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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As I've said so MANY times before, Marvel characters are copyright to Marvel. And good luck to them in their current crisis!

Part 39--The Best Defense

"It's just, like, so weird," Jubilee muttered, poking at her plate.

"This so-called food? You got THAT right!" Angelo smirked at her across the wide white-clothed expanse of the dining table. "Thought everything was so perfecto here with the X-men." Sam, sitting between Jubilee and his sister, frowned at this remark; Paige unconsciously copied her big brother's expression.

"Pay attention much?" Jubilee retorted. "I wasn't talkin' about the food, which is FINE." Two of Jean's giant-sized emergency casseroles had been defrosted to feed the X-men and their younger counterparts from Xavier's School for Gifted Students. Sadly, the dish was all-too-clearly an experiment which had not produced an unqualified success.

"Since she was planning to freeze it, she should have reduced the amount of tarragon," Monet observed in the exact tones of an impartial cooking contest judge. "It being one of the herbs whose flavor intensifies and spreads during storage--"

"THANK YOU, Martha Stewart," Jubilee snarled pleasantly. "I was TALKIN' about Beast an' his one-woman fan club."

Thus reminded, they all stole a glance. At the extreme other end of the huge formal dining table, Sean was saying something inaudible to the stranger in question, which made her blush and Hank laugh out loud.

"What's so weird about him having a girlfriend? It's not like he's never had one before," Paige said, practicing her voice of sweet reason.

"I KNOW that." Jubilee frowned at the memory as she stirred up the cream-sauced sludge on her plate. "SHE didn't have any powers either."

"Don' look to me like she NEED any powers," Angelo said with a suggestive leer. He was immediately cried down by his female peers for being porcine.

Once Angelo seemed at least somewhat squelched, Jubilee continued. "All I know is, it seems, like, kinda SUDDEN. I mean, he goes to the bank, meets this girl, and before you can turn around she's MOVED IN with him--"

"Remind me to ask him the name of that bank--I think I'm gonna open me an account," interrupted Angelo with an evil grin. He apparently had not taken his scolding too seriously.

This prompted Everett to cuff him in good-natured fellow-male mockery. "Those kind of accounts need a certain 'minimum deposit' YOU ain't got!"

"Hey, man, don' dis me in front of the chicas!" Angelo cried in pretend consternation, as he smacked him back.

"Knock it OFF, you two," Paige protested. "I know they're too far away to hear us, but if you keep fooling around, Emma's going to start poking her mind in to see why we're laughing so much."

As if she hadn't been interrupted, Jubilee continued, "And they go around stuck together like a grilled cheese sandwich or somethin'."

"You have such a talent for romantic descriptions," Monet observed scathingly.

"Maybe she'll teach us some," Paige grumped, reminded of the unwelcome news about having this Cassie person as a teacher. The idea of being instructed by a ROMANCE writer had disturbed her more than she wanted to let on.

"Can' believe that," Angelo chimed in, shaking his head gloomily.

"It's only for the summer, anyway," said Everett.

Sam interrupted with a mild protest, softened for his sister's sake. "C'mon, she's a nice lady--y'all could at least give her a chance." He excused himself to go refill his plate at the sideboard.

"Wolvie did tell me that," said Jubilee, half-chastened for just an instant. "He says she's kinda shy and jumpy, but no one except maybe Hank knows exactly why."

"Do you think perhaps she's attracted to Dr. McCoy because she wants a protector?" Monet mused.

"Like a knight on a white horse?" Paige snorted.

"You all make it so complicated," Mondo said. He had been listening earnestly to the whole conversation, while giving his food concentrated attention as well. "Perhaps it is just that she likes him. Man, woman, love--it is a wonderful thing."

Jubilee groaned. "I keep meanin' to ask--what color's the sky in your world, Mondo?"

"Why, blue, of course." Mondo gazed at Jubilee in some perplexity before a sudden broad smile broke through. "Ah, I see--you are joking me." He laughed heartily in appreciation.

"It's rather a sad commentary when a woman feels she needs someone else to protect her," said Monet, buttering another roll.

"What else she gonna do? Like Jubilee said, she got no powers."

Jubilee tried and failed to kick Angelo under the wide table. "Didja skip your anti-annoying medication today on purpose?"

"Yeah, women can learn to defend themselves!" Paige chimed in, indignant. "Even non-mutants."

"Hey, that's a first--one of your brilliant ideas that really is!" cried Jubilee, entranced by a sudden vision.


"Let's teach her some moves!"

"Why?" As always when Jubilee waxed enthusiastic about something, Paige started to feel nervous.

"So she can defend herself, like you said!" At Paige's look of dismay, Jubilee switched to coaxing. "C'mon, it'd be easy. I bet I can even still get into the Danger Room!"

If rolling eyes made any sound, the sudden din at that end of the table would have been deafening. "Never forget you're dealing with mighty Jubilee, the former X-man," intoned Everett.

Paige was torn. If she called Jubilee's bluff about the Danger Room, something might go horribly wrong. And yet, if she didn't get involved, Jubilee might try to pursue the project by herself, exponentially increasing the risk of something disastrous happening. "Tell you what--let's ask her if she's even interested first." If she was as shy as reported, that would solve the problem right there.

The subject was dropped by mutual consent as Sam returned. "Hey, there's plenty of the casserole left, if y'all are still hungry," he told them as he took his seat.

"Oh, wonderful," Mondo enthused, standing up. "Can I bring some for anyone else?"

His answer was a unanimous "No!!"

The adults began to rise and leave the table, signalling the end of lunch. Hank headed towards the younger mutants, trailed by Cassie. "Ah, Angelo! I believe you are my next lucky victim."

"I'm lucky? What, you leaving out some of those nasty tests you medicos love so much?"

"Well, nooo...." Hank was in his element, bouncing slightly on his toes and beaming as he regarded the group. "But if you wish, we can do as we've done with the female students for the more, ah, personal tests...."

Angelo looked torn between interest and suspicion, so Paige saved him the trouble of deciding whether to ask. "Emma gets the how-to info from his mind and sets up the medical scanner stuff FOR him." She screwed up her face in eloquent expression of exactly how happy she'd been about that.

"I feel so close to her now--not!" agreed Jubilee, making the traditional 'gagging' gesture with one forefinger.

"There is no need for embarrassment because of normal medical procedures," Monet said in a calm tone. "Fortunately SOME of us can be mature about things like--"

"Don' say it, whatever it is," Angelo pleaded. "Some things us guys don' want to know, sabe?" He squared his shoulders like someone readying himself for the firing squad. "Let's do it, then. But just you and me, por favor, Dr. McCoy?"

"Whatever you like," Hank assured him. He turned to kiss Cassie on the forehead. "Later, my sweet."

Angelo brightened, and extended his arms to his teammates. "Somebody gonna kiss ME goodbye?"

His only answer from the girls were three nearly identical 'you wish' stares. Seeing this, Sam clowningly said, "If ya just GOTTA have one..." and stepped forwards.

"Ayeeii, you are todo mas loco," Angelo protested, though he laughed while he said it. "Senor Beast, take me away."

Emma joined them at the elevator, causing Angelo no little distress. "Remember, this was gonna be jus' between us vatos...." he said to Hank in a low, urgent tone.

"Don't worry, Angelo," Emma said with cool amusement. "I'm down here working on a project of my own. And it wasn't MY idea to play nursie anyway." Angelo almost managed to hide his sigh of relief.

Hank and Emma discussed minor details of the afternoon's proposed schedule as the elevator took the trio down to the labs. Then she split off to follow her own agenda. Angelo stopped at the main entrance to read a hand-lettered sign on the door:

Don't LOOK at anything in a physics lab.
Don't TASTE anything in a chemistry lab.
Don't SMELL anything in a biology lab.
Don't TOUCH anything in a medical lab.
and, most importantly,
Don't LISTEN to anything in a philosophy department.

Come to think of it, perhaps you'd better simply knock, and I'll come out!


"Shall we?" Hank asked with a grin, once Angelo had finished. He flourished an invitational bow, and Angelo shuffled resignedly inside.

Upstairs in the dining room, two girls edged up to Cassie on the heels of Hank and Angelo's departure. Time to start getting to know her new students, Cassie decided, and gave them an encouraging smile.

"Hi!" said one...Jubilee, wasn't it?...with a snap of her gum. "You, like, doin' anything right now?" Her almost aggressively friendly manner was the antithesis of the stereotypical shy Asian girl.

Cassie quickly considered her options. The bedding plants she'd been working on with Storm were all in, and well-watered by some highly localized showers. She HAD been planning to sit herself down to WRITE this afternoon, but...oh, well, what was one more afternoon off? "Nothing in particular."

"We thought--"

Paige interrupted, knowing Jubilee's propensity for just blurting things out with no psychology about it. "We were talking about going downstairs to work out a little, and we thought you might want to come, too?"

Amazingly, Jubilee seemed to catch on, and followed Paige's lead. "Yeah, we were just sayin' how we haven't practiced our self-defense stuff in a while. And since we're here, and the Danger Room is up for grabs--"

Paige saw Cassie involuntarily gulp at the mention of the Danger Room, and feared she was about to decline. "Except...we're technically supposed to have a grown-up around when we use it." She widened her eyes and looked as serious as she could, an expression that had always worked wonders on teachers back home. "It's the rules," she said solemnly.

"I'd certainly be happy to help," Cassie said, trying very hard to sound natural, "but...I don't know anything about how the...the Danger Room works, or anything."

"You don't hafta, I do," crowed Jubilee, assuming victory. "The prof just wants a grown-up there so we won't goof around--as IF!"

"Oh, yeah, Jubilee--YOU never goof around!"

"Not about somethin' like this!" Jubilee protested, stung by the accusation.

Worried that the girls might think she was rejecting what was probably an offer of friendship, Cassie agreed. She even managed a semi-enthusiastic smile, although she was in reality far from sanguine about the prospect of venturing into the Danger Room. It had no doubt been so named for a good reason. But since this could be a start at getting close to two of her new writing students, she squelched her nervousness and followed their lead.

True to Jubilee's expectations, the Danger Room door yielded to her voice-command, and let them in. The huge vault-like area seemed ominously still to Cassie--surely their footsteps and voices ought to echo a little more? But the girls were so matter of fact about the situation that she was able to summon up a modicum of calm.

"Have you ever taken any self-defense courses or anything?" Paige inquired. For some reason she seemed as nervous as Cassie felt.

"No, I haven't," Cassie answered. "I've thought about it, but, you know, never made the time." That much was true, although as an explanation it left out more than it told.

"Well, hey, we can show ya some easy stuff!" Jubilee declared. "You never know when it might come in handy!"

"That's true, you never know," Cassie managed to say, meanwhile scolding herself mentally. 'WHAT are you so worried about? It's not like you're going to have to fight your way out of here or anything!'

"Would you like to?" asked Paige, almost hoping the answer would be no. Although the plan seemed, on the surface, to be going smoothly, there was some sort of undercurrent here she didn't quite like.

"Sure!" Cassie said with false-heartiness. Heck, maybe she could use it in a book sometime.

"How about that one real easy choke break for starters?" Jubilee said to Paige. She raised one arm in a partial arc over her head, and Paige nodded her understanding and agreement. "I can even bust Mondo off with that one," Jubilee bragged to Cassie.

Mondo was quite a hefty specimen, if she was remembering the quick introductions accurately, and Cassie's interest went up a notch. Jubilee wasn't much taller than her--if SHE could do it? "Without your powers?" she hazarded.

"Oh, yeah, we do this stuff without powers mostly," Paige explained. "In case we ever get into a situation where our powers don't work." At Cassie's puzzled frown she added, "It happens. Not very often, thank goodness."

"Yak, yak, yak--let's get to work!" Jubilee swallowed her gum and moved to stand in front of Paige. "Here, you and me'll do it first, to show her."

As Cassie watched intently, the girls worked out who was to choke who. Jubilee cheerfully grabbed her teammate's neck with almost too much realism. "Looser, Jubes--I have to TALK, y'know!"

"Weenie," Jubilee accused amiably as she complied with the request.

"Okay, just bring one arm out from your side--it doesn't matter which one--" Paige demonstrated as she explained "then act like you're drawing an arc exactly over your head with your forefinger--"

"Look at your hand, not at the bad dude," Jubilee added helpfully. "So you won't freak."

"When your arm is straight up, start turning your shoulders, and keep on with the arc until you're bent all the way over." Jubilee's hands popped off their grip as though they were greased. "Then from down here, you spring back up and hit 'em with the back of your fist, or the side of your arm, or whatever is handy."

"Where do you hit them?"

"In the face, if you can. Or the neck, or ribs--just bounce back up real fast and swing at whatever's in reach. For the element of surprise."

'The one surprised will be me, if I remember this,' Cassie thought, but all she said was, "That DOES seem to work pretty well."

"Watch us a few more times, then you can try it."

Sooner than she would have thought possible, Cassie was successfully completing the action, and growing elated. Her two future students assured her happily they wouldn't even THINK of giving in easily just to make her feel good.

"I know, how 'bout if we program up a sim for you to work with? Then you'll see for sure how good you're doin'!"

When Cassie hesitated, Paige jumped in. "We don't have to get that realistic, Jubilee. There's plenty of other stuff we can do still."

"Yeah, but it's way cooler to use the programs! And Cassie wants to see how it works against a guy, don't you, Cassie?"

Thus appealed to, Cassie found herself nodding. "It...would be interesting." She thought back to the dance workout Hank had provided for a test group last week, and how it had actually turned out to be fun. 'Just special effects like the movies,' she reminded herself.

"Gotcha covered!" Jubilee blazed out of the room before Paige could protest again.

"I'll just stand by and coach, then," Paige said, surrendering to the inevitable.

Paige and Cassie cautiously exchanged small talk as they waited for Jubilee to finish her task. All too soon, as far as Cassie was concerned, her voice echoed through the room. "Got it--piece of cake! Are ya ready?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," Cassie replied gamely, with a strained smile. Paige opened her mouth and almost called a halt to the proceedings after all. Then a figure drew itself in the air, solidifying in mere moments, and it was too late.

The holo-attacker was tall but stoutly built, dressed in grubby jeans, a ripped t-shirt and a cheap-looking fake leather jacket--the type anyone might cross a darkened street to avoid. "Okay, just keep your mind focused on what you're going to do," Paige advised.

Cassie barely heard her over the sudden hammering of her heart sounding in her ears. The only thing she could focus on was the unwinking malice in the eyes locked on hers, the kind of rabid glaze she had seen once in real life, uncounted times in nightmares. She tried to speak, say that she had changed her mind, but before more than a thin thread of sound could escape her lips, the figure charged.

He started in slow motion, or so it seemed, and as his arms stretched out for her, a vicious grin split his harsh features. Her hands came up and out before her, but the attacker burst through that futile, instinctive attempt at fending him off and grabbed Cassie's neck with the speed of a striking rattler.

At the hologram's touch, a scream burst from Cassie's throat, and she began to bat at the image's arms, flailing away with a random flurry of inept blows. "Okay, go! Do it!" Paige half-instructed, half- begged. She had KNOWN something like this was going to happen....

Cassie's terror was painful to witness. "Do the sweep!" Paige yelled, moving closer in a useless effort to make Cassie hear and respond. "Cassie! Do it!" Her urgent coaching went completely unheeded, and a cold claw of dread clutched at Paige's stomach. "Jubilee, shut it down! Now!" she screamed, then remembered there ought to be a safety override. "Computer, stop! Emergency stop!"

At least one of their interventions worked, because in an instant the image soundlessly evaporated. Left unbalanced by the sudden disappearance of the opposing force, Cassie crashed forward to her knees. The shock of that unexpected pain made her gasp and drag in a ragged hitch of air. One hand shot to the floor, saving her from total collapse, and the other went to her throat. She choked, trying to stifle any further cries, producing a muffled whimper instead.

Jubilee's voice echoed from the walls, "Beast! Get down to the Danger Room, like, yesterday! Your girlfriend's freakin' out!"

That galvanized Cassie into trying to stand, gulping, "No...!" Paige jumped to help her. "Don't call Hank...."

"I think she already did," Paige apologized. She scanned the other with a heartsick eye, anticipating further unpleasantness as soon as Beast arrived. "Are you okay?"

It was a foolish question. Cassie looked bloodlessly pale, which highlighted the bruises already beginning to show on her neck. Her shoulders were hunched, and there was a weirdly inner-directed look on her face. "I think I'm going to be sick," she murmured, putting her hand to her mouth.

Paige could empathize with this--she was feeling distinctly queasy herself. For an instant she considered whether she could do anything about this imminent event by husking; nothing practical or non- revolting came to mind. Then her sensible, problem-solving brain provided a much simpler solution. "This way," she said, and guided Cassie to the changing area just outside the Danger Room.

By running the last few steps, Cassie arrived in time to throw up into a sink. Paige made an involuntary grimace, and stepped back to give her an illusion of privacy. She was trying not to stare, trying to think what to do next, when the door flew open with a crash that threatened to tear it from its hinges. Cassie sprang up from splashing cold water on her face and whirled to face this new, unknown threat with a hoarse cry of alarm. Paige barely refrained from screaming herself as Hank dashed in.

"Cassie!" he cried, alarmed at the sight of her shocky complexion and haunted eyes. She stumbled into his arms, grateful beyond words for that refuge.

Emma, who had been working near Hank in the laboratory, had heard Jubilee's emergency call from the control booth of the Danger Room, and determined their true location when she checked back with a mental scan. She'd passed this crucial data on to Hank, and been all but trampled for her pains as Hank bolted to the rescue. She stalked in behind him now, heels ringing a furious tattoo on the tile floor. Angelo, clad only in a white paper gown that sharply accented his strange grey coloring, followed. Reluctance at being seen this way had lost the battle with his curiosity. A few seconds later, Jubilee barged into the changing room as well.

"What happened?" Hank demanded of Paige, in what could only be described as a growl.

Paige swallowed hard, and looked to Jubilee, who for once was speechless. Emma, however, was not. "Don't you DARE use that tone of voice with my students," she snapped, crossing her arms and stamping her foot. "You haven't the SLIGHTEST shred of evidence they did anything wrong." She looked around the clean, bare room for signs of gore, without success. "And it's not like she's irreparably damaged."

As Emma spoke, she skimmed Cassie's mind, just as a precaution against being proved wrong on that score. Whisking through the jumbled mix of emotions, Emma caught part of a stray thought, <...not their fault...>

<You're damned straight it's not their fault!> Emma lashed out silently. <Now pull your silly self together and say so!>

"It's not the girls' fault," Cassie croaked, just as Hank was preparing to launch a heated riposte against Emma's cold-hearted words. "We were...having fun, getting to know each other with a little workout session." She swallowed and her voice strengthened somewhat. "I didn't get hurt...just had a know...panic attack."

"We didn't try to scare her on purpose or anything," Jubilee inserted, looking quite distressed, for her.

"Honest, we wouldn't," Paige added. "We stopped the program as quick as we could."

Hank still looked less than happy, but after a pause he said, "I accept it was an...unfortunate misunderstanding?" He looked down into Cassie's wet eyes, making sure with a silent question.

She nodded as briskly as she could. "It's okay, you guys. Really, it's NOT your fault, don't worry."

"Perhaps we should repair to the medical lab, then, and I can just do a quick check--"

"I THINK you are already in the middle of a check-up?" Emma said, waving an arm at Angelo, who blanched to suddenly find himself the center of all eyes in his skimpy paper gown.

"Don' mind me--she can have the rest of my turn," he said, poorly disguising his eagerness to escape the remainder of his ordeal. "Yo, Jubilee, quit starin' at my legs!" Jubilee snorted, and the gleam in her eyes promised massive future teasing, but for the moment she restrained herself.

"I really am okay," Cassie said. "You could...look me over later, couldn't you?" She begged with her eyes for Hank to let the unpleasant scene end.

Ignoring Emma's tapping foot, Hank gently tilted Cassie's head back to see the bruises on her throat. "How about if you come to the lab now, and just rest a few minutes in a side room until I have completed Angelo's physical? I don't like the looks of those bruises."

Cassie nodded in resignation. Emma sniffed, but prudently chose not to speak. Turning towards Paige and Jubilee, Hank continued, "My apologies, ladies, for my unnecessarily harsh tone just now." He reflected in passing he seemed to be saying that type of thing unusually often lately; he was not, however, prepared to pursue the idea at the moment. "Angelo, we had best get you back to the lab before you catch cold, don't you think?" Angelo, who had been doing a good job of not looking anyone in the eye, scowled at having attention brought back to his state of undress.

"I'll help the 'ladies' close the Danger Room," said Emma, and with a meaningful look, she gestured for the two of them to precede her out the door.

Cassie reluctantly left Hank's embrace, but clung to his hand as they walked down the corridor. It was a silent journey. Despite that, the air around them fairly vibrated with pent-up emotion.

Later that afternoon, at four o' clock, the door to the solarium opened slowly, and Sean's poked his head in. "Aye, and here you are," he said, trying to sound jolly, but not succeeding very well.

Cassie was gazing out the glassed-in walls at the view of the west lawn, but she didn't seem to be seeing it. "Yes, I wanted to be on time," she answered quietly. As he entered, she moved to stand behind a table at one end of the room, which held a small sheaf of papers. The seven older Generation X-students followed Sean in, with a cold- faced Emma bringing up the rear.

It was obvious to Cassie that the incident in the Danger Room had been thoroughly discussed by one and all. Jubilee and Paige's embarrassment was evident, as was the varying degrees of disdain or uncertainty on the other young faces. Emma looked just as coolly hostile as she had in the professor's office, and even Sean seemed dubious now.

Cassie seated herself behind the small table, taking what comfort she could in the feeling it gave of providing a protective barricade. The others took up seats in the loosely grouped, comfortable chairs that made the solarium such a pleasant spot to lounge. No one spoke.

Drawing on her experience of speaking to groups of would-be writers, Cassie managed to clear her throat, smile and say, "I think most of you know me already, Cassie Cantrell."

She had assumed that if the professor had decided to change his mind about her teaching because of the incident in the Danger Room, Emma would have gleefully so informed her as soon as possible. "I guess you might also know that Professor Xavier has suggested we try having an English Composition class together this summer." No response, except for an ostentatious shift of position from Emma, which enabled her to better stare out the window in clear, if wordless, protest.

"I've been making my living for several years now writing romance novels," Cassie continued gamely. "That's not quite the same as regular composition, I know, but I think it's close enough for starters. Also, I majored in American Lit in college, and was halfway planning to be an English teacher someday, so I've taken a few education courses." Sean perked up a bit at this, and she smiled directly at him, glad to see any sign of interest at all. "It sort of slipped my mind this morning--I hadn't expected to be going up for a job interview in my gardening clothes, and I was a little nervous."

He chuckled at the recollection. "We don't have that strict a dress code."

Cassie's eyes cut towards Emma. Apparently not, she thought, then hoped belatedly Emma wasn't listening in on her thoughts. Hank had warned her about that--along with a few other things.

"Perhaps you have some questions?" Cassie suggested, looking around the assembled group.

The silence remained unbroken for several long moments. Then Angelo addressed one of the group's privately arrived at complaints by grumbling, "Why we need to learn this stuff anyway? We ain't gonna be writers." His challenging look was shared between Sean and Emma as well as Cassie, somewhat to her relief.

She took a deep breath, squelching the temptation to say, Because Professor Xavier says so. Then an idea came to her. She ran a hand over the papers she had prepared for a different explanation, and boldly jumped in before she could have second thoughts. "Maybe not. But...someday you might want to write a speech, or a letter. That's an important skill to have."

"Oh, yeah, sure," Jubilee muttered half-under her breath. Although no one else spoke, a few heads nodded agreement.

"You know you have enemies." This matter-of-fact statement shocked the group, and a flicker of wary interest charged the room. "You can't meet some of them face to face; they're too well-protected, and they won't fight you on your ground." Sean nodded slowly. Even Emma turned her face back towards Cassie for the moment.

"The way some of you look works against you with some people," Cassie continued, not meeting anyone's eyes directly as she spoke. A quick, indrawn hiss of breath confirmed her suspicion this was NOT something they often--maybe ever--said aloud. "But if you can put clear thoughts on can confront anyone. You can state your case and not be shouted down. You can show someone how it feels to be they see the real you, inside."

She finally held them all transfixed. There were some angry faces, but all eyes, all attention, was locked on her. "I have something here I think will prove my point, even though I wrote it for another reason." Cassie picked up the papers in front of her, hesitated a moment more, then stood. "Or maybe it IS the same reason. I've always thought I communicated better on paper than with talking, you see...."

Her first two steps away from the table were brisk, but then she slowed to a stop. "See, the thing is...." With extreme effort, Cassie stopped her nervous hand motions; she was rolling the papers into a tube. "...I was married this time five years ago. In a few weeks, it will be the anniversary of the day my husband...finally lost his battle against insanity, and tried to kill me."

Jaws dropped, but all other movement ceased. That remark had always been quite the conversation stopper, Cassie reflected. The few times she'd ever been able to make herself say it, that is.

"That's the facts," she continued, after reminding herself to take another deep breath. "Plain facts might tell you something about me, or they might not. If you didn't have the background to relate to those facts." Despite her deep breathing, she was starting to feel dizzy. "I could try to tell you out loud--but that's not something I'm good at. Like I said already." Cassie forced herself to focus on what she was trying to say. "With writing, you can take your time, and get it right."

She walked to the chair where Paige was sitting, and tried to take one paper from the batch she held, but her hands were starting to tremble, making the task nearly impossible. "Here, let me help," Paige murmured, and took them from her. Cassie looked for a second as though she might try to grab them back, but then she stepped away. "Do we...each get one?"

Cassie nodded, and stood her ground as Paige rose to distribute the result of her afternoon's work. But before the girl was halfway around, her nerve broke. "I guess..." She caught Sean's eye; he was looking stunned and apprehensive. " can let me know, about the days and time and all." Then, with carefully controlled movements that shouted how much she would rather run, Cassie walked from the room.

Consumed with curiosity, Jubilee almost snatched her paper from Paige. Monet took hers with cool grace, but began to scan it right away. Sean reached out and snagged one as Paige passed him, her arm stretched out to hand a copy to Jono, sitting behind him. "Snap it up, chica, some of us are slow readers," Angelo complained with a mocking grin as he took his.

By the time Paige finished her self-imposed task and got back to her seat, the group was absorbed in their reading. Scattered intakes of breath urged her to hurry and catch up.

Her skin began to tingle after her first quick scan, and she automatically damped her power's response to threat. "Oh, this is--" Understanding flooded her mind, far too late to do any good. "Oh, no...."

"Madre de Dios," whispered Angelo grimly, in a sort of reply. "Someone did somethin' like this to mi familia, I'd rip them up!"

"No wonder she went, like, totally ballistic," Jubilee observed, earrings twitching as she shook her head. "Why didn't she just TELL us, fer cryin' out loud?"

"As she said only moments ago, Jubilee," Monet replied, "some things are too difficult to speak of." Having said this, she turned her attention back to the paper before her, and began to shred it into minute fragments as an unsettling blank look came over her features.

<Looks like she CAN write, though,> Jono's mental 'voice' said to everyone present. He half-held the paper away from him, not knowing what to do with it, then folded it neatly and laid it across his leg, where his fingers tapped on it in a staccato rhythm.

"Yes, it would seem so," agreed Sean. He glanced at Emma, trying to gauge her reaction. Her expression was calm, thoughtful...except for a faint crease by one eyebrow, which he had come to realize meant she was disturbed, but determined not to show it.

"It does remain to be seen whether she can teach," Emma pointed out when she realized Sean was looking her way, but in a faintly uncertain tone quite unlike her normal self-assured one.

"Do ye think so?" he answered softly, gesturing with his head at the still dumbstruck students.

"Teach ENGLISH, then," Emma conceded, finding her trademarked ambiguous smile. As usual, Sean could not tell at all what it meant, what it hid.

"You're all free until dinner," she told the students, standing up. "DO try to keep out of trouble for that length of time, hmmm?" She folded her paper into a neat, palm-sized square. "Come, Sean. We have administrative functions to perform."

For the second time that day, Emma used her psi talent as a locating device. She and Sean tracked Cassie to her room. Despite Sean's uncertainty, Emma rapped loudly on the door. Then, contrarily, she stepped back, putting him in the speaker's position when Cassie opened it.

"Er, will ye be wantin' these back?" was all Sean could think of to say on such short notice, proffering the few sheets left behind in the solarium which he had collected.

"Oh! Oh,, I don't think so," Cassie stammered. "I mean...I kept a copy and all...."

"Ah, good. Well." He glanced down at Emma, who smiled sweetly at them both, but said nothing. "That was a bit of a surprise you gave us today."

"I'm sorry if you think it was inappropriate material," Cassie apologized. "I tried not to make it too graphic. But I thought... some sort of explanation would clear the air."

"I would say it cleared a few things up," Emma replied, deigning to speak at last. "For me, at least." She considered the other woman. "You've got more guts than I thought, putting that down on paper for everyone to see."

Cassie just shrugged uncomfortably. "I've been thinking about doing it for awhile, for the people living here...."

"Ah. Well, I'm sure they'll all be--" Sean gave her a sharp look, which Emma answered with one of innocent surprise, before continuing, "--upset to learn such an awful thing happened to you."

"Not that big a deal, compared to some of the things Hank has told me about," Cassie murmured, embarrassed now.

"Be that as it may," said Emma in an almost kind voice that shocked Sean much more than it did Cassie, "I'm going to withdraw my objection to you working with my students."

"Our students," Sean amended firmly, and Emma tossed her head in a gesture that said, oh, very well, have it your own way. "When it's convenient for ye, we should discuss a schedule, and that sort of thing."

"Oh!" Cassie took a quick glance over her shoulder, and decided the room was neat enough for guests. "Well, we could do it now, if you like--Hank's still finishing up downstairs." With a shy smile, she stepped back and held the door open wide. "Please, come on in."

Within a short time, treaty followed truce, and Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters had officially added a new part-time telecommuting instructor to their teaching roster.

Continued in Part 40

Credit for Hank's lab sign is due to Bill Lye, according to my sources, although the last sentence suggesting visitors merely knock is my own. I like to keep my attributions straight when I can!

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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Disclaimer: Since I am a) inserting a new character and b) not privy to any of Marvel's editorial decisions, this story is forced to be an alternate universe. It is similar to the 'real' one when it works out, plotwise, okay? And I DO make mistakes sometimes, I know. Such is life.
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