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

Hi all! This was going to be a double-length chapter, which was why it was taking so long to write, but I changed my mind, for various writerly reasons....
Just in case you wonder: As I note in the disclaimer, to keep from going insane I have NOT followed several of the established Marvel storylines. Onslaught is one, and Wolverine's adamantium-ectomy is another. I mention it only because it would make a slight difference in some of the following scenes, if I had. Confused, yet? Me too.
Sometimes I forget to say that the Marvel characters are all copyright to Marvel. This is not one of the times.

Part 34--Judgement Calls

Walking into the air-conditioned foyer from the outdoor heat was like diving into cool water. The couple were still hand in hand, and had been playing at swinging their arms like children sometimes do; they resumed an adult facade inside the mansion, but grinned at each other like conspirators. "Where shall I put the mail?" Cassie asked.

"On that small table," Hank informed her. "As in boarding houses in days of yore."

"So everyone can see what everyone else got," Cassie observed with an arched, amused eyebrow.

"Not too many secrets here," he acknowledged, wondering if she understood yet how literally true that was.

"Before we go upstairs," Cassie said, changing the subject, "I'd like to get a glass of tea or something. You?"

"Why not? But would you mind pouring some up for me? Since I left the lab in something of a hurry, which is something of an understatement," he smiled as Cassie mimed sheepish remorse, "I neglected my usual shut-down protocols. Which should be seen to if I am going to be out of the lab for any significant length of time?" Now it was his turn to pretend to be unsuccessfully hiding clownish eagerness.

"I'D suggest you shut 'em down," Cassie purred, touching a fingertip to his nose, then drawing a line with it down over his lips and chin as she pulled herself gradually closer to him.

Hank half-dived for her neck, then reined himself in. No sense starting something he'd have to interrupt. "Be RIGHT back," he assured her, and bounded away for the elevator.

By now Cassie had the cupboards almost completely memorized, so it was a simple matter to find two appropriate glasses. Ice from the icemaker, then tea from a very large container in the refrigerator which seemed to remain constantly full. She wondered in passing if making tea as needed was an actual chore on the lists, or someone's personal passion. She drank some off the top of her glass and refilled it, a little surprised at the strong feeling of slaking a craving she hadn't even been unaware of. Well, the heat HAD been pretty intense outside....

Spoons were not a problem, but finding something like a sugarbowl for Hank's tea--he never turned down a chance for a few extra calories--proved a more daunting task. If need be, she could dip some out of the sugar canister, but that seemed a bit...down home. Not done in a Better Households such as this, she teased herself. Instead, she went to the far end of the row of cupboards and started methodically opening each door.

As Cassie was shifting some other table-service-type-ware in the most promising looking cupboard so far, a vague mental nudge urged her to look over her shoulder. She dismissed the impulse, but it returned, this time more insistent. Telling herself she was being utterly silly, Cassie looked behind her....

...and absolutely without volition leapt as far away as she could get, to the corner of the counter by the sink. The cause of her alarm, a grimly staring Bishop, narrowed his eyes but did not move.

The edge of the formica countertop dug into her back as she struggled to form some sort of coherent sentence. Could he POSSIBLY think she was looking for something secret in the kitchen cupboards? "I was...just...."

"What's going on here?" Hank's timely arrival left Cassie weak in the knees, and brought a deeper scowl to Bishop's face. To her infinite relief, Hank crossed to her side at once, taking a calmly defensive stance. "What is it, Bishop?"

"Her." Though he held no weapon, he exuded the impression of holstering one. "No one from this time jumps like that--unless they have a guilty conscience."

Hank glanced aside at Cassie, who now looked more thunderstruck than terrified. "Sure of that, are you?" he asked, voice deceptively mild.

Bishop cocked an impatient eyebrow--the one within the 'M' tattoo--at Hank's deliberate obtuseness. "You don't think it strange she just HAPPENED to be visiting here, so she could just HAPPEN to be the one at the gate when the man who has been one of the greatest threats to the X-Men in this world shows himself?"

Hank clapped his forehead into his palm, trying to forestall an overly candid response. "Bish...I appreciate your efforts on our behalf, I truly do. But in this case your diligence is sadly off-track. It would be difficult to imagine someone more harmless than Cassie..." He drew a deep, calming breath, preparing to continue, but Bishop interrupted.

"You don't know everything about her."

Hank's resolve to remain unruffled dissolved. "I know a good deal more about her background than yours," he snapped.

The XSE man drew himself up even straighter, if that were possible, obviously offended to his core. Cassie, alarmed at the direction this scene was taking, stepped forward to lay a placating hand on Hank's forearm. "It's okay, Hank."

Hank's face bore an uncharacteristically uncompromising look. "We shall have to have a talk sometime in the future, my overzealous friend, about how a traumatic background can cause a person to...occasionally overreact."

"Any time," Bishop growled, and stalked out of the room.

Neither of the two left standing alone spoke for a moment. In that profound silence, the clink of a shifting ice cube in one of the tea glasses seemed to echo endlessly. "Hank..." Cassie finally ventured.

"Yes, I know. You're sorry." He was still staring in the direction Bishop had taken, so he didn't see Cassie's minute flinch at his tone.

"I don't like causing trouble between you and your friends," she said, very, very quietly.

Now Hank did turn to her, taking both her hands in his, but with an air of helplessness, as if he didn't know what else to do. "You don't have to apologize for taking up space on the planet, Cassie. Bishop was in the wrong. You don't have to say you're sorry for that, or for every single other thing that ever goes amiss."

The expression on his face--one Cassie hadn't seen before, which she couldn't quite identify--frightened her much more than Bishop's unexpected intrusion. Desperate to change it, she fumbled for and managed an attempt at humor. "I'll try to be more assertive...if you think that will be okay with everybody?"

With a laugh, Hank embraced her, already sorry for being so critical, especially when she'd just had such a fright. She was trying hard, he knew that. "I'm sure it will."

Cassie let him hold her, glad he couldn't see her face as she worked to bring her turbulent emotions back under control. She had suspected she was embarrassing him, at least sometimes, in front of his friends, and now she was sure. She was going to have to do better than she'd been doing so far--much better!

Thankfully, her voice sounded quite normal to her when she smiled up and asked, "Got any idea where you guys keep the sugar bowl?"

Upstairs, only a short time later, Hank pulled away from a kiss to gaze with troubled inquiry into Cassie's instantly uncertain face. She was physically as close to him as it was possible to get, but they were not, he suspected, on the same page emotionally. Her responses had a strange intensity he couldn't recall having seen in her before; he feared she was trying to compensate in that way for something...not right.

"Lose the mood?" he queried lightly. A sort of shamed fear ran quickly past in the back of her eyes, and he felt renewed remorse for his actions in the kitchen, jumping on her when he ought to have been reassuring her. "Ah, Cassie, don't worry about Bishop. He won't hurt you."

"I know. I know he won't." That wasn't the problem. In their room, she'd gone thankfully into Hank's arms, more than ready to forget every worry she had for as long as they could make these enchanted private moments last. But as they kissed their way through the pleasant task of mutual disrobing, she had been struck by an awful thought. What if this was their last time together?

Today had provided two kinds of proof that a severing of their relationship was possible--the emergency that had THIS TIME only been a false alarm...and the way Hank had looked in the kitchen. As though he were finally realizing he had made a mistake in bringing her here.  With that idea coiling in her mind, every spark of pleasure died almost as it bloomed, no matter how hard she worked at creating what ought to be effortless.

But how to explain such nebulous fear? "I..." She managed a smile.  "I'm sorry, but I'm going to apologize. I know it must be boring for you, to have to put up with my silliness...."

"You're not boring, and you're not silly," Hank interrupted firmly, quite effectively derailing what she had been preparing to try to say.   "Actually, I am the one owing an apology. My timing was very much off downstairs. You'd just been through your first, ah, invasion and team scramble, and then you were subjected to an impromptu scrutiny by our chief executive officer in charge of paranoid suspicions. It was most thoughtless of me to presume to comment on your reactions at such a time."

Which means another time WOULD have been appropriate, Cassie thought with well-disguised despair. I'm right...and I have to DO something before it's too late!

"Will you forgive me?" Hank asked lightly. She thought she felt a tremor pass between them, but whether it was her own or mere imagination she could not say.

"Of course, even though there's nothing TO forgive," Cassie assured him, smiling as warmly as she could. Hank tried to hush her, but she continued, "No, really. What you said was right. I apologize too much--I know that. And I...obsess about what people must be thinking...and worry that what I do reflects badly on you, to your friends. Like today."

"We'll get all that sorted out, I promise. Everyone will understand." Hank looked so certain that Cassie suddenly doubted her feelings of dread. Maybe she was over-reacting NOW?

"Even Bishop?"

Hank let himself look comically dubious. "Well, I'm not sure you should expect MIRACLES!" They laughed together, and suddenly everything seemed quite all right with their world again.

As they were relaxing some time later, Hank lifted his head off the pillow, eyes focusing off in the distance in that 'internal listening' look. *Team meeting, Beast--as soon as everyone can assemble.*

*About Magneto? Shall I bring Cassie?* The object of his question was gazing at him with easy curiosity, as though he were on the phone and she was wondering whether it was an aluminum siding salesman or a friend calling.

Hank smiled in her direction, but his expression changed abruptly when Xavier asked, *Why?*

*Because she was the one who found him, so to speak, and might have details to impart.* Now he was actively frowning, even though the expression was lost on his invisible conversational partner.

*Just X-Men* was the only response Hank got, words with most of the emotion leached out. But the exasperation and annoyance behind them came through sufficiently strongly for him to catch it.

"Time for that team meeting I told you we'd be having," he said to Cassie. His tone held enough harshness for her to reach out a hand and cup his face, a question in her eyes. He hung torn between two loyalties only a moment, then added, "I would prefer to have you attend, but the professor says no."

This would have been perfectly fine with Cassie, except that it was obviously upsetting Hank. "I really don't have that much to say--and I told it all to you. It's not it?"

Hank closed his eyes with a sigh that was half a huff of waning indignation. "Perhaps not. Perhaps now I am over-reacting." He leaned forward to press a kiss on her forehead. Xavier might be planning to go into details about Magneto's past which would be more than Cassie was ready to hear; that would be a sensible reason to exclude her. She was not, after all, one of the X-Men.... "It shouldn't take long."

After another quick kiss, Hank bounded into the bathroom to make himself presentable for the meeting, and Cassie lay back, frowning.  SHOULD she be offended? Surely not...except that Hank seemed to think so, or he had at first....

She laced her fingers and rested her hands on her stomach, staring up at the ceiling. Bishop thought she was a potential traitor. The professor thought she was...non-essential. Well, that was perfectly true. Hank thought...she over-reacted too much, apologized too much, was afraid too much. THAT was probably true, too.

After Hank--redressed in everything but his ruined lab coat, fur neatly brushed--kissed her goodbye, Cassie rolled to her stomach, trying to squelch a faint, anxious sensation there. She traced the carvings on the dark wood of the bed's headboard with one finger, not really seeing them. It had been a long time since she'd felt this confused and distressed. She had thought those days of out of control, roller coaster emotions were over, gone with the routine nightmares and the panic attacks. But maybe not.

The memory of her new determination resurfaced, and Cassie rose to head for the shower. One thing she WOULD do was quit borrowing trouble! Probably these unsettled feelings were due to the very simple fact that Hank had succeeded in luring her out of the comfortable shell she had created for herself while she was healing. Now she was again living in the complex, crowded, emotion-laden world, and she needed to relearn how to interact with people. But she had known how once. With Hank's help, she would certainly be able to do it again!

"I want to fill you all in on what I discovered in my meeting with...Joseph; by the way, we should all be using that name, and no other, unless and until I tell you differently."

Around the table in the War Room, a dozen heads nodded at Xavier's pronouncement. As Hank made a mental note to inform Cassie, he could not stop a rebellious fragment of his mind from scoring that as ONE piece of information she could have been told at the same time as all the rest of them.

"Joseph's first memory is of waking up in a shed outside a Church-run orphanage in South America. He retains no memories of his former life, at least, none specific to his old identity."

"What do you mean by that, sir?" Scott asked, intent as always on acquiring every detail available.

"I chose not to wipe his brain of all his accumulated knowledge, as that would have regressed him to infancy, and possibly done irreversible physical damage. Instead, I removed everything that...this is a difficult concept to put into words...was directly involved with his accumulated core personality." Jean was nodding, Betsy looking bemused and intrigued. "So he may, for example, still have scattered memories of events of World War II. But with nothing to tie them to his former life, he will most likely assume they come from books, movies, that sort of thing."

"I presume, then, he can still read and such?" Hank asked, thinking of the magazine Joseph had presented like a gatepass.

"Yes, in several languages." A smile with a shadow behind it lit on Xavier's face. "He laughed at my accent when I spoke in German. Just like he used to."

It must be like talking to a ghost, Hank thought, a wave of sympathy momentarily displacing his still somewhat disgruntled attitude.

"What reason did he give for coming here?" Bishop demanded, cutting to the chase as usual. Hank assumed sourly their self-appointed defender feared the traitor's invasion would begin while he was cooped up here in this meeting.

"He told me he was forced to use his powers to defend the nun and the children who had befriended him. He gave me no details and I...did not pry. After this incident, the sister suggested everyone would be happier and safer if he," here Xavier shook his head at the irony, "sought me out to help him learn to use his abilities."

Silence followed this remark, as the various X-men considered the possibilities. Rogue spoke up. "Then he'll jus' be runnin' tame 'round here fer now?" Xavier frowned his desire for her to elaborate. "He's not dangerous? We don't hafta watch him or anythin'?"

"I DID scan his mind enough to be certain he has no hostile intent to any of us. Mag...Joseph...genuinely wants m--our help." Rogue nodded at this, seeming satisfied, although she still looked faintly troubled. "We'll treat him with respect, as we would any other guest," Xavier continued, and Hank could not help snorting, or darting a quick, accusatory glance at both him and Bishop. If the professor noticed, he made no sign. And Bishop missed it entirely, his mind clearly centered on this new addition to his security tasks.

"So are we thinking about adding him on as a 'student'?" Jean asked, her frown showing she was only half-joking.

"No," Xavier said, and the relief that went around the table was almost palpable. "I'm not yet sure how to proceed in that area."

Sam Guthrie shifted uncomfortably in his spot, but said nothing. Several others looked equally dubious. "What are th' chances he's gonna remember, or figure out, who he is?" Logan demanded, voicing the concern in the back of everyone's mind.

"Fairly good," Xavier answered dryly. "I am thinking of telling him." At this revelation a babble of startled reaction burst forth, which the professor quelled by raising his hand. "Let me outline my reasons, and then we'll discuss it."

Fewer heads nodded this time, but Xavier pressed on, oblivious. "We must remember Joseph is not a stupid man. In this age of information, he is almost certain to eventually come across a description of Magneto and his powers, and, despite this partial rejuvenation I cannot explain, come to the obvious conclusion. If we have been less than forthcoming, his reaction could put us exactly back where we were before, in an adversarial position."

"All that suffering, and nothing gained," Jean said softly.


"But if y'tell de man who he WAS, and what y'did, won' dat have 'bout de same effec'?" Gambit asked, idly shuffling a pack of cards as he spoke, as if the answer was nothing at all to him. It was as much as anyone had heard him say all day.

"That is a possibility that must be considered." Xavier steepled his fingers, which signalled to those who knew him best something startling was forthcoming. "As we talked, I...hinted to him I could provide him with information on his past," he ignored the scattered gasps, "but that he might find it...disturbing."

"What--did he say, sir?" Sam blurted out into the stunned silence.

"That he would consider it." A tiny smile moved Xavier's lip. "And that at least he was being allowed to decide for himself whether or not to eat of the forbidden fruit."

"Huh?" Bobby frowned and looked around the table, searching for signs anyone else found the remark incongruous. When it was clear no one else was going to comment, he demanded, "What's apples and doin' the wild thing have to do with any of this?"

"Bobby, lad, has it been SO long since you darkened the door of a Sunday school?" Hank asked, drawn into the conversation at last by the elegance of the reference. "That which was forbidden," he explained with an ironic half-smile, "was the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil...."

Cassie stepped out into the hall with confidence, secure in the knowledge everyone else was at the meeting. This eliminated any possibility of a graceful retreat when she nearly collided with Joseph, who had been passing their bedroom door. "Oh!" she said inanely, then managed to add, "Hello...."

"We meet again, but this time as fellow guests," Joseph replied with that strange, inherent graciousness. He was plainly fresh from a shower; his long, white, neatly combed hair spread circles of dampness on his clean but faded chambray workshirt. Its color matched his eyes. The shirt hung on him, and Cassie wondered whether it had once belonged to a larger man, or if he had merely lost a lot of weight since he first acquired it.

"That's nice," Cassie replied, grubbing with no little desperation for normalcy. She had made up her mind she was going to be braver--this was an excellent chance to work on that resolution! "I'm sure you'll like it here." Joseph nodded his willingness to do so, still smiling.  "Is...there anything I can help you find? This place is so huge...."

"I thought I would like something cold to drink, and someone to talk to," Joseph answered solemnly. He kept his hands behind his back, perhaps knowing that was the least threatening posture he could take.

"Well, everyone else is in a meeting," Cassie explained, an instant before wondering if it was wise to say so. "But I was going to the kitchen for some iced tea. You can talk to me, if you want to."

"Most kind," he replied, his smile growing warmer, and Cassie relaxed in response, then gestured towards the head of the stairs. He still did not seem at all like someone who wanted to run the world and kill everyone like her, she reflected as they walked. Could there possibly have been some mistake?

Cassie babbled small talk all the way to the kitchen, which had, if nothing else, a calming effect on her. Joseph gave the impression of hiding secret amusement behind his gracious, well-bred air. At least this time there was no startling interruption as she poured two glasses of tea.

Looking him over as she bustled about, still chattering, Cassie was struck again by the man's thinness. He was muscular but gaunt, as though he had missed more meals than he got during his recent travels.  "Joseph?" He raised his eyebrows in pleasant inquiry. "I wonder if you' me a favor?"

"If I can."

Cassie's appreciation for him increased. Only people who cared about not breaking their word took the trouble to make a politely restricted response to that sort of question. "There's a bit of strawberry pie left from lunch. I'd like to have some--but I don't want to eat in front of you. Could I get you a slice too?"

Joseph's white eyebrows drew together in an instant frown, and his face grew stony, far older in an instant. Cassie realized with a pang of guilt that he must sense she felt sorry for him. "I made it myself," she added in a weak voice.

Somehow this non-sequitur pacified him, and he slowly relaxed. "Then I would certainly like to try it," he said, a king granting a royal favor.

Cassie beamed, and got out two dessert plates. Soon they were sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, forks in hand. She stabbed the first berry at the point of her slice, and nibbled on it, watching out of the corner of her eye as Joseph neatly cut off a bite-sized piece and placed it in his mouth.

He closed his eyes as he slowly chewed, a quiet pleasure stealing across his face as he savored the taste. "I think it must have been some time since I ate fresh strawberries," he remarked when he was free to speak again. "But I seem to know I have always liked them." There was a wistful, but somehow serene note in the words; he had retrieved a little piece of himself just there, and that meant something to him.

"They ARE great, aren't they?" Cassie said amiably. "I'd say they were my favorite, but I like almost all kinds of fruit, so usually whatever is ripe and right in front of me is my favorite at any given moment." Joseph nodded agreement, or at least understanding; he was busy with another mouthful of pie. "It's funny, when you stop to think about it. Most people like most kinds of fruit. But with vegetables, it's a different story--almost everyone actively dislikes one kind or another. I wonder why that is?"

"Perhaps it's one of the invisible mutations?" Joseph suggested with a half-smile.

"You think so?" Cassie stopped eating, caught up in this intriguing new idea. Surely not--or at least, not the X sort of mutation. But Hank would know. She could ask him later....

"Speaking of that sort of thing," Joseph said, "if you don't feel I'm prying, what is yours?"

"Mine?" For a moment, Cassie had no idea what he meant, and then she felt silly when the realization hit. "Oh! Oh, I'm afraid I don't have one. I'm ordinary type person."

Joseph's hand, bearing another strawberry on his fork, froze halfway to his mouth. "You're not a mutant?" he demanded in a strangely neutral voice which was quite at odds with the tone he had been using a moment before.

"No, sorry," she apologized, out of habit, and was irritated to hear the word come out of her mouth. Hank was right, she said it ALL the TIME. "Did you think I was?"

"I...assumed everyone here was." Joseph was giving her a cold, assessing look which made the worries about him that she had dismissed nudge the back of her mind. "Why else would anyone come to Xavier's?"

"I was invited by Hank. Hank McCoy," Cassie explained, feeling a faint blushing start just at the mention of his name.

"I see." He continued to look her up and down, and gradually his cool benevolence returned. "That is why you smiled so, to see the picture on my magazine."

"Yes," she admitted, certain she was blushing for real now.

"I did not see him...earlier."

"Oh, you did. He just looks different now. That's an old picture," she explained.

He looked as if he did not QUITE believe her. "Which one was he, then?"

"The one in the white lab coat, right in front? Blue, with fur?"

It was lucky Joseph wasn't chewing any pie right at that moment. After his startled reaction, he lay down his fork. "The one who looked like he would happily bite my neck out, given the chance?"

"He thought that I might be in danger," Cassie replied hotly, instantly ready to defend Hank and his motives. Then she relented, knowing it must have looked different from Joseph's point of view. "But he's not usually violent looking. When you get to know him better, you'll see. He's...." She struggled to think of the perfect words to describe Hank, not knowing the increasingly tender expression on her face was doing it for her.

"You love him." It was a plain statement, and Cassie nodded quiet but emphatic agreement.

"In spite of his looks?"

"I love him AND his looks." Now she felt an uncharacteristic impatience, that this man who was supposed to be so supportive of mutants could still be so blind, just like most of the rest of the world. "I don't know why that's so hard for people to understand. He's one of a kind--himself!"

"I didn't say he wasn't," Joseph pointed out mildly.

His face now held a restrained curiosity that encouraged Cassie to continue. "It's like...if the only plants in the world were flowers, but suddenly one day--there was a tree!" She made an upward sweeping gesture with both hands, sketching its comparative grandeur. "It would be silly to compare the look of a tree with flowers." MERE flowers, her tone implied. "A tree is wonderful all on its own." She returned his steady gaze. "There's nobody in the world like Hank--and that's too bad for the world."

"It's unfortunate that so few humans share your attitude."

After brief hesitation, Cassie asked, "Are there really that few?" hoping he would not think her insolent. "I've come to realize, you see, that I'm not in any position to know. Hank says there is--when I can get him to talk about it. But I thought...maybe he just sees more prejudice than others, because of the way he looks?"

"You don't see how pervasive it is because you are safe," Joseph said with calm accusation. "I have been hearing it for months, on radios and televisions, in the daily talk in shops and shelters and on the street."

Cassie's blue eyes grew dark as she considered this. "A lot of people who...don't have much want there to be someone else with even less. That would maybe explain some of what you heard?" Joseph merely shrugged. "I didn't know much about all this before I came here, but I do know decent people don't take those Friends of Humanity types seriously. They're cranks! Nuts!"

"Perhaps." Joseph did not look especially relieved by this assessment. "As I travelled here, I read anything I could put my hand to; life on the road is extremely boring. I find I seem to have an interest in history..." his sudden pensive look disturbed her somehow "...and I have read of a time, in this century, when one individual with questionable sanity rallied his countrymen to wage war on the world. And on those peoples he thought unsuitable."

Who does he mean? Hitler...or himself? Cassie wondered in sick fascination.

"There is again talk of camps, you know," Joseph informed her, as composed as if he were reminding her of the existence of barber shops.

"Oh, but this is America! That couldn't happen--" Cassie's voice cut off as a childhood memory flashed into her mind. She and her parents stood on a desolate, sun-baked stretch of scrubland, surrounded by rows of crumbling old concrete foundations. Her father's face bore grim disgust as he explained that this was all that was left of Camp Amache, a World War II Japanese relocation center. Little more than an hour's drive from where she had been born.

"...couldn't happen again," she continued, but weakly. "Things are different now."

"Are they?" Joseph's eyes were cold. "If you are wrong, would you follow your Hank to one? Presuming you were even permitted the choice, since you are human?"

"Yes. I would." Her answer sounded inadequate, automatic, but Cassie was too caught up in sudden visions of horror to be troubled by that. It was too AWFUL to happen--but what if it COULD? She felt her heart pounding, as if the predicted event was actually imminent, and it took all her strength of will not to leap up from the table and run in search of Hank this instant.

"Something must be done before the situation grows that bad again," Joseph said, drawing her attention back to him.

"Yes. What?" Action, yes. Something had to be done. What had she been THINKING, wasting time worrying about her own minuscule problems, when an atrocity like this could be brewing?

"What are YOU doing?" Joseph countered.

"I...I don't know." She had never for a moment considered the problem before. "Voting? For people who would fight something like this?" Joseph didn't speak, but his single raised eyebrow did it for him. "Well, what SHOULD we be doing?"

This gave him pause. "I don't know," he admitted at last. "I feel as though I DID know once...."

"Someone, somewhere, must be doing SOMETHING," Cassie reasoned aloud. "Hank will know--we can ask him!"

"And Charles...he and I already have much to discuss, but I suspect we can explore this topic as well." Something about that idea seemed to hearten him, and he regarded Cassie with the barest beginning of acceptance.

Their impromptu council session was interrupted by Rogue's entrance. She seemed startled to see them both, but made a good effort at hiding that reaction. "Y'all ain't ruinin' your dinner, now, are ya?"

"No," Cassie answered, not quite truthfully. Not on the pie, at any rate. The heaviness she felt in her stomach came solely from the fear Joseph's words had aroused in her. "We just felt like a snack."

"Don't s'pose y'feel like peelin' any potatahs?" Rogue wheedled, obviously including them both. "Ah'm makin' potatah salad for tomorrow's lunch."

To Cassie's surprise, Joseph said, "Yes, I'll help." He rose from his chair, and carried their two empty plates to the sink.

Cassie jumped to her feet as well. "Me too. It IS better if it sits overnight, isn't it?" She felt grateful to Rogue for providing a simple task in which she could immerse herself, putting her new worries on hold. The Southern woman was pleasant company as well. Joseph was nice enough, but so intense!

Within minutes, the trio was busily involved in meal preparation, and cheerfully discussing nothing more controversial than favorite foods, unfavorite vegetables and the difficulties of preventing midnight raids on stashes of potato salad.

Continued in Part 35.

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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