Here's the next chapter at last; sorry for the major delay.
Sometimes I have a harder time than others squeezing the scenes out of my brain,
through my fingers and into the computer! Plus we've all been infected with
the Lethargy Virus around my house.... <coff>
Part 27--Comforts of Home
With well-mixed emotions, Hank watched from a discreet vantage point inside the mansion as the shopping expedition departed. Cassie hadn't seemed TOO distressed at being thrust out in the company of her new housemates. He suspected, however, that she might have been feigning her interest in the activity. Just as HE had been pretending her going off with the others was the most natural thing in the world, to demonstrate his confidence in her ability to assimilate.
The truth of the matter was, her anxiety over whether she would fit in here was quite plain to him, evident in a dozen ways despite the brave front she was trying to project. Had it been wise, he wondered, to encourage her to confront her fears so soon?
Well, if his urging had been a mistake, it was too late to correct it now. Besides, what could possibly go wrong on a simple trip to the mall? Don't answer that, Hank told himself, but smiled as he thought it, his optimistic nature on the upswing again. The euphoric mood he'd been in ever since Cassie had agreed to come back with him made it difficult for him to worry long.
Ever since she had said yes, Hank had caught himself looking at Cassie at random moments and thinking, in utter wonder, Coming home with me. Coming HOME. With ME! He was aware there was almost certainly a subconscious component behind his fixation on the idea, and possibly the heady satisfaction as well; he might even be able to put a name to it, if pressed. It was not a PC thought for a man of the '90s, but there was something primitively gratifying about having gone out into the world and returned home with...a mate.
Humming happily, Hank turned away from the window. First, check in with the professor, he told himself, then down to the labs. Business before pleasure, he added with a semi-guilty pang.
Hank found Xavier in his study. With an odd twinge of jealousy, he noticed that the stained glass window hanging was already in place. Had the professor asked someone ELSE to mount it for him? Or had he simply felt no need to call in his newly returned handyman, and taken care of the task himself?
Yes, that was surely the answer. Hank shook his head, wryly amused at his irrational suspicion. How odd, the way people clung so ferociously to their perceived roles, even the ones they sometimes protested!
"I'm glad you're back, Hank," Xavier said with a brief but warm smile. "I don't realize how much I use you for a sounding board until you aren't around."
Pleased out of reason at the unexpected tribute, Hank plopped into the large armchair with an answering grin. "Something come up while I was gone?"
"Nothing new." The professor leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers, and Hank waited patiently, well used to Xavier's unique sense of conversational timing. Somewhat to his surprise, the ensuing debriefing was short, almost perfunctory. Of course, little had happened during his absence he had not already been apprised of during phone calls home. Perhaps the main purpose of the meeting was to help the professor reorder his 'mental map' of the team status. Beast--present. Accompanied by visitor, status unknown, Hank imagined him thinking, and smiled to himself.
Oddly enough, Xavier ignored the subject of Cassie completely. Hank wondered at the lapse, but knew better than to push. The professor would broach the subject in his own way, in his own time.
With a light heart, Hank left Xavier's office, his anticipation rising as the elevator descended to the lab levels. All the rooms were as orderly as he had left them, the familiar equipment seeming to be patiently awaiting his return to bring it back to life. What an anthropomorphic concept, he told himself, amused by his imagination. But he did feel oddly welcomed, all the same.
The first thing he did was sit down at his main workstation and place a call to Moira at Muir Island. If anything interesting had surfaced lately in the scientific community they both moved in, she would know about it.
"There y'are, ye great slacker," she berated him with cheerful mock-impatience, when she came to her lab's phone screen. "Through with yer rambles for the time bein', then?"
"For the time being, I'm quite happy to be back home and back to work," Hank smiled. He knew Moira would express herself entirely differently if she were truly upset at him for taking a break. "Did I miss anything exciting while I was out of the loop?"
"Grimes and Merrill at Stanford put out a monograph on inducin' selective stem cell differentiation, and they're taking a lot of flak from the auld boys, as ye can imagine."
Hank could instantly picture some useful possibilities. "You think there's anything to it?"
"Y'know me--'Wait and see' McTaggart. I'll be interested to know what ye think, but mainly I want t'see independent replication."
Hank knew well that, given her current state of health, Moira couldn't afford to put her hope into anything but sure things. "Sounds interesting anyway. What else?"
"Nae, it's your turn. What's this about ye bringin' a girl home like a vacation souvenir?"
"Oh, you've heard?" he murmured, unable to keep a broad grin from spreading across his face.
"Storm mentioned it t' Kitty, that the X-men were expectin' a visitor," Moira acknowledged, a little too casually. "Soo...is she nice then, Hank?"
"She's very nice," Hank assured his friend and colleague. "We'll fire up the Blackbird and take a jaunt over there soon, so you can meet her."
"Verra well. In the meantime, keep in mind you aren't t'be neglectin' your work--but neither are you t'be neglectin' the puir lass by sittin' in your lab night and day!"
"No, Dr. McTaggart, ma'am, I certainly won't!" Hank assured her with false humility. Moira snorted, though her eyes were twinkling, and resumed the conversation on research news.
After finishing his conversation with Moira, Hank rose to move through the labs, powering up the stations he'd put off-line before his departure. The few long-term experiments he had left running showed no red-lines or alerts, and he placed updating them at the top of tomorrow's 'to do' list. The comfort of resuming his routine only added to his general sense of well being, and he sighed happily as he looked around his domain, fists on hips. It WAS good to be home!
Upon activating the computer terminal he used for communication with the outside world, Hank noted with mixed pleasure and dismay that he had HUNDREDS of messages waiting. Few appeared to be personal; the vast majority of them were from various science based lists to which he subscribed. Those he would, on the whole, be able to quickly scan and delete. But there were also several dozen new abstracts--no doubt including the Grimes and Merrill study results--from virologists and others which he would have to peruse more carefully. The fear that he might someday impatiently delete a message that appeared pointless which secretly held ONE important clue to solving the Legacy Virus puzzle haunted him. He KNEW it was neurotic, and PROBABLY counter-productive...but he knew he would read them all thoroughly anyway.
Hank had been immersed in the 'net download for some time when something COLD slid through the fur on the back of his neck. He spun his chair, only to encounter a most familiar laughing face. "Bobby!" he said with affectionate exasperation. "A simple 'hello' will suffice to get my attention." With one hand he began to brush frost out of his fur, taking care to direct it AWAY from the keyboard.
"Not when you're way deep into that stuff, and you know it," Bobby retorted. "I feel sorry for your quiet little friend."
"Trust me, Cassie knows how to get my attention," Hank said, with a grin that hinted strongly at unspoken secrets. "She's only shy around strangers."
"And we're stranger than most." Bobby considered his friend's lighthearted countenance, and a teasing expression crossed his own face. "You kinda like her, huh?"
"Kinda," Hank admitted, in the same vein.
"And she kinda likes you, I guess?"
"She gives every indication of doing so," Hank replied, trying not to look TOO smug.
"Well, you went on a road trip with her. You REALLY get to know a person that way!" Bobby spoke like a man who knew much too much about the truth of this statement.
"Like Rogue?" Hank suggested, leaning forward.
He had been hoping to get a chance to grill Bobby for details, and Bobby did not disappoint. "I didn't find out ANYTHING helpful," the younger man admitted, running his fingers through his hair in frustration. "Her story is she was upset by something she got from Gambit's mind, but she doesn't remember what it was."
"Mmmm. Well, just as the physiological systems can shut down lesser functions in a life-threatening situation, so can the mind draw a curtain over things too threatening to cope with." Troubling, though, to think of Rogue having to deal with something so dire, especially if it came from Gambit's mind.
"She was DEFINITELY upset," Bobby asserted. "Bit my head off at the least little HINT I was trying to dig for info."
"Since your mastery of the subtle inquiry is well nigh legendary--"
"Gimme a break," Bobby interrupted, laughing again.
"Other than being upset, did she display any uncharacteristic behavior?" Hank asked, turning his mind to this new aspect of an old puzzle.
"Besides coming on to every guy in sight?"
"Really?" Hank frowned, and would have been surprised to be told how much his expression resembled one of Xavier's more common ones at that moment. "Not QUITE in character, given her normal concern about accidentally touching someone."
Bobby shook his head, remembering individual incidents. "Yeah. And for most of the trip, she insisted we not use our powers at all. THAT was...strange."
"Maybe she merely wanted time off from being a mutant," Hank suggested.
"Then why make ME follow the same rule, even when we were alone?"
"Odd. Decidedly odd. I'll have to give the matter some thought." Not only was resolving the problem important for Rogue and Gambit, the effective functioning of the team was at stake.
"Your sweetie won't be jealous, you thinking about another woman?" Bobby baited his friend.
"Cassie's not like that," Hank informed Bobby, his self-satisfied smile returning.
Bobby chose to let that one drop in favor of taking another tack. "Lot of rumors around here, you know, about you bringing her back with you."
"Now why does THAT not surprise me?" Hank pretended to sigh.
"She's not really secretly a mutant we're easing onto the team this way?"
This statement evoked an unfeigned double-take from Hank. "Not at all. Who thought THAT?"
"Who does it sound like?" Bobby half-evaded.
"Paranoid enough for Bishop, but too silly. Ahh...no, I have no clue."
"That's what I'VE always thought," Bobby murmured. At Hank's mock glare, he relented. "No, that idea came from Jubilee."
"First Excalibur, then the youngsters--did you people send out a bulletin or what?"
"It wasn't a SECRET or anything--and people are interested," Bobby defended the gossiping. "Jubilee ALWAYS thinks we're getting the X-roster too full, you know that."
"I suppose the idea that I brought Cassie home because we both want to continue to be together is far too simple to be satisfying to the child?"
"No, it's that you're WAY too old for her to picture you having a romantic fling. I can just BARELY manage it, you old geezer."
"I had to come back, you know. Where else could I get this quality of abuse all day long?" The odd thing was the way he positively enjoyed it....
"So...this extended visit thing. Is it likely to be the kind of extended visit where we end up breaking out tuxes again?"
"Very, very possible," Hank answered gravely, but with a broad smile, which his friend returned. He sighed happily, and stretched back in his chair to a point where most mere humans would have been risking a major spill. "Do you know the feeling, Bobby, where something is going so stunningly well you are almost afraid to move or breathe, for fear of disrupting it?"
"Something in the romantic line going well....hmmm. Hmmm. Nope." Bobby hitched his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and regarded Hank fondly. "But if anyone can handle something like that, it's you, buddy."
"Thank you, Bobby," Hank replied, unable for a moment to find anything more than those simple words to express his true response.
It seemed Bobby too was overcome by the emotional content of the situation. "Doop, doop, warm moment alert!" he laughed. "What I actually came down for was to see if you had any little oxygen tanks."
"I may, somewhere. Why?"
"I'm on duty for dinner, and I thought we'd grill burgers and such."
Hank knew exactly where this was headed. "Don't we see exploding fireballs often ENOUGH in our line of work? Plus when we did that before, we slagged the barbecue grill."
"That was a cheap one."
"I postulate we can as effectively slag the expensive replacement--are you willing to spring for another one?"
Bobby put on a really credible pout. "You're no fun, Hank."
"I know. It's very sad," Hank commiserated, rising. "Come on to the lab; I think we can find some chemical starters that might be equally entertaining, but much less hazardous."
Hank was conscientiously flipping hamburgers on the patio's grill when the minivan beeped as it rolled past on its way to the garage. Bobby had artfully begged his assistance, but to his credit he was keeping busy and doing his share by carrying out plates, condiments and all the miscellanea needed for a 'simple' outdoor meal.
Hank noted with no little satisfaction that the women were grouped companionably together as they exited the garage, Cassie in the middle. As they drew nearer, though, she seemed unable to resist breaking away by moving gradually faster. Her last few steps before she threw herself into Hank's waiting arms were very nearly skips.
"I've got something for you!" she informed him breathlessly, eyes shining.
Hank heard a choked sort of sound and looked over to Remy, who was observing their reunion with a strange gleam in his eye. "Don't even THINK about saying what you just thought," he advised the Cajun.
"Gambit not such a cad as all DAT," Remy protested, laughing. "Besides, dat 'un's way too easy!" Cassie favored him with a grateful grin before returning her gaze to Hank.
Dat gal look at him like he's her hope of heaven, Gambit thought, turning away unnoticed by the pair, who were entwined as closely as public propriety would allow. Exactly the same way he would NEVER see Rogue look at him....
"How did you get the barbecue briquettes to burn blue and yellow?" Cassie asked, once her attention returned to her more mundane surroundings.
"Magic," Hank informed her solemnly, and she nodded solemnly back, as though she expected no less from him. "Food's almost ready--you ladies' timing was perfect."
"I'll just run put these packages in...in our room, and be right back," she suggested. Her face had a glow that set his heart racing, so that all he could do was nod, and sigh happily as he watched her scurry away.
The close of day weather could not have been more perfect, a slight breeze off the lake breaking up the afternoon's slightly muggy heat without imparting any sense of chill. Those members of the team dining at the mansion this evening gathered at the serving table to avail themselves of burgers, grilled veg-ka-bobs and sweet corn, and all the appropriate condiments before spreading out to seat themselves at one of the three picnic tables nearby on the lawn.
Cassie noted, without remarking on, the unusual style of these furnishings. They were obviously hand-crafted; built of traditional picnic redwood, with a bright striped canvas awning roofing an oval table with a horseshoe-shaped seating bench surrounding it.
Hank slid in at one open end, and Cassie sat next to him. As best as he could sense, this was out of a desire to be cozy rather than any lingering nervousness. Obviously the trip to the mall had done everything he hoped to help her begin to feel at home with the group.
Storm joined them almost immediately, and Bishop followed her, his face unreadable as always. Out of the corner of his eye, Hank noted Gambit hesitate, then shrug and follow Storm's lead. What Remy did not see was Rogue's very overt wait to watch his steps so she could go to the table furthest away from the one he chose.
"Might's well make it easy for you to watch me, mon ami," Gambit said in a friendly tone as he took up a place between Cassie and Storm, at the apex of the horseshoe bench.
"I can watch you any time," Bishop replied repressively. Cassie wondered what THAT was all about, but pretended to ignore it, as Hank was doing. Yet another question to ask him later tonight. She smiled secretively. Much later....
"Is this evening's flawless atmosphere your doing, Storm? Do we owe you our thanks once again?" Hank asked.
Storm only laughed. "One of the advantages of being able to control the elements. I get all the credit for lovely weather."
"How about bad weather?" Cassie inquired, half seriously.
"Oh, yes, that too, if I've been perceived to be in a bad mood," Ororo told her with a self-mocking smile.
"Are you affected by this...PMS?" Bishop enquired, his solemn expression almost too perfect to be real.
Storm's eyebrows arched in astonishment and Hank came perilously close to inhaling his iced tea. Gambit managed not to crudely laugh out loud, but he favored Bishop with a squelchingly superior look. "Who told you about that?" Hank managed to say after he'd gotten the mouthful of tea where it belonged.
Bishop was plainly mystified at the reaction he was creating. "Warren told me it was a syndrome that caused severe mood swings in females."
"Ah." That sounded like Warren's dry idea of a good joke. "Well, yes, that's somewhat true, as far as it goes...." Cassie glanced at him and somehow managed to indicate her approval of his tact, without letting her face drop out of a carefully pleasant look.
"How much farther does it go?" Bishop demanded suspiciously.
"Um. Well, PMS is usually associated with the, ah, female reproductive cycle...."
"Oh." Bishop thought this through, his face a study in wary confusion. "So why would that be funny?"
To everyone's surprise, Storm's composed face became warmly appreciative. "There's no sensible reason, Bishop," she told him. "It is an anomaly of the society of this time and place."
Bishop seemed easily able to interpret the expression in her eyes, and he allowed a faint smile to touch his lips. Charmed and professionally interested, Cassie tilted her head, taking mental snapshots of the potential couple.
"Are you LOOKING at me?" he demanded, and she snapped back to reality.
"A bit...I'm sorry," she stammered.
Hank grasped her knee comfortingly under the table. "A cat may look at a queen, Bishop," he said. "Or vice versa, I suppose."
Gathering all her courage, plus the not inconsiderable amount Hank was loaning, Cassie attempted to explain. "Are you...intrigued by details?"
It was obvious even to a stranger like her that Bishop was fighting down extreme annoyance. "Details exist. I see them. What else is there to say?"
"I mean I...meant no disrespect. I see things and...get interested and...." Bishop's expression was NOT getting any more friendly. And I think I'll just shut up now, Cassie finished to herself, with a tight grimace of an apologetic smile.
Hank and Storm interrupted each other in their attempt to say something to lighten the atmosphere. While they were mutually apologizing, Bishop rose and stalked away, allowing Gambit to at last let his pent up chuckles escape. "Don' worry, petite," he said reassuringly. "Bishop WAY too easy to upset, in Gambit's book."
Storm started to reply to this, but cut herself off as Professor Xavier pulled up to their table. Cassie suddenly saw the reason for the unusual design; his hoverchair fit neatly into the opening without disturbing any of the other diners seated there. How very subtle and clever!
After quick greetings, Xavier came directly to his point. "Hank, Cassie, I wonder if you would care to join me for a glass of sherry after dinner? I thought we could answer any of Cassie's questions, and generally get better acquainted."
Hank and Cassie's eyes met, as they both looked to check the other's reaction. Hank squeezed her knee again, and she placed her hand on his before turning back to Xavier. "Thank you, I'd like that very much," Cassie said with perfect aplomb, to Hank's astonishment. Xavier nodded and moved silently away, task accomplished.
Neither Storm nor Gambit seemed to have any idea what a breakthrough this was for Cassie, so Hank didn't comment until they rose from the table and walked away with their empty plates. "You aren't nervous about meeting with the professor?"
"Oh, I'm plenty nervous," Cassie assured him. "But he's not nearly so scary as Bishop."
"Bishop's scariness is mostly an act, put on out of habit," Hank assured her. "He's actually a decent fellow."
"I figure he must be, or he wouldn't be here," she replied, looking adorably serious. "But the important thing is, YOU'RE here, and I'M here. That's what really matters."
"Precisely," he said, feeling a rush of relief so profound he felt momentarily giddy. They paused outside the kitchen door.
"The main thing I worry about," Cassie told him, eyes candid and wide, "is that your friends might be thinking, 'Poor Hank, how'd he get tied up with such a nut case?'."
"The only possible reason for such a description would be because you've willingly gotten yourself tied up with me," he informed her with a look of such extreme earnestness that she giggled out loud. And they grinned quite foolishly at each other until Bobby, hands full of dinner dishes, ordered them to vacate the doorway so model citizens like himself could complete their assigned chores.
Continued in Part 28.