Be prepared for a possible delay in the next few chapters.
I have to have a bit of surgery, and am not sure how soon I can prop myself
back up at the keyboard!
Part 8--Public Appearances
"The garage, of course, was a stable a hundred years ago," Hank said, waving his arm in the direction from which they had come. He had been pointing out the outdoor sights since they drove in, and had almost completed the lot.
"This place is amazing," Cassie commented. "Beautiful. Also huge."
They crossed a flagstone patio and entered a kitchen that seemed, at first glance, to be nearly as large and open as the grounds outside. A meal was obviously under preparation; large pots steamed on the stove, and the microwave was humming. A redheaded woman whose generous mouth turned up in a wide smile at the sight of Hank greeted them. "Hello, stranger."
"Jean," Hank responded, grinning back. He seemed to be grinning a lot, he thought in passing, and grinned wider, if possible, as he thought it. "Jean, this is my friend Cassie Cantrell. Cassie, Jean."
Jean indicated her involvement with lettuce being rinsed, to excuse not shaking hands. "Nice to meet you, Cassie."
"You, too. I think I just met your husband Scott outside?" I need some notes to remember all these characters, Cassie thought in a small panic.
"Sure, he's out there with the boys, hanging over Gambit's new toy. What did you think, Hank?"
"Think?" Hank looked blank, and he looked to Cassie, who gave the most minute of eyebrow shrugs in response.
"Didn't they show you that hunk of junk Gambit won in a card game last night? Someone towed it over this morning, and they've been out there ever since. You men and cars!" She shook her head and gave Cassie a friendly squint, inviting her to join in with her despair over the opposite sex.
Hank stopped to concentrate, rebuilding in his mind the image of the group at the garage. "Oh, is THAT what they were doing?"
"I would have thought they'd get you neck-deep in it right away. They want you to build a catalytic converter for it."
Hank lifted an eyebrow. "Just BUILD one? From scratch? Don't they realize that's why God gave us auto parts stores?"
"Don't look at me, I've got nothing to do with it," Jean said with good humor.
"Except you seem to be cooking lunch when it's Scott's turn," Hank observed. "You're going to spoil that boy."
"Oh, well, he's worth spoiling a little bit," was Jean's abashed reply, and Cassie warmed up to her instantly. "So, Cassie, you live in the city?"
"Ah, well, not THIS city," she replied. "I'm from Denver."
"Denver?!" Jean stopped for a moment to look Cassie over more closely, and give Hank a quick check as well. "You're a long ways from home. On vacation?"
"Kind of a working vacation." Jean was dumping bags of noodles into the pots as she listened. "Can I help with anything?"
"Oh, no, got it under control, but thanks." She checked the dish in the over-sized microwave, then turned back to the sink. Behind her, the microwave started itself. Cassie looked a question at Hank, who merely smiled blandly back. "So, are you having fun on the vacation part?"
Cassie could not help thinking of her most recent activities, and felt herself begin to blush. "Ahhh, yeah." She had to look away from the twinkle in Hank's eye, or she was afraid she'd burst into giggles, which was even more juvenile than blushing. "Lots."
Jean stopped again to eye them both, and slowly smiled. <Good for you, dear. Hank needs a little fun.> Cassie blinked in startlement; Hank had given her a quick rundown of the various talents she might notice here, but it wasn't the same as experiencing one.
Hank knew quite well the signs of someone hearing a private telepathic message. "Gee, Jeannie, talk about a guy in front of his back, why don't you?"
"Who, me?" she answered airily. "Why, Hank McCoy, what gives you the idea I'd do a thing like that?" She winked quite openly at Cassie. "If you want to give a little more of the tour before lunch, you have about 20 minutes."
"'Kay," Hank said agreeably, and steered Cassie out of the kitchen.
"I don't know what you're going to find to show me that's more interesting than the people," Cassie said as they crossed a wide hall, stopping in front of...elevators?
"How about my lab?" They were soon downstairs. It was even more vast than the kitchen, and looked to Cassie like a Star Trek set with an infinite budget. Hank pointed to a series of neatly stacked components. "The famous disassembled image inducer."
"Uh-huh." Cassie was not sure what else to say.
"I...think I can get it put back together before we have to leave for your party," he said with studied casualness.
Cassie frowned slightly. "You want to wear it?"
He frowned uncertainly, too. "Don't you want me to?"
"Oh, well, if you really WANT to--" she said quickly. He tilted his head, clearly trying to read her intentions, and she gathered the nerve to continue. "I don't want you to feel uncomfortable. But...it depends if this is the only function you're planning to ever attend...with me."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, if you go to this one in...that, but some other thing like your normal self--"
"'Normal' isn't a word I use much in self-description," he tried to joke, and she gave him a half-annoyed, half-reproachful look.
"I think a person should always begin as they mean to go on," she started again, mildly. "Maybe I'm...making assumptions. But if we might be seen together more than one time, and some of the time you're you, and other times you're...someone else...." She ran her fingers through her hair, frustrated at not being able to find the right words. "People will think THAT'S odd, too."
Hank studied her, thinking hard. She was implying she hoped for their relationship to continue after today, and that was very, VERY good news. But she also seemed bent on making an aggressive display of her association with him, and that might not be. "You should take a look, before you decide."
Cassie nodded her willingness to compromise, and he turned to boot up his workstation screen. "I can show you...my specs. Come to think of it, where are my other specs?"
After a brief search, he turned around, wearing a pair of gold-framed half glasses, and Cassie was charmed. "I didn't know you wore glasses!"
"Only for close work, and reading," he admitted. He also admitted, privately, that Cassie looked even better close up in good focus.
"They suit you," she told him gravely, after turning his head with her hands to study it from several angles. "Very intellectual looking. And sexy."
"Glasses are sexy?" He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Since when?"
"Ten million John Lennon fans can't be wrong," she retorted with a toss of her head, then gave him a hug to be sure he knew she was only kidding. "I've always liked cute little glasses like that. On cute guys."
"I am beginning to think you have very peculiar taste," was all he said, but he smiled as he said it. Turning back to his computer screen, he did some rapid-fire tapping, and then presented the screen with a wave of his hand.
Cassie stepped closer. A grid, shaped like Hank's head, appeared first, slowly revolving. Then on the second turn, it filled in with color, becoming the face of a man with a strong chin, dark eyes behind dark framed glasses, and dark hair, combed severely back to subdue its natural waves. It was expressionless, like a marble bust, and she looked uncertainly at Hank and back at it. Yes, the bone structure of the face was plainly the same, even to her untutored eye. But....
"Can you...smile, and all?"
"Oh, of course. That just wasn't necessary in this display," he assured her. "But it...well, it's a little tricky to explain how. It copies, it COVERS, the movements of all my muscles, even the small facial ones."
"Well, that would look a LITTLE better, I guess." Suddenly she was afraid she was insulting his invention. "I'm sure it works like a charm. But I can't quite...make the leap, imagining you looking like that." He did look disappointed. "It just doesn't look like YOU, to me," she said lamely.
"Hang on," he said, and called up something new. "Look at these." A copy of a photograph appeared on the screen, of a tousled-headed youth with huge shoulders and a shy, head-ducking grin. "That's me at sixteen," he said, but Cassie had already guessed that. She had leaned in, entranced, to better see the image.
"Hank, you were ADORABLE!" She looked back at him in delight, and saw it was perhaps not the best thing to have said, although he was almost hiding his reaction. "I hate all the pictures of me at sixteen," she tried to explain. "I was...goofy looking."
"No, surely not." He was doing better now, covering for himself. He stepped up beside Cassie and put an arm around her waist as the picture changed. Here he was doing handstands, grinning at the camera with more confidence. He rarely looked at these reminders of his past; it was doubly poignant to be doing so with someone else.
"I meant that you looked so sweet and innocent," Cassie told him, hoping to undo whatever damage she had caused.
"Well, I am certainly no longer innocent," he joked, and she gave him a squeeze. "I did a very foolish thing, you see. I thought I could single-handedly reverse the mutant gene which has been released so widely in nature...and I used myself as the experimental material. I was already...different...at birth, but like Scott, or Jean, or many of the others, my appearance was normal. The serum I developed changed me to what you see today."
Cassie thought about that, and Hank waited to see what she would say. "It's harder for you than I realized, then," she said simply. "I'm glad you showed me."
"So...what would you have me do, for tonight?" He cancelled the display and shut down the monitor.
"What ever YOU choose, is okay with me," she told him, trying to make him understand she meant it by the urgency of her tone. "Just so long as you know that in no way am I embarrassed to be seen with you, just like you are right this second. But if it's easier for you, wear the image thingie."
"My intention was to make it easier for you," he explained. "This party has something to do with your career?"
"Actually, the sad truth is that, if I turn up with you--the blue you," she smiled at the phrase, "a lot of people are going to think it's a ruse for publicity, or something like that." She looked him over assessingly, tapping a finger on her chin, trying to see a grownup version of that boy on this face. "And they may think the same thing with the image-you. I THINK you are probably pretty good looking that way too."
Too? Hank thought. He was THAT close to starting to believe she really meant it....
"No matter which, it's going to cause a stir, me turning up with a guy," she explained. "This is a tight-knit business, and everyone knows all about everyone else's real life romances, or lack of them." She smiled crookedly. "Actually, I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want to go at all. Everybody will be nosing around, trying to find out who you are and how we met and what's going on...." She sighed. "I wish I could get out of it."
"You can't just not go?" He tried very hard not to sound hopeful.
"Wendy would kill me very dead. It's...an award ceremony, and I'm probably getting one."
"You didn't tell me that!"
"How impressed would you have been?" she teased him. "It's not the Nobel prize, which I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn YOU have a shot at."
A tone sounded from somewhere in the room. "Hank, lunch!" sang Jean's voice. "Knock it off, you two, and come eat!"
"Have I ruined your reputation TOTALLY, or just a little bit?" Cassie asked, mock-sorrowfully, once she recovered from the shock, and her giggles at Hank's shock.
"You may be giving me one," he told her, grin firmly back in place, as the headed up in the elevator. "Be sure to remind me to thank you properly later." The image inducer question was not yet officially settled, but it had receded far from either's mind.
Continued in Part 9.