Neon Hearts
Author's Notes
The Ticket
Talking to strangers
Inching up to the brink
Falling in slow motion
At Silver's
Specters of the Past
The Morning After
Public appearances
First impressions
Dangerous dreams
Picking winners
Hank's bad day
Happy landings
Meeting the folks
Beware of the cat
Plans and possibilities
Taking chances
Room service and...
The road less traveled by
Shadows in the starlight
Grand Lake
Life in the breakdown lane
Family matters
Homeward bound
Simple gifts
Girl talk
Comforts of home
Open secrets
Good intentions
Every stop is a place to start
Whispers out of the past
Judgement calls
Crosscurrents & riptides
Past tensions, future trials
High spirits at Muir Island
Growing things
The best defense

This story is in progress.

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Part 3--Inching Up to the Brink

The unusual couple strolled in the late May afternoon sun, oblivious to the occasional glances from passersby hurrying on collegiate business or ambling in personal enjoyment of the fair weather. "Oops, sorry again!" Cassie said. It was the third time she had lightly bumped Hank's arm or shoulder as they walked, and he was beginning to wonder at it, just a trifle. Did he make her THAT nervous?

"I discovered this campus," he continued, "when I was invited to guest lecture here. An unusual bequest devoted to groundskeeping makes it almost a private park. I come here to walk quite often."

"What were you lecturing on?" Cassie inquired idly, as she duly admired the shrubbery.

"Oh, various esoteric aspects of biochemistry." They passed under a flowering crabapple, and an errant breeze rained petals on them. Cassie laughed and shook her head, running her fingers through her blond hair to dislodge the stubborn ones. Hank barely restrained himself from reaching out to pluck one survivor from the depths where it hid, and tuck it away in his pocket.

"Tell me, do you believe it's the basis of all human behavior?"

"Biochemistry?" He had to mentally blink to put himself back on the conversational track. She was enchanting; all the more because her question was so artless, directed for information and not effect. "Yes and no. Important, without a doubt. But I also believe in...the human spirit. Free will. Individuality." She was nodding along, eyes alight. Their hands brushed again, and suddenly Hank was certain at least subconscious purpose was acting here. "Now you tell me something, Ms. Cantrell. Do you adhere to a traditionalist view of interactions between the sexes? Or are you merely a bit shy?"

Her startled look only lasted an instant. "I suppose I some ways. Shy, I mean." He nodded, trying to maintain a serious demeanor over his glee at a correct deduction. "As for your other question... are we talking about MY work now?"

Hank crinkled his eyes. "We are talking about anything you like."

Cassie smiled back, and took him at his word. "My heroines are usually a little eccentric in some way, and certainly don't let tradition slow them down in their adventures." The smile became the least bit rueful. "I don't know if that means I'd secretly like to be that way or not."

"OUR outing today is a trifle unusual," Hank said, pretending to be pondering a weighty matter by his tone.

You don't know how right you are, thought Cassie. But aloud she said, "I'm really enjoying it...being with you."

Thus encouraged, Hank took her hand, interlacing their fingers, and the pleased look she gave him told him it was indeed the right move. "Do you have plans for this evening, or have I already monopolized too much of your time here?"

"No, no plans, unless you count watching tv in my hotel a plan." Her hand was light in his, but he thought it had the slightest tremor.

A perverse desire to tempt fate made him continue, "Were you perhaps...hoping to hear from your friend?"

Cassie looked truly puzzled at first, then seemed to grasp his meaning--perhaps several levels of meaning. "She IS my friend, but also my agent. I'll see her at another official function, and she'll drive me from there to the airport tomorrow night."

How odd--to feel a sense of loss already. "Well, then, could I persuade you to join me for an evening of dinner and dancing?"

"It depends."


"On if I brought the right clothes," she explained with great seriousness.

"Ah, but that is the beauty of being in a city like this, and having me as your guide!" he exclaimed. "No matter what your ensemble, I'll know a place where it will be appropriate!"

"Well, how can I say no to that?"

They repaired to her hotel without further delay. On the way, Cassie firmly controlled her thoughts, as she had learned to do, consciously putting fears aside 'for later', focusing instead on how much fun they were going to have. How many times had someone from the group told about just such a sudden opportunity, sometimes avoided and regretted, sometimes grasped with happy results. And yes, sometimes with poor results, but there was always a sense of having accomplished something just by trying. Now she just had to proceed one step at a time....

Back in her room, Cassie rummaged into the closet to display her various outfits for Hank's discerning eye. She held out two solid colored blouses, one red and one green, and some beige slacks, then a plain grey skirt. "Not very fancy, I'm afraid." Hank silently agreed, and began to scale down his ideas for their evening on the town. "Although I do have this. It's for the party tomorrow, but I COULD wear it tonight, too."

It looked like a shapeless mass of black cloth on the hanger, but Hank knew just enough about the mysteries of female garments that he could hypothesize an entirely different effect when it surrounded an actual body. He scaled his ideas back up. "I think I know just the place.  Dinner first, though. If you ARE ready to eat again?" He had eaten lightly at lunch, and was feeling the effects of overmoderation.

Assuring him she was hungry too, and that she would hurry, Cassie gathered several cases and shut herself in the bathroom. Multiplying the number of cases by an average of 20 minutes each, Hank resigned himself to a wait, and decided to take the opportunity to check in at home.

The phone rang several times, and he when it was answered, he recognized the voice as Storm's. "Hank--I am glad you called. We had wondered what was taking such a long time at the bank."

"I'll tell you all about it tomorrow, Storm," he said, and smiled at the thought. "Just calling to say I may be late."

"As late as...tomorrow?" Her amusement and affection came clearly through the line. "Good for you--you have been working hard lately." An indistinct voice could be heard in the background. "Remy asks if he will see you out tonight?"

"Might be at Silver's later," he said, naming the site he considered their most likely destination, although part of him regretted doing so as he pictured Gambit's possible reaction to Cassie, and hers to him.  Remy wouldn't intend to poach, but he could no more not flirt than not breathe. And he seemed to have equal success with both actions.

"I will tell him. Have a good time, Hank."

Well, that had used up two minutes. Regretfully pushing aside the idea of dashing down to the hotel's coffee shop for a quick snack, Hank resolutely sought other means of passing the time. He considered and rejected the television as too mundane. Pacing towards the window, he noted a manuscript on the desk open to the middle. Cassie's name was on the top of the page in the upper right corner, and he couldn't resist a peek.

'"Okay, I SEE it," whispered Brigitte, her voice taut with excitement and panic. "Give me the fish!" Then an iron shriek pierced the dark silence of the ancient churchyard. "Oh, no, they must have followed us! Run!"

"WAIT--I dropped the fish!"

"Will you just FORGET the fish and RUN?!"'

He turned away, nonplussed. Apparently he would want to begin at the beginning, should he ever decide to read that particular tale. Catching sight of himself in the mirror, he examined his own appearance. His favorite white turtleneck was still presentable, marred only by a few stray blue hairs. A damp washcloth would fix that easily enough. He slicked back his hair with one hand, suddenly feeling unaccountably nervous. The day had gone so well in a spontaneous mode--the more traditional venue of dining and dancing suddenly seemed like a large step.

He heard the bathroom door open, and he turned to see Cassie stepping hesitantly out. For an instant, he could not help but gape, and she bit her lower lip, looking like she would dash for her slacks and blouse the next instant. But then he grinned, openly admiring the magic she had achieved, and he could see her relax as she smiled in return.

Her hair was twisted up in a casually elegant knot, and he could tell she had done something in the makeup line, although he didn't know quite what. But it was the dress that was staggeringly perfect for her--a little black dress, bare at the shoulders, and cut in a style that suggested a clownish satire of glamour. The old-fashioned word 'madcap' crossed his mind. She indeed looked like the heroine of a romantic comedy who could easily find herself unexpectedly juggling fish in a midnight graveyard.

"It's not TOO silly, is it?" Cassie asked nervously. "I got it from a shop where they...all read my books. They insisted it's a suit for my alter ego." Her faintly awkward bearing strove to assure him she knew she didn't really belong in such an elegantly comic gem of a dress.

"It's...wonderful! Words fail me, and that does not happen often, I assure you!"

Cassie blushed again, but now her eyes were sparkling. After his own quick brush-up, they departed for the parking garage, Cassie nearly chattering as they went. Perhaps she was also a bit alarmed at the precipitousness of their growing interaction. But he played along with her bright dialogue games, content for the moment to have the role of hero to her heroine in whatever story they were acting out.  He knew it was an unbroken rule for such tales to end happily, which was hope enough for him, for now.

Continued in Part 4.

"Laissez les bon temps roulez!" Gambit

More chapters of this story can be found at Ro's Treasury OR from the author, Susan Crites IF you can't access the Web.
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Disclaimer: Since I am a) inserting a new character and b) not privy to any of Marvel's editorial decisions, this story is forced to be an alternate universe. It is similar to the 'real' one when it works out, plotwise, okay? And I DO make mistakes sometimes, I know. Such is life.
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