Happy Holidays to all, as the story staggers on! Marvel characters belong to Marvel, right? Right. Also, should you ever visit the Visitor Center atop Trail Ridge Road, it's probably better if you stay on the paths. The rangers get grouchy if you don't....
Part 20--Shadows in the Starlight
Even burning low, the campfire put out enough heat to push back the creeping cold of night. Smoke rose like a dream, coiling up and away to fade into the mist of brilliance that was the Milky Way. "I could sit out here like this forever," Cassie remarked, breaking the easy silence. With a gentle, hinting tug on the sleeves of his parka, she pulled Hank's arms tighter around her, and snuggled even closer to him. His warm breath brushed her cheek.
"A particularly good vantage point for contemplating the majesty of the cosmos," Hank agreed in the same quietly rapt tone. He was accustomed to thinking of Xavier's as being secluded; this mountainside, where there was no man-made light to be seen at any distance, amazed him. Without skyflood to compete with the stars' glow, they dazzled the eyes, and the heart. Plus, it was...peaceful here. HE certainly felt more at ease than he had in some time. "Such a spectacle lends a whole new perspective to one's own petty concerns."
"Mmm." Hank waited for further comment, and when it was not forthcoming, stroked Cassie's cheek with the ball of his thumb in encouragement. "I've heard people say looking out at the stars makes them feel insignificant. But...well, this might be a funny thing to think...." Now it was his turn to hum at her, suggesting she go on. "They need us, to be beautiful." She craned her neck to look up at him and study his reaction, see if he was following her line of thought at all. "Without someone to think so, they're just...themselves. Doing what they do, being stars."
"Ah, yes, I see your point," Hank said, and smiled his agreement. "Without a sentient being to perceive the beauty, it does not exist. There is only light travelling through space, heat at the source of the fusion." She nodded and let her gaze drift heavenward again. "But then, is the same true of people?" Hank made sure his tone was light. "Do you need someone to tell you you're beautiful?"
"Oh, that's a good line," she said, after the slightest reflective pause. "Three levels of meaning at least."
Her fascination with the precise meanings of words came up at the oddest times--or was it all that odd? He too used them as a shield now and then. "And they are?" was all he said.
"Do I believe I am beautiful? That's the most obvious one."
"Do you?" he asked, genuinely curious to hear her answer. HE was rather inclined to think she was, but he would be the first to admit his judgement was no longer impartial.
"No, not really." There was just enough of a hint of self-mockery in her tone to set him at ease, keep him from feeling concerned about her self-perception. "I think to be actually beautiful, a person has to evoke that sort of stunned gasp response in the beholder, don't you? Like the stars." Cassie glanced upwards again, and he noted with an odd yearning the stars' gleam reflected in her eyes. "Your friend Storm, now--SHE is genuinely beautiful. And Jean too."
"Well, yes, I suppose so." Hank was not QUITE sure what he should say here. She was correct, and yet strong agreement might not be appropriate. Generally, he had found, ladies made statements like these so you could contradict them. And yet, Cassie was so very different from most of the women he had gone out with before....
"I think," she continued in the same tone of dispassionate assessment, "that I am somewhere between attractive and interesting looking. Depending on how dressed up I am and such." Now she smiled, and squeezed his hand. "It's not something that worries me."
Probably a good time to flounder on to the next subject. "What other meanings did you ascribe to my phrase?"
"Well..." She had to backtrack a bit. "Do people in general need other people's support and approval? To know they are beautiful, smart...loveable?"
That one he could field. "Yes, often. It is a rare person who can get by without any outside support."
"Yep." Cassie shifted position, turning sideways in his arms to gain a better view of his face. "I've been lucky to have a lot of supportive people in my life. I couldn't have survived without them."
Though her words sounded easy, Hank suspected they were nevertheless quite literal. "That must be where you learned to give support so well." As usual, even such mild praise made her squirm with pleased embarrassment. "What was the third level you found?" he inquired, to spare her more blushes.
But that didn't seem to have the desired effect. "Oh, well...like...as if you were asking...is the position open?" Her smile took on a shy cast, signalling he could let the whole subject turn into a joke, if he wanted to.
The firelight on her face burnished her skin to gold, while hiding her eyes in shadow, and joking was the last thing on his mind. "That could be very important information to acquire," he said gravely. "Is it? Open, I mean?"
"Yes...for the right person." Cassie shook her head, impatient at herself for blurting out such a clumsy response. "What I mean is, anybody can pay you compliments, even mean them. It's nice...but...."
"Approval means more from some people than others," Hank suggested quietly. "Depending on how important they are in your life."
"Exactly! That's not something you can base a relationship on, just compliments." She chewed on her lower lip, which he had come to realize meant she was playing words through in her head, analyzing them as he did chemical reactions. "On the other hand, you would have trouble getting by without them. Like you said, people need it."
"What else do YOU need, Cassie? How would you know..." he gathered the nerve needed to follow this sudden mad impulse, "...you were in love?"
She didn't respond right away, but neither did she flinch, a good sign, he hoped. "Funny. I write this kind of dialogue all the time, but in real life, it's hard to put into words. Maybe it really can't be. You just have to...believe your feelings." She cradled her head against his shoulder, which hid her face again, before she added, "Then have the courage to act on them."
Amazing how she had summed up the answer to his whole dilemma in two short phrases. "I believe it does take courage. I never thought of it that way before."
"Yes, it does. Because real life is so complicated. And serious. In the books, you know, all you have to do is get up to the commitment part. But a lot of times I wonder how my people did, afterwards."
"You of all people should know!" he laughed, thinking she was joking.
"But I don't! Because that's the hard part, and it's hard in a different way for everyone, and...because I didn't manage to do it."
He had forgotten again. That one misjudgment had done far more than break her heart; it had shattered her confidence in her judgement, and in the rest of humanity. Hank could feel a tension in her body now that had not been there only a moment before. "That's all past you now," he reminded her, and touched his lips to her hair so lightly he wasn't sure she noticed.
Perhaps she did; she slipped one arm around his back so she could pull closer to him. "THIS is perfect, right here and now. But it's like we're existing in a bubble, outside of time, you know?" Hank nodded. "We have to figure out the next part, and I don't have much of an idea how to."
"Then let us speculate. Hypothesize." He had been toying with these ideas since before he flew out, and waiting for the right time to present them. It seemed that time might be now. "The first problem is that we live so far apart."
"Yes, that's a biggie."
"My work and my personal commitments are geographically tied down, at this time," he pointed out apologetically.
"But MY work is...pretty portable," Cassie offered, picking up her cue.
Hank caught his breath at the implication. "Yes. There might even be advantages to you being near New York."
"I could...move out there?" she suggested, trying to make it sound like a casual statement.
"Hypothetically. What would you think about that?"
"New York is...scary," she murmured. "To live in, I mean. I liked visiting. But if I could...see you more, I could probably get used to it," she finished, more strongly. He remembered her fear of strangers, and was immensely moved she would be willing to undergo such a trial just to be near him.
"Maybe a...middle ground?" he said, giving up all pretense of this being problematical. "An extended visit...as my guest?"
He felt her minute twitch. "There at the mansion?"
"It IS where I live."
"Wouldn't the professor mind?" she inquired in a tiny voice. Professor Xavier must have intimidated her more than he'd realized.
"If I told you even a fraction about some of the other visitors we have had--" But perhaps that wasn't a wise topic; no point giving her good reason for alarm! "There would be no problem, I am quite sure."
"A long visit is more than just lunch."
"If you were assured he had no objections...would YOU have any?"
"No. No, I wouldn't." She sounded like she was surprised, somehow. "You really want me to do this, don't you?"
"If YOU want to, yes." He hesitated, then added, "Very much."
"Hank. If YOU want ME..." Her eyes were amazingly wide, in the firelight, and concerned to their depths. "I'd go anywhere with you; I just don't want to cause you any trouble. I...never want to do anything to hurt you."
Had she somehow sensed his doubts? This all seemed so serious, of a sudden. Yet...it FELT right. "Cassie, I think you are the best thing that has happened to me in a very long time," he assured her, and then pulled her to him for a kiss that seemed to prove it.
When the fire had burnt low enough that they could safely leave it alone and retire for the night, they took the Coleman lantern and journeyed down the path to the parking area and the restrooms. The air had turned decidedly nippy while they sat beside their campfire, which lent speed to their steps. Hank, in the adjoining building designated for gentlemen, as society decreed was proper, was startled to hear a brief shriek from Cassie. "Are you all right?" he called in mild alarm.
"These dang stainless steel seats are COLD!" she informed him cheerfully, and he laughed. A heretofore unknown benefit of fur revealed to him....
It somehow seemed even colder in the tent than it was outside. In haste, they tossed their parkas atop the thick pile of blankets and sleeping bags, then burrowed into the center of it. "I rescind my assertion we did not need the heater," Hank said, drawing them closer together, feeling considerable regret that it was both sensible and necessary for Cassie to retain some of her garments.
"Too bad Dad had loaned it to his friend to go ice fishing," Cassie agreed through chattering teeth. Their words puffed out in clouds that were alarmingly yellow in the light from the hissing gas mantles of the lantern. "But if I recall correctly, you said something about keeping me warm anyway?"
"Ah, yes," Hank purred, reaching out to extinguish the lantern. Cassie sighed happily just before their mouths met, in anticipation of the pleasure they would soon be sharing. A vivid joy abruptly sang within him as he realized with a jolt exactly what lay within his grasp. More than just a momentary sating of physical desire; there was a very real possibility he could look forward to this embrace every night, her sleepy, loving smile every morning, for a large percentage of the rest of his life. Always providing, of course, he didn't find some way to muck it up, he thought, before firmly putting that and all other concerns away for the time being....
They remained in their cozy nest as long as possible the next morning, but a layer of frost still coated everything in sight when they emerged. Cassie jogged in place as she cooked bacon and potatoes and eggs on a propane camp stove set atop the picnic table, only removing her hands from under her arms when she absolutely had to poke or stir something. As she saw to this task, Hank disassembled the tent, which went down a GREAT deal easier than it went up, and reloaded their vehicle. By mutual agreement, they were off to seek sights in a lower, more southerly, theoretically warmer part of the state.
Despite the cold, however, they were enjoying themselves immensely. Hank clowned his way through his tasks, juggling camping gear and devising jokes for Cassie's amusement. When he had most of their things stowed away, she sat him down at the table on a blanket she'd saved back, and rewarded him with a big cup of hot, sweet tea. Her recitations of family camping stories kept him entertained until the food was ready to eat at last.
The sun was finally warming things up by the time they drove back onto the main road through the park. Trail Ridge, Cassie had explained, was a genuine highway department type thoroughfare that crossed the summit of the Rockies. It was usually closed until Memorial Day because it took that long to clear away a winter's worth of snow accumulation. But they agreed they might as well check to see if the road was open, as the ranger had suggested it might be.
The higher their vehicle climbed, the deeper the banks of snow grew on the roadside, and eventually they found themselves virtually walled in on the mountain side of the road. But the promise of increasingly spectacular views, and the brightness of the sun, drew them onwards and upwards. They passed timberline, and the vistas of unending white sent them both in search of sunglasses against the painfully brilliant reflections off the snowfield. "This is amazing," Hank remarked, almost but not quite at a loss for words. "It's like being at one of the poles."
"It's the ONE of the tops of the world," Cassie replied, eyes alight. "And there's hardly anyone here but us!" This was something that had crossed Hank's mind, but not as cheerfully. "Can you imagine what it's like during the winter, before they open it up?"
He looked out over the blue-white slopes and shivered internally. "The return of the Ice Age."
"Back when...I was having trouble falling asleep at night," Cassie said, strangely quiet, "my therapist told me to imagine a peaceful scene; really picture it, and it would distract me enough so I could drift off." Hank cut his eyes at her, vaguely disturbed. "I used to imagine what it would be like to be up here. No one around, just the snow and the wind...." She seemed inner-directed, seeing something he could not. "Hardly anyone has ever seen this pass in the winter like that."
"Well, you will now be one of the first this season," he remarked jovially, hoping to restore her cheerful mood. The road seemed to be leveling off. Sure enough, suddenly there was a parking lot, with dirty orange highway trucks outfitted with snowplows scraping out the middle section. Hank turned in, thinking vaguely that it might be a good idea to make certain the road down the other side was also safe and ready for travellers.
There were two long buildings with steeply sloping roofs at one edge of the cleared space, and the contents of two trucks were being unloaded into them. One housed the Park Service's educational displays. No one seemed to care when Hank and Cassie entered to look them over. The building where souvenirs and snacks were sold during the season proper was closed, however. The walkway from which one could view the eastward approach they had just traversed was not yet cleared of snow, either.
"Too bad," Cassie said, as they walked back out into the open space of the parking lot. "It's a neat view." She stopped to gaze up a rise west of the lot and buildings. "The one up there's even better. I wonder how thick the snow is?"
Huge chunks of ice-glazed snow lay in untidy heaps at the edge of the parking lot, efficiently blocking their advance. "Under here somewhere is a path that leads up to a sort of scenic overlook. It's better than anything you can see from a car. I wish I could show it to you." They walked further down to where the artificially piled up snow was not so high, and ventured out onto the windpacked, natural portion. Cassie's feet sank through to her ankles, and Hank was calf-deep in the stuff the instant he stopped moving.
"You want to go up there?" he asked, not fighting the wave of bold gallantry that suddenly swept over him. "Let's go!" He half turned, and patted his back. "Hop aboard, my dear."
Cassie laughed with nervous delight. "Really?"
"You told me you know how to ride," he said with a sly grin. "Let's see if you're really a Western girl."
That was all it took. A daredevil look he hadn't seen before, which delighted him, came over her face. He crouched a little as she approached, but found it hadn't been necessary; using only one hand on his shoulder for balance, she vaulted onto his back with lithe grace.
Hank was expecting her to grab him around the neck with her arms while he held her legs. Instead, she took a double handful of the shoulders of his parka, and gripped his waist with her thighs, legs doubled back at the knees. When she squeezed him and clucked in his ear, he laughed out loud, and bolted forward, up towards the summit. It was an unexpected bonus, to be able to use his arms as well, and he succumbed to his wild desire to make the most of it.
"Yeeeee-haw!" Cassie shrieked in his ear, her legs tightening just a bit until she found her balance. "Go, Hank, go!" He obeyed, stretching out his stride, glorying in this chance to show off his strength and agility to her. They were in perfect tune; she clung to him with an uncanny instinct, flowing with every move he made. They reached the top of the mountain almost too soon.
Hank slowed and stopped at the apex, allowing Cassie to slide down from her perch. She took his hand and stood at his side, pointing out across an unimaginable view--they were looking DOWN on the tops of mountains that marched away, range by range, towards the west. "Over there--those are the Never Summer Mountains," she told him. "I LOVE that name, don't you?"
"Most evocative," he agreed, with only a slight catch in his voice. From some part of his brain, a voice was pointing out that the difference in atmospheric pressure here would be a contributing factor to hypoxia even WITHOUT strenuous physical exercise, and he took several very deep breaths in obedience to it. But there was a wind smelling of snow and cold pine forest whipping Cassie's silky hair, pinking her cheeks, and he found he really did not care about such mundane concerns as breathing. "This IS the top of the world."
He bent down, scooped up a huge double-handful of snow, and threw it out before them, into the air. It glittered like iridescent jewels as it broke up in the wind, and coated them both an instant later. Cassie beamed at him, seeming to understand the emotion behind the impulse. Hank grabbed her up, spinning her around in his arms as he laughed out loud. NOW she held him tight with both arms, laughing too, until they spun down into the snow.
There, on top of the world, they kissed, rolling in the old snows of winter, not noticing or caring how it frosted their hair and clothes and eyelashes. They were far too deeply involved in creating a new warmth, for a new season.
Continued in Part 21.
"When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained." Mark Twain