Taking this opportunity to thank Marvel for letting us fanfic writers play in their yard, by not prosecuting us for using their copyrighted characters!


Neon Hearts

Part 29--Open Secrets

Neon Nurse

 

Lying back on her elbows, eyes closed and face to the mid-morning sun, Cassie listened to the near silence. Out here alone on the front steps, there was little to hear except leaves occasionally stirring in the faint breeze, and distant, languid bird calls. But soon she sat up again, sighing minutely.

True to her private vow, she had cheerfully kissed Hank and shooed him off to his lab after breakfast. He had suggested she might like to spend some time wandering about the mansion and grounds, to familiarize herself with her surroundings, and she had agreed it was a very good idea. However, she hadn't been able to make herself poke into any rooms with closed doors, so her indoor tour had been short. It had also failed to reveal anything she hadn't seen when Hank had shown her around the day before. Well, lunch was not much more than an hour away, and Hank had promised he would resurface by then.

Crossing her arms on her knees, and resting her chin on them, Cassie again considered the vast expanse of green before her, broken only by the asphalt of the circle drive. 'Who mows all that, I wonder?'

Maybe another little robot, she thought, recalling the small boxy device she'd seen trundling patiently down the hall near their room. When Hank had identified it as a mobile vacuum cleaner, she'd laughed, thinking he was joking. "You could make a bazillion dollars marketing something like that," she'd half-teased him back.

Hank's reply had been ever so faintly hesitant, something about its power source not being readily mass-producible, and Cassie had let it go because of the irresolute look in his eye. If and when he wanted to explain further, she believed he would. If she had figured ANYTHING out about this place so far, it was that there was much more going on than met the eye, or made the evening news....

The granite steps were starting to make her rear go to sleep. Cassie stood up, looked to be sure no one was in sight, then briskly pummeled the affected area. Time to walk a bit. She could still watch for the air freight truck, which had been promised via a phone message for sometime this morning, while she strolled around.

During the process of somehow or other entering her identifying data into their security system, Hank had made casual reference as to how thoroughly secure their home here was. His way of making sure she knew she was safe anywhere on the grounds, without seeming to harp on the fears that embarrassed her so. Warmed by the recollection of his thoughtfulness, Cassie began to follow the neat pebbled walkway that circled the mansion.

As she rounded the corner of the east wing, sunlight glinting off the waters of the lake caught her eye. It looked pastorally serene, the gray-green surface ruffled only slightly by intermittent breezes. No doubt the boathouse where Jean and Scott lived would be pleasantly cool right now, with those air currents wafting through it. Although more than likely the little house was air-conditioned, like the mansion.

Cassie laughed silently at herself. She had climate control on the brain at the moment, probably because of the long sleeved shirt she was wearing. It had been exactly right inside, but out here in the sun it was rapidly becoming too much of a good thing. Maybe she should go change it, she thought. But what if the truck bearing her stuff came while she wasn't around?

Cassie pondered this dilemma as she continued to stroll along the path, which paralleled the back driveway to the garage. Gazing in that direction, she spotted Remy and Bobby emerging from it, and she froze in mid-step. Maybe if she VERY casually turned back the other way, she could escape yet another awkward conversation.

But no--Bobby had seen her as well. He waved cheerfully, and, to her resigned dismay, he and Gambit changed course. Nothing to do now but wait as they approached.

"Not lost, are you?" Bobby inquired as they came into conversational range, as eagerly helpful as any Boy Scout.

"Oh, no. The air freight people called, and I'm waiting for them," Cassie explained. She showed them the handful of shipping tags she'd had in her jeans' pocket, as though they had requested proof of her peaceable intentions.

"Good timing if they get here right around lunch. Plenty of people available to help carry stuff," Bobby said agreeably.

"Get it all in one trip," Gambit added in most amiable tones, pleased, as always, to put himself forth as an aider of fair damsels. Even other people's fair damsels, when the damsel pickings were slim.

Cassie tried and failed utterly to think of an appropriate remark, so she just forced her smile a little wider and nodded, faintly crumpling her shipping tags in nervous hands before she thought of shoving them back in her pocket again.

'Dis a spooky un,' Gambit thought, not for the first time. Not his type--he liked women with some fire in them--but *chacun et son gout*. To try to charm her fears away, he pulled half a dozen quarters out of his pocket and nonchalantly began to finger-juggle them.

The flashing coins tumbling in and out between his half-gloved fingers in a complex dance worked their usual magic. Intrigued, Cassie took a step forward, and Gambit silently crowed his satisfaction. Bobby, he noted, was trying to look blase, but not succeeding very well.

With a fillip, Gambit let the quarters pour into a stack in his palm. They made a musical run of clicks as they landed. Cassie clapped, her smile now genuinely pleased, and he bowed, then pretended to see something amiss. "Hol' on! Gambit start wit' six, and now dey only five!" He made a show of searching both sides of his hands, the ground around them, and looked up both sleeves for a finale. Bobby just grinned, anticipating a punchline. "Can't be a better t'ief dan Gambit aroun', can dere?"

Cassie was still smiling, but a wary look lurked in the back of her eyes. Gambit knew that when the pretty little pigeons started to flutter, it was time to bring the trick to a rapid conclusion. "Oh, no, dere t'is--jus' hidin'--"

He reached out, intending to conclude with the well-worn ruse of pretending to pull the missing coin from behind her ear. To his consternation, Cassie flinched away violently, not quite stifling a whimper.

Remy's hand, with the quarter between his thumb and forefinger, hung there forlorn for a moment. Moving very slowly, he retracted it and put both hands, and all his coins, back in his pockets.

"Sorry," Cassie said almost immediately, making futile placating gestures before deliberately changing the subject. "That's a good trick. You're very talented."

"T'anks," Gambit replied automatically, not knowing what else to say. What in the world had caused her to react like that? Had someone-- Bishop?--warned her against him? No, surely now HE was being unreasonably paranoid! And yet.... "Got a few matters t'see to 'fore lunch," he explained, and left rapidly, acknowledging their goodbyes over his shoulder.

Bobby was searching around in his mind for a good conversational subject that would cover the awkwardness of the moment when one semi- miraculously appeared from the heavens. "Oh, hey, here comes Rogue."

Cassie turned to face that way, expecting to see her new friend walking up the drive. Instead, all the troubled thoughts of a moment before were pushed out of her mind by total astonishment. As she stared, Rogue glided down out of the sky. She landed without a sound and walked towards them, as composed as if she'd merely stepped off an escalator.

"Whatsamatta, gal, nevah see anybody fly before?" Rogue demanded, unreasonably irritated by the awestruck expression on Cassie's face. She was in no mood to be cordial to anyone, after seeing Remy turn and stalk away as soon as she'd come into view. How dare he use her own tactics against her!

But Cassie was too captivated to notice the icy undercurrents in Rogue's tone. "No!" Her distress over her silly reaction to Gambit's well-intentioned trick was wholly forgotten. "That's AMAZING! How do you DO that?"

Rogue frowned at Bobby, who was shaking his head and looking superior; safely, since he stood at Cassie's back. Hey, the gal might be overdoing it a mite, but there was no call to laugh at her. Besides, it wasn't HER fault, about Remy.... "Can't rightly say, sugah. It's just like walkin', ta me. Ya don't THINK about how ya walk, ya jus' do it."

"That must be so neat," Cassie sighed. "If I could pick some...some power to have, it would be flying."

On a whim, Rogue said, "Wanna try it?".

"Really?" Cassie looked delighted, but dubious. "How?"

Rogue had regretted the offer before it was completely out of her mouth, but pride wouldn't let her take it back, especially not in front of Bobby. Instead, she considered how best to follow through. She'd feel silly picking Cassie up and carrying her like a little kid. But just grabbing her by the arm and taking off didn't seem too smart, either, considering Cassie was only an ordinary human. They bruised pretty easy. She was wearing long sleeves, at least....

"Evah in a three-legged race when y'all were a kid?"

"Sure."

"We'll try it that way, then. Jus' remember NOT ta touch me skin ta skin, 'kay, sugah?"

Hank had mentioned the problems this could cause before, Cassie recalled, and she nodded briskly. "Got it!" A mixture of apprehension and anticipation flooded her mind. But surely Rogue would not have proposed the adventure if it was at all dangerous. And suddenly she just HAD to know if flying felt the same in real life as it did in her dreams.

'If something goes wrong, somehow I just KNOW it's going to turn out to be my fault,' Bobby thought with doleful certainty. But he also knew that stopping Rogue in the middle of something she'd decided to do was pretty much an impossible task. 'Got your classic no-win situation here--the story of MY life,' he said to himself as he settled back to watch potential disaster unfold.

Gingerly, Cassie put one arm around Rogue, in the small of her back. As Rogue was the taller of the two, she was easily able to cross her arm over Cassie's shoulder blades, then take a firm hold at her waist. "No wigglin' 'round, now."

"Okay," Cassie said, a little breathlessly. It was good to know Rogue was determined not to drop her, but the tightness of her grasp made it difficult to inhale properly. It was an uncanny feeling, like being in a padded vise; Cassie could easily imagine steel bones beneath the flesh and blood of Rogue's arm. Without any warning, they began to float upwards.

Cassie would have braced herself, but there was nothing to brace against. She had expected more speed, more...g-force. But this was like floating in an inner tube on a meandering river current. She let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding, and grinned at Rogue, who grinned back.

After just a few seconds aloft, Cassie could see the entire mansion and all its outbuildings beneath them. "It looks smaller from up here," she observed.

"Ever'thin' does," Rogue agreed. 'Except the troubles ya bring with ya,' she added silently. "Doin' okay, sugah?"

"Fine!" Cassie exclaimed. "This is FUN!"

"Let's cruise, then." Rogue changed her body angle until she was nearly parallel to the ground, and Cassie spent a few moments flailing with her legs, trying to copy Rogue's posture. She finally cheated by hooking one foot over Rogue's ankle, using that as an anchor to help her hold her body level. Rogue didn't comment.

"Hank tell y'all how far the groun's go back?" They were over trees now, still gaining altitude, angling away from the lake and the river that marked the eastern border of Xavier's holdings.

"Not exactly. Just that it's a really big estate." Now there was enough noise from the windslip that Cassie felt she had to raise her voice to be heard.

"Ah gen'rally start out this direction--until Ah get plenty high enough that people won' notice somebody flyin' overhead." Cassie turned her head to check Rogue's expression. It was serious. "We try not to attract any more attention than need be, 'round here. Helps keep thangs private."

Cassie suspected she was being politely warned about the matter. "Good policy." More secret stuff she was being carefully introduced to....

Rogue began to circle in a lazy arc, which soon brought them into a pocket of cool, moist air rising from the lake. Now that they were moving faster, Cassie was glad of her long sleeved shirt. She supposed the wind chill factor worked just the same when the air was pretty much standing still and YOU were moving quickly.

The few clouds above loomed closer as Rogue climbed even higher. Cassie, suddenly feeling a twinge of nausea, looked to the ground instead. She could trace the roads as easily as on a map--there was the estate's drive, next Greysomething Lane heading on to the local highway and then, in the distance, the bigger expressway. Vehicles strung themselves along the thin ribbons of roadway like bright beads. If she squinted, she could just see the outskirts of Salem Center, the nearby town.

"Say, there's a truck turnin' onta our road!" Rogue dropped altitude hastily, to get a better look, and Cassie managed to stifle a gasp of alarm.

"Air freight's coming with my stuff this morning," she managed to say. The unexpected drop had startled her, and now she definitely felt queasy.

"Better cut th' sightseein' short, then." Rogue reversed directions as nimbly as a cowpony and began an abrupt and rapid glide down to their starting point. Cassie gulped, and held her breath. When it seemed they would HAVE to crash headfirst into the smooth lawn, which would make a terrible mess, Rogue made a hairpin turn that flipped them both upright, then floated smoothly down.

As soon as Rogue let go of her, Cassie let herself drop to her knees, eyes closed and one hand over her mouth. Her eyes watered as she struggled to freeze the spasms that rippled from her stomach to her throat.

Alarmed, Rogue knelt before Cassie. "Ya okay, gal?" she asked anxiously.

Bobby, who had been waiting and watching, came rushing up. "Uh-oh, looks like somebody gets airsick!"

Cassie's face was already losing its momentary chalkiness, and she sat back on her heels. "I don't, usually," she insisted, in an almost normal voice. "At least, not on a plane. Guess this kind of flying just takes getting used to, or something!" She managed a smile for Rogue, who still looked upset. "It was great, really. Thanks SO much!"

"Anytime ya feel a need ta throw up, let me know," Rogue joked as she stood up, relieved that Cassie wasn't going to make a fuss.

"Didn't lose your claim slips, did you?" Bobby asked, grinning.

Cassie's eyes widened in alarm. She rose and pulled the now somewhat crumpled receipts out of her pocket, counting as she went. "Nope, all present and accounted for, thank goodness."

"Then let's get ya moved in," Rogue said, following her words with action as she headed towards the truck which had come to a halt near the front entrance. Cassie and Bobby filed dutifully along behind.

'Moved in', Cassie thought as they walked. 'I think I like the sound of that....'


Down in his lab, Hank's concentration levels had been slowly slipping, in direct proportion to the advancement of the time display on his computer screen. Wondering how Cassie was faring without him at her side kept displacing the more mundane subjects in the email posts he was sorting through. After careful deliberation, he had decided he could go up half an hour early without raising eyebrows or producing knowing smiles from his friends. So at 11:29 he rose, stretched, then bounded lazily towards the door, lighthearted with anticipation.

He tapped the button that summoned the elevator, and bounced on his heels as he waited. But no car came. Frowning, he looked at the button. It was lit. It would serve no useful purpose to push it again. After another 10 seconds, he did anyway.

Hank was just getting ready to pursue an alternate route when the door opened. Telling himself he could not POSSIBLY get stuck in the elevator, he entered it and, after a moment's thought about where Cassie was most likely to be, pressed the button for the second floor. The ensuing ride was as smooth as always, letting him rule out a defect in the lifting mechanism as the cause of the slow response....

The car stopped and opened its door on the main floor. Half a dozen people carrying boxes, led by Bobby, almost trampled over him. "Geez, Hank, hog the elevator, why don't you?" his friend complained. "Some of us are trying to work here!"

Hank backed up into a corner, trying to avoid a collision with any of his box-toting teammates. Despite the crowded conditions, Cassie managed to squeeze over to his side. He gallantly relieved her of the single, smallish box their friends had allowed her to carry, tucking it under one arm and Cassie under the other. "If I had been informed, I would have been only too happy to assist."

"Your work's important," said Scott, in a tone that brooked no disagreement. "No need to waste your time with something WE can handle."

"It seems I am officially back in harness, my dear," Hank remarked to Cassie. He smiled as he said it, and Cassie smiled back, but she filed the vaguely worrisome exchange away for further thought.


After lunch, Hank again disappeared into the depths. Cassie didn't need to be told he was trying to make up for the time he had lost vacationing with her. At least now, she thought as she looked around the room at all her boxes, SHE had something to do as well.

Where to start, that was the question. And music was the answer. It only took a minute or two to find the carton that held her CD player, and a minute more to choose a place to put it for now. Rather than make a special hunt for the package containing her modest CD collection, Cassie just turned the machine on, willing to accept whatever had been in it when she hastily packed it.

"Oh, good, the Bobs," she remarked to no one as their a cappella version of 'White Room' came pumping out of the speakers. Cassie mimed a little air guitar, then settled herself to work.

Hank had left the door slightly ajar when he departed, and Cassie had not closed it, supposing he had some good reason for leaving it that way. So when out of the corner of her eye she saw it swing open, she turned that direction with a happy smile, expecting to see Hank coming through.

But the head that poked in did NOT belong to him, and Cassie could not help taking several startled steps back and away. Unfortunately, there was a box directly behind her, and she fell over it, which further alarmed her, making her scrabble backwards.

"Oops," said the intruder in an disconcerted voice. It was Bobby. A variety of conflicting emotions played over his face, and then, moving with great care, he sat down in the doorway. "Sorry."

"Um...that's okay," Cassie murmured, bewildered by his actions. Should she get up if HE was sitting down? Bobby's odd behavior lent a surreal quality to the situation, and left Cassie even more at a loss than usual.

"I heard you playing the Bobs," he said, by way of explanation.

"Too loud?" Cassie asked instantly. Probably she SHOULD have shut the door.

"Oh, no," he reassured her. "I just don't have that album, and I wondered which one it was."

"Oh." Her heart rate was slowly returning to normal. "It's them doing other groups' hit songs," she informed him, still wondering if she should get up. "You can borrow it, if you want to."

"Thanks," Bobby replied, his serious tone contrasting strangely with his position and the subject at hand. "You might want to look at my collection sometime, too; we could borrow off each other."

"Sure," Cassie said, after too long a pause. This was really just too peculiar.

Bobby sat in silence a few moments longer, considering her. "How long ago was it?" he finally asked.

Cassie was certain she could not POSSIBLY have heard him right, yet she was equally certain she had. He continued to sit there, cross- legged, waiting patiently for her reply. He HAD to be guessing, just digging for information, hoping to hit paydirt with random questions. But she couldn't be sure without playing along a LITTLE bit. "Almost five years."

"I had a friend in college," Bobby explained. He let his gaze wander to the window, where afternoon sunlight was beginning to stream in. "She went out with a guy she thought she knew...you know how that happens."

"Yeah," Cassie said very quietly. She knew exactly how it was...when you thought you knew someone, but it turned out you didn't.

"Today when Gambit scared you--it made me think of her." Bobby rubbed his hands over his knees. "That's how she was afterwards...until she quit school and went home."

Cassie let this soak in. "You know, I hate it when I do things like that," she confided.

"Then you'll probably manage to quit, someday." His glance flicked towards hers again. "Talking about it helps some people, I hear."

"I'm much better with words on paper," she murmured. "I've actually considered passing out a memo to everyone." Bobby snorted a laugh, picturing various reactions. "It's not that I mind people KNOWING. I'm just...." She trailed off helplessly.

"Kind of a tricky subject to work into casual conversation," Bobby agreed. "If--"

A startled half-exclamation from the hall interrupted whatever he had been going to say. Sam Guthrie had come up behind Bobby, and was now goggling at the pair of them sitting on the floor, looking from one to the other, utterly mystified. "Whut's wrong? Are ya hurt, ma'am?"

"Oh, no, we were just talking...about music," Cassie said, too brightly. Now she felt REALLY silly. She wondered whether she should finally clamber to her feet, or if that would look even more suspect.

"On th' floor?" Sam said suspiciously. That was strange--as strange as the weird voices pretending to be music that were playing in the background.

"It's called being casual, Sam--latest thing, you should try it." Bobby was doing a good job at sounding exasperated, Cassie thought, appreciating his attempt to cover up her foolish over-reaction.

"Ya didn' freeze 'er t'the floor, did ya?" Sam demanded, with such a distrustful look that Cassie knew instantly he was recalling some specific event. She turned her inadvertent half-laugh into a grunt as she pushed herself to her feet. Standing up would clear Bobby's name, at least in this case.

"Yeah, like I WANT Hank to yank my arms off!" Bobby retorted as he rose as well.

"Oh, I'm sure he wouldn't do THAT," Cassie said instantly, in defense of Hank's good nature.

"Huh," Bobby said darkly, and Sam vehemently nodded his agreement that such retaliation would be more than likely.

Now that the situation had regained some semblance of normality, Sam remembered what he was doing here. "Ah came ta ask, ma'am, if y'all had anythin' else needed totin'."

"No, everything's in here. As you can see." The room DID look a bit cluttered, with so many boxes scattered around in it. "Right now I'm mainly trying to think where to put things."

Both men took a few steps into the room, in response to Cassie's vague gesture. Cassie looked around with them. Most of the boxes were labelled with the word 'Clothes'. The ones with Hank's distinctive handwriting were more creative: 'More Clothes', 'Additional Clothes', 'Extra Clothes Just In Case' and similar variations on the theme. She smiled, remembering how they had both gotten a little giddy with anticipation during the packing.

"Looks like you need another chest of drawers," Bobby observed. "That Hank is such a space hogger."

"He's not--this IS his room," Cassie reminded him, then smiled when she realized he was teasing again. "A separate one WOULD probably be best." There was plenty of room for it, after all. "You know, I thought about bringing a couple of pieces of MY furniture. But that seemed so...." Presumptuous, she finished to herself.

'Final', Bobby added, in HIS head. "What did you do with all your other stuff?" he inquired, figuring by now she'd not be offended by a direct query.

Cassie knew for sure this time he was seeking details that would make him a sought-after source of info; today's leader in the gossip game. Of course, that WOULD be the most efficient way to spread the information throughout the household, short of calling a meeting, or writing that memo. "I had a couple months to go on my apartment lease, so I just left the big stuff there. Until I think of what's the best thing to do about it."

"Guess that's th' sensible route," Sam said diplomatically. Although if HIS girlfriend ever moved in with him, yet kept such an obvious escape route open, he'd be inclined to think she didn't take their relationship very seriously.

"Yes. And my folks have my cat, and my car--or they will, when it gets back from the body shop. Hailstorm," she added, when they both looked apprehensive.

Returning to the problem at hand, Bobby suggested, "You know, the easiest thing to do for now would be to just borrow a dresser from an empty room. We've got plenty."

"Well...."

"It would be a nice surprise for Hank," Bobby coaxed.

Cassie needed no further persuasion. With Sam and Bobby leading the way, they went on a hunting expedition for a dresser, and soon returned with their booty. She picked a spot where she didn't think it would be in the way, and her helpers set it carefully in place. After she had given them her fervent and sincere thanks, they departed, leaving her alone with a lot of boxes and the Bobs.

And yet, she didn't feel alone. Her apartment in Denver had been a solitary sanctuary. That was what she had needed then, to feel she could be safe from the world in that cozy, personal...prison. Flying with Rogue today had shown her the vastly expanded physical borders of her new refuge. But that revelation paled in comparison to her growing realization that she could TRUST these people who were allowing her to share this haven. Their kind words and deeds were gently eroding walls she had not even noticed she had built.

'Hank said it would be okay, and he was right,' Cassie thought, shaking her head at how silly her old fears seemed right at the moment. 'One of these days I'll be looking back and laughing at myself for being so worried.' She carried the nearest box over to the dresser and began to put its contents away, devising plans for future communication that had nothing at all to do with meetings or memos. Everything WAS going to work out. Just like Hank said.


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!


PART30

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