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

All of the anecdotes you are about to read are true. The names have been changed to protect the idiots....
Marvel characters copyright to Marvel, as we all know. I'm not such an idiot as to leave THAT out! (again....)

Part 31--Confrontations

"So THEN," Cassie continued, with wide eyes and low tones more suited to tales around a campfire than a table at a nightclub, "the camel took ahold of my hand with its mouth!" Her five listeners, despite being veterans of numerous bizarre combat situations, nevertheless reacted with gleeful sounds of revulsion. "I guess it didn't see the popcorn I'd thrown in there--or maybe I just looked like I'd taste better, I don't know...."

Cassie's recitation of her ninth grade biology class's fateful field trip to the Denver zoo was momentarily interrupted by the arrival of the cocktail server. "Plain tonic for the lady," he said brightly, passing it over. A shifting strobe light caught him, making his metallic waiters' jacket flare into near-incandescent. Everyone but Scott squinted and blinked, or held up an arm to block the offending brilliance. "Anyone else need anything?"

"A Seeing Eye dog, maybe," grumbled Bobby, but quietly. Sudden lighting changes were just part of the expected ambiance at Silver's. Hank initialed the addition to their tab, and the server departed, moving on to a nearby group waving frantically for his attention.

"You were saying, my dear?" he said, as he slid the glass of Asti Spumante she had apologetically rejected over next to his own.

After a quick assessing sip of her tonic--IT tasted normal, anyway--Cassie continued. "I'd just said, about it grabbing me? OK. So... the camel started trying to pull me through the fence...and we had this kind of tug of war thing going for a little bit...." She mimed this conflict briefly, managing to portray the comic struggle despite the handicap of being seated.

"Wasn't there anybody around to yell to for help?" Jean asked, half-horrified and half-expecting to discover at the end that this was just a funny story Cassie was making up for their amusement.

"Not a LOT of people. It was the middle of a school day, after all. Plus I was kind of embarrassed to call attention to the fact I'd stuck my hand through the fence and couldn't get it back out."

"Better'n feedin' th' camel," Rogue observed wryly.

"Well, that's what I thought." Once she got into her storytelling mode, Cassie often forgot to be shy; exercising her knack for expressing the ridiculous in an understated way took her out of herself and into the scene she was detailing. "And I figured if nothing was done I was going to be screaming eventually anyway--camels have big teeth in the back, like horses." She opened her mouth and pointed to her own molars in solemn illustration.

Bobby, on her left, hid his face in his hands, snorting hugely. Rogue smacked him lightly to suggest he be a bit quieter.

"So I went--" Cassie barely raised her voice, despite the noise of the club surrounding them on all sides, "'Excuse me? Um, help? The camel has my hand....'"

Scott, who had strong reservations in the first place as to whether anyone could be so genuinely silly, now looked wholly disbelieving, although he was still smiling. "That's your idea of yelling for help?"

"Well," Cassie shrugged apologetically. "I just...never have liked being a bother to anyone."

"You still have your hand," observed Jean, trying to help move the story along. "So someone must have heard you."

"Oh, yes. A man was passing by, and he ran up and poked the camel in the nose with a pen to make it let me go!" Cassie's eyes glowed, remembering the bravery and quick thinking of this unknown hero. "And after it did, he pulled my hand through the chain link--it came out pretty easy, now that it was all slimy." Another chorus of 'ewwws' followed this description. "So I washed my hands, and finished my biology assignment, and after we all got back on the bus, I showed my hand to my teacher. It was starting to puff up a little."

"Camel bites CAN have that effect," Hank noted wisely.

"The good part was, the school nurse gave me an excuse from my last class of the day because of it. 'Please excuse Cassie from participating in class, as her hand was chewed by a camel this afternoon.' The look on the teacher's face when I gave it to her pretty much made it all worth it."

"Gym?" Bobby asked, as one expert gym-dodger to another.

"Oh, no. Typing."

After the laughter died down, Jean said, "Okay, Hank. What was the dumbest thing you ever did when you were a kid?"

"There are entirely too many to pick one," he claimed, with a jarring note of modesty making him sound slightly proud of himself.

"THAT I believe," Scott said, amid chuckles of agreement.

"Just--tell the earliest one that pops into your mind," Jean suggested.

Cassie smiled encouragement, so Hank pretended to cast his thoughts back into the dim past, eyes closed in concentration, fingertips at his temples. "All right. Third grade." Everyone looked expectant. "On this particular day, we had a substitute who was possibly the most boring lecturer ever inflicted on helpless children. LECTURES! In a class where we were accustomed to spending the hour singing about 'Old Paint', and Mr. Frog, who if I recall correctly was 'full of hops'."

"I think I know that one," Jean mused. "From piano lessons?" Her fingers wavered uncertainly through notes of decades past.

Hank was now warming up to his narrative. "Desperately my youthful mind sought to save itself from being snuffed out by ennui. Looking around my immediate vicinity, I noticed as if for the first time the ink bottle hole in the top of my rather antiquated desk."

"Uh-oh," said Jean and Scott in unison. They turned their heads to grin at each other.

"Suddenly it occurred to me to wonder whether my hand would fit through that hole; I have no idea why. So I proceeded to find out.  And lo and behold, it did!"

"Annnd...did it come out again?" Bobby asked, obviously already anticipating the answer.

"No, sadly not." Hank shook his head in mock remorse, but his laughing eyes showed his true feelings. "Not with soap, or cooking oil from the kitchen...I fear I sadly disrupted that class."

"How'd they get ya out?" Rogue wanted to know.

"The custodian came with a hacksaw." A more somber look crossed his face and he added, "I recall thinking I could probably simply break off the corner of the desk. But even then I...understood that would be a bad idea."

Cassie stroked the back of his hand in silent sympathy. No wonder he was so against having children, if he'd had to hide his true nature as far back as he could remember. What a hard thing for a little boy to have to do!

Jumping in before the silence could become awkward, Bobby said, "Okay, I've got an entry for dumb kid tricks...don't say it!" he added, waving a warning finger at the group at large. Once he was satisfied that group mockery had been temporarily evaded, he continued, "I was visiting a cousin of mine one summer--I guess I was about eleven.  We'd gone to the City pool for the afternoon. It wasn't a BIG city, and the pool was at the main park, along with a little zoo."

"Uh-oh, zoos again."

"Yeah, dangerous places! So, we were walking through it going home, and we were just passing the monkey house, which had an outdoor section called Monkey Island. It was surrounded by a moat of water, so people could watch the monkeys playing outside in an unfenced area, but the monkeys couldn't escape."

"Cain't they swim?" Rogue objected.

Bobby looked to Hank, who shrugged, but said, "Some can't, I believe.  I imagine it depends on the species."

"Well, probably these couldn't, or they wouldn't have still been AT the zoo," Bobby added, and Rogue bowed to this display of logic.   "Anyway, like I said, we were walking by when some kids who knew my cousin Marty came up and started bugging us. Not anything real mean, you know, just goofing around. But we'd been carrying our swim trunks, you know? And they got them away from us and threw them onto the island."

"And the monkeys put them on," Jean suggested.

" you're being silly." They were all being a bit silly, and enjoying it a great deal. "But Marty was afraid his mom would freak out if he came home without 'em. And the other guys started daring us...and so we climbed over the little stone wall and jumped into the moat."

"It was only about up to our waists--and the island was empty. We thought 'piece of cake!'. Climbed up onto the island and grabbed our trunks...then we started kind of showing off to the other guys, who were yelling 'Hey, look at the new monkeys!'--stuff like that. And some other kids stopped, and they started hollering we'd better get out of naturally that made us holler back we'd go when we were good and ready...."

"Can I...postulate you should have made yourselves ready and departed posthaste?" Hank inquired.

"Yep. Because just about then I noticed one TINY little monkey kind of inching up to us. I bent over to pet it..." Bobby paused for dramatic effect, "and the little creep JUMPED me. It started screeching, and ALL the other monkeys came pouring out of their house and attacked us!"

Bobby leapt up abruptly to reenact this climactic battle. "The monkeys were screaming, and WE were screaming, and they were jumping on us and biting us and we were yanking them off and flinging them every which way," his arms flailed wildly, throwing invisible monkeys right and left, "and the people on the other side of the moat were screaming, and FINALLY Marty got the idea to jump into the water--"

People from other tables were staring, both at the wildly gesticulating man and his hysterically laughing companions. Bobby sat down and waited. Hank removed his glasses, wiping his eyes. Cassie was hiccuping with hysterical giggles, and had buried her face against Hank's chest to try to calm herself. Even Scott was laughing aloud.

When he could reasonably expect to be heard, Bobby said, "I still have the scars on my legs," with such great dignity that it started everyone off again.

"Y'all got MY vote f'r dumbest kid stunt," Rogue finally managed to say between diminishing chuckles. "Ah thought Ah had a sure winner, tryin' to kill that rattlesnake with a hammer...."

"I concur."

"Me, too," said Cassie, agreeing with Hank. "A pack of ravening monkeys beats one old dried up camel any day!"

Bobby beamed, pleased to be the recognized champion at SOMETHING for a change, and raised his beer glass in joking acknowledgement of his peers' accolades. A companionable silence ensued as the group waited for another topic to suggest itself.

Their attention was drawn to the current action on the dance floor.  Silver had started one of his famous 'melded' song sets; the theme this time seemed to be any mode of air travel. Only hard core dance fanatics attempted to stay on the floor during these, taking the rapid shifts of timing and mood as a challenge to their abilities. It tended to create an entertaining show for those watching.

"Git on out there, Hank, ya know ya want to," Rogue teased. Actually Hank, with his inherent, almost eerie grace, had more than once inspired spontaneous applause from the Silver's regulars.

Scattered laughter followed the dancers' attempts to switch gears from the Steve Miller Band classic 'Jet Airliner' to the much more sedate 'Up, Up and Away' by the Fifth Dimension. "I'm content, for the moment, just to sit here with all of you," Hank answered easily. In fact, he was sitting this one out because he sensed Cassie wasn't quite up to the challenge tonight. She seemed happy enough, but somehow quiet, and she leaned against him from time to time as though she were tired. All the unpacking, perhaps, coupled with the time change from Colorado.

"So how was the movie?" Bobby said to Jean and Scott, who had joined their foursome late, after finishing up their prior plans.

"Great," said Jean at the same time Scott answered, "Pretty good."  They looked at each other, that amused exchange intimate even there in the crowded nightclub. Jean went on, "Considering how hard it is to find a movie we both want to see!" Scott laughed and shook his head. "We picked the Mission Impossible remake, figuring it would be a good action film, which is what Scott likes..." her smile grew faintly wicked, "and there was Tom Cruise in it for me."

"You guys should go see it," Scott suggested, nobly ignoring Jean's teasing. "Good special effects, even if some of the things they had them doing were pretty far-fetched."

"'Aw, nobody in their right MIND would do THAT on a mission.'" Jean leaned back in her chair, clasping her hands on her chest and frowning, a pose they all readily recognized, as she mimicked Scott's most frequent observation with the accuracy born of long, fond acquaintance.

"Don't debrief us here, okay, Scott?" Bobby asked. "I HATE to go to a movie where I know when the explosions are going to come."

Hank opened his mouth to add his pleas to Bobby's, but shut it again abruptly. Cassie turned her head to look for what had so forcefully caught his attention, and a hush fell as the others did likewise.

A woman with stylishly cropped black hair and an impeccably casual 'night on the town' outfit was approaching their table. Cassie glanced quickly from face to face; the expressions she saw varied from studied blankness to outright animosity. Another one of those things everyone knew about but her, no doubt of it. Although it looked as though she was going to find out about this one....

The woman paused for half an instant when the group's reaction registered with her. But she made some internal adjustment that reset her poised manner, and came on anyway. "Hello, Hank."

"Trish," he acknowledged with a nod. Cassie couldn't help glancing at him when she heard the tight control in his voice. He was smiling politely, but only on one side of his mouth. "You're looking well."

Maybe it was just a trick of the changing light that had taken the flashing humor out of his eyes, she thought. There was a strange darkness there now, the pupils wide to absorb...what? The mental image of a dog, pressed beyond its normal friendliness and about to bite, came to her mind for some reason.

If the woman noticed Hank's uncharacteristic restraint, she didn't show it. "You too." Cassie felt oddly sorry for her. It must be difficult to stand there at the center of everyone's watchful dislike and act as though she didn't care.

Then those calculating eyes focused on Cassie and she found she couldn't look away. Her own experience with quick assessment of people and scenes told her this Trish was doing that right now; there was a sort of flicker in her face as the mental sorting took place.

"I know YOU," Trish said, and she smiled again at Hank, but there was something not quite pleasant in it. "You're the romance writer."

"Yes, that's right," Cassie admitted, feeling her way cautiously. She had grown mostly accustomed to hearing variations of this line from strangers. But this woman did NOT give the impression she was going to turn out to be a fan.

"I saw that little prom night picture of the two of you in the paper," Trish said, the hint of a mocking coo in her voice making it clear this was a dig. Cassie was at a loss for just a second, but Hank instantly caught the reference. His right eyebrow made that minute dip that meant he was less than pleased. "Hank pinning on your corsage?" Trish continued helpfully.

"Oh, the awards ceremony!" Trish's glance at Hank said as plain as words, 'cute, but a bit dim for you, isn't she?' "I...didn't realize it had been in the paper here," Cassie tried to explain, then realized that made it sound as though she didn't READ newspapers. "I'm from out of town."

Hank shifted slightly in his seat, and under the table he patted Cassie's knee. "Did you...want something, Trish?" he hinted.

"Just to say hi, chat a bit." Trish paused, as if expecting an invitation to sit down. None was forthcoming, but she breezed on anyway. "So what's new? How's your work going?"

Hank's half smile became even thinner. In an extremely careful voice he said, "No comment." Cassie heard someone nearby--Bobby?--make a tiny sound of stifled reaction.

The intruder's perfect facade remained intact, although she didn't speak for a moment. Cassie sensed a telling blow had been landed somehow, despite the lack of reaction from the recipient. She was growing steadily more certain she might NOT want to hear what all this was about.

Looking directly at Cassie now, Trish said, "Good luck, honey--and a word of advice. Don't ever cross him--he'll never forgive you for it."

This slur on Hank stirred Cassie as no remark to or about her ever could. She could hear the self-righteousness under those words; her unlamented ex-husband had had exactly the same way of side-stepping any guilt over others' reactions to his behavior. "It's a bit difficult to forgive someone who won't admit they've done anything wrong."

Trish stiffened at this, then gave Hank an accusing glare and marched off without another word, leaving them all sitting in excruciating silence.

Bobby was the first of the group to recover. He burst out with faintly shrill tension-relieving laughter, then turned to Cassie.  "Put your hand up." She looked puzzled, but complied, allowing him to high-five her. "Shooting blind from mid-court...and she sinks it with nothin' but net!"

"I did?" She looked at Hank for a translation.

"He means your reply was stunningly apropos, considering you had no knowledge of the background situation." Hank seemed composed, but somehow tired beneath it all. "I can tell you the sordid details later, if you like. Meanwhile--shall we dance?"

Cassie was more than willing to do so, if it would take his mind off whatever had just happened. The melded set had ended, and a slow  love song from the current Top 40 gave them a good excuse to hold each other until their jangled nerves were mutually settled.

Gradually the little party got rolling again. Hank gallantly invited Jean out on the floor when the music turned to something raucous her husband wouldn't be caught dead dancing to, and after that some polite mixing of partners took place. When a country-western tune unexpectedly came on, Hank persuaded Cassie to give him a refresher on his line dancing technique, which Bobby and Rogue joined in on until Bobby stepped wrong and brought them all down in a laughing domino effect. Scott mostly watched the dancing, though he did take advantage of enough romantic numbers to make Jean very happy.

The five main dancers were debating whether to advance to the floor and start a can-can line at the next appropriate show tune when they were again joined unexpectedly.

"'Allo, amis." In the crush of the popular night spot, Gambit had not needed to exert his skulking talents to remain unnoticed by his teammates. He had been watching them from afar for quite some time, working up his courage, and incidentally drinking much more heavily than usual. Now he stood before them with a crooked smile, weaving almost imperceptibly on his feet. All the phrases he had planned and rehearsed had completely left his head, leaving him feeling foolish beyond measure.

Rogue almost demanded to know what he thought he was doing here, before she recalled she wasn't speaking to him. Several other questions also tried to escape her lips, forcing her to fold her arms and look away to keep from blurting them out.

Viewing this, Cassie recalled Hank making the suggestion of an evening out, during dinner at the mansion. The first response had been from Remy, saying he had other plans, and Rogue had quickly agreed to go out with them as soon as he'd said it. The sardonic half-smile that had played about Remy's face when he heard that, as if to say he had expected nothing else, was identical to the look he bore now. She winced in sympathy for him even as she wondered what he had done to Rogue to make her so embittered.

Through the haze of half a dozen neat whiskeys downed in little more than an hour, Gambit dimly realized this impulse had been a bad idea. As usual. "Gambit crashin' de party, eh? Spoil ever'body's good time? Better go, den...."

Hank had been scanning the nearby tables for an unused chair ever since he'd noted Gambit's atypical unsteadiness, and he now leaned back to snag one. Handing it over the table to Scott, who nodded silent agreement as he placed it next to his, Hank said in cheery tones, "Sit down, Remy." Before you fall down, he added to himself, worried that he might merely be making the situation worse.

Bobby and Cassie took up Hank's cue, adding friendly words of encouragement, with Scott and Jean joining in an instant later. "Well, since you all insis'."

In his haste, Scott had not considered the implications of placing the chair between him and Rogue. Gambit now half-leaned towards her, his normally neatly brushed back hair falling into his eyes. "We havin' fun yet? Non?" Rogue resolutely switched her gaze to the shiny black table top, although that was not a real escape, as his reflected face was there too.

Gambit shrugged, grinning around the table, as if inviting everyone to join in on the joke. Cassie was struck by the oddness of his red eyes in the dimmed light--they didn't QUITE glow, but there was a sort of reflection there, like a cat's.

"We were actually getting ready to call it a night," Hank remarked in a blatant attempt at nonchalance. "You may as well catch a ride home with--"

"Got m'bike," the Cajun interrupted airily. "No need fo' nobody troublin'."

"But...should you be riding it?" Jean asked. Gambit waved this question away with a slow, sloppy smile that parodied his usual charm.

"No, he shouldn't," Rogue said, entering the conversation at last.

"Why, chere, Gambit t'ought you di'n' care no mo'." He half reached for her, but pulled back at her freezing glare.

"NOBODY here wants to see ya wrap y'self aroun' a streetlamp," she snapped.

"Includin' you?" He looked at her as intently as if they were the only two people in the world. "What DO y'want f'm me, Rogue?" Fire snapped in those eyes, and he knew, in a brief flash of mental clarity, that he'd only made the situation worse by confronting her in front of others.

Those others were, to a person, acutely embarrassed to be witnessing this, but no one seemed to know what to do to end the unbearable scene. Finally grasping this, Remy started to rise, then suddenly slumped to the table. Rogue and Cassie gave twin gasps.

But Jean coolly reached across Scott to feel Gambit's neck for a pulse. "Let's get him outside. We can take him home in our car."

"Your work, Jean?" Hank asked admiringly.

"Yes--just a little 'touch' to the jugular vein," she explained, casting a quick look at Rogue. She couldn't have said what reaction she expected to read there; strangely, there was none to read.

"Carotid," Hank corrected absently, before adding, "Can you safely keep him under?"

"I think the whiskey will do that."

"How about his bike? This isn't too good a neighborhood to leave it in overnight," Bobby observed.

"I'll fly it back," Rogue said. She now looked faintly shaken, as though she was losing the fight not to show her reactions.

"We've got to find it, first," Scott said with his usual practicality.

Jean closed her eyes, and frowned a little, as if she were having unexpected difficulty with her attempt to probe Gambit's thoughts. "It's around the corner at that small lot, in the back. Shouldn't be a problem for you to nip off with it while the attendant is busy, Rogue."

The plan was put into action, and proceeded without complications.  Hank and Cassie, in Hank's sportscar, talked very little as they followed the other two vehicles home to the mansion, but Cassie kept her hand on Hank's thigh as her mind worried over the events of the evening, and he occasionally reached over to give her a reassuring pat in return.

"Not talking about something sure causes a lot of problems, doesn't it?" she ventured once.

"Indeed it does," Hank replied, pulled from his own vaguely morose thoughts, which had been toying with how best to describe to Cassie the past unpleasantness with Trish.

"Let's us not ever do that, okay?"

"Not talking has seldom been one of my failings," he answered as lightly as he could, hoping to bring a smile to Cassie's face. "Talking too much is far more likely." Indeed, if he hadn't rambled on to Trish so often about his work, that whole fiasco never would have happened. Sharing musings he thought were private and she thought were newsworthy had simply been tempting her too far; he could see that now.

Hank could also see, glancing down, that Cassie looked quite serious still. "If we should ever have any problems--not that I expect to--I promise to discuss them," he vowed, smiling as reassuringly as he knew how. "We're two literate, mature, extremely verbal and highly compatible people. I can't picture lack of communication becoming an issue for us."

"Well, we've done all right SO far," Cassie acknowledged, smiling back. "You're right...I'm worrying about nothing again." She patted his leg once more. "You're so sensible it's scary."

"I think, therefore I am well-adjusted," he quipped. The somber mood dispelled, Hank snapped on the radio, and he and Cassie sang duets most of the way home.

Continued in Part 32.

" can people have no feelings?
How can they ignore their friends?
Easy to be proud...easy to be cold.

Especially people who care about strangers;
Who care about evil, and social injustice.
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend...?" ("Easy to be Hard", from 'Hair')

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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