A Homely Touch
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

The Road Not Travelled
The Long and Winding Road

Main Fan-Fiction page
Stars and Garters

Disclaimer: Seen in part one.

Note: Thanks to Bev for bringing up the pirate songs just when Bobby needed something to hum. ;) And yes, this is the end, at least for now, and yes, it's dreadfully mooky in spots. What else did you expect? Thanks to everyone who sent me feedback, it was greatly appreciated, and I'm glad that, Mary-Sue or not, Sally isn't quite unbearable. :)

(And yes, I know, a Mary-Sue is required by union rules to Save The World. But one MUST save something for the next fic, mustn't one? )

Hank was in his lab.

He wasn't working, he wasn't thinking, he was just sitting. Scott was dead. He was gone. There was no magical cure for the X-Men to find, Hank couldn't surgically evict the usurper from his body ... he was just gone.

And it hurt.

The door opened, but he didn't look around. Scott was gone. And he didn't want to talk about it. He hated that he couldn't fix this, that he couldn't make it better...


It was Sally. He turned slowly, his reddened eyes focusing on her with some difficulty. "Sally. Hello."

For once, she didn't have any food with her. Her small face was drawn, eyes soft with concern. "Hank ... Oh, lord, I wish I could make this better for you." She was a sympath, she could feel his grief and pain as if it were her own...

Hank looked down at his hands, a bit fuzzy without his glasses. But his hands were always a bit fuzzy. His brain was making puns at him. "I ... so do I," he said softly.

"I know it hurts," she said softly. A slender arm rested across his broad shoulders.

With a soft, strangled sob, Hank turned, wrapping his arms around her waist and burying his face against her as the tears welled up. Her small, slender form was almost lost in his massive arms as she hugged back, stroking his hair gently as he wept quietly. Her soft, sweet voice murmured softly to him, and he clung tighter, sobbing out his grief to the one person, the one person, he could cling to. Who didn't count on him to be the strong one. Who would always be there to comfort him.

Sally hugged him tightly, shedding a few tears of her own as the big, gentle man sobbed against her, clinging to her tightly. It felt nice, a tiny, treacherous part of her mind whispered. No matter how terrible, how tragic the reason, it felt good to be in his arms. To have him hold her tightly and bury his face against her breasts, even if his tears were soaking her shirt...

It was a long time later that he lifted his head, one hand rubbing wearily at his eyes. "Thank you," he whispered. "I ... needed that."

"I knew," she said simply, pulling a handkerchief out of the pocket of her jeans and wiping gently at his eyes. "I wish there was more I could do."

He closed his eyes, the gentle hand against his face inexpressibly comforting. "I know," he said softly. "You have the warmest heart I have ever known."

Sally chuckled a little, her voice wistful. "It's sweet of you to say so," she said gently.

He opened his eyes, meeting her gaze wearily. "I'm serious." She looked tired, he realized. Tired and unhappy and heartbreakingly fragile. How many people had she already had to comfort? How many tears had she dried, only to come down to the lab, to him, because she knew that nobody else would think to look for him there? "You are a remarkable woman, Sally."

"Really?" she asked softly. She really was beautiful, Hank thought slowly. She might not have Jean or Ororo's classic beauty, or Rogue's brash prettiness, but she had an elfin charm, her small heartshaped face framed in a cloud of wavy brown hair.

"Really," he said softly, some indefinable emotion breaking through his grief and sending his hand up to cup her cheek. "Absolutely." His fingers twined slowly in her hair, drawing her closer. "Positively..." Somehow, he was kissing her, lips brushing lightly over hers. "And no doubt about it..."

Sally's heart leaped and twisted as he kissed her slowly, his free arm sliding around her waist again to pull her close as his other hand cupped the back of her head gently. Shyly, yearningly, she returned the tenuous, tentative kisses, cupping his face between her palms. Surely ... surely this meant he cared for her...

Hank's arm tightened around her waist in startlement as her lips moved against his, returning the kiss. He'd wanted ... he'd wanted a moment of comfort, hoped that she'd let him have that much ... but he'd never expected her to respond. Not to him. Experimentally, he intensified the kiss a little, pulling her closer. Now, surely, she'd ease him away, tell him regretfully that she'd only wanted to give him comfort...

It was quite some time and some thorough investigation that he concluded that no, she didn't plan to stop kissing him anytime soon. Or to get off his lap, either. Instead, she was twining slim arms around his neck and kissing him lingeringly, absently toying with the tip of one of his pointed ears.

He sighed and smiled, disengaging from the kiss to just enjoy holding her tightly against him. "Truly remarkable," he whispered. "Astoundingly so."

Sally sighed, nestling against him and blushing adorably. "Flatterer."

"Not at all. I'm quite sincere." He rubbed her back in gentle circles. "And ... appreciative. This means a great deal to me."

She lifted her head from his shoulder, giving her one of her sweet, unreadable looks. "It does?"

"Of course." He kissed her gently, trying to convey how deeply he did appreciate her kindness, her sweetness, the caring and comfort she offered unstintingly in time of need. He wasn't fool enough to think that it was more than that, but she did care, at least a little, and for that he was grateful.

She returned the kiss, and for a long time he lost himself in the blissful contact, letting it drown out his grief and sorrow just for a little while...

...and abruptly surfaced as a small hand slid down his chest, ruffling the fur between slender fingers. "Sally ... wha..." he murmured against soft, searching lips.

"Mm?" she snuggled closer.

"Sally ... stop..." he caught her hand in his, lifting it away from his chest. Gratitude shifted abruptly into anger. "This ... no, this is not right."

She blinked at him, confused. "I ... it isn't? Because of..."

"No." He stood up, levering her off his lap as cold disappointment soured his stomach. "This ... is not a form of comfort I find myself in need of. And I am ... disappointed that you would offer it."

She blinked again, her face going bone-white as the words sank in. "But ... I..." she stammered, obviously unable to come up with a defense.

He ran a trembling hand through his mussed hair, frowning. "Sally, I appreciate your ... wish to make me feel better," he said carefully, trying to keep anger and disappointment and ... yes ... frustration out of his voice. "But not like this. Such an act would only demean us both."

She stared at him, mouth opening and closing for a moment, and then she turned and fled the lab, a rapid staccato of footsteps signalling her retreat. Hank sighed, slumping back down in his chair. Had he been cruel? Certainly he had been harsh. She was such a gentle, loving person ... if there was any comfort she could offer, any pain she could assuage, he'd never known her not to at least try. He just ... hadn't wanted that kind of comfort.

If ... if she'd had feelings for him, it would have been different, he admitted reluctantly to himself. He was deeply, intensely in love with the small, sweet woman, and if she'd turned to him with need of her own ... he wouldn't have turned her away. But as a cool, distant act of comfort ... no. Not that.

Upstairs, Sally slammed and locked her door, hands shaking so hard she could hardly turn the key. When it finally clicked, she collapsed sobbing on the carpet. He hadn't cared ... he hadn't wanted her ... she'd been so sure, thought for sure that what she sensed from him was more than just friendship, and then he'd rejected her ... He'd acted as though he thought it was just something she'd do to make him feel better! To make anyone feel better! Like ... like making them cookies or something! How could he think that?

She cried desolately, all her hopes in ruins. He would never love her. Never. Not if that was what he thought of her.

And she hadn't ... she'd never...

It had been over a week.

Hank had hardly left the lab in all that time. Bobby, a worried frown creasing his face, had been the one to bring down food, mostly sandwiches and other things that Bobby could make himself. Twice he'd tried to ask what was wrong, and gotten his head bitten off for his pains. After that, he stopped asking.

Hank rubbed sore, dry eyes, and focused on another slide. He wasn't going to think about Sally. Not about her soft chuckle, or her soft eyes, or her soft, sweetsmelling hair. Not at all

"Henri? Could I have a word, mon ami?'

Hank looked up. "Remy. Oh. Of course," he said drearily.

Remy strolled casually into the lab. Equally casually, he put one booted foot on the arm of Hank's chair, swivelling it around until they were facing each other. "Before I kill you," Remy said in a conversational tone, "I'd like to know exactly what you did to Sally. Just for de record."

Hank blinked at him.

"What?" he asked. It was the most intelligent question he could come up with.

"Well, lemme see now. She hasn't come out of her room in de last week. Except in de middle of de night, when she goes downstairs, bakes like crazy, and then disappears again as soon as someone shows up to see what's going on. She's losin' weight she doesn't have to lose. She cries all de time, you can hear her through de door. She won't talk to anyone, not even de Juggernaut, who believe it or not we dragged up there to try an' talk her out. Obviously somet'ing happened we don't know about. Since you're de only other person hidin' out and not talkin', logic dictates that you're de guilty party. So, 'mon ami', WHAT DE HELL DID YOU DO TO DAT GIRL!?"

Hank stared at him, trying to process what the man had just said. "I didn't ... do anything," he said slowly.

"Bullshit!" Remy snarled at him. "Even Jean's not as bad! Y' musta done somet'ting, or why's she actin' like..." he trailed off, eyes going cold. "Like she's got a broken heart ... you bastard."

Hank stared at him, a cold pit opening up in his stomach. Was he ... could he have been that hideously wrong ... "A broken heart?" he repeated slowly.

"You turned her down, didn't you? What de hell were you thinkin'?! Y' couldn' have let her down easy? I can' believeuurk--"

Hank shook the Cajun a bit to make him be quiet. "I am going to ask you a question, Remy. It's an important question. I want you to answer me clearly and honestly." He loosened his grip on the man's neck slightly, so he could talk. "Does ... is there any possibility that Sally has at any time had ... romantic feelings for me?"

"Romantic feelings?!" Remy spluttered. "De poor kid, Beast, she's had her li'l heart set on you for so damn long ... everybody knew, we figured you'd get de idea eventually and sort it on your own. Didn' occur to anyone that you wouldn' wan' de petite, not with her bein' as sweet as she is..."

"Not ... want her?" Hank whispered, his eyes unfocused. "Oh, god ... she thought ... I didn't want her..."

Remy rubbed his throat as the big blue paws eased away. "What happened?" he asked again, sounding puzzled this time instead of angry. "I figured y' must've turned de petite down or somet'ing..."

"I ... I did. But I didn't know she cared. I thought..." Hank closed his eyes miserably. "I thought it was comfort she was offering, not love..."

Remy stared at him.

"You're a stupid man, McCoy," he said fervently. "A stupid, stupid man."


No answer.

"Sally, I know yer in there."

"Go away."

"Sally, if you don't open this door, I'm gonna kick it down. I mean it."

There was a moment's pause. Logan pulled his foot back. At the last moment, the door opened a crack. "What?"

Logan leaned on the door until she stepped back and let him in. "I'm worried about ya, darlin'," he said softly, eyeing her worriedly. She'd lost weight, and her face was drawn and pale.

"I'm fine," she said weakly, in the face of all the evidence.

"No, yer damn well not fine. Yer a wreck." Logan sighed, reaching out and wrapping a brawny arm gently around her thin shoulders. "C'mon, darlin', tell me what's wrong. I'll fix it."

Sally's face crumpled, and her eyes filled with tears. "You c-can't," she gulped. "Nobody can."

She laid her head on his shoulder, just the way Jubilee did when she was unhappy, and Logan melted. He stroked her hair gently, patting her back as if she was a baby. "Shh, darlin' ... shh..." he murmured as she started to cry. "Ain't nothin' in this life can't be fixed. What's wrong?"

Sally sniffled. "I ... I just ... Logan, you're a g-guy..."

"I think so, yeah." He smiled a little.

She looked up at him, hazel eyes swimming with tears. "Am I ... undesirable?" she asked miserably.

Logan shook his head, brushing an overflowing tear away with a calloused thumb. "No, darlin', yer not. Yer as pretty a filly as I ever laid eyes on, and that's the truth."

More tears followed the first. "Th-then why d-doesn't Hank w-want me?"

Logan blinked. "I dunno, darlin'. He must be blind."

Her full lower lip trembled. "He ... I ... it was the night after Cyclops d-died. You remember, I was going around t-taking care of people ... and I went to him, because he was so unhappy. I ... I h-held him, for a long time..." She bit her lip. "And ... he kissed me."

Logan shook his head, a little puzzled. "Is that good or bad?"

"I thought it was g-good." She looked down at her hands. "It was nice ... m-more than nice. But I th-think I messed it all up." She started to cry again, silent sobs shaking her small body.

"Aw ... aw, baby, don't cry." He hugged her clumsily, silently vowing painful vengeance on the big blue lunk who'd hurt her so. "Ya couldn't have..." She snuffled. "I tried ... I mean ... I wanted to ... to t-take it further. And I d-didn't really know what to do to show him that, b-but I tried, and he p-pushed me away!"

Logan couldn't help grinning a tiny bit at the thought of sweet, innocent little Sally trying to seduce someone. "Maybe ya just surprised him, darlin'," he said soothingly. "He is blue and furry and you are a good ten years younger'n he is. Mighta come as a bit of a shock that y' wanted him."

Sally gave him a look so wounded that it just about broke his heart. "That wasn't it," she whispered. "He ... he said he didn't want that kind of comfort. He th-thought that I j-just ... that I was offering to..." She gulped miserably. "But he kissed me first ... I thought he wanted me..."

Logan hugged her tightly, stroking her hair gently. "Oh, darlin'..."

"I wasn't offering t-to ... to make him feel better that way! I wouldn't do that!" she sobbed into his shoulder. "B-but I l-love him so much, and I thought he m-must care for me too, a little bit, and I just ... I n-never..."

Logan froze. He leaned back, tilting her chin up with one finger so their eyes met. "Sally ... darlin' ... are you a virgin?"

She nodded slowly, looking down at her hands.

"You ever made a move on anyone before?"

She shook her head.

"Oh, darlin'..." he hugged her tightly. Doing something like this for the first time was hard enough, doubly so when you were as old as she was, and everyone expected you to know what you were doing ... and to be rejected like that ... he could only imagine how bruised her self-confidence had been, and that combined with a badly broken heart...

She sobbed harder than ever, and Logan wished desperately that Jean or Storm would come in. He wasn't really ... equipped to give a young girl sex-advice, and she obviously needed some ... and comfort, too, of course, although he wasn't doing too bad at that. So he just hugged her for a while.

When she'd finally stopped crying, he remembered a Cunning Trick he'd once seen Scott do ... damn, he missed Cyke, actualy missed him; grieved for him, surprising but true ... anyway, he went to get her a glass of water from the ensuite.

He was halfway back to her with it when Hank shoved the door open and shot into the room.

Logan bared his teeth and growled.

Hank didn't even notice him.

He crossed the room in one bound, dropping to his knees in front of Sally, as she sat sniffing quietly on the edge of the bed. "Oh, my dear..." he whispered, struck to the heart by her thin, sad face and reddened eyes. "Oh, Sally, please, forgive me ... I had no intention of hurting you so, I swear..."

Sally clamped her mouth shut, her chin quivering as she looked away from him.

Hank reached out helplessly, wanting to take her in his arms and kiss every tear away, but not daring. Instead, he took one small hand gently. "Please, Sally, believe me ... I never wanted to hurt you. I didn't know that I had, until..." he bit his lip. "I ... I believe there was a misunderstanding, the other night ... one that I wish to clarify as soon as possible..."

"M-m-misunders-standing?" Sally gulped. She wanted to kill him, she wanted to kiss him senseless, she wanted him to make everything better...

"Yes." Still on his knees before her, he reached up to cup her cheek gently, just the way he had the first time. "Sally ... is there even the smallest, most remote of possibilities that you could care for me? As ... as a man?" He tried to smother the frantic, newborn hope that Remy had inadvertantly created ... the hope that somehow, by some unbelievable miracle, this sweet, honest, perfect woman could love him...

Sally blinked at him. "I ... of course I do!"

Hank gazed at her, his eyes softening. "Oh, sweet lady," he whispered, brushing her cheek with a furry thumb. "There is very little 'of course' when it comes to matters of the heart. I could not believe ... what would you see in me? What could any woman truly see in me?"

"Your heart," she whispered. She was frozen, unable to move away from that soft hands and the wounded, searching blue eyes. He meant it. All she could feel from him was agonized remorse and a desperate yearning towards ... towards her? "Your kindness. Your intelligence. Your compassion." Miraculously, she found a tiny smile curving her lips. "Your fur..."

Hank blinked at her, a goofy, rather muddled smile finding its way onto his face. "My fur is attractive?"

She smiled shyly at him. "Dreadfully."

"You truly are an extraordinary woman," he said softly. "A beautiful, talented, nurturing, extraordinary woman. One I never dared aspire to."

Sally lowered her head, biting her lip. "Hank," she whispered. "Did you really think that I'd offer ... that ... just to comfort you? Even if I didn't care for you?"

He sighed, pressing his lips gently to the back of her hand. "Sally, you have the heart and soul of an angel," he said softly. "I have never, in all the time I've known you, seen you deny anyone who was in pain any comfort you could offer. You care so much, and so unselfishly, that yes, I did believe that you might offer me a ... a more physical form of comfort, out of your own unselfish desire to ease my pain."

"Would it have made you feel better?" she countered. "For me to sleep with you, if you knew that I didn't ... care for you?"

He shook his head. "No. I rather believe it would have made me feel significantly worse. I ... would rather have honest friendship than pseudo-love. And I confess that from you, I would rather have honest love than either."

Extremely belatedly, Logan realized that he really shouldn't be listening, and tiptoed out, closing the door behind him. Neither of them noticed.

Sally blinked, her eyes filling with tears again, and Hank somehow found himself sitting on the bed beside her, holding her gently. "Oh, no, don't cry," he pleaded. "Please, beloved, I won't ask anything of you, not even that you forgive me..."

Sally shook her head, and opened her mouth to explain that she wasn't crying, it was just happiness that was overflowing out of her eyes ... then she closed her mouth again, and kissed him instead.

Startled, but in the happiest of ways, he kissed her back.

That went on for quite some time.

"Hank..." This time it was Sally who whispered an objection, reluctantly, as his lips roamed her shoulder. "Wait..."

"Wha ... why?" he murmured against the soft, smooth skin. Reluctantly he lifted his head, gazing down at her. "What is it, beloved?"

She smiled shyly. It was so nice when he called her that. "I ... well ... I'm nervous," she admitted. "About ... that."

He blinked at her, running one hand gently up and down her arm. "Because of me?" he asked, a little wistfully. "What I am?"

"Ah ... no." She blushed. "Because of what I am. Uhm ... I've never actually ... well..."

Hank blinked. "Oh, my stars and garters."

Sally blushed harder than ever.

He brushed light kisses over her small, flaming face. "Sally, I am ... deeply touched. That you would ... want me to be the first is terribly humbling."

She looked up at him hopefully. "You're not ... disappointed?"

"Never. Honoured, thrilled, and dreadfully nervous, but never disappointed." He kissed her gently. "I am quite overwhelmingly enamoured of you just now."

"Oh, good." She touched his cheek gently, gazing up at him with trusting eyes. "Then would you do something for me?"

He nodded, one hand cupping her small face gently. For the first time, Scott's death faded into the back of his mind, gently nudged aside by Sally's sweet presence. She was his ... his! She loved him! Ah, in all the world there was never such a joy as this ... "Anything, dear heart," he said softly.

Her soft eyes twinkled suddenly, impishly, and she grinned at him. "Lock the door?"

Some time later, they were curled together in Sally's rather small bed. Hank stroked her soft hair, as her breath riffled the fur on his chest, and wished he could purr. Instead he whispered her name, murmuring soft endearments as he held her close.

"I love you," Sally said sleepily, nuzzling against his chest. "Very much. I want you to know that."

"I do," he said quietly. "Which is very fortunate ... since I happen to be quite overwhelmingly in love with you, and for it to be unreciprocated would be extremely painful."

"It would indeed." She ruffled small fingers through his fur, sighing gently. "I was starting to think I'd never get your attention, you know, when you kissed me."

"Really?" He traced idle patterns on her bare shoulder with the tip of one large finger. "How long had you been seeking it?"

"Since about a week after I got here," she admitted, snuggling closer. "You were so ... nice."

"My goodness. That long?" Hank smiled at the ceiling, stroking the smooth, soft skin gently. "I seem to have wasted an unconscionable amount of time."

"You did. I was very put out," Sally agreed, propping herself up on one elbow to kiss him gently. "But I've forgiven you now."

"Good." He touched her cheek gently. "You realize, of course, that I'm taking shameless advantage of you," he whispered. "I should be steadfastly resisting your entirely irresistible charms."

"Why?" she murmured, loosened hair waving around her face and tumbling down to brush his cheek.

"Because I'm too old for you," he said softly. "Because I am a very public, very dangerous-to-be-with mutant. Because I spend far too much time working to ever be able to attend to your emotional and physical needs."

She rolled over onto her stomach, resting her arm on his chest and her chin on her arm, gazing at him with the warmest, most loving eyes he could ever have imagined. "To the first, love, I say; tosh."

"Tosh?" he said mildly.

"Absolute tosh. You're not at all too old. Wolverine is too old. The Professor is too old. You are merely mature."

"Well, when you put it that way..." Hank agreed, playing absently with her hair.

"The second point? Everyone I know in this world is dangerous to know, Hank, and you significantly less than most. I'm a mutant too, remember?" She kissed him softly, eyes a little sad for a moment. "If anything, I'm safer being with you than I would be alone."

Hank wrapped massive arms around her, hugging her tightly. "I know," he said sadly, cradling her against him. "I wish it were otherwise."

"And the third point is just silly." She kissed the point of his chin, since that was all she could reach from where she was. "I know the hours you work, love, and I know how very important the work you do really is. I fell in love with you while you were down there in the lab trying to save us all from ourselves, remember? That's who you are. And I wouldn't change you for the world."

Hank blinked. he had always believed that love and the lab were mutually exclusive. That was what had finally ended things with Trish... she had, quite understandably, felt neglected in favour of his work. He had resigned himself to that - and to the fact that if he wanted to keep Sally (which he did, desperately so), he'd have to cut back on his other commitments. Now, here she was saying that he could carry on as usual. "Really?"

"Of course." Sally nestled against him, closing her eyes and resting her cheek against his chest. "Hank, I love you the way you are. I would never try to change you."

He lifted a hand to stroke her hair gently. "Have I told you that you are an extraordinary woman, my love?" he whispered softly.

"Yes, but you can tell me again," she said comfortably. "Besides, I know where you are. I'll just have my way with you when I bring your tray down."

Hank blinked again, then burst into uncontrollable laughter at the image. "I would be most appreciative," he gasped between chortles. "Although I fear that having both delicious meals and your delectable self delivered to me at regular intervals would spoil me beyond all redemption."

"And speaking of meals..." Sally smiled, then sighed and sat up. "I have to go start dinner."

"Already?" Hank looked at the window. Outside, dusk was falling. "Oh. Drat."

She kissed him one more time, then slid out of bed and padded towards the ensuite. "Don't get up," she said firmly. "Stay here and get a couple hours of sleep. I'll bring you up a tray later and..." she blushed. "Well..."

Hank yawned, and tried to remember the last time he'd slept. "A brilliant suggestion, and much appreciated," he said gratefully. "You are quite the angel, my love."

"Hah. That's not what you said before," she said with a naughty grin, before the blush caught up with her again and she scampered into the bathroom.

Hank smiled, snuggling down. Okay, the bed was a little small for him. And it was a bit softer than he usually liked. But ... he sighed softly, closing his eyes ... the pillow smelled like her hair.

Sally showered and dressed quickly, dropping a tender kiss on her sleeping lover's temple on her way out. He looked so sweet ... curled up like a child, eyes closed and face serene.

She loved him so much...

As she pattered down the stairs there was a voice in the back of her head that sounded a lot like her Nonna, giving her the dressing down of a lifetime. "I don't care," she muttered rebelliously. "So what if that's not something a good Greek girl does? They all DO!" Yes, said the Nonna-voice, but that's no excuse for you.

Sally considered pointing out that she was only half Greek, but that had never pulled any weight with either the Nonna in her head or the real one. Just because Drew Marsden was a cultural mutt was no excuse for his daughter to be anything less than true to her REAL heritage. She sighed, looking into the fridge. Honestly, hadn't anyone shopped since she'd been ... well, sulking wasn't a nice word ... anyway, the catering-supply people obviously hadn't been. Poot. Well, if she got a lot of meat out of the freezer...

Cooking, cooking, cooking, the Nonna in her head carped. That's all you ever do, and look at you! So skinny! How're you ever going to get a good husband, so skinny...

Sally huffed a bit. "I'm not skinny," she muttered. "I'm fine-boned."

Hah! Skinny, funny eyes, and now you're not even a virgin! All your mama and I ever wanted was to see you married and happy, but no, you throw it away on some fancy doctor just because he's cute...

"I did NOT throw it away!" Sally snapped, glaring at the air in front of her nose. "I don't regret it! I did it, I liked it, and I'll do it again! Tonight! Lots!"

"Good," said a smug voice behind her.

Sally spun around, her face going scarlet. There was Bobby, holding an apron in one hand and giving her a satisfied look. "You were NOT supposed to hear that," she informed him, blushing harder than ever.

"I'm glad I did, though." Bobby suddenly looked alarmed. "It WAS Hank, wasn't it?"

"Of course it was!" Sally gasped, scandalized.

"Oh, good. 'cause, you know, you can never trust that Cajun around vulnerable women. He's very sneaky."

Sally shook her head. "Remy? I mean ... it's not that he's not cute, but ... Remy?"

Bobby smiled at her, that cute, understanding smile that she liked almost as much as Hank's. "I love that you think that, I really do. Does this mean I don't have to cook dinner?"

"It certainly does," Sally said firmly. "You're going to be too busy going to buy me carrots, broccoli ... hold on, let me get a pen, I'll write a list."

Bobby groaned comically. "Why me?"

"Two reasons. One, you're the one who's here. Two, you're the only one I trust to be able to know the difference between broccoli and brussel sprouts." Sally scribbled down a list hastily. "And drive fast, it's getting late."

Bobby took the list, and smiled at her. "Sally ... I'm glad you and Hank are finally together. I really am. Uhm ... where is he?"

"He's asleep," Sally said, blushing all over again. "Uh ... in my room."

"Oh. Good, he needs it." Bobby headed for the door, then looked at her impishly. "You know, everyone's gonna bug the heck out of you..."

"I know. I'm resigned." Well, she wasn't really, but she could pretend.

"It's probably best to get it all over at once." Bobby tucked the list into his pocket and slipped down the hall to the foyer.

Sally nodded, turning back to the freezer. He was probably right. She'd just ... she'd just ... well, she could count on Remy to ask, and then...





"Wait, what did he say?"

Sally's voice overrode the clamour in a shriek that would have made a harpy proud. "I'M GOING TO KILL YOU, BOBBY DRAKE!!"

"No you won't!" he yelled over his shoulder as he raced for his car. "You're too nice!"

"WANNA BET?" Sally got all the way out into the foyer before she had time to rethink. By then, it was too late -- half the population of the mansion (and it was quite a big population these days) was boiling out of their rooms and down the stairs to be nosy at her.

Cacophony ensued.

Eventually, she escaped to the kitchen, with the curt demand as to whether any of them actually wanted to be fed. That worked, and she shut the kitchen door and leaned against it for a moment before going back to the relatively simple matter of cooking a hasty meal for twenty people.

After only a minute, there was a tap on the door. "Unless you've got my vegetables, go away!" Sally snapped, rather uncharacteristically. There were many, many things that Sally was willing to talk about, but her first attempt at wild monkey love (as successful as it had seemed to be), was not one of them.

A hand came around the door, waving a handful of carrots.

Sally chuckled, good humour somewhat restored. "The flag of truce is usually white, not orange, but since I didn't tell Bobby to get any cauliflower I suppose I'll just have to take what I can get. Come in, Logan."

"How'd you know?" He peeked around the door.

"I recognized your sense. And your hand." She smiled shyly at him. "Listen ... I didn't get a chance to say thank you."

He smiled a rare, open smile. "Anytime, darlin'," he said gently. "You do the same often enough, for a lot o' people."

"Still ... thanks." She kissed his cheek lightly. "It meant a lot to me."

Logan shuffled, looking both pleased and terribly embarrassed. "Yeah, well ... You happy now? He good to you?"

Sally blushed. "Very," she said shyly.

"Good." Logan nodded. Given how long it'd been since Hank had a lady friend, he'd been a little worried, but it seemed he hadn't forgotten how it was done.

Sally grinned at him. "Bobby sent you in, huh?"

"He's bright enough not t' walk back inta yer clutches after what he pulled," Logan agreed, grinning. "And, so ya know, Hank didn't wake up. Went up and listened at yer door an' heard him snoring away like he didn't have a care in the world."

Sally blushed harder. "Oh. Good."

"Everyone's gossipin' away out there, but Storm's keepin' it under control. She keeps tellin' 'em not to upset you, or you won't feed them."

Sally chuckled. "She's probably right."

"Thought so. Way I figure it, you--"

There was another tap on the door.

Sally looked up in surprise. "Jean?"

Red hair and a pale, tired face slipped around the door. "Hi."

Logan looked from one to the other, and winced a little. "I'll just go bounce Drake off the walls for a while," he offered. Both women nodded, and he went out the other door, muttering about insensitive iceblocks and what they could do with their mad monkey meddling.

Sally reached out, touching the older woman's hand tentatively. "Are you all right?" she said softly.

"Ish." Jean's eyes sparkled with traces of tears as she sat down at the table. "When Bobby ... it came as a shock."

"I know," Sally murmured remorsefully. "Jean, I'm sorry, we didn't mean to be insensitive, and I know this must be painful for you..."

"No." Jean shook her head firmly. "No, don't be sorry. It ... It is hard, to sense you and Hank together, with Scott ... gone. But I'm happy for you, too." She wiped her eyes, giving Sally a shaky smile. "It doesn't feel like it right now, but Scott and I had a long time together, one way or another. Hank ... Hank's been alone for too long. This afternoon -- I've never felt him so happy. Ever. He deserves to have that."

Sally nodded, touching Jean's cheek gently. "Thank you," she said softly. "That means a lot to me, coming from you."

Jean sniffed and smiled a little. "I wouldn't be nearly as understanding if it was Rogue, or Kitty, or Logan," she admitted. "But Hank ... he's been so lonely, for such a long time. He needs you."

Sally nodded. "And speaking of Logan..." she began slowly. "I'm not going to leap into his arms now that Scott ... is gone," Jean said sharply, her eyes hardening. "Despite what people seem to think--"

"I wasn't suggesting it," Sally said gently. "And I know that he, for one, expects nothing of the kind. But he needs to talk to someone, and I think you're the best option for this one."

Jean blinked a little. "Why?"

"Because he misses Scott too," Sally said simply. "And because ... well, because of a lot of things, including you ... he doesn't think he should. He's lost a friend, and a comrade, even if not a close one, and he's not letting himself grieve because he doesn't feel entitled to it."

Jean looked down at her hands, eyes filling slowly. "And ... you think if I talked to him about it..."

"I think it'd help both of you," Sally agreed softly. "He needs you to tell him it's all right to be sad. And so do you."

"He's not dead," Jean whispered. "I'd know if he was dead."

"That doesn't mean you can't be unhappy," Sally said gently. "He's not with you, and you have no way of knowing when or if you'll be together again. You can't tell me, of all people, that that doesn't hurt you."

Tears slowly overflowed, dripping down pale cheeks as Jean closed her eyes. "Do you think I'm crazy for believing this?" she asked wretchedly. "That he's not really gone?"

"No. You're an experienced telepath, and you seem to know what you're doing." Sally shrugged. "If you say you can still sense him, then I believe you. I'd know if you were lying."

Jean looked up at her as the younger woman stood. "Do you think he's still alive?" she asked wistfully.

Sally met the hurt, hopeful green eyes, and she smiled a sweet, sad smile and answered, sincerely and honestly. Then she moved away, kindly focusing on the cooking while Jean recovered herself.

Jean covered her face with her hands, hot tears welling up against her closed eyelids. She'd gotten a lot of different answers to that question, from 'of course I do, Scott'll be just fine' to 'you're fooling yourself, Jean. Scott is gone'. And underlying all of them had been the doubt, in Scott, in Jean herself. She'd resigned herself to one of those falsely cheerful answers, a little more sincere, a little more trusting maybe, Sally being the optimist she was.

But she hadn't gotten it.

For the first time, she'd gotten a real, truthful answer, and her heart ached with the joy and pain of it.

"Do you think he's still alive?" she'd asked, without hope.

And Sally had nodded. "Most days," she'd said simply. "Most days I do."

And Jean put her head down and sobbed. Because she still believed ... most days.

Bobby hummed a pirate song about jolly grog and houses of ill repute as he flipped through the channels on the security monitors. Kitchen ... empty, for once, since Sally was upstairs with Hank, nudge nudge, wink wink ... Danger Room ... Remy sparring with something that looked suspiciously like the Easter Bunny...

Bobby chuckled. Remy liked to get a little creative with his sparring partners sometimes. Garage ... nothing ... front porch ... nothing ... hangar ... hello?

Bobby leaned forward and turned on the sound. Not that he eavesdropped as a matter of course, you understand, but Jean and Logan having a tete a tete ... well, this was A Matter Of Concern. He'd just make sure there wasn't murder about to be done.

"--talking to Sally," Jean was saying. "She ... apologized. Said that she was sorry if ... if she and Hank getting together now had upset me."

"Did it?" Logan asked gently.

"A little." Jean wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "But not much ... I mean, you've been here. You know how long it's been since Hank's had someone ... well, someone he could trust. He deserves ... they both deserve ... someone to love."

"Everybody does," Logan said softly. He looked away, out the open hangar doors at the stars. "Been luckier 'n I deserve there," he continued, rough voice catching a little more than usual. "Even if it don't always last long, it's real. Hank ... even when he's with someone, it's like he's still alone. Sally'll change that for him."

Jean nodded. "I miss Scott," she whispered. "He's not dead, I know he's not, but I miss him."

Bobby bit his lip, eyes stinging, as he saw the big, gnarled hand rest gently on her slender shoulder. "I know ya do," Logan said very softly.

"So do you," Jean said just as softly. "You believe he's dead, and you miss him." Logan opened his mouth, and she shook her head, covering it gently with her fingertips. "Logan ... I need to believe that he's somehow still alive. That he'll come back to me. But I understand why you, more than anyone, can't believe that." She smiled a shaky smile. "And it's not because of me."

Logan looked out at the stars again, his jaw muscles jumping convulsively. Now it's was Jean's turn to lay a slim hand on his broad shoulder. "Logan ... you've lost more friends and more comrades than I can imagine. You've survived because you don't try to deny that loss -- you've accepted that they're gone, mourned for them, and kept living. To do otherwise ... it would break your heart, over and over, and I won't ask that of you." Her voice broke, but she kept going. "And ... I know that whatever problems the two of you had, you do mourn for Scott."

He looked at her, his brows lowered and his eyes shuttered. "We never got along," he said flatly. "We had nothin' in common except you, and that was hardly gonna endear us to each other."

Jean met his gaze, her own eyes wet with tears. "But you miss him."

Logan swallowed once, convulsively, and closed his eyes for a long moment. "Yeah," he said softly. "Yeah, I miss him. And believe it or not, I'll mourn his loss."

"He felt the same way about you," Jean said softly, her voice breaking as the tears overflowed again. "Logan ... you're entitled to miss him. We all are."

Bobby flicked off the monitor, leaning back in his seat to wipe his eyes. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. Poor Jean. Poor Logan. And poor Scott...

Bobby missed Scott, too. He'd bawled like a baby in Sally's arms when they got back, sobbing out his pain and guilt and grief on her sympathetic shoulder ... and then he'd dried his eyes, swallowed down the hurt, and reached out and offered comfort as best he could to Jean, who'd lost her husband and her dearest confidant, and Hank, who'd believed that he'd lost Sally as well as Scott.

But now they were both okay, and everything was being taken care of, and the tears were welling up again. He could cry, he could grieve, and he could pray to a cold and uncaring God that Jean was wrong.

Because as painful as it was to think of Scott being gone -- of a life devoid of dry witticisms and impatient rebukes and endless, unstinting devotion to a goal most of them could barely envision -- it was infinitely worse to think that he might still be alive, somewhere inside the thing Apocalypse had become. A helpless prisoner inside the mind of a madman, knowing that his own powers, his own body were being used against his friends and family ... Bobby loved Scott, the awkward, fierce, semi-compulsory love of a younger brother, and he wanted him back more than just about anything else, but still...

Better, kinder, to hope that he had died.

He dried his eyes on the back of his hand. Best to think of Hank and Sally instead. Happier thoughts.

He smiled a little, eyes still damp. He'd never seen Hank as happy as he'd been when he came down for dinner. Ruffled, tired-looking, but his eyes had blazed with pure, perfect joy when he looked at her, and his hands had brushed hand and shoulder and cheek as if he couldn't bear to entirely let go. To Bobby's eyes at least, Hank had always seemed the tiniest bit ill at ease in any relationship ... a little uncertain, a little afraid that he wasn't good enough. It had hurt, to see that creeping edge of self-doubt in his eyes when he looked at a woman who claimed she loved him.

But not tonight, Bobby thought, hugging the image to him. The openly adoring look in Sally's eyes had chased it away, and Bobby closed his eyes to better savour the image of them together, their happiness almost palpable. Oh, sure, he was the teeniest bit envious of their joy in each other, but that tiny edge of envy couldn't taint his genuine pleasure in seeing them together. If anyone deserved love and happiness, it was them.

What twinged a bit more seriously was the knowledge that there was someone who could take better care of Hank than he could. If Scott had been a brother, then Hank was a twin -- a sensitive, gentle, trusting twin who needed Bobby to support and protect him against the cruelty and evil that Hank could never quite bring himself to comprehend. Sometimes it seemed to Bobby as if he'd always been taking care of Hank ... that there'd never been a time when he hadn't been there to make sure he ate, to joke away the fear and self-doubt, to tell Hank over and over until he believed it that he was a man, not a monster.

Well, yes, Hank took care of Bobby too, but it wasn't the same.

And now Sally was there, to do all those things for Hank that Bobby had always done. And he didn't grudge them that, heaven knew, but it was a little sad. He felt ... at loose ends, he supposed.

He perked up a bit. Well, he'd just have to catch Hank in the lab some night, and take him on a midnight Twinkie run. THAT was something that was just between the two of them, and always would be.

Meanwhile ... he smiled, rubbing his hands together. Meanwhile, he was going to call Moira and Cheer Her Up with a lengthy regaling of the entire story. Yes. With sound-effects and funny faces.

Hank smiled at his samples. They were lying there not doing anything, and certainly not furthering his research, but he just couldn't work up the usual frustration. It had been more than two weeks, and the dizzy joy of love had yet to fade back to the deep contentment he had always felt in Sally's presence.

Of course, the fact that he'd been sleeping (among other things, heh heh) in an actual bed for every night of those two weeks was helping, too. Plenty of sleep, good food, endorphins...

The phone rang. The personal line he'd gotten put in so his scientific colleagues wouldn't have to talk to his friends, an exchange from which only chaos could ensue.

"Hello?" he said cheerfully.

"Hi, Hank."

Hank's cheery mood evaporated like snow on lava. "Trish," he said woodenly. "I ... I am surprised to hear from you."

"I'm not surprised," she said, her voice tentative. "I mean, I haven't called in ... a while."

"Several months," Hank agreed, forcing his voice into some semblance of its normal tone. He was surprised to discover that that still hurt. He had, eventually, put his relationship with Trish behind him, and he loved Sally with a depth and intensity that he had never felt before, but still ... the dull, empty way it had finished had hurt. There had been no real closure, no final ending -- they'd just drifted apart, and eventually he'd known that it was over. "Might I inquire as to why you're calling now?"

"I've been thinking." Ah, that sweet, mellifluous voice ... that had been one of the things that had attracted him to her. "Hank ... I'm sorry. I'm sorry I let us drift apart. I just ... you spent so much time working, and I was busy too, and..."

"I know," he said quickly. "Trish, I understand. With the amount of time I've been spending in the lab lately, I should never have tried to maintain a relationship as well. I am the one who should apologize."

"I guess we were both wrong," she said softly. "And way too busy to have a real relationship."

"Indeed." Hank relaxed, leaning back in his chair. At last ... closure. "I am glad that you called," he said honestly.

"Really?" The voice on the other end of the line softened. "Hank ... maybe we could have lunch sometime?"

He blinked.

He blinked again.

"I ... it's a tempting offer, but I'm afraid that I'm as busy as ever," he temporized weakly. "No rest for the virtuous, I'm afraid."

"Hank, I've ... I've cut back on my workload lately, and I hoped--"

"Trish, I am truly sorry," Hank broke in as gently as he could. "I should have called you some time ago. But ... I honestly believe that whatever we had is over. Though I would be delighted if we could remain friends, that is all that ... well."

"I see," she said flatly. "I am sorry, Hank." Then she hung up.

Hank stared at the phone for a long minute. There had been a time not long ago when he would have leaped at the chance she had presented to him. And he would have been grateful for it. But now ... he didn't want it anymore. He loved Sally, and wanted only to be with her.

So why hadn't he mentioned her to Trish?

"Because you're a guy."

"That's hardly helpful, Remy," Hank said acerbicly. "If I am sure of little else in this world, my gender is, at least, not in question."

"Non, non..." Remy waved a hand. "See, it's a guy thing. No matter how much you love de girl, you got this basic urge to keep it a secret from de other ladies. You know, in case de first one don' work out."

"He's right," Bobby agreed. "I'm agreeing with Remy. Shoot me. Anyway, he is right. As a guy, you're congenitally incapable of telling the old girlfriend that you've committed to another one. It's awkward. It's uncomfortable. And it really messes up the relationship with the old one, which might still have some potential."

"I disagree," Kurt disagreed firmly. "I have never had this urge. And telling Amanda did no harm, for we did get back together." He gave his brother in blueness a comforting smile. "I believe, mein freund, that you simply did not want to distress Ms Tilby further."

Logan, the last player at their 'friendly little poker game', grunted. "I agree with the elf," he said, studying his cards. "Figure the furball just didn't wanna hurt her feelings."

"Non. Fundamental instinct," Remy contradicted.

"You're not being any help!" Hank complained. Sally had coaxed him away from his lab in order that he might, as she put it, re-introduce himself to his current teammates, in case some of them had forgotten he was there. He had to admit, he was rather enjoying the game, but the advice was distinctly inferior to the sort you got from women.

"Sure we are. Just pick the argument you like and believe that one," Bobby suggested, nibbling his lip and inspecting his cards nervously. "How many tokens makes a bottle of vodka again?"

"Two of de blue ones."

"Right. I bet one vodka, then." They were playing for booze, on the rather specious reasoning that it was friendlier than money -- and the slightly more likely reasoning that Hank might have forgotten what money looked like.

"I'll see the vodka and raise two beers," Logan said, tossing in the relevent chips. "Look, Hank, ya love Sally, right?"

"With all my heart, from the depths of my soul, to infinity and beyond," Hank said promptly, pushing his own chips over to the pile. "Call. So why didn't I mention her to Trish?"

Logan grunted. "Was there a point? Would tellin' Tilby about her have done either of ya any good?"

"Well ... no," Hank admitted as the others called the bet. "Not that I can see."

"Then why worry about it? Ya just saved yerself a load of trouble and her a wounded pride." Logan laid down a flush, and reached for the pile. "Perfectly simple."

Bobby grinned, spreading out a perfect royal flush. "And so're you. You guys ALWAYS fall for the Scared Face." He pulled in all the chips greedily. "Why yes, little kidneys, I do hate you. Why do you ask?"

Bobby took a deep breath. He could do this. He could make it. It wasn't hard. Little children did stuff like this every day.

Of course, they didn't do it with Sally watching.

He picked up the cup of grated carrot, and tipped it onto the top of the viscous brown mixture. Right ... now ... he took a deep breath, and did his best to 'fold' the carrot into the mixture, like the recipe said. It involved some surprisingly fiddly spoon-work. "Like this?"

"That's great," Sally said encouragingly, patting his shoulder. "You're doing very well."

"Thanks," he said, giving her a shy smile. "This is my first cake."

Sally giggled, but in a companionable way. "You're doing better than I did," she confided. "Mind you, I was three. I ended up with most of the batter in my hair."

Bobby grinned, picturing a tiny, three-year-old Sally clutching an enormous wooden spoon. "Aww..."

There was a tap on the kitchen door, and he looked up. "Hey, guess what, Sally's teaching ... uhm ... oh."

"Hi, Bobby. Don't look so pleased to see me."

"Hi, Trish," Bobby said as neutrally as he could. What he really WANTED to say was shoo, go, get out, and take your sexy suit with you, don't you realize Sally makes Hank happy? Instead, he gave her a polite smile. "Social visit, or business?"

"Something of both. I was hoping to talk to Hank. Is he around?" Trish smiled her friendly, professional smile at them both, obviously unsure who exactly Sally was.

Bobby heard Sally draw in a tiny breath that sounded almost like a whimper, and he bristled a little. So Tilby thought she could just waltz back in and ... and seduce Hank back into her clutches, did she? Well! "I dunno. Sally, where's Hank?"

"In the lab," she said in a tiny voice. She was looking down at the cake-batter, hands twisting together unhappily. She looked so pretty, with tendrils of hair coming loose from her braid and waving around her face, and that cute shirt with the tiny flowers all over it ... but Bobby was student enough of the female mindset to know that she was at that moment comparing herself with Trish's shiny hair, perfect makeup, and sexy outfit, and coming up miserably short.

"As always," Trish said in a friendly tone. "We haven't met. I'm Trish Tilby." She held out a slim, manicured hand.

"Sally Marsden," Sally said in that same small voice, reaching out reluctantly to give the hand a brief shake. "I've seen you on tv."

Trish smiled, eyes sliding from Sally to Bobby and back again. Bobby could see her consigning Sally to the position of 'Bobby's sweet little girlfriend'. "It's nice to meet you, Sally," she said brightly. "Bobby, could you buzz Hank for me? I really do need to talk to him."

Bobby closed his eyes. Crap. Crap crap crap. "I ... ah ... I don't think that's a good idea," he said carefully. "What with ... stuff."

Trish blinked, then bit her lip. "He told you, huh?"

Bobby desperately tried to think of a way to get one of the women out of the room. Either one. Any one. "Uh ... yeah. Look, I really don't think this is a good time..."

Trish had never been slow, and now her eyes narrowed. "Don't tell me ... it's been less than a week since we broke up, and there's someone with him already?"

Sally made a choked noise, her olive skin going so pale Bobby thought she might faint. "A ... a week?"

"Yes, it..." Trish trailed off, her eyes widening. "You?"

Bobby honestly could have killed her. The stunned surprise in her voice, the involuntary way she looked Sally up and down, the shock evident in her eyes ... it was all the worse for not being the slightest bit malicious or feigned. "Yeah, well, I'm gonna buzz Hank," he said, reaching for the intercom. "Hank, get your furry ass up here right now!"

Tears were welling up in Sally's eyes. "But ... he said it had been over for a long time," she whispered.

Trish's face hardened. Bobby couldn't really blame her for that -- she loved Hank, and it had to hurt to lose him, but did she have to take that hurt out on Sally? "We've been having problems, yes," she said in a cool, clipped voice. "But it only officially ended on Thursday. I came here today to try and talk things out."

Sally bit her lip, hands twisting unconsciously together. "You didn't know about me." It wasn't even a question. Just a numb, hurt statement.

"No. He didn't tell me." Trish folded her arms tightly against her stomach, her own voice more than a little strained. "How long have you two been..."

"Three weeks," Sally said dully. Neither of them had to say it. Two weeks. Just long enough to test-drive the new girlfriend before dumping the old.

They stared at each other, the hazel eyes full of tears, the blue dry and burning with hurt.

"Bobby, what is it?" Hank could be heard before he even came through the door. "Is it an emergency?" He bounded through the door, and skidded to a halt. His eyes took in the two women standing facing each other, and Bobby saw him flinch. "Oh, god," he whispered.

"Indeed," Trish said flatly.

Sally gulped, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm ... I'm gonna be in the library," she managed. "I ... bye." She fled, feet pattering a broken rhythm against the floorboards.

Hank looked after her, then at Trish. Helplessly, his eyes turned to Bobby.

Bobby was seriously tempted to tell him to deal with it by himself, but he didn't have the heart. "I'll go keep an eye on her," he promised. "You ... sort."

When he was gone, Hank tried to meet Trish's eyes, and couldn't. "Why are you here?" he asked slowly. "I believed ... that we had resolved matters."

"I was hoping we could talk things out, face to face," she said in that same flat tone. "I didn't realize that you were with someone."

"I didn't want to tell you," Hank admitted. "I ... had no wish to hurt you further than I feared I already had."

Trish snorted, her voice hardening. "Thank you so much for the kind concern," she said bitterly. "And you didn't tell her, either, did you?"

Hank bit his lip, and met her eyes squarely. "There was no need," he said softly, firmly, willing to brook no argument on that score. "I did not wish to upset her any more than I wished to hurt you."

"Well, you blew that one." Trish's voice sharpened, and tears glittered in her eyes. "She seems very domestic. Very ... charming. Is that what you've been looking for?"

Hank shook his head. "That is beneath you, Trish," he said with a calm he didn't feel. "Please ... I did not desire to hurt either of you. I ... I truly believed that what was between us was over, else I would never have become involved with Sally."

Trish looked away, dabbing at her eyes with one fingertip, so as not to smudge her makeup. Hank's heart tugged, and it was all he could do not to go to her. He'd loved her for so long, they'd been so good together ... there'd even been a time, not long ago, when he'd seriously considered asking her to marry him. It startled him considerably to realize that there was still a part of him that cared for her ... that wanted her. "Trish..." he said awkwardly.

"I should probably say that I'm sorry," she said bleakly. "But I'm not. If you'd just told me..."

"It would only have hurt you," Hank said gently. "I realized that I had made an error, and hoped that you, at least, need never know of it."

"I see." Trish swallowed hard. "Do you love her, Hank?"

He looked down at the floor, then, reluctantly, he met her eyes. "Yes," he whispered, still feeling the tug those eyes had always exerted on his heart. "With all my heart and soul, I love her. I am sorry."

"More than me." It was the faintest breath of a whisper.

"Yes," he said baldly, his heart breaking as the tears welled up in her eyes again. He wished she hadn't asked that. He wished he hadn't had to answer honestly.

Trish nodded, her eyes deep and glittering with pain. "Goodbye, Hank," she said quietly, and turned, walking gracefully through the door and out of his life.

Hank bit his lip, tears stinging his eyes. It hurt, letting her go. But not so much that, even for a moment, he could contemplate losing Sally.

If only he could convince Sally of that...

She was in the library, curled in a large chair with a pillow in her arms. Bobby was hovering over her protectively, a tender, intent expression on his face that gave him the sudden, startling look of a guardian angel with his frailest charge. He looked up, and Hank read a clear message in the pale blue eyes. Hurt her again, and best friend or not I'll damn well kill you, they said.

Hank nodded, and Bobby returned it, touching Sally's arm gently and murmuring something before he slipped away. Slowly, Hank moved across the floor towards her. "Sally?"

She gulped and sniffled, looking down at the cushion she was clutching against her. Hank's heart bled for the deep hurt in her transparent face, and he knelt beside her, reaching out to brush the tears from her cheek with a gentle thumb. "Oh, my dear love," he whispered penitently. "I am so very sorry."

She looked at him, her eyes brimming yet again with tears. "You didn't ... she ... you said it was over!" she said, her voice cracking. "That ... that there was nothing between you anymore!"

"I know I did," he said remorsefully, cradling her small face in his palm. "And I truly believed that it was so. I ... I had no idea that Trish considered the relationship still to be current. I thought it long faded, that there was nothing to come between us..."

Sally gulped again, scrubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand. Thick, dark lashes that needed no enhancement glimmered with tears. "I just ... she intimidates me so much, Hank," she whispered. "She's so beautiful, and intelligent, and ambitious, and b-brave ... I'm none of those things, I'm j-just a c-cook..."

He gathered her gently into his arms, kissing the top of her head as he held her tightly. "Oh, my dearest girl, you are so much more than that," he murmured, stroking her hair gently and willing, demanding that his voice remain level. "You are kind, and giving, and lovely, and courageous. You have the tenderest heart and the purest soul I have ever known, and the day does not come when I do not count myself blessed to have known you, and doubly, triply, a thousand times more so to be permitted to love you."

She sniffled, lifting her head to gaze at him. "Truly?" she asked softly, eyes searching his.

"Truly." And then his voice did crack, and he held her as tightly as he dared, burying his face in her hair. "My love ... my dearest, sweetest love, I never wanted to hurt you, that's why I didn't tell you ... I would die if I lost you now..."

Slim arms slid around his neck, holding tightly. "I love you, Hank," she whispered, and no words had ever sounded so sweet. "I was so scared I'd lose you..."

"Never," he vowed, tilting her chin up to kiss her tenderly. "My heart is yours, always."

"And mine is yours." She returned the kiss, slender fingers twining in the thick fur of his jaw and holding his lips against hers. Not until she was gasping for breath did she let the kiss end, resting her forehead against his as she caught her breath.

He held her close, cradling her tiny form gently in his big arms. Then, gently, he set her back in her seat. She blinked up at him in startled surprise. "Hank, what-"

"Shh." He knelt again, taking her hand in his. "Sally Eranthe Marsden, I love you with all of my heart. Never in all my life has anyone made me feel as you do, and I would rather suffer any torment rather than lose you. Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"

Sally blinked at him.

Hank threw caution and vocabulary to the winds and clasped her hand tightly. "Marry me. Please. I love you very much and I'd be utterly lost without you."

"Yes," Sally said hastily. "Absolutely, definitely yes. Nothing could ever possibly make me happier."

Neither was entirely clear on who started the kissing, but it went on for a long time, interspersed with whispered endearments and vows of love.

Neither noticed when the door creaked ever so slightly open.

"I love you so very much," Hank murmured after a long time, holding her ever so gently against him. "I do not wish to seem hasty, but can we be married very soon? I find myself quite urgently desiring to be wedded to you as soon as possible."

"I agree," Sally sighed blissfully, snuggling down against his chest and nuzzling her face into the soft fur. "The sooner the better."

"Then I--"

"HEY, EVERYBODY!!!" roared an all too familiar voice from the hall. "HANK AND SALLY ARE GETTING MARRIED!!!!"

"--I will just kill Bobby, and we may begin the arrangements at once." Hank glared through the now-open door at Bobby's hastily retreating back. "We can have him stuffed for a centerpiece."

Sally chuckled. "Let him live. I'm too happy to wish anyone ill just now."

"Me too." Hank smiled, gazing down at his fiancee with wondering eyes. His fiancee. His love. His future wife. Ahh, bliss... "I am quite unable to wish anyone anything but good."

"Good." Sally grinned, and raised her own voice. "REMY! HIT BOBBY FOR ME! I'M TOO BUSY!" She kissed Hank a few more times. "MUCH too busy."

"Much, much too busy," Hank agreed, returning the kisses with interest. "And I intend for you to be too busy for quite some time."

(The End)