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

The author would like to formally crave everyone's indulgence of her silliness and general egotism in this section....
The Marvel characters are, as has been mentioned in passing before, copyright to Marvel. Other characters will have to look out for themselves and each other--fortunately, that's what they do anyway!

Part 22--Life in the Breakdown Lane

Hank stood on the roadside in the almost-actually-hot midday sun, his irritation well past extreme and edging over into near-infinite. In the last few days, he and Cassie had made a nearly non-stop pilgrimage to every worthy scenic sight in the entire state of Colorado. But it was only NOW, when they seemed to be in the exact square center of nowhere at all, population zero, that the gods had seen fit to inflict a blowout on them. And that was far from the worst of it....

Fisted hands on hips, head tilted to match the unnatural camber of the 4x4's body caused by the flat tire, he frowned into the empty holder where a jack ought to have resided. "I shall CERTAINLY have something to say to the rental company when we return this vehicle." His mood was not helped by the fact they had had to unload the entire cargo section to get to the place where the jack wasn't.

"Narf?" Cassie said very softly, giving him a deliberately idiotic look, her tongue lolling out to one side of her mouth.

Her teasing miraculously melted his rancor, and a grin gradually emerged on Hank's face as his usual sense of humor reasserted itself.  "Are you...pondering what I'm pondering?"

"Oi think so, but..." Cassie made a show of considering their surroundings, and when she met his eyes again, the teasing look had been augmented by something much more adult-oriented, "...isn't the public roadside awfully...public? Plus there's sandburrs."

Hank grinned even more broadly, while shaking his head in mock sorrow. "I knew we should have rented a minivan." Cassie's unequivocal ardor still gave him a mild, pleasant shock each time she let it show. Not to discount the importance of being in tune with one another mentally and emotionally--but it was a decidedly agreeable notion, to be growing sure she felt a genuine passion for him despite his unusual physique. "To return to the problem at hand, however...."

They were currently in the southern part of the state, where Cassie had relations she had taken a notion to visit. Undulating plains of faintly greening grass and scrub stretched to the horizon in all directions, with the only manmade structures currently in sight being a fence and the ubiquitous powerlines. Plus the 4x4 with their luggage strewn around it, of course.

"At least we have a good spare," Cassie said with determined cheer.  "If we can get to a phone, we can call my relatives, and someone can drive out with a jack."

Hank considered this. They had passed a town some miles back, farther than he cared to walk if it wasn't necessary. And the idea of wandering up to a stranger's door in search of a telephone seemed foolhardy, even though he understood such behavior was considered commonplace out here. He rather thought he could manage to change the tire without tools, provided Cassie was able to assist at the times he could not be doing two tasks at once.

Just as he was preparing to outline his plan, a grey car approached from the east, slowing as it passed. The driver was frankly staring. With a mixture of appreciation and mild worry, Hank watched the car brake, then make a u-turn to draw up behind them.

As the vehicle's door opened, he stepped closer to Cassie, just in case. The woman who got out was hardly threatening looking, though.  She was short and stout, with a tousled cap of blond hair, and glasses she pushed up on her nose as she eyed them. "Problems?" she inquired with a friendly smile.

"It would seem the rental company from which we procured this vehicle did not anticipate a need for its patrons to deal with minor road hazards," Hank said, feeling irritated all over again.

"No jack," Cassie clarified helpfully.

"THAT'S plenty annoying, isn't it?" The woman took a quick peek into the empty luggage area, as if she suspected they, being tourists, might have somehow overlooked it. "Well, you're sure welcome to use ours."

During this exchange, the other occupants of the car had emerged; a tall, bearded youth and another woman, this one with brown hair, who had removed a young boy with glasses from a child's car seat, then boosted him to a good vantage point on the front hood. Cassie moved a little nearer to the child. "Hi, guy. What's your name?"

"His name is Michael," his caretaker answered for him. "Do you want to say hi, Michael?" In response, Michael tucked his face into the woman's neck, although he peeped back at Cassie, curiosity overcoming his natural reserve.

"He's shy with strangers sometimes," the blond woman explained, with an indulgent smile at the boy.

Michael brought his face enough out of hiding to focus on Hank.   Leaning forward, the child studied him carefully, then looked at the blonde. "EY-eee?" he said to her, touching his own glasses.

"Yes, he does have glasses like us. That's neat, huh?" She smiled as she looked at the faintly bewildered Hank.

"Boo!" Michael added, now pointing as he looked to the blonde for confirmation.

"AND he's blue, right. That's something different, isn't it?" She had moved to her car's forward window, and was fishing out a bulky tangle of keys and keychains from the ignition. Hank noted a miniature Etch-A-Sketch and a corkscrew amidst a collection of medallions and other ornaments dangling on a long string.

"Hi!" Michael said, having made the sudden decision that these two strangers were yet more members of his fanclub.

"Hi," Cassie replied, drawing closer as if drawn by invisible bands.  "How old are you?"

"He's three," answered the brown-haired woman. Interpreting Cassie's puzzled look as a question, she added, "Michael doesn't talk much yet."

Hank abruptly caught on to the odd conversational style. "Cognitive delays?" he asked the woman closer to him.

Her chin jerked up a trifle, and he could almost see the analysis flash through her mind as she considered what to say to him. Did HE look that way, he wondered, when fielding personal questions from strangers? "A processing disorder," she finally said, eyes narrowing a bit. "Do you work in the DD field?"

"No, mostly genetics." Hank smiled as disarmingly as he could, hoping he had not offended the little fellow's family with his observation.

"HI!" Michael shouted, drawing the attention back to himself. He thrust out his hand, palm upwards, to Hank. This left Hank at a loss, until he saw Cassie mouth the words, 'High five'. With extreme care, he tapped his huge palm against the tiny one, then turned his up to receive the little boy's return stroke.

"Aw-RI!!!" crowed Michael, with an expectant look.

"All right!" his family dutifully echoed, laughing.

"Thanks, he loves that," the blonde confided. Hank could see he had elevated himself several dozen notches in her esteem by that simple act. Amenities over, she moved to open the trunk of their car, and the rest of the group followed. It was almost as full as the 4x4 had been. "You know," the blonde mused to the youth with the beard, "we REALLY should put this camping stuff away sometime."

"But why, Mom? It's almost camping season again," her son observed wryly, as he began to hand things out to her and Hank.

"True," she admitted. With three of them working, the trunk was soon empty. But after throwing back the carpet that covered the wheel well, she said mildly, "Sterling...the jack handle isn't here."

The boy did a quick survey of the disloaded items and the trunk, much as his mother had done a few minutes before, and no doubt for a similar reason. "No, it's not," he agreed.

"Why not?" she demanded, with the barest hint of a peevish tone in her voice.

Sterling regarded her with pained indulgence. "'re asking me...because...?"

"Because..." she was plainly searching for a legitimate reason to justify her implied accusation, "'re standing here? And it would be dang silly to ask Michael...."

"Or me!" inserted the woman holding Michael.

"Yes, or Caro...."

"I haven't changed any flats lately," Sterling stated, crossing his arms over his chest, as though this was a mark of honor.

"MY guess is the culprit has a German accent," Caro volunteered darkly.

This pronouncement seemed to make sense to the blonde, who shook her head in annoyance before turning to Hank. "I'm SO sorry--I thought we had a COMPLETE jack," she told him apologetically. "Looks like all we can add towards solving your problem is a tire tool."

"Actually, with that and some assistance from you or your son, I think we can manage." They went back to the front of the grey car. Caro sat Michael on the hood again, and Cassie began trying, with noticeable success, to entertain him.

"First I'll remove the lug nuts," Hank said to his two attentive helpers, following his words with the actions. "If one of you would care to get the spare?" The boy named Sterling dutifully grabbed it up from the spot where Hank had laid it to go in search of the jack, and placed it in a handy spot by the flat tire.

Once all the lug nuts were off and neatly piled in an easily accessed spot, Hank moved to the rear of his vehicle. "Now I'll lift the car, and you switch the tires," he said, and braced himself for their amazement and questions.

Instead, Sterling and his mother gave identical brisk nods. Cassie, the other woman and Michael all moved well back, just in case of problems. Trying to disguise his pleasure at the chance to show off for Cassie, Hank heaved the back half of the 4x4 off the ground with all the style of, and a great deal more grace than, an Olympic weightlifter.

The instant the back wheels cleared the pavement, the blonde yanked the flat tire off, at the same time crowing, "YOW! This man is a trained professional, kids! Do NOT try this at home!" As soon as she'd pulled the flat tire out of the way, her son socked the spare into place, and within seconds, the pair had the lug nuts on tight enough to let Hank lower the vehicle to the ground. "Teamwork!" exulted the blonde woman with a broad smile, as she dusted her hands off on her jeans.

"Let's 'teamwork' all this stuff back into the cars," suggested Sterling, giving the distinct impression of someone who had been left to do the detail work alone a few too many times. This took only another couple of minutes.

"Okay, you're all set," the blonde observed. "You should be able to get your tire repaired in Las Animas or Lamar, if you want. But your spare looks good, so you shouldn't have any problems."

"Thank you so much for your assistance," Hank said, and Cassie nodded her strong agreement. "But before you go...may I ask you where you got the t-shirt you're wearing?" It featured a young female in a martial arts uniform, doing a kick well over her head. The legend read, 'When someone says you kick like a girl, take it as a compliment!'. He was certain Betsy would love it.

"Sure--but there's only one place you can get one that I know of, and it's up by Denver."

"Not a problem. We'll be heading back that way soon."

"Okay. I'll draw you a map." After a short period of rooting around her car for her purse, and then searching for the notepad secreted within it, she did so. "It's the corner of the little group of shops, where the sign says 'Tae Kwon Do'. Tell 'em Ms. Crites sent you, and that I said Hi!"

Ah, Hank thought. "So that's why you have no qualms about stopping to help strangers at the side of the road?"

"Nope, not a qualm in the world," said the blonde with a wicked grin. "If we were to stop to help someone and they got out of line, we have a plan. Sterling'd hit 'em high and I'd hit 'em low." Hank added his grin to hers, in appreciation of the mental image. "And Caro would keep score!"

"And Michael?" he inquired, just to play the humor to its conclusion.

"Michael takes notes for future reference," she laughed.

"Is that right, Michael?" Cassie cooed. She had advanced to holding him, to his obvious enjoyment. "Are you a tough boy?"

"Yah!" he exclaimed, cupping her face in his hands, brown eyes gleaming.

They made their goodbyes, after Michael demanded and got a hug and kiss from Cassie. The last glimpse they had of their helpers was various arms waving from open windows as the grey car reversed its direction again and headed away down the highway.

"Well, that went much better than it might have," Hank remarked jovially, as they merged back onto the road.

"Yes," Cassie agreed, still looking behind at the grey car disappearing into a speck against the flat horizon. "I didn't know you could lift a whole car," she added, changing the subject.

"I'm a man of many talents," Hank informed her solemnly.

"Tons of talents," she agreed, and he thought he detected a hint of dismay in her tone. "That Michael was a cute little guy, wasn't he?" she continued, altering the subject once again.

"Yes, he was. He certainly seemed to like you."

"Did you hear that lady say he was adopted?"

"No, I missed that." Hank checked Cassie's expression; she looked contemplative, but not blank and distant, as she might if she were upset.

"Adoption can be a good way to build a family, I guess," she said tentatively, and looked to him.

"There are a lot of children without families," he agreed. "My friend Scott was raised in an orphanage. He didn't like it."

"Oh, dear." She sat quietly, lost in thought for a time. "You know, when I meet little kids, it makes me wonder if I would be a good mother."

"My dear, I am certain that you would be an EXCELLENT mother," Hank assured her. His tone lowered as he struggled to express his sincerity. "I have no doubts about your ability to love someone unconditionally."

The glow these simple words brought to her face set off a responsive warmth within him. She took his hand and said simply, "Thank you, Hank."

"Any time, Cassie." Any time I can make you look like that with a few words, he added to himself, you can be certain I will. Happy, in tune with the universe and each other, they proceeded down the open highway.

Continued in Part 23.

"On the road of experience, join in the living day;
If there's an answer, it's just that it's just that way...."
('Looking for Space', John Denver)

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.
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