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

Note: A few events in the following chapter may not make a great deal of sense to those of you who aren't currently following the comics. Drop me a line if you'd like me to fill you in on some of the references--no extra charge!

Part 33--Whispers Out of the Past

"Ooh, these strawberries look great, don't you think? Should I get some for shortcake, or pie or something?" Despite the overly bright fluorescent lighting in the grocery store, which made the faces of most of the other shoppers appear wan and sickly, Cassie's pink cheeks evidenced her pleasure in the simple task of choosing food for their next day's meal.

Her mood was contagious, at least as far as Hank was concerned. "Anything in that category will be extremely well-received, I'm sure," he responded with heartfelt enthusiasm. "If you think these containers have a high ripe-to-green ratio, let us purchase TWO flats. I know they won't go to waste."

Cassie nodded cheerfully and began to examine the various boxes of fruit on display, intent on selecting only the very best. As he watched, Hank wondered if the smile his image-inducer was projecting looked as smugly proprietary as he feared it might. He had no business, he told himself, feeling amused at Cassie's enjoyment of the traditional 'wifely' chore of shopping, when HE was standing here smirking like Ward Cleaver. All he lacked was a pipe to complete their '50s Couple' look--not that you'd be allowed NEAR a grocery store with one in hand these days....

Of course, part of his satisfaction was relief at Cassie's return to her usual happy mode. He had been shocked and dismayed when she unexpectedly burst out crying in their room that afternoon, and of course had assumed the worst--she had hated the dance workout, even though it had appeared to go so well.

When Hank had joined his dancing guinea pigs in the ascending elevator, she'd instantly clung to him, but stayed strangely quiet--fighting back a storm of weeping even at that point, he knew now. Troubled by her mute distress, he hadn't even noticed the others were nearly silent as well.

After he soothed away her tears, Cassie had told him how the group had involuntarily witnessed the beginning of a confrontation between Gambit and Rogue. Terse remarks in the elevator car had further revealed to her that the team in general believed the two were THIS close to a final showdown bound to send one of them packing.

The contrast between her blissful relationship with him and that acrimonious one was more than enough to upset someone as sensitive as Hank knew Cassie to be. But the solace of his embrace had helped her rally her emotions, and at this point she seemed to have forgotten her distress entirely as she eagerly anticipated cooking for the group tomorrow.

Shopping for a single meal didn't take much time, and they were quickly homeward bound. Rather than end their personal time together so soon, Hank decided to take a detour into Harry's, since he was already appropriately 'dressed' to drop in for a nightcap. As he had explained to Cassie, wearing image inducers was standard protocol for conducting day-to-day business in Salem Center--at least for any X-team member who varied significantly from the physical norm. She had instantly grasped the good sense of this and offered no objection. Her acceptance of his image form was actually coming along quite well--though it still seemed faintly peculiar to him that his human look was the one she found most disconcerting.

A quick scan of the crowd revealed none of the other X-men were present--although the night was still young. With the aplomb of a long-time regular, Hank guided Cassie to a cosy table in the back, not bothering to wait to be seated by whoever was pulling hostess duty tonight.

He had barely sat down himself, after politely holding Cassie's chair for her, when a familiar server appeared. "Well, look who the cat dragged in! DOCTOR McCoy!" As usual, the black woman's eyes seemed to twinkle as if at some private joke. She used his formal title fairly often, despite his mild insistence it was not the least bit necessary. For some reason he could not fathom, she seemed to find it funny. "I haven't seen you in so long, I thought you might have...escaped. Fled the country, or something."

"As it happens, Pam, I was on vacation." Now it was his turn to wink and nod towards Cassie, suggesting intimate secrets. "Out in Colorado, visiting my friend Cassie. And now she is visiting me."

Cassie tried not to wriggle as Pam looked her over carefully and slowly. Maybe she took one of those courses about memorizing people's names and faces, Cassie thought. She had that air of someone committing details to permanent storage. "Nice to meet you," Pam finally said. "You know something? You look like that actress on TV; the one who was in that Twister movie."

Hank turned to study Cassie's face. "Helen Hunt? You know, you do, now that she mentions it."

"I don't know...I don't watch much TV," Cassie admitted. "And we...I haven't seen that movie yet."

"I think the tv show is sappy," Pam told them, wrinkling her nose in disdain. "But the movie I liked the special effects.   Very...realistic." Suddenly she seemed to remember her job. "What can I get for you two?"

After the waitress headed for the bar, Cassie asked hesitantly, "Is she always like that?"

"Like what?" Hank looked truly curious.

"Oh, I don't know...asking a lot of questions? Staring at people?" From the way Hank was now staring at HER, Cassie knew she must be coming across like a paranoid lunatic. Putting words on paper was SO much easier than coming up with them in real time conversation.

Hank quirked his head, trying to decide if she were joking. "You sound like Bishop. He always thinks Pam is staring at him too."

"Really?" For some reason that felt reassuring. "It must be just a habit or something, then." Cassie considered the idea further. "Although I can kind of see why she would stare at Bishop."

"Why?" Hank obligingly picked up his cue, honestly interested in the answer.

"Because she thinks he's cute, silly!" Cassie half-swiveled in her chair to better center her attention on Hank, who still preened within himself just a bit every time that happened. "And you know what? I bet she's been scoping you out too--THAT would explain why she was looking me over like that."

"It would?" His expression was dubious--was she setting him up for some complex joke?

"Sure! If she hasn't been able to make up her mind whether to go after you or Bishop...and then you turn up with me--she's got to try to figure out if you're taken or if we're just casual before making her next move."

Hank was half-aghast and half-intrigued at this glimpse into the world of female maneuvering. "You deduce all that from a few casual questions and slightly longer than normal eye contact?"

"You don't think so?" Now Cassie looked wholly ready to recant her entire theory, if he indicated it was flawed in any way.

"I don't know what to think--except that I'm well out of my depth!" Hank laughed, shaking his head ruefully. Compared to figuring out the female mind, the Legacy Virus was a pre-schooler's jigsaw puzzle.

"I'm always inventing plots--stories about people I don't know. Can't really help it," Cassie confided, leaning her cheek against her cupped palm, a self-mocking quirk on her lips. "I'm probably totally wrong here." Her free hand found his under the table, and they became oblivious to their surroundings, rapt in each others' gaze.

From across the room, Pam watched, unblinking.

The reactions to lunch the next day repaid Cassie well for spending most of her morning in the kitchen. Despite preliminary groans from those team members not blessed with a power or physique that easily expended mass amounts of calories, the main course disappeared rapidly. And yet, miraculously, everyone still had room for strawberry pie!

"What have we eaten here already, five million calories or six?" Jean asked, as she served up a slice for Scott and then one for herself.

"Whoever's doing dinner, make salad, if you please," Betsy chimed in, taking a full helping as one of the three gleaming mounds of bright red berries passed by her spot. "That will even things out."

"Well, the pie IS mostly low-fat," Cassie pointed out shyly. "The glaze is just blenderized strawberries with a little sugar and cornstarch. Really, if you eat it without whipped cream--"

"WITHOUT whipped cream? Are you INSANE?" Jean demanded with great good humor. A large glob of that confection spun up out of the container, propelled by telekinesis, and hung in the air with mock-threat for a moment before plopping onto Jean's pie.

Cassie stared for a long moment, then blurted, "You must be SO much fun in a food fight!"

The gathered assembly rocked with laughter. Even Xavier smiled, although he had been firm in squelching food fights, powered or not, many years before.

It was unquestionably, Cassie thought happily, the most relaxed meal she'd had here so far, possibly the beginning of genuine acceptance. She was even able to quietly insinuate herself into the cleanup chores after lunch without being shooed off by Jean and a definitely subdued Rogue. Since Cassie had done quite a bit of cleanup as she cooked, which she'd been taught by her mother was the only PROPER procedure, the three of them were done in no time. The other two women departed with friendly casualness, which Cassie took to mean they really had begun to see her as a resident, rather than a guest to be entertained.

Cassie looked around the again pristine kitchen, deciding what to do next. Going upstairs to her computer appealed mildly. While she had been chopping and sauteing in the kitchen that morning, the fiction-generating part of her mind had finally deigned to click on. Simple physical activity had that affect on her sometimes. On the other hand, she felt vaguely restless as well. Maybe if she took a little walk now to clarify her thoughts, she could crank out a couple pages of outline and notes before dinner.

Mostly out of habit, because she often checked her mail around lunchtime at home, Cassie chose to head towards the main gate. Strolling in the early afternoon sun, she wondered why this drive, unlike those she'd seen in pictures of other older estates, wasn't sheltered by rows of sturdy old trees. Had there been a bad run of Dutch Elm disease, or something like it, forcing Xavier to have them removed? She would have thought that people who so valued their privacy would like the idea of trees screening them from the prying eyes of passersby.

By the time she was halfway to the gate, Cassie was running her fingers through her loose bangs, then fluffing the hair off the back of her neck, with some regularity. She hoped the mail would be there, so she would have some sort of accomplishment to show for her efforts. If it was this hot and muggy around here in MAY, she was NOT looking forward to true summer!

As if summoned by her thoughts, Cassie spied the mail truck coming down the access road, slowing as it drew near their gate. Without knowing she was going to, she waved cheerfully, the way she would have waved to any mail carrier. Because her father was a lifelong employee of the postal service, they all somehow felt like family to her.

The woman driving slipped a large bundle of incoming mail into the secured slot, then waved back hesitantly before moving on. I keep forgetting people out here don't wave at strangers, Cassie thought, hoping she hadn't made the letter carrier feel uncomfortable.

"Now, let's see--how does this thing work again?" she muttered as she fingered the codepad. To her mild amazement, she only made one error before managing to enter the numbers that let her open the mailbox from her side of the deceptively ordinary looking brick and steel gate.

Cassie straightened, tucking the bundle under one arm, then gasped involuntarily. A man, worn and disheveled as one can only get from traveling on foot for a very long time, was walking directly towards her. Cassie took a few steps back, but did not run, confident in the security system Hank had told her so much about. "Good afternoon," the stranger said in a pleasant, although reserved, way. "Can you tell me if a gentleman named Charles Xavier lives here?"

Cassie tried not to show she was stalling as she thought. Secret, or not? She didn't THINK so, seeing as how there was a sign with his name right there on the gate. "Yes, he does."

"Good. I have come a long way to talk to him--if he is the Charles Xavier I am looking for." He half-shrugged off his backpack, then drew from one of its pouches a rolled up object in a ordinary plastic shopping bag--although the logo was in some foreign language--Spanish?

He unrolled it and held it so Cassie could see it. It was a old tattered TIME magazine, the bright inks of the cover dulled with age, but she couldn't prevent her smile of delight when she saw faces there she knew well, one in particular. "You know his students too, I see."

"Yes." Cassie studied him, as her mind raced over various possibilities. He had a young face, handsome in a strangely old-fashioned way--because the ice blue eyes within it looked old? Or did the suggestion of age come from his hair, white as Ororo's and just as striking, even pulled back in a dust-covered braid? "I can...go tell him you're here."

"Will you open the gate and let me in?" the man asked. His tone was mild, yet it seemed as though a demand lurked under it. At Cassie's clear hesitation, he straightened. "I dislike the idea of waiting outside like a...supplicant."

Cassie found, to her astonishment, that she had taken a step forward to do as he asked before she thought better of it. "I'm sorry...I can't."

"Can't...or won't?" Those intense eyes narrowed a fraction, and she gulped.

"Well, some of both." Cassie unconsciously clasped her hands together in a nonverbal plea for his understanding. "I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to. I mean, what's the point of having a security system if people just ignore it?" She shrugged an apology, her smile feeling as false and stupid as her babbling. It seemed like such a mean and petty thing to say to someone who looked so tired, hungry, and thirsty--and yet was behaving with such marked politeness. "But it will only take me a few minutes to walk back to the house and get someone." The stranger continued to regard her evenly, which caused her to flush with embarrassment. "I'm only a guest here myself...I just SHOULDN'T. I'm sorry."

"I would not want you to get in trouble on my account," the man replied gravely, although a peculiar twinkle had appeared in his eye. "So suppose I just...." He rose from the ground a few inches, waiting for her reaction. When she did not scream and run, he continued, "...let myself in? Then YOU will not be to blame."

Cassie began to demur. "I have a feeling flying over will trigger--" But even as she spoke, he rose calmly and regally into the air, floated over the gate, then landed without a sound. "--alarms."

The sun-baked afternoon remained quiet. "Huh," Cassie said nervously, looking around for SOME evidence the intruder had been noted, and finding none at all. She would have to ask Hank for more details about this super security system later. At least their new guest had set himself down a decent distance away, and was making no hostile moves.

"What is your name, if I may ask?"

"Cassie. Cassie Cantrell." She almost stuck out her hand, but despite this man's uncanny charm, he was not charming enough to soothe her old fears. He didn't act as though he noticed the omission.

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Cantrell. My name is Joseph." He smiled and the urge to follow his suggestions that she had noticed before returned. "Could I persuade you to walk along with me?"

"Since I'm going up to the house anyway, I guess...okay." It would be pretty silly to say NO--he'd probably just fly on up there without her, and that was no doubt a worse idea.

Without further ado, they set off up the drive, their silence somehow companionable even though the stranger was diligently keeping his distance. Cassie was in the midst of congratulating herself on not freaking out for a change when four rocketing blurs came at them from the sky.

The situation became a crisis between one step and the next, just that fast. One of the flyers landed--Sam--and even in her shock Cassie wondered at the mirroring shock on HIS face, which turned instantly to grim resolve. The other three, Storm, Rogue and Warren, hovered in the air like outraged hornets, poised to attack.

Though Cassie's feet were frozen to the ground, she was somehow able to glance around at the stranger. He had stopped in place as well, a frown forming on his face as he took in the situation. In a heartbeat, it escalated; more X-men were converging on the scene at a dead run, Hank pulling ahead of them all, incongruous in his white lab coat.

From the back of the advancing pack, Scott shouted something Cassie couldn't quite make out, and she involuntarily took a step towards the stranger in a peculiar surge of protectiveness. This HAD to be some sort of misunderstanding--although now her question was answered about the security system. A silent alarm, obviously.

In response to something--the shout? protocols?--Hank skidded to a stop not more than a dozen feet away. Nevertheless, he leaned forward as if restrained only by an invisible chain, his eyes blazing promise of fearful retribution. The claws of his hands and toes dug into the grass, ready to launch him forward in a split-second. Cassie dizzily noted, through her stunned dismay, that he had split the back seam of his coat from running so hard. "Hank?" she said, but couldn't think of any words to follow that reaching out.

Bishop and Logan had flanked Hank's stance almost instantly, both armed and ready in their individual fashion. Scott, Jean and Gambit were mere fractions of a second behind, completing the line of defense.

All was still an instant. Then Cassie felt a peculiar sensation crossing her body, rather like the staticky field that lingers in front of a tv screen after you shut it off. "Don't be afraid--they can't hurt us," Joseph advised her calmly.

Her head snapped around. Joseph was weaponless, his hands slightly extended at his sides. It was a strange thing to say--or believe. If she hadn't seen him fly, she would now assume he was seriously deluded. "Then I don't think you should hurt them either," Cassie heard herself saying in a firm voice that didn't sound at all like her normal one.

The stranger gave her a look that combined irritation and amusement. It appeared he was not used to being told what to do. "I will not make the first hostile move."

Was it that simple? Cassie sighed with relief. "Well, that's okay then." Which only made everyone, from the stranger to Hank, look at her like SHE was the one whose mental faculties were in question.

"What do you want?" Scott demanded, taking up his assigned role as leader.

"I want to see Charles Xavier," Joseph said, as though it was the most reasonable request in the world.

"He's come a long way," Cassie blurted out into the silence. No one seemed to pay her any attention.

"Someone I had reason to trust gave me this as a guide," the stranger told them, and unfurled the magazine again. Cassie felt the pulse cross her body a second time, as he held the ragged periodical out towards the X-Men like a talisman.

The magazine flew smoothly out of Joseph's hands and into Jean's. Her mouth made a little 'O' of surprise when she got a good look at the cover. She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them, still looking wary but no longer quite so wild. "The professor says to bring him up to the house."

Scott nodded brusquely, made a little hand gesture, and the ground forces parted, making a path. "Come with us," he said, managing to make it at least half an invitation. Before anyone else moved, he inclined his head towards Cassie and said, "Hank...." Hank nodded, his lips thinning momentarily, acknowledging his understanding of the implied order.

The stranger strode forth, head high, as if the individuals surrounding him were an honor guard rather than enemies. Hank waited until they passed, then was at Cassie's side in a bound. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead grabbed her in an almost painfully tight embrace. She returned it, even though reality had not yet quite cut through her shocked calm.

"Are you all right?" he finally managed to say, when he could make himself pull back to look at her.

Cassie nodded, but her eyes told a different story. The fervent way he'd clasped her to him just now made her flash back to the time he rescued her from the river, and she now understood that look on his face as he'd faced off against the intruder. He had glared so fiercely because he was frantic, profoundly terrified for her safety.  "I'm so sorry to frighten you like that, Hank."

"I know," he said, and pulled her close again, but in a way that still let them see each other's faces.

"You're supposed to scold me now, aren't you?" Cassie asked hesitantly. "That's what Scott meant just now."

"I don't know that I'd put it EXACTLY like that," Hank protested, with a weak smile. " own dear love, what WERE you thinking?"

She peered deep into his eyes, trying to get a clue as to what Hank wanted her to understand, feeling desperate that she could not. "What do you mean?" she finally had to say.

"I take it you don't know who that is?" He relaxed his grip a bit, letting her get her feet solidly on the ground again.

"No." Obviously she should. "You know I'm terrible at remembering faces."

"Does the name Magneto ring the faintest of bells?" Hank was trying to sound like he was joking, and yet the subtext came across clearly-- if it didn't, it should.

"Yeess...." Two and two made four with stunning suddenness. "That wasn't HIM?!"

"It was indeed." Hank couldn't be joking--his eyes still held some of his fear of what might have happened.

There simply had to be some mistake somewhere. "But isn't he...bad?"  They couldn't be the same person--not the mega-threat Magneto and that courteous, tired man with the almost...mesmerizing...charm, who had not hurt anyone, in fact, had offered her his protection.

"Exactly the point I am trying to make," Hank said. He essayed a smile, but it held no real humor. "How can you be so wary of everyone here, and yet when someone shows up who is a genuine threat, you invite him in so you can walk him to our--"

"I didn't INVITE him, Hank!" Cassie protested. She felt the stirring of an almost alien emotion...anger? "I know I'm not X-Men material, but I'm not totally stupid either!" Hank had the grace to look abashed. "He WANTED me to let him in, and I told him I couldn't. So he flew over the gate."

"Oh." Hank's realization that this more sensible version of events ought to have been obvious to him showed in his suddenly disconcerted expression.

"I don't know what I could have done to stop him," Cassie continued, trying to sound reasonable. "Other than throw the mail at him, I guess."

"Not likely to be a useful tactic," Hank agreed, trying not to smile at the picture this created in his mind's eye.

Relief at last crept back into Cassie's heart now that that strange harsh expression was gone from Hank's face. "Maybe I need in what to do in cases like this," she suggested. "Obviously what I'm coming up with on my own isn't right."

Hank embraced her again. He felt a tremor which belied Cassie's bravely cheerful words, and realized her reaction was belatedly setting in. "But there was no battle--maybe in part because of your actions. I WILL point that out in the debriefing."

"Debriefing?" Cassie hadn't thought that far ahead--the team discussing the incident, and her role in it? How embarrassing! But at least Hank was going to be there to defend her.

"We always discuss...incidents. Part of the learning experience," he told her as lightly as he could. He brushed his hand through the damp gold silk of her hair. "Would to attend?"

Cassie's mouth dropped open. "Would they let me?"

"You were involved. I think I can make a case that you have information to present. Plus, as you say, it's evident you need further training in...." His voice trailed off in a sigh, and it was some time before he continued. "Enemies, battles--these are parts of our lives...but I wonder what was I thinking, to ask you to accept that as normal."

"Maybe that I would think it was worth it, to be with you?," Cassie replied in an almost steady voice, the glimmer in her eyes giving away the game. "It is, you know."

"Is it?" he echoed her softly. "I truly hope you never have cause to change your mind in that regard." And now it was Cassie's turn to hug him very hard.

"Well. I think we should proceed back to the house--an asphalt driveway in the middle of a warmish afternoon is no place to hold a long discussion on ANY subject."

"Maybe we should go see how the air conditioning is the bedroom?" Cassie said, slipping her free arm around Hank's waist.

"Oooh, now THERE'S a thought," Hank answered, with the faint rumbling undertone in his voice that was part chuckle and part...something else. "But before we do, there is one crucial question I must ask."

"What, Hank?" Cassie stopped again, eyes big, anticipating the worst.

He grinned, flashing a white expanse of teeth any big bad wolf would envy. "Is any of that mail for me?"

Continued in Part 34.

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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