FYI, Casa Bonita is an actual place, and my description falls far short of doing justice to its magnificent kitschiness. And I do actually have a niece and a couple of nephews, the youngest of which is an X-fan, but any resemblance to characters in this story is also merely an approximation. Real Marvel characters are copyrighted to Marvel, natch. As we all know.

Neon Hearts

Part 14--Meeting the Folks

Neon Nurse


The airport was located quite some distance from the city, it seemed, but the time went fast, almost too fast, considering what the immediate prospects for their evening were. Hank wondered belatedly if Cassie had been THIS nervous when she came to the X-mansion--only two days ago? My, how time flew when one was

"Colfax, which we're driving on now, is supposed to be the longest continuously named street in the country," Cassie was telling him. "It starts quite a ways back east of where we are right now, and continues up towards Golden, up there where those...well, it's clouds, right now, but tomorrow you can see foothills, at the base of the mountains." Hank nodded. "Golden is where the Coors brewery is." She had been spouting tidbits of information like this more and more, the closer they came to town, and Hank suspected she was not quite as sure of his welcome with her parents as she had stated.

The appointed hour was approaching by the time Cassie pointed out a huge PINK stucco building in the midst of a small, old-fashioned shopping center. Damp banners hung in the moist air of the departed storm, failing utterly to give the place a festive appearance. There were a number of family groups moving from the parking lot to the entrance, all trailing children of various ages, and Hank had to assert all his considerable self-control not to PLEAD with Cassie to reconsider about the image inducer. A night full of innocent children shrieking when they saw him was not his idea of a good time.

He exited the car without extreme effort solely on account of his acrobatic skills, then followed her towards the restaurant door. "Oh, there they are!" Cassie said happily as they drew near it, and took his hand to lead him forward.

The couple she was heading towards looked like they could pose as representatives of Mr. and Mrs. Golden-Age American; they were older than Hank had expected. The man was balding, with a few age freckles already starting across the top of his head. He wore gold-rimmed glasses that didn't disguise sharp, knowing eyes. The woman had sensible short grey hair, plump cheeks, and a stout figure that suggested she knew a lot of really good cookie recipes. Both of them were beaming, and Hank did his best to approximate a cheerful look. What was that phrase the fellow on the TV show used to say? Ah, yes, 'OHHH boy....' That said it all.

Cassie broke away to hug both her parents, slightly to Hank's surprise, then returned to his side, putting one arm around his waist. "Mom, Dad, this is my friend, Hank McCoy. Hank, these are my parents."

Hank took Mr. Cantrell's outstretched hand, which told him with its firmness that the man had done his share of physical labor in his time, and probably still did, for fun. "Sir, pleased to meet you," he murmured. Mrs. Cantrell extended her hand as well, and then patted her free hand on top of his before releasing him. "Ma'am."

"Oh, don't call me ma'am like I'm an old biddy," she remarked merrily. "Everyone just calls me JoEtta."

"And I'm Carl," inserted her husband. "Nice to meet a young fella with some manners for a change, though."

'That's one for me, anyway,' Hank thought, mentally thanking his own parents for a solidly traditional upbringing. "Right, JoEtta and Carl, then," he agreed. Cassie was positively glowing with delight that the meeting was going so well thus far.

"Well, we better go get in line," Carl said, and they headed towards huge wooden doors that were propped open with barrels of petunias. 'Line?' thought Hank. They entered a foyer with a tile floor and wrought iron gates. It was decorated with brightly painted planters, though these held artificial trees and flowers, Hank noted. The foyer led to a hallway, down which family groups were hastening. The walls were covered with posters for bullfights and advertisements in Spanish, intermixed with serapes and large gilded sombreros. A few people turned to look twice at their group, but that was all. So far, anyway.

Eventually their forward progress was impeded by the end of the line Carl must have been referring to. By Hank's estimate, there were almost 100 people in front of them, and he wondered how long they would be standing here. It was well past time to eat, according to the clock his body was still set on. But up ahead he could see people getting trays. If the service was cafeteria style, that ought to speed things along.

"So, Cassie tells me yer a science fella," Carl remarked, looking at Hank thoughtfully.

'Yup, Dr. Henry McCoy, PhD, SF,' he thought. 'Science fella?' "I suppose that's one way to describe what I do," he acknowledged.

"Whatdaya think about these genetically engineered crops they're coming out with?" Hank's eyebrows rose in a question and Carl explained, "Tomatoes that don't rot? Potatoes with vaccines in 'em? Extra-sweet sweet corn, come to that."

"'s not my precise field," Hank demurred, wishing Cassie would give him a clue somehow. "Some of the possibilities look promising...."

"Well, that's what I think, too," Carl said comfortably. "Find the innovations and let the marketplace sort 'em out, that's what I say."

"Before I was born, Mom and Dad and my grandparents raised sugar beets," Cassie explained.

"Arkansas Valley's all changed now. Market's changed too. Farmers have to move with the times," Carl said, and Hank found himself nodding agreement. A farmer, eh? Cassie had not struck him as a farmer's daughter, but then, he knew fairly little about quite a lot of things, including social demographics outside his own experience.

They reached the cashier, and had to give their order before entering the serving line. "They really run the crowds through here," JoEtta said, gazing with den-motherly approval at the hordes of earnest looking teenagers rushing back and forth in the kitchen area. "Hundreds of people a night. It's lucky you didn't come in on a weekend, Hank. The line is awfully long then."

They each took trays, and were served their selections as they moved down the line. Hank decided Cassie was right in declaring this non- gourmet fare, but it looked and smelled at least as good as the tv dinners he often ate when he was too intent on a project to leave it for regularly scheduled meals with the rest of the team. He followed her, carrying his tray...and stopped dead when they walked out into the dining area.

Cassie laughed at his expression. "C'mon, Hank," she urged and he quickly stepped forward, looking around as he followed her up a ramp. The interior was HUGE, possibly twice as big as Silver's, but it seemed crowded because it was packed with gaudy faux-Mexican ornamentation around hundreds of tables. The ceiling had to be at LEAST three stories up, as there were several levels of dining area. "We can look at it all later, if you want," Cassie said as they moved, looking for an open spot. They finally stopped under a huge fake tree, with a table overlooking the floor below. A server showed up to take their trays almost instantly, and they settled into place just in time to let the strolling mariachi band pass by.

"What do you think?" Cassie asked, with a mischievous smile.

"It' nothing I've seen before," Hank said, with a somewhat stunned smile in return. Carl and JoEtta looked pleased at this assessment. "Can there be any fiberglass left in the world, after they built this?" Off across the room, there stood a two story molded cliff, the channel for a waterfall cascading into a pool. As he watched, a man clad in bathing trunks and carrying two flaming torches walked out of a hidden nook. Without preamble, he dove off the platform, trailing fire and smoke amid the droplets of spray from the waterfall. The dining crowd roared its approval, then went back to eating and talking. He would certainly have to suggest cliffdivers to Silver, when he got back home.

The conversation slowed as they began to eat; slowed really too much for comfort, in Hank's opinion. He held his own for awhile, continuing to notice new decoration achievements to remark on, but then began to feel as though he were overdoing it. Carl, who was sitting directly across from him, seemed to be doing much more looking at Hank, and thinking, than paying proper attention to what was being said. JoEtta was happily filling Hank in on data from Cassie's early years, which he DID find fascinating, but there was not much to do but listen, in that case. Cassie seemed content just to sit and savor their presence all together, her expression revealing her happiness that things were going so smoothly. She really was a bit of an optimist....

"You know, if you would excuse me just a bit, I'd like to visit the ladies' room," JoEtta said, at the end of her tale about Cassie in the sixth grade school play.

"Oh, I think I'll go with you," Cassie replied, to Hank's horror. He rose automatically as the ladies stood up, and had to MAKE himself sit back down, instead of bolting as well. But he did, alone at the table with Cassie's father....

"I wish you'd relax, son," Carl said, at length, after the silence between the two of them had stretched almost to the snapping point. "We aren't gonna bite ya."

"No, of course not," Hank answered, smiling faintly. When he thought of all the dangerous individuals he had faced down in his lifetime, to feel this desperate at being left alone with one old man was silly. And yet, the prospect of leaving to go do battle with, say, Magneto or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants had a certain appeal at the moment.

Carl was giving him that look again, like he was adding something up. "I think I should tell ya--it don't matter to JoEtta and me, y'know. About your bein' a mutant." Hank felt his lips compress, before he could try to create a natural looking smile, and Carl caught the motion. "Heard that one before, have ya?"

Cards on the table, perhaps that WAS best. "A time or two."

"Well, let me see if I can explain it so ya understand." Carl put down his fork, carefully laying his weathered hand flat on the tabletop. "Cassie tell you about...being married before?"

"Yes, sir, she did." 'I suppose he's going to tell me a mutant is an improvement over an insane would-be murderer. Quite the compliment.'

"Okay." Carl looked into nothingness for a moment, choosing his words. "Cassie was our only baby, and ya can probably tell she came to us after we'd given up any hope of ever havin' one." Hank nodded slowly. "Even if that hadn'a been the case, I think we still woulda doted on her, because there's never been a sweeter little girl." Now his voice dropped to a savage growl that would have sounded natural coming from Wolverine. "And that damned sorry son-of-a-bitch we made the mistake of lettin' her get hooked up with almost took her from us." Now Hank's eyes narrowed too. At least they were in agreement about the general character of Cassie's former husband.

"But that wasn't the worst of it, although it was plenty bad enough. She was in the hospital a mighty long time, went through a lot...and in spite of all that, there'll never be no grandkids for me and JoEtta to spoil." The hint of a shine came to those hard old eyes, but no more than that. "The worst was that Cassie's never been the same since. She jumps at shadows, when she useta love the whole wide world like its baby sister." Hank felt his hands clenching; yes, he had suspected something like this. She had that feel, of something broken and almost mended, but not quite.

Carl was winding down, again giving Hank that minute examination. "But when she came back from this trip, she was closer than she's been since to how she used to be. She was...happy again." The hairs rose up on Hank's neck and arms in wordless response to the combination of joy and worry those words evoked in him. "That's due to you, boy, and I'm damn grateful." Carl gave a brisk nod, as though he were through, but then added, "So ya see, I don't care if you're a mutant, or...a robot, or a shapeless pile of goo when yer at home. What matters to me is Cassie. I know it's way too soon to say one way or the other about any future, don't get me wrong, and I won't fault ya if the two of ya go your separate ways one of these times. Just as long as ya play straight with her, she'll be okay, and you'll leave her a lot better off than you found her."

This was so different from what Hank had been expecting to hear that he was at a total loss for words. "Mr. Can--Carl, I don't...know what to say."

"That's 'cause yer an honest man, son," Carl answered with a smile. "There isn't much FOR you to say, best as I can see. Not yet." Just then the ladies came back, much to a shaken Hank's relief. They brushed past a little blond boy with huge blue eyes, who Hank belatedly realized had been standing nearby, sneaking peeks from behind the fake tree, for some time now. At this disturbance, he beat a hasty retreat.

"Have they brought the sopapillas yet?" Cassie asked brightly. "I know you'll love those, Hank." A server was flagged down--literally, the signal for required service being raising a small flag at the table--and she quickly returned with two baskets of pillow shaped pastries. The Cantrells cheerfully demonstrated the method of biting off one corner, and squeezing honey into the hollow interior of the piping hot confection. After one bite, Hank decided they made up for the mediocrity of the rest of the fare, and then some.

The festivities, which had actually begun to grow somewhat festive, were interrupted by the re-approach of the small blond boy, now urgently towing an older brown haired one. They stopped at a prudent distance, but Hank and the others were easily able to hear the little one say, "SEE?! I told you."

The older boy flushed when the objects of their regard all looked towards him and his little brother. "Sorry," he said. "Sorry to bother you. My little brother watches too much tv. He thinks--"

"I DID TOO see him on tv!" cried the little one, stamping his foot in frustration.

"Of course you did, honey," JoEtta said, extending her hand. Without hesitation, the little blond came to her, instinctively drawn in by the grandmotherly aura. The older boy followed, after a second's thought, grimacing his embarrassment at the spectacle his sibling was creating. "I've seen him on tv, too, I'm pretty sure." Hank's brow furrowed with a dubious look. "On CNN. Giving a speech...I think when they had that thing in South America?"

"Ahhh!" He'd been trying to guess which destructive battle had been filmed and aired when. "Of course, the biodiversity conference!" He tilted his head, suddenly curious. "Do you watch CNN much, JoEtta?"

"Like to do my crocheting to it," she replied with a serene smile. "I got tired of them silly people on the soaps years ago. Real life is more interesting."

Just then a young girl with brunette braids and lavender-rimmed glasses joined the boys. "Mom says come back to the table RIGHT NOW!" she informed them in a bossy voice, not sparing a glance at the people at the table until she was finished with her pronouncement of doom.

The littlest boy, emboldened by JoEtta's support, now spoke directly to Hank. "You're one of the X-Men."

"Correct, young man," Hank told him seriously. At least the child wasn't screaming, though he was still keeping a safe distance.

The boy nodded, almost to himself, ignoring his brother's warning hand on his shoulder. "You guys are cool," he informed Hank, imparting this information with a suitably solemn mein. "Everybody at my school thinks so."

"Thank you. I shall pass that along," Hank managed to say without laughing aloud. The professor would be very glad to hear that, he was sure.

Now a woman with curly, sandy-brown hair stalked down, and put a hand on both boys' shoulders. Hank braced himself for a scene. "I'm sorry," she said to all of them impartially, with a 'you know kids' kind of smile. "Kids, come on." She whirled her group around, and began to herd them away. Over her shoulder trailed the words, "Did Jenny tell you I said to come back? When I say for you to do something, I expect for you to...."

Carl now allowed himself to chuckle, and the ladies joined in, with Hank finally smiling, although it was a little strained. "People are sure funny," Carl remarked.

"Hysterical," Hank agreed wryly, meaning it in both senses of the word.

This made Carl give him That Look again. Hank suspected it was going to become familiar to him. "That was a pretty good example of a classic two-headed present from Mother Nature."

"Do go on," Hank murmured, rather sure his host would anyway. But he WAS intrigued in spite of his better judgement....

"That young'un, he was curious about ya. That's how all young'uns are; bein' curious and findin' out about the world is their job." Carl sat back, slowly preparing another sopapilla. "All yer smarter animals are that way. Heck, even horses, and they aren't the smartest animals on the face of the earth, that's fer sure. But nothin's much more curious than a colt."

"Curiosity is indispensable as a tool for developing the intellect, I agree," Hank said. Cassie and JoEtta nodded, and Cassie reached for the honey, now that her father was done with it.

"Trouble with curiosity is that sooner or later, you run your nose inta somethin' better left alone. So ya learn to get a little spooky about things that are least, ya do if you live long enough. Young'uns haven't yet. That's why they need big folks watching over 'em, like that boy and his brother."

"Until development of the pre-cortical frontal lobes becomes optimized," Hank inserted helpfully, out of habit.

"If that's whatcha call it," Carl nodded, unperturbed, trusting Hank knew what he was talking about. "Horses, now--well, like I said, they aren't that smart. Don't have the brains to puzzle out what's safe and what's not. So Nature's wired 'em up to react to anything that sets 'em off by runnin' away, if they can, or stompin' it to death if they can't." Hank nodded. He had suspected as much about horses. "But luckily, people are a bit better off. Given time, they can learn not to bust out in a panic at" He stopped there, and began to eat his dessert, confident that Hank understood what he was being told.

"It's a long, slow process, though--one person at a time." In silent support, Cassie handed Hank a sopapilla she had prepared, and he munched it gratefully. These things really were very good--he wondered if they were difficult to make.

"Life's a long, slow process," Carl drawled. "Ya in a hurry, boy?"

"I don't suppose it would help if I were." Hank found he could not help smiling at this man, this family, particularly Cassie, and found himself gratified all over again that he had had the luck to be out of change in the city a few days before. If he gained nothing else, he had been brought into contact with a segment of the population he had not known before; children with an enlightened opinion of what was 'cool', shy schoolteachers with a passionate devotion to fairness, people who believed a capacity for human kindness superseded any other consideration. It was a most generous gift from Fate, and he hoped he would prove worthy of it.


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