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

Continuing with the longest vacation in the history of...well, of fan fiction, at least. Marvel's copyright never sleeps, tho....

Part 23--Family Matters

"Just park over there, under the trees," Cassie suggested, leaning eagerly forward on the edge of her seat. The row of huge cottonwoods she had indicated lined one edge of a large barnyard, then extended out and around the back of the big white two-story farmhouse. Hank pulled in as instructed, their dusty 4x4 looking right at home behind the largest pickup he had ever seen outside of late night tv coverage of monster truck rallies.

They got out and the curious calves which had clustered to examine this new vehicle darted away to a safer distance, then stood staring, heads low, white faces a bright contrast to their red and black hides. The momentary alarm of the calves brought a mottled grey and black and white dog on the run, barking a warning.

"Buster, it's okay, it's me. Buster, now hush!" The dog ranged around them in a circle, eyeing Cassie until it got her scent, which caused it to abruptly cease barking and wriggle up to her. Cassie rewarded Buster by kneeling beside him and thoroughly scratching him from ears to stomach, making Hank feel faintly envious. But considering the way the dog kept watching him the whole time, he was disinclined to interrupt the reunion.

At the sound of a screen door slamming, Hank looked up to see a bird-like old woman bustling their way. "Cassie, sweetheart!"

"Grandma!" Cassie flew to her, and Hank followed with alacrity, not wanting to be involved in any scenes that might follow him having had to defend himself from the family canine. The two women locked into an ecstatic embrace, complete with many joyful exclamations.

Once she released Cassie, the woman turned to Hank. "My land, I thought Carl was pulling my leg, but you ARE blue, aren't you?" He smiled, but was saved the trouble of thinking up a polite response because his hostess was not yet ready to pass the conversational ball. "Well, forever more, I'll have to tell him that when he calls again...have y'eat yet? No? Well, I'll bet we can find something to hold body and soul together a while longer! Come on in...." Cassie caught his eye, and rolled hers in an invitation to share her fond amusement at her grandmother's loquaciousness. Apparently being able to hold up his end of the conversation in another Cantrell family venue would NOT be a problem....

Cassie waved Hank into a chrome-legged kitchen chair and proceeded to set the matching table, which intrigued Hank with its variegated crimson formica top. "We don't have much, but it's nobody's business but ours," Viola said merrily, as she hauled out fried chicken, potato salad and half a dozen other dishes from a refrigerator nearly as big as the one at the mansion. "Plus there's pie, of course." Well, if one HAD to visit someone else's relatives, Hank reflected, it was at least pleasant they would turn out to be friendly ones who could cook!

A husky man entered the kitchen, pulling off his grimy billed cap to reveal rusty-blond hair starting to thin on top. "Hi, Vic!" Cassie said with happy enthusiasm.

"Hi, Cass," he replied. To Hank, his smile looked slightly strained, but Cassie didn't seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. With a nod to Hank, he turned to wash up in the sink.

"Hank, this is my cousin Vic," she explained. As he nodded a return greeting, Hank thought unkindly that he knew someone else named Victor who was almost as friendly. But then, maybe he was misjudging the man. Maybe Vic happened to be the only one in this entire family not prone to excesses of warm feeling on first acquaintance.

As they ate, Viola helpfully outlined what seemed to be the Cantrell's entire family genealogy back to those questionable Civil War raiders.  Couldn't pick myself an orphan like Jean did, Hank thought ruefully. It will take years to get all these people straight. He could picture them talking behind his back at family reunions. "May be a
science fella, but no head atall for names!" At least he was bolstered up throughout the meal with speaking glances from Cassie, light touches of her foot under the table, and some truly excellent potato salad.

At the end of the meal, Vic muttered something about passing a message to the hands, and ducked out. "Now you kids run along, I'll clear this up," Viola said firmly.

"Don't be silly, Grandma," Cassie retorted with a sassy grin. "It'll only take a minute if we all help."

After further debate that appeared to run a traditional course, Viola agreed to allow them to assist her. To Hank's mild dismay, her idea of doing things right included all of them wearing aprons; he was not certain whether this was to protect them from dishwater, or the dishes from dust and other contamination from their clothes. He pondered this question as a field exercise in the sociology of days gone by while he dried dishes with a cloth embroidered with bright flowers and tiny bees, only half-listening to Viola's extensive news report of living, and some non-living, family members and friends.

Cassie washed dishes and said, "Uh-huh" at appropriate places, giving Hank regular warm smiles. "I wish I had my camera," she murmured during a brief lull in the flow of one-sided conversation.

His eyebrow flicked into a squelching frown, which was no more serious than her teasing. But he was quite happy to leave this moment uncaptured for posterity. Not that he thought of himself as overly traditional about gender roles, but the colorful flour sack print with lace ruffles just wasn't HIM. At least he rather hoped it wasn't.

When they were done, Cassie said, "We're going to run out behind the barn, okay, Grandma?" Hank's spirits rose a bit at this; he'd of course heard jokes about the things that went on behind the barn out in the country, and he didn't imagine Cassie wanted to smoke corn silks. But before leaving the kitchen, she took a handful of carrots out of the refrigerator, and he surmised with a silent sigh that they were merely going to look at the livestock.

Outside, they walked across the hard, bare dirt of the open farmyard, heading for a gate beside the barn. Vic must have been watching for them, because he came out and stopped in their path. "We're going to go see Candy," Cassie said, brandishing her carrots.

"I figured. Were you plannin' on headin' out after that?" Vic was not only avoiding Hank's gaze, but Cassie's as well, pretending to be looking for something in his shirt pocket.

His demeanor must have at last struck Cassie as odd. "Why?" she asked, voice tense.

"I...just think it would be better if you weren't here when Jessie and Joe get home."

Cassie's mouth dropped open, and it took her a moment to speak. "Why not, Vic? I haven't seen them since Christmas!"

Vic shoved his hands in his jeans pockets and shrugged uncomfortably.  "Jessie' a stage. You know how girls get. Been braggin' at school about how you're kin to her...Lou's worried it's a bad influence. Your romance stories and all."

"A bad INFLUENCE? Louise thinks--?" Whatever else she was going to say, Cassie squelched. "I know she thinks they're silly, but she's never said anything like that before."

Not to your face, Hank said silently, while determining to keep out of this if at all possible.

"Well, after all," Vic continued doggedly, trying to defend his wife,  "here you are goin' around with...with a man, and you not married or anythin'."

Cassie's shoulders stiffened as her eyes narrowed. "Is that it, Vic?  Or is it Hank being a mutant?" She took Hank's hand with her free one. "Because I've seen plenty of members of this family bring live-in girlfriends to get-togethers, and no one's EVER said they were a bad influence to the children."

"Cassie, it's your own business," Vic said roughly. "And my family is MY own business. Let's just leave it at that, okay?"

"I never knew you thought this way, Vic." Her voice was low, trembling with suppressed emotion. Imminent tears or anger? Hank wondered. "And I thought I was your family, too."

"Well, of course y'are! And you don't need to make it sound like I'm a Klan member or somethin'!" Hank could see the man was genuinely upset at having to chose between his cousin's feelings and what were apparently his wife's demands. "But...Lou's family maybe raised her to think a little different about...stuff like this...."

"Stuff like WHAT, Vic?" Her thinned lips spoke of her determination to make him say it outright.

"Hell, Cassie, she don't even like people of different colors gettin' together when they're REGULAR colors, you know that." Vic was very nearly pleading now, or as close as he was likely to allow himself to get.

Cassie snorted, and shook her hair back from her face, eyes ablaze. "Yes, I DO know that. And I think...I think...." she shook her carrots at him, fairly quivering with indignation "...if ANYONE standing here has embarrassed the family by who they've picked to bring into it...." She inhaled deeply, nostrils flaring. "...I don't think it's ME!"

The cousins stared at each other for one long, uncomfortable moment.  Then, chin high, Cassie brushed past, saying "Goodbye, Vic," with icy dignity.

Hank followed Cassie's lead, indecently curious as to what her feelings would be once the adrenaline from the confrontation had worn off. Her attack on her cousin, mild though it might seem to some, was as unexpected as if a canary had suddenly launched itself into battle with a hawk. It opened up a whole new aspect of her character for him.

The expression on her face right now could only be described as 'fierce'. Strangely enough, that gave him a warm glow which made Vic's rebuff on his wife's behalf seem oddly inconsequential. Hank had thus far seen Cassie upset, terrified, crying her heart out; he'd also seen her happy, laughing--and the way she had of regarding him with tranquil bliss as they lay in each other's arms was something he doubted he would ever tire of. But he had not seen her angry before this moment. Though it would never do to tell her so, he thought it made her look adorable.

"Well-defended, my dear. Thank you," he said warmly, as they halted in front of the gate to the field.

She flipped loose a chain from a slot in a welded-on metal plate, and he helped her open, then close the gate. "Vic didn't used to be like this," she told him, shaking her head. "I've never liked Louise that much. Maybe now I know why."

"Something you'll have to get used to, if you keep company with me.  Situations like this are sadly not that rare." No doubt by now it was a superfluous warning.

The indignance in her eyes was not directed at him, Hank knew. "If people want to be that way," she said, taking his hand and squeezing it tight, "and miss out on getting to know you, well, that's THEIR loss!"

"Good attitude to take," he said, squeezing back. Much as he hated to be the cause of a schism between Cassie and any part of her family, it was nevertheless a relief to find her so firmly on his side.

They paused at the head of a track which was little more than shallow tire tracks in the dusty grey-tan earth. Cassie scanned the flat horizon, then headed out towards a group of animals sheltered from the sun by a small bank of cottonwoods growing next to a windmill. "Vic was...kind of a hero to me when I was growing up. He was a lot older, but he let me tag after him when I'd come down for visits in the summer, or on holidays. Gave me rides on his horse, things like that." She laughed. "He could do rope tricks, and they had an old dog then that he'd trained to do amazing things. Not too many older boys would make the time to entertain a squirt." She paused, lost in memories. "I'm sorry you had to meet him like this."

"People do change, as they grow older," was all Hank dared to let himself say.

"His kids are neat, too. Jessie writes to me sometimes." Now Cassie did look like she was going to cry.

Hoping to avert this, Hank grabbed for the faint anomaly in her previous statement. "I thought you were raised here."

"Oh, no--we moved up to Denver just before I started kindergarten, because of Dad's job. See, he was the youngest child--" her voice grew lighter; his distraction had worked "--and not very long after he married Mom, he got on with the Post Office as a part time carrier down here, until they transferred him. He worked up there until he retired."

"Oh. But I thought you wanted to come here because of the best part of your childhood?"

"Yes. And there she is."

Standing in the dappled shade of the old trees was a group of half a dozen horses. Cassie made a whistling sound, and held the carrots up. Several of the animals started to edge away, but from the center of the group, a lanky-looking shaggy one began to shoulder forward. It was the only pied one; mostly reddish brown with jagged white splotches. "C'mon, Candy, good ol' girl," Cassie murmured, walking right into the group. Hank followed closely, his brain mapping out potential escape routes for them both just in case the animals decided to stampede, or whatever mischief horses in a group got up to.

Seeing the older mare showing interest in the newcomers made the suspicious ones try to squeeze back in, especially when Candy started crunching the carrots. "You're all WOOLY still, aren't you?" Cassie said lovingly, scratching the horse's neck with long, rapid strokes that made red and white hair fly. "Was it a bad winter, girl?" She looked back at Hank to gauge his opinion of what was clearly her darling. "Do you want to feed her a carrot, Hank?"

"Will she take one from me?" he hedged. He was accustomed to being the largest being in almost any given group, but right now he felt like just another puny human.

"Of course." She gave him one, and he held it out warily. Candy snuffed it with great care, and blew out a great, moist gust through those huge pink-white nostrils before she deigned to accept his offering. Hank discreetly wiped his hand on the back of his shirt as Cassie fended off an attempt by one of the other animals to muscle in on Candy's territory. Candy joined in by swinging her head, ears back and teeth bared, at the interloper. The other one squealed, and there was some fast sidling for position until Cassie stepped forward, smacking the offender on the neck. "Hey there, you--get along!  Git!!" The herd hastily spread out a few yards, then stopped, staring at them with accusing brown eyes.

"You know that big backyard at my folks' house, that Dad was turning so he could start his garden? When I was a kid, that was Candy's corral. Back then a lot of people still had horses in residential neighborhoods in Lakewood. Mom and Dad got her for me when I was 8 and she was a yearling, so she's almost 20 now." As she talked, Cassie petted and rubbed her old friend, who gave every appearance of enjoying it. "After I graduated from college and moved out, I didn't want to sell her. So we brought her here for Vic's kids, and he said he'd take care of her, even after she got old."

"Do they ride her still?" Hank wasn't sure how old old was, for horses, but this one looked to be well on the geriatric side, even to his inexperienced eyes.

"Not much. Both the kids have their own horses now." Cassie smoothed her hand over the faintly protruding ridge of Candy's spine. "She still could be, though." Flashing Hank a grin he was starting to recognize as a sign he might want to start worrying right about now, Cassie patted the horse with two firm taps, bent her knees, then vaulted upwards. She landed almost halfway across the horse's back, and with a few flailing kicks, inched forward enough to scramble aboard. Candy stood four-square with her head at shoulder height, looking patiently resigned.

Hank reflected with an indulgent smile that he was probably seeing a very accurate flashback to a Cassie about 12 years old, full to the brim of her soul with enthusiasm for adventure. "Heigh-ho," he remarked, crossing his arms and waiting to see what would come next.

Cassie took a handful of mane, and did SOMETHING--the motion was too subtle for Hank to catch--which made Candy lift her head and move out in a smooth walk past him into the open field. With some trepidation, Hank merely watched, smiling a bit stiffly as the horse increased its speed. He certainly hoped it was at Cassie's instigation.

For a senior citizen-type horse, Candy moved with remarkable grace, and Hank applauded when she and Cassie cantered through a figure 8 pattern. At this, Cassie sat back, and the old mare stopped. A gentle tug on the mane made Candy bow her neck, snort, and back up several steps. When she reared up, pawing, Hank almost leapt forward, until he realized Cassie had engineered that trick too. She kept her balance, grinning, waving an imaginary hat at the imaginary rodeo crowd watching, queen of all she surveyed.

Show over, Cassie let Candy amble back towards the trees, and Hank walked forward to meet them. "My girl of the golden West," he murmured, reaching up. He put his hands at Cassie's waist and she leaned forward, hands on his shoulders, to slide with supple ease into his arms. They kissed until Candy's inquisitive snuff in their ears broke the mood.

Time passed as Cassie quietly reminisced, and neither mentioned the deadline that had been imposed on them. Eventually it was Cassie who gave her old friend one last teary-eyed hug, and turned back towards the house and yard. "Thanks for agreeing to come here, Hank," she said, putting an arm around his waist. "I know it wasn't much fun for you."

"I feel highly privileged to have met Candy--and your grandmother," he hastily added. It made her laugh, and he relaxed.

"It just seemed like...something I needed to do. Since I'm moving away." Hank automatically analyzed her word choice, and detected the implication that she expected the move to be of a significant duration. This gave him extreme satisfaction.

"Saying goodbye to your childhood," he commented lightly. The wide-eyed gaze she instantly turned on him told him he was correct in this guess too.

"Yes, that's it..." When she read in his face that he wasn't mocking her, she sighed in contentment and leaned her head against his chest.

"I've got a few trinkets packed away myself. I'll show them to you one day," Hank promised. "Though they don't compare to your Candy for magnificence."

"You should have seen her in her prime. People were always asking to buy her, horse show people," Cassie bragged wistfully.

"Are their pictures of the two of you at your parents' house?"

This brought a peal of laughter. "Oh, yes, ASK my mother to get out the pictures of me! I thought you wanted to leave sometime THIS week!"

"That bad, eh?" Hank responded, smiling broadly, as they went through the gate. He thought he might risk it all the same.

They were headed towards the house to bid goodbye to Viola when Vic called out to them from the barn. Hank felt Cassie's body tense as her cousin approached, and he reminded himself again that he was NOT going to SAY anything. Well, not unless VIC said something really uncalled for....

"Been thinkin', Cass," Vic began, kicking at the ground as if suddenly thinking it needed leveling in that particular spot. "Gramma's gonna have a fit or a spell or somethin' if ya don't stay for dinner at least."

Hank raised one eyebrow, and looked down at Cassie, whose face was schooled into a completely neutral expression. "And Louise is going to have one if we do."

"Oh, well, Lou'll get over it, I expect," Vic muttered. Somehow, though he was still sifting dust with one boot, he conveyed the impression he was in favor of that outcome. "And if she's gonna hafta get used to the idea sooner or later, she may's well start today...." He raised his eyes to Cassie as he said this, studying her, and nodded knowingly when an involuntary blush began to color her cheeks.

Vic switched his gaze to Hank, who wondered what his own expression might be revealing. "Tell ya somethin' about the squirt, 'case ya don't already know it. When she's right, she's right." Cautiously, feeling his way, Hank nodded to admit this confirmed his own suspicions, and Vic at last grinned in a way that showed why Cassie had such fond regard for the man.

"Tell ya somethin' else," he said as they all headed for the kitchen, where, if Hank recalled correctly, there was still quite a bit of pie left uneaten. "Gramma's pretty much expecting you two to spend the night."

"Ummm," Cassie said instantly.

"Cassie, you get the daybed in her room so Hank can have the guest room...."

"Oh, Viiic! GEEZ!" Cassie protested as Hank began casting about for excuses as to why they REALLY ought to get on the road quite soon.

Vic just laughed. "If you're REAL nice, maybe we'll get around and go into town after her and the kids are in bed." He added persuasively, "The Wagon Wheel has one o' them karaoke things now."

This brought Cassie's objections to an abrupt halt. "Really?" she asked, and Hank clapped a hand to his forehead in comic despair, knowing his fate was sealed.

"Hey, look, there comes the school bus." Vic looked Hank up and down again. "I hafta admit, I can't wait to see the kids' faces when they meet you," he confessed, with an unruly grin Hank was coming to know for a family trait.

"I'M kind of looking forward to Louise's," Cassie said, with a hint of challenge.

If that offended him at all, he didn't let on. "This is gonna be quite a night, I can tell already," was Vic's succinct assessment. His voice softened. "And I wouldn't have it any other way. Good to have you here, Squirt," he said belatedly. This time his nod at Hank was unmistakably friendly. "You too, Hank." And on that note, the three of them went companionably to meet the children dashing down the lane.

Continued in Part 24.

"I love you more than ponies; I love you more than stars!" Crites family endearment.

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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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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