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

Hi! Back at last--boy, holidays, work, and real life can sure disrupt the ol' creative flow! Sorry about that....
But at least I haven't forgotten that I need to mention Marvel holds all its characters' copyrights....
(If you hate waiting for servers to process these postings, ask about the the automatic mailing list!)

Part 19 -- The Road Less Traveled By

When Cassie opened her eyes again, she was sleepily startled by the blue light which cast an eerie glow over a room it took her a moment to recognize. Oh, only the hotel, she thought with faint relief. But when she stretched out a hand, sliding it over the sheet, she found she was alone in the bed. Where was Hank?

This question focused her mind, which let her realize the odd light came from the tv. Just then, the bed shook faintly. THAT was what had awakened her, that strange vibration. She sat up, looked to the foot of the bed and smiled. Hank was sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the bed, watching the tv with the sound almost turned down to nothing. His silent laughter was causing the tremors.

Affection drew her towards him like a magnet. Wincing a little due to protests from her stiffened muscles, Cassie crawled towards the foot of the bed, and lay down with her chin in her hand, her head now parallel to Hank's. He smiled an abashed greeting. "You've caught me indulging my taste for low humor."

"Heck, no, the Animaniacs are neat," she remonstrated gaily, ruffling his neck fur with her free hand. "Power Rangers, now--THAT'S low humor."

"I stand corrected...well, sit corrected, actually." Cassie considered the pretzel-like bends to his version of a comfortable sitting position with bemusement. "How are you feeling this morning?"

"A little sore here and there," she admitted. Gingerly she turned her left arm outward to examine the inner side around the joint. "My elbow's several amazing shades of purple. Can't see my back, but it doesn't feel too bad."

Hank twisted around an amazing almost-180 degrees to tsk over the bruise she displayed. "I can rebandage your back later, if you want to take a shower," he offered. "I left you a towel last night."

"After Animaniacs," Cassie said companionably, resting her right forearm on Hank's shoulder and her chin on that, as the show resumed. He reached up to lightly hold her hand, and she sighed in total contentment. Scarcely shifting position, Hank stretched out his right foot to delicately tap the volume control higher, and they were soon chortling together over the antics of the Warner siblings.

When the show was over, Hank bounced to his feet and turned on the nearest lamp. He pulled up a corner of the light tape holding the gauze in place on Cassie's back. "In the matter of tape removal, do you favor quick yanks, or slow and easy coaxing?"

"Somewhere in the middle--that paper kind's not bad either way." The grazed area was quickly laid bare. "What do you think?"

"It's...not bad," Hank assured her. He had remembered it as being far worse, but that was from seeing it fresh, while he was upset, he suspected. Now it looked much less raw. "Not deep. You'll need to have a new bandage after you shower, though, to keep your clothes from getting stained."

"Okay." Cassie pressed up off the bed, thanked him with a quick kiss, and headed for the shower.

Hank admired her retreating form until it disappeared around the corner, his pleasure somewhat tainted by guilt at the sight of the scrape that marred her lovely back. If he had only been a second quicker.... And yet, he had not been a second or more too late. If you must dwell on the matter, dwell on that, he advised himself sternly.

Absently, Hank clicked off the tv as he went about the task of pulling out what clothing he needed for the day, and tidying the rest of his baggage into order for their departure. Characteristically, his mind was even busier than his hands, the one sorting through his feelings as the other neatly rearranged his remaining clean clothing.

He was not the type to fall prey to thinking random events 'meant something'; portents and omens were for those unable to deal with the reality of the chaotic nature of the universe. Yet, he was not immune to irony, by any means. Although he was not yet absolutely certain Cassie was who and what he needed to add to his life, considering how close he had come to losing her was...unsettling.

At least he still had the chance to commit to something serious with her, if he chose to. He knew, however, that their narrow escape could increase his inclination to take that chance, and that was no more realistic a basis for a permanent relationship than their physical compatibility.

Exactly what IS holding me back, anyway? he wondered, stretching out on the bed with his arms crossed behind his head, the task of dressing abandoned for the moment. WAS it the short span of time they had known each other, as he had suggested last night? Being with Cassie felt natural, RIGHT somehow, as though they had already been together for years, instead of less than a week. So was that only an excuse that covered some deeper reason?

Certainly any rational person would say a mere five days was far too soon to know for sure that you loved someone. But then, no purely human reaction was ever predictable. The very existence in fiction and fable of the 'love at first sight' concept COULD be argued as evidence it happened in real life, at least occasionally. Even the fact that he was thinking in these terms was possibly indicative....

Hank sighed. This was a difficult problem. But at least it was difficult in a GOOD way. Wondering if he were on the right track, doing the right thing the right way, was a strangely satisfying worry. Far more enjoyable to struggle with than the grim life and death quandaries that seemed to make up so much of his routine work these days.

Resolutely, Hank pushed all his doubts away. Part of the purpose of this trip was to let his mind become refreshed and rested. This recollection, however, made him think of home. It occurred to him that it would be a good time to phone in, as he was conveniently BY a phone, and might not be for a few days hence. He suspected the Rocky Mountain wilderness was not routinely equipped with telecommunication devices.

In only a few rings, he heard Professor Xavier's voice on the line. "Hello, sir. It's me, Hank."

"Hank. You're up and around early, for being on vacation." The professor sounded mellow this morning--that probably meant no crises in the past 36 hours.

"Oh, you know me, an unnaturally early riser."

"Are you having a good time?"

"Intermittently." The silence that greeted this was as good as a question. "We started to go camping yesterday, but ran into a spot of trouble. We were wading in a river, and Cassie slipped."

"Is she all right?" Xavier asked instantly.

Hank felt a rush of warmth at the professor's obvious concern. "She has a few scrapes and bruises. I managed to fish her out almost right away."

He kept his tone light, but it didn't put the professor off. "Are YOU all right, Hank?"

"I broke a nail. You know how I hate that," Hank joked. The habit of making light of near-tragedy was far stronger than his need to seek verbal comfort.

Xavier DID know how much distress such a minor injury would cause Hank under most circumstances -- none at all. But he didn't pursue the matter. "Well, I'm relieved to hear that's the worst of the damage." He paused, then continued. "Speaking of your friend, you might be interested to know that I borrowed one of her books from Jean."

Hank mentally braced. "Did you?"

"Yes." That uncharacteristic pause again, as Xavier sorted his words. "I had prepared myself for it to be an appalling waste of time, except insofar as it gave me some insight into her character." The next sound that came through the line was very nearly a laugh. "Have you read any of her work yet?"

"Not more than a few lines." Hank was completely unsure where this conversation was heading, and even less sure he wanted to be there when it arrived.

"If you had, you might have had some warning about setting her loose near rivers, or any other source of potential excitement." Yes, something was definitely amusing the professor. "She seemed so quiet when we met...."

"I...think I may know what you mean," Hank said, relaxing. She doesn't appear, at first glance, to be a risk-taker." Although, when he thought of it, she had taken a tremendous emotional risk just going out with him in the first place.

"The book was...diverting," Xavier said, "and even contained some cogent observations into the human condition, which I did not expect to find. I wonder if she has plans to branch out into any other writing fields one day?"

"We briefly discussed my biography, at one point," Hank told him, pleased out of all proportion at the implied approval.

"Did you? I could very likely be convinced to read that."

"Especially as you would certainly be featured heavily in it," Hank reminded him jovially.

"I shall expect to be granted a pre-publication reading, in that case," Xavier warned, and Hank thought he was only partly joking.

The talk moved naturally into a summing up of the very minor events which had occurred at the mansion since they last talked, and what there was of Hank's itinerary. He had been correct in his guess all was peaceful there. When he got off the line, however, his faintly disturbed mood returned. You couldn't say he was homesick, exactly. But it was undeniably true that he felt odd, being away from the team, not immediately available if they SHOULD need him....

He rose to pace the room. Was he wrong in believing the primary allegiance of most normal grown men was not given to an organization, no matter how special its goals, and its members? Could THIS be behind his reluctance to consider a full commitment to Cassie -- that he was already married, as it were, to the X-men? Certainly he had gone his own way before--but had he not always come back to them? Could he honestly offer ANYONE his full fidelity, if the X-men would always be such a fundamental part of his very being?

Scott and Jean had not had this problem, because they were both X-men, and shared the same devotion to the team. But now that he thought about it, it had been Cassie herself who brought this very question up first, right after seeing them all in action in the Danger Room. True, she had recanted yesterday...but in the wake of a near-death experience. Was it totally fair to expect someone's change of heart to be permanent, in such a situation?

Hank was released from these depressing reflections by the distraction of Cassie emerging from the bathroom. The towel he had gallantly forborne to use the night before was wrapped around her head, leaving the rest of her charms on display. Quickly, he moved to gently guide her to a prone position on the bed, ostensibly to bandage her back. His haste, however, had more to do with preventing her from observing the predictable results the mere sight of her delectable body had on him.

Laying out clean gauze squares and taping them in place was a simple task which took Hank only a few moments. When he was finished, Cassie rolled to her side, and held out her hand to him in silent invitation. It seemed she HAD noticed....

"I don't want to hurt you," he protested weakly.

"You won't." The absolute confidence in her voice, combined with the enderness in her eyes, rocked him, humbled him and his uncertainties. "You have the gentlest hands in the world."

"My hands are not quite the issue," he demurred, even as he leaned closer, drawn in almost without volition by the lure of both remembered and promised delights. "Your back...."

"Doesn't hurt," she finished for him. "Anyway, I don't HAVE to lay on it, do I?" In illustration of her intent, she turned to her side, and smiled winningly.

Hank let his outstretched hand touch the bed, intending to stoop close enough for a kiss, and that alone. But all it took was the light stroke of her hand across his hip to obliterate his resolve. "I suppose...we can be...creative," he murmured between kisses. What point in being a genius if one couldn't?

Some time later, creativity having been adequately accessed, they both rose to dress. Hank was pleased to note that his bandaging job was still pristine, as he assisted Cassie with fastening her bra. "Do you think I should still wear the sling?" she asked him, obviously hoping for a 'no'.

"For now, don't you think? Your arm might get tired as the day goes along. There are no arm rests on that side in the car."

"I guess." She inserted her arm and draped the strap over her neck without further argument, but insisted on taking one of the bags in her good hand as they departed the room.

After making at least a small dent in the hotel's profits by taking advantage of the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, they checked out, then journeyed to the mall in order to replace their lost shoes and acquire other gear, such as an outdoor type coat for Hank. He thought Cassie was being slightly over-solicitous, but bought it anyway, as he was finding he rather liked being fussed over just a bit. By the time all this was accomplished, lunch seemed like a good idea. So it was again early afternoon by the time they made their second trip up Highway 119.

Hank deliberately kept his eyes firmly on the road as they passed the scene of yesterday's near-disaster, but Cassie turned to look out the window at what could be seen of the rushing river. After they were well past, she said, "Progress."

"Hmm?" He cut his eyes at her, and was relieved to see her expression was cheerful.

"Progress." There was even a certain devil-may-care glint in her eyes as she flipped her face towards him, making her blond hair a glowing streamer in the sun for a heart-stopping instant. "We've gotten farther than we did yesterday...."

"Oh. Yes, we have, haven't we?" He grinned, reassured there would be no lingering psychological trauma from the accident. At least not on her part.

"You'll have to tell me sometime how in the world you managed to...get me back," she said, almost too casually. "I missed the whole thing, you know."

"Can't see much, underwater," he agreed, taking her same approach.

"Too true." Cassie snaked her hand out of the confining sling, and patted his leg. By mutual unspoken consent, they slipped back into easy, inconsequential chatter about the scenery and the day ahead.

They chose to bypass the touristy allure of Estes Park in favor of having more time for finding and setting up a camp site. Hank mused, driving through the small town, that he had never before seen a main street almost wholly composed of souvenir shops. They also skipped, although more reluctantly, the giant slide attraction on the edge of town.

The lone park ranger in the booth at the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance seemed glad of the chance to admit someone; perhaps it had been a slow day. "Still lots of available sites," he assured them, as he handed over a camping pass. "You probably want to avoid the higher altitude ones, though, unless you have arctic-rated gear. We've been running in the teens at night."

"Thanks," Hank said, thinking just a little wistfully of the kingsized bed and heated room they had so recently vacated.

"We have it," Cassie added. "We won't freeze to death on you." She and the ranger exchanged grins.

"Word is they may get the last bit of road clearance done by morning; you might be able to drive out over Trail Ridge," he informed her.

"Really? That's early!" The news appeared to delight Cassie, and Hank wondered what she was talking about. Combining the words 'trail' and 'ridge' with the concept of driving sounded like one of those risky activities the professor had warned him about.

"Early spring. And a lot of the snow went south this year. I don't mind; I only cross-country ski." Cassie nodded. The whole conversation seemed to make some sense to the natives; Hank decided he would ask for the translation later.

They prudently pulled into the first available camping area. "I think the rule is for every thousand feet up you go back a week in the season, something like that," Cassie said. "It's in one of these brochures somewhere." She was referring to the educational handouts the ranger had pressed on them. As he had promised, there were only a few other bold campers to be seen, which was not all that surprising, considering that there was still so much snow everywhere.

"Tell me when you see a spot you like," Hank said, always one to defer to an acknowledged expert. She HAD warned him, about the potential cold.

Before long, they found a site which met all of Cassie's requirements; a gentle slope to the ground, full sunlight exposure but near enough to the trees to cut the wind, and only a short hike to the vehicle parking and the restrooms. Plus a campfire grid--and solitude. It DID seem ideal, Hank admitted, particularly the solitude part.

Erecting the tent was only approximately twice as difficult as constructing a facsimile of the Eiffel Tower out of cooked spaghetti. "What do you think about the idea of buying your father a tent made in THIS half of the century for Christmas?" Hank mock-growled at one point.

"He likes this old monstrosity," Cassie panted, struggling to hold up her two corners with only one good hand while Hank wrestled with the ridgepole. "Says it has character."

"It's destroying mine," Hank asserted between clenched teeth. "I shall be driven to profanity very soon now."

But this dire prediction proved unfounded. The tent finally secured, they gathered kindling from the abundant supply of branches downed in the storms of the recent winter. Cassie efficiently added them to their store-bought wood supply and soon had a fire suitable for boiling water and heating up several large cans of stew. While she did this, Hank risked hypoxia by blowing up the rubber air mattresses; naturally they found the hand pump AFTER they were all inflated.

One mattress and a scratchy green wool blanket were pressed into service as a sort of eating couch in front of the fire. Fed and warmly bundled into their parkas, the couple sat with Cassie contentedly in Hank's arms, watching the pine branches snap and burn into coals as blue shadows flowed down from the mountains. Their talking died away as the dusk deepened, but a sense of communion remained nevertheless. And slowly, overhead, the stars came out.

Continued in Part 20.