Okay, here I am back from the hospital, a little ouchy but okay. Thanks to all of you who very kindly sent good wishes! As always, the established characters in this ongoing story belong to Marvel and Marvel alone....
Part 9--First Impressions
Hank and Cassie entered the dining room, dropping hands but exchanging secret significant smiles, fondly imagining this exchange was lost on the others present. A woman Cassie had not yet met drifted over to be introduced. She was elegantly slender, with white hair in stunning contrast to her dark skin; Cassie felt decidedly commonplace next to this exotic being. "Cassie, this is Storm," Hank said, apparently not at all awed by her. "Storm, this is my friend Cassie, who I am SURE you have by now heard all about." His knowing smile took in the others, who had had means, motive and opportunity to spill the beans.
"Not all about, by any means," Storm replied in her cool, composed voice, which managed to hold the hint of an amused smile. "Welcome, Cassie. I look forward to getting to know you better."
Before Cassie could reply, another man entered the room, and the group instantly began spreading out to seats around the table. This was obviously Professor Xavier, Cassie thought, moving with the others. She would have known him even without the identifying aid of his hover-chair. He just looked like someone Hank would automatically call 'sir'.
Hank led her to a place at the table, and she didn't catch that she was being placed at the great man's left until it was too late to do anything but sit down in the chair Hank was holding. At least he went around to sit directly in front of her, on the opposite side of the table. On her left was Scott, who was across from his wife Jean. Cassie wondered at the lack of conversation, wondered if they ate this formally every meal, or only when the Professor was present.
After a reassuring smile at her, Hank said, "Professor, I'd like you to meet my friend Cassie Cantrell. Cassie, this is Charles Xavier, the founder of our little group."
She hesitated only a second, then reached out her hand, an awkward move over the table which she instantly regretted as clumsy and possibly overdone. "I'm very glad to meet you, sir," she said, unconsciously using Hank's term. "Thank you very much for having me here today."
"You're quite welcome." His baritone voice was commanding, full of unconscious power, and his grasp was firm, but brief. HE looked like he'd never had a doubt or a clumsy moment in his life, she thought. He didn't exactly seem forbidding, but Cassie nevertheless felt as though she was on probation, and tried to summon up her best behavior.
People began passing the food, family style, and chatting, which broke a little of the tension for her. Hank was all but using semaphores to communicate his approval and support, as though he knew she was finding this situation a little difficult. It did help. But then Professor Xavier said, "Hank tells me you are a writer, Ms. Cantrell."
Just when it had seemed that tidbit of information had been mercifully forgotten! Making the best of it, Cassie gritted mental teeth and said, "Yes. I write romance novels."
One eyebrow rose fractionally, and he glanced sideways at Hank. "I see," he replied. Minimalist, but deadly, response.
Hank was opening his mouth to, undoubtedly, defend her, when he was saved the trouble by Jean. "You're THAT Cassie Cantrell?" she cried in amazed delight. "Why, I have ALL your books!" She turned to glare mock-accusingly at Hank. "Why in the world didn't you SAY something?!" She turned back to Cassie. "Men always leave the important details out, don't they?" Cassie only had time to smile a weak agreement before Jean continued, "Oh, I wish Rogue were here! She's read them all too--she'll be SO disappointed she missed you!"
"Perhaps another time," Hank murmured, with a quick glance at the Professor, not trying to hide his delight at Cassie's sudden upsurge in status with at least SOME of the team.
"My favorite one," Jean confided, "was about the antiques. Scott, do you remember when I was reading that auction part out loud to you, and got to laughing so hard--"
"Yes, I do." He turned to Cassie and said with amiable accusation, "Thank you very much for trying to kill my wife! I had to pour ice water on her to snap her out of it."
"You didn't HAVE to," Jean said with no little trace of asperity, at her recollection of THAT part of the incident.
"I AM sorry," Cassie said, to both of them. "I'm glad you enjoy the books, though."
"I even read that one," Scott confided. "It WAS funny."
"Well, when you recommend a book, Scott, what more need be said?" Hank smiled wickedly.
While Scott was sorting out whether or not that was an insult, Wolverine spoke. "Jeannie says you're from Denver." All heads turned to that end of the table. Logan indulging in small talk with a stranger wasn't something that happened every day.
"Yes, I am." Cassie smiled encouragingly, thankful that someone was going to turn the conversation away from her semi-scandalous career.
"I was out there once. At that Stock Show thing. Nice town." He nodded and turned back to his food, with the air of a man who knows he has done his part, and maybe a little more, to keep the social circle turning.
"I used to love going to that every year," Cassie said. "I was horse-crazy, like most girls--I would have LIVED out there the whole ten days if my folks had let me." At Hank's inquiring look, she filled him in. "It's a livestock show, horse show, rodeo--"
"Is that where you got the idea for your book about the rodeo clown?" Jean asked, bringing the conversation right back around to romances.
Cassie nodded, resigned. "You know how they always advise you to write about what you know."
"Does that mean we can look forward to a romance novel about mutants?" Xavier's tone was bland, but the pointed edge to the words was sharp all the same. An abrupt silence fell.
"I don't know," Cassie finally said quietly. "I am sure I would have a great deal to learn first."
Now Hank did leap to her defense. "It might be interesting to see the effects of such a work," he suggested. "Perhaps it could even be a means to counteract some of the negative rhetoric being promulgated."
"Perhaps," the Professor allowed, but his expression said he would be difficult to convince.
Scott too came to the rescue, indirectly, by bringing up the subject of Gambit's new project. The rest of the meal's conversation was non-controversial, to Cassie's relief. At the end, the Professor reminded the team members of the practice scheduled an hour from now in the Danger Room, before excusing himself.
Jean firmly shooed Cassie away from helping clear the table, earning a smile of thanks from Hank. He ushered Cassie back to the central part of the house, and the elevators, but this time chose to go up. "That went well," he at last observed, when they were alone in the car.
"Yes," Cassie agreed faintly, wondering exactly what criteria Hank was using to define 'well'.
The doors opened and they headed down a broad hall of beautifully burnished panelling. Hank stopped at a door, opened it, and indicated Cassie should go in. Once the door was closed behind them, he embraced her, trying to gauge how much comforting explanation she required. "Professor Xavier is...not a demonstrative man, and...hard to get to know. But he is one of the truly great minds of our age, and cares very deeply about humanity. Both branches of humanity."
It was not difficult for Cassie to sense the plea hidden in this statement. She was already inclined to do a great deal more for Hank than be polite to someone who didn't seem to approve of her. It wasn't much of a task at that, as being agreeable was an ingrained part of her nature. So she merely nodded, and resolved to try to seem more worthy of Hank. Perhaps Professor Xavier would get used to her, in time. "It was just a little daunting, though. This is...kind of like meeting your family."
"At this point in time, it is EXACTLY like meeting my family," he assured her. Then Hank recalled the strong cultural connotations to that--bringing a girl home to meet the folks. Were those his intentions? It was possible--if he had only wanted to spend more timewith Cassie, they could have stayed in the city. This warranted further thought. But for now, he turned to a less fraught topic. "And this," he spread an arm to encompass the room they stood in, "is exactly like seeing my room."
Cassie was deeply impressed by the huge Jacuzzi in the adjoining bathroom, although it only made sense for a man as big as Hank to have a really big tub. The rest of the furnishings in his room were solid but utilitarian, except for the king-sized waterbed that took up most of one wall. "A secret hedonist, eh?" she remarked, looking over the vast spread of white satin covering.
"Not so secret," he smiled.
Feeling daring, she turned and sat on the bed, face turned up to his. As he leaned down, she stretched her arms behind her, propping herself up at an angle. Hank set his arms outside hers, so they were only millimeters away from each other. "You know we have less than an hour," he reminded her.
"Oh, that's right." Cassie pretended to decide to get up. Always the gentleman, Hank swallowed his disappointment and began to back off, until she caught up with him and wrapped her arms around his neck, clearly signalling her true intentions.
Breaking away from the kiss, Hank gently urged her to lay back in the bed. "One thing first," Cassie suggested.
"Anything," Hank told her fervently.
"Help me get this blouse off. You wouldn't BELIEVE how fast silk wrinkles." Hank was more than happy to help with this procedure, and a few more besides....
<BEAST!> Hank's head snapped up guiltily in response to the psychic shout. <We're waiting for you.> Uh-oh. "It CAN'T have been an hour yet," he muttered to Cassie, who seemed to understand what was going on. But a glance at the readout of the clock at his bedside assured him he was quite wrong in his assessment of time passed. "Sometimes relativity is NOT our friend," he groaned, as he leapt off the bed, and Cassie.
Big-eyed with worry for him, she followed his lead, fumbling for discarded bits of clothing here and there. She had to abort putting on her panty hose--how HAD that big rip...oh, yes. Hmmm. Hank had grabbed some blue trunks out of a drawer and was jamming himself into them. "Nice outfit," Cassie remarked appreciatively, as she bolted past him to the bathroom, buttoning her blouse. With a few quick licks of Hank's brush, her hair looked at least presentable, and the only other outward sign of their recent activity was her high color.
Before exiting the room, Hank stole a quick kiss and winked unrepentantly at her, relieving Cassie immensely. Even if he got scolded, he wouldn't mind.
They used the apparently vital elevator yet again, getting off on a new floor this time. Almost at a run, Hank guided Cassie into a room with glass panels--and Professor Xavier! "Sorry I'm late, sir," he said breezily, and dashed out again. The man in the hover-chair didn't reply, and barely glanced at Cassie, so she assumed she was allowed to stay. Trying to be very quiet, so she would not disturb Xavier's typing, she moved closer to the glass panes and looked out at the scene below. All the people she had met at lunch were there, clad in the costumes she had seen on the news. They were standing in a group; Wolverine looking impatient, the rest appearing to chat cheerfully.
Down on the floor, Hank bounded in to derisive comments. Wolverine sniffed at him quite audibly, then said to Scott, "You owe me a beer." Speaking to Hank, he asked, "Chuck read you the riot act?"
"Not yet, with emphasis on the 'yet', I am sure," Hank replied ruefully. "Sorry, everyone." There was no time for more--the dimming of the light signalled the start of the training sequence.
Continued in Part 10.
1) Open mouth. 2) Insert shoe store.