"There is just one mystery left," Hank said to Abigail Brand after the business with the Ghost Box was over. She frowned.
"Is this about me bugging your jet? Hank, I had to. Summers was turning this whole thing into a pissing contest about territory, and I knew there wasn't any more time to waste."
"I expected nothing less," Hank said, which was true. He was also vaguely proud of her, not just because her surveillance had saved the entire team's lives but because she had managed to place the bugs without him noticing them, and he did use sensitive equipment to check the X-Jet. "No, my dearest Madame Watergate, what I want to know is where your knowledge of Hisako's phone number originated from."
She coughed. "Logistics. If there was one of you who'd still have their cell phone with them under all circumstances, no matter where you went, it had to be the teenage girl."
He placed a hand on her right shoulder. Her body temperature was slightly higher than your average human's, and even through the layers of her crisp uniform and his fur, he felt it.
"For someone who looks like she is plotting a retreat strategy every time she encounters a student, your insight into the adolescent psyche is impressive, Abby."
"I'm not scared of teenagers," she protested indignantly. "Look, I simply don't do well with kids, okay? We're not all cut out to be teachers, Professor."
"Your secret shall be safe with me," he said and smiled at her. "No alien invaders will learn they simply need to hire the young of their species to render the head of S.W.O.R.D. defenseless. Which still leaves us with the mystery of your insight into that fearsome teenage mind."
She hit him with her left arm, none too gently.
"Fine. The truth is that I maybe sort of took my cell phone with me the first time I left Earth. Despite the fact my father said he'd kill me if I did and that I wouldn't even able to use it outside of Earth's satellite range. So I might have drawn some conclusions from this. And don't even try picture me as a teenager, because I hated every moment of being one, and if you remind me again, we're not having any sex for a month."
Of course he imagined her as a teenager now, with the awkward defensiveness about any vulnerability she still displayed ten times magnified, hiding away a useless bit of technology.
"If you gave your cell phone a nickname back then, I might have to marry you," he said.
"She's not going to stay for long, is she?"
Hank considered repeating what he had already explained. Given that S.W.O.R.D. headquarters, nicknamed "The Peak" had been destroyed by the Skrulls, and given that in the immediate aftermath, it was uncertain whether his girlfriend would keep her job as head of said organization, he had told Abigail she could stay with him for a while. It said something about her state of mind that she accepted without a token sarcastic protest.
"Which was very gallant of you, dearest," Emma said, blithely unconcerned about displaying the fact she'd been listening in to his thoughts, "but you do remember Peter occasionally graces us with his presence, don't you?"
Now Hank was painfully aware of the fact that Peter Rasputin probably would never be able to look at Abigail Brand without remembering she had handed him over to Ord of the Breakworld for experimentation. Still, given that Emma herself had a past that involved torment of several X-Men, he thought the remark just a tad hypocritical. He was about to point this out in the nicest way possible when Scott entered.
"Guess who's coming to dinner?" Emma said, evidently unable to let the opportunity pass, and informed him. Scott frowned.
"She's not going to stay for long, though, is she?"
So when Abigail arrived, looking exhausted, as near defeated as he'd ever seen her, green shades missing which revealed the lines around her eyes just got deeper, and was greeted by Logan, Scott and Emma competing in defensive attitudes, Hank couldn't help himself. He really couldn't. As loudly as possible, he roared:
"Beloved, I can't stand it any longer, the secrecy, the lies! Will you marry me?"
"I don't believe it," Abigail said. "Norman Osborn. Norman Freaking Osborn!"
"And thus the entire world rejoices," Hank said wryly. In truth, he didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. A few years ago, anyone predicting that the Green Goblin would be put in charge of the world's most important security organization would have been declared as insane as the man in question.
"He just had his sidekick call me to tell me the Peak would be rebuild but I should consider my own job under probation," she fumed. "Hill had the right idea. I should have quit as well."
"If you do that, S.W.O.R.D. will simply be integrated into H.A.M.M.E.R just like S.H.I.E.L.D. was," Hank said matter of factly. "One single government acronym to find them, and in the darkness bind them, I suppose, but while it would simplify matters linguistically, I would rather not put more power into the hands of a megalomaniac."
Abigail stared at him. "I'm glad you think this is funny," she said coolly. "Because you're coming with me."
"Osborn's sidekick said he's throwing a party to launch his reign, and if I expect new headquarters build with government money and Osborn tech, I'd better be there. If I go alone, I'll probably end up killing someone, so you're coming with me."
By now, he knew her well enough to hear what she wasn't saying. She was still badly shaken by the fact the Skrull Invasion happened at all, under her watch, blamed herself, and knew Osborn would too. Even if he hadn't yet used the fact to get rid of her entirely, he was bound to rub in that he now could, was bound to bring up her failure, in the most humiliating way possible. This was Abigail Brand asking not to be alone when that happened.
"Who am I to refuse a dinner invitation like that?" Hank said.
In the end, Osborn held court for so many people that they didn't have to speak with him more than once. As receptions went, it was a noisy one, with most people over the top cheerful, and only a few silently seething.
"Dr. McCoy," Osborn said, all gracious hospitality and smiles, when they came nearer. Hank remembered when Oscorp had been advertising for scientists, long before the Green Goblin appeared for the first time, and Osborn had a rather sought-after employer for several friends and colleagues. It seemed so long ago, and yet couldn't have been, no more than ten, fifteen years. And the man still had the same hairstyle. Osborn's eyes narrowed as he took Abigail in. She was wearing uniform, despite the fact that she was, as Hank happened to know, in possession of a rather attractive party dress. It hadn't even occurred to him to suggest to her wearing it tonight. "Special Agent Brand," Osborn continued. The smile had vanished from his face. "I'm surprised."
"Sir," she said, nothing more than that. Hank hadn't met many people who could make a single syllable so cutting.
"I'm surprised," Osborn continued, "because they told me – well. Your hand, Agent."
He stretched out his own. Her face blank, Abigail returned the gesture. She wore gloves, which she usually did when in public. Like her uniform, they were military, not dress. Osborn made a show of removing the one on her right hand nonetheless. Hank felt his hair bristle.
"They told me," Osborn said, slightly raising her hand which he still held in his own, "you could almost pass for human. If you try very hard. But you don't even smell right, do you, Agent?"
What they had expected, and had been prepared for, was some snide remark about the Skrulls, about S.W.O.R.D's failure to save the day where Osborn himself had succeeded. Not this. Abigail stood very still. Hank knew that if she decked Osborn, she would lose her job for good, and possibly her liberty. The broadcasts declaring Tony Stark a secret collaborator and criminal had been going on all day, and while Hank couldn't be 100% sure, he was reasonably certain all Stark had done was to piss off Norman Osborn monumentally. Next to him, Abigail still didn't move, but he recognized the tell tale signs of her hands heating up, that miniscule glow that could not be detected by normal human eyes. In a moment, Osborn was bound to notice as well.
If ever a man deserved to be roasted, it was Norman Osborn, and the benefit to humanity at large would be great. Unfortunately, it would also cost Abigail Brand her life. There were enough bodyguards around for ten millionaires-slash-supervillains. And enough photographers to predict the headlines about half-alien traitors attacking the hero of the invasion.
"Excuse me," Hank said to Osborn, "but I must claim this lady's hand for myself. How else could I declare my honourable intentions?" And with this, he snatched Abigail's right hand away. Osborn looked irritated but not yet furious; on the contrary, there was a cold curiosity in his gaze. "Abby," Hank said, "will you…"
She didn't let him finish. Instead, she kissed him. They had never done this in front of an audience. Some part of him registered the curious and disgusted looks. In the back of his mind, he remembered this used to matter; because it had mattered to Trish, the last woman he had – felt something for. Right now, it could not have mattered less. He felt both of her strong hands, the gloved and the free one around his neck, her mouth on his, and if some of the passion was fury about what Osborn had just done, that part mattered less by the second.
He hadn't been serious, any more than at earlier times, and both of them knew it. Of course he hadn't.
For a moment, though, he was indulging in some suspension of disbelief.
What had, and what hadn't been said between Scott and himself left Hank feeling oddly numb. Still, he was sure he had made the right decision. Undoubtedly he would find his way back to the X-Men in due course, but not right now.
Telling Abigail that he would be available to S.W.O.R.D. full time now was another matter. She had been off world during the X-Men's clash with Osborn, busy with something involving the Shi'ar; knowing Osborn, Hank doubted the timing had been a coincidence. Hank didn't know whether someone had already fully briefed her about what had happened during her absence, and whether or not said briefing involved the time he had spent getting tortured in Alcatratz, but when he established communication with the new Peak, he was told she was already on her way to San Francisco. They ended up meeting near the Dreaming Celestial. Nothing like a gigantic superbeing that could end the earth at any time to make you feel safe, Hank thought, and took in the sight of her, striding towards him with her usual crisp steps, the only thing unusual the small bag slung on her back.
"So," he said with false cheer, "it looks like my salary as scientific advisor will soon be qualified for a raise. I do intend to put those additional working hours to good use, you know."
"I," she began, stopped, and took a deep breath. "Damn it. Henry. I should've been here."
So much for that question. Someone must have told her. She only called him Henry when things were really dire.
"You are not a telepath," he said. "I doubt you could have found me sooner."
He tried not to think about the fact that Scott and Emma could have, but didn't.
"Screw telepathy," she said. "I'd have made someone tell me."
"I have some personal investment in the statement that torture is not a good method of interrogation," he returned somewhat archly. The problem was that there had been times when he had wished all that had happened to him revisited on the body of his dark other self, that creature Osborn had chosen to torment him with. But there had to be a difference between them, there had to be.
She let that statement go uncommented, and instead took off her glasses. Originally, before coming to know her, he had assumed she was wearing them as some kind of secret service fashion statement. Later, he wondered whether it wasn't a defiant action, just like not dyeing her hair and wearing a green uniform; emphasizing her differences instead of hiding them. Still later, he concluded it might be purely practical. Her hybrid physiology had given her several advantages, but her eyes didn't belong among them. The unfiltered light of this sun was too bright for her. Right now, there were enough clouds in the sky to make her look at him without a heightened blinking rate.
"Maybe you want to remain freelance a while longer," she said hesitatingly. "You know, if you work full time for me, I'm going to drive you like anyone else up there. I can't afford looking soft on anyone. They've given me Henry Gyrich as a co-director, have you heard? So maybe you should take a vacation first."
He really did not want too much time on his own right now, time to contemplate just what losing his claws had felt like, what the Omega Machine would have done if Scott had dragged out his rescue even longer.
"Abigail Brand," he said, "are you going soft on me?"
She blinked. It was probably the unfiltered sun, cloudy day or not, but he could have sworn there had been heightened moisture in her eyes. She put her shades back on.
"You wish," she said. "You're just no good to anyone if you're falling apart."
"So noted. And I won't."
"Good," she said. "Because I haven't had human food in a month, and you can buy me donuts. I've brought along what passes for sweets on that Shi'ar colony. It's wrapped in something from children's stories, like in those Harry Potter novels, so I thought you might like it."
Getting at her bag, she pulled out various little items blinking cheerfully and fluorescent. He thought of teasing her about her Harry Potter knowledge, but didn't. Instead, he said, finding his throat oddly constricted:
"I didn't know you liked sweets."
"Sometimes," she said. "Sometimes. But no vanilla, ever."
"I'll take that under advisement when I prepare our wedding cake," he said, and might have said more, but she had unwrapped one of her gifts and put it in his mouth.
It tasted alien, and rather unforgettable.
All in all, Hank was fairly happy with the way he had broken his girlfriend out of captivity, foiled a robotic mastermind and turned Gyrich's own bureaucratic thoroughness against him, so naturally, this was when things went from bad to worse. Between Osborn and Gyrich setting their plan to deport all aliens in motion and the robot revealing its pacification-by-all-means mission, there were enough problems to keep even a genius busy. Evidently, fate didn't think so, and gave them another alien invasion, this one by a species called Metroliths.
"Think 'sentient termite mounds'," Abigail said. "They're phenomenally difficult to communicate with, but not exactly hostile. Just about as bright as… well, rocks."
She cursed. "We have to go back."
Sometimes he knew exactly how she'd react to any given situation. This was not one of those times.
"Doesn't sorting out the deportation situation take priority?"
Her mouth set in a determined line. "Gyrich isn't killing aliens. At least not yet. Those Metroliths are innocent mostly-sentients. They're going to end up as Norman Osborn's rock garden."
He stared at her. Given the way he had met her, he might have never figured out he found her attractive if she hadn't propositioned him in no uncertain terms. In the early days of their relationship, he had sometimes wondered whether it was simply the fact she found him desirable that made him desire her in return, given how rare this was since his secondary mutation had kicked in, and given how much they disagreed about. But then he found himself enjoying their banter; admiring the way she spared herself as little as anyone else, the honesty of her commitment to her task of protecting the planet, and her ability to admit when she was wrong, something so rare not just in the ideologues who had always been his opponents but also in more and more of his friends these days.
And yes, the sex was spectacular.
But he had never wanted her, all of her, more than in this moment, when she had just declared her intention of risking life and limb for a species that wasn't human, wasn't her father's, either, simply because they were innocent strangers in a strange land, and she felt responsible for them because no one else would.
He stood behind her, putting both hands on her shoulders, and whispered in her ear: "Will you marry me, Abigail Brand?"