Originally written for the Mystery Writer challenge on OTL.
Winter had come early this year. Up to her knees in snow, Cecilia Reyes tilted her face to the sky, savoring the snowflakes on her cheeks and eyelids. A breath of wind ruffled her coat, and she inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the cool scent of the forest. City born and city bred, she had never really appreciated what it would be like to live in the country.
To be alone, without the sounds of cars or people. To smell air that was free of exhaust and rotting garbage. To be surrounded by clean silence.
Watch it, Reyes, she told herself. You just might get soft out here.
But that wouldn't be so bad, would it? To actually enjoy a little of life, even if it was in the company of the very spandex-clad mutants that she had wanted to avoid. You're one of them now, she thought caustically, and then forced herself to stop that train of thought. She was not going to let herself remember her last adventure with the X-Men, not when she had come face to face with a.demon. The others had a different name for what she had faced in these woods, but whatever that thing had been called, it topped her list of creatures to be avoided at all cost. And to make matters worse, she had gone through the whole experience wearing that costume Hank had dredged out of the closet. Forget how it looked. If it hadn't fit, now that would have been embarrassing.
Snow crunched loudly behind her, and Cecilia turned around. Speak of the devil, she thought, her eyes falling on Hank. He leaned against a tree not more than five feet away from her, and she wondered how he had managed to come so close without her realizing he was there.
"Am I bothering you?" he asked politely. Cecilia opened her mouth, a pithy reply on her tongue. Reading the expression on her face, Hank instantly held up his hands to forestall her words. His eyes twinkled merrily. "Allow me to rephrase my question. May I intrude on your solitary contemplation of this lovely winter glade?"
Cecilia blinked. Lovely winter glade? Well, it was beautiful, though she hadn't really thought about it in that wa--
Don't get distracted, Reyes, she told herself sternly. Look at him. He's practically squirming.
Squirming, Hank-style at any rate. She tilted her head, noting the stress lines around his eyes, and the faint twitching of his right hand ... Yeah, he was nervous about something. In fact, the last time she had seen that look on his face had been when he pulled out that costume for her to wear-- "Spill it," she told him.
"Pardon Moi?" Hank asked, eyes widening. He looked genuinely surprised.
"You've got something to tell me," Cecilia said, folding her arms beneath her breasts. "I can see it in your face." To her astonishment, Hank just looked at her, seemingly speechless. "Well?" Cecilia began to feel faintly uneasy. Hank was never at a loss for words, and she wondered if perhaps she had read him wrong.
He finally stirred. "No," he said slowly. "You're right. I did come to talk to you." He moved away from the tree he had been leaning against, and took a few steps towards her. The snow crunched, loud, beneath his feet.
"I wanted to apologize."
"For what?" she asked, puzzled. One minute bubbly genius scientist, the next a hesitant, shy ... well, genius scientist. She wasn't sure she was ever going to figure him out.
"For that last mission," he said softly. "I'm sorry that you had to face those creatures alone, that you were experimented on by them, and that there was nothing I -- we -- could do to help you. Yours was not a position I would have wished on anyone."
Cecilia stared at him, unable to think of a single, intelligent response.
She remembered -- all too well -- Hank and Marrow constrained above her while the demons -- whatever they were -- had tried to drill through her bio-shield.
A bitter taste filled her mouth, a sharp reminder of the fear that still filled her every time she recalled that experience. Strapped down, forced to stare into those horrible, predatory faces. The anticipation of pain had been the worst--each time they tried to break through her shields, she was sure that this would be the moment they gave out. And poof! No more Cecilia Reyes.
"You've got nothing to apologize for," Cecilia told him, her voice thick with memory. "I'm the one who ran, who abandoned you and Logan the first time I saw those ... things."
Hank watched her solemnly. "Still," he said.
"Still," Cecilia agreed.
"Perhaps then," he murmured, his lips quirking into a small smile. "We can shake and call us even?"
Cecilia grinned. "Not so fast, buster. I seem to recall a certain uniform you gave me to wear."
"An accident!" he protested. "Or would you rather that I give some excuse based on an unconscious desire to see you in revealing outfits?"
"All right," she said. "Just see that it doesn't happen again."
Hank bowed, scraping his foot behind him. A veritable storm of snow flew up behind his back. "You have my word, m'Lady. Now, what sayest thee we go to dinner? As part of my package of apology, I took the liberty of reserving us a table at a nice little restaurant in the city."
Cecilia raised an eyebrow. "You were going to resort to bribery?"
"Only as a last resort," he assured her, gesturing for Cecilia to precede him through the forest. "Though I never turn down opportunities to dine with attractive, intelligent colleagues."
Cecilia snorted, and turned to look at him. His expression was innocent, no less than what she had expected. Once again, she couldn't think of a suitably good reply, so she kept her mouth shut. They didn't talk again until they reached the Mansion, and Cecilia was mindful of Hank's comfortable presence behind her as they tramped through the woods. No, she decided. It wasn't so bad being a member of the X-Men.
Not bad at all.