Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by Marvel.

Spoilers: For Astonishing X-Men up to the conclusion of the "Unstoppable" arc.

Thanks to: Karabair, for beta-reading and coming up with the title.

First Impressions

The first time Hank sees her, standing in the wreckage of BeneTech Labaratories, she's an anonymous figure hiding behind sunglasses and guns as she introduces herself and her organisation: Abigail Brand, of S.W.O.R.D.

„The goverment and their acronyms," he says, sarcasm freshly honed by anger at himself. He had come close, so close to testing the "cure" on himself. Taking that chance to get out. To be normal again. To be a deserter. "Honestly, it's adorable."

"I didn't pick the name," Agent Brand replies, a tad defensively, then proceeds to demonstrate that she's not feeling guilty about anything else, especially not the fact she let an alien experiment on one of Hank's friends for months. A thug, that is what he thinks: another government thug.

It is immaterial that this one is female.

The next time he sees her, he's lying on the floor in front of her, which has never been one of his favorite positions to be in. Neither is being kidnapped, which is what she just did to him and his friends, still for the same reason she had handed over Peter Rasputin to Ord: her conviction that the earth might get destroyed because of something as unscientific and ridiculous as a prophecy. The brazenness with which she assumes they'll help her is breathtaking, all the more so because she's right about that. They have no choice. Not if the planet really is at stake, and untrustworthy government thug or not, he doesn't believe Brand is lying about that. About a lot of other things, most likely, and he can't stop puncturing that infuriating smugness of hers with comment after comment. For all her fondness for short, terse statements, which he first took to indicate a limited vocabulary, she's never at a loss for a reply.

Now that she's not wearing her glasses all the time, he can see she has green eyes, the same shade as her hair. In can't be natural; he knows all the surviving mutants, and she's not one of them. She must have dyed her hair to match her eyes, which strikes him as oddly whimsical for a woman who seems to be the antithesis of playfulness otherwise. Unless one counted her tendency to address him with another nickname in every other sentence. Which he does not.

She might not have a limited vocabulary, but that doesn't make her less of a thug.

If one had to be trapped in a snowstorm on an alien world with someone, there were certain advantages in that person being immensely practical and able to build a shelter. Even if the entire situation was mostly her fault to begin with. He tries not to think of that while helping her dig. The memory of what Cassandra Nova did to him is still fresh to Hank's senses. It can't have been more than two days ago. The taste of flesh, the taste of blood, the utter loss of control; being completely animal. A beast. He's intensely aware of Brand as the only source of warmth here; he can smell her sweat through her protective clothing, and throws himself even more into the argument they're currently engaged in. Anything to keep his mind busy, to keep those instincts from taking over again. Despite his earlier threat, he has no wish to hurt her. Well. Not physically, at any rate.

"Why can't you let up for a second?" she asks, and he almost blinks in disbelief, but thankfully, the snow blown into both their faces keeps her from noticing.

"You're amoral, you're abrasive," he begins, and she proves his point by unceremoniously dragging him into the shelter they have just created, "and right now you're looking at me as if I was a Taun-Taun."

"You can stop whining", she says, and starts to pull off her gloves. "I don't need your guts to keep me warm."

He opens his mouth to express sardonic amazement at the fact she must have watched The Empire Strikes Back often enough to get his allusion at once. Darth Vader must have been her childhood hero. He can see it, almost: little Abigail Brand demanding a mask and a light saber of her own, cutting down the neighborhood kids left and right.

Then her gloves come off, and what Hank says instead is embarrassingly monosyllabic.

"Oh. My."

The sight of the corpses in the snow makes him sick and angry. It makes her unusually quiet. So there is something in there other than pragmatism and an admittedly quick wit, he thinks, and immediately chides himself. Seeing her in a better light, a rosy glow – oh, those bad puns keep coming and seem to be unavoidable now – is the last thing he can afford, not when he's certain she's still hiding something, and it's only a few hours ago he has heard her admit that genocide is still an option for her.

They make their way back to the others, and thankfully Logan is too distracted by impending disaster to notice – well, there isn't anything to notice or to smell. It had been a survival technique, pure and simple. She is able to radiate heat with her hands, and it wouldn't have made sense to just keep them stretched out between the two of them. Running them up and down his body has just been the most efficient way to keep him warm and avoid cramps on her part, and it would have been needlessly petty to remind her that he had a fur in any case, or not to return the gestures, doing his bit to prevent hypothermia. That is all that has happened.

Logan is not too distracted to make a cutting remark about her earlier statement regarding expendable soldiers, and her reply seems perfunctory, which worries Hank. Because it means she is distracted by whatever she's still hiding, naturally.

Later she manages to make the lot of them speechless with her pointed comment about Lockheed, her charge that they treated him as a glorified pet, not a sentient being. She's in fine abrasive form, and Hank experiences a moment of delighted relief before reminding himself of the implications her ability to converse in alien languages might have.

Scott has basically given him permission to kill her if she betrays them. Her taking a hit for him puts an end to that idea. "Brand," he cries out, and it's the first time he doesn't use her rank when addressing her. Things get worse from there, or better, depending on one's point of view. After realizing the missile he's supposed to disarm and reprogram isn't a missile at all, just a gigantic bullet nothing can stop, he returns to find her saving herself from her would-be captors by dispensing death the same way she kept the two of them alive in the snow. There is something disturbingly compelling in watching her fight this way. Afterwards, he doesn't have the patience for secrets anymore. Patching up her singed skin, that wound she took for him which should have been lethal, somehow becomes putting his hand around her throat and demanding the truth, personal or not.

She tells him the way she says most things, blunt and to the point, and walks away, making those few quick steps in a cramped shuttle suddenly seem like quite a long time as he determinedly looks in the other direction and pretends he's not still able to sense her pulse and that warm, smooth skin.

He'll think about it later. They really need to save the world first.

There is a lot of cleaning up to do at the mansion, given that they left it in a state of utter chaos when they were kidnapped for everyone's good except Kitty's. It's a cliché Hank finds to be true almost every time: these simple physical acts are helpful when it comes to the numbness of grief. Even something like repairing the toilets, but then he did break the doors to begin with, intending to eat Logan, and there are few things more designed to induce a student mutiny than non-functioning hygienic facilities.

He runs out of excuses not to make a phonecall sooner than he has expected. Or maybe he doesn't, but at some point, between concluding Peter really should be left alone in Kitty's room and deciding that it's Logan's responsibility to clean the fridge, Hank acknowledges that he starts to resemble Scott at age 15 to an absurd degree.

"Tell me that 'Brand' isn't another government acronym," he says when he hears her voice, both because conversing in quips is something they seem to be good at and because he genuinely wants to know. It is something that has occurred to him since she said it wasn't her given name, and sometimes he tries to think of suitable words with first letters that would form those initials.

"No, genius," she replies, and he realizes she has never used his name. It has been an endless series of nicknames since the day they met. He also realizes he can now hear when she's smiling; amusement makes her lower her voice just a bit. Or maybe something else does. "Just something I picked because I liked it."

"Well, that is good to know," he says. "Working for an institution that calls itself SWORD is not the easiest thing to do with a straight face, but discovering such an eminently suitable name is really disguising something like Brusque, Radiant And Not necessarily Dependable."

"That's one n too many, Professor," she says lightly. She doesn't ask whether it means he'll accept her proposition. Either of her propositions. It's either self-assurance or its complete lack.

"If I told you my original name," she continues, and now the amusement in her voice gives way to seriousness, "do you think you could pronounce it?"

The interesting thing about language, alien or human, is that that one can express so many things with it. And really, when has he ever been able to resist a linguistic lure?

When he answers, it is to all she asked, and he does it in a terse, clipped way that mirrors her own.

"Try me," Hank says, and he knows she will.