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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Stars and Garters

I hope I haven't spoiled those of you reading this with the relative frequency with which I post chapters, because that's going to change for a bit. The short version of the excuse is this: I have a partially completed DS9 story, which was promised to a good friend for a certain zine, but in limbo while waiting for a. the mood to hit me to finish it, or b. the mood to hit the other person who had promised a particular story for this particular zine.... Well, guess what? B happened, and now I have to cough up this other story!
If it doesn't make my brain explode, I may be able to work on both at once. We'll see. In the meantime, at least you have Part 10 to read....
The Marvel characters herein are not mine; I know that. So do you. So does a first year law student, for cryin' out loud...what is the point of these things, anyhow?

Part 10--Dangerous Dreams

<Here is your scenario> each X-man on the floor heard, as the bare room around them changed to a city street near dusk, cacophonous with rescue sirens on the roll, the squawking of radio conversations, and the unsteady rumble of far too many angry people calling out in unintelligible shouts. <There are hostages at risk in the building before you. Get them out safely, if you can.>

Upstairs, Cassie too heard the cryptic instructions, and drew as close as she could to the glass of the observation room. The sounds from the floor below were being piped in, but they sounded faint and far away. The insistent, pulsing flash of the emergency vehicles' lights made her think, most inappropriately, of the strobe lights at Silver's. That was a MOB roiling between the X-men and the building they were to gain access to--a seething mass of humanity at its ugliest, looking for a focus for its rage. Hank had told her these exercises were only realistic games, but this looked quite real, and quite dangerous....

The X-Men drew back half a dozen paces, assessing the scenario and forming a strategy with the speed of long practice. "What are we waiting for?" Wolverine demanded. "We can cut through those jokers like a hot knife through butter." His grin was evil as he popped his claws. "At least, I can."

"That'll look great on the Nightly News," Scott retorted, gesturing at the presence of a film crew, one minicam faithfully trained on them. "We do this with the least amount of damage possible to the crowd. Storm, see what you can do to discourage them." They fanned out, and Storm rose up, instantly surrounded by vapor swirls that became wind-lashed sheets of rain--until a staccato sound burst from the crowd, and she plummeted from the sky. Her headlong descent halted and changed to a slow drift just a meter above the mock pavement, but she lay very still when she landed.

Cassie, watching, managed not to scream only by jamming a hand in her mouth. "I thought these were just--" she gasped in shock to Xavier, who looked grim, but otherwise unmoved.

"Just games? That would be a pointless waste of time," Xavier said, without taking his intent eyes off the events unfolding below. Scott had dropped back to Storm's side; the rest of the team was advancing, in a V formation, towards the building, which could now be seen to be on fire. "But she's not really shot; it IS only a simulation."

"She...looks hurt," Cassie observed timidly.

"I am sure she does--force beams can bruise even at low settings. She should have expected someone in a crowd like that to have illegal firearms, and not made herself a target without arranging for Jean to shield her. Careless!"

Now much more alarmed for Hank's safety than before, Cassie returned to watching the fight. The lesson of Storm's mistake had not been lost on the remaining fighters; Jean stood in their midst, perfectly still, obviously concentrating fiercely on something. It must be only a partial shield, because the three active X-men, Hank, Remy and Logan, seemed able to connect physically with individuals in the crowd. Remy was at the front, swinging his staff with a vicious slicing that sang its own deadly warning--those that failed to fall back from it, or who could not because of the crush of bodies, cried out and fell before it. On both sides of him, Hank and Logan were methodically engaging with the enemy, punching some, merely shoving others back in great tangles of limbs--but they were outnumbered dozens to one! Any minute, Cassie feared, the crowd would see they could circle in and surround them. Her fingers began to ache from the intensity of her clutch on the handrail before her.

From the building before them, muted explosions and cries for help began to be heard, and smoke came seeping from the doors and windows. Cassie shuddered. What mad world view was this--could it really happen? "Why isn't anyone else DOING anything?" she demanded, whirling on Xavier, forgetting her wariness of him in her horrified despair. "Why aren't the ambulance people helping Storm? Or the police and firemen moving in?"

"Do you truly think the emergency workers would rush in to assist a fallen mutant? Mutants are the cause of the riot, in this scenario." He spoke as evenly as if he were discussing the laws of mathematics.

"Yes! Of course they would!" Their eyes locked, Cassie's frantic, Xavier's cool as he continued to manipulate the controls. "Medics aren't medics because of POLITICS! They just want to HELP people!" He seemed to not hear her, and merely returned his gaze to the imitation carnage below. Cassie drew in a deep, shaky breath. "Not everybody in the WHOLE WORLD hates you," she said in a low voice.

Xavier paused, reflecting on this. Whichever of them were more in tune with reality, what she was urging might make an interesting alteration in this engagement. They could always run the scenario another time, with other parameters. "Very well," he said, and keyed something in to his board. Cassie turned to the window, pressed close against it to watch as an ambulance at last came careening, bumping across curbs and rubble before parking at an angle that blocked the fallen Storm from the crowd. A team leapt out, and Scott, after a brief hesitation, left Storm with them, to join his compatriots.

As if the moving ambulance had dislodged the single floe impeding an ice-locked river, other emergency personnel began to mobilize in the convenient gap created by the X-men. Police in riot gear fell in to shore up the line, with the firefighters close behind, setting up hoses to begin pouring water on the building.

Perspective veered to follow the active fighters, a shift that made Cassie's head reel. She gripped the handrail hard to stay on her feet, and closed her eyes. She opened them again to a cutaway view of the building, where Hank and the other X-men continued to do desperate battle against the mob, and elapsing time, on the entrance steps.

A man holding a semi-automatic, possibly the one who had 'shot' Storm, stepped from a doorway. There was a red gleam of piercing light, and the weapon exploded in his hands, sending the assailant flying down the hall. The way now clear, the team dashed into the building, firefighters on their heels. Jean touched her hands to her head, then pointed out a direction, the second turn off the foyer they stood in. The firefighters were beginning to deploy hoses as the X-men headed to the hostages.

The wrap-up was almost anti-climactic. The one guard was easily overcome, and the coughing hostages were led to freedom through an escape hatch Scott blasted through the wall. Once this occurred, the whole scene melted away like a dream. Gambit sauntered over to assist Storm, who was getting to her feet. He rubbed her shoulders, and leaned close to whisper something that made her rueful expression break into a smile. Hank looked up, seeking his private audience, and bowed theatrically, giving Logan an irresistible chance to pick up one foot and bowl him over with a push on the seat of his trunks. Hank turned it into a graceful barrel roll and bounced back to his feet, grinning, ready for more.

Cassie slowly worked her cramped hands free from the rail, and weakly returned Hank's wave. "Are you going to be all right, Ms. Cantrell?" came a voice from behind her. She turned her face towards Professor Xavier, and was vaguely surprised to see him regarding her with what could only be called concern. Did she look like she was going to faint or something? Maybe....

"Yes, I believe so," she murmured politely. "This was just a little more...a little more than I was expecting." She looked back down at the now empty room. "It looks different, on the news."

Xavier considered this non-sequitur, and let it pass without comment. What an odd girl for Hank, who was eminently sensible beneath the clownish exterior he sometimes chose to display, to take a fancy to.

At that moment, the object of his thoughts came in the door. "Nice program, Professor," Hank said cheerfully. "Interesting--something a little different."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it, Beast," Xavier said dryly. Cassie searched Hank's face, and realized that he MEANT it, he HAD enjoyed it. She shook her head slightly, as if trying to shift things inside it, to create room for adjustments that needed to be made.

"Well, what did you think?" Hank asked, out in the corridor, as they walked towards the elevator.

"It was...scary," was all she could think of to say. Her brain seemed frozen, still clamped down the same way her hands had held onto that rail. They entered the elevator, and she took advantage of the privacy to clutch him in a tight hug.

"You were worried about me?" Hank asked, pleased but disbelieving. "I told you it was only a simulation." The elevator door opened to the hall leading to his room.

"I have too vivid an imagination," Cassie said in a small voice.

"But that's a good thing for a writer to have, isn't it?" he said, opening his door. Hank sensed something was wrong here, and he was half-afraid to continue the conversation in this vein, for fear of finding out what it was.

Cassie was slowly regaining her control, shutting the doors on unwanted images of disasters, pain and death. "Most of the time," she agreed.

"I am in serious need of a bath," Hank said, glad of a really good reason to change the subject for just a little while. "Room for two in the tub," he added hopefully.

Cassie was able to laugh jerkily at this. "There's room for twelve in that tub." A lot of hot water and Hank seemed like quite a good idea at the moment, actually. If she could just relax a bit, surely things would all shift back to normal in her worried brain.

Ever the gracious host, Hank consulted his guest on her preferences in bath salts (sage), water temperature (hot, but not hot-hot), and laid her out a towel she could have made a tent from. They entered together, while the water was still bubbling in. Hank lay back at length, with his head on a convenient cushioned ledge, and Cassie more or less floated above him, resting the back of her head on his chest.

"Mmmm," she finally said.

"I heartily concur."

After about ten minutes of silent soaking, Hank judged that Cassie was about as relaxed as she was likely to get. "Do you want to tell me what's wrong?" he said quietly.

She turned over so that she could look directly into his eyes, but spent a few moments runneling water through his hair with her fingers before she answered. "Reality. I wasn't expecting it." His brows furrowed, but he didn't interrupt. "You have to train like that so you're always ready, in real life, for something awful to happen. Something you have to go try to fix."

"A succinct and accurate assessment," he told her, trying to keep his mind on what she was saying, and off how delightful she felt pressed against him, the warm water caressing them both....

"I am going to have to decide," she told him with extreme calm, "if I am going to be able to deal with that." That brought his focus back, clear and sharp.

"It's what I do," he said involuntarily, and wondered for a crazy instant how Logan's favorite phrase had found its way into his mouth.

"I know. I know, and...I would never try to change you. But...." Suddenly Cassie was sure this was all too premature--he hadn't said anything to give her the idea this was more than a brief, pleasant encounter. "You should be with someone brave, not me." She thought of the simulation in the Danger Room again. "I wish I could be like Jean or Storm, but I'm not."

"What do they have to do with this?" Hank stroked a finger under her chin. "I haven't been trying to recruit you to the team, actually...." It wasn't much of a joke, but he was starting to feel a little desperate.

"Well, of course not," she responded, gamely trying to match his humor. "Besides the fact that I don't have any powers at all, I'm a natural born gibberer in a crisis. Not quite X-man material."

"What are you trying to tell me, then, Cassie?" He had to force the next words out. "Do you think this has all been...a mistake?"

"You should begin like you mean to go on," she said, and he half-recalled her using those same words earlier. "I would hate to...lead you on, and decide later I'm too chicken be in love with a man who could get killed fighting off a flying saucer invasion." She tried to smile, but it quivered.

"Oh, but it's VERY unlikely I'll meet my doom fighting off flying saucers," Hank reassured her, not sure himself whether to laugh or cry. "Most of the alien races we've run across are reasonably friendly."

"Don't try to joke me out of this, Hank; I mean it." He saw she did, and swallowed involuntarily. "I don't want to brush this aside, and pretend it's no big deal, and then someday...let you down." She cradled his head between her hands, her palms smoothing the damp hair at his temples. "That would be so unfair to you...."

He considered reminding her how much better 'twas supposed to be to have loved and lost, and decided that would be a very bad idea. "I deeply appreciate your concern and your honesty," he told her solemnly. "But there are other factors you must consider."

"What's that?"

"One, I feel there is a chance you are underestimating your capacity for courage," he smiled, "and two, you are once again deciding FOR me what is too much to ask of me."

"Oh." A faint line came between her eyes as she considered this. "Do you...really think so?"

"I do." Now he cupped a handful of warm water and poured it over her back. "May we consider all these concerns duly noted, for the time being, and return to our...bathing?"

"They ARE duly noted?" she persisted, anxiety still creasing that lovely brow.

"Yes, ma'am, they are indeed. We can get it notarized later, if you like." He had found the soap, and began to slowly lather her back and shoulders, then her neck. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, Hank was very glad to see that the worry there had been replaced by a much warmer emotion.

Continued in Part 11.

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." M. Ghandi

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.
There is also a mailing list for people who want to get new chapters ASAP. Be warned--you sometimes get odd extra mailings as well, when the spirit moves me....
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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