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

Okay, transition period is now officially over. From here on out, the subject lines for these chapters will say Neon Hearts #whatever, plus include a coded roster, in order of appearance, of who's got a role in this particular segment. Marvel characters, as always, copyrighted by and courtesy of the great and wondrous Marvel company!

Part 30--Good Intentions

Bobby and Sam didn't try to force a conversation as they walked together down the hall of the west wing; each was tentatively pleased with the rare feeling of being in complete accord, and neither wanted to chance spoiling it. Sam turned into his room with a casual, "See ya at supper."

"Yeah, see you," Bobby replied absently. His mind was on Cassie's revelation, and what he ought to do about it. He suspected his best bet was probably to hand off this hot potato to someone more qualified to juggle it, and his candidate for that position was either Jean or Storm. Both of them had acted as unofficial den mothers to the team a time or two, and this would be right up their alley.

It seemed like Fate agreed. As Bobby entered the kitchen on his way out to the boathouse, he found both women chatting--Storm draped so elegantly over a kitchen chair that it might have been a throne, and Jean removing a gallon of milk from the refrigerator.

"Hey, are YOU cooking tonight?" Bobby exclaimed happily. "I thought it was Gambit's turn."

"It is, and I'm not," Jean explained. "Scott and I are going out.  I'm just getting some milk for breakfast tomorrow." She indicated the serving pitcher she had brought from her kitchen by holding it up and waggling it at him.

Bobby, and everyone else, knew Scott's opinion of Gambit's Cajun cooking. As the original all-American meat and potatoes man, Scott disdained overly fancy dishes; his only exceptions were Jean's frequent excursions into Julia Child Land.

There was also the problem, shared by the team at large, of clashing cultures. About half the time, Gambit came up with great food, but the other half he was presenting them all with blackened squidcakes or something equally revolting.

This predicament was compounded by the alphabetical nature of the roster. Hank's turn for meal preparation came only two meals after Remy's, and for some reason he felt compelled to use up leftovers when at all possible. Some of the resulting culinary atrocities were still remembered with fond horror, much the way survivors brag about the enormity of disasters to which they have been subjected.

"You've already dibsed going out, huh?" Gambit tended to sulk if there wasn't a decent turnout for his meals--plus there was that leftovers threat--so the team had a private understanding which limited the number of people eating elsewhere on Cajun cooking nights.

"We're going to the movies," Jean explained, trying to give the impression this was their sole motivation for not dining at home.

"Fine, be that way." Bobby smiled to take any possible sting out of the retort, then leaned back with his butt against the edge of the counter, facing both women. "Listen, I was wondering...have either of you had a chance to talk to Cassie yet?"

"Yesterday we all did," Storm informed him. "We had a...very pleasant conversation." She and Jean exchanged secretive smiles.

"No, I meant alone."

The smiles changed to puzzled frowns, then both women shook their heads. "Why, Bobby?" Jean asked.

"I kind of found out why she's so jumpy around everyone but Hank.  Sort of."

Jean looked ready to hear more, but Storm spoke first, in a cool tone calculated to squelch any impending impropriety. "Is it something she would probably prefer to share--or not--herself?"

Bobby felt this semi-accusation was quite unfair, considering he was only trying to help. "Hey, I'm not the type to gossip for no good reason!"

Then I don't know who is, Jean thought. Aloud, she merely said, dryly, "So what's your good reason?"

"She pretty much said she wished everyone knew what her problem was, without her having to talk about it," Bobby said with a virtuous air. Not my idea at all, his innocent expression insisted.

"'Pretty much?'" Storm observed, homing in on the vagueness. "So you have decided on your own to do her a favor by telling her secrets for her?"

"NOOooo." Bobby rolled his eyes as dramatically as Jubilee used to. "For one thing, I don't KNOW the details, because I was a gentleman and didn't pry." This self-righteous pronouncement was ruined by Jean's choked snort of derision.

"Why don't you start from the beginning?" Jean suggested, after regaining some semblance of composure. "It sounds like we need to hear the whole story."

As best as he could, Bobby recounted the events of the morning, highlighting Cassie's extreme reaction to Gambit's intended joke. Storm interrupted him to say, "That cannot have set well with Remy."

"No, it didn't," Bobby agreed. "Even though she apologized right away, I do think he was upset." Storm frowned, unhappy for Remy's sake. "She told me later it really bothers her when she freaks out like that."

"For whatever good that does the other party," Storm said disapprovingly.

"So what else happened?" Jean said, trying to bring them both back to the primary topic.

"When I went upstairs, I poked my head in her door--which was open," Bobby hastened to add, "--and she reacted by literally falling all over herself trying to get away. And so I apologized and we kind of talked, a little bit. But not in a detailed way. And that's when she said she wished she didn't have to explain, and all that."

"What do you THINK she was talking about?" Jean asked patiently. It would be nice to know, she thought. For a person trying to reveal secrets, Bobby was doing a remarkably poor job.

"I think she know...assaulted, at some point in time." Storm's eyes widened, and Jean's mouth dropped open a bit. Sensing he had just said the magic word to gain their sympathy and cooperation, Bobby continued, "That's why I thought it might be good if one of you could try to get her to open up and talk about it."

"Why didn't you ask her when you had the chance?"

"Hey, I'm not a psychiatrist. I don't even play one on TV!" he protested. "I figured it was more of a woman to woman thing, you know?"

"You're probably right," Jean admitted, after sharing another look with Storm, who now wore a pensive, troubled expression.

Bobby nodded, as if to say he'd THOUGHT he was. " you know.  Enjoy your night out, and spare a few kind thoughts to those you're leaving behind." He bounced out the door, carefree now that he had shifted his burden to more responsible shoulders.

"So which of us should it be?" Storm asked, when they were alone again.

"I don't know--I'm not even quite sure what, if anything, we're supposed to be trying to do."

"Can we presume Hank knows?"

"Wouldn't you think he'd almost have to, considering how she was bragging on him the other day?" Jean reflected. "I'd say she's worked her problem out at least as far as HE'S concerned."

"If HANK has not made it his business to...explain his friend's potential for panic attacks to the group...." Storm worried aloud.

"Then maybe we'd be interfering?"

"Would we not?"

"I can see how it might be difficult for either of them to...address this. I know I wouldn't want to go around to a group of strangers I suddenly found myself living with, telling them about a traumatic experience that still bothered me. And I wouldn't want to do it on behalf of someone else, either." Storm nodded, in full agreement. "But it's not something we can just add to the agenda of a team meeting, even as an FYI."

"I do not believe the professor would find it appropriate."

"So...maybe taking the casual route isn't that bad an idea, after all. I'm not against just...letting people know there's a good reason Cassie's so...edgy, and that she'll be talking about it when she's ready."

"Bishop will NOT like that."

"No, he won't, will he?" Jean sighed at the lack of simple answers to this problem. "I'd better go put this milk up before I have a pitcher full of cottage cheese. Let's just think about it for now, okay?"

Up in her room, unaware she was the subject of so much discussion, Cassie was happily putting away all her clothes in the truly lovely antique dresser the guys had found for her. To her satisfaction, there was plenty of room for everything that ought to go in drawers, and enough closet space as well, though she had to leave a few things laying out due to a lack of hangers. Which was something she felt confident could be easily remedied later.

Her moderate assortment of make-up and toiletries was easy to find space for in the huge bathroom. Hank had already suggested she set up her computer on the desk nearest the westward-facing window, and she was quite happy and relieved to discover everything still worked after she plugged in the various connections between keyboard, CPU, printer and all. Her reference books she left in their box, hoping a small bookcase could be procured as simply as the dresser had been.

The last box to be unpacked contained various knickknacks and odds and ends she'd simply wanted to keep with her. Cassie looked around, and decided with a faint pang of guilt that she'd reordered Hank's room quite enough in his absence. They could go through this last box together, later. For now, she felt like rewarding her diligence with a nice glass of iced tea.

Hank had assured her it was quite permissible to wander into the kitchen at will and partake of nearly anything available; the main no-no was sampling items that were still packaged and obviously intended to be a part of a main course. Cassie was feeling quite intrepid, going on this quest unaided just as though she really belonged here.  But this satisfying state of being evaporated like a burst bubble when she stepped through the door and saw Gambit working away on dinner preparations.

She almost backed up and left, preferring thirst to another unpleasant encounter. But then she recalled her talk with Bobby, and his unspoken but clear belief that she ought to find ways to explain herself, one on one, to the people she was now living with. Gambit had been quite nice about her faux pas this morning....

Firming her resolve, Cassie drifted silently into the room. Gambit, who was dexterously mincing an onion, did not seem to notice. "Hi...." she said hesitantly. He looked around, nodded noncommittally, and went back to his task. Well, so maybe this wasn't a good time to approach him, while he was trying to do something. It might be better, too, to make more thorough plans about what to say before embarking on her explanations.

Trying not to feel like she was really just chickening out, Cassie forced herself to move to one of the cupboards and open it in search of a drinking glass. She thought that when she found one she might just fill it with tap water and make her escape. But the door she opened only revealed packaged goods. The next one was casserole dishes and bowls, and the third, more cooking ingredients.

"What you need, gal?" Gambit half-growled, unable at to continue ignoring her. He noted with masochistic satisfaction that his sudden words made her twitch in a not-quite controlled reaction.

"Um...a glass?" she answered anxiously. "I didn't want to bother you, since you were busy."

'f I make de leas' li'l move, she faint dead away, he thought, half tempted to try it, just for the devilment of it. "Gambit git you one, if you tell him one t'ing."

"Okay." She clasped her hands in front of her, like she was getting ready to recite before an audience, or a board of inquiry, but met his gaze squarely.

"What you t'ink de big bad Cajun gon' do t'you, petite?" His voice sounded harsh in his own ears, much more so than he had intended. He HAD actually hoped to get an answer, and he knew that hostility would not aid him in that attempt.

To his surprised remorse, Cassie reacted by looking as though she was going to cry, but from contrition rather than fear. Female tears, the universal solvent for all but the hardest of masculine hearts. With any other lady, Gambit would have been tempted to encourage her to weep on his shoulder, but he knew that probably wasn't such a good idea in this case.

"Nothing," Cassie managed to reply in a lowered voice. "It's not you...not your fault. You've been nothing but kind to me."

Before Gambit could come up with the proper response, a more serious situation demanded his attention. "Merde!" he exclaimed, and swung back to the stove. The butter that had been melting in a skillet was sputtering and smoking; he'd let their conversation distract him.  With a silent snarl at his carelessness, he thrust the pan under hot running water. Steam roiled from it, hissing, and he added several more choice curses to the tumult.

After quickly swabbing out the last of the charred butter, Gambit meticulously dried the pan with a fistful of paper towels and put a new stick of butter on to melt. He'd temporarily forgotten about Cassie during the mini-crisis, but when she nervously shifted her weight to her other foot, it caught his attention. On impulse, he said, "You wan' c'mere an' stir dis fo' Gambit?"

"Okay," she said quickly, and took the wooden spoon from his hand without hesitation. It appeared that distracting her attention helped to calm her. Le bon Dieu alone know how Hank ever manage to lay a
finger on de gal--mebbe he jus' keep talkin' de whole time....

"So if it not be Gambit scarin' you, what is it?" he said, picking up the conversation where he had dropped it.

"Everybody I don't know scares me," Cassie said simply, still stirring carefully, not taking her eyes away from her task for even a second. "Ridiculous, huh?"

Whatever Remy had been expecting, that wasn't it. "Why dat be, chere?"

"I..." Trying not to stammer, Cassie fell back on the vague answer she usually gave when backed into a corner "...had a bad experience a few years ago. I'm still working on getting over it."

Gambit scraped his finely chopped onion into her butter. "Keep stirrin' smooth as can be," he instructed gently. From the way she'd reacted this morning, it had to be something physical, and it had probably been a man who'd done whatever it was. Which gave him a likely answer, which he'd stake heavy on being the right one. "Well, at leas' you TRYIN' t'get over yo' troubles."

Cassie wondered briefly why he sounded so bitter. "I DO want to. And I want to apologize again for jumping like a scalded cat today, when you were only trying to make me laugh."

"Dat's ok, chere. Gambit take your word you din' mean it personal." He noted that she had quite a sweet smile when she wasn't forcing it out. After opening the right cupboard, he traded her a glass for the spoon handle. "Here y'are--de icebox be full of juice, tea, milk, col' water...."

"Do you...need any help?" she asked, and he could not say whether her hesitation was from fear he'd say no, or fear he'd accept.

"Not dis time--but if you want t'learn REAL cookin', CAJUN cookin', Gambit be willin' t'teach you one of dese days."

"Okay." Her eyes sparkled as she realized she'd come through her ordeal unscathed. "But right now there's a phone call I have to make."

"Go 'long den, gal. But don' you be spoilin' yo' supper!"

Supposing it must be permissible to carry glasses out into the rest of the house, or Gambit would surely have warned her, Cassie returned to Hank's room--no, THEIR room. She closed the door this time; if it automatically locked or something, Hank certainly had to be able to open it.

There was a cordless phone in a holder on Hank's dresser. Cassie picked it up and punched in a number she knew by heart, getting a very small thrill at not having to dial the area code. "Hello, this is Cassie. Is Wendy in?"

"Oh, yes," said Melinda the secretary, with a somewhat surprising amount of relief. "She's been trying to reach you. Please hold."

In only a few seconds the familiar husky voice boomed happily at her.  "Cassie! Finally back to your phone, babe?"

"Well...sort of." Cassie had been looking forward to telling Wendy her grand news, and now that the moment was at hand, she wanted to make it last. "I have to give you my new address and phone number. I'm in New York!"

"You're still in New York?" Wendy demanded. "Is that why I could never reach you?"

"No, I went home," Cassie hastened to say. "But right after I got home my answering machine broke."

"Oh," Wendy said, without inflection, as if she was thinking surely Cassie could make up a better one than that, considering her profession.

"Do you remember Hank?"

This warmed Wendy's voice back up. "He's completely unforgettable, sweetie."

"Well, he came out to visit me, and we went touring around the state and...I decided to come back with him."

Cassie had to jerk the phone away from her ear so as not to be deafened by Wendy's squeal of delight. "Didn't I tell you one of these days you were going to find a guy you'd go bonkers for? Didn't I?"

"You did," Cassie admitted. "And I did. I have. I am." She was babbling now, and grinning like a goof, and enjoying it immensely.

"We're going to have to do lunch, dear, so you can tell me all the gory details," Wendy said. "For now, we'd better keep to business, because I have an appointment in five minutes."

Cassie dutifully supplied both the mailing address and the slightly complex phone number that would ring at the extension nearest to her if she were inside the mansion. Wendy seemed to assume it was just some version of voice mail, and Cassie didn't dwell on the matter.

"Well, I'm glad I finally got ahold of you, and it's FANTASTIC you're in the area," Wendy said. But this did not turn out to be the pre-conversation wind-up Cassie was anticipating. Instead, Wendy was off on an entirely new subject. "Because I have the most FABULOUS interview lined up for you with--" the agent added a dramatic pause, "--Graehme Winter!"

Cassie was suddenly glad they were having this conversation over the phone, because she was considerably less than thrilled, and she knew her face would show it. "Why is he interested in me?"

"He's going to do a series of columns on different genres, and you're one of the people he wants to interview about romances." Wendy must have anticipated her reaction, because she continued persuasively, "Cassie, between us, you know I think the man is as pleasant as contracting cancer. But this is space in a nationally syndicated column we're talking about. Surely you can stand to be in a room with him for half an hour or so, talking about your writing."

"What if he hates my writing and just wants to make fun of me?" Cassie said, addressing her professional fear rather than her personal one.

"Oh, sweetie, nobody takes his opinion seriously except maybe a few wild-eyed right-wingers who never read anything entertaining anyway. If he does jump on you in print, half of America will go out and buy one of your books in sympathy for you."

"So you think I should do it?"

"Yes, I do. It can't do anything but raise the bids in the contract auction I've been setting up for you." Wendy's voice became soothing, trying to make the unpleasant prospect more palatable. "I'll come with you, if you want. For moral support."

Cassie, feeling as though she had no real choice, determined to make the best of a bad situation. "No, he'd just make fun of me for that too. Okay, sure, set it up and let me know."

Just then, the bedroom door swung inward, and this time it WAS Hank.  Still holding the phone to her ear and murmuring monosyllables in response to Wendy, she met Hank in the middle of the room, and beamed at him as he kissed her hand by way of greeting. 'Almost done' she mouthed, and he nodded his understanding.

"Okay, I will...that too...just let me know...thanks. Bye!" She cut the connection and in the same instant flung her arms around Hank to greet him properly.

"That was Wendy," she explained when they came up for air. "I had to tell her my new address and all."

"What did she say?"

"About me moving out here? That it was great. And she thinks it's even greater that I've moved in with you."

Hank clowned a show of modest embarrassment at this implied compliment, then looked around the room. "I see you've been very busy." He waved a hand in the general direction of the new piece of furniture. "How did you manage that?"

"Sam and Bobby helped me," Cassie explained, then wriggled with satisfaction as he smiled his approval of her successful interaction with two of his teammates. "What all did you do today?"

"Wished I was with you," he said softly, lacing his fingers behind her back and holding her in a light embrace as he basked in the glow from her eyes. "What I did that was PRODUCTIVE was mainly read and make notes on a dozen or so papers that were published lately on various topics."

"Virus stuff," Cassie said, nodding wisely, to show she remembered what he'd told her, off and on, about his current work.

"Much of it. Other subjects as well. At least I now feel that I am caught up with my peers in the science community. Enough so that I was thinking...perhaps we might go out tonight? In a group, if anyone else is interested?"

"That would be fun," Cassie said, leaning against his chest and smiling up. "That Silver's place again?"

"It's a date," Hank agreed. With a slight note of hesitation he asked, "You don't MIND going out with some of the others?"

"No, not at all. I think...things will go along better and better, the more I get to know them; you know what I mean?"

"Yes, and I think you are quite right," he replied gravely, hiding his elation. This was what he'd been thinking, and hoping, and trying to help her see. Hearing it from her, couched as her own idea, made it almost a certainty her integration with their small society was going to be a success. A cause, he thought with rising optimism, for celebration all in itself.

Continued in Part 31.

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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