Okay, I hope you people aren't in a big hurry, because it seems to me this thing is threatening to become LONG. So sit back, enjoy the ride, and keep in mind that the Marvel characters are all copyright and like that!


Neon Hearts

Part 4--Falling In Slow Motion

Neon Nurse

 

The supplementary lights had come on in the hotel's parking garage, now that dusk was gaining on the day. To Hank's relief, the roof of his little car slid obediently into place, almost as if it knew this was a special occasion warranting best behavior. "Do you like Italian fare?" he queried, as he pointed the car down the departure ramp.

"I like it fine," Cassie assured him. They compared favorite food items as he drove to a place he favored for serving authentically large-Italian-family sized portions of their specialties.

He couldn't seem help sneaking little glances at his newly elegant passenger, wondering why her change of clothes and a few other minor adjustments should make him feel so uneasy. It was still his intriguing, companionable new friend underneath. Of course, the effect the pair of them gave to the onlooking world was now different, due to the change of time, locale and level of adornment.

As soon as that thought struck, Hank suspected he had hit on the answer. Various less than pleasant public scenes from his past recalled themselves to his attention. 'All I can do is hope my luck keeps running high,' he thought fatalistically, and redoubled his efforts at cheerful conversation.

They were soon seated in a cozy corner booth by the enthusiastic proprietor, who was at least as glad to see Hank as his colleague from the Chinese place had been, although any scores between the two would have come out close. "You certainly are popular with restaurant people," Cassie observed.

"Oh, yes," he replied, and sought to try to explain in a clowning way that would disguise his mild discomfiture at needing to. "But you can see why. I'm at least two, sometimes three customers in one. Very efficient and profitable." She tilted her head, uncertain of what he was trying to express, and he shifted to a more straightforward mode. "I have a somewhat rapid metabolism in conjunction with not a little muscle mass." After a pause, she nodded, but he could see she didn't quite catch his meaning. "I order a lot more food than most... individuals."

"Oh, I see what you mean," she said, relieved to understand at last. "Well, order away. I'll try to keep up!"

Hank took her at her word, selecting three entrees for himself when the jovial waiter came, though sticking to the more manageable pasta forms out of consideration for the continued pristine condition of his white shirt. "The food here is excellent," he assured her, offering the basket of breadsticks, "but I am most enamored of the layout of the place. It's almost like a conglomeration of individual dining areas. I sometimes wonder how the staff finds their way around."

"You can eat out and be private at the same time?" She supposed he must have a lot of opportunities to date, being famous and all.

"Just so, he said, crunching a breadstick as delicately as he could manage.

"I suppose it must be annoying sometimes, for people to be looking at you, and asking for autographs and things, while you're trying to have a nice quiet dinner."

Autographs? "On the whole, people just stare--and it CAN be annoying." Cassie nodded, but he couldn't tell at all, all of a sudden, what she was thinking. Her oblique expression nudged him into making what was his mild-mannered version of an exasperated reproof. "I HAVE been wondering--" He smiled to temper his words, "You've noticed my unusual physical features, have you not? You don't have some sort of rare neurological visual disturbance?"

Cassie blinked, then smiled gently. "I don't think I'm having any trouble seeing the real you." The full meaning of her reply sunk in, and all he could do was hope he didn't look as dumbfounded as he felt. "On top of that, I might as well tell you...," she confided, not quite meeting his eyes, "I think you're very good looking."

"You do?" Despite the instant assumption from his cynical side that she was of course just being nice, he felt a bubble of warmth begin to grow somewhere inside him.

"Oh, yes." She looked perfectly sincere, and furthermore, didn't make the common mistake of trying too hard to convince him of her sincerity.

"Perhaps sometime you'd like to see me using my image inducer, see--" What in the world was he going to say? 'What I used to look like? Should look like?'

"What's that?" The salads arrived, but the server discreetly whisked them onto the table without interrupting their talk.

"A device of my own invention," he explained, trying to work his way back to solid ground, familiar territory. "It creates a visual field surrounding me that presents my original phenotype."

Now she looked doubtful. He was almost ready to offer a simpler version of what he'd just said, when a corner of her mouth quirked up. "You mean like Steven Wright?"

"Who?" He wondered crazily what she would say if he suggested they exit the restaurant and come in again, to see if they could regain that sense of being on the same wavelength that had disappeared somewhere.

"The comedian?" She appeared to be vaguely disappointed he didn't know. Then a recollection showed itself in his mind; a tall, partially balding man with a long somber face and a bizarrely twisted mental outlook. She must have seen something in his face that showed he had caught on, because then she smiled. "He does this joke, 'I have a tattoo all over my entire body--it's me, but six inches taller.'"

Hank couldn't help it; he burst out laughing. "Yes, I suppose, now that you mention it, the image inducer is quite similar."

"But you have one for REAL? One you INVENTED?" Her awe, now that she realized he was serious, was almost as pleasant as her assertions about his general attractiveness.

"Still tinkering with it, really," he began to explain, trying for modesty now. "It's in numerous pieces on my workbench in the lab, which is why I didn't wear it today."

"Do you usually wear it to go out?"

"It depends on my mood." Hank half-wanted to change the subject, half-wanted to know her reaction. "Some days I simply prefer not to add the attitudes of the general populace about mutants to my current list of concerns."

She digested this for a moment. "I guess I must have led a comparatively sheltered life," she finally said quietly. "I didn't know it was such a problem."

'Oh, great,' Hank berated himself instantly. 'Now you've upset her! You get a lovely woman looking at you like you invented the compact disk, and what do you do? Start complaining about your life! Perfect!' "It isn't THAT bad, my dear--don't fret yourself," he managed to say cheerfully, thrusting the melancholy mood firmly away. "I actually prefer to keep busy, working in my lab, on my own. Sometimes I turn into quite the scientific hermit, only dragged out for meals by my friends when they've missed me for several days on end." This return to joviality made her smile again, and he leapt on the chance to change the subject.

"I don't know if you will have heard of Silver's?" Cassie shook her head. "It is quite fashionable right now, which means in a short time it will be very difficult to get into, because of the crowds." He was pontificating now, he knew, but the way she looked when he did it just encouraged him. "Soon after that, there will be a dozen imitations, and then the fad will move on, and those of us who like it for what it is can return."

"And then People magazine will do a retrospective of it, and start the whole process over again," she said with a twinkle in her eye.

"I see you have a firm grasp on the life cycles of the entertainment world."

"I'm part of it, or at least part of a part of it. Fads I know about," she said ruefully. "EVERYONE was writing the dumbest time travel stories last year, and my agent just had KITTENS because I kept saying I couldn't think of any good ideas. She said I didn't need a GOOD idea, just a time travel idea." Now it was Hank's turn to commiserate, and hers to shake her head and dismiss the non-cheerful subject. "So what's this place like?"

"Silver is the owner, and he named it for himself in a blaze of open self-aggrandizement." He was interrupted by the arrival of their food, and the brief puzzle to be solved of how to fit everything on the table in an efficient manner. Once these amenities were observed, he resumed, "Silver's an interesting fellow--a frustrated theater choreographer, I suspect. The decor is minimalist eclectic; groupings of tables and dance areas in a positively cavernous former warehouse."

Cassie looked entranced, a forkful of linguini alfredo barely managing to cling unheeded to the utensil as she listened. "What kind of music?" she asked, then hastily recaptured the escaping pasta with a desperate twirl.

"That is the key to the charm of the place--you never know. Silver has a control booth up in the rafters, and he plays what he likes. You are as likely to hear Count Basie as Sophie B. Hawkins, and possibly even to hear them melded in some strange electronic fashion."

"How totally great!" Her enthusiasm was contagious, and Hank felt the last of his apprehension vanish.

"Plus he has controls for all sorts of lighting up there. He makes combinations as he sees fit." He shook his head. "Sadly, he sometimes uses his devices to express his idea of humor. I recall an instance when I was dancing with a friend, and he chose to play the theme from Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast'." Rogue had thought it was hilarious....

"Because 'Beast' is your...nom de guerre? N'est pas?"

"Exactement, ma cherie," he beamed at her, both for her knowing that about him and giving him the chance to show off his French accent, which he knew to be rather good, despite what Gambit said.

"How annoying of him, then." She was halfway between amusement and indignance, much as he had been.

"Yes. But the club is so entertaining, I had to forgive him."

"Is that where we're going? It DOES sound like fun. I know we don't have anything like it in Denver."

"Oh, well, Denver..." He started to say something snide and New Yorkian, then thought better of it. He smiled instead. "The best thing about Denver is...." right here "...there are air routes between here and there."

Cassie ducked her head and fumbled with the napkin in her lap, looking at him out of the corner of her eye to see if he could tell how flustered even this mild a flirtation made her. Yes, from the broad grin on his face, he could tell. She managed to smile back, but busied herself in her food until she got her composure back. "You ought to know, I'm not much of a dancer."

"Oh? Would you prefer to do something else instead?" His instant solicitousness of her preferences was something she would have to be careful about, Cassie decided. She could get far too used to that sort of consideration, and take advantage of his kind nature.

"No, no--I just thought you deserved fair warning. If you have a good reputation to protect out on the dance floor--you said you go there often...." His mouth full, Hank nevertheless managed to indicate his complete disregard for such matters with an eloquent shrug. "I always take three times as long as anyone else in our dance aerobics class to learn new moves--I can mess up a whole line in a heartbeat."

"But then, merely use the dance moves you already know, and I'll copy you, and people will think we're the reincarnation of Fred and Ginger."

"I'm not so sure," Cassie laughed, tickled by the mental image of Hank in a top hat with a cane. "If I tried some of those moves we do in aerobics, I'd be right OUT of this dress."

"That would surely be...precipitous," he murmured. Her reaction was to blush again, and bite her lower lip to try to hide her smile; an auspicious reaction, he thought.

They finished the meal down to the last breadstick, and then were subjected to a gooey Italian confection pressed on them by the proprietor. "I want your mirabella friend to want to come back to see us," Antony explained, winking at Hank and Cassie impartially. Cassie tasted hers and declared it wonderful, but was only able to eat half. She insisted Hank finish it off for her, so they wouldn't hurt Antony's feelings, and he acquiesced without much resistance. She leaned her chin on her hands and watched him eat with such fondness that he toyed with the idea for a moment of ordering another set. But no--time to move on to new adventures!


"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you ain't home by then, boy, yer in big trouble!" Baxter Black


INFO, ETC.

More chapters of this story can be found at: http://web2.spydernet.com/lori/iclinks.htm OR from the author, Susan Crites (carosue@centurytel.net) 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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The Neon Nurse thanks you!


PART5

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