to what I was with a kiss. You’ll only find that fur and claws aren’t the only makings of a beast, even in me… and there are no castle walls high enough to shut out the prejudice of others. There are so many ways you could be hurt.”
Nora’s eyes held his steadily as she reached up to touch his face. Her fingertips brushed very lightly across his lips, as if to silence any further argument that was preparing to form there.
“I’m not afraid, Hank. No matter what happens… you’re worth it.”
Hank’s breath caught. His pulse quickened as he leaned closer, and Nora’s lips softly met his own.
He awakened the next morning to pale daylight filtering through the curtains, and with a peaceful sigh he lay still, savoring his feelings. They were many, and even now, not all of them were untroubled; but in the bittersweet whole of them, there was completeness.
Nora lay asleep in his arms, nestled against the warmth of his fur.
Stray blue hairs were scattered across the bedsheets, the pillows, and Nora herself. With a faint smile, Hank reached out to lightly pluck one of them from the bare skin of her arm—and her hand came to rest over his, slim fingers gently entwining with his large ones. He turned his head to meet her warm and drowsy gaze.
“Are you alright?”
With a little sigh of pleasure and an indulgent smile, Nora nodded against his shoulder. “I’m more than alright.”
“So am I.” Hank paused, absently stroking her hair. “And I’m ready to go back today, if you are.”
Her lips took on a wry twist. “I suppose some things can’t last forever.”
“But some things can.” Returning her crooked smile, he brushed his hand against the telltale lines of blue that clung to her skin—leaving a few more in the process. “And that includes the gossip at the Lef, if you walk in with evidence of me all over you. You know Doctor Ollivard isn’t going to shut up for days as it is.”
“Then I’d rather spend those days hearing about torrid romance than nucleotide sequences.” Nora smiled and trailed her fingers affectionately through his fur. “Let them talk. Let them say I know a good thing when I see one… and how to hang onto it.”
His heart stirring, Hank kissed her.
An hour later, Hank sat on the edge of the bed beside neatly packed suitcases, watching Nora’s reflection in the bureau mirror as she brushed her hair. He was wearing what passed for the most formal of his new clothes, inadequate though they felt. She wore the trim, professional dress she had carefully chosen for their return to New York City… and it did not escape him that its color was bright blue, only a few shades lighter than his fur.
It was the only dress she had picked up from her apartment, days earlier—long before he himself was sure about their future. She had made a deceptively casual point of letting him see it among her clothes. At the time he was too preoccupied to realize what she meant by it, but now he understood.
Even then, Nora had planned to make her stand clear to everyone who saw them together: I’m with him.
The gesture touched him in ways even he had no words for.
“You look wonderful,” he said, as she finished arranging her hair and turned to face him.
She smiled and leaned into his embrace. “So do you.”
He was still far too self-conscious to give a reply to that statement. With a shrug that expressed a peculiar sense of finality, he stood up, letting Nora’s hand settle easily into his. “I suppose we’re ready.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, her grip on his hand gently tightening.
Hank turned to meet her steady gaze, and smiled.
“I am now.”
~ F I N I S ~
Author’s Note: The Lefkowitz Institute and Doctor J. C. Ollivard are the creations of Skybright Daye, my confederate in all devious matters of mutant underworlds and mad scientists. My small references to them here are for her amusement. (And for the record… Seriously. I would pay money to read an encounter between Ollivard and McCoy.)
© 2009 Jordanna Morgan - send feedback