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

The saga continues, with yet another team chiming in! As always, no matter which team drops in, Marvel owns the copyright to all their established characters.

Part 38--Growing Things

Closing the heavy oak door of Hank's room quietly behind her, Cassie moved across the floor, shucking off her thick terrycloth bathrobe as she did so. Moonlight streaming in through the window gave her plenty of light to navigate by. It also outlined Hank's comfortably curled form under the covers. She thought he looked like a little boy when he was asleep--a very large little boy, of course. Still, seeing him like that seemed to make her heart do a funny little flip all the same.

Cassie did her best not to slosh the waterbed as she slipped back into her spot. But Hank rolled over towards her, muttering her name in a sleepy query. "Yes, just me," she reassured him. "Up in the night again. I guess the dang jetlag is on rewind now or something."

"Mmmm," he said as he stroked her arm, already half-asleep again.

"And then when I was in the bathroom, all of a know how it is sometimes? I HAD to have a glass of milk." She continued her companionable babble as she plumped her pillow and got re-settled. "But it's such a long way down to the kitchen, and I thought, 'What if walking down there wakes me up, and I can't get back to sleep?' Isn't that annoying, when you want two opposite things?"

"Do you want me to go get you a glass of milk?" Hank asked, finally waking all the way up, wondering how much of the conversation he had inadvertently missed.

"Oh, no--I got it already. That's where I was, the kitchen."

"You went downstairs all by yourself?" he asked, pleased by the revelation. "You're becoming quite the bold adventurer, my dear. Scouting the deserted midnight halls of the scary old Xavier mansion...."

Cassie laughed and snuggled under Hank's arm, from where she kissed the underside of his chin. "It's more like the 2 o'clock halls, and actually, they weren't deserted. Or rather the kitchen wasn't--I ran into Joseph." This was the information she had been hoping to impart in an appropriately casual way.

Now Cassie had Hank's full attention, as she had expected she might. She'd stood by listening to more than one conversation since their arrival home, where various team members filled Hank in on what had gone on while the two of them were off to Muir Island. She'd felt a little funny to find herself privy to the gossip, but also gratified to be treated like an accepted insider.

"Did he say anything?"

Ever since Professor Xavier had given Joseph the X-Men's accumulated information on his history as Magneto, their strange visitor had hardly stirred from his guest room. Various members of the household had quietly been assigned the task of carrying him trays, once it was apparent he was not coming down for meals, but he had exchanged no words outside of simple thank yous. Xavier had asked everyone to be alert for any unusual activity, but to otherwise give him time and privacy to come to terms with the shocking revelations about his past.

"Not much. He'd brought down a tray with some dishes, and wanted to put them in the dishwasher, but it was full of the clean dishes from dinner. So I helped him put them away, since I pretty much know where everything goes by now."

"I see." Something about this mental image was disquieting to Hank, but he dismissed it to pursue the more important matter. "How did he seem?"

Cassie considered this professionally, thinking how she would describe it in a book. "Quiet. Like he was thinking about something else. He was polite, though, and he smiled a couple of times. Asked me how our trip was. So I wouldn't say he seemed depressed or anything like that. Just...wrapped up in something...." She stroked her hand along Hank's chest, ruffling his fur. "I wasn't sure if I should hint around that he ought to come down to eat, that he was still welcome. So I didn't say anything."

"Probably best for now. I think Charles will want to be the one to handle that delicate situation." Cassie nodded in agreement. "Joseph is in a far from enviable position," Hank mused aloud as he began re- settling himself into a sleep position comfortable for two. "I imagine I should quite dislike being presented with a list of the misdeeds of another me, from another life."

"That would be pretty hard to cope with," Cassie agreed. "Poor guy." Feeling a bit guilty at being so utterly content here in Hank's arms when others were sad and alone, she gave a sigh, which turned into an unexpected yawn.

Hank echoed it before leaning to kiss her cheek. "I second your motion to return to our slumbers," he said, voice rumbling with a half-chuckle. "Tomorrow is a busy day."

"It is?" Cassie half craned her neck to look back at him. "On Memorial Day Weekend? That's un-American." Her grin assured him she was joking.

"You forget, I already HAD my vacation," he purred, with a light yet suggestive pat on her hip.

Her small hand grasped his large, furred one, lacing their fingers for a light squeeze. "And I'm still having mine. Lucky us, huh?"

"Indescribably," he responded, his tone equally light, equally sincere beneath the tone. "Good night, my dear Cassie."

Morning found the couple in the kitchen at Hank's usual time. Also as usual, the smell of coffee indicated other, earlier risers had already finished their morning breakfast rituals and gone. Storm was still present, putting the finishing touches on an almost ethereally fluffy omelet. She sat to eat it, conversing sociably as Hank and Cassie busied themselves with their own meal preparations.

"And what are your plans this fine morning?" Hank inquired of his teammate.

"I have learned the nursery in Salem Center is closing out all of its bedding plants," Storm said. "I thought I would try to give some of them a good home." There was a good-humored sparkle in her eyes that, in contrast, made her serene smile look vaguely mysterious, like the Mona Lisa's. "I proposed creating some new flowerbeds in front of the mansion, and Charles agreed."

"I wonder...if you need any help?" Cassie offered, after a brief hesitation. "I used to help my parents with their garden--I like it."

Storm was on the verge of explaining gently that she had planned to do the task alone, as an opportunity to commune with nature and her Goddess, but stopped when Hank, standing out of Cassie's line of sight, gave her a pleading look. Shrugging mentally, she said, "I would of course be grateful for the help, and pleased to have company." Cassie's relief and happiness showed instantly, and Storm felt a moment's pang of shame for almost having put the newcomer off.

To underscore her good will, she decided to tease her old friend. "Under the circumstances then, perhaps Cassie and I could take your car, Hank," Storm mused, well aware of Hank's discomfiture at the idea of someone else driving his treasured vehicle. "We will not be buying THAT many trays of plants, and I am sure any loose potting soil that spills will vacuum right up."

"Er," he said, swallowing hard, then looked at Cassie's eager smile and bravely continued, "well, I suppose...unless you think you MIGHT be tempted by a bargain in a larger plant size? Such as a shrub, or even a tree? You wouldn't have room if--" He broke off when Storm trilled her musical laugh, and feigned a reproving frown when he realized he'd been had.

"You are right, Hank. It WOULD be more sensible for us to take the van, and so we shall." She directed her next words to Cassie. "They open at eight, so if we can depart perhaps fifteen minutes before?"

As the two women headed towards the garage, Storm extended the keys of the van in Cassie's direction. "Would you care to drive?"

"I don't mind, if you want me to," Cassie replied, taking the keys automatically. Her eyes asked a question she was too polite to frame verbally.

"I CAN drive, but I do not care for it," Storm explained with calm dignity. "I find I have sense of communion with mechanical things."

"Well, that makes sense," Cassie murmured. They reached the van and got themselves settled to travel. "I like driving," she continued. "I started when I was ten."

"Ten?" Storm's elegant white eyebrows lifted like gulls' wings. "Surely that is rather young?"

"Pretty common in ranch country, where I'm from." With swift precision, Cassie backed the van from the garage and started towards the gate. "We'd go to my grandparents' ranch for a visit, and my dad or cousin would take me out to open range--it's legal on private property, you see--and teach me. There was nothing to hit or drive off of, just flat ground and low scrub." Her face grew wistful recalling the fun and unconscious freedom of childhood. "I really enjoyed it."

"Children can be taught many unusual things, and they naturally make games out of matters adults find serious," Storm commented, her eyes far away for a moment as well.

They continued to talk as they drove, and the initial sense of uncertainty, of having to make a conversation between strangers work, was soon left behind. By the time they parked and entered the greenhouse at the nursery, they were laughing together in easy accord.

Some time later, a smitten assistant finished loading the last of several dozen trays of young plants into the back of the van, and gave a forlorn but earnest good-bye wave to Storm. "Kindly stop smiling in that way; he is almost young enough to be my son," Storm pretended to scold Cassie as they drove away.

"A very dutiful son," Cassie replied, still smiling, thinking of how the boy had practically hovered over them, holding the large carrying trays for the six-packs of baby plants Storm selected, rushing them to the counter and running back so no other worker could usurp his spot.

"I am glad you will be helping me set the plants," Storm said, changing the subject. "I got carried away as usual, I fear."

"I hope it WILL be all right for me to plant those tomatoes somewhere in back," Cassie worried. She'd been drawn to some leggy, pale ones standing neglected in a corner, left behind now that the area's ideal tomato planting season had passed.

"I believe we can find room for them SOMEWHERE on the estate," Storm said dryly, and Cassie laughed, admitting she was being unnecessarily nervous.

They re-entered the gates, and at Storm's direction, Cassie pulled into the circle drive in front of the mansion for unloading. There were half a dozen newly turned beds of different sizes and shapes in the general area of the entrance steps, neat and ready for filling with plants. "I guess you did this while we were away?"

"I drew out the designs. Logan helped with the preparation of the beds."

"Really?" Cassie wished she could have seen that. It would have been interesting to see him tilling the soil with his extendable metal claws--scary, but interesting.

"Yes. Of all the mechanical things I do not care for, our rototiller is high on the list." Storm shuddered delicately. "Much too loud, and it shakes like it will fly apart."

"Oh." Cassie revised her mental image of Logan working to this much more prosaic picture. "Yeah, my dad's rototiller is just like that. And running it? It's like someone stuck handles on a Harley--your hands and arms buzz for HOURS afterwards!"


They removed the flats of plants and placed them in whatever shade was available, returned the van to the shed, and gathered up the tools and equipment they would need for their job. Back at the front of the house, Storm showed Cassie her carefully drawn out diagram for the bed designs. "No gold X's in blue backgrounds?" she asked, wickedly innocent.

Storm gave another of her looks of feigned annoyance, then stopped, stuck by some mental image. "I wish I had thought of that," she admitted. "It would have been amusing to propose it to Charles as though I was seriously intending...."

"You still could," Cassie urged. "Draw it up to show him, I mean."

"OR we could merely return to the, I doubt there would be enough flowers in the appropriate colors."

"I think you took all the blue ones they had already," Cassie agreed. "But...." She looked at the design paper again. "If you could skip these borders?" Her finger traced two kidney shaped beds, outlined in blue. "With the yellow marigolds, we MIGHT have enough for ONE circle? Maybe on the side of the house by the patio?"

Indecision glimmered in Storm's cat-eyes for only an instant. "Do you want to start on this one, then, while I go find Logan?" She gave Cassie a conspirator's smile.

"Sure," Cassie answered with a grin, catching Storm's mood.

"I shall ask him to prepare a place for the tomatoes as well," Storm promised as she left on her errand.

Smiling to herself in enjoyable anticipation of Hank's reaction--she knew HE would be amused, at least--Cassie looked over the guide paper once more, then went to select the first batch to be set, white petunias as ruffled as carnations for the center of a long, curving oval bed. She selected a trowel, picked up a flat of petunias, and set to work.

The ground here was so different from back home; dark brown and loamy, incredibly moist and lush when it was turned. "You're going to like this," Cassie said gaily to the bedding plants as she began to tease them out of their containers.

At the sound of an engine coming up the drive, she turned half around, curious. It was, surprisingly, the sort of car anyone would EXPECT to see pulling up at the front entrance of a place like this; a long, low limousine with tinted windows. The effect was spoiled, however, by the vehicle following it, a old, red Jeep full of luggage.

Cassie assumed anyone who could drive right in MUST have security clearance, but she watched in some trepidation as the limo's doors opened. Then a rambunctious collection of teenagers began to spill out of the back half, and she relaxed. It didn't look like any kind of invasion she could imagine--at least, not a dangerous one.

There were big and tall boys, model-like girls, and two odd-looking little tykes tailing the pack. Cassie told herself they MIGHT just be shorter than the others, not younger, but then they started playing a game of tag between and around the big kids. Definitely little boys.

A tall, red-headed man got out of the Jeep and started half-heartedly trying to corral the little ones as the teens dug through the jumbled luggage, bickering good-naturedly. The Jeep's passenger door creaked open, and what appeared to be a girl with skin as red as its paint slipped out to join the rest. It was all so fascinating Cassie didn't even realize she was staring.

Then the liveried driver came around the limo and opened its door for a woman with ice-smooth platinum blonde hair, and a body and outfit straight out of Penthouse. The kids, all of them, ceased their horseplay and the louder part of their banter when she emerged. "Shall we?" this apparition said to them in cool tones, gesturing towards the mansion.

As they lined up behind their...governess? Asian girl in an appallingly yellow raincoat ran a bright, assessing gaze over Cassie, then leaned close to whisper something to the other two girls she stood near. "Uh, hi," said one, a blonde, when she realized Cassie was watching them gossip.

"Don't bother the help when they're working, Paige," said the woman in leather, striding up the stairs without looking back, and Cassie's mouth dropped open in astonishment. Who WAS that very rude woman? She was still staring in shock when the red-headed man bringing up the rear of the entourage gave her a friendly wink as he went inside.

Cassie had given up trying to convince herself she had NOT been deliberately insulted by the time Storm returned. "We have company," Cassie informed her, tilting her head towards the limo.

"Ah, the students are here," Storm replied, kneeling down beside Cassie and taking a six-pack of plants to set.

"So it IS some kind of field trip?"

Storm laughed in delight. "Not quite. These are the students from our...sister organization in Massachusetts. Where young mutants are trained in the use of their powers."

"Oh, yes, Hank DID mention them to me before, I think." Hank had mentioned quite a lot of people and groups in the past couple of weeks, but most of the details were still somewhat mixed in Cassie's mind.

"As I understand it, the group recently had an unexpectedly dangerous encounter. Charles thought it wise to move their yearly health exams up, to be sure no one had suffered any undetected injuries."

"Ah." That explained Hank's remark about his upcoming busy day. Cassie dismissed the group from her mind for the moment. "Am I spacing these the right distance for your design?"

The two of them had been working companionably for several productive hours when Cassie suddenly bolted to her feet. "Yes? Oh--certainly! I'll be right there," she said to the empty air. Storm, who had some idea of what was going on, merely waited through this one-sided conversation. It didn't last long.

Cassie turned to Storm and blurted, "Professor Xavier wants me to come to his office!" She looked down at herself and gasped in horror, wiping her dirty palms against each other, then succumbing to a spasm of dusting at her mud-grimed knees and all the other parts of her body which had been in contact with the ground.

"Here, Cassie, hold out your hands," Storm instructed. A micro-shower fell from nowhere, and Cassie gratefully rinsed away the soil, then wiped her damp hands over her face.

"What do you think he wants? I said I'd be right there--oh, dear."

"I have no idea, but I doubt it is anything earth-shattering," Storm said, trying to soothe her, knowing she was unlikely to fully succeed.

"Is my face grubby?" Cassie asked anxiously.

"It is NOW," Storm told her dryly. Cassie looked quickly right and left, then untucked her t-shirt and wiped the hem over her face. With her casual garments, tied-back hair and agitated expression, Storm thought she looked very much of an age with the Generation X team at the moment. "But that solves the problem. You look reasonably presentable--" she barely refrained from adding 'child' at the last moment.

"THANKS, Storm," Cassie said as she gathered her nerve. "I'll be back to help again as soon as I can." With a tremulous smile, Cassie trotted off.

After taking the time for three deep breaths, Cassie knocked at the panelled door. The professor's voice bade her enter, where she found the one she'd dubbed Penthouse Woman and the red-haired man sitting in front of Xavier's desk. The woman examined Cassie, tapping one perfect nail on the arm of her chair in distinct displeasure as she did so. "You ARE joking, aren't you, Charles?"

"Do I look like I'm joking?"

"You never LOOK like you're joking, not even when you try." Cassie was stunned all over again to hear someone talking to Professor Xavier that way.

The red-haired man had politely risen from his seat. The professor made introductions in an urbane tone while the man, Sean, fetched another chair. Cassie wondered wildly if she'd gotten all the loose grass and dirt off her rear end--if not, she hoped someone around here had the mutant power of cleaning antique needlepoint. But rather than look like even MORE of a dork in front of Emma, she sat down anyway.

Xavier began to explain why he had called her. "Sean and Emma run a school affiliated with us, for the benefit of younger mutants--much like my original interactions with the X-men. The children not only receive training in using their powers, but the more usual kind of education as well." Cassie nodded, seeing the sense of it.

"Most of their traditional education is taught through individually paced modules via computer programs, which for the most part works very well. However, one area where some of the students are having trouble is in English composition. As you may imagine, it doesn't lend itself well to machine assessment."

"No, I don't suppose so," Cassie agreed politely.

"We were discussing what to do about it, and I suddenly wondered whether YOU had ever taught writing?"

"Oh, yes, a few workshops and such," she began, then paused, looking a bit dubious. Surely he wasn't asking....

"As you were mentioning the other day you would like to do something, to be helpful--"

"May I ask what her qualifications are, besides of course having taught the prestigious 'few workshops'?" Emma inquired with freezing false-courtesy.

Cassie's heart sank. There was not one chance in hell this woman had ever willingly even TOUCHED a romance novel, despite dressing like she belonged on a cover for the ultra-steamy type. To save the professor from having to try to explain, she admitted her dread secret.

Emma merely stared at her coolly, with a few well-spaced blinks, then transferred the same look to Professor Xavier. Saying nothing said it all.

"Whatever your opinion of the genre, Emma, I'm sure you'll believe me when I tell you I know Cassie's writing skills to be more than adequate to serve as her credentials for this task. Plus she already understands our situation vis a vis security questions and the like."

"I'd be thinkin' the big question is whether she cares to help us out," Sean inserted, giving her a charming Irish smile. "Considerin' the lot of hooligans we're askin' her to cope with." Cassie hadn't even gotten as far as worrying about THAT yet, and she gulped inwardly. "Perhaps we could give it a try on a temporary basis? For the summer, say?"

"The school is in Massachusetts?" Cassie answered, trying to sound professionally calm. "How would we work that out?"

Emma sighed theatrically. "It's called telecommunications, dear. I understand even the normal world is using it heavily these days."

"Emma, please!" Xavier snapped, and Sean added, "F'r God's sake, Emma, give it a rest!"

Well, two out of three wasn't bad, Cassie supposed. Plus she HAD offered to help. And maybe she wouldn't have to have much to do with Emma. "I'd be happy to try, anyway."

"Good," said Xavier, with a satisfied smile. He looked to Sean who nodded, and Emma, who didn't.

"I'd like to go on record as objecting," Emma said. Her eyes flicked over Cassie one more time, then dismissed her. "For several of the students, this is supposed to be a college-level class. I've never read any masters theses that featured heaving bosoms and tingling...whatevers."

The only thing Cassie could think of to say about heaving bosoms at the moment would have come across as a bit of a personal attack, considering SOMEONE'S was practically heaving out of its bustier right here in this very room. She forced herself to merely smile and think about the moral beauty of self-control. "I'll try to avoid teaching the young people anything inappropriate."

"That they don't already know," muttered Sean, shaking his head.

"WELL then," Xavier said, regaining control of the conversation mostly through force of will, "why don't we arrange for you to just meet the students today? We can work out the formal scheduling later. There's a solarium on this floor we occasionally use for informal meetings; Hank can show you where it is after lunch. What time do you think the students will be available, Sean?"

"Hank said he'd be done lookin' over our darlin's by mid-afternoon at the latest."

"Would 4 o'clock be a good time for you, Cassie?" Xavier inquired.

"I don't see why not...certainly," Cassie said, nodding a little too hard. She half-rose, then said, "If that's all?" Xavier nodded back, dismissing her, and Sean gallantly rose as Cassie did. "I promised Storm I'd finish helping her...." She trailed off and managed not to bolt through the doors only because she refused to give Emma the satisfaction.

Oh, BOY, Cassie thought as she headed back outside. What in the world have I gotten myself into NOW? Don't answer that! She suspected she would find out all too soon.

Continued in Part 39.

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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