Now don't anybody panic, but I'm going to be doing something
a little different from here on out. 'Beast Romance' was originally intended
to be a description, not a title. As happens with me sometimes, I've got some
storyline ideas that are branching off from that original one. So now you will
be seeing my X-fiction stories under the general heading 'Neon Hearts #(whatever)',
with (eventually) a note as to who is mainly featured in any given segment.
Individual chapters will still be numbered, but will include titles. Hope it
is not TOO confusing!
Part 26--Girl Talk
As the group rose, preparing to disperse, Cassie and Hank began to gather the loose packing material and other assorted debris left over from the gift giveaway. Grabbing up loose wrappings and cramming them in the shipping boxes made Cassie feel at least momentarily useful. But then--"Here, ma'am, Ah'll take that," Sam said gallantly, removing the box from her reluctant hands. "Ah know where we dump the trash."
"Right behind you, Sam," Hank said cheerfully, both arms full with the rest of the litter. "Be right back, Cassie."
Cassie managed a smile as he bounded out the door and down the hall after his helpful young friend, leaving her alone in this group of strangers. She placed a hand on the back of the couch and tried to take a nonchalant pose. Jean caught her eye, and smiled, but to Cassie's abashed relief, none of the other X-men took any particular notice of her as they happily chatted and compared gifts.
Just as Hank returned, Rogue sauntered over to Cassie, wearing a friendly expression. "Us gals were goin' on a little shoppin' expedition this afternoon. Y'all wanna come along?"
"Oh," Cassie said, floundering. "Well...." She glanced at Hank, to see what he thought. Thus occupied, she missed Betsy noticing that reaction, and rolling her eyes at Storm and Warren.
"Unless you are too tired from our journey, feel free to go if you like," Hank urged. "I have no qualms about turning you over to the tender mercies of the distaff side of the X-men." He grinned at those present before adding, "Actually, I should meet with the professor and check my lab...."
You can't slink along after Hank like a scared puppy forever, Cassie scolded herself, trying to make her mental voice firm and sensible. "Then...sure. Why don't I...go shop?" She did her best to look enthusiastic. "When are we going?"
"Soon as ever'body's ready," Rogue said easily. "Ya know where we park th' cars--meet ya out there, sugah."
Not long after, Hank walked Cassie down to the garage. He made rather a production out of kissing her goodbye until Rogue, who was at the wheel of the minivan, honked the horn in mock-warning of imminent departure. Ignoring the blatant amusement visible in Jean and Storm's expressions, Hank assisted the fetchingly flustered Cassie aboard, and kissed her hand once more. "Enjoy yourself, my dear; I'll be counting the minutes until your return."
"F' cryin' out loud, Beast, we're goin' to th' mall, not th' moon!" Rogue informed him with only half-joking asperity. Despite the stance she had taken as the new couple's defender, she hoped this kissyface stage would be over soon. It was beginning to grate just a tad, due to her own situation with Gambit.
Cassie, after a brief hesitation, took a spot on the bench seat next to Jean. "Sorry to hold you all up."
"You haven't--Betsy's not here yet," Jean explained, stretching lazily as if preparing for a significant delay.
"AS usual," Rogue added, her faint annoyance showing in the way her gloved fingers tapped impatiently on the steering wheel.
"Betsy was once a model, and selecting just the proper outfit to wear for any given occasion is a matter of professional pride to her," Storm informed Cassie gravely, but with a twinkle in her cat-like blue eyes.
"Speaking of professions--Cassie, are you working on anything new?" Jean asked, sitting forward again as she changed the subject.
"Well, I just turned in final proofs of a novel, but it won't see print for about six months or so." Jean nodded sagely. "I'm tinkering around with some ideas for the next one...but I can't do anything about it until my computer and my stuff gets here. Which MIGHT be as soon as tomorrow, the air freight people said."
This statement brought both Storm and Rogue's heads around. Much speculation had been voiced over EXACTLY what an 'extended visit' meant in terms of Hank's, and the team's, future. This seemed like an ideal time for a little delicate questioning.
Naturally, Betsy chose that exact moment to arrive. To the group's mild surprise, she was wearing a simple but elegant pair of jeans and her new t-shirt. "Shall we?" she declared brightly, hopping into the next seat back in the van.
"You're sure you're ready?" Jean asked, with a wink at Cassie to let her know the teasing was not malicious.
"Do you like these shoes?" Betsy replied, with a hint of self-mockery. "Because I wasn't QUITE sure I didn't prefer the blue flats--I could go and change?"
In response, Rogue gunned the engine and pulled out down the drive as Jean laughed, "No way!" Cassie only gave a nervous smile and then turned to look out the window on her side.
What an odd girl for Hank to fancy, Betsy thought to herself, not for the first or even the tenth time. This situation bothered her somewhat--she had felt the same about that Trish person, and look how THAT had turned out!
Not that she had ever paid much attention, otherwise, to Hank's love life. Funny, that. Living in each others' pockets the way they all did, it would almost be ABnormal not to be curious about such things. But not only had she never given Hank's much thought, it actually took some mental effort for her to use the words 'Hank' and 'love life' in the same sentence.
It wasn't because he didn't seem masculine enough, although she had never caught him surreptitiously inspecting her costume as all the other X-men--excepting of course the professor--did from time to time. He just had the air, Betsy decided, of being too wrapped up in his research and team business to really notice how opposite the opposite sex truly was. Which MIGHT explain a lot about what went wrong between him and Trish....
Well, perhaps when she puts more than two words together, she's clever, Betsy thought with a mental sigh as she studied the back of Cassie's head. That would appeal to Hank more than looks, she was certain. Surely it was SOMETHING like intellectual attraction, and not the girl's apparent inclination to hang breathlessly on Hank's every word that was at work here. At least she HOPED Hank was not so shallow!
Dismissing this train of thought, Betsy joined into a discussion with her teammates about the relative merits of starting on the upper or lower level of the mall, and at which store. Not that it mattered--they usually toured the entire complex no matter what. Shopping styles were sacred to some people!
Cassie, knowing she would follow along regardless, simply listened as she gazed out the window. Such a lot of trees and shrubs and underbrush here! Excessive greenery was the first thing that always struck her as alien when she travelled away from Colorado. During out-of-state family trips as a child, the presence of so many trees had often made her have nightmares about the scary forest in the Wizard of Oz. Now she rather liked seeing different environments, but it did take some getting used to each time. And it was easier to acclimate to trees than the HUMIDITY, but she supposed she would grow accustomed to that, too.
Once at the mall, the quartet of friends moved almost in concert as they secured the van and headed for the entrance. Cassie trailed at one side, with and yet not really a part of the happy, chattering group. Inside, the mall was in essence exactly like every other mall in the world. Cassie had often thought that if you were flown blindfolded to any given mall in the country, the only way to even guess what state you were in would be to seek out a sportswear shop and see which franchised teams had the most items for sale.
As they walked along, she could not help but notice how many male heads turned to mark their progress. Four gorgeous supermodels...and their publicist--that would be an apt description of their little group. Cassie had never considered herself to be insecure about her looks, but she had never run in this caliber of company, either. Number 23 on my list of things to learn to deal with, she thought wryly.
The women moved purposefully down the mall, pausing before some shop displays, skipping others. Betsy in particular seemed to have firm ideas as to which stores were worth browsing in. When they walked past a Waldenbooks without a second glance, Cassie felt a faint pang, but she went on with the rest, content to listen to their conversation and learn about them in that way.
"So Warren says, 'Never annoy a ninja with PMS,' and Bishop says, 'What's that?' I ask you!"
"Sometimes Ah think he's pullin' our leg, Ah really do...."
The trouble with coming shopping was that there wasn't really anything Cassie felt like she needed; following Hank's helpful suggestions, she had packed virtually every item of clothing she owned, and it was all either here or in transit. This being May, the front racks in all the stores were full of fall clothes, and wondering whether she would still be out here by then was too unsettling to dwell on.
"Don't let me forget to buy Scott some socks, if we see any good sales."
"He needs socks again? You just bought him some last month! What on earth does he do with them?"
"I don't know WHERE they go. I'm going to stage a raid on Gambit's sock drawer one of these days, just to check."
"Hey, Gambit might be a jerk, but he wouldn' steal Scott's socks!" Rogue said with unexpected heat, then added with a disdainful sniff, "Not those white jock thangs, anyways. Y'oughta try lookin' behind y'all's divan."
Before a verbal brushwar could break out over something so petty as missing socks, or how often Jean vacuumed behind her couch, Betsy hastily said, "Oh, look, we HAVE to stop in here--50% off on leather AND silk!" This effectively distracted the possible combatants.
Stuck in yet another nameless boutique, Cassie edged slightly away from the others, though she took care to stay within visual range. In this store, the men's clothing section was right next to the women's, and she had spotted a rack of sweaters she wanted to investigate.
They were mostly bulky fisherman's sweaters, with cabled designs in intricate patterns knitted into the cuffs and chest. A midnight blue one, with the stripe faintly picked out in yarn one shade lighter caught her eye; that color would look so good on Hank! She took the hanger off the rack and, lower lip thrust out, was mentally calculating size when she heard someone say, "That's a nice 'un."
It was Rogue. Cassie couldn't see anything in her amiable expression that revealed whether she'd noticed how her sudden words had made Cassie jump. "I like the design," she managed to reply. "But I don't know..."
"Don' know?" Rogue prompted gently, once the pause threatened to lengthen uncomfortably.
Cassie hesitated a second more, then blurted out, "I don't even know if Hank WEARS sweaters."
Rogue looked taken aback for an instant. Then her brow furrowed in attempted recollection. "Yeah. Yeah, Ah've seen him wear sweaters."
Cassie put the garment in question back into place with its brothers. "I guess you think it's strange, me not knowing that," she murmured.
Now Rogue smiled again. "Ya've known Hank HOW long, sugah?"
"Two weeks, and a little," Cassie admitted.
"Gal, if ya could know everythin' there was ta know about the man in two weeks, he wouldn' be WORTH knowin', would he?"
Slowly, Cassie's face brightened. "I hadn't thought of it that way. You're right."
Just then a clerk presented herself. "May I help you with anything?"
"Um...do you have this sweater in a larger size?" Cassie asked, pulling her pick off the rack again.
The clerk inspected the tag, which said 'L'. "How much larger?"
"What have you got?" Cassie asked seriously, which made Rogue make a strange snorting noise. Cassie glanced at her quickly, but relaxed when she saw Rogue was only amused. To the clerk, she said, "Think...professional football player."
The clerk's expression didn't change, to her credit. "Linebacker," Rogue added helpfully.
"WITH shoulder pads," Cassie further stipulated, eyes sparkling now. The clerk, allowing herself only a faint, professional smile, departed, leaving Cassie and Rogue free to break into a fit of chortling.
"Y'all are gonna get along here jus' fine, ya know," Rogue told her when they had gotten themselves under control. "Ah know it's hard for ya right now--bin the new kid mahself."
"Everyone's been very nice," Cassie hastened to say.
"Y'all're ahead of where Ah was when Ah joined up, at least." At Cassie's dubious expression, she explained, "Ah'd been runnin' on the othah side of the fence, not knowin' any better. One of th' bad guys."
"Really?" Cassie asked, eyes wide. There were bad guys?
"Oh, yeah," Rogue assured her nonchalantly. "But we all worked it out. It'll be okay, sugah, really."
The clerk returned triumphant, bearing an XXXL, which Cassie and Rogue declared perfect. They rejoined the others, who had found no booty worth bearing off despite the sale, and headed down the mall's corridors again.
Before very much longer they came to a cozy pub nestled between more pedestrian establishments. Somewhat to Cassie's surprise, they all trooped inside and took up seats at a large table. She followed the example of the others and ordered refreshment, a wine cooler. Small talk ensued, which Cassie listened to attentively, smile firmly in place.
"Shall we get down to business, ladies?" Jean asked, once the drinks had arrived and been passed around. Her 'society matron' tone was at least partly offset by a frivolous grin. "I call this meeting of the X-Women's Getting To Know You Club to order."
To Cassie's well-disguised horror, all eyes turned towards her. 'Just think of it as one of those 'Meet the author' deals', Cassie instructed herself firmly, as she felt her smile grow increasingly tense. Not that that would help much--she HATED those things.
"Seriously, we thought it would be nice to have a chance for all of us to kind of chat, without the guys along," Jean explained.
So they HAD noticed her pretty much hiding behind Hank since they'd arrived, Cassie thought guiltily. So much for not wanting them to think she was strange. "It was n-nice of you all to invite me."
"Tell me, dear, are you ALWAYS this nervous around strangers?" Betsy demanded in a drawl that took SOME of the edge off her words.
"No. Sometimes I'm MUCH worse," Cassie explained with perfect sincerity.
The attempt at humor deflected some of Betsy's innate distaste for what she thought were silly girlish vapors. "How in the world did you strike up an acquaintance with Hank, then?"
Cassie's smile at the memory changed her whole face, erasing its tension in a glow which suddenly made Betsy see how Hank might very easily find this woman beautiful. "Oh, well, Hank...before I knew it, I felt like I'd known him forever."
"It must have been mutual, because it was most unusual for Hank to drop everything and fly out to Denver," Storm informed her.
"Heck, it was unusual for him to bring you over for lunch that day," Jean added. "Up to now, Hank has mostly kept his...personal life...separate from anything to do with the X-men."
"Oh. Well...." What was that supposed to be, a warning? "I know how important his work--your work--is," Cassie assured them, clenching her hands in her lap where no one could see. "I'll do my best not to disrupt things." She ducked her head, offering a faint smile. "I tend to be fairly unobtrusive."
"No kiddin'," Rogue said, playfully pretending to punch her on the arm. Cassie bore this without a visual flinch, knowing Rogue meant well.
"I think meeting you and going on a little vacation was VERY GOOD for Hank," Jean said firmly. "And it could well be that's partly what fast-forwarded your relationship--you can learn so much about a person when you travel with them."
"THAT'S for sure," Rogue said with feeling. "Did y'all know Bobby whistles? ALL th' blame time?" Groans and snickering greeted this statement. "Ah had to come home before Ah cracked and ripped his lips off."
"So...do you travel a lot, Cassie?" Betsy inquired. "Due to your profession, I mean?"
"Not REALLY a lot. Less than my agent would like me to," Cassie explained, taking a good gulp of her wine cooler. Everyone was clearly waiting for her to continue, so she did. "About a dozen times this last year, I guess. You have to do it, anymore; the fans expect to get to meet these people they're spending their money on--and I guess that's fair."
"So it's just business; you don't get to sightsee much?" Jean guessed.
"Not much. I had a day off between two events when I met Hank. That was just an amazingly lucky fluke." They all nodded with respect for the amount of luck a happenstance like that required. "Sometimes the tours are interesting, though. I met Fabio once."
"You've met FABIO!? In real LIFE!?" Jean was amazed and decidedly envious. Her heart belonged, without question, to Scott, but sometimes she did wonder what he would look like with longer hair...dyed blond....
"Oh, yeah," Cassie said, pleased to have found a subject that interested her companions. "He was on a book tour too. A bunch of us were scheduled together at a big grand opening of something or other...I think it was one of those ladies-only health spas."
"What's he like up close?" Jean demanded hungrily.
"I believe Jean means, was he wearing a shirt?" Storm interjected, her dry tone underlining her amusement at her friend's rabid interest.
"Oh...let me think...."
"Y'all hafta THINK about whether or not he was showin' off his chest?" Rogue asked, plainly disbelieving.
"I remember he was...very nice and charming to everyone. Kissing people's hands and such. But I'm not sure about the shirt."
"He's jus' not much ta write home about, compared to ol' Hank?" Rogue teased.
"That's exactly it," Cassie agreed, grateful to Rogue for coming up with an understandable excuse for her inability to further describe the King of Romance's best qualities. But at these words, the four other women produced nearly identical dumbfounded stares. Oh, NOW what have I said?
"You think HANK," Jean said after a moment, in a 'let me get this straight' tone, "is better looking than FABIO...."
Cassie grinned weakly and fiddled with her straw. "Well...yeah."
"Gal, you MUS' be in love!" hooted Rogue, and the rest burst out into gales of laughter.
Cassie looked around the table dubiously, but slowly smiled again as she realized they seemed to actually admire her personal madness. "To each their own goo, as the French don't say."
"Beast is a lovely fellow, and I for one am quite glad he has found someone who appreciates him so," Betsy said firmly, which garnered echoing nods. Then a contemplative look crossed her face. "Although that Fabio chap is not half-bad, actually."
"But you DO have to talk to them SOMETIMES, either before or after," Storm pointed out in her wickedly understated way. This caused another round of hilarity in which Cassie found herself participating. Funny how one little thing like laughing with a group could suddenly make you feel really a part of things.
"Okay," Jean said, leaning forward, which caused everyone else to do so as well, tightening the circle. "Even though Hank is like...like a brother to me, I HAVE to know--how is he?"
"How...IS he?" Cassie repeated apprehensively. Surely Jean wasn't REALLY hinting for intimate details here?
"JEAN!" Storm interjected, trying to cover her amusement with a stern frown.
"Oh, yes, like you aren't dying to know as well!" Betsy mocked. Storm gave the most delicate of shrugs, silently admitting the truth of this, and they both looked expectantly at Cassie. Rogue rolled her eyes, but didn't intervene.
Cassie blushed. She had always been one of the listeners, never the reporter, during college dorm chats; it was years too late to realize she'd missed learning a crucial skill. "Well, he's...fine. Very fine. More than fine." Cassie staggered to a halt, knowing her silly grin was telling everyone she was a total idiot. I'm sure they're all wondering now how I've managed to make my living with words....'
Jean would not be deterred. "Okay, I can understand you wanting to be discreet. But how about...on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being outstanding? Where would you rate him, satisfaction-wise?"
Well, that wasn't so hard to talk about--just a number. Cassie gave the matter brief but serious deliberation. "About...a 12."
This revelation produced screams of appreciation and disbelief from Jean and Betsy, brought a broad grin to Rogue's face and even caused Storm to break into melodious laughter. "No WAY!" shrieked Jean, causing people from all over the bar to stare at their table.
"Really a 12?" Betsy looked Cassie over in a whole new, and much more approving, light. "Would that be a high score sort of thing, or...."
"Consistently," Cassie asserted firmly, producing yet another chorus of delighted howls, and even a bit of table-pounding.
Betsy interrupted the hilarity by saying, "Ladies, I think we are about to be asked to depart...."
"It is that same guy?" Rogue demanded, looking around. "Because Ah'm kinda sick of his attitude--"
"AND I have thought of something we absolutely MUST buy," Betsy continued. Storm and Jean rose, and Cassie followed suit. Rogue, still muttering about the bartender, did the same.
They proceeded down the mall in Betsy's wake, until she stopped short and turned to face them all. "Hank brought us all such lovely gifts that I feel we should get HIM something in return." Cassie started to murmur a protest, uncertain what the exact etiquette was here. "And YOU get to help," Betsy continued to her, eyes agleam. She stepped aside and swept her arm out, indicating the doorway of Frederick's of Hollywood.
"Oh, no, I couldn't, really," Cassie gasped, but she was caught up by her giggling new friends and borne into the shop.
"Sugah, Hank'll love it," Rogue assured her. "Ya know he will."
"Well...." No doubt Rogue was right about that, Cassie thought as she gawked sheepishly at the sheer tons of lace, satin, sequins and froth surrounding them.
"Can I help you?" inquired a clerk.
"We'll let you know if we find anything suitable," Betsy said in her most imperious 'I'M the shopper here' tones, and the clerk left them to their own devices.
"Just look around," Jean urged. "The key is to find something YOU think is sexy. Hank will like it, whatever it is. But wearing something you feel silly in just doesn't cut it." She grimaced with half-amusement, half-exasperation at some memory. "Trust me on this one."
"Ooooh, sounds like we have a story-telling candidate for the next club meeting," Betsy said, arching her eyebrows suggestively.
"We. Do. Not," Jean retorted with a quelling frown.
"Ah, c'mon, Jean. Fair's fair," Rogue reminded her. "What'd Scott git for ya? Somethin' like this?" She held up a skimpy red and white parody of a cheerleader's outfit.
"I only wish." Jean shook her head, seeing her friends would not be backing off without at least a few further details. "Let's just say, I kept expecting him to slip any second and call me Emma."
"EEEeeewww!" chorused Betsy and Rogue, and Storm looked faintly disgusted. Cassie smiled politely, since the reference meant nothing whatsoever to her, and began to examine the various garments on display.
"This is cute," Jean said, firmly changing the subject as she held a white lace teddy set up for Cassie's inspection.
"Oh, sugah, no, not white. Cassie's a 'summer'."
"Cassie's a Summers?" Jean repeated sharply.
"A sumMER. Like th' season. You n'me are autumn, Betsy's...kind of a strange autumn...."
"NO one does color-matching by seasons anymore, Rogue," Betsy explained briskly but kindly. "Although you ARE right, Cassie should pick something red...or with that honey-colored hair...black."
"Black would be extremely striking," Storm concurred.
"What about this?" Cassie dared, holding up a simple black satin number. It looked form-fitting, with a plunging neckline and rhinestone spaghetti straps. She held it up in front of her, and estimated the hem length with her fingertips. About mid-thigh at best--of course, no one would be seeing her in it but Hank....
"Oh, I like it," Betsy said instantly, and the others murmured approval as well. "Sophisticated, elegant...and deadly hot. Need any help trying it on?"
Cassie colored instantly. "NO! Ah...no, thanks, I can manage."
"Not ever'body thinks it's a party to trot 'round in the altogether tryin' on skimpies with their friends, Betsy," Rogue scolded.
Betsy shrugged in response. "Well, you do that, dear, and we'll select the accessories. What size hose do you wear? Average?"
"Um. Yeah, but--"
"You MUST wear sheer black hose and a garter belt with that," Betsy told her firmly. "Trust ME on this one. Now run along...."
A short time later, Cassie emerged from the dressing rooms, pink cheeked but smiling. "It fits," she informed her waiting audience.
"And do you like how it looks on you?" Jean inquired. Cassie gave a silly, happy nod. "Then hand it over, girl, so we can get it rung up!"
"I...um...thank you all. Thanks," Cassie blurted as she gave the sleek black bit of dreams into Jean's hands.
"Don't be silly, dear. Whatever're friends for?" Betsy said with a genuinely warm smile as she placed the accessories she had selected on the counter next to Cassie's outfit. "We shan't even ask you if it has an improving effect on Hank's score."
"Although feel free to tell us, if you like, next meeting," Jean winked. Rogue unobtrusively nodded at Cassie, an unspoken 'Didn't I tell you?' hanging in the air between them. Then, transaction complete, the five friends walked out into the mall, together.
Continued in Part 27.
"Winter, spring, summer or fall,