Hank pushed himself back from his work table and rubbed a weary hand across his forehead. He still couldn't quite wrap his brain around everything that had happened in the past few weeks. It all had a surreal feeling, compounded by watching the replay of events unfold on TV. The saber rattling of the world's "super powers" certainly distracted the general public from questioning too deeply what had really occurred or investigating those with genuine "superpowers". Information was fed to John Q. Public, or withheld, at the government's discretion; misdirection, misinformation, and misnomers were the words of the day. And in the meantime the mutants staged a strategic retreat.
Hank heaved a heavy sigh and let his hand drop. More like hiding than retreating…
Hank examined the blue hand – paw – on the table before him. What he'd become still managed to surprise him, particularly if he had been engrossed in his work. It galled him to no end that he'd been so wrong about a cure, that hiding in plain sight was no longer an option. His stupid, vain whining about big feet was nothing compared to the fact that he was BLUE and covered with coarse hair. Unfortunately, he had no one to blame but himself; perhaps that was the worst part.
No longer able to "hide" out in the open, Hank had taken to literally hiding in his lab. It was so much easier to squirrel himself away with the pretext of work to be done. Not that he wasn't working; he was in the lab from morning until night unless the Professor insisted that he attend a group training exercise. But at least in the lab he didn't have to face pitying eyes, snide remarks or poorly hidden sympathy.
Having worked himself into a fairly significant funk, Hank was irritated when his sensitive ears caught the sound of feet shuffling in his direction toward the table where he was working. Hank's shoulders stiffened with tension at the approach and he tried to give the impression that he was absorbed in his work hoping that the uninvited visitor would get a clue and go away.
"The bunker's too big."
Hank's heavy brow creased in a frown. Alex was the last person he expected to come wandering into the lab, and his statement made no sense. Heaving another heavy sigh, Hank turned and asked, "The bunker is too big for what?"
Hank's eyes widened as he took in Alex's disheveled appearance. His normally vibrant and energetic teammate looked diminished. His eyes were red-rimmed and had a frantic, pleading look. Suddenly Hank was overwhelmed with Alex's smell – the other man reeked of desperation.
Hank unconsciously rose from his stool and moved toward Alex, immediately thinking to give aide, whatever that might be. But Alex increased the space between them in equal measure, like a magnet skittering from a similarly charged pole.
Hank halted his forward motion; once he stopped moving, Alex stopped moving away though he was still in motion rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. "The bunker is too big." Alex repeated. He shook his head with he hands held beseechingly in front of him.
In just a few moments, Hank was able to decipher a large amount of sensory information to help him ferret out the cause of Alex's condition. Contrary to his appearance, Alex had not been drinking; Hank could not smell any residual alcohol on his clothing or on his breath. Alex appeared tense, on the edge of panic, although there was no indication of any physical stimulus that had caused such a reaction. That led Hank to believe that it was an internal stimulus that was causing the problem.
This he could understand.
"Alex," Hank pitched his voice into what he hoped was a soothing tone. "When was the last time you got some sleep?"
Alex haltingly shook his head. He looked momentarily confused. "Can't sleep…the bunker…"
"…is too big." Hank finished with him.
This was just great. On top of whatever internal issues Alex was fighting, he was sleep deprived as well. That was just what they needed, someone with Alex's insane power potential to be unhinged and out of control.
And just like that, it clicked. Hank understood in a powerful moment of insight that on a very fundamental, unconscious level Alex was utterly terrified about losing control. It really put things in perspective. Where Hank had grown up afraid to take off his shoes in front of his friends, Alex was afraid he'd accidentally kill somebody.
Another insight hit Hank like a fist to his gut – Alex had killed somebody. Indirectly, to be sure; no one could have foreseen Shaw's ability to absorb the blast that Alex had leveled at him or how he would take it and force it upon Darwin. Hank was haunted by the memory, and he was just a witness to the horror; Alex had been ground zero.
So little time had passed, but so much had happened, there was no way Alex had been able to work through it all. Hank could just imagine how Alex must be beating himself up about it. If Alex was anything like Hank, he would have thrown himself into work. From the number of focus plate prototypes he had gone through it was clear that Alex was training hard, but he couldn't train twenty-four hours a day. At some point he would need to step back and relax, and that would be the point when he was in the most danger of losing control.
As a boy Alex had spent much of his adolescence seeking out ways to make sure he was confined. When he couldn't exert internal control he found a way to make someone else exert external control. But here in the Professor's mansion there was too much acceptance, too much freedom, too great a potential for disaster if Alex slipped up. He had not yet mastered his internal controls and the only confined space where he felt comfortable enough to lose control was too big to make him feel safe.
With no indication that he was going to move, Hank stepped across the space between them. Alex had no time to skirt away before Hank wrapped his arms around him.
Alex managed a delayed, "Hey!" in protest and weakly tried to escape Hank's grasp.
"I've got you, Alex. It's okay."
Alex had tensed in Hank's arms. Though his arms were pinned to his sides, his hands were moving, ineffectively trying to push Hank away. "Don't, Hank. 'm not safe…" Alex's words were lost in the fur beneath Hank's chin.
"You are. I've got you." Hank put a little more pressure into the hold.
"What if…I lose it?" Alex's protests were becoming more frantic, his movements more organized. Panic seemed to have galvanized him into action.
"You won't. I've got you," Hank reassured.
Hank shifted his grip slightly. He moved his right hand up to cup the back of Alex's neck and pulled him closer against his chest. Hank tipped his chin up so he could rest it on top of Alex's head. Hank exerted pressure against every part of Alex he had contact with; he could feel Alex trembling in his arms and prayed that the tremors that shook the slight teen weren't a precursor to a release of atomic energy.
Hank continued to express assurances, but he still felt as though Alex was at a tipping point. He hadn't done enough, hadn't overcome Alex's defenses with enough physicality to convince him that Hank was really in control. Shifting his grip slightly once more, Hank lifted and leaned back pulling Alex completely off of the floor.
Feet dangling in the air, Alex had moved beyond the ability to respond with speech. A broken whimper escaped his throat, but Hank could feel the hands that had been trying to push him away begin to dig into his fur trying to pull him closer. Gravity caused Alex's head to fall farther into the hollow of Hank's shoulder, but Alex pushed closer to Hank too.
Between one heartbeat and the next, Alex went completely limp. Hank could feel all of his muscles go slack at once and for a moment he was afraid that he had done something wrong. The squeak of a wheel against the floor announced another unexpected visitor.
Hank straightened and lowered Alex's feet back to the floor, but he maintained his protective grasp on his teammate unwilling to let him fall.
"You did this?" he asked with more than a little accusation.
The Professor wheeled himself closer. "Just this," he responded unfazed by Hank's tone, "I only put him to sleep right there at the very end. You did the rest."
"The rest of what?" Hank didn't understand his anger or why he felt cheated.
"Alex is struggling to find control within himself. I underestimated his requirements, his physical need for external control. It's not something he can do for himself but some part of him knew that he could come to you for help. That's 'the rest of it", Hank. I put him to sleep because his body needs to recover, but when he wakes he will carry with him the understanding that you can provide him a safe haven. That you can be that external piece to control him when he believes he can't do it himself." The Professor looked at Hank with knowing eyes. "It may be a heavy burden, my friend."
Hank shifted his grip one final time. He scooped Alex up and held him cradled against his chest like a slumbering child. He felt something shift inside him – he might not be able to fix the world's perceptions out there, but he could do his part to fix them right here. Change was in his grasp.
"No…not so heavy." Without another word, he stepped around the wheelchair and exited the lab.