Indomitable Will, Tender Heart - 3

Author: Taryn
Email: Write Me!
Rating: Strong R (language - this chapter)
Disclaimer: Don't own them, yadda yadda.  See Chapter 1...

Marie turned her key in the lock and shouldered open the door, placing the grocery bags and her purse inside, against the wall.  Walking confidently into the darkened living room, she flipped a switch on the wall next to the overstuffed couch.  A floor lamp came on and a small Christmas tree, festively decorated in the opposite corner, lit up at the same time, the lights beginning to twinkle cheerfully.  The man who'd given his name as 'Wolverine' warily stepped over the threshold, a long moment behind her, also holding a grocery bag alongside his duffel.  His head, previously bent against the icy wind, came up swiftly and his eyes darted around the room, taking in his surroundings.  Marie removed her shoes, placing them on a rubber mat, and then hung her coat over one of the hooks on the wall beside the door.  When she turned her attention back to her guest, she noticed that he was looking around warily and his nostrils were flared.  She took an appreciative sniff and smiled, relieving him of the grocery bag and setting it down beside the other two.

"Mmm....smell the beef stew?  I put it in the crockpot this morning, so it would be ready to eat when I got home.  Don't worry - there's more than enough for both of us."

He gave her a curt nod but remained silent.  She also realized that he was now shivering in the sudden warmth of the room and there was a puddle forming on the wood floor, where the snow was rapidly melting from his boots.

"First, let's get you out of those wet clothes.  Then I'll put the groceries away and we can eat." Wolverine looked down at his feet, as if seeing them for the first time, and noticed the puddle.  He glanced at her, a sheepish look on his face.

Marie shrugged, wanting to put him at ease.  "That's okay, it's only a little water.  It'll mop right up."  She smiled at him again, motioning for him to remove his jacket and boots.  "C'mon....take those off and follow me."

He shrugged out of the damp leather, which she promptly hung up next to her coat, but when he bent over to take off his boots he nearly lost his balance.  He struggled silently with them for another moment before Marie quickly knelt down in front of him, grasping a boot-heel in one hand and pulling out and upward with the other.  The boot slowly came off and she dropped it with a squelching sound onto the water already covering the floor.

"Wh-what the hell?  I don't n-need your h-help!" he sputtered, feeling more flustered than angry, but allowing only the anger to come through.   She's already wonderin' what my deal is.  No fuckin' way am I gonna let her know just how outta sorts I really am right now.

"I-I'm sorry," she said softly, wincing as he glared at her.  "It just looked like you were...." breaking off, she watched him as he began tugging at his second boot, trying to dislodge it without much luck.

He looked up at her from under his eyebrows, his voice a low growl.  "....What?"

".....having some trouble," she finished, meeting his eyes evenly.

Wolverine snorted, diverting his attention to his remaining boot again.  Having some trouble.  Christ, that's an understatement.   He was sure he looked fucking ridiculous; wet and cold, and nearly hopping on one leg like a demented kangaroo.  Meanwhile, Marie was still just standing there, watching him struggle.

"Why dontcha just take a'll last longer," he snarled, not looking at her.  There was an odd look (sympathy?) on her face, which made him feel even more surly.  I never shoulda agreed to come here....all I am to her is a fuckin' pity case.   Then again, even he had to admit - though never out loud - that he hadn't exactly given her much reason to think otherwise.  Yeah, well....screw it.  I never asked for her help in the first place.

Marie bit back a comment of her own while trying not to notice the continued struggles of her reluctant house guest.   It's my fault - I shouldn't have helped him without asking first.  Regardless of what his problems are now, he's obviously the kind of guy who's used to taking care of himself.   However, when he was still struggling a long minute later, she knew he was going to need her assistance whether he wanted it or not.  She guessed that his body temperature and, therefore, his coordination simply weren't quite up to par enough to get the job done.   Damn, his teeth are even chattering - I gotta get him dried off and warmed up!   Squaring her shoulders, Marie turned back to face him.

"Look, uh,'re obviously still pretty cold, so um, let me just give you a hand, okay? It's really no big deal or anything..."

He grunted but, admitting defeat, placed one palm on the end table next to the couch while Marie tugged the stubborn boot off.  She peeled his socks off as well, placing them both in front of a nearby hot-air register to dry.  Leaving the floor cleanup for later, she motioned again for him to follow her down a narrow hallway.  A brilliant light came on and they were both standing in the middle of a small, neat bathroom, decorated in subtle shades of blue and yellow.

In the confines of the room, Wolverine's larger frame completely dwarfed hers.  Wow, I stand corrected - he's definitely what I would call a 'big guy'.   Marie reached into the linen cabinet and grabbed a large yellow bathtowel, turning back around and handing it to him.  "Here....go ahead and get  yourself dried off.  I'll be back in a couple of minutes....okay?"

He dropped the duffel bag on the toilet seat and accepted the towel as Marie left the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.  She headed further down the hallway, past the guest room, to her own bedroom.  Leaning over the black cat curled up on her bed, she gave the animal's head an affectionate scratch before grabbing a pair of dark green sweatpants and a long-sleeved white t-shirt from her closet.  Having left the bedroom door open, she stepped behind the 3-panel wicker screen in the corner -  in case my guest goes AWOL and starts looking for me! -  stripping out of her damp clothes and throwing them in the hamper.  Toweling the water droplets out of her hair, she quickly donned the dry clothing and emerged feeling marginally better.   A hot shower would've been perfect, but this will have to do.  At least now I don't look like something the cat dragged offense, Winston!

Grabbing a pair of socks from her top dresser drawer, Marie shoved her feet into them as she headed back down the hall toward the bathroom.  Rapping on the door with her knuckles, she called his name. "....Wolverine?"

Unable to hear any noises coming from within, she called to him again but still got no response.  Her heart skipped a beat.   Oh, God.....I hope he didn't pass out in there, or try to off himself with my bottle of Midol or something....

Taking a deep breath, she slowly turned the knob and peeked around the door into the room.  Wolverine was perched on the edge of the bathtub, still wearing all of his clothes and shivering, the snowmelt from his hair dripping steadily onto his lap.  The towel she'd given him was resting, still folded, on the edge of the sink.  As she came into the room, he glanced up at her, his expression one of misery and.....disgust?

I think...he feels weak - or helpless - and he's obviously not used to it...  Marie had no idea what had happened to him, what could've possibly reduced him to this, but she knew that the last thing he would want from her was pity.  She swallowed the lump in her throat and gave him a warm smile.

"You know, that was silly of me," she said, casually unfolding the towel.  It was nearly as long as she was tall.  "You're still way too numb from the cold to do this yourself.  Here, why don't you just let me give you a hand....."

He frowned at her, frustration suddenly evident in his hazel eyes - Goddammit.  It ain't like I got a lotta choice, here.  Shit.  My body just ain't cooperatin' with me right now... - and she thought he was going to snap at her again, but instead he just nodded jerkily.  She slung the towel over her shoulder and leaned toward him, making short work of the buttons on his overshirt.  As she was helping him work his arms out of the wet flannel, a sudden glint caught her attention.  Partially hidden under his t-shirt was a single piece of flat, rectangular metal dangling from a stainless-steel chain.  Oblivious to the fact that her attention was momentarily diverted, Wolverine sluggishly lifted his arms so she could pull the t-shirt over his head.  Absently, Marie did so, while at the same time cocking her head as she strained to read the small markings stamped on the piece of metal.
458 25 243

It almost looks like some kind of dog-tag, but not quite.  Very unusual.....

He made a low sound in the back of his throat and her attention was abruptly snapped back to the man sitting in front of her expectantly.  In spite of herself, Marie's pulse quickened at the sight of his bare upper torso.  Oh My God...  He was in prime physical shape, a perfect specimen of manhood.  It was her turn to shiver as her gaze traveled over his body, pausing to admire his broad shoulders, the swell of his biceps, the strong, furred chest and hard, flat stomach with its trail of dark hair leading downward....

She shook herself out of her reverie, flushing.  Clearing her throat, she attempted to explain why she'd been staring at him.  Not the real reason, of course, but one she hoped he would believe.  "Well, uh, you look like you're in, umm, good shape.   Talk about your understatements....whew!   No injuries or anything.  Which is good to know, cuz my first-aid skills are, um, really kinda rusty."

"I heal fast," he mumbled.

"Oh."   Does that mean he was injured, previously?  'Couldn't be anything recent....there isn't a scratch or a bruise on him anywhere.   Marie stood directly in front of him as she pulled the towel off her shoulder and draped it around his.  Slowly, with firm strokes, she began rubbing his back, arms, chest and shoulders through the towel, trying desperately not to dwell on how perfectly smooth his skin was or how incredible the extremely well-defined muscles felt beneath her hands.  The silence felt awkward and - to take her mind off the nearly-naked man in front of her - she searched for something to say, going with the first thing that popped into her head.

"Were you, uh, in the military?"  She lightly brushed the piece of metal now lying flush against his chest with a fingertip.  "....this looks like a dog tag, but --"

"No."   Fuck.  Stupid tag.  Forgot about that.  Nothin' gets by her, though.  Now she's probably gonna wonder if I'm a 'Nam vet or got fucked up with Agent Orange or somethin'.    He was even more shocked to realize that he was actually concerned about what she thought of him.   Since when did I start givin' a shit about that?

His hand closed around the tag.  The brusk tone of his voice and the way his lips snapped shut around the single word indicated that she should've searched harder for a more generic topic. "Okay."  She swallowed, glancing down at him.  "Sorry."   Good one, Marie.  Yep, shutting up now.

He just sat quietly, shivering now and then, but allowing her to dry him without protest.  As she leaned in to better reach around his back, his face came into contact with the soft skin of her midriff, through her shirt.  Unconsciously, he flared his nostrils, breathing her scent in - Damn, she smells good - like the wind and soap and somethin' kinda lemony... - and committing it to memory.

"Umm, Wolverine?  Can you stand up so we can, uh, get these jeans off?"

He silently cursed himself for not paying attention but slowly got to his feet, swaying a little.  Marie reached out to steady him, the towel poised in one hand and the other resting firmly on his chest.  She waited patiently, eyes focused on a point somewhere over his shoulder, but his efforts to disengage the metal button were in vain.  My coordination's shot all to hell.  What the fuck is wrong with me?   Finally he gave up, growling in frustration.

"Shit.  Uh,...I can't --"

Marie looked up at him, recognition suddenly dawning.  "Oh!"  She flushed again.  "That's okay.  Um -- I'll just get it for you then....."   Get a grip, girl.  You can do this without embarrassing yourself or making him feel worse.

She took a deep breath, deftly releasing the button and unzipping his jeans.  He leaned heavily on her, one strong hand gripping her shoulder, while he withdrew his long legs from the soggy denim.  Marie looked away quickly as the fact that he wore no underwear became apparent.   Of course he'd be the type to go commando.  Jeez, could this get any more awkward?
Wolverine didn't seem to be embarrassed by his nudity.   She insisted on helpin' me out, so she's just gonna have to deal with all of me.  Wordlessly, he took the towel she offered him, her eyes carefully averted, and used it to clumsily dry his lower body, sitting back down on the edge of the tub to steady himself.  Out of deference to her, he kept the towel in his lap after he was finished.   Hmph....'guess I can show her I ain't a total asshole...  His shivering had almost completely ceased, and he was looking up at her with a slightly less guarded expression.  When she felt it was safe to glance at him again, her heart jumped in her chest a second time upon seeing his slim hips, firmly muscled thighs and solid calves, the latter lightly covered with soft, dark hair.   Good Lord.  Is there any part of him that isn't absolute perfection?!

Giving herself a mental shake, Marie let out the breath she hadn't even realized she'd been holding.  Fixing him with a smile, she turned and grabbed a second, smaller towel from the linen cabinet.

"Your hair is still pretty wet.  I-I can just dry it for you, if you want.....?"

An odd look ghosted across his face and he trembled slightly - I dunno, maybe that ain't such a good idea... - but, as unaccustomed as he was to having someone do *for* him, it was strangely soothing to know that she wanted to, so he finally gave a half-shrug and a nod.  Marie stood directly in front of him, between his knees, and again he found his face almost touching her midriff.  His eyes closed and he breathed her scent in deeply, the tension in his body finally ebbing as she gently dried his hair.  He could hear her breathing and it comforted him;  the sound of her steady, even breath just as much of a balm to his senses as the low thrumming of her heart.   Christ, I could just stay like this forever...

She alternated between using the towel to blot the water and her fingers to air-fluff the thick, dark strands.  Wolverine didn't think he'd ever felt anything more relaxing in his entire life...or at least as far as he knew.  Unconsciously, he leaned into her soft, sweet-smelling warmth, slowly burying his face in her stomach.  Unbidden, his arms crept up, enveloping her lower body in a loose embrace.

Marie slowed her ministrations, suddenly aware of his warm breath on her midsection and his arms around her hips.  What--?  An almost inaudible sound caught her attention before she could react.  It was low and rhythmic, and it seemed to be emanating from Wolverine's chest.  She could feel it, as well as hear it, rumbling against her body, gradually getting stronger.  Oh My God.  He's....that sounds like -- is he purring?!

He wasn't trying to grope her or take advantage of her in any way, so she forced herself to ignore his nearly overwhelming proximity and concentrate on what she was doing.  His hair was only slightly damp now, so she draped the towel over the tub and continued running her fingers through the silky strands, air-fluffing it as she went.  The purring sound increased, but his face and hands on her remained still. In spite of herself, she started to relax as well, the rumbling proving to be quite soothing to both of them.

They remained that way for another few minutes, before Wolverine abruptly snapped out of his trance-like state and pulled away from her like he'd been stung.   Shit.  What the fuck am I doin'?  The towel shifted in his lap and Marie flushed and took a step back, attempting to save face - and, hopefully, make him comfortable again - by introducing a new topic.   Getting him covered up would be a really good start, probably more for my sake than for his!

"Well, um, you seem to be pretty dry now.  Do you have any clean clothes in your bag?"  He gave her a curt nod, so she reached down and grabbed the duffel, holding it out to him.  He took it from her, the scowl firmly in place again, eyes riveted to a spot on the floor.  She took a deep breath and kept going.  "So - you can, uh, go ahead and get dressed, and... "  She paused. "....that is, unless you think you might need me to -?"

He cut her off with a glare.  "I'm fine."

Marie nodded briskly.  "Okay.  Good."  Clearing her throat, she busied herself scooping up his wet clothes and the towel she'd used on his hair, casually avoiding the one he was still holding in front of his groin.  With a casual shrug, she started for the door.  "I'm just going to throw these in the dryer."  She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, in the direction of the hallway.  "Anyway, come on out whenever you're done, and bring the towel with you.  I'll be in the kitchen, putting groceries away and getting our dinner ready."

He grunted, reverting back to staring at the floor again.  She sighed to herself.   It feels like I messed up, or overstepped a boundary or something....but I have no idea what I did wrong!   As she turned to go, leaving him to his privacy, a low sound that might've been a word halted her.  "Marie....?"   Shit.  I hate askin' this, but I gotta....I just gotta know where she's comin' from.  It was the first time he'd said her name since she'd introduced herself.  The single word was spoken so quietly, she'd almost convinced herself she imagined it.  Pivoting slowly on one heel, she looked at him questioningly.  He fixed his intense gaze on her and she fought down a shiver.


She knew what he was trying to ask.  It was only one word, but it spoke volumes.  If he's not a pity-case to me, then why am I helping him?  Good question.  I've been wondering that myself, ever since I stopped the car in the middle of a snowstorm and  offered dinner and a place to sleep to a stranger who's been nothing but grouchy to me.   Shrugging, she decided to go with her gut answer.  "Because everyone needs a friend once-in-awhile."  Well, if I had to be completely honest, there's a lot more to it than that, but I don't think his masculine pride would find the other reasons as easy to swallow. ~

There was a heavy silence, followed by mumbling that sounded something like "Yeah."  He wasn't looking at her again, but she knew that he was thanking her, in his own way.  Acceptance of her help hadn't come easy for him and that one-word admission was truly heartfelt.  Knowing that he did not want to be perceived as a charity-case, she opted for a casual tone as she turned to leave the room once again.

"Hey, no problem.  That's what friends are for, right?"  Her lips curled into a smile.  "Now hurry up and get dressed, or I'm gonna start eating without you!"  She couldn't be sure, but she thought she heard a low chuckle poorly disguised as a cough as she shut the door.  It was like music to her ears.
Posted April 2002