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

This huge indefinitely continuing saga contains characters still copyright to Marvel. Wish I had a buck for every time I have said and WILL say that!
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Part 17--Taking Chances

"OK, son, yer all set," Carl Cantrell said, slamming down the hatch door on the shiny new red 4x4 Hank had just rented. "Ready for anythin'!"

"It would certainly appear so," Hank murmured. The cargo area, which had seemed to him to be spacious enough to serve as an emergency sleeping site, was now crammed to its maximum capacity with an extensive assortment of camping paraphernalia. They could probably, he surmised, journey to the arctic tundra and dwell in comfort.

"Reminds me of all the fun we useta have, runnin' up to the mountains for a weekend," Carl mused, gazing at the accumulation of an outdoor fan's lifetime. "Haven't done that since Cassie went to college. Kinda wish I was comin' along." He glanced sidelong at Hank, with a sly grin. "But I expect you don't."

There being no possible tactful answer to this statement, all Hank could do was proffer a weak smile. Thankfully, he was spared any need to comment by Cassie and JoEtta's approach from the house. Cassie was lugging a huge cooler, and JoEtta was cradling a smug Cornflower. Hank leapt to relieve Cassie of her burden, wondering where in the world they were going to stow it.

With some slight rearranging of suitcases and other provisions, it fit on the back seat. "That's it, then," JoEtta said. "Better move it out, so you can get a good early start."

Hank involuntarily glanced at the sun overhead. It was nearly noon. "Just a family joke," Cassie informed him. "It's what we always say, 'Nothing like a good early start'."

"And this is nothin' like one," Carl finished the routine. "Welp, you two have fun!"

The rest of the departure ritual required hugs all around from Cassie (JoEtta hugged Hank as well, somewhat to his surprise), suggestions and advice from Carl on routes and sights, and proper farewells said to Cornflower, who appeared perfectly satisfied to be staying behind. With Hank at the wheel, they pulled out of the drive, waving madly, and were soon on the back highway, heading for Boulder.

Their mood rapidly accelerated to giddy frivolity, both of them drunk with delight from the freedom, the anticipation of fun, and especially the company. Hank achieved newfound heights of humor, which had Cassie convulsing helplessly in laughter, pleading with him to stop so she could breathe. He had to comply for safety's sake, as he was starting to laugh too hard to drive properly. They pulled into a scenic overlook and kissed each other back to some sort of sensibility.

Driving through Boulder provided Hank with a good view of the University of Colorado campus, but they didn't stop. The only person he knew there was a researcher with whom he had been carrying on an increasingly pointedly-polite debate on an Internet list dedicated to the discussion of ethics within the sciences. Since Hank was at the point of mailing the man the definition of ethics from the American Heritage dictionary, it seemed like a poor time to drop by in person.

The scenery had made a dramatic jump in visual appeal as soon as they entered the foothills region. Huge red rock formations, which Cassie identified as the Flatirons, stood on the slopes, and the mountains had gone from blue implications on the horizon to vast fortifications against the sky. They headed up Highway 119, and Hank openly exulted in the vistas of river gorge, mountainside and wide blue sky revealed around each new curve. Cassie beamed as proudly as though she had invented them, clearly pleased by Hank's admiration of her home state.

"Pull into this roadside park," she instructed him, when they came to a long parking area nearly full of cars. "Something here you HAVE to see." Hank obliged, more than happy to cater to Cassie's whims.

They debarked, and walked hand in hand past picnic tables scattered on the short grass, up a trail that wove between towering pines which cast a heady scent in the warm afternoon sun. A faint roaring in the distance gradually grew louder. They emerged into a open clearing, and Hank said, "My stars and garters!" in profound admiration.

A cascade of white foam that started so far above their heads Hank couldn't make out the point of origin thundered down the mountain between huge boulders and outcroppings of rock, casting shimmering rainbows in its spray before shuddering into a boiling maelstrom in the pool at its base. "It's running fast because of spring melt-off," Cassie half-shouted. "C'mon this way."

They followed a branch of the path that took them to the river, more quietly bouncing away from its magnificent source. There were additional picnic tables here, all full of family groups. The bank was flat at this point, and numerous children were dabbling in the shallows, throwing in sticks to see them float away, the braver ones taking a few steps in before running away shrieking at the cold. "Is that altogether safe?" Hank asked.

"Well, one HOPES someone responsible is keeping an eye on, but, yeah, pretty much." Cassie seemed to feel it was a commonplace activity, and Hank shrugged mentally. When in Rome..., as the saying went.

They walked to the edge of the water, and Cassie pointed at some people hiking up the hill on the other side. "There's a cave up there behind the waterfall that's pretty neat. Do you want to go see it?"

"How would we get to that side?" Hank inquired dubiously. Actually, his quick estimating glance told him HE could probably cross by vaulting over, at a somewhat narrower point just upstream, but how would Cassie manage it?

"Wade, of course." His eyebrows rose. "I've done it lots of times, really!" The smile with which she said this was just on the verge of challenging. "But...we don't have to, of course. We can just look at the falls from this side."

Somehow unwilling for Cassie to think he was at best a spoilsport and at worst timid, Hank said, "Lead the way, then, my intrepid friend."

She grinned and peeled off her sneakers by stepping on the heels, then jammed her socks in the toes before knotting the laces together. The resulting bundle she hung around her neck. "You get better footing without shoes," she explained. "Some of the rocks are mossy and slippery."

This wasn't what he really wanted to hear, but Hank didn't demur as he stepped out of his loafers. Lacking laces, he debated trying to thrust them into his pants pockets, but decided it would be a tight fit even if he was lucky, and chose to carry them in one hand instead.

"Ready when you are."

The water was shockingly, numbingly cold, and he almost changed his mind. But Cassie, making little gasps and squeals, was moving steadily onward, so Hank followed. She looked back over her shoulder, wearing a huge grin. "Isn't this great?! I love fast water!" He couldn't help but smile back at her enthusiasm.

Now she was approaching the center of the stream, the water rushing past over her knees. "Here in the middle, use the rocks as hand-holds where you can," she called to him over the splash and rumble. "Just go slow and make sure you're steady every time you step, before you move again." She stopped talking to concentrate on following her own instructions, the river's white foam nearly up to her hips.

When she crossed the very center where the water shot between the rocks at high-pressure induced speed, Hank paused, heart in his mouth. But she passed by that danger point without hesitation, and he began to make careful haste to join her, hoping there might be a path back to the vehicles on the other side for their return trip. Wading in ice water up to his tailbone was not his idea of the most fun a person could possibly have on vacation. Bobby would probably love it, though, he reflected.

There was no warning. One instant, Cassie was moving forward, and the next she had slipped under the foaming surface, one hand showing for a split second as she was swept away. "CASSIE!" he shouted, swiping out with a desperate hand, but too late.

Hank's mind instantly kicked over into Danger Room mode. His first bound after her was hampered by the waist-deep water, but he made it to a downstream boulder, and from there he ricocheted to another, and then another, landing only long enough to scrabble for a semi-solid stance on the wet, uneven surfaces from which to leap again. His eyes scanned for landing sites, for a sign of Cassie, for upcoming hazards, his brain analyzing his options at top speed. Had to get ahead of her somehow, catch her before it was too late! The river crossed under the highway though a culvert he could now see, and where that might come out didn't bear thinking about.

He spotted one arm when it thrashed frantically out of the water parallel to his current position, and redoubled his efforts to outpace the racing river. He heard but dismissed as currently unimportant shouted queries coming from behind him. His bounds growing ragged, more reckless, Hank pulled a little ahead. They were nearly at the culvert entrance now, and he flung himself out towards the center of the raging current in one last desperate leap.

The riverbed here was all jumbled rock, and he was knocked to his hands and knees by the uneven surface and the water's speed for a terrifying instant. But the water was slightly shallower as well, and he was able to right himself in time to see his target, and snag a handful of her shirt before she could be swept past him. More shouts erupted from somewhere off to his left, but all he could focus on was Cassie, who had thrown her arms around his neck in a stranglehold he welcomed as proof she was alive and at least semi-conscious.

Hank stood still for a second, to get his bearings, then began sloshing his way towards the shore. A group of onlookers had gathered, and were calling encouragement, waving him in to the most accessible place to exit. He reached it, but had to stop, due to the unaccustomed sensation of being short of breath. The bank here was a collection of crumbled boulders, about head-height. A few short minutes ago he would have simply jumped up and over it to level ground. But winded as he was, legs numb from cold and exertion, and carrying Cassie, he thought it might be a poor idea to attempt it.

Someone in the crowd above deduced the problem, a man with a long ponytail and a CU sweatshirt. He stripped off the shirt and his girlfriend took off a similar one. Braided into one another, they made a sort of tow-rope Hank could catch the end of with one hand, after shifting Cassie in his grip. He pulled on it gently to test it, and the CU fan staggered forward. But the girlfriend, and then additional crowd members massed together, holding on to one another, and began to move backwards as though this was an insane game of tug-o-war. Although the material of the shirts stretched taut, it held, and the extra momentum provided let Hank climb up the steep bank in only a few steps.

Wheezing out thanks, Hank stumbled a few steps forward and dropped to his knees, setting Cassie gently down onto the grass. She was alert enough to let go of his neck, but only to switch to a deathgrip on one damp blue forearm. A tall woman with a blond pageboy stepped out of the crowd and knelt beside them. "I'm a nurse," she explained, putting fingertips to Cassie's throat. Hank almost informed her of his own medical expertise, but decided on second thought to accept the help.

"Look at me, honey." Cassie complied. "What's your name?" Cassie opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. She arched her back, trying to inhale, without success. "Looks like you got the wind knocked out of you," the nurse remarked calmly. She radiated calm, which Hank imagined must come in handy in her line of work. "Don't panic--it'll come back in a second. Probably a good thing, really--kept you from breathing in a lot of water."

Hank patted Cassie's hand. "That is very likely true." This didn't seem like a good time for an impromptu lecture on the exact physiology involved, so he refrained. Her anxious eyes sought his, and he strove to look calmer than he felt, to reassure her.

"Look here again," the nurse continued. "How many fingers am I holding up?" Cassie raised a shaking hand with two fingers, to match the other woman's hand position. "Good. Do you feel dizzy?" Cassie shook her head, and then suddenly sucked in a lungful of air, with a wet hacking cough immediately following. "Anybody got Kleenex?" the nurse said to the crowd. An older woman hastily stepped forward with a travel pack from the pocket of her windbreaker. "Here, blow that water out of your sinuses."

As Cassie complied, a blonde girl of about 12 came running up. "Here's the blankets, Mom," she said to the nurse, who wrapped one around Cassie, and handed the other to Hank. When he didn't instantly take it, she said, "You're wet and cold--put it around you!" and he hastily complied.

"Can you talk now, dear? Tell me your name," the woman said, once Cassie finished with the tissues.

"C-C-Cassie," she chattered in a husky voice, followed by another cough.

"Well, hello, Cassie; I'm Jackie. Can you tell me what day is it?"

"F-Friday." Hank pulled the blanket up further, to cover her head, feeling like he should be doing SOMETHING.

"Good! Can you take a really deep breath?" Cassie did so, coughing only slightly this time when she let it out. "Do you feel any pain in your chest when you do that?" Jackie was peering into Cassie's eyes, and fingering her scalp under the blanket.

"No," Cassie replied, her voice sounding a little more normal now.

"How about anywhere else? Neck, back, arms and legs?"

"My arm hurts...and my back."

Jackie hiked the blanket up, and Hank craned his head to see. His reaction was to inhale sharply through gritted teeth. Cassie had obviously hit some of the sharp-edged river rocks as she tumbled downstream. Her t-shirt was shredded, and underneath that lay a broad scrape that started at her shoulder blade and finished up in the small of her back. It was a miracle the shirt had held together when he grabbed it, Hank thought, and he didn't usually put much stock in miracles.

"You're going to want to go have that washed out, and get her a tetanus shot," the nurse informed Hank.

"I concur completely."

"And how are you?" Jackie asked, her attention belatedly drawn to the other participant in this fiasco.

"I'm fine. Damp, but fine," Hank assured her, but she began an assessing rundown anyway.

"Your toe is bleeding." He looked and saw with some surprise he had torn off a nail. Hadn't even noticed.

"I heal...very quickly. It will be fine, I promise you. Cassie is my main concern right now."

"I don't suppose you have any dry clothes handy?" the nurse asked, her attention safely drawn back to the main victim.

"Actually, we do, in our vehicle."

"Oh, good. That's what you need now, dry clothes. If you think you can make it to the parking lot," she addressed them both now, "you can change in our RV."

In answer, Hank rose to his feet, remaining steady by dint of will. With the nurse and him assisting her, Cassie was able to stand as well. "Still not dizzy?" Jackie demanded. "It doesn't seem like you hit your head, but you never know. Tell them you want a CAT scan, at the hospital," she added to Hank, who nodded a bit grimly. He would get Cassie one or know the reason why.

As they began the trek to the parking lot, the attending crowd slowly dispersed, departing with many expressions of admiration and goodwill. The sweatshirt owner insisted he could get the knots untied, and no compensation was needed; he insisted so strongly Hank eventually gave up and settled for a firm handshake. "I never saw anything LIKE that, man!" the youth told him. "Good thing for her you were around."

And a bad thing for her I agreed to go along with such an insane stunt in the first place, Hank thought, but did his best to smile at the well-meaning fellow as he thanked him yet again for his assistance.

When Hank arrived at the RV, after making a detour to their car for clothing, he found Cassie already undressed and wrapped in the blanket, sipping a styrofoam cup full of coffee. Their benefactor discreetly slipped out of the RV, and Hank began to remove his wet garments. "I brought your sweatsuit and a t-shirt," he said, "and two pairs of socks. Plus your boots."

"Thanks," she murmured, setting the cup down. "Hank, I'm--"

"If you say you are sorry," he interrupted her, feeling sudden inability to cope with any more emotional strain, "I shall--" he paused to regain a little self-control, "--be upset." He smiled to try to soften the words. "You needn't apologize to me because you met with an accident."

"You lost your shoes," she pointed out mournfully.

Hank couldn't help a strangled laugh, and he knew it was partly a release of the killing tension lingering from the near-disaster. "I can get more shoes," he said, taking her chin in his hand. "Where would I replace you?" At this, Cassie flung her arms around him. He could feel her chest heave as she tried not to burst into tears. If he were being honest, the temptation to do the same was strong. After a bit, when she had quieted, he suggested, "Why don't we finish changing, before our host imagines we have passed out and comes looking for us?"

He had to help her with the t-shirt and sweatshirt, as her arm was stiffening up on that side. "You know, I don't think I really need to go to the hospital," Cassie said with a terrible casualness. "It's not like I hit my head or anything, and I think I'm current on my tetanus...."

"Cassie." Odd how the further the emergency receded in the past, the more upset he felt. "Would you mind very much humoring me in this matter?" She instantly looked remorseful, but he could also see fear in the back of her eyes. Suddenly apprehending the likely cause, he added, very gently, "I'll stay with you the whole time." She nodded, relief flooding her face.

They were both extremely quiet on the drive back to Boulder, Hank forcing his focus on navigating the twisting mountain highway and not letting himself speed. The very last thing he needed at the moment was a speeding ticket, much less an accident of any description.

"I never had anything like that happen before," Cassie said, at length. "The rock I was on felt perfectly solid, and then it just went out from under my foot."

"Possibly loosened by the speed of the water flow," Hank suggested. He was not at all sure he was ready to talk about it, but if she was, he felt he should try.

"Could be. I guess things just happen, sometimes."

"You could print that philosophy on a t-shirt, except that someone has beaten you to it," Hank said, and was a little surprised at how curt he sounded when he heard himself.

Cassie didn't seem to notice, wrapped up in her own recollections. "You know what I remember thinking?" She was curled up sideways in the seat, looking like a waif with her wet hair clinging to her skull, and he was trying not to look, because it made him want to hold her, which he couldn't at the moment.

"What?" He downshifted again, mentally cursing a dawdling delivery truck in the lane ahead of him.

"That it wasn't fair." She gave a half-laugh, and tucked her arms tighter in around her chest. "It wasn't fair--I haven't known you long enough."

"Long enough for what?" he asked, risking a rapid glance of puzzlement at her. Had she thought he wouldn't attempt to rescue her?

"Just...long enough. I only met you a few days ago--" She broke off, and his hands tightened on the steering wheel in frustration. "It wouldn't be fair, if that's all the time I was going to get with you."

Comprehension, a new understanding of what she was trying to say, flooded his mind, and for the first instant since the almost overwhelming relief of catching hold of her in the current, he felt his spirits lifting. "How long," he inquired softly, "do you think would meet your requirements?"

"However long you have," she said quite seriously, then gave him a shaky smile. "It's dumb, but it never occurred to me that I could be the one--" She shuddered, but continued. "That was selfish of me, to think maybe we shouldn't be together, just might end too soon."

"It occurs to me," Hank told her, his voice rough with the effort at control, "that no matter how long we have together, the end will seem to come too soon."

"Yes. So let's take as much as we can get, hmm?" She reached out a tentative hand, and without hesitation he released his hold on the gear shift to clasp it firmly, giving her an instant's view of his blazing smile. Then he had to return his attention to avoiding some idiot trying to pass before the passing lane actually started.

"Two minds with but a single thought," he answered her gaily, tapping the brake and hitting his horn in remonstrance at the errant driver. The bright promise of the day they had felt earlier returned tenfold, and the trip to the emergency room became an astoundingly cheerful one.

Continued in Part 18.

"Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true." Balzac

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