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.

Main Fan-Fiction page
Stars and Garters

This section does not require an explicitness warning, but I think I should add a mushiness warning....
Yeah, Marvel copyright, go, fight, win!

Part 18--Room Service and Other Comforts

Toting their luggage, Hank nudged open the hotel room door and entered, with Cassie following close behind. After placing his burdens in a neat row by the dresser, he dropped to sit on the edge of the blessedly king-size bed, then plopped backwards, arms spread wide, as he heaved a tremendous sigh. It had been a long, tense four hours in the emergency room before the doctor on duty had deigned to read the CAT scan and x-ray results and allow them to go on their way. Hank felt like he could cheerfully lay here in bed for about a hundred years.

Cassie crawled, awkwardly, using only the arm not in a sling, into the center of the huge bed and sat cross-legged next to Hank's head. She smiled down at him and brushed her hand up the side of his face. After giving an odd little twitch, she did it again, more slowly and thoughtfully this time. "What do you call it," she asked, "when you're seeing something that's not really there, and it kind of makes your brain go off-line a little bit?"

Hank gave her a searching look. "Any number of things, from drug-induced hallucinations to a psychotic break. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, THAT'S it. Must be the pills starting to work," she answered, with a almost too cheerful grin, referring to the prescription painkillers she'd been given. "How funny."

"What?!" Had the CAT scan missed something? Hank wondered with a little touch of panic.

"Your face. Your skin looks all smooth, but right here," she scritched the angle of his jaw with a delicate precision that made him arch his neck into it involuntarily, "I can FEEL that little ruff of fur. It's...strange."

"Oh!" He'd decided, given his state of mind, that wearing the image inducer for their visit to the hospital would be a prudent move. "My apologies. I forget I'm wearing it sometimes." He touched the switch on the belt.

"That's okay," Cassie assured him, as his natural visage re-emerged. "I'm getting used to it now. Really. It's just...dichotomous."

"An excellent word choice," Hank murmured, relaxing again. He tried to stretch without disturbing her. "I fear I erred in judgement, though, continuing to wear it to check in here."

"Why's that?"

"I noted a sign in the lobby stating there is a Jacuzzi for hotel guests. I can't wear the image inducer into the water, and they would not recognize me as a guest now without it."

"Oh, yeah, huh?" Cassie frowned in sympathy. "I bet you're starting to feel a little sore by now."

"I'M feeling sore?" He craned his neck back a little to look at her more directly. "I didn't bulldoze my way head over heels through the numerous rocks in that river bed."

"Yeah, but you didn't get any of these wonder pills, either," she laughed. "I feel pretty good right now, actually." He snorted, seeing her point. "Maybe a nice hot shower instead?"

"Hmmm." The idea was tempting. Extremely so. "But we haven't eaten yet. Maybe afterwards...."

"Well, it's expensive, but...we could order from room service?" Cassie suggested tentatively. "You could go ahead and jump in right now."

After taking half a second to consider this, Hank said, "What an EXCELLENT idea, my dear," and leaned his head forward to kiss whatever came into easy reach, which happened to be her shin. "You don't mind me leaving you alone for a bit?"

"Heck, no. Take your time. I'll call in and order something, and maybe it will be here by the time you get out."

"If my past hotel experiences are anything to go by, I would have to be in the shower for quite some time for that to happen," he said wryly. "But I believe I will start now. The sooner I do, the sooner I'll be dry." At the curious quirk of her head, he explained, "If I go to bed with wet fur, you wouldn't BELIEVE how it looks in the morning!" He exited the room peeling off his clothing and smiling at her mirthful reaction.

There was a menu on the long dresser under the mirror. Trying not to wince at the inflated prices, Cassie considered the offerings. Maybe I should just get one of everything, she joked to herself. Poor Hank's probably STARVING by now.

Cassie decided on some grilled chicken and a salad for herself, and ordered an assortment of Italian, Chinese and Mexican meals for Hank, plus a mixed appetizer tray. The person taking the order seemed quite blase about it--she supposed they had no way of knowing how many people were checked into any one room. She wondered if it would be enough, but decided they could send out for something else if it wasn't.

The water started to run in the bathroom, and a few minutes later, Cassie heard Hank's voice raised in song. It was a tune they'd just heard on the radio on there way here, and he was producing a quite respectable cover of the old Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs classic, 'Little Red Riding Hood'. She leaned back on the bed, resting on her good arm, and just listened for a bit, wearing a silly smile. Then his words about the difficulties involved in getting himself dry came back to her, and she got to her feet to begin rummaging through her suitcase.

When Hank came out, still vigorously toweling himself across the thick fur on his shoulders, Cassie was waiting. "Sit down here," she invited, "and I'll help you dry off." She had her terrycloth bathrobe folded on the edge of the bed, and her blow-dryer in her hand.

"You don't have to," Hank told her, valiantly resisting the temptation she presented. She should be resting, not cosseting him.

"But I want to," Cassie insisted with a pleading smile. "C'mon, please?"

Well, perhaps just for a little while, to make her happy. "If you absolutely insist," he replied, and took his assigned spot. Cassie's blowdryer kicked on with a hum, the rush of air feeling cold at first on his damp body.

He had been savoring the sensation of Cassie's fingers brushing through his fur to create the maximum exposure of wet surface area, when 'what's wrong with this picture?' crossed his mind. "Cassie, you're supposed to keep your arm in that sling," he remonstrated, half-turning around.

"I AM," she said, holding it up as evidence. "Sort of." The arm WAS in the sling, he had to admit, just not being supported by it. "This blowdryer weighs about half a pound; I'm not going to strain my elbow holding it for a little while. Turn around again." She gently pushed his shoulder with her free hand. "I should get to take care of YOU sometimes. That's only fair," she added with tender mock-irritation.

"And how fair is it," Hank retorted in the same mode, "to attempt to use my deep-seated commitment to egalitarianism against me?" She only laughed and kept on with her ministrations. "Because I feel...ah...that if you MUST do you scratch just a little lower and to your right...." His half of the conversation trailed off into a series of incoherent sounds.

By the time their meal arrived, Hank's back was almost fully dry. When the knock sounded and the deliverer called, "Room service," he prudently ducked into the bathroom until he heard the door close again. Coming out, he found Cassie using just her one hand like a good girl, shuffling a very satisfactory number of covered dishes into a more efficient pattern, with most of them on the side of the table opposite her. "Things are decidedly looking up," Hank beamed as he took his seat.

"Well, we ARE on vacation," Cassie reminded him.

"Yes, I know. It is running true to form to many of my other vacations." He just shook his head and smiled ruefully at Cassie's inquiring look, preferring to concentrate on eating rather than tell her horror stories.

"Well, surely nothing else will happen NOW," she remarked, cutting her chicken breast into pieces with her fork.

Hank winced. "I am a man of science, and therefore not at all superstitious," he said firmly. "But on the other hand, there's no sense in tempting fate by saying things like that."

"Sorry." They each reached for their water glasses, but Cassie stopped before drinking from hers. "I suppose," she asked, with imitation disappointment, "going white water rafting is out of the question now?"

Through heroic effort, Hank managed not to spray water all over the table and Cassie when he choked in reaction to these words. A quick glance at her sparkling eyes and the hand over her mouth holding in laughter told him what he needed to know, and a pleased smile spread over his face. "You can joke about it."

"I'm learning from you," Cassie confided. "I...think it does help."

"As with all things, it has its limitations." Joking would have been no solace at all, had his rescue attempt failed this afternoon. "But humor is indeed a valuable tool for coping with difficulties. Or so I have found, at any rate," he finished, suspecting he was being pedantic again.

Cassie didn't seem to mind, if he was. In fact, Hank could not think of anyone who had ever demonstrated quite as much completely uncritical admiration of him, outside of perhaps his mother. She was positively beaming at him, resting her chin on the palm of her good arm. It was satisfying and unnerving in equal measure. "What?" he finally said with a smile, hoping to revive the conversation.

"I was just thinking how lucky I am," Cassie told him, with the candor that occasionally slipped past her shy reserve.

"The operation of random factors does give one pause," he agreed, after a moment's hesitation. "Completely unpredictable. A loose rock caused you to lose your footing, and yet those I utilized as I...chased you downstream were all fortuitously solid."

"Well, yes, that WAS a good thing," she said. She had been thinking more along the lines of being deeply grateful for all the events that had led up to just being here with Hank, but that suddenly seemed like too much to say, so soon. "And I don't think I've said thank you yet, come to think of it."

"I more or less assumed it," he assured her. "But to see to the formalities--you are quite welcome. Any time."

"I'll try not to put you to so much trouble too often," she said politely, but reached out her good hand to him.

He met hers with his in the middle of the space between them, and the tight squeeze she gave him made it clear her light words did not fully express the deeper emotions running beneath them. The fervor in it made him think of the unlikely strength of small things; the tensile capacity of spider silk, a kitten spitting tiny defiance against a perceived attack. "All in a day's work for me, my dear," he replied, but gripped her hand firmly for a moment in return.

"But you're on VACATION," she pretended to scold him, retrieving her hand and returning to the task of eating. "That's supposed to mean a break from the tedious day-to-day routine."

They slipped into a discussion of general plans for the next few days, and soon had the serving dishes empty and outside the door for the hotel staff to collect. Both agreed turning in early was the best possible plan, and soon the room was dark and quiet.

An unknown length of time later, Cassie was startled awake when Hank sat suddenly up with a gasp, and half lurched out of the bed before coming to a halt. "Hank?" she asked, alarmed, sitting up too. He was breathing hard, as through he had been running in his sleep.

The touch of Cassie's hand on his back brought a blessedly quick return to reality, the details of the dream melting away like...water. He had been in the Danger Room with the team, and one wall had broken away under a raging flood.... "Sorry," he managed to say. "Just a dream." Her hand stroked up to the side of his face, and he pressed his cheek against it without thinking, seeking more of her comfort.

Cassie took a light grip on his shoulder, and tenderly urged him to lay back. Hank acquiesced, but to his surprise, found himself atop her, head pillowed on her stomach. He tried to change position, feeling it wasn't right--he was too heavy, she was injured--but she made shushing noises and began to stroke his temples with her thumbs. "Tell me," she said with easy intimacy, "what you think about dreams. My therapist told me it was how we deal with things that frighten us, without our conscious mind getting in the way."

She already knows how to distract me, he thought with faint amazement, before he began to answer her. "That is one prevalent theory, which I feel has some merit. Other schools of thought, of course, say dreams are only a product of our altered consciousness dealing with the random firing of neutrons in the brain, and their apparent relevancy to recent events stems solely from the fact those memories are freshest. This is certainly possible, but I feel it fails to address...." He continued to talk, while she listened and eased his tension with the magic of her caresses.

Eventually his spate of words slowed, and he carefully turned himself over, staying close to Cassie's warm body. The darkness was complete, but he needed no light to know her face was turned up to his. "Thank you," he said, and kissed her, not with passion but with grateful intensity.

When she could speak, she said in a taut whisper, "I don't think anything I could do for you would be as much as you deserve."

"Yet again you underestimate yourself," Hank replied, the odd quiver he felt at her words making his own voice a little unsteady. "You...have become very important to me, dear Cassie."

"I...I think I may be kind of..." she took a deep break "...maybe falling in love with you." She tried to laugh. "It's a little scary."

"Because we have known each other such a short time," he agreed. "Yes, it is."

"But I don't know...I was so wrong before," she whispered, half to herself, then added hastily, "Not that you are anything like--"

"We have time," Hank assured her, and possibly also himself, "to see. As much time as we wish to take." He kissed her again, intending it to only be a brief punctuation to his words, but found he had to exert all his willpower to finally pull away and lay himself down beside her instead of following his inclinations. She didn't protest, but only snuggled close to him, resting her injured arm across his chest, head on his shoulder. "Are you comfortable?" he asked.

"Oh, yes," she assured. "Are you?"

"Very much so."

"I...haven't been sure. I mean, if a person isn't used to sharing a bed, it could be hard to sleep with someone kind of glued to their side," she explained, with a diffident pat to his chest.

"But if a person finds he likes it," Hank replied, with just the hint of a teasing note, "it is quite easy to get used to." This brought him a gingerly one armed hug, which he returned. "Sleep well, my dear."

Cassie sighed happily. His surprisingly soft fur brushed her cheek as he breathed, and his warmth was welcome in the slightly chilly room. But better even than the physical comfort was the sense they were agreed on how to proceed in this relationship. No pressure, no demands for statements of devotion; very unlike her previous experience. Hank felt so safe to her Cassie knew she would have to be careful she wasn't being lured by this alone. But somehow, she didn't think that was the case. "I can think about it more later, though," she told herself. "Because we have time." It made her smile, and the smile, though invisible in the dark, stayed with her long into slumber.

Continued in Part 19.

"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." From The Special Olympics Oath

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.
Don't forget to support the fanfic writers who work tirelessly to support your reading habit! Tell your friends about OTL, and CFAN! Comment early and often! And ALWAYS ask permission before archiving or otherwise mass-distributing a story--people like to know where their 'children' are at night! :)
The Neon Nurse thanks you!