|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.
Part 1--The Ticket
Cassie was just coming out of the huge building, still a little disoriented by the sudden noise of the street, when she first saw him, so it was no surprise she didn't at first believe her eyes. An intensely red sports car, tiny to the point of circus eligibility, had spotted the departure of a gleaming black Buick Pretensia and whipped into the parking spot it was vacating. But that wasn't the odd part. The thing that set this vehicle apart from the common throng was the driver.
She stood caught in delighted amazement as a man in a sports coat with leather elbow patches and a similarly jaunty leather driving cap, who was UNDENIABLY blue, leapt with inhuman grace from his spot behind the steering wheel. 'Oh, I've SEEN him,' she thought happily. 'In magazines. He's one of those X-people! Oh, WAIT 'til I tell the folks when I get home!'
The blue man temporarily lost his carefree demeanor as he appeared to search his pockets and find no change for the parking meter. His indecision was plain, but he opted to bolt towards a nearby building, no doubt hoping to finish his business and get back before the last few minutes on the meter expired, and an official of the law happened by.
Cassie hesitated only a moment, then drew back against the wall of the building she had just left. No one was expecting her anywhere for the rest of the day. She might as well be here as anywhere, waiting inconspicuously to catch another glimpse of a famous person before heading back to her hotel room.
Then doom approached in the form of a meter maid. She was putt- putting ever closer on her little cart, and could not help but spy the 'EXPIRED' flag which had appeared on the meter. With barely a moment of hesitation, Cassie flung herself into action. By the time the meter reader arrived, she had breathlessly fed two quarters into the slot.
"And just what do you think you're doing?" demanded the voice of civil authority.
"Oh, we were...uh...out of change...and I had to go into the...um... (WHAT kind of kiosk was that in the lobby?!)...cappachino place to get some. For the meter."
"You didn't just see me coming and decide to feed the meter?"
"Come, my dear woman, this is New York! When did you ever hear of someone abetting a stranger in need here?" The bass voice from behind her made Cassie jump. Oh, lord, it was HIM. But he was talking charmingly to the still unconvinced meter maid. "I was out of change, yet I needed to transact business at my bank posthaste. So..." "Soooo...I got some change for my friend's meter here. While he was doing that." Cassie knew she was a terrible liar, and was halfway expecting the handcuffs to come out. Yet something about this strange man made her want to get a little crazy. "That's all that happened! Really!"
"Wellll..." The woman eyed the blue man nervously. "I guess you're paid now, anyhow."
"And we will be departing shortly," soothed the car's owner. "I am most heartily sorry if we caused you any difficulty."
"Well, next time, Mister, carry a couple quarters!" With this sally, the meter reader was off in search of the next freeloading parker.
Once she was safely gone, the errant driver said, "I can't thank you enough for coming to my rescue, Ms....?" The X-Man had taken Cassie's hands in his, and his blue eyes beamed.
"Ah...Cantrell. Cassie Cantrell."
"Like the raiders?"
Amazing! The man knew some history! "Actually, maybe. Part of my dad's family claims 'em--the other part denies the whole Civil War ever happened." Cassie's new acquaintance grinned, and her knees went wobbly, which was silly, as only the most novice of writers ever used that silly cliche.
"I wonder if you would do me the favor of allowing me to buy you lunch, in gratitude for your assistance?"
"Ahhh...." She had HEARD about the Wicked City of New York, and what could happen to an innocent visitor. She didn't know anything ABOUT this man.... "Sure!" she heard herself answer.
Cassie didn't have the gymnastic skills to hop into his car the same way he did, but it wasn't necessary, as he gallantly opened the passenger door and showed her inside. The restaurant he chose was a small Chinese place where they seemed to know him and feel he was at least family, if not a demi-god gracing their establishment. The food was fabulous, the service discreet, and it didn't seem at all like four hours later when they returned to the street.
By then, it felt as if they had know each other forever, and so it seemed like the funniest joke in the world to see Hank had...a parking ticket.
Part 2--Talking to Strangers
After their laughter had subsided, the two new friends, Cassie and Hank, leaned companionably against Hank's sturdy little sportster, examining the parking ticket that was apparently Hank's unavoidable fate today. "It really doesn't matter in the slightest," he assured Cassie. "My chief pleasure in avoiding the first one this morning came from the refreshing experience of seeing someone performing a kindness to a stranger."
"Oh, well..." As usual, unexpected praise put Cassie temporarily at a loss for words, and she found the tops of her shoes of sudden interest.
Hank peered at her, one eyebrow raised in comic exaggeration. "My stars, are you blushing, my dear? I didn't think there was a woman left in the 20th century who did that!" It made her laugh, and eased the awkward moment. He folded the ticket and tucked it into his inside jacket pocket. "I must confess I get these far oftener than is proper for someone who considers himself to be on the side of law, order and justice." He struck a thoughtful pose, one blue hand splayed so the fingertips touched his broad chest, a bright contrast over his white turtleneck. "I believe it is possibly my way of quietly rebelling against the strictures of modern society."
"Oh, a quiet rebel," Cassie smiled. "Me, too." Amazing how comfortable it was to chat with this absolute stranger! "In college, some friends of mine and I used to have secret protest rallies." Hank obligingly looked properly intrigued, and she went on, "We would write our demands on 3x5 cards, tuck them in our books, and walk across the campus to the snack shop."
This made him grin. "What sort of demands?"
"Oh, recruiting cuter boys to the campus, outlawing tests on Monday mornings, that kind of thing." She shook her head, laughing at the memories. "I didn't realize at the time...that was such a good time in my life. Being a grown-up is harder, more...boring."
Hank noted a faint shadow cross her face--amazing how quickly he was coming to know her expressions, he thought--and guessed she had been going to say something else besides boring. But he elected not to pursue it, figuring he was doing much better by keeping her entertained. "Well, shall we get on with our plan of viewing the sights?" Cassie had explained over lunch she was from Denver, in town on business, which was now mostly completed.
"Yes, that sounds good." As Hank opened the door to the low slung car, she added. "I'll try not to embarrass you."
This was genuinely puzzling to him. Was it some sort of backwards reference to his unique appearance? "Why would you?"
"Oh, after my...my friend picked me up at the airport Friday morning, we drove downtown and then walked around a little. I was feeling silly, so I kept staring and pointing and talking about how tall all the buildings are...."
Hank relaxed, laughed and closed her door. "I'm afraid that is quite outside the line of proper behavior here. No wonder your friend was embarrassed." Friend, said with a hesitation. A male friend? he wondered silently.
"I won't do it anymore," Cassie promised. "Or at least, I'll do it quietly to myself."
Hank reentered the vehicle on the drivers side, using the door this time instead of vaulting into the seat. He peeled smoothly away from the curb and into traffic, drawing a smothered gasp from his passenger, and settled instantly into the flow of the fastest lane. "Do you know, I've just realized we have missed one of the most common topics in the course of our most enjoyable conversation." He flicked a quick glance at Cassie; she merely looked normally interested, so he continued. "Your profession." Her expression went a little blank, and he continued, wondering if he was just putting his foot in ever more deeply. "Your means of supporting yourself, the purpose of your business trip to our fair city...?"
"I guess we have," she murmured, then had to repeat herself, as they had made it onto an expressway, and had quickly achieved a remarkable rate of speed. She guessed he got a lot of speeding tickets, too.
"And it is?"
"A...writer." The last word she spoke rather quickly.
"What? A lawyer?" Hank asked loudly, cupping a hand to his ear.
"NO, not a LAWYER, a WRITER!" The final word came out as a clear shout, because Hank had whipped onto an exit ramp and reduced speed to keep from running them under a large delivery truck also exiting.
"Really?!" He looked absurdly pleased, and Cassie steeled herself to make the next revelation. "Have I read anything of yours?"
"I doubt it." She clasped her hands in her lap. "I write...romances." She risked a glance. He looked very dubious, and then she could see him concentrate on schooling his face into a more open expression. She sighed inwardly. This ALWAYS happened. "It's just that, they pay fairly well, if you write fast. And people get enjoyment out of them, and it's kind of fun...."
The car swerved and came to an abrupt halt in a curbside diagonal slot beside open, tree-covered grounds. For an instant, Cassie imagined he was stopping so he could toss her out of his car for revealing her plebeian background. But he turned to her, and looked most earnest as he asked softly, "Do people criticize you, Cassie, for writing romances?"
"Ah...yes. It's as close as I come to having a secret vice." She smiled, hoping to slide off the topic without further damage done to her intellectual standing with him.
"It's not illegal, or immoral," he pointed out gently. "If you are supporting yourself, and bringing pleasure to people, what's wrong with that?"
Those were usually HER arguments, when she bothered to argue the subject at all, which was seldom. "Oh, well, you know, the genre still has a sleazy reputation. Neither the writers or the readers get much respect."
"I see. I can see it causes you pain. And I find that very sad."
Cassie had the wildest sudden urge to act like a character in a romance and plant a big lip lock on him, but she squelched it firmly. "You are the NICEST man," she said instead, and was a little surprised when she heard she had spoken the words as well as thought them.
"I know," Hank replied with a show of false modesty. "It's one of my most widely recognized qualities. Along with my stunning good looks, of course."
"Of course," Cassie agreed, in all seriousness, and now it was Hank's turn to look a little uncertain, then change the subject.
"Shall we stroll, my dear? This campus is a pleasant little place, and I believe some of the bulb beds are still blooming."
"Let's." She started to open her door, then paused. "If we had some 3x5 cards, we could have a protest at the same time."
"Just at this moment," Hank said, with a quiet sincerity that made something quiver inside her, "I am quite remarkably happy with the world at large. I wouldn't be able to think of a single complaint." And while Cassie sat stunned, trying desperately to think of a suitable reply to such excellent dialog, he exited the car, LEAPT over it with consummate grace, and opened the door to hand her out to the pavement.
Part 3--Inching Up to the Brink
The unusual couple strolled in the late May afternoon sun, oblivious to the occasional glances from passersby hurrying on collegiate business or ambling in personal enjoyment of the fair weather. "Oops, sorry again!" Cassie said. It was the third time she had lightly bumped Hank's arm or shoulder as they walked, and he was beginning to wonder at it, just a trifle. Did he make her THAT nervous?
"I discovered this campus," he continued, "when I was invited to guest lecture here. An unusual bequest devoted to groundskeeping makes it almost a private park. I come here to walk quite often."
"What were you lecturing on?" Cassie inquired idly, as she duly admired the shrubbery.
"Oh, various esoteric aspects of biochemistry." They passed under a flowering crabapple, and an errant breeze rained petals on them. Cassie laughed and shook her head, running her fingers through her blond hair to dislodge the stubborn ones. Hank barely restrained himself from reaching out to pluck one survivor from the depths where it hid, and tuck it away in his pocket.
"Tell me, do you believe it's the basis of all human behavior?"
"Biochemistry?" He had to mentally blink to put himself back on the conversational track. She was enchanting; all the more because her question was so artless, directed for information and not effect. "Yes and no. Important, without a doubt. But I also believe in...the human spirit. Free will. Individuality." She was nodding along, eyes alight. Their hands brushed again, and suddenly Hank was certain at least subconscious purpose was acting here. "Now you tell me something, Ms. Cantrell. Do you adhere to a traditionalist view of interactions between the sexes? Or are you merely a bit shy?"
Her startled look only lasted an instant. "I suppose I am...in some ways. Shy, I mean." He nodded, trying to maintain a serious demeanor over his glee at a correct deduction. "As for your other question... are we talking about MY work now?"
Hank crinkled his eyes. "We are talking about anything you like."
Cassie smiled back, and took him at his word. "My heroines are usually a little eccentric in some way, and certainly don't let tradition slow them down in their adventures." The smile became the least bit rueful. "I don't know if that means I'd secretly like to be that way or not."
"OUR outing today is a trifle unusual," Hank said, pretending to be pondering a weighty matter by his tone.
'You don't know how right you are,' thought Cassie. But aloud she said, "I'm really enjoying it...being with you."
Thus encouraged, Hank took her hand, interlacing their fingers, and the pleased look she gave him told him it was indeed the right move. "Do you have plans for this evening, or have I already monopolized too much of your time here?"
"No, no plans, unless you count watching tv in my hotel a plan." Her hand was light in his, but he thought it had the slightest tremor.
A perverse desire to tempt fate made him continue, "Were you perhaps...hoping to hear from your friend?"
Cassie looked truly puzzled at first, then seemed to grasp his meaning--perhaps several levels of meaning. "She IS my friend, but also my agent. I'll see her at another official function, and she'll drive me from there to the airport tomorrow night."
How odd--to feel a sense of loss already. "Well, then, could I persuade you to join me for an evening of dinner and dancing?"
"On if I brought the right clothes," she explained with great seriousness.
"Ah, but that is the beauty of being in a city like this, and having me as your guide!" he exclaimed. "No matter what your ensemble, I'll know a place where it will be appropriate!"
"Well, how can I say no to that?"
They repaired to her hotel without further delay. On the way, Cassie firmly controlled her thoughts, as she had learned to do, consciously putting fears aside 'for later', focusing instead on how much fun they were going to have. How many times had someone from the group told about just such a sudden opportunity, sometimes avoided and regretted, sometimes grasped with happy results. And yes, sometimes with poor results, but there was always a sense of having accomplished something just by trying. Now she just had to proceed one step at a time....
Back in her room, Cassie rummaged into the closet to display her various outfits for Hank's discerning eye. She held out two solid colored blouses, one red and one green, and some beige slacks, then a plain grey skirt. "Not very fancy, I'm afraid." Hank silently agreed, and began to scale down his ideas for their evening on the town. "Although I do have this. It's for the party tomorrow, but I COULD wear it tonight, too."
It looked like a shapeless mass of black cloth on the hanger, but Hank knew just enough about the mysteries of female garments that he could hypothesize an entirely different effect when it surrounded an actual body. He scaled his ideas back up. "I think I know just the place. Dinner first, though. If you ARE ready to eat again?" He had eaten lightly at lunch, and was feeling the effects of overmoderation.
Assuring him she was hungry too, and that she would hurry, Cassie gathered several cases and shut herself in the bathroom. Multiplying the number of cases by an average of 20 minutes each, Hank resigned himself to a wait, and decided to take the opportunity to check in at home.
The phone rang several times, and he when it was answered, he recognized the voice as Storm's. "Hank--I am glad you called. We had wondered what was taking such a long time at the bank."
"I'll tell you all about it tomorrow, Storm," he said, and smiled at the thought. "Just calling to say I may be late."
"As late as...tomorrow?" Her amusement and affection came clearly through the line. "Good for you--you have been working hard lately." An indistinct voice could be heard in the background. "Remy asks if he will see you out tonight?"
"Might be at Silver's later," he said, naming the site he considered their most likely destination, although part of him regretted doing so as he pictured Gambit's possible reaction to Cassie, and hers to him. Remy wouldn't intend to poach, but he could no more not flirt than not breathe. And he seemed to have equal success with both actions.
"I will tell him. Have a good time, Hank."
Well, that had used up two minutes. Regretfully pushing aside the idea of dashing down to the hotel's coffee shop for a quick snack, Hank resolutely sought other means of passing the time. He considered and rejected the television as too mundane. Pacing towards the window, he noted a manuscript on the desk open to the middle. Cassie's name was on the top of the page in the upper right corner, and he couldn't resist a peek.
'"Okay, I SEE it," whispered Brigitte, her voice taut with excitement and panic. "Give me the fish!" Then an iron shriek pierced the dark silence of the ancient churchyard. "Oh, no, they must have followed us! Run!"
"WAIT--I dropped the fish!"
"Will you just FORGET the fish and RUN?!"'
He turned away, nonplused. Apparently he would want to begin at the beginning, should he ever decide to read that particular tale. Catching sight of himself in the mirror, he examined his own appearance. His favorite white turtleneck was still presentable, marred only by a few stray blue hairs. A damp washcloth would fix that easily enough. He slicked back his hair with one hand, suddenly feeling unaccountably nervous. The day had gone so well in a spontaneous mode--the more traditional venue of dining and dancing suddenly seemed like a large step.
He heard the bathroom door open, and he turned to see Cassie stepping hesitantly out. For an instant, he could not help but gape, and she bit her lower lip, looking like she would dash for her slacks and blouse the next instant. But then he grinned, openly admiring the magic she had achieved, and he could see her relax as she smiled in return.
Her hair was twisted up in a casually elegant knot, and he could tell she had done something in the makeup line, although he didn't know quite what. But it was the dress that was staggeringly perfect for her--a little black dress, bare at the shoulders, and cut in a style that suggested a clownish satire of glamour. The old-fashioned word 'madcap' crossed his mind. She indeed looked like the heroine of a romantic comedy who could easily find herself unexpectedly juggling fish in a midnight graveyard.
"It's not TOO silly, is it?" Cassie asked nervously. "I got it from a shop where they...all read my books. They insisted it's a suit for my alter ego." Her faintly awkward bearing strove to assure him she knew she didn't really belong in such an elegantly comic gem of a dress.
"It's...wonderful! Words fail me, and that does not happen often, I assure you!"
Cassie blushed again, but now her eyes were sparkling. After his own quick brush up, they departed for the parking garage, Cassie nearly chattering as they went. Perhaps she was also a bit alarmed at the precipitousness of their growing interaction. But he played along with her bright dialogue games, content for the moment to have the role of hero to her heroine in whatever story they were acting out. He knew it was an unbroken rule for such tales to end happily, which was hope enough for him, for now.
INFO, ETC. More chapters of this story can be found at: http://web2.spydernet.com/lori/iclinks.htm OR from the author, Susan Crites (firstname.lastname@example.org) IF you can't access the Web. Many thanks to Lori for our new home! 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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