Neon Hearts
Author's Notes
The Ticket
Talking to strangers
Inching up to the brink
Falling in slow motion
At Silver's
Specters of the Past
The Morning After
Public appearances
First impressions
Dangerous dreams
Picking winners
Hank's bad day
Happy landings
Meeting the folks
Beware of the cat
Plans and possibilities
Taking chances
Room service and...
The road less traveled by
Shadows in the starlight
Grand Lake
Life in the breakdown lane
Family matters
Homeward bound
Simple gifts
Girl talk
Comforts of home
Open secrets
Good intentions
Every stop is a place to start
Whispers out of the past
Judgement calls
Crosscurrents & riptides
Past tensions, future trials
High spirits at Muir Island
Growing things
The best defense

This story is in progress.

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Stars and Garters

Thanks again to Chris Fisher, La Reina Pescadora, for some of the brilliant gift ideas contained within. (Where were you at Christmas, huh?) And thanks again to Marvel for most of the characters, upon whom they maintain copyright.

Part 25--Simple Gifts

Cassie unobtrusively scanned the crowd seated around the dining table, taking a quick head count. Twice as many people present as last time, not counting her and Hank, all happily chatting away to him and each other. More was probably better, though. Less chance of anyone thinking it odd she didn't join in the conversation much.

Luckily Hank was voluble enough for both of them. Also, he was doing quite a good job of drawing her into the friendly exchange by questioning her about details of their trip, making her seem to be participating far more than she actually was. Always thoughtful, that's Hank, she thought, and smiled to herself, brushing her leg against his under the table.

He turned his head in response, meeting her eyes with an unspoken question. When she only gave him a hint of an appreciative wink, he grinned broadly. No words needed here for communication!

"'F you two keep on makin' eyes at each other like dat, Gambit gon' be gettin' jealous," commented the man seated in front of Hank, and Cassie blushed as various diners chortled.

Rogue's response was a disgusted snort, which caused the cheerful light to die from Gambit's eyes. Hank noted that with some concern. It would seem Rogue's return had NOT resulted in a reconciliation between her and Gambit, which was...unfortunate. In his current state of relationship bliss, he pitied those not similarly blessed.

"Hank said you cooked the lunch today," Cassie said to Gambit, feeling a need to say SOMETHING back to the man. "It's...really good. I've never eating anything like it before." That part was true; the jury was still out on the first half of her sentence.

Gambit brightened, glad of the change of subject. "Gal, you neveh eat Cajun food befo'? What kin' of wilderness you COME from?"

"Oh, it's not the West, it's me," Cassie hastened to explain. "I...just haven't had the nerve to try it before. I guess I'm not too adventurous."

Now it was Hank's turn to snort, though he managed to do it fondly. "Do you cook a lot?"

"Got t'have real food aroun' here SOMEtime, chere," Gambit drawled.

"Hey, watch it, you," said Jean, pretending to take offense.

"If yer talkin' real food," Logan said in the raspy voice that made his most benign comment sound like a battle challenge, "it ain't gumbo, Gumbo!"

"Dat's right, Wolverine only like raw meat," Gambit retorted, winking openly at Cassie.

"Rare steak AIN'T the same as raw meat, Cajun! I can SHOW you some raw meat, if ya keep on!"

"Let us have no unseemly violence at my coming home party," Hank suggested, waving both supposed combatants down.

Cassie, momentary alarm shrinking at Hank's obvious lack of distress, returned her attention to the spicy shrimp in front of her. She was quite happy to eat unusual food if it came with Hank's having such a good time. He was fairly vibrating with his elation at being home again, and it was more than clear his warm affection was returned by his comrades. You see, she scolded herself, if nothing else, you have THAT in common with all these people. The sole exception, she amended, seemed to be the silent, watchful black man named Bishop. Several times now she had noticed him eyeing her suspiciously when he thought Hank wasn't looking. Does he think I'm going to pinch the silverware, or what? she wondered indignantly. Looked like more questions to Hank were in order, when they were alone together again. And that would be soon, she hoped.

As the conversation turned naturally to X-men related topics, Cassie dropped fully into 'mental note' taking mode. The only person who said less than she during this phase was another blond youth, lankier and taller than Bobby, who'd been introduced to her as Sam, a fairly new addition to the ranks. It had rather tickled Cassie to hear him solemnly refer to Hank as 'Dr. McCoy', and to call her 'ma'am'. At least she wasn't the only one on the outside looking in on the result of years of camaraderie.

As the meal began to wind to a close, Hank drew everyone's attention by tapping a spoon against his water glass, creating a melodious chime which Cassie knew meant the glassware had NOT come from K-Mart. She hoped desperately that Hank was not planning to make a toast or say anything else to draw attention to her. But she affixed an attentive smile to her face and shifted slightly in her chair to better face him.

"After the meal, if I could impose on you all to suspend your scheduled activities for a few brief moments?" he said, looking around the assemblage. "I've brought back a few mementos which I would like to distribute. Shall we say, in the rec room in fifteen minutes?"

Hank's request was greeted with cheerful acceptance; even Bishop displayed a smile for a fraction of an instant as he nodded. Jean, Scott, Bobby and Sam began clearing the table, Jean scolding Bobby as he started stacking all the water glasses on a serving platter. "Bobby, you KNOW what happened last time."

"Yeah. Don't worry, I'm freezing 'em down this time, see?" In demonstration, he held the platter and its contents by one glass, letting the rest hang suspended...until the combined weight broke the thin ice seal he had created. "Ooops!" Cassie gasped, anticipating disaster. But Bobby grabbed at the tray with his free hand, and within a microsecond, it and its contents were enveloped in a thick sheet of ice, so that nothing fell or spilled. She was deeply impressed.

Jean, however, was not. "Oh, Bobby, for heaven' sake! That's going to take HOURS to melt, and make a big mess!"

He followed with clownishly slumped shoulders and drooping head, pretending to be stricken by remorse.

"You'd better set it on the counter, on some newspapers...." Jean trailed off as they left the room.

"Should we...?" Cassie said to Hank, indicating the table. There was not much left to carry, but she felt awkward, not offering to help.

"Looks like they've got it," Hank replied, as Sam bustled out to gather up the rest of the meal's debris. Jean also appeared, nodded in satisfaction as Scott rolled up the tablecloth and popped open a handy door, tossing it in. Laundry chute, or closet? Cassie wondered absurdly. No doubt a laundry chute--Jean was obviously not the type to tolerate the latter.

Hank headed for the rec room, Cassie following. "Who wants to help tote some boxes?" he asked those already present. "Rogue? Logan? You said they're in my lab, I think?" he added to Scott.

"I'll come help hold doors," Cassie blurted, and breezed out in Hank's wake.

After giving the group a moment to get well down the hall, Betsy, who was sitting on the arm of a couch next to Warren, spoke. "It's amazing--you can barely see the little string attaching her to him." Warren smirked and patted her knee.

Jean smiled too, but then added, "I think it's sweet."

"Nothing wrong with liking to be around somebody," Scott echoed her. "Sit practically in their lap every second, stuff like that." Always having to wear shades made it difficult to give someone a reproving look, but somehow he'd learned to do it. Betsy sat up straight so that she was no longer leaning against Warren's shoulder.

"I'm sure if we continue to make her feel welcome she will soon be more at ease in our presence," Xavier said, hoping to subdue the normal gossip process just a little.

Logan entered, carrying the largest of the boxes that had so excited curiosity and comment when they arrived; Rogue was close behind with the remaining two. "Hank an' Cassie had to go get some things out of their suitcases up in Hank's room," she explained.

"They WILL be back within an hour or so, don't you think?" inquired Bobby, and Gambit laughed out loud, reaching over to clap him on the back.

"Ah DON' think ever'body should be teasin' 'em!" Rogue said with narrowed eyes, sharing her repressing look between the guilty pair, who were still snickering. "Hank's found him somebody willin' to put up with all the craziness 'round here, an' Ah don' think we oughta--"

"Shh, here they come," interrupted Jean. Handy being a telepath sometimes. When the pair walked in, the group was merely sitting in expectant, well-behaved silence. Hank bore the already infamous parrot stand and a largish parcel, and Cassie's arms were full of smaller ones. He took a spot at the head of the group, beaming indiscriminately at his assembled friends, Cassie firmly at his side.

They do seem a LITTLE joined at the hip, Jean thought. Surely she was never that honeymoonish with Scott? Maybe it had something to do with Cassie being a romance writer...although so far she was quite different from how Jean had thought a writer would be.

"I knew I would need to return with souvenirs for you all to prove that I DID think of you at least now and then while I was away," Hank began.

"Leaving us to struggle on without you as best we might," Warren bantered.

"And I was continually racked with guilt, I can assure you," Hank replied solemnly. Cassie privately thought this was not entirely a joke. "Let's get down to it, then."

He selected an oblong box from the stack Cassie had arranged on a convenient chair, and placed it on the most centrally located coffee table. "Chocolates." Feigned groans immediately rose up from Betsy and Jean. "You might as well resign yourselves. There are plenty more where those came from, and I am NOT going to eat them all by myself. A man has to know his limits."

"I'LL help," Bobby said valiantly, and began to tear off the cellophane wrapping. "'Bravely, with no thought for his own safety, Bobby threw himself on the box of deadly candy!'" he intoned dramatically. Several pairs of eyes rolled.

"Well, let's see--the newest X-man first, I think." Hank handed the large parcel he had been carrying to Sam, who grinned self-consciously as he tore off the brown paper wrapping. The grin turned half into a dubious frown as he extracted a large stuffed rabbit-like creature, whose huge ears competed for space on the top of its head with a set of antlers. "It's called a jackalope," Hank explained in his best professorial mode. "I don't know if you have these in the Kentucky mountains, as I am told they are native to the West...."

"Gee, Dr. McCoy, Ah hope they didn't take ya for a tourist and fool ya!" Sam's wise eyes belied the drawled, exaggerated innocence. "Ah was just out there with Storm and Logan and Caliban, and we saw a lotta postcards of these things! They aren't real!" The group guffawed to see the tables turned on Hank's attempted hoax. "But Ah surely do thank ya, all the same. Ah kinda wanted one, but couldn't afford it."

"You are quite welcome, Sam." Hank turned to take up the parrot stand. "Warren, as you may have been warned, this is for you, if you want it. Don't let anyone carrying it get behind you." As he passed over the stand, he explained, "I have already been bludgeoned with it numerous times."

"If it gave you so much trouble, I'll treasure it forever," Warren assured him. He looked it over with an assessing, not displeased eye. "You know, I think I can hang neckties on it."

"Or you could buy a parrot, aiding the theory that pets and owners look alike," Hank added helpfully, earning himself a weary sigh from his victim. Cassie, thinking she should be finding some way to participate, handed Hank a box, almost as big as the jackalope, made of heavily shellacked old wood and covered with over a dozen locks of various kinds. "And then, Gambit--" Hank said, after thanking her.

"Many t'anks, mon ami!" said Gambit, clearly pleased. He was already fingering them with a speculative look in his eye. "There are some little dexterity puzzles inside as well; probably too simple to afford you much challenge..." Gambit just nodded, rapt in his examination.

"I can see no one will be reading YOUR diary, Gambit," Betsy remarked.

"Like anyone wants to," muttered Rogue, mostly under her breath.

Cassie handed Hank the next object, wrapped in a plain paper shopping bag, which he gave over to Bishop. Discomfort warred with what could almost be called pleasure on the stern face. Several whistles of admiration were heard as he drew forth a black leather vest. As he examined it from all sides, Bishop discovered a brass star that said "Sheriff" pinned on the left front side, and gave Hank a puzzled look. "I'll explain the reference later, if you like," Hank offered. "I think one of the cable channels is doing reruns of Gunsmoke...."

"Channel 42, at 11 o'clock every night," Scott spoke up, and Jean nodded ruefully, which brought forth a new round of teasing remarks. It's just a game they play with each other, Cassie realized, feeling relieved to discover the group's tendency to make pointed jokes was not solely directed at her and Hank.

Rogue's gift was a dark green velvet box, which Hank handed over with a gallant half-bow. She opened it slowly, half-expecting something to jump out, but gasped with pleasure at what she found. A pair of antique silk gloves, faintly ivoried with age, gleamed within. She unfolded them reverently, displaying them to the group; they were elbow length, with mother of pearl wrist buttons, and three tiny satin roses at each outer wrist. "Hank, they're beautiful."

"Just something a little fancy to wear when you go out," he replied modestly, while avoiding looking over at Gambit, whose face had lost all expression. "Speaking of which, I wouldn't mind a bunch of us hitting Silver's one of these nights." There was a babble of approval at that idea.

Now it was time to get into the shipping containers. Hank slit the tape on the first carton with his sharp nail, and, with Cassie's help, scuffled around in it. He dug out handfuls of packing paper and passed it to his willing assistant, who was glad to at last have something to do besides imitate a game show spokesmodel. "Oh, it's this--" Hank looked a query at Cassie and she said, nodding with her chin, "There, on the chair arm." Professor Xavier noted their easy use of the kind of short, truncated phrases that were like a code within firm relationships, and tentatively dismissed one of his reservations. Communication between them was obviously not a problem.

"Take two, they're small," Hank grinned to Bobby, handing him a sweatshirt and a wrapped parcel. "I should point out to all of you that most of the rest of these items are breakable, so take care in your unwrapping." The sweatshirt, adorned with the heroically posed ice sculpture and the 'Poetry in Ice' slogan was good for a hearty laugh. "It looks just LIKE me!" Bobby crowed in pretend amazement.

"In your dreams, pal," mocked Logan.

The wrapped parcel was revealed as a small but elegant paperweight, smooth glass with numerous tiny crystal snowflakes embedded in it, swirling in an invisible wind. They caught the light and threw it back as Bobby turned it. "Gee thanks, Hank, this is great!" Hank nodded to Cassie, who had been the one to spot it and suggest it.

"I have an item of clothing for Betsy as well," Hank informed everyone. Instead of passing it over, he held it
up so everyone could see the words, 'When someone says you kick like a girl, take it as a compliment!' She trilled a laugh, clapping her hands. "I seldom wear t-shirts, but I fancy I'll make an exception with this one."

Hank presented the shirt, and another small wrapped parcel. It proved to contain a 'snowstorm' globe, but with tiny ninja stars instead of regular flakes floating in the liquid inside. A diminutive black figure floated when shaken as well, then landed on one leg, the other one held out in a kick, as everything settled. After Betsy had exclaimed over it, Warren took it from her, rotating it to watch the miniature shuriken spin as the gift giving ceremony continued.

Ororo was sitting alone in a chair rather than on one of the couches, regal as a cat. Graciously, she thanked Hank as he handed her a package, then unwrapped it with great care, mindful of the warning. All that showed at first, after the cardboard protector was lifted, was a set of silver wires lying atop a heap of glass pieces. Ororo picked up the chain, and a sighing sound of admiration echoed around the group. Her gift was a windchime, with semi-stylized clouds and rain and lighting of crystal and colored glass arranged to make a storm frozen in a moment of time. With a gesture, she created a puff of a breeze and it tinkled like rain against a window. The glow on Ororo's face proved her delight in her gift, and made her look even more stunning than usual. Cassie thought wistfully, I wish I could be HALF that beautiful. One third, even.

"I feel selfish hanging it in my room, for my sole enjoyment. But I shall anyway," Ororo confessed with a smile.

The next item to come to hand was for Jean and Scott both. "I hope you can bear sharing a gift," Hank told them. They peeled back the paper together to reveal a suncatcher, inspired by Tiffany glass. It was heart-shaped, a light but clear red, edged by a border of stained glass columbines in a riot of colors. "Oh, I know the PERFECT window for this!" Jean said. As soon as Jean enthused over it, Scott joined in, exactly as Hank had assured Cassie he would.

"Logan." No flowery sentiments on either side, with this one. Logan's gift was a larger window piece, an etching on a single piece of round glass that had been cast in a meld of stark black and white. A lone wolf in a snowy night field stood looking calmly out, its stance and expression communicating the sense that it was untameable, and glad of it. The shading that created the background and colored the central figure suggested the wave of the yin/yang symbol. Logan nodded his approval, said, "Thanks, Hank," and laid it gently on his knees.

That left only the professor, and the largest box was still unemptied. Hank took the item inside it out, and reverently passed it over. It was another window hanging piece, this one contrived to look like an actual miniature window from some old fashioned country house, with white enameled frames and sills, and tiny brass fittings. In one of the smaller, upper panes, a tromp d'oeil representation of a small blue bottle, with a dandelion in it, appeared to sit on the ledge of the sash. The large lower pane was faintly pink, and contained occasional bubbles, like old-style handblown glass. An inscription was etched lightly across the top, 'Look out upon the world with hope...'. Near the bottom right corner was a deliberate flaw, a dab of vaguely heart shaped, deeper pink, and by it the phrase continued '...and love.'. The professor only stared for a long moment, holding it in both hands. "Thank you, Hank, Cassie," he said at last. "I think I will hang this in the window in my office." There was a tremor of emotion in his voice even Cassie, a stranger to him, could hear.

Hank put his arm around Cassie, and gave her a surreptitious hug. She could somehow sense his pleasure and relief that the gift he had deliberated over the longest had been so well-received.

"You should go on vacation more often, if you're going to bring back great presents like this," suggested the irrepressible Bobby, popping another chocolate in his mouth.

"On the contrary," Hank responded cheerfully, "you'd better hope I get my MasterCard paid off before Christmas."

Continued in Part 26.

....Friends are presents you give yourself.

More chapters of this story can be found at Ro's Treasury OR from the author, Susan Crites  IF you can't access the Web.
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Disclaimer: Since I am a) inserting a new character and b) not privy to any of Marvel's editorial decisions, this story is forced to be an alternate universe. It is similar to the 'real' one when it works out, plotwise, okay? And I DO make mistakes sometimes, I know. Such is life.
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