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

Boy, there's nothing like having something ELSE you're supposed to be doing, to inspire you to do a different thing! Here, have another section! (Marvel invented their characters, of course. No question about it! The jury's still out on who's to blame for Denver International....)

Part 13--Happy Landings

Well, at least we're landing at the right airport, if an hour late, thought Hank, as his plane at LAST began its final descent, dipping into painfully bright, rumpled white clouds. They emerged with a shudder into a sullen grey sky, where sheets of rain immediately fogged the windows. None of the passengers needed a reminder to fasten their seat belts; the ride had been growing steadily rougher since Chicago. The possibility of wind shear, their pilot had cheerfully informed them, was what had kept them circling all this time, and there had been a point where it seemed certain the flight would be diverted to the Colorado Springs airport some 70 miles to the south. But now it looked as though all would be well--IF they could just get on the ground without mishap....

The entire passenger and crew roster breathed a collective sigh of relief as the wheels touched down and the plane began to slow. Outside, the runway surface gleamed dully in the pauses between spatters of rain. Nervous laughter mixed with conversation, as people at last dared to stir and begin gathering belongings.

Hank didn't need to gather anything, as the only things he had carried aboard were his light overcoat and a couple of suits in a garment bag, all stowed in the forward compartment. The only things they KNEW he had carried aboard, rather. He had decided to wear his image inducer for the trip, at least partly because when it was ON, it could shield itself from the security scanners; off, and carried in his luggage, it might have induced tedious conversations with suspicious FAA people about mysterious bomb-like devices. The other part of his decision was an irresistible desire to see how Cassie would react to him with a normal visage. But now that it was almost 'showtime', he felt more than a little nervous.

The flight attendant handed him his coat and bag with a neat, professional smile, already dismissing him by the time her farewell was spoken, attention turning to the next man behind him. Hank sighed mentally at the stolen pleasure of being a semi-non-entity, whose face aroused no emotion whatsoever in a stranger.

He followed his fellow passengers down the long tunnel of the connecting apparatus, and emerged into the loading area. Spotting Cassie instantly, he almost waved, but second thoughts stopped him. There were dozens of people around, meeting and being met. What if she were frightened by being approached by a stranger, and...reacted badly? Could be embarrassing for both of them. He decided to peel away from the group, and wait until the crowd thinned out, so he could approach her slowly, and not alarm her.

He took a position by the wall, where he could observe her, and leaned with one foot against it, like a tired business traveller who has been sitting too long. She was wearing jeans under a long white tube sweater, and looked just lovely, in his highly prejudiced opinion. Her eyes continued to scan the now thinning stream of debarkers, as well as the crowd. Their gaze met, but they both let it slide away, as polite strangers do when that happens. He refocused to look above and to the side of her head, so he could continue to watch her without seeming to stare.

Hank noticed it when she glanced at him a second time, and then a third, a trace of puzzlement growing on her face. Finally she gave up all pretense and frankly studied him. To his surprise, within a few seconds her lips quirked up a fraction, and she then walked to him without hesitation. On a mad impulse, he kept silent as she approached, and tried to school his face into the look of an anonymous stranger someone is about to ask for the time of day. She stopped in front of him. "Got it fixed, did you?"

"You have an exceptionally good memory for faces, my dear," Hank said after a pause, recalling that she had seen his computer images, albeit briefly. He felt a little silly, now, with the joke done and no laughter forthcoming.

"No, actually I'm terrible at them," Cassie informed him soberly, still examining his features as though looking for design flaws. Then she smiled. "But I know YOUR face. This one's not really all that different."

"No?" he said softly, smiling in return. Perhaps, to her, it actually wasn't, he thought, and he put the fingers of his free hand under her chin, lifting it for a kiss. She leaned up into it, winding her arms around his neck with a little difficulty, due to his garment bag being in the way. Nevertheless they managed to make it work.

"I'm sorry you had to wait," Hank said, as they broke apart and headed down the concourse. "Bad weather."

"They almost sent you to the Springs, they said. I was a little worried." The newly reunited couple continued this small talk during the long trek to the baggage area, happily reconnecting. Hank duly admired the bold design of the new airport roof, which was basically a series of giant fiberglass tents, but had to agree with Cassie that it might not be the absolutely safest and most sensible design anyone had ever come up with. It also seemed to take a very long time to get from one point to another, and yet somehow the luggage was STILL not in the carrousels by the time they arrived....

They found seats and Cassie consulted her watch. "I need to ask you something," she said, sounding unaccountably nervous. "You can say no if you want."

"What's that?" He tried to smile reassuringly. It was plain from the way she blinked and made a tiny twitch every other time she looked at him that she was NOT getting used to the image inducer very rapidly, and he was beginning to be sorry he had brought it.

"Um...I told my parents about you? And then I told them you were coming out?" The statements voiced as questions were making HIM nervous. "And...they want to take us out to dinner?"

Now it was his turn to flinch. "Out to dinner?" he said weakly.

"You don't have to," she repeated in haste, but slowly added, "...tonight."

"You mean it is inevitable, sometime during my visit?" She gave a weak, regretful little nod. All of a sudden bringing the image inducer seemed like the best idea he'd had all decade. Unless--

"When you say you told your parents about me...."

"Yes." She glanced at the small, vocal family group standing nearby and didn't elaborate; they both knew what they meant, anyway. "ALL about you."

"And what did they say?" he asked with morbid curiosity.

Cassie smiled at some memory, and patted his knee. "They said 'How nice you met a nice young man', and when I said you were coming to visit, they said, 'Invite him to dinner'."

He regarded her suspiciously. "Why do I have this feeling there was a little more to it than that?"

"Well, details," she laughed, then sobered when she realized he wasn't laughing too. "Seriously, Hank. It doesn't matter to them any more than it does to me."

Try as he might, he could not quite believe that, though he was certain she did. "Then we may as well go to dinner," he said with as much good cheer as he could muster.

"Okay. I said we'd meet them at 5:30 if it was okay with you." She nibbled at her upper lip, considering something, then said, "The restaurant they like to take people a little...different." NOW what? he thought. "The food is sort of generic Mexican, not great but not terrible either. But Casa Bonita is kind of a Denver attraction, and it's sort of a family tradition, too." She made a funny little wriggle of embarrassed pride. "When I was really young, I thought it was named after me--Cassie Bonita--and I always pestered to go there, just turned into OUR restaurant. We always take visitors there at least once while they're out here."

Suddenly touched at the idea of a very young Cassie claiming a restaurant, Hank was able to summon up a much warmer smile. "I'm sure I'll enjoy myself, wherever we go."

The luggage eventually presented itself and they were able to make away with Hank's with not much more delay. He allowed Cassie to carry the garment bag only because she insisted, but HE insisted she drape his coat over her when they got out into the intermittent sprinkles of rain still coming down, even though she pointed out it was not at all cold.

Her car turned out to be a little green Toyota, which he eyed dubiously as she busied herself with opening the trunk. She caught him at it, and guessed the reason. "Is this going to be really uncomfortable for you?"

She opened the passenger door and he made some quick estimates. "I'll be fine," he assured her. "I'm very flexible."

"I remember," she replied, with a slow grin, which he instantly matched, probably due to the same memory. "Climb in, then." When he did, the car immediately sagged heavily to the right. "It needs new shocks, I think," Cassie apologized.

"If it didn't before, it will soon," he joked, silently hoping he would not actually break her car. But if he crossed his ankles, his lower half fit tolerably well, though his broad shoulders seemed to have expanded to fill all the available space. Maybe, he thought, he could acquire a rental car for the duration of his stay without offending her sensibilities as a host.

They joined the outgoing traffic on the long stretch of highway that led to the city proper. It soon became clear that the weather was worsening again, and they commented on how fortunate it was there had been a break in the weather to allow Hank's plane to land. "It never does this here, except when it does," Cassie explained. "Rain like this, I mean." She increased her windshield wiper speed to its fastest setting. "Although May is one of our rainiest months."

Suddenly a sharp rattle interrupted her regional weather report, small hail striking like a handful of thrown gravel. "Uh-oh." She gently tapped the brake, reducing their speed to create more distance between them and the car ahead.

Another round of hail, louder and larger this time, bounced on the hood before them, and Cassie this time downshifted to third. "You drive very well, my dear," Hank had time to comment, before the clatter turned into a thundering roar and visibility dropped to nothing between one second and the next.

It was like being under an avalanche of hailstones; like being inside a tin drum being sprayed with bullets. Cassie gasped, but reacted with a controlled swerve to the roadside and another combination of braking and downshifting, until they came to a halt. The sound was deafening--the hailstones hitting the windshield looked to Hank's disbelieving eyes to be as big as tennis balls. The only other times he had witnessed such elemental fury was when Storm was exerting her powers to the fullest--and then he had not been IN the resulting tempest. It was rather too bad, he thought erratically, she couldn't be here to enjoy this.

Hank gathered Cassie to him, worried that the windshield might break under the might of the forces hammering it. She came to him willingly, but when he looked down to reassure her, he found her eyes glowing with excitement, not fear. "Wow!" she yelled at him. "Some welcome to Colorado!"

Her exhilaration was contagious, and he abruptly kissed her. After another of those little startled movements, she returned it with interest, and they pretty much missed the rest of the hailstorm.

When it passed on, they gradually, reluctantly parted. Hank was now even less inclined to go out to a meal with her parents. It would surely be awkward, sitting there counting the minutes until they could decently leave and go back to her apartment. "I hope you have good insurance," he said, looking out the windshield at the formerly unremarkable car hood, which now more closely resembled the skin of an orange, or the surface of the moon. She just nodded, and shrugged philosophically, much more so than he would have done had it been his beloved sports car.

"Hank, would you mind me asking a favor?" Cassie said, after she had brushed back her hair and smoothed her sweater a bit, prior to rejoining the traffic again proceeding to town.

"Ask away," he said grandly.

"Could you...take that image thingie off, or turn it off, or whatever?" She smiled apologetically. "It's just so weird--you sound right, and feel right, but...every time I look at you, I kind of...."

"Jump. Yes, I know." He felt for the switch and turned it off, not allowing himself to hesitate. There was no noticeable sensation, but he saw the change happen, reflected in the way Cassie's eyes warmed and she relaxed all over.

"There you are," she said, and took his face between her hands, then kissed him again, this time in gentle welcome.

"Are you SURE your parents wouldn't prefer a nice QUIET dinner?" Hank hinted, a little desperately.

"Well," Cassie said dubiously. "I guess we could EXPLAIN it to them, about the inducer and all. They might think it's a little...odd."

"But they won't think it's odd to go out to dinner with a blue, furry mutant?"

"No." Why would they? her quizzical expression said. "They're exPECTing that."

She said it as though it were obvious, the most natural thing in the world, and he couldn't help but laugh at the ludicrous contrast of her reality with his. "Very well, then, my dear, whatever you choose." She smiled her thanks and relief, and after cautiously allowing a line of cars to pass, pulled back onto the road. Hank placed his hands on his knees and, smiling at her running commentary on the scenes they passed, allowed himself to be driven to meet his fate.

Continued in Part 14.

"Be bold. If you're going to make an error, make a doozy, and don't be afraid to hit the ball." Billie Jean King

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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