Okay, disclaimer, no offense intended to Marvel's copyright and all that stuff.

And I'm sorry for the long, long delay between chapters. I seem to have caught a virus or something which crept slowly up on my brain (and body) when it wasn't looking. I'm on the upswing, I think, though....


Neon Hearts

Part 35--Crosscurrents and Riptides

Neon Nurse

 

Despite Hank's best intentions, his attitude grew steadily more sour as the team meeting progressed. Though it was nominally a group discussion, in reality they were--again--merely receiving marching orders from on high. 'Here is the situation; here is the behavior I expect from you all.'

'How pleasant it must be,' Hank mused darkly, 'to have the power to say "Make it so", and know whatever it is will be done.' There was no other way to describe his feelings--it RANKLED that Xavier would go all out to smooth the way so their old enemy would have a pleasant visit, but act as though Hank was unreasonable in wanting the same for HIS guest.

Ah, well. Since HE couldn't order those who were still holding back to accept Cassie and give her a chance, he would have to fall back on his own not inconsiderable powers of persuasion. And that meant his first move should be to mend some fences...

As soon as Xavier dismissed them, Hank carefully maneuvered so he could follow Bishop out. "May I speak with you a moment, my friend?"

Bishop cut him a glance, then gave a curt nod. With mutual intent, they slowed their steps until the rest of the team had gone their own ways, then turned to face each other. "Is it about...her?"

"If by 'her' you mean Cassie, then, yes, somewhat," Hank replied, determined not to let Bishop prod him into rancor again, but equally set on getting a few things straight. "However, first I want to apologize for being excessively abrupt earlier."

Bishop just nodded again, and that was that. "What else?" His firmly crossed arms signaled that Hank was going up against a formidable obstacle if he was hoping to change his mind on this, or most other subjects.

"Bish, can you possibly imagine anyone less likely to be a threat to us, or anyone, than Cassie?" Hank's tone was pure reason, and as engaging as he dared make it. "What's she going to do--write us to death?"

"That's ridiculous."

Bishop had a vast dislike of being made to feel foolish; Hank could see he shouldn't go much further in THAT direction. "Of course it is. While the written word can be a powerful weapon, it is seldom fatal." He spread his hands, inviting agreement. "But other than having some skill in that area, Cassie is just not EQUIPPED to be dangerous to anyone, in any way imaginable."

After a noticeable pause Bishop replied, "I...try to consider every possibility."

That was as much of a capitulation as Hank thought he was likely to get, and so he left it at that. Changing tack, he said, "I can see why her general air of nervousness might look suspicious to you. But I think you can understand...." He made a bit of a show of considering whether to continue, which was not too difficult, as he WAS slightly reluctant. "She reacts this way out of fear. You see, Cassie was once married. Her husband, whom she quite naturally trusted, went insane, and tried to kill her." The former policeman's eyes narrowed at these words, responding as Hank had hoped he would to this report of a criminal incident. "It had the effect of undermining her faith in humanity...in fact, she is probably your equal in general suspicion of strangers and their motives." Bishop's upper lip twitched a fraction in response to this; his way of acknowledging the mildly humorous comparison. "She's slowly becoming able to cope again, but she needs time and patience," Hank finished, letting the implied plea hang in the air between them.

Bishop considered this, then observed, "She wouldn't have survived in my world."

There had been little benevolence to spare in that dark future, Hank knew. Perhaps he was wasting his time seeking sympathy from Bishop. "Lots of people didn't survive, isn't that right? Hardly a sign of poor character."

"I suppose." Bishop's arms had uncrossed, the bulky muscles relaxing. Hank took this as a sign he was at least partly succeeding in his attempt to alter his teammate's attitude.

"I think if you allow yourself to get to know Cassie, you'll like her. You two have things in common." Bishop looked askance at this idea. "You're the only one here from your world. She's the only one here...not a mutant." Now Bishop's expression was decidedly odd, and Hank was inspired to ask, "Does that make a difference to you?"

"Some." Bishop was too honest to deny it. "Do you think a non-mutant can really be trusted?"

"Yes." Hank's reply was instant and unequivocal, and he THOUGHT he was including humans other than Cassie in that estimation.

"It's not just because...you and she...?"

For a split-second Hank felt a seething rage, and vaguely wondered at its intensity even as he squelched it. "Bishop, in this case, trust came BEFORE intimacy, not because of it." On both sides. "Do you understand the difference?"

"I..." The very stolidity of the black man's expression made Hank suspect Bishop was accessing some memories he would have rather kept buried. "Yes, I understand it."

Hank eyed his friend's habitually hardened face. "Cassie is not your traitor, Bishop." He hesitated, then went on. "Indeed, if the scenario you are constantly on guard against SHOULD come to pass... she is at highest risk of becoming a victim. Since most of the rest of us can defend ourselves...."

"Should she be here, then?" Hank could not help frowning. "If it puts her in danger?" Bishop continued, and he actually looked... sympathetic?

"I don't know, Bish," Hank sighed. "I HAVE wondered that." It was easy to say that love was well worth any risk--but would he feel the same if he lost Cassie to some senseless attack on the X-men? "What a life, that forces us to choose between being wise, and being happy."

"Yes," Bishop said simply. The shadows of pain in his eyes showed he knew the truth of this all too well.

"I know you don't approve of my choice--"

"It is not my place to judge you, or your choices," Bishop interrupted. "I am here to try to keep the X-men safe from the traitor, and that is all."

That mysterious traitor. Hank generally tried not to dwell on the idea--why fret over a fate that might be immutable? But right at the moment, threats and tragedies were at the forefront of his thoughts. "If...it were ever necessary...." he asked, hoping he wanted to hear the answer, "would you protect Cassie too?"

"I would protect any innocent person, if I could."

"That's Cassie. Very innocent." Hank realized as he spoke that the words were almost a challenge, but thankfully Bishop chose not to take it up. Stifling a sigh, he thanked him and headed off.

As Hank re-passed the door of the war room, Xavier called out to him, startling him out of his moody reverie. 'Did he hear me walking by, or was he sweeping for my thought signature?' Hank wondered. For some reason, the idea of the latter annoyed him, even though it would be a quite ordinary thing for their telepathic leader to do.

Xavier was sitting alone at the table in the huge room. Hank almost took a seat as well, but that felt somehow too casual at the moment. If the older man noticed, he didn't allow that knowledge to show in his face. The only thing he said was, "Do we have a problem, Hank?"

This felt entirely too much like being called on the carpet, and Hank was not in the mood. Maybe he'd used up all his spare diplomacy on Bishop. "I don't know, do we?"

"That's unworthy of you, Hank. If you prefer not to discuss this matter, say so, but don't play childish word games."

And there went the REST of Hank's reluctance to verbally spar. "Very well. I don't know what problems YOU have, but I..." he took a deep breath through partially gritted teeth, reining his temper in "...I disagree with your not allowing Cassie in here this afternoon."

"Do you? May I ask why you thought it would be appropriate to have her attend an X-Men team meeting?" There was fire under that ice; Xavier was fighting his own battle for self-control.

"Because she's the one who saw Joseph's approach, and therefore could have given eye-witness details. Moreover, some people blamed her for him gaining entrance--"

"But you explained that in the meeting, with your usual eloquence. Much better, I suspect, than she herself would have done in front of our whole group."

That was very likely true, Hank admitted to himself. "Still, she would have had the chance to explain in her own words, so people could see for themselves...." He trailed off, mildly perturbed to realize he didn't quite know what he had been intending to say.

Xavier appeared to have an idea. His voice was almost gentle as he said, "Hank, this is either going to work out, or it isn't. You can't force it."

"I'm not trying to force anything!" Hank's hands clenched in frustration. "Encourage, yes...."

"You want her to become one of the X-Men?" Xavier's expression was now as thoroughly neutral as his tone.

"No, certainly not...not as such. Not officially. But I want her to be...accepted. And not just grudgingly, or as my sanctioned extracurricular activity." He didn't think he was imagining that slightly snickering air that sometimes hung in sudden silences when he appeared. "For herself."

"Not admitting her to our meetings isn't a rejection of her as a person," Xavier said with exaggerated patience, steepling his fingers and frowning at Hank's obtuseness--or so Hank perceived it.

"All right, perhaps that WAS ill-conceived," he conceded, fighting down indignance as he sought another direction for their discussion. "But are you sure you aren't keeping her at arm's length because she's not a mutant?" Bishop's admission had stung, even though he ought to have been expecting it.

"I wasn't aware I was doing any such thing."

Well, perhaps not; at least, no more so than he would with any stranger. Charles Xavier was not going to be mistaken for Mister Rogers any time soon in THIS space-time continuum. Hank opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it, and merely shrugged instead.

"I think you need to think this through, Hank. Decide what you are really asking of me. Of her, of all of us." Xavier let his arms return to the rests on the sides of his hover chair, but his gaze remained keenly assessing. "The only concrete concern I have about your involvement with her is how it is already affecting you, and what will happen in the future, if it doesn't work out."

That possibility didn't bear thinking about, and Hank's fear of it made him lash out. "If it 'doesn't work out' because of outside forces--because people with preconceived notions about who they will and will not accept as worthy to associate with the exalted X-men--" He couldn't go on, not without saying things better left unsaid, and with an abrupt movement, he turned and stalked out.

Frowning with concern, Xavier watched him go, worry etched into his features.


To Hank's surprise, he didn't find Cassie in their room. Firmly squelching his instant concern, he proceeded to do the sensible thing and search for her. Success crowned his efforts almost instantly, or at least as soon as he entered the kitchen.

A small group was engaged in various culinary tasks, the scene as harmonious as he could have possibly wished. Storm was converting large mounds of fresh produce into smaller mounds of salad components. The rest of the counter space was occupied by Cassie, Rogue and Joseph, all peeling potatoes industriously as they chatted. The intimate little domestic scene, exactly the sort of thing he was campaigning for, nevertheless made him feel an odd twinge of jealousy.

Squelching that, he said, "Does this signal your ambrosial potato salad for the morrow, Rogue?"

"Hank!" Cassie turned at the sound of his voice, beaming a welcome that made his obscure anxieties suddenly seem silly. He crossed the room to stand behind her, placing one hand lightly on her shoulder in a caress he knew doubled as a claiming gesture. Safe enough; he doubted anyone present would be consciously analyzing his body language. Since her hands were full, Cassie rubbed the crown of her head against his chest as a greeting, and he craned his neck to kiss her forehead.

"Yeah, an' it better all still BE there tomorrah," Rogue pretended to scold him, knowing he HAD been guilty of midnight refrigerator raids in the past.

"Rogue, you know I'm a reformed character," Hank replied, trying to look wounded. He wondered too late if that reference was quite politic, considering the situation with 'Joseph', but their new guest didn't seem to suspect it could be applied to him. "Furthermore, at least two of those incidents were honest mistakes," he assured Cassie and the visitor.

"I am sure," Joseph responded with a pleasant smile. Hank could not be quite sure whether he had given them a second, assessing glance or not.

"Joseph and I ran into each other in the hall--he's using one of the rooms in our wing," Cassie explained. "We've all been getting better acquainted while we help Rogue.

Hank disliked his growing tendency to analyze every little nuance of Cassie's actions; it felt somehow degrading. Love should not make a person suspicious. Yet still he wondered why she was telling him this, in this way. Was it significant, or was she just chattering the way she always did when nervous? But "Should I leap in?" was all he said in reply.

"Rogue has just told us these last few potatoes will be all she needs," Joseph informed him, and from behind him, Rogue nodded confirmation. "As soon as she puts them on to cook, she's going to show me the house and grounds."

Hank nodded back to both of them, smiling a bland smile. That seemed safe enough. Rogue was more than capable of handling any untoward situation that might arise. And in the right mood she could be a most gracious hostess; she was one of the few who had thus far actively reached out to make Cassie feel welcome.

"That's it for mine," Cassie proclaimed. She washed the newly finished potatoes and added them to the huge blue-enameled kettle on the stove. With quick, efficient movements she gathered her pile of peelings and ran them through the disposal, rinsing her hands in the stream of water pouring from the faucet into its noisy maw. "Do you want to go for a walk, Hank?"

"As always, your wish is my command," he told her gallantly.

Outside, as they wandered towards the lake, Cassie gave him the complete version of her second encounter with Joseph. Her grip slowly tightened on Hank's hand as she did so. "He was saying how he'd heard talk about internment camps for mutants, and asked what was I doing to prevent it...I didn't know what to say."

The trembling in her voice made Hank stop and pull her to him. As he looked down into her anxious face, he said firmly, "That's not going to happen. I don't like him frightening you."

"I can do it so much better myself," she tried to joke. "But, Hank--"

"I have it on good authority that there are a number of legal roadblocks and challenges planned and ready, should any such proposal ever be seriously made. There's a good reason it hasn't--such a radical step would be far over the line of what the undecided public is willing to tolerate."

At these sensible words Cassie relaxed, and after a quick squeeze, they resumed walking. "Something else he asked that I didn't know," she confided. "Are there groups working on this problem from OUR side? Kind of like a mutant's version of the NAACP?"

"Nothing solidly organized. The professor feels that to establish such a group would be like throwing down the gauntlet to the Friends of Humanity, goading them to greater activity."

She considered this in silence for a moment. "Do YOU think it would?"

"I think the benefits would outweigh the risks of such a venture. But I am not a political animal." He smiled at the semi-pun. "We don't seem to have anyone in our camp yet whose mutant power is extra- effective lobbying."

"It's funny--when I first met you, I was terribly afraid of what could happen to you in a fight. It didn't occur to me that there were so many OTHER dangers in your life; those FOH lunatics, Legacy...." Hank felt her shudder. "I wish I could DO something to help," she ended wistfully.

"You do help," he assured her. "Just by being at my side."

Cassie sighed, but Hank tentatively classified it as a satisfied one. When she stopped so she could reach her arms around his neck for a kiss, he knew he had been correct.

The sound of throat clearing interrupted them shortly thereafter. It came from Bishop, who had apparently followed them down to the lake. They broke apart like kids caught by the hall monitor, but Cassie remained pressed against Hank's side. To his credit, Bishop gave no sign there was anything even slightly unusual about their behavior. "About what we were discussing after the meeting...." He stepped forward, and held an object out towards Cassie.

After a hesitant glance at Hank, she took it and dutifully examined it; an elegantly thin chain bearing a decorative medallion, a stylized golden sun with a raised center. "It's really pretty," she offered, not knowing quite what else to say.

"It's flat and lightweight. You can wear it under clothes, or over them, as you prefer." Cassie and Hank exchanged another puzzled look, and Bishop explained, with ill-concealed impatience, "It's a comm unit. If anything happens again like happened today, you just press the center. It's tied into our security system--someone will know you need help. And any...sounds...will be transmitted and recorded." His eyes narrowed only slightly as he watched for her reaction.

"Oh, what a good idea!" she exclaimed, looking at the medallion with increased interest. "Thank you!"

"I had no idea we had anything like this laying around," Hank added, his approval unmistakable.

"You would be amazed at some of the equipment I've come across, stored here and there," Bishop replied.

"No doubt." Cassie had slipped the ends of the chain around her neck already, holding up her hair so Hank could help with the clasp. "Bishop, thank you," he said with extreme warmth.

Bishop only shrugged. "We should have already thought of it, before today." But there was meaning in his expression when he added, "It seemed like the wise thing to do."

What Bishop did not intend to reveal, unless circumstances forced him to, was that the medallion also contained circuits that would send an instant signal if the bearer left the grounds or powered up any sort of transmitter or other complex electronic device. This was his version of a compromise. If Cassie was genuinely innocent, the extra protection was to her benefit. If not...it was to the benefit of the X-men, who were his ultimate concern.

His task accomplished, Bishop decently made himself scarce, striding off to his next reconnaissance point. Without even needing to confer, the couple began to wander in the opposite direction, back the way they had come. They strolled in wordless communion as the last of Hank's odd resentment evaporated like mist in the sun.

Just before they reached the spot where a narrow footpath-wide trail branched off from the main one, towards the boathouse, they met Rogue and Joseph descending from the mansion. "There y'all are," called Rogue, by way of greeting. She waved a fat manila envelope in the air. "Got somethin' for ya, Cassie."

"For me?" Cassie accepted it dubiously, but laughed in relief when she saw the label. "Oh, it's from Wendy. Just letters."

"A courier brought it, not th' mailman," Rogue informed her. "What makes ya think it's letters?"

"A courier? Really? I wonder why she didn't just mail it like she usually does?" Cassie frowned, then let that concern drop for the moment so she could answer Rogue's question. "If people write to me in care of my publisher, the letters are forwarded to my agent, and she sends them on to me." Joseph's attention visibly sharpened at the mention of a publisher, though he seemed content just to listen for the moment.

"So that's stuffed fulla letters," Rogue said, her laugh a mixture of respect and dismay. "Y'don't hafta answer 'em all, do ya, sugah? That'd give ME writer's cramp."

"Oh, no--I used to, but eventually it was taking such a lot of time...I READ them all, of course. It would be rude not to." Worrying that she sounded like she was bragging, or, worse, that she was boring everyone with this minutia, Cassie paused to take a breath and scan the faces around her. Since they still looked reasonably interested, she continued, "I'll answer some. The rest will get cards that have a little printed 'thank you' message. I'll send those and the letters I write back to Wendy so she can mail them out." Rogue and Joseph looked equally puzzled by this apparent duplication of effort, so Cassie ended by explaining, "I didn't want strangers knowing my real address before, and now--" She made a vague gesture that took in their small group and the grounds surrounding them.

"Oh, Ah get it," Rogue said instantly. "Makes sense."

"Indeed." Hank's eyes twinkled, offering Cassie a private joke. "Bishop will be gratified to know you understand the need for security."

Rogue suddenly snapped her fingers. "Ah almos' forgot! Sam checked th' phone messages a bit ago, an' he said if Ah found y'all first, t'say Hank had two calls. One's from Moira at Muir Island. It's not a BIG ol' crisis, Ah guess, but she wants ya t'be sure an' call her t'night." Then her expression changed from business-like to teasing. "Th' other party said it wasn't anythin' important, but I 'spect y'better answer that'n first. It was yer mama."

Hank was instantly awash with guilt. He hadn't called home in several weeks, not since before he met Cassie. Here he'd been sulking all day because people weren't taking his new relationship seriously enough to suit him...but had he told his own PARENTS? Noooo. "I believe you're right, Rogue. In fact, I think I ought to squeeze that task in before dinner."

Cassie and Hank excused themselves and headed for the mansion, their pace now purposeful. "You don't MIND if I tell my parents about us?"

"No, of course not. Fair is fair--mine have actually gotten to MEET you, after all," Cassie replied stoutly, doing a good job of disguising her nervousness.

"How would you feel about a little jaunt to West Virginia?" Hank pretended to joke. If he gave even the slightest indication of how serious he was about Cassie, he knew his mother would be wild to meet her as soon as possible.

"'Almost Heaven', according to John Denver," she quipped. "I'm sure it would be fun." This time a tremor in her voice gave her away. Hank's expression switched so instantly to concern that Cassie couldn't help laughing, mostly at herself. "Were you this nervous to meet MY parents?" she asked sheepishly.

"I was so jittery I would have made coffee nervous," he admitted, and she gave him a hard, grateful squeeze.

The couple rounded the turn where the walkway curved to skirt the front of the garage. There, in its doorway, Gambit stood motionless, his gaze unfocused...but turned towards where he would have last seen Rogue and Joseph after they passed by. The appearance of a different pair registered in a heartbeat, but not before Hank had taken sympathetic note of that immobile yearning stance. Remy's eyes locked with Hank's for that instant, then quickly dropped to something held in his hand. When he raised his head again to acknowledge their presence, his face bore a smile far too genuine to be real.

"Comm' ca va, Remy?"

"You mad at Gambit too, Hank, dat you be speakin' such in 'is ear?"

"Not at all, my friend." Another time, Hank would have taken up Remy's joking challenge and indulged in a spirited defense of his accent. But considering the uncharacteristic way he had been reacting to people's well-meant remarks today, he suspected even pretend arguments should be avoided.

Gambit changed the subject, almost succeeding in making it seem casual. "Dey givin' som't'in' away free down by de lake? Seems like de whole team be marchin' past dis afte'noon."

"Nothing free but the air and the sylvan tranquility," Hank replied, matching Gambit's easy tone, giving no hint he knew EXACTLY which team member had commanded the Cajun's attention. "What are YOU doing?"

"Jus' workin' on dis ol' Jeep. Came outside t'hold dis alt'nator cap up t'de sun, see 'f it be cracked. W'ich it is."

Hank shook his head. "You're going to spend more in replacement parts than you would have on a whole new vehicle." Now he did let a hint of his concern for Remy escape, in a round-about way. "Some things just can't be mended, my friend. Maybe you should give it up?"

If Remy caught the secondary meaning underlying Hank's advice, he didn't let it show. "Oh, Gambit got no high hopes." He gestured towards the Jeep, pretending that's what they were discussing. "Som't'in' broke down dis bad need a smarter man dan me t'fix, fo' certain." His sardonic grin flashed out, repelling Hank's hinted offer of sympathy. "But it's de FUN y'get in de tryin', neh?"

Gambit did not look like a man having fun, but Hank was loath to say so. "Pleasant as it is to take part in manly chat about carburetors and such, I was just informed I have some phone calls to make. So we should press on. See you at dinner?"

"Yeah, I be dere t'eat Stormy's salad." Remy caught himself beginning to sigh and turned it into a chuckle. "Bye, p'tite. An' nex' time don' be talkin' Gambit's head off dis way w'en 'e got work t'do." He winked and Cassie blushed as she murmured a goodbye.

'Let that be a lesson to you, McCoy, to be grateful for what you've got,' Hank admonished himself secretly, as they continued to the mansion. 'Brooding and grumbling over imagined slights, when there are others with MUCH greater relationship problems to contend with....' Aloud, all he said was, "About my parents. In all likelihood, they'll want to talk to you--is that a problem?"

Cassie smiled ruefully. "I may not make much sense, but I'll try."

"That's my girl!"


Upstairs in their room, Cassie sank into the chair in front of her computer and began struggling to strip off the layers of shipping tape either Wendy or her super-efficient assistant had used to encapsulate the envelope. Hank picked up his phoneset and tapped in the appropriate number, beaming at Cassie's earnest industry as he waited for the call to ring through.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Mom. Guess who?"

"You might have to give me a hint, it's been so long," Edna McCoy replied tartly, but with a warm undercurrent that negated any possibility of misunderstanding. "Norton, dear, pick up the extension--it's Hank."

Mother and son exchanged the required small talk as they waited for Norton to come on the line. As he conversed, Hank watched Cassie pull an inner envelope from the outer one, then remove an attached note. Her lips thinned as she read it, then she thrust it under the full letter packet before looking up at him brightly. It reminded him jarringly of how Gambit had reschooled HIS expression just a bit ago, trying to hide his troubles.

But just then his father boomed, "Hello, hello? Is this another one of those crank calls claiming to be from my long lost son?" With only a quick mental note to check with Cassie later about the worrisome enclosure, he refocused his full attention on the three way conversation.

The note which Cassie had buried away read:

Thought this was a surer, faster way to reach you--you know how I hate voice mail! Winter's office called today in a rush to do the interview--call me soonest to confirm you can make this day and time. Naturally it's my day at Pantheon--drat it--but I'll cancel and come with if you want. Just let me know!

Love,

Wendy


INFO, ETC.

Previous chapters of this story can be found at http://web2.spydernet.com/lori/iclinks.htm OR from the author 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.


PART36

BACK