I'm getting a lot written on this for supposedly working on another story, huh? Looking for a good pausing place, actually...Marvel characters copyright to them, and all like that....


Neon Hearts

Part 12--Hank's Bad Day

Neon Nurse

 

Cool air drifting off the lake carried the scent of green things growing, the promise of lush summer just around the corner. But Hank McCoy was all but oblivious to it as he walked up the path from the garage towards the X-mansion. A whisper from the sky made him stop and look up at the blinking lights of a plane traversing the brilliant starfield above. He felt utterly silly staring at it, knowing it was full of strangers he would never meet, yet not being able to look away until it disappeared...in the west.

"She's gone home, eh?" The voice came from the deepest shadows behind the house, and Hank stopped, recognizing it and the telltale glow of the end of a cigar.

"Yes." He stood in place, head down, trying to summon up interest in engaging in social niceties, even the minimal ones that would suffice with Wolverine.

"She comin' back?"

Now, THERE was a question. "I...hope so, Logan."

"Seemed like a nice girl."

There was no force on earth that could induce Logan to use anyone's choice of words but his own, so Hank refrained from pointing out that in politically correct terms Cassie was a person. "Yes." And I'm a nice guy, so doesn't one of us have to finish last? "It's been a long day, Logan. Excuse me for not lingering to chat, but I think I'll go get some sleep."

'Doubt it,' Logan thought, 'from the look of ya.' But aloud all he said was, "'Night, then." And he was soon alone again in the green- scented darkness.

Upstairs in his room, Hank began divesting his coat and pants of loose items before putting them away. The piece of paper with Cassie's number, a bank deposit slip, he tucked firmly under the cut glass dish that held his loose change. Then he picked it up again. Knowing he was indulging in moody sentimentality, and not caring, he took his phone in hand and punched in the number.

Four rings later, there was a click and then a recording of Cassie's voice said brightly, "Hi! Sorry I missed your call. Why don't you leave your name and number so I can return it, and you can not be home and miss mine?"

Hank smiled into the receiver, eyes tightly shut, picturing Cassie recording that message with an impish grin on her face. "Hello, Cassie, it's Hank," he found himself saying at the tone. "I hope you had a pleasant flight home. Sleep well, and I will try to reach you later." He hung up before he could get any sillier, wondering too late if Cassie would think he was pressuring her, or suspecting her of not really giving him her real address, or a dozen other ridiculously worrying possibilities. Growling in exasperation at himself, he yanked off his clothes and tumbled into bed.


Habit brought Hank awake at 6am, feeling unrested and out of sorts even before he remembered what else was wrong with his world today. He toyed with the idea of rolling over and trying to go back to sleep, but decided that would only result in him feeling depressed in a more comfortable position. Much better to try to distract himself by working.

He pulled on a pair of loose sweatpants and wandered down to the kitchen. Looking at the clock brought the stray thought that it was a little after 4am, in Colorado. Much, MUCH too early to be phoning anyone just to chat.

After brief consideration, he took a large bowl out of a cupboard and found an acceptable variety of breakfast cereal to fill it with. He leaned against the counter and ate it with morose steadiness, while he considered what to begin working on first down in the lab. Maybe that glitching secondary control panel on the Blackbird the professor had suddenly gotten antsy about yesterday....

When he went to put his bowl in the dishwasher, he was dourly amazed to find someone had actually turned the machine on the evening before. Now, however, he would have to unload it before he could put his own used dish and spoon inside. Sighing, he proceeded to do so, while making uncharitable calculations concerning the number of people in this household and the number of times per week HE seemed to be the one who either started the dishwasher, or unloaded it, or both.

Deciding that cereal was not quite enough to hold him until lunch, Hank investigated the huge refrigerator, and chose four pre-cooked pastries from the freezer. He inserted them in the toaster over, closed the door, and resumed his brooding as he waited for them to heat.

He had tentatively decided that someone with, say, a noon appointment could reasonably be expected to be up by about 9, or at least 10, when a whiff of smoke brought him sharply back to reality. He jumped towards the toaster oven, which now contained four merrily flaming blueberry turnovers oozing boiling filling. Opening the door turned out to be a mistake--the smoke alarm instantly began its piercing squeal. Hank snapped the door shut again. There was a sudden shower of sparks and a loud pop as something electrical gave up the ghost inside the oven. Gritting his teeth in hopes the cord wasn't frayed anywhere along its length, he yanked it out of the wall socket. After only a moment's more thought, he dashed to open the kitchen door, then grabbed the scorching side handles of the unfortunate appliance and threw its smoking body out onto the flagstone patio.

Logan was the first X-man to make it down to the kitchen, where he found Hank flapping a dishtowel, trying to blow the smoke away from the sensor and out the door. "No harm, Charlie," he said aloud, presumably in response to a mental query. "Just Beast, cookin'."

Storm stepped in a moment later, wrapped in a rich green brocade robe that brought an appreciative whistle from Logan. Without comment, she created a brisk breeze that silenced the infernal shriek of the alarm by removing the distressing smoke. "Is everything all right?"

"Everything but the toaster oven," Hank replied gloomily. Wolverine had walked out to the patio. He lifted it by the cord, and it hung from his hand like a dead animal. The door opened and four blackened objects fell out to bounce on the ground. "Maybe I SHOULD go back to bed, and start this day over."


About 11:30, Hank took a break from his work on the recalcitrant Blackbird module, returning to his room with the first hint of eagerness he had felt all day tentatively glowing inside him. He dialed the number on the paper on his dresser. But this time the phone just rang and rang, until he gave it up to dial again, with the same result. Troubled, he tried to think of an explanation. Perhaps she had unplugged the phone and turned off the machine so she could sleep in. Perhaps she had turned it off and forgotten to turn it back on. Perhaps she had turned it off because she didn't want any more stupid messages--

'Now you're being paranoid,' he castigated himself. Resolving to try again later, he relegated himself to the lab, for a change of pace. It had occurred to him while working on the Blackbird that his image inducer's static problem might be being caused by something so simple as a cracked chip, and he had a boxful of spares stored away somewhere. He might as well, he also supposed, just take his portable phone downstairs with him....

But calls every half hour failed to produce any other result than the unceasing ringing. A request to the operator to check the line for defects showed it as working properly. By 2, he admitted he was not going to reach Cassie before her afternoon engagement, and stalked upstairs in search of food, preferably something he was not at risk of setting on fire.

No one seemed to be around, which suited his mood very well. He made several thick ham and cheese sandwiches and commandeered the last of some fruit salad they'd had a few days ago. For convenience' sake, he sat down at the kitchen table, which was where Gambit found him.

"So," said the Cajun, reversing a chair and sitting on it, with his forearms crossed over the back. "Tell Gambit ev'ryt'ing."

"About?" Hank said neutrally, although he had a very good idea what about.

"W'ere is de petite fille t'day?" Gambit's dancing eyes invited Hank to expound at will on tales of romance and intrigue.

Well, the man was direct, you had to give him that. "Home. She flew back last night."

Remorse blanked the gleam in Gambit's eyes. "No!" Hank just nodded, chewing. "Did she tell you why?"

"She had something she was supposed to do there today." He didn't really want to discuss this with Gambit, or anyone, and yet...he did. "Otherwise, I think she would have extended her stay a few days." At least, he had thought that last night. Now he was not sure what to think.

"Why don' you fly out an' see her, den?" Gambit slipped his deck of cards out of his pocket and began shuffling them, his version of talking with his hands.

Hank watched the cards snick in and out, generating random patterns with almost hypnotic speed. "Because that would be...." Silly? Too spontaneous? Frowned upon by the professor? All of the above? "Maybe that would be too...presumptuous?"

"You t'ink she wouldn' like dat? You be way wrong," Gambit smiled a knowing smile. "Ladies love de gran' gestures, take my word."

Fly out there? The seed Gambit had planted was taking root in his imagination, and producing some interesting fruit. "Welll...."

"You can take a beeper," Gambit pointed out. "'f somet'ing happen we need you fo', Blackbird get out dere in an hour."

"More or less," Hank agreed, a bit dazzled by the sudden possibilities opening up here.

"W'en your luck is in, stick wit' it," Gambit advised him seriously. "'f Gambit was you, he'd be on a plane right now, sure." He considered his friend carefully. "You plannin' to eat all dat fruit salad y'self?"


Steady searching led Hank to find his quarry, at last, in the library. "Do you have a moment, Professor?"

"Certainly." Xavier closed the book in his lap and laid it aside. He moved away from the window, where the warm afternoon sun was pouring in, to position himself in front of a good solid armchair suitable for Hank, who took the hint and sat down. "What it is?"

"I was wondering if you thought you could spare me, for a day...or ten." He pulled a sheepish smile at the supposed exaggeration, which was actually a serious possibility.

"TEN?" Xavier asked sharply.

"I feel the need of a bit of vacation," Hank explained with faux innocence.

"In Colorado, I presume." The professor was now tapping his fingers on the arm of his hover-chair, and his expression was anything but tranquil.

"That's my first choice." Without further explaining--Xavier clearly didn't need telepathy to determine Hank's intentions--Hank sank back in his chair and awaited his mentor's next pronouncement.

The professor leaned back in his chair as well, frowning as he sought his next words. "I don't want you to take this wrong, Hank...but are you sure you know what you're doing?"

Hank bit back several sharp retorts. "Actually, I find I am riddled with doubts," he admitted. "Part of the reason for this trip is to find answers for some of them."

"I see."

"I am...very strongly attracted to Cassie, and I wonder about it. Is it propinquity alone? Have I just been a little bored, a little lonely? Or is there indeed some special chemistry between us?"

"At least you haven't lost the ability to be honest with yourself." The professor's expression changed, and through years of experience Hank knew the reserved man was lowering his customary emotional shields, a rare occurrence. "I know I sometimes express it gruffly, Hank, but I worry about all of you. This is a difficult life we lead. Lonely, as you say. It's not strange that you'd reach out to someone who seemed compatible."

Was that 'seemed' meant as a subtle criticism of Cassie, or was it merely Xavier's own lack of trust in non-mutants speaking? "I guess I want to find out, about that compatibility. Whether it's only my imagination or not." Taking a guess at what might be truly troubling the professor, Hank added, "But I'll come back."

Xavier could see this was a losing battle. Hank was here seeking understanding, not permission. "I know you will. And I know you'll call in, while you're away." Hank nodded, and a smile started to creep onto his face. Observing it, Xavier was reminded of a small worry he'd had. "I'm sure you're...taking the appropriate precautions in this situation, as well? In regards to your friend, I mean...." Another rare event, the professor flustered and speaking in vague generalities....

The shock of suddenly finding himself having The Talk with Xavier almost floored Hank, and he would have burst out laughing, if not for a slightly guilty conscience in the matter. He HADN'T followed up on the one brief statement Cassie had made which had indicated the possibility of pregnancy was not at issue, but instead had gone on as though it were an established fact, which was unlike him. "Not to worry; that's my standard operating procedure, sir." Every time but this time.... Not that it was really anyone's business but his own and Cassie's, he thought, trying to justify his evasion.

"And what about the control module on the Blackbird?" A more normal tone of asperity in the professor's voice signalled a return to business as usual.

"I started it this morning, sir, and I'll get it done before I go," Hank promised cheerfully. "In fact, I'll just get back to it right now!"


He succeeded before suppertime in finally getting an 'all clear' run on the test series. There was still no one answering at Cassie's, but he found a website from which to download departure schedules for Denver International Airport, and that minor progress buoyed him up through the meal.

On his 8 o'clock attempt, the phone was answered on the second ring. "Hello?" came a voice that sounded like it was trying NOT to sound overeager.

"Cassie!" Relief from the anxiety he had been denying washed over him in waves. "How are you?"

"Hank! Fine! I'm fine!" Perhaps he was exaggerating it to himself, but she sounded very glad to hear from him.

"I was...a trifle concerned. I tried to reach you earlier this morning, and...couldn't." He wasn't phrasing this well. "And your answering machine was turned off."

After a pause, she admitted sheepishly, "I broke it."

"Oh?" It had been working last night, he thought instantly.

"I...replayed the tape one time too many," she confessed. "It broke, and I didn't have any more."

"You were replaying the answering machine tape?" Why would...? Then what she was implying began to dawn on him, and he started to grin.

"Yeah. There was...a message on it I...thought was kind of important." Hank could see her blushing, in his mind's eye. "I'm sorry I worried you."

"Well, if I had even a small part in breaking your machine, perhaps I should come out there to put it right?"

"Oh, no, it wasn't your--" Cassie broke off as the meaning of his words hit, and when she spoke again her voice was small and tight with suppressed emotion. "Come out? Come out HERE?"

"Only if it would be convenient, of course," Hank began to demur, thinking he HAD overstepped the bounds of her level of interest in him.

"COULD you, Hank? Really?!" There was as much delighted awe in her voice as if he had proposed to make the flight sans plane, and the day's depression vanished without a trace. "When?"

"Tomorrow afternoon?" He began to share his findings about airline schedules with a heart made light with anticipation. And an hour later, he reluctantly ended his call, and immediately began to pack.


A journey of a thousand miles begins with a cash advance.


INFO, ETC. More chapters of this story can be found at: http://web2.spydernet.com/lori/x-men.htm OR from the author, Susan Crites (carosue@centurytel.net) IF you can't access the Web. Many thanks to Lori for our new home!

There is also a mailing list for people who want to get new chapters ASAP. Be warned--you sometimes get odd extra mailings as well, when the spirit moves me....

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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The Neon Nurse thanks you!


PART13

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