For those of you who have been hinting around that this has sure been a long vacation, well, this chapter wraps it up! Special thanks to Chris Fisher, La Reina Pescadora, for helping me shop! Note: The shop in this story no longer exists in our universe. It appears via a convenient cross-temporal loop for your edification and amusement....

Marvel copyright valid world wide. Prices slightly higher in Canada.


Neon Hearts

Part 24--Homeward Bound

Neon Nurse

 

"Have I mentioned before that you have magnificent thighs?"

Hank only gave a startled laugh. A lesser man, not gifted with his amazing control, would no doubt have at least veered slightly into the next lane of the highway. "No, I don't believe you have," he replied, smiling at Cassie with fond indulgence as he recovered his composure. So the bermuda shorts WERE the right choice. "But please feel free to do so any time the inclination strikes you." All she did was beam at him with even more giddy intensity. "Was that remark brought on by anything in particular?"

Cassie looked supremely content, sprawled sideways in the seat as much as the seat belt would allow, one arm hanging over the back, gazing at him instead of what passed for scenery in this somewhat less than spectacular section of Colorado. "Oh, no. Just my keen powers of observation. A writerly trait, you know."

The expression on her face was enough to make him mentally calculate the miles to the next decent motel. But Hank merely smiled back and returned most of his attention to driving. They were due back in Denver today to begin packing her things. First things first.

Her unpredictability was one of the things about Cassie that intrigued him. It was strange, he had to admit, that there should be such a strong variance between her outgoing side, which he was being treated to more and more often, and the shy reserve that could surge into near-hysteria at the wrong stimulus. But the balance was definitely tipping. He tended to think it could be tipped quite a bit further with the continued application of support and encouragement. Maybe that belief was merely his desire to mend things expressing itself... but was that a BAD thing to want? To see her become secure and whole again?

"I'm kind of looking forward to going home with you...but kind of sorry our vacation is over, too." Cassie cradled her head in the hand that had been hanging over the back of the seat, still watching to gauge his response to her words. "I guess it's selfish to like having you all to myself."

"I intend to make VERY sure," Hank told her with fervor, "that we have a GREAT deal of private time together." He reached out to pat her knee. "There are plenty of scenic places on the Eastern seaboard for us to tour on a day...and night...out."

"And no relatives while we do it," Cassie suggested, wincing in apology for what she had just recently subjected Hank to.

"I have liked every one of the relatives you introduced to me thus far," he said gallantly, then amended, "the blood relatives, anyway." Cassie snorted. "And even Louise seemed to be warming up to me last night."

"After a couple of margaritas, Louise would warm up to Newt Gingrich. No, scratch that, she probably already approves of HIM. Bill Clinton, then."

Hank guffawed. "I'm trying to picture her dancing that 'Cotton-eyed Joe' with the president."

"You did great," Cassie assured him, though the way her lips twitched told him she was at least partly prevaricating to spare his feelings.

"I am sure it was an event that will go down in local history," he said with solemn sarcasm, and Cassie threw her head back, laughing.

Hank was quite glad she was returning home with him as well. The greatest part of that feeling was simply gratification that he would not be deprived of her company. But almost as satisfactory was his belief that it meant she was safe from being lured into the poorly thought out therapy session her ex-husband's naive therapist had proposed. They had not discussed it, not actually resolved the matter...but she was safer from guilt-induced temptation in New York, with him.

They were approaching another of the isolated towns on Highway 50. 'Manzanola', the sign read. "Isn't this where that store was?" Cassie asked lazily.

While on their way to the visit with her family, they had passed an extremely bizarre shop. The first thing to catch Hank's eye had been a pair of mannequin legs wearing faded purple knees socks protruding from a fish tank perched on a wooden cable spool, which sat amidst a tumble of eclectic miscellanea apparently too unusual or ramshackle to be worth the bother of toting inside each night. It had been far too early to expect the shop, engagingly and appropriately named 'The Odd Ends Here', to be open for business. But as it was mid-morning now....

Sure enough, they soon spotted the store--hard to miss, really--and Hank turned into the rutted parking area. At least, one assumed the empty spaces between piles of firewood and mysterious automotive parts were intended for customer's vehicles. Moving slowly, so as to be able to check out the incredible flotsam tucked between old washing machines and pieces of farm equipment, they made their way to the screen door which declared, "Rainbow is GOOD bread" in fading painted letters.

The inside of the store was equally jammed, but here it was all deftly arranged to allow patrons to browse without too much danger to the stock. Amid the usual antique store displays of colored glass, dark old furniture and quilts there were also old advertising signs, a huge mounted sailfish and numerous objects unidentifiable at first, or even second, glance. "Look, a hypnotist's wheel," Cassie said, spinning the disk to make the black and white spiral turn dizzyingly.

"Too late, already in your power," Hank murmured, brushing his fingers along the back of her arm, which made her duck her head and give him an erotically unruly look from under her wispy bangs. They pressed on. "Isn't this the same table and chairs as your grandmother has in her kitchen?"

"Yes, it is!" Cassie looked at the price tag and gasped. "Four hundred dollars? For THAT?"

"And a bargain--those old dinette sets are hot right now!" The store's proprietor had come up silently behind them, a skinny, partially bald man with manic dark eyes. "Say, you're a mutant, aren't you?" Before Hank could reply, he continued, "We don't get many mutants in here." The man waited expectantly for half a beat. "Hey, you missed your cue! You're supposed to say, 'At these prices, no wonder!'"

"I didn't realize you were a purveyor of antique jokes as well," Hank replied with one eyebrow lowered, intending it as a reproof.

But the store owner brayed laughter. "Hey, you're all right! Listen--look around. I'll be in the back dying."

"Excuse me?" Hank blurted, knowing that he MUST have heard wrong.

"I'm making rag rugs. Dyeing some cloth I thought was too boring." The man all but danced as he nodded his goodbye. "There's stuff upstairs too, and out back. Don't fall in the fishpond." With that warning, he bustled away.

Cassie and Hank shrugged at each other, grinning with involuntary amusement. "We are going to HAVE to buy something as a conversation piece, just so we can tell people we were here," Cassie said.

Temptations were easy to come by. "Look at this," Hank suggested.

"What is it?" The object in question was almost head height on her, an amazing concoction of brass filigree and gilded green enamel; its heavily decorated base supporting a pole of tangled art deco vines. Wired to the horizontal bar at the top was the body of a goose which had obviously been the victim of a home taxidermy project. It was the plastic Woody Woodpecker head that gave the game away.

"I believe...it's a parrot stand," Hank mused, eyes agleam. "And I also believe we need it desperately."

Cassie took this in stride. "But do we need the bird too?"

"No."

"Thank you."

"No problem."


"There's Hank," said the tall, muscular woman, rising gracefully from her seat in the concourse's waiting area. "Lord, what's that he's totin'?"

"Is that her?" inquired the young blond man beside her, rising as well and waving in the general direction of those they had been sent to fetch home from the airport. Hank, disguised by his image inducer, was solicitously guiding a slender blonde, who was maintaining a discreet but still noticeable deathgrip on his forearm. He was also using that arm to carry something metallic and strange-looking at a forward tilt, like the world's gaudiest lance. There was a large parcel under his other arm as well.

"Mus' be, if she's with Hank, doncha think?" Rogue replied, shaking her head with mock disgust at Bobby's obtuseness. "You remember, now, the professor said be nice!"

"I'm always nice," Bobby protested, as the two couples drew near to each other. "If she can put up with Hank, I'M not going to bother--" He broke off once they were within earshot. "Hank, old buddy! 'Bout time you got your tail home! Taking off on vacation like--like you were ME or something!"

"Good to see you both," Hank said, with a wide grin. The three teammates all understood Bobby was pretending his recent road trip with Rogue was his own idea. In fact, it had been Rogue who had bolted from the group some weeks past, with Bobby tagging along in desperate concern for her mental health. One of the many things Hank was looking forward to being caught up on....

It took only a few moments to go through the mutual introductions. Hank happily handed the parcel he was carrying over to Rogue, who propped it casually on her hip. Cassie, knowing exactly how much it weighed, was quietly impressed.

"What IS that?" Bobby demanded, as they began the long trek to the baggage claim area, referring to the garish piece of metalwork Hank was still holding.

"It began as a mildly amusing joke that quickly metamorphosized into a tremendous pain in the nether regions." Hank fixed the object with a baleful gaze tempered by a half-smile.

"AH thought it looked like a parrot stand," said Rogue doubtfully. It was sometimes hard to understand Beast's jokes, or even whether some of his pronouncements were intended to BE jokes.

"It is." Hank shook his head in only half-pretended irritation. "I bought it for Warren, but I may end up keeping it myself, having grown attached to it with a masochistic sort of fondness." He rubbed the back of his head, which for some reason made his travelling companion laugh, although she immediately looked contrite. "I might even buy a parrot."

"He got bumped by it a few times. It was my fault," Cassie said, and her apologetic tone seemed to apply to both causing the accident in question and speaking out at all. Hank's encouraging smile emboldened her to continue with more animation. "Once because it slipped from where I loaded it in our car--and another time we did one of those old time comedy movie routines...." She mimed the turning around and catching someone unawares with a few quick half-steps, and Bobby chortled. "And THEN we couldn't find anything to pack it in, so we had to ask if we could carry it on the plane...."

"The security people didn't like it," Hank said, taking up the tale. "I ask you, does it even remotely resemble an explosive device?"

"No, t'me it definitely looks like a parrot stand," Rogue averred.

"But they finally said we could take it. I think they felt silly about the chocolates." Cassie looked to Hank for confirmation of her theory, brushing her hand on his sleeve.

"The chocolates?" Rogue hefted the package she held in a question.

"We bought them at the last minute, at the airport in Denver," Cassie explained. She was relaxing a little more with each sentence.

"They made us unwrap the package and send the boxes through the scanner one at a time," Hank said with some indignance. There were ten five pound boxes; he had not wanted anyone to feel left out during the gift giving ceremony if there were visitors at the mansion. "This was during the wait for the explosives-detecting dog they had called for to sniff the parrot stand."

"So ALL these people were STARING as they went by to board THEIR planes, and everyone could see Hank was getting very annoyed," Cassie added. She mimed the stares of the passers-by quite accurately, and even Rogue laughed this time.

"Perhaps not ANNOYED. Just somewhat irritated," Hank murmured, enjoying the recitation now the ordeal was over and done with.

"And we BARELY had time to board our plane," Cassie finished breathlessly, "and they put the parrot stand in a cupboard thing, wrapped in Hank's coat...and when the flight attendant got it out to give it to us, someone bumped her and--" She paused, looking expectantly at Hank.

"And I got hit in the head AGAIN." There was a brief pause while everyone waited for Bobby to control his laughter and get up off the floor. "That's why *I* am going to carry it the rest of the way home," Hank finished with as much dignity as he could muster.

Rogue and Bobby filled Hank in, with varying degrees of coded remarks, on the events he had missed while he was away as they gathered the couple's luggage and stowed it in the trunk of the late-model Buick the team used for over-the-road personnel transport. Cassie merely smiled vaguely and stood very close to Hank during this process. The back seat had a seat belt in the center, and she took this spot when they all climbed in, making no effort at all to disguise her desire to sit as close as possible to her protector. The parrot stand was wrestled in and fastened down with the left-over seat belt without further injury to Hank.

After a brief argument, Rogue took the wheel. Bobby, who seemed as unconcerned about seat belts as anything else pertaining to his personal safety, leaned over the back of the front seat, a wicked gleam in his eye. 'Bobby is the one inclined to tease,' Cassie recalled from Hank's briefings, and slapped a smile on her face.

"So how did you two meet?" he asked. An innocent enough question. Cassie, after a glance at Hank's serene expression, told a quick but mildly amusing version of how they had become acquainted.

"You took one look at our big blue buddy and decided you wanted to... get to know him?" Bobby queried suggestively, one eyebrow cocked almost into his blond forelock.

"That's not QUITE it," Cassie demurred. "He just...he looked like an okay guy who needed a quarter. From his body language?"

"OOOooh, so you liked his BODY language?" Bobby said with an insinuating leer.

Cassie glanced at Hank again, checking his reaction. He was shaking his head, but grinning, and her momentary tension evaporated. "I like everything about him," she admitted shyly.

Bobby gleefully opened his mouth to reply to that wonderful opportunity, and Rogue thumped him in the ribs. "OW! What'd I say? I didn't say anything!"

"Nope!" she agreed with a deceptively placid smile. The little tale seemed appropriately romantic to her, and she wasn't about to let Bobby ruin it.

Cassie bit her lower lip, worried by the possibility of an argument springing from what had started out as harmless teasing. But, to his credit, Bobby could change his tack, from pest to kindly friend, as quickly as he could switch his power modes. The anxious look on her face made him say, "Don't worry! Everybody seems to feel like they get to take turns squelching me--it's an X-men tradition."

"One a' these days we'll make a model citizen of ya," Rogue agreed, meeting Cassie's eyes via the rearview mirror and giving her an encouraging wink.

"I HOPE I live long enough to see that," Hank murmured, and draped his arm around Cassie, so casually that the two in the front seat had no idea he was doing it to bolster her courage. "By the way, how many of us are in attendance at the mansion right now?" he asked, adroitly changing the subject.

As Rogue and Bobby began to, between them, name off the roster of those present, Cassie snuggled in under Hank's arm. 'It really is going to be all right,' she scolded herself. 'You met most of these people before; they're all perfectly nice. Once you get to know everyone, you're going to feel silly that you were scared of them at first....'

Gradually her internalized pep talk worked. By the time they pulled up to the gates of the mansion, Cassie had actually managed to achieve a sense of cautious optimism. She was holding Hank's hand more for pleasure than support as she marched bravely into what she hoped would be her new home.


"Fate determines who comes into our life; our attitude and actions determine who stays in our lives." Javan


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!


PART25

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