Copyrights to Marvel. HURRY, the prof is waiting!
As soon as they had placed their used dinnerware on the counter beside the sink, Hank pretended to examine his wrist, which bore no watch. "No time like the present?" If Xavier had invited them for after supper, he would have meant IMMEDIATELY after supper, but he didn't want Cassie to feel rushed.
Cassie gulped minutely, but nodded. For all she knew, the little tete a tete would turn out to be pleasant. If not, might as well get it over with as soon as possible.
Xavier was indeed waiting for them in his study, and he smiled a pleasant greeting as the couple entered. No trace of his concern about the problem Cassie presented showed in his calm features. But he augmented his mental shields as she came closer; the waves of anxiety she was unconsciously emitting had the same effect on him as nails on a chalkboard.
So it had turned out to be Hank who would change the old days into the new by bringing home a stranger. Xavier had known a time like this would eventually have to come, as his X-men were no different than most of the rest of humanity in their desire to find one special person to love; no different than himself, come to that. He also knew it was not his place to presume to pass judgement on potential partners. But as he again considered the hesitant woman who had been like Hank's shadow every time he'd seen her, he doubted, in spite of his best efforts at optimism. Would she be able to deal with the stress of their lives here? And if--when?--she could not, what harmful effects would it have on Hank?
Tonight, in this private, theoretically social meeting, he hoped to get some idea of which impression he'd had of Cassie was right. Was she the high-strung, helpless waif before him, or the sensible eccentric he could so easily picture winking at her readers from beyond her books' pages?
Xavier had prepared for them by making the place seem as cosy as possible; sherry in a decanter on a small table between his spot and the chair he knew Hank would use, lights lowered, only a holographic fire in the fireplace since the day's weather had been so fair. Hank handed Cassie to her seat, where she demurely crossed her ankles and folded her hands one over the other, like a little girl in church. On a calendar photo from the Fifties. Few people Xavier had met in this day and age were truly that genteel.
The professor busied himself and Hank with pouring and passing the sherry, until he judged a sufficiently cordial mood had been created. "Well, Cassie," he finally said in hearty tones, "How did you find your first day here with us?"
"I...it was very nice," she murmured, her voice almost too quiet for him to hear, at first. "You have a beautiful home."
"Thank you. It's been in my family for many years." It had also been rebuilt, here and there, over a dozen times in recent memory, but no need to go into all that right now. "Well." They had used that subject up a little quicker than he had anticipated. "I suppose Hank has already filled you in on the basic routine of our household, and answered some of your questions." She nodded as if nervous about being caught without answers to questions on a test, clutching the stem of her glass so tightly he began to idly wonder when it would snap.
"It was quite a few years ago when Hank came here for the first time...." Xavier mused. As he expected, making Hank the subject of conversation made her lean forward with interest, forgetting her nervousness for the moment. "If I'm not mistaken, YOU were a little uncertain about coming here, weren't you, Hank?"
"Very much so," Hank admitted easily. He gave Xavier a minute nod of appreciation for the tactic.
"I know it must seem very silly of me, sir--" Cassie began.
"You needn't call me 'sir'--I think Hank does it to make me feel old," Xavier joked, which made Hank blink briefly. "Most of the others call me Professor, or Charles."
"Logan being the exception that proves the rule," Hank observed, his demon of humor putting a sparkle in his eye as he took a sip of sherry. Cassie automatically copied the action.
"I am NOT fond of Charlie, or Chuck," Xavier acknowledged, with dry understatement.
"Doesn't save any time anyway," Cassie murmured, with a jerky little nod of agreement.
This non-sequitur threw Xavier for a moment, and even Hank, who he presumed was gaining SOME understanding of the woman, looked faintly puzzled. "I...beg your pardon?"
"Charles and Chuck are both one syllable," she explained, looking earnest enough for him to temporarily discount the possibility she was deliberately teasing. "And Charlie's two."
"Ah!" Xavier smiled to show he now understood the word game she was playing. "Whereas Cassie is one syllable SHORTER than Cassandra."
But this made Cassie squirm with embarrassment, before she managed to half-stammer a correction, "It's...ah...actually...Cassiopeia."
"I didn't know that!" Hank beamed, and Cassie instantly reflected a shy version of that expression back at him.
"My dad was an amateur astronomer as a boy," she said, speaking with more confidence when directing her remarks to Hank. "You remember how clear the stars are out there."
"Oh, I remember those prairie nights VERY well," Hank said in dulcet tones that brought a flush to Cassie's cheek, which burned even brighter when Xavier cleared his throat.
"But you go by Cassie, am I right?"
"Oh, yes, please call me Cassie, thank you." If she were only a LITTLE less eager to please, Xavier thought with a mental grimace. It just didn't feel right, somehow. Kitty had been SLIGHTLY that way, at first--but she had also had the very good excuse of being barely out of childhood, not a supposedly grown woman. Perhaps this was part of what troubled him about the matter--it seemed out of character for Hank to take an interest in someone so...submissive....
Well, on to the next subject in his mental outline. "So tell me, Cassie, how did you come to enter the writing field?"
Cassie looked extremely reluctant to head into this conversational area, and Xavier supposed, with just a trace of guilt, that she still recalled his lack of enthusiasm at their first meeting. Hank had introduced her as a writer, but had neglected to mention that what she wrote was romance novels.
Hank dealt with the awkward pause by saying, "The professor told me he read one of your books."
"Ah...two now, actually," Xavier corrected him. "And I am in the middle of a third." His memory of the look on Jean's face when he has asked for the loan of another from her collection still faintly perturbed him. The only reason he was admitting to it was to take that glassy, imminent roadkill look from Cassie's eyes.
"Really?" Cassie murmured. Focusing on the way the tilt of her head accented her dubious expression let him ignore the silly smile Hank was trying to keep under control.
"You have a definite skill for creating an entertaining scenario," Xavier told her with a most professorial nod, then relaxed a little when he saw she wasn't going to giggle or preen. "I should tell you that until I read, ah, 'Purloined Roses', I had never done more than leaf through a romance novel, trying to guess at the appeal." He remembered something he had wondered about. "Did you intend that to be reminiscent of Poe's 'Purloined Letter'?"
Cassie's face lit up. "Yes! Hardly anyone ever notices that!"
"Having an American Literature major as a secondary character was rather a broad hint."
"That was MY college major," Cassie admitted. There was a world of difference in her smile suddenly; it conveyed actual humor, rather than looking like the remnant of a nervous tic.
"Where did you attend?"
"University of Denver." Hmm. Not an unknown backwater college by any means. Xavier revised his estimate of her intellect upwards a notch. "I was more or less planning to be a teacher. Then, in my senior year, a friend of mine showed me a flyer for a writing contest. We both entered, and I placed high enough that my agent, who was one of the judges, signed me on and started me writing seriously." She shrugged self-effacingly, but with a hint of amusement remaining. "As seriously as I ever DO, anyway. And...that's the short version of how I got started."
"Was that Wendy?" Hank wanted to know. Xavier wondered who Wendy was, to bring that expression of half-delight, half-trepidation to his expressive face.
"Oh, yes." Cassie actually laughed out loud. "She can be a one-woman writer's course when she wants to be. She knocked a lot of rough edges off that first manuscript."
During this exchange between Cassie and Hank, Xavier got his first glimpse of the person who had written those books, the person Hank must see, and he nodded to himself, pleased at the possibility the situation might be better than it appeared. "I'm glad to hear you have friends out here already," was all he said.
Cassie ducked her head, then explained, with halting words. "Well, only Wendy, really." She looked alarmed again, and Xavier sighed internally. It was tedious conversing with someone when every subject, no matter how trivial, seemed to be a potential minefield.
"I doubt ANYONE says 'only' Wendy about anything," Hank commented, which brought Cassie's smile back.
"I know her secretary a bit," she offered. "We talk about our cats sometimes."
Lord, he didn't want to get started on the subject of the cat! He'd been fairly firm with Hank on the matter, then left it to him to sort out, and he hoped there would be no future attempts to add cats to their household. Instead, Xavier fell back on a standard remark he often used with the younger applicants to their various programs. "It must have been hard to leave your family and friends to come here."
Hank's right eyebrow dipped just a fraction. It would have been a genuine frown of annoyance on anyone else, and Xavier reflected that what he just said could be interpreted as none too complimentary to Hank.
However, Cassie seemed quite willing to follow that subject. "My family, yes, a little. We're very close, my parents and I. But...." Then something caused her to look vaguely apprehensive again. "Actually, I was something of a hermit. Didn't really get out much."
"You said you did dance aerobics," Hank reminded her helpfully.
"Oh, yes. That was something several of us--" after a perceptible pause, she carried on firmly "--several of us from my therapy group got into together."
This was the type of revelation Xavier had been more or less anticipating. Somehow it came as more of a shock, just when the conversation had been starting to flow naturally. He struggled to come up with a non-judgmental, encouraging remark, but instead the pause lengthened uncomfortably.
With a few almost imperceptible movements--a tiny shift forward, the faint bunching of his shoulders--Hank sent a very clear warning that his protective button had just been pushed. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, then, Xavier thought. "Was this a...physical therapy group?"
"Well, no." Cassie glanced towards Hank. She seemed able to read Hank's body language as adeptly as Xavier, but her reaction surprised him. She put a hand on Hank's knee, and gave him a brief smile that was clearly meant to soothe him. When she continued, her voice was a trifle tight, but steady. "I had a rather traumatic experience a few years back, and the group was one of the ways I...came to terms with it."
"I beg your pardon, if I seemed to be prying," X said instantly, and Hank leaned back in his chair again, though his expression was still far from sanguine.
"It's okay, really. Naturally you would want to know something about my background...." Cassie told him, looking very serious.
"That's seldom been a requirement for our guests," Hank remarked. His lingering annoyance was plain. It felt quite...odd, to have Hank even slightly angry at him over something.
"Not because I'm a guest," Cassie said to Hank gently. Xavier was again amazed at the change in her aspect when Hank was the focus of her attention. She was far more concerned about his distress for her than her own reaction to the subject. "Because he...." She checked Xavier's still expression, and assayed a hesitant smile, as if in apology for whatever she was going to say. "For the same reason my parents wanted to meet you. Because people worry about people...." People they care about, was the part she must have felt didn't need verbalizing.
Again Xavier was left with nothing to say for a moment. "That's...quite perceptive of you, Cassie."
"It doesn't take that much perception to see you all are very close here. It just makes sense you'd worry about what effect a newcomer would have." Hank nodded his acceptance of this, and the face he turned to Xavier was a slightly abashed one. "One thing about a therapy group--you learn a LOT about group dynamics," she finished with a diffident smile.
"I can see how you might," Xavier said, for want of any better response to make. Deliberately not looking at Hank, he went on, "Were your group friends distressed when you told them you were coming out here?"
This specific area didn't seem to be a fraught topic, and Cassie accepted the question with a serious, thoughtful frown. "Some were. Change is kind of threatening to some people." Xavier nodded, choosing to ignore the irony of Cassie saying so to him. "I'd been feeling for some time like I had grown out of...of NEEDING the group, if you know what I mean. But it was a comfortable habit, I guess. And Patricia--my therapist, who led it--said it was good for the newer members to have the old timers there to say, 'Been there, felt that'...." She faded out, making that tiny embarrassed shrug again, but at least still smiling.
Although he was more than a little curious to have more details on the nature of her traumatic experience, Xavier knew digging any further would be an excessively bad idea. "No doubt it was time for you to move on."
Her smile widened gratefully. "I think so. And Hank is good about...listening to me worry out loud, if I need that."
"He is indeed." Now it was Hank's turn to look embarrassed at being the focus of attention, and Cassie again patted his knee.
The three of them slid by mutual, unspoken agreement into more general topics while they finished their sherries. By the time Hank and Cassie took their leave, Xavier was feeling almost optimistic about her ability to find a place for herself within the group. How she would cope in other areas still remained to be seen, but...there WAS hope.
Safe in their room, Hank swept Cassie into an ardent embrace. "That wasn't so bad, I hope?" he asked, after they came up for air.
"No, it wasn't!" Cassie answered, sounding almost surprised. "He really IS nice!"
When he wants to be, Hank thought, and felt immediately guilty for the unkindness of it. "Yes. He just doesn't always show it. And sometimes...he has less affable moods." And sometimes the sun is hot, sometimes water is wet....
"Sometimes he's a little more like...Bishop?" She was trying to hold onto a serious look, but her lips were twitching.
"Oh, seldom THAT bad!" Hank smiled back. Xavier could certainly be as suspicious as their time-displaced friend, but his control of his emotions was much better. "I was going to explain about Bishop. His attitude is not directed at you, per se. He is here because he is hoping to prevent some unknown party from...from killing off all the X-men."
Cassie's jaw dropped and she stared at Hank in real alarm. "Who would want to do that?"
"That's the trouble; he doesn't know." Hank studied her face, trying to decide how much to tell her without making her any more upset than necessary. "He tells us he intercepted a message...in the future...that makes him believe a traitor betrays the X-men, causing all our deaths."
Her brows creased as she tried to ferret out the real meaning behind his slowly and carefully chosen words. Bishop thought he saw this in the future? How could that be true? So he was delusional? "I...guess I can see why you have him around, then." She could sort of see it anyway. Her writers' imagination had already generated several plausible reasons for someone to have such a 'memory', which might even contain some truth. Best to be on the safe side and keep him here they could watch him, maybe even help him. "He's not dangerous himself, is he?"
"Oh, no, don't concern yourself about that. One of the upsides of having a few telepaths about the place; hard to conceal hidden agendas!" He smiled reassuringly. "I just thought you'd like to know why he's likely to act as though he's suspicious of your every move for awhile."
"Is that why he's watching Gambit?" Cassie guessed.
"That's why. Gambit deals with it rather well, I think."
"Well, yes, but...poor Gambit! He's too nice; he couldn't be a secret traitor!"
"Well, if you were going to pose as a traitor, you'd act friendly, wouldn't you?" Hank queried quite seriously, though his twinkling eyes gave away his true attitude.
Suddenly Hank remembered that the idea of someone not being what they seemed was probably more troubling to Cassie than the average person, and he mentally kicked himself for even bringing the subject up, much less going on to make it a joke. "But enough of that. Seems like I recall being promised a...gift?"
"Oh yeah!" Disengaging herself from his arms, Cassie trotted over to the small table by the window, then returned to place a pleasantly full shopping bag in his hands. "Sorry it's not wrapped--I didn't want to hold the others up."
"Wrapping is more for birthdays and Christmas," he assured her, as he pulled a thick knitted garment from the sack. She took the sack from his hands so he could hold up the sweater and marvel at it. "Cassie, this is wonderful! I think it will even fit!"
"Try it on," she urged, and he complied.
"I can NEVER find an item I'm interested in in my size--they always have to special order it, if it's available at all!" He happily ran both hands over the thickly cabled knitting, admiring the design that decorated the chest. "How does it look?" He moved to the mirror, Cassie trailing him happily.
"You look great," she said, snuggling in under his arm so she could see both of them reflected in the large dressing mirror. "I KNEW midnight blue would be a good color for you!"
Hank rather admired the way her blond hair contrasted with it, as she leaned against his chest. "May I...show you my appreciation, dear Cassie?" he said suggestively.
A new look took hold in her eyes. "I...have to show you your other present first. Wait a second, okay?" To his mild puzzlement, she dashed into the bathroom. Had she hidden it in there?
When she didn't come out right away, he shrugged and pulled the sweater off over his head, then hung it on a hanger, awaiting cooler weather. When, after he had walked around the room a few times, Cassie still did not emerge, he decided to go ahead and undress for bed. It was doubtful they'd be reemerging for any social activity tonight. Cassie had done extremely well in that area, for her first day, but he suspected she was about socialled out.
Hank was stepping out of his pants when he heard the bathroom door open, and what he saw when he turned his head that way made him freeze the motion. Only his superior sense of balance kept him from falling flat. "My stars. Garters...."
Cassie was a vision in a form-fitting black silk negligee, her hair swept up off her neck in that casually elegant way he liked so much because of the way it exposed the extremely nuzzleable nape of her neck. Grinning, he remembered how to move, and finished kicking off his pants. She returned a seductive version of his smile, and slowly pivoted so he could take in the full effect of her outfit. Her back was entirely bare--some interesting engineering had gone into that dress design--and the brief skirt flared out just enough to give her some freedom of movement. The garters he had first noted were black lace, holding up sheer black stockings while showing an attractive expanse of creamy thigh. The finishing touch was a pair of little black high heels with rhinestone trim that matched the silk shift's glittering shoulder straps.
"Now that's what I call wrapping a gift," he said in reverent tones as he crossed the room.
"The dress and all is a present for you, from Jean and Storm and Betsy and Rogue," Cassie explained somewhat breathlessly.
"Remind me to thank them most effusively...later," he said, running both hands down her sides until one rested on each hip, circling her waist. It didn't occur to him, just at the moment, to wonder what had prompted such a present, and Cassie didn't say, being too busy encouraging his attention to the matter at hand.
"Cassiopeia was a queen, but she couldn't have been more beautiful than you," Hank murmured in Cassie's ear. "Even the stars of that constellation dim in comparison."
"This MUST be a great dress," Cassie sighed, then giggled at Hank's snort. "I AM glad you like it."
"Oh, I like it, no doubt about that." A sudden whim, the desire to see Cassie in her ebony splendor spread out on his white satin bedcovers, made him scoop her up and carry her there. When he stepped back to admire the effect, she seemed to understand what was on his mind, and tried out an artful pose or two. "Never a camera around when you need one," he commented.
"Well," she said, looking dubious and yet apologetic, "actually I'm not that into cameras."
She had that remembering look again, and Hank hastened to retract the idea. "Not a problem." He came to sit on the edge of the bed, and stroked his hand up her leg, letting it come to rest on her thigh. "I anticipate us having many memorable nights together--but I am quite sure I'll always remember this one particularly well...." Her languorous smile returned, and she delicately tickled him in the ribs with the toe of her shoe, but didn't resist when he removed the item from her foot. "Too bad we don't have any champagne I could sip from your slipper."
She tilted her head in that considering mode. "I guess you COULD," she said doubtfully. "It's a NEW shoe--but wouldn't it still taste pretty funny?"
Hank burst into laughter, and kissed her to quiet himself. "I love your bizarrely practical streak, my dear," he told her. Then, gazing down at her face framed between his hands, he added with quiet sincerity, "I love everything about you. I love you, Cassie Cantrell."
A sheen came into her eyes, which she hastily blinked away. "I love you too, Hank." She laced her fingers through his hair and urged him closer, murmuring, "I've never loved anyone as much as I love you!"
Mere words could say no more, so everything else they shared with each other that night was generated in body heat, then whispered soul to soul.
Continued in Part 29.