Hey, there, remember me? Susan the Neon Nurse? Oh....
"Crisis? So what? We're the X-men--we THRIVE on crisis!"
"Very funny, Scott." Although her expression did not change, Jean's cool tone made the outwardly mild words a rebuke.
Any fool could plainly see that major irritation control was in progress with this month's X-chatelaine. Despite that, Bobby fearlessly rushed in. "Scott made a joke? Catch me, I'm gonna faint!" Then he grasped the seat of his chair with both hands, laughing, as Jean gave it an impatient telekinetic shake.
"Can you at least be serious until we get our plans finalized?" Jean rattled her sheaf of notes and muttered, "I love Nathan dearly, but an hour and a half is NOT adequate advance notice for a non-emergency visit. Not when he's bringing his whole team, anyway."
"And when we already have the youngsters here," Scott agreed, wisely abandoning his mild attempt to soothe Jean with humor. He of all people knew that making sure things ran perfectly when it was her turn to oversee the X-mansion's household needs was a particular point of pride with her. Made her touchy.
"Can't get away from those darn holiday crowds ANYwhere these days," Bobby observed. It would take a great deal more than an annoyed Jean to make HIM give up his trademarked wisecracks, even temporarily.
"Look, if they don't like the room assignments, too bad, but they'll live," Scott said. "They can always scout out a Motel 6 and start their vacation a night early, if they REALLY object."
"That's true." Jean decisively yanked the top paper off her stack and smacked it down on the table top. "Next problem--dinner."
Bishop, whose turn it was to prepare the evening meal, had been waiting for some time to voice his objections. "I am always willing to do my part. But cooking for 40 requires more preparation time than we have--unless we all dine on something simple? I believe we have enough canned beans and hot dogs--"
"No," Jean said hurriedly, almost but not quite hiding a delicate shudder. "I'm sure we can think of SOMETHING else."
"You know, even with all the extra leaves added to the table it's going to be close quarters at dinner," Scott remarked, frowning at the mental image of barely controlled dining chaos, with three different teams squeezed in elbow to jostling elbow.
"We could call for the banquet room at Pizza Hut," Bobby suggested. "Order two of everything to start, and take it from there."
Jean started to remonstrate with him, out of habit, then stopped to actually consider his suggestion. "Take-out food might be a good option, actually," she conceded. "But...why don't we get more of a variety, and then have an informal buffet in the big rec room?"
"Good idea!" Scott said, and Bishop nodded as well. "It's been quite a while since this many of us have been able to get together when there wasn't a crisis--good opportunity to mingle and chat."
The wide smile that began to spread across Jean's face was contagious, as it signaled to the rest of the impromptu social committee they were going to get early release for good behavior. "That will take care of entertainment, too--people can go or stay as they like, but we will have at least provided SOMETHING everyone can do and enjoy."
"Would it be...appropriate to place an order with the Verdant Dragon?" Bishop inquired with uncharacteristic diffidence. He had developed a strong partiality to Chinese food--so exotically different from anything he'd ever eaten in his time--and had even been caught watching PBS shows that taught its preparation. Yet somehow he still seemed to believe his fascination with that cuisine was a secret from his teammates.
"Yes, that would be fine, Bishop."
"Especially those little eggrolls," Scott suggested. "And extra hot oil sauce." Scott held the team record for number eaten in a row without taking a drink of ice water.
"I'll do the pizza run," Bobby volunteered, knowing that was the best way to ensure a good selection of the toppings he favored.
"No more than two Super Supremes," Jean said automatically.
Hank rattled out his final notes on the Generation X students in a flurry of rapid-fire keyboard strokes, then rose with a sigh of relief. Since he was alone, he headed for the elevator using his efficient brachiating lope. Not that anyone around the mansion thought twice about seeing Hank use his legs AND arms to get around; it was just too fast a pace for most others to comfortably maintain.
Amazing how quickly a routine day could turn to a grueling exercise in self-discipline. Hank had had to exert himself to chat his way through the last few medical exams, when he would have preferred to silently rush through as quickly as accuracy would allow. Not that he was angry at any of the students--but the incident in the Danger Room had upset Cassie tremendously. He couldn't help but fret when his duty kept him from her side when she needed his comfort.
Professionalism had also required he stay the extra hour to type in his observations, rather than leaving them for the next day. But at last the task was done, and he was free to go to her. If she's still upset, Hank thought as he left the elevator and headed towards their room, I'll take her out for a private dinner somewhere. Quite likely she would be grateful not to have to face everyone tonight.
But as Hank opened the door, he was astonished to hear Cassie saying with eager animation, "--friend of mine has a son with fairly severe dyslexia. She's been very involved in his education plans. I bet I can get some good pointers from her on what's helped him learn best." That first surprise turned to amazement at the sight of Emma nodding approval of Cassie's idea. Sean was present as well, looking right at home in Hank's personal easy chair.
Hank cleared his throat, since none of the three present seemed to have noticed that he'd walked in. "Hank!" Cassie cried happily, and bounced to her feet, as elated as if she'd parted from him weeks ago, instead of a few hours. He wondered if the invisible skip he could see in Cassie's walk as she crossed the room to greet him with a hug and kiss was evident to anyone else but him. Emma was certainly looking amused over SOMEthing. It still gave his spirits a much needed lift, and helped him smile with more realistic welcome upon the unexpected visitors, though they were the last two people in the state he would have expected to find in private conference with Cassie.
"All through with the check-ups, then?" Sean asked Hank heartily, rising up from the oversized chair he must suspect belonged to the room's larger occupant.
"Your students are as healthy as a herd of adolescent equines," Hank assured them as he hugged Cassie lightly to his side.
"Excellent," Emma said, rising herself. "Cassie, perhaps we can finish going over the student roster after dinner?" She broadcast the impression of not quite seeing Hank, making it plain she hadn't yet forgiven him for his outburst at two of her proteges earlier that day.
"Or at least sometime before we head for home," Sean amended smoothly, following his habitual pattern of attempting to lighten the impact of Emma's authoritarian ways.
"That's fine with me. I'm always around here somewhere," Cassie replied, as the visitors made their way to the door.
Once goodbyes were said and they were alone, Cassie greeted Hank more physically. He was surprised but pleased to find he could detect no trace of distress lingering from the afternoon's debacle, when Paige and Jubilee had unwittingly induced a panic attack in her by subjecting her to a Danger Room sequence. He therefore judged it safe to say, "If you care to divulge the secret, I suspect there would be quite a market for your astounding ability to induce Emma to eat out of your hand on such short acquaintance."
Cassie laughed, as he'd intended, and leaned back with her hands gripped around his waist, like a giddy child swinging herself on the trunk of a tree. "I have to admit, she kind of put me off when I first met her. But once you get to know her, she's nice."
Hank snorted. "You have just earned a place in history as the first person to ever define our Miss Frost as 'nice'." He considered, then dismissed, any idea of telling tales out of school concerning Emma's past at this point in time. Not while things were unexpectedly going smoothly between the two women.
"Well, nice in her own way," Cassie amended, trying to be fair and yet honest.
"So...you're proceeding with the composition class, I take it?" Cassie had filled him in on the professor's idea, and everyone's reaction to it, just before lunchtime. He had feared the unfortunate incident in the Danger Room might have derailed what seemed to him an excellent plan to help Cassie gain acceptance and respect.
"Oh, yes. Sean and Emma and I were talking about details when you came in." Cassie paused, clearly considering something, then gave him a quick squeeze before stepping out of his light embrace. Looking back over her shoulder to maintain connection through eye contact, she moved to the desk and picked up a sheet of paper. "We did have that group meeting, with the kids? And I gave everyone...this."
Hank glanced at the paper she placed in his hands, and managed to limit his reaction to a faint twitch as he saw what it was about. Cassie was eyeing him anxiously now, and he bent his head quickly to read the words, realizing only as he did so that it was also a way to evade her gaze.
Despite the fact that he already had some knowledge of the event it detailed, useless adrenalin surged through him, making his fur rise as though the villain in her scenario was physically present and available for combat. Reading about Cassie's trauma somehow rocked him in a way that hearing about it had not. She had outlined the event in a low key yet compelling style that dragged the reader into her reality. Too, there were details here he hadn't known, things she hadn't shared with him in her explanation of her phobic reactions, and that upset him further. What else was she keeping to herself... keeping from him?
He could not continue reading long with her watching him. With some difficulty, because he felt strangely compelled to give this document minute study, Hank lowered the paper. "I...would think everyone understands now, concerning the incident in the Danger Room."
"I hope so." He'd said the right thing; her face cleared and she relaxed noticeably. "That's why I wrote it."
"I thought you were joking about doing that," he explained, not quite sure why he felt faintly disturbed about it. True, his style of coping with unpleasant truth was to somehow make a joke of it, use humor to diffuse difficult situations. This restrained but carefully detailed discussion of a personal horror was quite possibly beyond the range of his psychological abilities. But was that the only reason this troubled him?
"I thought I was too." Cassie combed her fingers up through her hair as she sought just the right phrase, and the familiar gesture caught at Hank's heart, an instant of familiarity in this alien territory. "But all of a sudden it seemed like the only way to...to let people know I'm not NATURALLY a psycho."
"Of course you aren't," Hank murmured. Had she been fearing the others thought so?
"Well, anyway, the cat's out of the bag now." She sat down on the edge of the armchair, hands crossed over her knees. "And...I'm glad." Her tone as she said these last two words held an edge of wonder.
"If you're glad, then so am I," Hank averred instantly.
"I guess I've just been dreading having to explain--and now...it's like finally going to the dentist or something, you know? After you've put it off and off and off? And then once you go, it wasn't so bad, and you feel like a goof for being such a baby?"
"Are you going to tell the others, or merely pass out a few more copies?" Too late, he worried she might hear unintended sarcasm in his choice of words.
"I don't know." Even considering there were still some individuals remaining uninformed didn't shift her paradoxical light-hearted look. "See, if I DO decide to just talk to everyone else, I have this now as a...conversational opener?"
A chime sounded in the room, signalling an incoming intercom message. "Yes?" Hank spoke, strangely glad to have this peculiar conversation interrupted.
"Hank, we've got a change in dinner plans," came Jean's voice. "Nathan is coming, with X-Force. So we've set dinner back to seven, and we'll be eating in the large recreation room downstairs, buffet style."
"Do you need any help with anything, Jean?" Cassie asked immediately.
"Thanks, but no. We've made calls for take-out food, and we've got drivers all set to go pick up the orders. Just come on down about seven. Casual dress."
"Thanks, Jean," Cassie said, Hank echoing her.
As Jean signed off, Cassie moved to the closet, already chewing lightly on her upper lip. "Less than an hour--oh, great! Well, let's see what's not in the wash."
"But...Jean just said...." Hank said, baffled by the intent, not QUITE worried look that had come over Cassie's face.
"Casual means something different for us female types," Cassie half- laughed. "Not that you don't spruce up--it's just not supposed to SHOW." She started rummaging through her side of the closet as Hank shook his head, mystified anew that an entire separate culture had apparently existed under his nose all his life, and he'd never noticed. Cassie shifted the garments on hangers as rapidly as Gambit shuffled cards, pausing only to briefly consider possible candidates. "Maybe the horse shirt? No, that's a little TOO nice, plus I wore it to go out in already."
"That made it lose its amateur standing?" Hank tried to joke.
"Kind of like that," she said agreeably, tossing him a friendly glance that also said 'there's no way to explain it to you'. "You don't have to worry--you always look nice."
Hank opened his mouth to reply with joking thanks, then shut it as realization struck. "Wait, I think I grasp your point about the requirements for 'casual dress'." Cassie politely paused her search to give him her full attention. "I do it myself--make an effort to procure garments that bespeak sartorial sophistication, but in an understated way. There is a certain line, past which one's hidden purposes would become obvious." He felt absurdly pleased with himself for reasoning this out.
"Purposes?" Cassie's acknowledging smile shifted a moment as her attention tried to escape back to her own apparel problem.
Was this fit of honesty being propelled by HER revelations? "I've always agreed with the saying about the best defense being a good offense, although I tend to use humor rather than more overt forms of aggression. Humor and...pretense. Acting as though everything is just fine and dandy." He could tell she was not following this at all. "By appearing in public in fashions appropriate to a young...well, relatively young professional fellow, I am silently stating that I am...unbowed by the physical appearance my mutancy conferred on me. That an individual of SOME urbanity lurks beneath the bestial exterior."
Hank smiled, but it faltered when he realized Cassie was clearly trying to hide her dismay. "But--but, Hank. I LIKE the way you look!"
He laughed dismissively, squelching his initial reaction of irritation--or something darker?--at her statement. "I suppose that's why they say love is blind."
"Hank!" Now she looked quite shocked, and he could not fathom why. How on earth had they gotten onto this subject anyway? The last thing he would have chosen to do was upset her further, when he knew she'd had a traumatic day. With apology in mind, he moved to take her in his arms.
She let him pull her close, but turned sideways within his embrace so she could grasp his hand, and then stroke his forearm. "I don't see why it's strange for me to like your fur," she murmured, soothingly but with a note of concern. "It's a lovely shade of blue, and a wonderful combination of textures." She looked up at him with earnest entreaty, silently urging him to understand her. "Very aesthetically appealing."
"Aesthetics are in the mind of the beholder." Something very strange about this conversation--had they really never had it before? Or had he been in such a daze of hope and wonder the first few days after they met that he didn't remember? "And there is more to my, ah, unique appearance than the fur."
"Well, yes, I suppose so."
'Just drop it', Hank ordered himself. Yet, perversely, he essayed a mild theoretical provocation. "If it were suddenly magically possible to choose--which would you prefer, this body, or my original one?"
Cassie only hesitated a moment. "Whichever one would make you happy."
"You're evading the point, my dear. The idea--" yes, what on earth WAS the idea? What was he doing grilling her like this, even in a supposedly lighthearted way? "--was for me to learn YOUR preference."
"Welll...." She obviously didn't want to say, didn't want to hurt his feelings, and he mentally kicked himself for starting the whole mess. "The thing is, without your fur and all, we wouldn't have met. So I guess I'd be sort of sentimentally attached to this version."
This shocked him. "You wouldn't have helped a normal-looking stranger?"
"Oh, yes, probably, but...if just an ordinary guy had pulled into that parking space, I don't think I'd have given him a second look-- probably not even a long first one. I wouldn't have NOTICED he needed a quarter for the meter, see?"
He'd forgotten, for a moment, about Cassie's phobia. No, she wouldn't have surreptitiously watched a strange man, or spoken to one, or gone to dinner...but a quasi-human substitute had been acceptable to her. "It was my unusual appearance that caught your attention; I can understand that...." But to cling to that preference now--was that HEALTHY? Hank wondered for the first time if their relationship was as solidly grounded as he had so far believed.
"Sort of--I recognized you from TV. But...I DID like the way you looked. Look." Cassie was sensing a potentially serious problem, and at last becoming genuinely worried. "I kind of assume you thought I was reasonably attractive as well?" she prodded, trying to match his former light tones.
This made him smile, despite his distress. "Yes, I do recall thinking something along those lines."
"Well, then, it's the same thing, isn't it?"
"I suppose." Hank forced a laugh, and this time succeeded in backing off the subject. It WASN'T the same, but he could see no point in making an issue of it. "And I fear I am distracting you from your task."
Cassie hesitated long enough to give him a searching look, then silently agreed to the change of subject. With a quick kiss, she turned away from him and back to the closet. "It shouldn't take me MUCH longer," she promised.
True to her words, Cassie made her final decision within five minutes, a top cut like a t-shirt, but made of crimson silk. She laid it out on the bed, and Hank said, "Well, half-way there!" in encouraging tones. But she turned out to have already made up her mind about the rest of her outfit--fairly new but otherwise unremarkable denim jeans, which she pulled on in front of the full-length mirror of the closet door. They were cut western-style, the fit too crisp and snug to be currently fashionable, but Hank was not at all inclined to complain.
After she buttoned them, Cassie stuck her thumb in the waistband, looking faintly perturbed. She turned from side to side, examining her silhouette in the mirror, and Hank braced himself for the question every man dreads from his mate. But, amazingly enough, she seemed to decide on her own that she hadn't mysteriously ballooned overnight into a candidate for Weight Watchers' Emergency 911 plan, and he heaved a silent sigh of relief.
There was a tense moment when she could not find the suede half-boots that matched her jeans. But Hank discovered that the box in which they'd come from Colorado in had merely tumbled to his side of the closet. He accepted his hero's award--multiple quick kisses--with enthusiasm, then followed Cassie into the bathroom, to sit and chat companionably while she began the final stage of preparation, hair and makeup. He wondered in passing how long it would take to achieve the elusive 'didn't do a thing' look.
"Hank," Cassie said as she began to wield a curling iron, rolling here and straightening there. "Do you suppose someone has told Joseph about the change in dinner plans?"
"Mmm, good question." Hank did a quick mental tally over who would be present downstairs and how much potential trouble there might be. No doubt everyone would already have been briefed about their visitor, so there ought not to be any unpleasant surprises.... But if he was already avoiding the X-men, would he not feel even more inclined to keep away from a whole mutant horde?
Their minds are running in the same track on this one. "He might not WANT to come down, but it's nice to be asked," Cassie observed gently, using the mirror's reflection to meet Hank's eyes.
Speaking as a fellow outsider, Hank assumed. However, she WAS right. "Yes, we should go mention the matter to him. The decision will then be his, to come down and join us, or take advantage of everyone's absence to go and raid the refrigerator."
Cassie's reflection smiled warmly at him. With a few quick motions she spritzed something that smelled like apples, alcohol and mystery solvents on her hair, and shook her head back and forth several times. Hank then watched in wonder as what seemed like random strokes of her brush turned taut, stress-shined crimps of hair into silken locks. Waving here, curling there, it made Cassie look like a golden fairytale princess. But a casual one.
"I'm all ready," she laughed, reacting to his bemused expression. "Let's go."
Squelching his doubts, Hank led the way down the hushed, elegantly panelled hall towards the guest room where Joseph was quartered. Cassie slipped her arm through his and squeezed it, favoring him with a warm look of approval.
'Strange', Hank mused to himself, while returning Cassie's gesture with a mimed bow and a courtly smile. 'A mere phantasm of photons sends her into a full-fledged panic. But someone who was once a threat to the human race second only to the proliferation of nuclear weaponry--HIM, she can serenely invite to dinner!' Ah well, her sympathetic heart was one of the things he loved best about her. He dismissed his mild mental criticism with an invisible shrug as they proceeded with her plan.
Joseph sat at a small desk before the window in his room, staring out at the neatly groomed landscape, seeing none of it. His long fingers toyed with the corner of the stack of reports Xavier had given him several days before, riffling the edges of the damning evidence of his deadly personality. Not that he needed physical touch to keep it in his mind. Deeds of a past he could not recall nevertheless burned in his dreams, his every waking thought.
He'd tried to find emotions, ANY emotions, left within him that could be tied to that cold list of the events of his life, but sifting through his mind for them was like grappling with fog. And that colorless non-feeling was now creeping steadily into THIS life, like grey water seeping in to slowly engulf him in nothingness.
He had so boldly told Xavier he would be back with questions, as soon as he read the unwieldy pile of printed out reports. But his initial indignation over learning the truth behind his amnesia had quickly given way to sick, numb horror. Horror shared with chilling evenness between what HE had once done and what had been done TO him, in a world even colder and madder than he had come to believe this one to be.
A blank sheet of paper on the desk mocked him, a reminder of his attempt to apply himself to the task of writing up his promised list of questions. The only one he could formulate was...why? Why let him live, when he was such a clear and present danger? Witness how he had ALREADY begun to consider ways to organize a fight against the humans--at least some of the humans--for the protection of mutants. It was excruciatingly clear that, if he lived, history was at very serious risk of repeating itself.
A knock on the door interrupted Joseph's dreary reveries, and his mindless stomach reacted with a growl to the imminence of food. Ironic how, despite his doubts about continuing his existence, his still-depleted physical body was ready and extremely willing to carry on the task of rebuilding itself.
Reaching out with his powers, Joseph turned the knob and opened the door, rising to walk towards it as he did so. He reminded himself to be courteous to whoever was bearing his dinner tray. So far he had been treated with tense but meticulous propriety, and it behooved him to reflect those civilities.
Seeing Hank and Cassie in the door, without the expected dinner tray, was a mild shock that lifted the greyness for a moment. Visitors were so outside his thoughts right now it was almost an alien concept. Adding to his temporary discomfiture was the startling crimson of Cassie's shirt, a shout of color in the blandly decorated room. Joseph wondered a moment, in passing, if the tan, cream and grey surroundings could somehow be contributing to his low state of mind.
Although her blue-furred lover looked noncommittal, Cassie was smiling as though she were genuinely glad to see him. Joseph found he could not help smiling back, as one did almost automatically in response to a puppy, or a child. After a pause where she seemed to be waiting for Hank McCoy to speak, Cassie ventured, "There's been a change in dinner plans for tonight. We thought you would want to know."
She cued her companion with a look, and Hank elaborated, "We have two other teams visiting, and dining room space is thus at a premium. So we are all gathering in a larger room downstairs for an informal buffet. The food should be arriving momentarily, I believe."
Joseph said nothing, waiting for a more definite statement on how this was expected to affect him. Cassie obliged by adding, "You're welcome to join us."
"Am I?" He was quite certain she was wrong. Cassie blinked, then looked to Hank again. Is he the source of ALL your life's answers, liebschen? Joseph wondered, his grim melancholy surging back.
Hank answered blandly, "I rather think so." He had already considered the possibilities of various encounters, and didn't think any of the potentials were TOO dreadful. "On the whole, we tend towards 'forgive and forget' as operational policy."
Cassie looked from one reserved countenance to the other, biting her lower lip, then turned to Joseph. "You know, I've found--in fact I've rediscovered today--that when you have to deal with...something, and other people are involved, sometimes it's better just to get it all over with at once. Do it all in a batch, if you see what I mean?" Joseph merely continued to gaze at her with an expression of mild inquiry, as if waiting patiently for her to say something that made sense. "Especially if you know you have at least a couple of people ready to...be supportive?" It occurred to her belatedly that perhaps she was making the most AMAZING fool of herself....
Watching this exchange, Hank abruptly identified the uncomfortable sensation he had been trying to repress ever since Cassie made her suggestion. Seeing Cassie reaching out to others...at least, THIS other, who was known to have an exceedingly charismatic personality, and must be admitted to be a handsome specimen.... This unworthy emotion he was experiencing was plain old jealousy.
Sensing things were not going as she had hoped, Cassie broke into the growing silence again. "If you really would rather not, it's okay. We're not trying to be pushy." Another glance at Hank, who just smiled, a little more thinly than before, Joseph thought. "But it's going to get boring, staying up here forever," she finished, a little lamely.
"Should you prefer to dine privately," the 'again' that Hank left unsaid nevertheless hung in the air, "there ought to be little activity in the kitchen, once we are all gathered downstairs." He tried for some normalizing levity. "The quality of leftovers available for grazing upon is generally quite high--I know because I myself partake, after late hours in the lab, on a sadly regular basis."
One thing Joseph had learned about himself was that he had a dislike of being manipulated by those whose motives he did not know. His mind suddenly made itself up. "I believe I will join the group for the evening meal."
"Oh, good!" exclaimed Cassie, all but clapping her hands.
Joseph nearly smiled again. She might be misguided, and was certainly naive. But her innocent concern was patently genuine; he hoped this dinner party would not disabuse her of her kind notions about his welcome. Very odd, feeling such a mundane concern...actually FEELING it. "I will join you shortly."
"Just take the elevator down one floor past the ground level," Hank advised. With a nod from Joseph, the door closed, not QUITE in his face.
Preparing to follow Hank's own advice, the couple walked back down the way they had come, towards the elevator. "Do you think he'll really come?" Cassie asked, after they had traveled a discreet distance.
"Probably," Hank replied, annoyed with himself for sifting Cassie's words for hidden clues to possible secret intentions. "But you did your best, my dear. The rest is up to him."
"I guess." They paused before the elevator and Hank firmly pushed the button. "But somehow...it doesn't feel that simple...."
"Cassie, it's only dinner, not his last chance for earthly happiness." Hank made sure to say this with a fond smile, and Cassie smiled back at him, though she still looked faintly dubious. "Charles will probably thank you if he DOES come down, but I imagine he had his own plans for luring him out soon."
"They did used to be friends, didn't they?" At this thought, the last trace of worry left Cassie's face.
"Very good friends," he assured her, now on solid ground. "Speaking of friends--" The elevator car arrived and they stepped inside. "--let us hurry downstairs to meet ours."
To be continued.