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

Last chapter of 1995! Marvel copyright to their characters good indefinitely, though....

Part 21--Grand Lake

Thanks to the bright spring sun, the interior of their rented 4x4 was blessedly warm. "I have SO much packed snow in my pants legs," Cassie laughed, plucking the cloth aside with one hand and slapping the tented fabric with the other, which indeed caused a small avalanche to cascade out. "You?"

"Me too," Hank admitted merrily as he copied her actions. It all seemed far too funny; he wondered if this euphoria meant he ought not to be driving. He'd forgotten the professor's advice about Cassie and excitement again. "I don't mind driving barefoot for a while, but you should put on some dry socks and your other shoes."

Cassie scrambled half-over the back of the seat to rummage through their gear, creating yet another spectacular view for Hank's enjoyment. "Give me your shoes," she said, as she bounced back into the more customary sitting position. "I'll wipe them down and we can put them right under the heater on my side. They'll be dry, or at least warm, by the time we get to Grand Lake."

The drive down the far side of the pass was equally scenic, but uneventful. Hank's generalized bliss did not disperse with the reduction in altitude; he dismissed his theory about lack of oxygenation in favor of endorphin activity when the thought meandered across his mind, then quickly shunted the whole subject back to his subconscious where it belonged. Cassie was far more interesting to listen to.

They soon found themselves making the turn off the highway that would take them into the old resort town. "Oh, look, the riding stable is still there!" Cassie exclaimed. With an unmistakably mischievous look, she added, "Do you want to go riding, Hank?"

"As sure as I am that it is a delightful pastime," he responded, arching his neck to give her a wry look over his glasses, "I rather think there might be some difficulty in trying to locate an animal capable of carrying my not inconsiderable weight." She tried to look innocent, and failed. "I had in mind more sedate tourist-like pursuits."

"Snowmobiling?" she teased, and didn't seem at all dismayed by his pretense at exasperation.

"Shopping--and lunch. After all this driving and dashing through the snow and such, I'd as soon EAT a horse as ride it. Metaphorically speaking, of course."

"Of course," she replied, lips twitching as she pretended to a gravity as feigned as his own.

One pass up and down the main thoroughfare that ran parallel to the banks of the huge mountain reservoir from which the town took its name made it obvious that both options were strongly encouraged here. "One cannot in good conscience return home from a vacation without bringing souvenirs for those who stayed behind," Hank pointed out as he locked up their vehicle. "And it's probably wise to start the process early." He took Cassie's hand as they headed down the quaint wooden sidewalk. "Some of my friends are...difficult to shop for." He thought of Wolverine and Professor Xavier. "And the others are impossible." Cassie looked dubious, as though she wasn't sure whether or not to begin worrying. "In any case, we shall give selecting the proper presents a valiant try, my dear," he grinned, and she grinned back.

The couple began a methodical perusal of every shop they passed, no matter how unlikely it looked from the outside. Hank had been prepared to encounter a certain homogeneity of trade goods, but was soon pleasantly surprised to find the various shopkeepers of the small town seemed to adhere to the traditional Western tenet of rugged individualism. The stock varied fairly widely from store to store. Even those that contained a high percentage of gimcracks had DIFFERENT gimcracks for sale.

Perhaps appropriately, the first item Hank felt compelled to purchase was for Cassie. While inspecting racks of garments emblazoned with images and slogans promoting the town, the region, the state of Colorado and indeed the entire West, he noticed Cassie gazing with awed admiration at a western-style shirt of hand-painted silk. In an instant he was at her side, taking the item from its hanger. "Try it on, why don't you?" The clerk who had apparently been about to suggest the same thing dropped discretely back.

"Oh. Well...." Cassie looked around, and the clerk pointed out the dressing room. She hesitated, then succumbed to temptation. When she returned, her cheeks were flushed with pleasure. The sky blue silk suited her perfectly, Hank decided, and the delicate silver clouds on the yoke added just the right amount of ornamentation without crossing the line into gaudiness. "Did you see the back, Hank?" she asked him, turning around. A spirit horse, all sun and mist and gilded shadows, flung itself headlong in the ecstacy of ethereal freedom.

"We'll take it," Hank told the clerk, who smiled and began to rummage for a suitable packing box. Cassie started to murmur something. "You DO like it, my dear?" he queried.

"Oh, yes!" Whatever she had been going to say was lost as she stroked the silk sleeve. "Blue is my favorite color," she confided, her eyes giving the simple phrase a deeper personal meaning.

The look was as intimate, as seductive, as a caress. "You can wear it to Silver's, when we go home," he suggested, picturing a happier night to erase the bad memory of the first one; a night out with some of the team, to help further their mutual acquaintance. Her happy nod of agreement was encouraging.

While the clerk wrapped the shirt, Hank went back to the other clothing racks, where he found the perfect gift for Bobby. It was a hooded sweatshirt commemorating an ice carving event held some months previous. 'Poetry in Ice', the legend proclaimed, illustrated by a most heroic-looking sculptured individual striking an appropriately artistic pose, halfway between dance and fierce attack. "It fits him AND his vanity," Hank assured Cassie. "You'll see when you meet him."

The intrepid shoppers acquired a few additional gifts and potential gifts as they made their way down the boardwalk, pausing only to enjoy an unusual chicken/avocado pizza at a restaurant that claimed to have been in the trade in this location for over a hundred years, though admittedly under different owners. They stopped to kibitz a group of shouting children running through a giant maze attraction ("THERE'S something we haven't done in the Danger Room," Hank declared, eyes alight with unholy glee), bought a great deal of homemade candy because indulging in excess was easier than making a choice amongst so many excellent possibilities, and generally flung themselves happily into each trap for tourists as it came along.

"Ooooooh," Cassie said, laying her hands on the plate glass of a shop window to get the closest possible view of the objets d'art inside.

"Exquisite," Hank agreed reverently. "Quite impossible as gifts...but let's go look."

The sign on the door said simply, 'Art of Glass', which made the song of a similar title instantly begin playing in Hank's mind. Inside, the walls were lined with multiple light boxes, background displays for a shattered rainbow of stained glass window hangings. The interior of the shop had racks and shelves of figurines, wind chimes and similar ornaments.

"Hi!" said the person behind the sales counter. "Nice day, isn't it?"

"Wonderful," Cassie agreed, trying to keep herself from reaching out to touch a trio of gold and crystal carousel horses suspended from a brass ring. "These are beautiful--did you make them?"

"No, but my partner, Blondie, did," said the woman with pride.

"Had to be," Hank murmured, still humming. "She's extremely talented," he said, more loudly. "I wish I didn't live in New York."

"Usually, when people from out of state buy something here, we ship it to them," the shopkeeper said promptly. "Do it all the time--it's absolutely guaranteed to arrive safely. We've had a lot of practice at bundling things up."

"Oh, REALLY?!" Hank answered, eyes agleam, and began to look more closely at the items for sale. There were definitely possibilities here. "Cassie, my dear...let's SHOP!"

Some time later they emerged, leaving behind several solid and secure packages with "DO NOT OPEN! THIS MEANS YOU!" written all over them in Hank's firmest script. "I must confess, it makes me eager to return home, just to see my friends' faces when we give them these," he said as they crossed the street.

Cassie noted the optimistic 'we', but made no comment as to the likelihood anyone would think she had much to do with the gift selection process. It warmed her to hear Hank say it, though.  "You've been thinking about going back already anyway," she observed calmly.

"I...suppose," Hank admitted, feeling vaguely guilty. "What makes you say so?"

"You just get...a look, when you talk about your work," she explained. His voiced speeded up as well, and his fingers moved, like he was typing. "I understand--what you're doing is very important."

"It is." No argument there. "You know that after we go back, I'll be, well, back on duty. Long stints in the lab, missions with the team, training sessions...."

"I know. That's what you do. It's okay," she assured him, making a private promise that it WOULD be okay, she would MAKE herself deal with it all. "I keep myself pretty busy when I'm writing--and the good thing is, I can time my times off to fit your times off!" She beamed at him with determined cheerfulness. "Maybe we'll appreciate the time together more if we have to work at getting some."

"Absence making hearts grow fonder, and all that?" he mused.  "Perhaps." He kissed her thoughtfully on the top of her head. "You know, you may well be correct about the necessary negotiations after an agreement has been reached being the more difficult part of the relationship...." They halted in front of the door to a hardware shop, shared a querying look, then shook their heads in unison, laughing as they travelled on. "But I maintain confidence in our mutual problem-solving abilities!"

"You're good at drumming up confidence," she said, squeezing him with the arm that was around his waist. "I'm kind of looking forward to going home with you, actually."

Though he instantly noted the ambivalence in Cassie's words, Hank chose to focus on the positive portion. "I'm glad we're both going," was all he said, with a gentle squeeze in return.

As they passed a pay phone, Cassie hesitated a half-step, and Hank took notice by stopping short. "I...thought I might just call my folks," she said with a diffident tilt of her head. "I told them I'd check in, and I don't know when we'll be by a phone again soon...."

"Good idea." The phone stood by a canopied picnic area on the edge of the park, but the warmth of the sun beckoned Hank to choose a bench a few feet further down the sidewalk instead. He placed their collection of shopping bags on the seat beside him, crossing his arms behind his head. Leaning back to maximize his exposure to the sun, he relaxed as deeply as possible, just keeping one lazy eye partly open and on Cassie for the pure pleasure of watching her go through all the little motions involved in making a call.

A tourist family came down the walk; Mom in the lead, Dad following, two bouncing tykes in the middle of the pack, and a rangy teenager bringing up the rear, conscientiously capturing all the sights on a camcorder. Hank was immediately aware when the camera lingered an extra second in his direction, and just as aware that the young cameraman was trying to disguise this action through extreme nonchalance. His unruly sense of humor goaded Hank to turn his head, smile and give a cheery half-wave. The boy, catching this through the viewfinder, sheepishly waved back, and lowered the camera as the group passed by. But his abashed smile was a guileless one. The thought crossed Hank's mind that if he did not go home soon, he might lose his touch at producing the isolation signals which kept strangers safely separate in urban situations. Not that the general openness of Westerners wasn't refreshing, in a way....

Cassie's voice carried to where Hank sat, and he half-listened to her side of the conversation as she described their journey thus far. He noted she skipped entirely over her little river adventure, which did not surprise him. He'd suspected she was an 'editer', prone to spare people from information that would disturb them to no purpose. And in this case, he concurred with her judgement.

"Sure, he's right here. Did you want to talk to him?" Hank's attention snapped fully to Cassie, who was looking mildly surprised.  Then her face grew serious. "Okay...." She shook her head at him as she pressed the receiver a little harder against her ear, her free hand taking a grip on the cable. She listened without saying a word as Hank watched, somehow troubled. When the color suddenly drained from her face, he was at her side in two quick strides.

Her grip on the phone was now so tight her knuckles were as white as her face, and she did not seem to see him. "No..." she suddenly said.

"Don't--I...." She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "I don't know...I have to think...." Hank could hear sounds leaking from the receiver, but not well enough to make out any words. "Okay," Cassie finished numbly, and handed the phone to Hank, who placed it to his ear without taking his eyes off Cassie.


"Here, Carl," he answered crisply, resisting the urge to shout demands for instant information.

"Is Cassie okay?"

Hank had slid his arm around her, and could feel her trembling, but he answered, "Yes," anyway. "Has something happened there, sir?"

"No, no, nothin' like that," Carl hastened to reassure him, but there was something fierce growling in the back of his voice that made all Hank's systems tick over to alert mode. "I had to pass along a message to Cassie, and I don't suppose she liked hearin' it any better than I liked tellin' it." There was a pregnant pause. "Guess it's her choice whether to talk to you about it or not...but, son, I hope to heaven you can. She sounded like she was going to need to."

"I'll try," Hank vowed, shaken by the blank, drowned look filling Cassie's eyes. There was a quick exchange of goodbyes, and he hung up the phone without looking.

Instinctively, Hank guided Cassie towards the bench where he had been sitting, and she followed his guidance without protest, like a robot.  But the street suddenly seemed terribly public to him. A quick glance around showed him another bench against one wall of the community theater building, facing the currently empty playground. He gathered up the shopping bags, then steered Cassie to the more private location, one protective arm around her shoulders.

The bench was in shadow, and there was a startling drop of temperature when they entered the shade, which echoed the chill collecting in Hank's heart. He sat down, then tugged gently on Cassie's hand to pull her down beside him. She was still staring outwards, blind to everything around her, intent only on some unknown horror in her mind.

"Cassie?" When she didn't move, he touched his fingertips to her chin, and brought her face around. "Talk to me, Cassie," he implored. "Let me help."

Cassie blinked her eyes into focus, but as soon as she seemed to really see him, she ducked her head in embarrassment. "I'm sorry...I'm such a ninny," she said faintly.

Hank ignored this for the time being. "Your father said he had to pass on a disturbing message?" She held so still he was afraid she was slipping away from him again, but at last she nodded. "He also said it must be your choice, whether to discuss it with me or not...." But if I am ANYTHING more to you than a pleasant diversion, he added silently, PLEASE do.

Cassie had regained some modicum of control. "Dad told me he got a letter from...a doctor who's...trying to find me."

"A doctor?"

"A psychiatrist or something. He's working with..." he heard the pause, felt her gather herself as if for a daunting physical effort, "...Bob."

So. The malignant shadow from her past had a name. "Why does he want to find you?"

"He wants me to--" A violent shudder racked her, and Hank put his arms around her, expecting a storm of tears. But she was beyond that, and not yet able to accept his comfort, either. Back and shoulders rigid with the effort it took to speak, Cassie went on. "Wants me to come to a therapy session with him."

"With...." It made no sense at first; why would some strange psychiatrist want Cassie to come to him for treatment? Then a different identity for the pronoun suggested itself, and it explained her reaction all too clearly. "Oh, no! That would be MOST inappropriate!" Hank spluttered, outraged. "Cassie, trust me, there is NO way you can be required to submit to such an invasive, potentially dangerous situation."

"But...." Now she looked at him, and it was like a replay of seeing her swept away again, but this time lost in a river of dangerous emotion. "I...think I should."

Hank could only gape at her in stunned silence, until she looked away again. Knowing he ought to take the time to form a carefully kind argument, but also knowing every second's further delay made his implied criticism stronger, he blurted, "But, dear Cassie, WHY? It is YOU who were the injured, and innocent, party in the matter. He nearly killed you, did you great emotional harm as well. You owe him NOTHING!" All she did was shake her head. "I don't understand," he went on, helplessly. Suddenly she was a stranger to him, alien. "Is it...that you still love him?"

That brought her head around fast, and her eyes searched his. "No.  That's the trouble."

"It is?" He felt unaccustomedly stupid, for some reason.

"I used to. And I promised to love him forever. But I didn't." She wrung her hands, letting her head droop forward, like a flower grown too heavy for the wilting stem of her neck.

Isn't that HIS fault, that you didn't? Hank asked silently, since to say it would seem to be an unfair attack on a rival who could not respond. But he'd had some experience with the razor's edge that divided what you felt was right from what you would prefer to do; wavering between the two could cut a person rather deeply.

"A mistake in judgement, at worst," he asserted. "Certainly nothing that would require you to sacrifice YOUR hard-won sanity in a hopeless cause."

She seemed to consider this, and slowly raised her face to his. "Why do you think it's hopeless?"

"I have heard of this type of therapy, and, except in unusual cases, I disapprove of it most vehemently. If your...former husband's treatment were progressing well, his doctors MIGHT seek to learn whether you had made a full recovery, to reinforce his improvement. But since they are asking you to meet with him, face to face..." Cassie shuddered again, a violently clear expression of her true feelings, "...I fear they are feeling at a loss, and hope to incite remorse in him by letting him see you, hear you tell him how much he hurt you." He wished she would reach out to him physically for comfort; the way she stayed huddled into herself disturbed him on several levels. "The technique CAN be helpful, in certain cases. But I am not at all sanguine that the dynamics here are acceptable for that purpose."

"You mean...I'd freak out, and he wouldn't care."

Or he would enjoy it. Couldn't risk saying that either. "You know him. I do not. But...if I may make one more observation? To have a biochemical imbalance cause mental instability is not something anyone would choose, not a matter of fault. However...when it manifests in violence towards another...I feel it may indicate a tendency that already existed. One that possibly still exists."

"But...there would be someone else there...." Cassie interjected, alarm making her eyes go wide, like a doe caught in the headlights of oncoming traffic.

"I'D be there," Hank snapped automatically, then struggled to control his instant reaction of wrath at the thought someone might DARE to endanger Cassie. "If you wanted me to be, that is." He stroked his hand over her hair, as if smoothing it could soothe the turmoil beneath. "Be assured that, whatever you choose to do, I will stand by you, and help in whatever way I can."

"But you don't think I should." Her tone was flat.

"It must be your decision, Cassie. I know what I think...but actually, I am trying fairly hard not to press my opinion on you too forcefully."

"Would you think the same...if it wasn't me involved?"

Hank did his best to strip the problem of all personal meaning, mentally turn it into a case history in a journal for the moment. At last he said, "If I knew what I already know, from you...I would.  Even as a disinterested observer, I would seriously question the potential usefulness of this technique when weighed against the probable injury done to the former victim."

Cassie nodded slowly to herself, then stood. "Let's walk, Hank, okay? It's cold here." He rose silently, and as they crossed the small park, gently put his arm around her shoulders. She allowed it, even leaned into him a bit. The sun seemed suddenly to dim, and he looked overhead to note the leading edge of a heavy bank of clouds beginning to obscure the sky. A brisk breeze had sharpened while they sat in the lee of the building.

Neither of them spoke as Hank followed Cassie's aimless steps, which eventually led them across the street and down a small side spur to the edge of Grand Lake. It sprawled before them, grey rumpled ice frosted by skiffs of snow. Something about it seemed to draw Cassie, which he found unsettling.

There were crude piers made from planks lashed to oil drums reaching out to what would be open water in a few weeks. As they stepped out on one, their combined weight made it groan and bob, the ice cracking ominously, but Hank thought it felt solid enough for the moment. From the end of the dock they could see a patch of open water, far away in the center of the lake. "Talk to me, Cassie," he said at last, encircling her from behind in what he hoped was a comforting embrace.   "I'm feeling a bit left out here."

"I was just thinking...this is never going to end." Hank tightened his arms, knowing from her tone she did not refer to their current sojourn. "Just when I think I'm over it all at last, something new happens."

"I know the feeling," he replied, and Cassie automatically squeezed his hands in commiseration, which he hoped was a good sign. "But I have found...there is no changing the past, at least not without tremendous cost to the present and future." This caused her to look at him oddly, and he wondered what meaning she was ascribing to his words. Not the literal one he meant, he was sure. "It's better to come to terms with one's past, and move on from there."

"I'm trying. I've BEEN trying," she protested quietly. "But now I'm dragging you into it. That's not fair to you."

"Cassie." This habitual putting off was growing painful. "Have I done ANYTHING to make you think I don't want to be involved?"

"That's not the point."

"Then explain the point to me," he stated evenly, determined not to add to her burdens at the moment, but equally determined to gain SOME understanding this time.

"Hank--" She wriggled impatiently out from under his arms, turning towards him, taking no notice of how precariously close she stood to the edge of the dock. "Face it, I'm a hysterical mess! You deserve better than that." A gust of icy wind sang through the cracks in the pier.

"If we always got what we deserve, you would never have been hurt the way you were," he said in a quiet but firm voice. "What is the real issue here, Cassie?" It silenced her, and the only thing in the world were her wide eyes. "Tell me what you're really afraid of."

"Of hurting you, Hank. Somehow. Not being able to help it," she blurted, then bit her lower lip. Tears began to gather in her eyes.

Hank pulled her to him in a hard embrace. It was good to see the rigid barriers of her misguided control give way, but quite difficult to have to endure tears for his sake. "I'll take the chance, if it means having you in my life," he whispered, bringing his head close to hers.

"For as long as you want me," she said, half-sobbing out the words.  "I'm not going to break another promise, but...for as long as you want me to, I'll stay with you."

"All right, Cassie," was all he found to say. From the expression of desperate gratitude on her face when she turned it up to his, it seemed that it might suffice. "It WILL be all right," he assured them both, somehow producing a smile for her. She nodded and managed to return a shaky version of it. "For now, though, what do you say we seek out a warmer place to continue this discussion--providing, of course, that that's what you wish to do?"

For the first time, she seemed to take notice of the steadily lowering sky, and the chill in the wind. "You're saying you don't want to camp out tonight?" she said, in a brave attempt at recapturing the previous light mood.

"Not right here, right now," Hank temporized, silently rejoicing to see her making an effort at humor. "One presumes Grand Lake has motels...."

"I would think so."

"Then...shall we, my dear Cassie?" He swept his hand out in a gallant 'after you' gesture, pointing the way back. Wordlessly, she slipped her arm around his waist, her grip almost tight enough to make him think she needed his support to make it that far. The ice creaked a sort of goodbye as the pair moved in tandem, heading for the shore, and eventual sanctuary.

Continued in Part 22.

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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