Boy, you'd think a person without a job would get MORE writing
done, not less, wouldn't you? But you'd be wrong...at least for THIS chapter.
Perhaps will improve as I get adjusted, caught up, and all like that....
Part 32--Every Stop Is A Place To Start
The working conditions could not have been more perfect. A faint morning breeze, laden with the scent of spring greenery, drifted in the open window, making the bedroom cool and pleasant. Cassie sat before her computer in the typing chair Hank had lovingly adjusted to an ergonomically flawless setting, glaring at the screen.
"Not a single dang move here," she muttered to herself, and with two quick clicks, resigned the game. Freecell was SO tricky. Every time she started a new hand she swore she wouldn't get suckered into another no-win situation, but then more often than not she did anyway. She suspected strategy was not her strong suit. Never saw doom coming at her until way too late to avoid it.
The prompt sign appeared, asking if she wanted to replay the lost game or go for a new one, and she drummed her fingers on the back of the mouse, feeling guilty. When Hank had, in all thoughtfulness, asked her what she planned to do with her morning, she'd told him she was going to spend it at the computer, and he had nodded, satisfied. But she knew she'd given him the impression she was going to be WRITING. What she was actually doing was just fooling around while she fretted.
The nagging thought that she was going to fail Hank by not being outgoing enough would not go away. Cassie knew she wasn't misinterpreting his not-so-secret hope that she would become friends with his friends; meld neatly into their cobbled together family. She had promised herself she would try her very best to do that for him...and here she was playing dumb time-wasting games instead.
It ought to be easy to get up, leave the safety of this room she now shared with Hank, and go downstairs to socialize with whoever she might find. So far everyone seemed to accept her, even if only in terms of her relationship to Hank. Making a simple move like that would be no problem---for someone normal.
"They're all perfectly nice," she said out loud in the silent room, knowing it was quite true, knowing that wasn't really the problem.
It wasn't them, it was her--practically her mantra, she thought in self-disgust. She'd spent the last few years in comfortable solitude, just her and Cornflower, sometimes going for several days without seeing another live human being, and it had seemed NORMAL because she never questioned it, or whether she was ready to change. Now she had been thrown--no, be fair, had JUMPED--into the deep end of the human interaction pool. And, despite a few minor successes, she felt like she was floundering.
On the other hand, Cassie rationalized, just wandering down to drift around the general living area might give people the impression she was expecting to be entertained. These people were in the business of risking their lives for a world that seldom noticed, and even more rarely appreciated it, and it would be in the worst of taste to impose in any way. They deserved their personal time. The LAST thing she wanted to do was seem like a difficult guest, a poor choice for Hank to have picked as a companion. But perhaps...perhaps she could find something helpful to do, and then she wouldn't feel so out of place.
Cassie sighed and pushed the problem away for the moment. She SHOULD be working on SOMETHING. Hank might not really expect it, but Wendy certainly did! She had several good, potentially useable story ideas filed away she could be playing with, working up. The idea about twins as a tv news anchor team? Or maybe that fantasy one, with the tapestry dragon? If she wasn't spending the morning getting to know her new housemates better, she at least ought to be WORKING....
With two more clicks, Cassie drew down another Freecell game.
When she heard the door open behind her Cassie started just a little, but then a quick glance assured her it was Hank. She dug into the carpet with one toe and spun the chair so she could bounce up to greet him as warmly as he deserved. "This is a nice surprise!"
"Hope I'm not interrupting your--" Hank put his words on hold to accept and return her non-verbal welcome "--writing?" he continued, after sneaking a peek at the computer screen.
"I haven't settled on what to start on next," Cassie said, abashed. "I do this while I'm thinking."
"I see--distract your left-hemisphere functions to free up those of the right?"
"Something like that," Cassie agreed, relieved that he didn't seem to think she was just killing time. "What do you do when you're thinking?"
Hank considered this carefully. "Stare off into space, I suppose," he finally shrugged with a smile. Curiosity getting the better of him, he moved a few steps closer to examine the playing field on the screen. "Can't you move that red six to the black seven?" he pointed.
"No, it doesn't work that way." Cassie made the attempt and got the reprimand message from the game. "If it didn't have the black five on it I could. But right now there aren't enough spaces to let me."
"Oh." Dismissing that subject in favor of the one currently engaging his interest, Hank continued, "I had an idea just now for a little interactive workout session. Something where you could join in with the group."
"ME?" Cassie squeaked, revealing her instant alarm. The one team workout she'd seen had nearly scared her out of their potential relationship; she would still rather not think about the active side of Hank's career in any detail. "Like...as a rescuee or something?"
"No, something fun," he assured her. "Remember the holographic dancers Silver wanted? Nothing could be simpler to create, on our system, and they could be both guides AND adversaries. For you, I'd program plain dance aerobics. The others would have some...extra challenges added to their routines." Hank's eyes gleamed with plans that seemed to have much more to do with humor than danger. "I think you'd enjoy it--like last night?"
He means the first part, I hope, Cassie thought. Going out dancing HAD been fun, but Gambit's ill-advised attempt to talk with Rogue had had a seriously dampening effect on the evening. Hank was looking at her with such encouragement, though, that she would have agreed to a much scarier proposal than this. "What do you need me to do?"
"Just let me borrow..." He browsed her CD rack, almost dancing himself now that she'd agreed. "Ah, this will do very nicely--" He held the CD behind her back as he kissed her. "See you at lunch, my dear!"
At lunch, no one commented on Gambit's absence, which was something of a comment in itself. Even those who had not been present to witness the debacle of the night before seemed to know all about it, though they were keeping whatever opinions they held to themselves.
Once everyone was served from the elegant soup tureen that incongruously held what Logan curtly called 'camp chili', Hank spoke up. "I had an idea this morning for a new training routine, and I need some volunteers to help me fine tune it."
"After what happened the last time? Yeah, RIGHT," Bobby said with a cheerful sneer. That sounded more than a little ominous. Cassie wasn't sure whether she wanted to hear the story behind it or not.
"It's nothing like THAT," Hank assured him. "In fact, I can promise you it isn't at all dangerous--Cassie will be participating as well." He looked down at her with fond pride, and she managed to smile as if she knew exactly what was going on and wasn't the least bit apprehensive.
"CASSIE'S going to be training with us?" Scott laughed, then swiveled his head towards Jean, who was primly spooning up her chili. She had plainly said something to him mind-to-mind, because he frowned slightly before looking back at Hank to continue his protest. "No, seriously. I mean, not to be rude or anything--" he turned back to Jean again, "I SAID not meaning it rudely...."
"What exactly have you got in mind, Hank?" the professor queried, his neutral tone indicating he was at least willing to consider this odd proposal.
"At base, it's simple conditioning," Hank replied, leaning forward and gesturing with his spoon as emphasis to his enthusiastic words. "But it can be varied to suit anyone--"
"I see! We help him work out the bugs, and then he becomes a millionaire selling workout videos--"
"SOME of us'd like to hear more about this, Bobby Drake, if ya don't mind," Rogue interrupted.
"The base workout is a dance routine," Hank ignored Bobby's hoot of laughter, "where each participant follows a holographic guide. The guides will be programmed to change to attackers at random intervals."
"You're thinking this would improve reaction times, by forcing the team members to concentrate on a new and different activity so they will be less on guard?" Xavier considered this, then nodded. "I'd be interested to see what you come up with--changes in training help maintain readiness."
"You never know when you're going to be attacked on the dance floor," said the irrepressible Bobby.
"You never know when you're going to be attacked ANY time," Bishop said to him, then looked at Hank. "I'll volunteer."
"Me, too," Jean chimed in, while Bobby stared in stunned amazement at Bishop. "It sounds like fun!"
"Count me in too, then," Scott said and smiled sheepishly at yet another private comment from his wife, the details of which were guessable because of her twinkling eyes.
"Two more?" Hank said, pleased at the participation thus far.
"I believe I'll try it," Betsy said, when no one else spoke for a moment. "It DOES sound good for reflex work." She glanced a question to Warren, who merely shook his head, looking amused and superior at the very idea.
"Ah will, if no one else wants ta," Rogue said, looking around the table.
No one disputed her, or looked especially disappointed, and Hank nodded briskly. "I'll need a little time to get it set for each individual--figure on coming down mid-afternoon."
Lunch continued with comradely conversation about mundane matters, and Cassie put on a pleasant smile as she listened. Finally, Storm's general query as to whether there would be any changes in the number expected for dinner that evening gave her the opening she wanted. Once that question had been answered, she cleared her throat and said, "I've been wondering...shouldn't I get rotated into...into the chores list too?"
"Oh, certainly not," Betsy said immediately, with a friendly shake of her head. "You're a guest, dear. Enjoy it."
"Well, I do, of course," Cassie answered, both hands clutching her napkin under the table. "But I feel like I ought to be helping out."
"I didn't bring you here to be a housekeeper," Hank said, and though his tone was jovial, Cassie swung around to look at him, sensing disapproval. "You have your work."
"Oh, yes, very important--compared to what you guys do." She continued to smile as she said it, and wished vainly she could have Jean's talent for a moment--or that she'd at least had the foresight to tell Hank her plan before springing it on the group as a whole. Maybe she was inadvertently stirring up bad memories or other trouble.
"Hey, as far as I'm concerned, you can have all Hank's turns at cooking," Scott joked.
"I'd be happy to help him out when it's his turn," Cassie said meekly. "But...you and Jean each have your own, I think?"
At this point, with Cassie's discomfort and uncertainty almost palpable in the air, Xavier chose to involve himself. "I appreciate your offer to help, Cassie. No one wants to feel like a drone." He let his gaze roam the assembled X-men, saying without words the issue was settled. "Jean--you're in charge of the assignment roster this month, am I right?" Jean nodded. "Put Cassie in the rotation for meal preparation, please."
"I know I can't be on the team," Cassie said, trying to lighten the mood, "but I could at least be an auxiliary."
Now Xavier turned and gave HER that repressing look, and she swallowed hard. The silence drew out painfully, until he produced a non-committal smile and said, "Let's just take things one step at a time, shall we?"
Cassie was thankful to be allowed to return to semi-invisibility for the remainder of the meal. Afterwards, she and Hank strolled outside. "I'm sorry if I seemed unsupportive, Cassie," he apologized almost immediately, once they were alone. They headed for an arbor swing that offered a shady place to sit and talk. "I...wasn't as prepared to share you with the team as I thought, I suppose."
"I should have told you I was going to ask," Cassie said, feeling wholly at fault for the misunderstanding. "I know I can't be with you all the time--but I feel funny downstairs alone, and...I thought having something official to do would help."
"An extremely wise idea which I ought to have thought of myself," Hank replied, seating himself on the swing, which barely creaked--it had been built with him and a few others of hefty build in mind. Cassie joined him, and drew her knees up so she could cuddle against his shoulder. "But once you begin, you will probably be urged to put yourself forward as a substitute cook on a regular basis--there are a few of us who...well, let's just say cooking is NOT their mutant power. And I don't want you taken advantage of."
"No one would do that, would they?"
"Not deliberately, no. But hungry people who have been subjected to many too many culinary experiments can get desperate."
"When is it your turn?"
"Tomorrow's lunch, as it happens." Cassie gasped. "And I had not yet made any plans. You see, buying sufficient comestibles for a dozen healthy appetites requires computerized assistance. This week's order was already made up and delivered before our return the day before yesterday. So I would have had to venture out to the supermarket in Salem Center this evening anyway. Give your debut menu some thought, and we'll procure the needed ingredients together."
"Okay, that sounds like a plan," Cassie replied, soothed by the idea of doing something calm and normal, like grocery shopping, with Hank. "This is a nice spot," she continued.
"It will be even nicer when the wisteria is in full bloom later in the summer," Hank told her. "But for now it's shady..."
"AND private," Cassie continued. It took minimal effort for her to switch positions from by Hank's side to on his lap, and they used the rest of Hank's lunch break wisely.
On his way back to working up the new program, Hank left Cassie in the kitchen, at her request. If she was going to be cooking, she wanted to spend some time exploring it in solitary peace. She began by methodically opening what seemed like endless cupboards. Spices and sundries ought not to be a problem--there appeared to be a bottle or packet or box of every food preparation aid she'd ever seen or heard of, and quite a few she hadn't. Many of the packages were imports--some printed solely in languages--even alphabets--she did not recognize. And there were roughly one million different mixing bowls and related kitchen oddments....
She was down on her hands and knees, peering into the recesses of a lower cupboard when someone spoke. "Lose somethin'?" Startled, she jumped and hit the back of her head against the cupboard doorframe. With an indrawn hiss of pain, she clapped her hand against the hurt spot as she spun around to a crouch, ready to leap and run for safety.
The man named Logan was staring at her, chewing his unlit cigar end, as calm as if he saw similar events a dozen times a week. "You okay?"
She relaxed and slumped to her knees, still rubbing at the sore place. "Yes, thank you." Was she EVER going to stop jumping ten feet at the slightest surprise? "I bump my head a lot. Kind of a hobby." Cassie realized she was blathering, but she hoped he would accept it as her way of making conversation in such an awkward situation.
A tiny snort and faint lip movement was his only response. "Maybe that explains why ya like Beast."
Cassie's smile became perfunctory. She knew Hank mostly enjoyed his friends' teasing. But SHE didn't have to like people joking that there was something odd about her admiring him. She rose to her feet and waited.
Logan noted her expression and gave her a tentative point of approval in his mind. A good sign, that she didn't join in with his mild disparagement of her lover. Sometimes the quiet ones surprised you. "What were ya lookin' for?" was all he said.
"Skillets, with lids," Cassie told him, silently agreeing to start their conversation over. "I'm trying to decide what to cook tomorrow." On impulse, she asked, "Do you think people would like fried chicken? Or chicken fried steak? Or do you all not eat fried things much?"
A spark of genuine interest appeared in Logan's eyes. "Are we talkin' old-fashioned home cookin' here? Meat an' potatas?"
"Maybe a little pan gravy?" Cassie suggested with shy hope, because suddenly something in Logan's expression reminded her just a little bit of her beloved cousin Vic.
For answer, Logan moved to a door on the far wall, opened it, and gestured for her to come closer as he stepped in. "Will these work for ya?" The mini-pantry was well equipped with a vast array of pots and pans, including a nicely arranged set of big cast-iron skillets.
"Do you think that would be okay?" she repeated. "Hank likes about everything, but I don't want to make something no one else wants to eat. I don't know very much about fancy cooking, you see; my Mom just taught me regular country stuff...."
Wolverine sighed happily inside at the idea of someone else willing to cook good, plain food and plenty of it. "It'll be fine. When people don' like what's on the menu, they just fend for themselves, but it's no big deal." He thought a moment. "I think ya might consider makin' both--"
"Okay." She would check that with Hank, but she was quite willing to spend a morning in the kitchen if it would take Hank's friends one step closer to being hers as well. "Your chili today was good," she added, suddenly remembering who she was talking to. "Is that the sort of thing YOU like to make?"
"I like plain regular food," Logan told her. "Chili, stew...sushi."
"Really!?" Cassie's eyes grew big. "I LOVE sushi."
Now Logan was actively grinning. If Hank didn't keep this one, HE might be tempted to have a go at wooing her--wasn't every day you ran into a girl who liked fried chicken AND sushi. "One of these nights soon, I'll make it. And all the barbarians can go to McDonalds."
Cassie spent some time trying on and rejecting various work-out type outfits, and then did a little mild stretching so she would at least be physically ready for the trial run of Hank's new program. When he summoned her via the intercom, she took a firm mental grip on her nerves and headed for the elevator.
Jean and Scott were already present. Cassie was not surprised to see them in their uniforms. She had deliberately NOT put together a combo of blue and gold, not after the way her little auxiliary joke had fallen flat at lunch. Her knee length black bike shorts and white t-back body brief didn't even seem daring, next to their close-fitting suits made of some gleaming fabric that accentuated every muscle.
Then Betsy strolled in, and Cassie's jaw dropped before she could conceal her reaction. Thank goodness Betsy didn't see it--although Jean did, and had to turn around to hide her own laugh at Cassie's shock. Well, Cassie thought to herself, no doubt that's strategy or something--in a fight, it would distract at least SOME of the bad guys.' And there was also no doubt Betsy had the body to carry off the thong-style micro-suit....
Rogue and Bishop arrived together, completing the practice group. "All ready to go?" Hank's voice echoed in the large empty chamber, and Cassie looked up to the control room with the rest, although she was the only one who waved. "I'd like you in two lines of three. Scott, Rogue and Bishop--you're in front--" they instantly complied like the veterans they were "then Jean, Betsy and Cassie. Good. Now back up, back row. Very nice."
"I always suspected Hank wanted to be a choreographer," Scott joked.
"Focus, Scott, focus," Hank reprimanded his friend, and Cassie laughed at the line, one of Brain the megalomaniac lab mouse's catch phrases. Scott looked quizzically over his right shoulder and she mentally cringed in embarrassment. He must think she was laughing at HIM!
"All right. You'll each have a 'guide' in front of you. Copy their moves as best you can. If it attacks, defend yourself--a hit to a vital spot will make it resume dancing."
"Can you program that into Scott for the next time we go out?" Jean asked, winning herself an over-the-LEFT shoulder frown from her husband.
"Powers, or not?" Scott asked, trying to stick to the matter at hand, as befit his role of team leader.
"Not, at least for now. In time I can enlarge the parameters to work those in. Any more questions?"
Is there any way I can I get out of this? Cassie thought. The tension which had been building in her was peaking, making her feel as though she might throw up. She didn't fit in here, it was a bad idea--
Then the music swelled out into the room, the melodious chimes of its opening bars as familiar as home, as Hank's arms. A golden shape shimmered into being in front of her, and as it spread its arms like wings, she copied it, heart rising. Beaming up at Hank, she pressed the fingertips of her left hand to her lips and blew him a kiss, which he returned, grinning in pleasure at her appreciation.
Their group of six was now twelve; the faux dancers began to slowly sway to the smooth calypso beat. "Oh, Ah know this one," Rogue had time to murmur, and then they all began to copy their guides' movements.
Bishop, dancing in front of Cassie, picked his cues up quickly, his studious expression belying the elegant clarity of his movements. It was an astonishing display from the normally stolid man, enough to make Cassie miss a few moves watching, and have to hurry to catch up. She glanced over to Betsy, laughing at her own clumsiness, and Betsy, who was a step behind as well, managed an encouraging shrug as she fought to master this new challenge.
"...Feed it all with a willing heart,
"'I play with feeling,'" Cassie chimed in, hardly knowing she was going to, totally transported by the music and the movement. "'That's why I wander and follow la vie dansante....'"
When the first transformation of guide into attacker took place over in front of Scott, she barely flinched, and felt a rush of elation when his instant punch to its jaw made it swirl back into a guide again. This WAS fun! Like...playing a part in a movie, where the scary things were only special effects that would be gone when the credits rolled.
As the song ended, the guides slowed, then disintegrated as everyone came to a stop. It seemed impossible it could be over already. "Oh, I liked that," Jean said immediately, echoed by the rest of the female contingent. "You've got a keeper here, Hank." Turning to Scott, she said, "Don't you think so, honey?"
"It...would make a nice change, I guess," he allowed, with a side look at Bishop, who was standing impassively, arms crossed, awaiting further directions. "Does keep you on your toes." He looked up to the control booth. "But can you take that shimmy thing out of mine? I don't shimmy."
"Just don't do it, then," Hank suggested.
"But you said to follow the guides," Scott replied, perplexed at being told to obey two completely different instructions.
Hank decided against explaining that improvisation was part of the artform. "Consider it eradicated as if it had never been."
"But I kind of liked it," Jean said with a flirtatious wink, and Scott turned red at the neck of his uniform, although he winked back.
"Can we do it again?" Rogue asked. "Ah like that song."
"Thank you, I was just going to request another run through, so I can adjust some settings," Hank told them. "If you would all take the same places?"
When he judged them ready, Hank started the program again, checking his readouts in between sneaking appreciative looks at Cassie's exuberant dancing. One of your better great ideas, McCoy, he told himself, humming along with the song. His volunteers were, on this second go-round, looking very nearly professional at times, even Scott, the self-proclaimed non-dancer. He was definitely going to have to automate this so he could play too!
"'Why don't you wander and follow la vie dansante?'" he sang along, hands flying over the controls to vary the guides' attack modes.
"Ver' good question, mon ami," came a rough voice from behind him.
"Gambit," Hank said, pausing in his actions, searching for but finding nothing appropriate to say for several long seconds. "How are you feeling this m--afternoon?"
"Gon' live," was all Gambit replied. His eyes were on the dancers, one in particular. "You a lucky man, Beast."
"Yes, I know." Hank joined him in gazing down to the floor of the Danger Room, but when he turned back to speak again, Gambit was gone.
After a third run, Hank dismissed everyone, and they filed out chatting and comparing notes. "Ah don' know WHERE he GOT some a' those moves," Rogue pretended to complain.
"I don't know where he got ANY of them," Scott said. "Nobody but Hank could just sit down at the computer for a couple hours and whip something like this thing out." He shook his head in admiration. "Even after all these years, he can still surprise me."
Cassie, beaming from ear to ear at this praise of Hank, started to speak when those walking ahead stopped abruptly. Gambit had stepped into the middle of the hallway leading to the elevator. "Rogue. We got t'talk." The only evidence of his catastrophic behavior the night before was in the pallor of his face; he looked pale and grim as death.
Jean hesitated, then moved on by veering around Gambit, pulling a little on Scott's arm, a hint he reluctantly took. The others present looked back and forth between the adversaries, Bishop looking ominous, Betsy disapproving, and Cassie frankly worried. "We got nothin' t'talk about," Rogue retorted, and made as if to go past him, by force if need be.
"We do. An' we c'n do it private, or call a team meetin'; make no diff'rence t'me." Gambit crossed his arms with finality. "But we GONNA talk."
Cassie was the first to break and slink out of the battlezone to follow Jean and Scott. This promised to be an extremely awkward confrontation, which was none of her business into the bargain. Betsy and Bishop no doubt drew the same conclusions, for they followed her. The ride up in the elevator was a silent one.
Once they were alone, Rogue spat, "Speak yo' piece, then." Her angry green eyes and outthrust lower lip warned it was unlikely to have any positive effect on her.
Remy had put to good use the hours he'd spent lying in bed this morning waiting for the worst of his hangover to pass. The practiced words came forth easily. "Gotta know somet'in, gal. You playin' a game here, or you jus' not know w'at y'want?"
"Ain't playin' no games, Cajun. An' Ah know what Ah DON' want, which is you!"
"S'what y'say," Remy said, red eyes narrowing. "Fine. Din' like it in Seattle, don' like it here, but if dat's de way it be, den dat's the way it be." He waited to see if she would say anything further, then continued. "But dat mean y'got no right talkin' me down like y'been doin'."
"What's THAT s'posed t'mean?" Rogue bristled.
"Cyclops and Bishop together don' ride me like you been doin'." Gambit put his thumbs in the pockets of his slacks, giving her an even look. "You actin' like a li'l gal tryin' t'pick a fight so's she an' her beau c'n kiss an' make up."
"Ah am NOT!" Rogue declared, outraged, clenching a fist in frustration.
"Y'are. An' it gon' end, right here an' now. T'day."
"Ya cain't tell me what Ah can and cain't say," Rogue said, voice dangerously low.
"'f y'won' leave dis be, chere..." Remy took a deep breath. "'f we can' work t'gether no more...well, I got no illusions 'bout which of us more importan' to de team...."
Remy canted his head a bit at the emotion Rogue failed to remove from her voice, and smiled with one corner of his mouth, though strangely, it only made him look more tired. "All up t'you, chere. 'f y'can't handle me bein' aroun'--"
"Don' flatter y'self," Rogue snapped. "You're the one cain't take a little...." Gambit arched an eyebrow and she fell silent for an instant. "Ah c'n handle anythin' you can dish out, Cajun."
"Jus' keep ever't'ing...profess'nal, dat's all," he said in even tones. "Nothin' but team business. Soun' fair?"
"Jus' team business," Rogue agreed through clenched teeth. "Y'done?"
"Oui, looks like we done," Gambit replied, the faintest of sighs finishing off his words. And with a nod, he turned away and left Rogue standing alone. The hall echoed his slow footsteps, the sound hollow and forlorn. Each assumed the other had won, because they felt their own loss so keenly. Both were wrong.
Continued in Part 33.
Footnote: For all of you who are neither French speakers nor Parrotheads (and if you have to ask what a Parrothead is, you most likely aren't one. :) ), *la vie dansante* = 'the dancing life'.