The following chapter was an experiment, brought about by
my fear of wildly screwing up Brit-type dialogue. Ian Phil Pinta Scrumpy Foster
very kindly agreed to co-write this Excalibur extravaganza with me. (And I hope
it didn't put him off joint projects for life!) If you care to make comments
about this section, I hope you will share them with him as well--his address
Part 37--High Spirits at Muir Island
"It almost seems like we're standing still!" Cassie was leaning up and forward, half out of her seat, face pressed to the glass of the Blackbird's canopy. The blue-green expanse of ocean far below them looked surreal, suspended in time. The glossy billows that would turn to waves near land were here slowed to near-immobility by their own mass, each ponderously heaving into the space vacated by the one before as they blindly followed their mother the moon.
Cassie dropped back into the co-pilot's chair from where she was doing absolutely nothing whatsoever, and beamed at Hank. "This is so fun! Going off for a little ride, just you and me! It's like...like...."
"Like the good old days?" Hank offered, and she laughed.
"The good old days of last week!" She swiveled her chair, laced her fingers behind her neck, and leaned back, the seat obediently reclining at her mere suggestion. "So much has happened so fast."
"Do you regret it?" Hank asked, keeping his eyes on the controls as he tried very hard to sound casual.
Her clear astonishment that Hank could even consider such an idea made him shrug an instant apology, but also let out a secret internal sigh of relief. "I know some things have been...upsetting to you," was all he said, by way of explanation.
"A little," Cassie admitted. "But...I'd be miserable all by myself back home. I know I would."
This was exactly what Hank wanted to hear, but somehow it didn't seem quite apropos to say so. "And you'd be missing this chance for a free trans-Atlantic vacation!"
"I've probably never flown this fast before," Cassie said, her thoughts returning to her awe of the advanced technological splendor surrounding them.
Hank's thoughts had been distracted in a different direction. "Want to join the Mach 2 club?" he asked with his most charming leer.
"Kind of like the Mile High Club, only for more...accomplished fliers." His grin widened as he patted his lap. "Come sit over here and I'll...explain it to you."
"Well...you did say this plane could pretty much fly itself," Cassie conceded, moving over to the position suggested, displaying a slightly wicked smile of her own.
"I did, and it can." This last came out a bit muffled, since Hank was now nuzzling the back of Cassie's neck.
"Are we really--ahh!--going...." Cassie's voice trailed off as she temporarily lost her train of thought.
"Going Mach 2?"
"Does it matter?"
Quite a while later, Hank idly glanced over the control panel readouts, which winked back at him like cheerful partners in crime. Everything, himself included, seemed to be in tune with the universe, which seemed strange considering how shamelessly he was indulging in guilty pleasures. Cassie was sprawled in a cosy and most unladylike manner across his chest, her head snuggled up under his chin. Hank stroked a hand down her bare thigh, considering with a secret smile how shocked his teammates would be if they could see him now, and for more reasons than the obvious one. Hank, the official X-Men stick-in-the-mud about no flying without a back-up pilot, no fooling around--so to speak--at the controls, and ESPECIALLY no letting the auto-pilot run without safety checks except in emergency situations....
"How long until we land at...at...that place where you have to help fix the computers?" Cassie murmured into Hank's chest fur.
"Oh, roughly half an hour," he responded, after another quick glance at the instruments.
"I'll need to go...freshen up," she rather unnecessarily explained. "In a minute or two...."
Hank had every confidence in Cassie's ability to freshen up, as she put it, and emerge at their destination looking as chaste as if she'd just walked out of church services. It had helped him make his decision to entertain her in a way that would distract her from fretting about meeting yet another group of strangers. He also hoped that, being more relaxed now, she'd be less likely to become excessively distressed at the scene he suspected they'd see upon landing. Moira had waxed eloquently profane when describing the damage that had been done to the Muir Island facility the day before by a confused young mutant with frightening abilities.
When he first asked Cassie to come live with him, Hank had hoped to introduce her GRADUALLY to some of the more upsetting realities of life amongst the mutants. That plan had not been entirely successful. Now he was leaning more towards getting the worst over with as quickly as possible. Seeing this fresh destruction, but with the inhabitants taking it in stride, might be as good an example as he was likely to find for a while. And if she...became a little overwhelmed...it at least wouldn't be in front of certain people he was trying to convince about her ability to cope....
Three individuals stood at the home end of Muir Island's airstrip, watching the X-Men's Blackbird complete its landing protocols. The women's hair and the man's skinny black tie whipped back and forth like demented windsocks, as gusts off the North Sea competed with the blasts from the plane's powerful engines.
"Right, who knows any sick jokes about Beauty and the Beast, then," Pete quipped, preparing himself in his own way for the encounter.
"If ye come out wi' any more 'o yuir so-called jokes I'll wire yuir mouth shut f'r a month!" Moira retorted, with a quite convincing glare of promised retribution for any sins Wisdom might be considering.
"Yer gettin' soft in your old age, Moira. Last time you tried to force-feed me some of your coffee."
Kitty quietly snorted as she hushed him up, and shrugged Lockheed's limp form a bit higher on her shoulder. Only her intense curiosity about the Beast's 'Beauty' had lured her out to be a part of the welcoming committee, with her little dragon not feeling well. "There's the hatch opening. Let's all go say hi."
Cassie and Hank waited until the landing platform was firmly in place, then started down its ramp. Cassie walked as close to Hank as was possible with him carrying all their luggage at once. The first thing to hit her was the cold breeze, carrying alien scents of saltwater and fishlike substances. The next thing that clamored for her attention was...destruction.
The building before them was clearly meant to have two matching wings coming off the futuristic-looking central structure. One was simply gone. Well, not gone. It was all still there, but in a vast number of jagged pieces, scattered like a mad puzzle kicked apart by a gigantic sulking child.
"Cassie?" Hank stopped and spoke over his shoulder, which jolted her out of her stunned astonishment.
Just one person did all this? she thought, with no small amount of alarm. No WONDER everyone had been so instantly defensive when Joseph turned up at the mansion! "Coming," was all she said aloud, moving forward again.
There was a small group approaching from the direction of the ruins: a man in a dark suit who looked like the poster child for terminal cynicism; a woman with auburn hair, wearing glasses and a white lab coat; and a younger one carrying...something...partly over one shoulder. It was smaller than a baby, but bigger than a cat, and distinctly purple...
"Good of ye to come on such short notice, Hank," called the older woman cheerfully as she pulled ahead of the others. "Is this Cassie then?"
"It is indeed," Hank replied, setting down his collection of suitcases so he could unobtrusively let Cassie stand close to him during the introductions. "Cassie, this is Dr. Moira MacTaggert."
"Just call me Moira, there's a good lass." Cassie smiled shyly and nodded. "Welcome to Muir Island. Please excuse the look of the place--"
"Cleanin' woman's day off," inserted the man, earning himself a repressing look from the females on either side of him.
"This is Pete Wisdom," Moira said, with the grim look of someone who wonders why the Lord has chosen to afflict her so.
"Cigarette?" he asked Cassie, holding out a small and rumpled box of Silk Cut.
"Um...no. I don't smoke, sorry," Cassie answered, a bit taken aback.
"And if she DID, Pete Wisdom, I'm sure she'd have the good manners to do it outside without WHININ' about it--"
"I NEVER whine!"
"Oh, PLEASE," interrupted the other woman, her wide grin making it obvious she was in possession of much evidence to the contrary. Then she stepped forward a bit and held out the hand that wasn't securing her odd burden. "I'm Katherine Pryde; most people call me Kitty. Don't mind Pete and Moira--they just act this way so they won't have to face their true feelings and run off to Gretna Green together, leaving me a broken woman." This produced instant loud and appalled denials from both accused parties, which Kitty cheerfully ignored. "Nice to see you again, Hank." Cassie shook Kitty's hand while trying to stare unobtrusively at the purple...animal?
"A pleasure, as always, Kitty," Hank replied. With the exception of Pete Wisdom, who he understood was always an exception in matters like these, the first introductions were going very smoothly.
"And this is Lockheed," Kitty continued. At the sound of its name, the creature raised its head and turned it around very slowly and carefully.
Cassie gasped just a bit as she involuntarily stepped closer. "Is...is it really a dragon?" Not possible, part of her mind insisted. And yet...it had already become abundantly clear to her that all bets about reality were off if the X-men were in any way involved.
"Nah, it's just a flyin' rat with a smart mouth," Pete told her helpfully, and Lockheed hissed at him, then squeezed his little eyes shut as if in pain.
"He doesn't really talk--it's a game Pete plays," Kitty added. That worthy scowled and jammed his fists into the pockets of his coat, muttering black words the wind whipped away.
"He's a lovely color," Cassie said. "Is he friendly to strangers?" She had an almost overwhelming urge to stroke the leathers of the lavender wings.
"Not so's you'd notice," Pete said, just as Kitty said, "Mostly." Pete resumed his silence as Kitty continued, "He's not quite feeling himself today, is all."
"Oh, that's too bad." Cassie forced herself to pull her hand back. "It's a funny coincidence--I'm writing a book with a dragon in it at the moment."
"Storm told me you were a writer," Kitty said politely.
Cassie recognized the expression of someone who was NOT going to encourage a discussion of the subject, which was fine with her. But this was a detail Moira apparently hadn't heard. "A book about a dragon? Do ye write the fantasy stories, then?"
"Um--this is a little change of pace for me," Cassie murmured, glancing up at Hank for a hint as to how much to say. "I normally write romances," she admitted.
"Yer the next Barbara Cartland, are ya?" Wisdom inquired solemnly, but with an evil twinkle in his eyes, and Cassie could not entirely contain a wince.
"I wouldn't mind selling as many books as she has." This was her standard answer when someone compared her to more popular authors. It was her personal code not to stoop to criticizing fellow romance writers in public, even those whose works she thought were absolute swill for the vocabulary-challenged.
Hank was starting to look upon Wisdom with faintly narrowed eyes. But before relations could degenerate any further, there was a loud popping noise, a whiff of sulphur, and a new person walking towards the group with a loose, springy stride. "Am I late?"
Cassie's eyes widened at the sight of the newcomer. He was giddily, electrically blue, and covered in short dense fur, so that he looked like nothing so much as a brand new plush toy. But his smile was so broad and friendly that she could no more be afraid of him than... than Hank.
"We DID start the introductions without you," Hank said. "Cassie, this is Kurt Wagner, a former X-man like Kitty."
"Hello," she said. "It's very nice to meet you."
Kurt swept low in a courtly bow over Cassie's hand, then kissed it. <Your most rapturously adoring servant, dear lady!> he said, gold eyes glowing with humor.
<I respectfully suggest you abate your adoration,> Hank replied in excellent German, which caused Cassie to look up at him with pleased astonishment. <You are speaking to a potentially married woman.>
"Ach, so?" Kurt's vulpine grin was nearly as wide as Hank's. <That's the way of it, then? Well, don't fret, my friend. I will not be wanting to have to explain myself to my dear Amanda, yes?>
The amiable conversation was suddenly cut short by a strangely biological gurgling sound. "Oh, Lockheed!" exclaimed Kitty. "You're not going to be sick again, are you?" A pair of droopy eyes squeezed out from the lump on her shoulder in response to its mistress' question. "Oh, dear. I'd better get you back to the total containment unit in the infirmary."
"Containment as in quarantine?" Hank queried. "Isn't that a little drastic?"
"Total containment as in fire-proof," Kitty explained. "Have you ever seen a fire-breathing dragon throwing up?" Carefully avoiding putting too much pressure on the little dragon's stomach, she carried him off, Pete in tow. The remaining four were amused to hear a comment blow back to them on the wind. "Y'know, Pete, you getting in trouble with people's huge boyfriends is getting to be a habit."
"Oh, the poor thing," exclaimed Cassie as she watched them go. "Have you any idea what's wrong with him?"
"Not really, lass," replied Moira. "Although he's nae been the same since young Nate's outburst, so I can only think that has something to do with his behavior."
"Does he have any other symptoms?" Hank asked, his scientific curiosity intrigued by the thought of an alien illness.
"Aye, I'll say! Flying around like a bloody great rocket, f'r one thing. He nearly had me over last night. But it was something Kurt saw that really makes me worry aboot him."
"Ja, that's right," Kurt nodded, pausing in his task of helping Hank gather up their luggage once again. "I found Lockheed fast asleep last night in front of the television, apparently exhausted after his sudden burst of energy. However, it was in that room that Pete had also fallen asleep, and not only was Lockheed sleeping in the same room, but he was actually sleeping ON Pete's lap!"
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand," Hank queried as the foursome set off. "Is that an unusual occurrence?"
"Lockheed holds Pete in about as high a regard as Moira does."
It only took a few paces for the group to round a corner of the building, allowing them to see much of the inside. Glancing round at the piles of rubble and machinery, Cassie was stopped dead in her tracks by the sight before her.
"Oh, wow!" She nearly squealed in delight as she saw a huge man effortlessly lifting a chunk of concrete that must have been the size of a small house. As he turned, she saw small glints of light reflecting off of his...clothes? Unsure, she peered closer, and thought she could make out some sort of armor. 'That's odd,' she thought. 'Why would he be wearing armor?' Though the weather was hardly what she would call hot, he must still be getting overheated with all the work he was doing.
By now he had moved the large chunk clear of the building. Cassie was transfixed, fascinated by the ease with which he carried the huge mass. She was expecting him to carry it off and put it down somewhere, so she was surprised when he merely stood where he was and threw the lump straight into the air above him.
Her questions were answered when another man appeared, floating high in the air. He caught the fast moving lump of concrete with one hand and casually flew off with it in tow, unaware of Cassie's eyes fixed on him for as long as she could see him. A sight like this was impressive at any time, but she could remember her reaction to being taken on a comparatively easy flight with Rogue back at the mansion, and she found it almost impossible to imagine how anyone could make such a feat look so easy.
"Cassie?" Hank was unable to keep himself from grinning at the open- mouthed look on her face.
"Oh, yes. Sorry." With one more backward glance at the activity over to her left, she followed them into the building.
Piotr turned to briefly watch the small group leaving the devastated area. He had managed to avoid meeting Hank when they had arrived, by claiming that there was too much clearing up to do, and that he would go and see him later in the evening. Moira had kindly not challenged the lie, understanding his reasons.
He knew Hank would have heard about what happened when he had arrived on the Isle, how he had nearly beaten Pete Wisdom to death, driven by a mad jealousy after seeing Kitty in someone else's arms. He had never been particularly close to Hank, neither of them having been on the same team for very long, but he still had a great deal of respect for the Beast, and was not looking forward to having to face him this evening.
He still had difficulty facing the rest of Excalibur as yet--only Kurt had really taken the time to talk to him about the incident--and seeing Hank arrive a few minutes ago had reminded him that sometime he would have to face the rest of the X-men back home, and explain to them exactly what had happened.
Walking over to a large lump of metal blocking the entrance to one of the storage sheds, he went back to losing himself in physical exertion. He looked at the shape, judging the size and weight of the metal, and took hold of a large piece jutting out, getting his arms far underneath to give himself more leverage.
He enjoyed the work; he had always found peace in hard labor ever since he was a young boy working on his parents' farm back in the Motherland. Standing in a field forcing stakes into the ground to build a fence, or pulling stones away to clear the soil for plowing-- those were some of the things he missed most about the life he had once led, the life he wished more than anything he could go back to.
Bracing himself, Piotr pushed upward against the metal, only to find it resisting far more than he expected. He pushed harder, welcoming the challenge as a test to his strength, and yet the lump still did not move. Surprised, he adjusted his grip and pushed upwards against the stubborn metal, feeling it begin to mold its shape to the shape of his arms. He was confused. He knew his strength, and knew he was easily capable of lifting something this size.
"Can I help?" a voice called from above him.
"Thank you, Meggan. Yes," Piotr replied, standing away and watching the blonde woman glide gently down from the sky. "I am confused. This block is only small; I should be able to lift it easily."
"That's because it's stuck, silly," she replied. "I saw you trying to force it loose from above and took a deeper look into it. This lump is stuck fast to the building. I imagine the explosion welded the metal to it--you were trying to lift the whole building from its foundations!"
"I should have realized."
"Oh, no. You couldn't see it from outside, the metal's only fused in a few places. I could only see it by feeling my way into the rock of the building, something that Moira has been teaching me to do recently."
"So it cannot be moved?"
"Well, I think there's something I can do about it, if you'll just stand back?" Meggan moved round to a bare part of the side of the building, her bare feet easily avoiding the sharp lumps of metal on the ground. With a quick smile at him she lifted her hands and put her newly discovered mutant abilities to use. Empathically 'feeling' her way into the fused rock and metal she reached out and gently coaxed the molecules of rock away from the molecules of the metal, separating the two objects without doing any more damage to the building than was already there.
"There. You should be able to lift it now."
He put his arms under the metal and once more pushed against it. This time it lifted with little resistance, and he was able to carry it away to a clear area for Brian to dispose of, leaving the front of the building clear to repair the damage there. "Spaceeba, Meggan."
With a grin and a wave she flew off, leaving him to his work.
Predictably, almost the minute their suitcases hit the floor in the guest quarters Moira was standing ready to guide Hank to the computer room to start the refitting. "Why doon't I show ye to our wee library, Cassie?" she suggested. "Or would ye rather jist poke about the place yersel'?"
"The library would be fine," she answered hastily. And so within minutes of her arrival, Cassie found herself in a serviceable old lounger, happily starting a Dick Francis she had somehow never read. This peaceable state of affairs lasted a good ten minutes, until a young woman, red-headed and bearing distinctly pointed ears, walked in.
"Och, I'm nae interrupting you, am I?" the intruder apologized immediately. "I was jus' looking f'r something new...."
"Please, come on in," Cassie replied, forcing the chair upright with some difficulty, then struggling out of it to her feet. "I'm only reading in here because the electricity is off in the room we're staying in."
"Then ye mus' be the one...that is...the lady with...I mean to say, Dr. McCoy's...er...." The girl's initial expression of shy friendliness was rapidly shifting to one of acute embarrassment.
"Yes, that's me," Cassie admitted, jumping in before conversation became hopelessly unredeemable. "And I haven't been able to decide WHAT to call myself to Hank's friends, so don't feel bad." She stuck out the hand not holding the book. "My name's Cassie."
"I'm Rahne," said the other, relieved to be back on sure social ground. "It's verra nice to have ye visit us."
"Thanks," Cassie replied. "I was a little worried I would just be in the way, but Hank..." She paused, having to search for the right words now herself. "...thought it would be okay." She ended with a little apologetic shrug.
"Och, o'course it is!" Rahne hastened to say, happy to take the role of a reassuring hostess. "We enjoy company verra much--especially folk who WON'T bring the place crashin' doon aroun' our ears."
"I'd only do that by tripping over something crucial bracing up the remaining walls," Cassie laughed. "Which isn't at ALL impossible, I have to warn you."
Rahne joined in the laughter as she gracefully settled down on a nearby hassock. "Then we'll just keep ye away from t'ither side until our stout lads finish shiftin' the loose bits--which should be quite soon, I'm sure," she added, changing to a serious tone.
Perhaps it was Rahne's age, or her ingenuous air; somehow she didn't trigger the nervous reaction, that feeling of being judged and found inadequate, which made it so difficult for Cassie to interact with most strangers. Cassie dropped back down into her chair with a grateful smile. "Yes, it looked like things were well in hand when we passed by coming in from the plane."
"Did ye have a nice flight?"
Cassie tried to fight down a blush, recalling it. "Oh, yes, very nice." She suddenly hoped her new friend wasn't one of the telepathic type of mutants. "I've never flown in a private jet before.
Rahne leaned forward, her intense interest in all things involving relationships temporarily overcoming her usual diffidence. "It seems verra romantic, f'r Dr. McCoy tae be bringin' ye here with him," she hinted.
"Yes," Cassie said, eyes twinkling now. "Like something in a book."
"The kind o' book with a proposal at th' end?" Rahne ventured further, with a mischievous look that made her look even younger for a moment.
For some reason, that made Cassie blush again. "We...we MIGHT get married sometime," she murmured, thinking of the previous night's phone conversation with Hank's parents. It had been a struggle not to laugh at Hank's expressions as he answered questions about his new relationship, questions that had clearly grown less and less subtle. But he hadn't tried to change the subject, or deflect his folks from the conclusions they were obviously drawing....
"'Might?'" This made Rahne quirk her head. "Are ye...tryin' to decide if ye love him first?"
"Oh, I love him," Cassie asserted instantly. "More than I ever imagined was possible."
Rahne looked instantly dubious, then compassionate. "Is it that... HE'S nae sure yet?"
"I think he would marry me," Cassie said quietly. She studied the other's elfin, earnest face. "But I don't want to break another--I mean...I don't want to be wrong...again."
"What d'ye mean...if I'm nae too bold askin'?"
"I was married once already. It didn't...work out like I expected."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. You're...divorced?" said Rahne, honest sympathy quickly crowding out her momentary shock.
Cassie nodded. It was a relief, in a way, to talk to someone who seemed to share her feeling that divorce wasn't something done lightly. "It was because he went insane and tried to kill me," she explained.
"OH!" Rahne sat straight up, horrified and indignant. "But that's--!" She didn't seem to be able to find words awful enough to express her disapproval. "His own wife!"
"I don't think he meant it personally, if you know what I mean," Cassie explained. "I mean, he couldn't help it. I don't think."
Cassie's new friend's brows drew together, which somehow made them look much bushier for just an instant. "But surely ye aren't afraid of Dr. McCoy doin' the same?"
"Oh, NO! No, nothing like that." Does HANK think I think that? Cassie wondered in brief dismay. "I can't imagine Hank ever even doing anything MEAN." The girl nodded her agreement, and slumped back into her easy curl on the hassock. "What I worry about is that I'm not worthy of him. He needs someone who can...go through someone blowing up the whole place, and bake cookies as soon as the power's back on." She smiled sadly, sure it was obvious SHE was not such a paragon.
"Och, well, no one here will be bakin' anythin' fer a while. The kitchen's power cable blew out in the ruckus, so we've been eatin' from cold tins all day." Rahne gave an apologetic smile, as if she had been responsible for looking after the electrical lines, and somehow let the side down when they failed.
Cassie simply stared. "But a place like this...." Whatever else she was going to say went unspoken. "Tell me, is there some handy open bare spot nearby?"
"Plenty," Rahne laughed. "This island's empty, apart fr'm us." She looked at her new friend with interest. "Why?"
"Well, if we can make a little fire, I can camp cook pretty well."
"Ye can? Like in the American Westerns?"
"I'm FROM the West," Cassie said with delight, thrilled there might be something here SHE could do that no one else could.
"Oh, somethin' hot to eat would be lovely," said the girl, jumping up. "Tell me what t'do, and I'll help!"
"Great!" The chair creaked as Cassie struggled out of it again. "Let's go skulk through the kitchen, and see what there is to work with!"
"Oh my stars and garters...." Hank swept his eyes slowly round what used to be the main computer room, eyeing up the damage to try and imagine just how much was salvageable. The room was, to put it bluntly, a disaster zone. Not a single monitor was unbroken, and the sophisticated Shi'ar enhanced holographic projection unit was lying in a sad little heap near one corner. He had to resist the urge to bow his head and give a moment's silence.
"It's actually no' as bad as it looks," Moira said, moving briskly into the room. "Most of the storage devices are intact, and from what I've been able tae find out, so are most of the information stores. Fortunately young Nate's powers are purely physical--if it'd been someone like Magneto, all the disks would have been wiped immediately." Hands on hips, she glared around at the mess, then sighed. With a wry look at Hank, she added melodramatically, "Mah puir wee bairns."
Hank caught the reference at once. "Why, Moira, you do a wonderful Scotty! Yet another of your talents revealed!"
"Ye'd have to EXPECT I could do Scotty," she pointed out. "It's nae sa marvelous."
"It's just that whenever I try to do imitations, someone invariably suggests with great kindness that I not give up my day job."
"Mmmph. Well, we've got a day's work and more here ahead of us. So let's get to it."
Cassie and Rahne's supper was a nearly unqualified success. Falling back on Girl Scout tradition, Cassie managed to concoct a tasty slumgullion stew from the odds and ends of canned and frozen goods they rooted out of various cupboards and the large walk-in freezer. "My mom used to call this Clean Out the Refrigerator Soup," she explained gaily, bringing a half-amused and half-appalled look to Rahne's face.
The biscuits Cassie attempted to bake in a cobbled together campfire-stove made of cookie sheets were somewhat uncooperative; the first few experimental batches resulted in various combinations of burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. But with perseverance, a reasonable number came out in an edible state, and Rahne philosophically observed that the island's birds would happily take care of the rejects.
After the meal, which had been a most welcome surprise to the Excalibur team, a small group formed for the purpose of "catchin' up on this an' that," as Moira put it. Hank, Cassie, Kitty, Pete Wisdom and Kurt followed Moira through a series of complicated passageways to the former heart of the Muir Island dwelling.
"Och, it's been a while since I've had any use for this old thing," Moira said, looking down, or rather into, the huge old fireplace that dominated the room. "But sit ye doon, we'll soon hae a blaze going."
The room they were in, according to Moira, used to be the main dining room for the original house that had been built here centuries ago. As such it was large and spacious enough to hold a good twenty or thirty people for a feast, but still cosy enough for a warm night in front of the fireplace. A dozen or more dining chairs stood in loose clusters to one side of the room, as if speculating amongst themselves where their friend the table had vanished to. In front of the hearth, two lavishly upholstered armchairs and an elegant old settee kept their backs to the more mundane furniture.
Out of habit, Hank headed towards the sturdiest looking chair, and eased himself down, testing for any suggestion of imminent destruction. Cassie started to sink to a place at his feet. But the chair felt remarkably solid to Hank--older furniture was often far better crafted than modern pieces--so he patted his lap, winking an invitation that she accepted happily.
Pete smirked and glanced at Kitty, intending to share his reaction to such overt and gooey behavior. But she bore a wistful smile that touched off his masculine pride. He dropped into the other chair, grasped the back waistband of Kitty's slacks, and pulled her into an equally cozy embrace. The look she gave him was startled but pleased, and he barely kept himself from making a triumphant nod at the visiting American.
Lockheed, who had improved enough to follow Kitty down to dinner, glared at this spectacle. Now unable to cuddle near his Kitty without touching his despised foe, he galumphed away to seat himself practically within the mouth of the fireplace, tail lashing in annoyance like a cat's.
Hank looked past Moira into the dark gloom, noticing the thick piles of soot and ash heaped up at the bottom of the grating. "You say that fireplace is the oldest remaining part of the house?" He was asking for the sake of conversation only, because it certainly LOOKED ancient. Not to mention that, judging by the state of the concrete and bricks around the grating, the fireplace had not been used for a good long while. He had a horrible suspicion it would need to be thoroughly cleaned before any self-respecting fire could be persuaded to take residence there.
"Aye, tha's right," Moira replied, stoking up the ashes with a poker. "It disnae get used much at the moment, as we've nae had many guests over f'r a while. At least, guests who've nae wanted to blow the place up. Kurt?" She looked over to where Kurt was currently sitting--or rather crouching, as he was balancing deftly on the back of the sofa. "Could ye put some o' these logs on the grate, and we'll see if we c'n get this fire goin'?"
"Of course, Moira."
Cassie watched him, still amazed at the fluid gracefulness with which he moved. With a quiet leap that barely rocked the couch he was sitting on, Kurt flipped over towards the fireplace, looking for a heart-stopping moment as if he was going to crash into it. At the last minute he executed a superb mid-air twist that let him land easily on the mantlepiece above the fireplace, his feet holding him effortlessly in place on the three-inch ledge.
He canted his head inquiringly at Cassie, and she suddenly realized she was staring. "Oh...I'm sorry," she said quietly, feeling instantly embarrassed at her apparent rudeness. "I didn't mean to stare, but...."
"From a lady as beautiful as you, such attention is a compliment," Kurt replied, with a quick grin at Hank. "But if you liked that, then I think you might also enjoy...this!" His eyes twinkling as his natural showmanship came to the fore, he swung himself down, holding onto the ledge with his feet and hanging upside down before the fireplace. Then he reached out towards the chopped wood and in one quick maneuver grabbed hold of three pieces, two with his hands and one with his tail. "Drumroll, please!" he said, warning with his mock-dramatic tone that the grand finale was near. Almost faster than the eye could follow, he leapt off in a spinning dismount, lobbing all three pieces of wood into place on the grating before he flipped over to land standing, then finish with a sweeping bow.
Cassie applauded with delight at his performance, her embarrassment forgotten. "A 10, a perfect 10!" she laughed.
"Weel, if th' Olympic trials are over," Moira pretended to fuss, "let's see if this thing wants to light f'r us." She reached for the firelighters.
Pete nudged Kitty over to the armrest, got up, and moved towards Moira, almost shuffling in unaccustomed politeness. "Um, shall I light it for you?" he asked, doing his best to seem sincere and not really succeeding.
"Aye, ye kin gi'it a go," she replied. "But remember, I'm no' gonna even THINK about forgiving ye until yiv replaced tha' bottle a whisky ye stole."
"Yeah, alright. I SAID I'd get you some more next time I went to London."
"Tha's no ordinary whisky, I'll have ye ken." Moira thickened her accent as she spoke to him, knowing how it annoyed him. "Ye canna joost go an' buy it fr'm the offie, y'know."
"Moira, this is LONDON I'm talking about. You know? Big place? City? Lots of shops? Getting some old Scots whisky is hardly gonna be a problem."
"Och, is tha' so?"
Hank gave a quizzical look at Kitty while this conversation was going on, realizing he must have missed some important occurrence. She leaned forward to fill him in. "Pete stole a bottle of whisky from Moira," she explained quietly. "Well, not STOLE exactly, just borrowed it.... Anyway, apparently this whisky was a very old and very rare type that Moira has, so when she found out about it...well, let's just say it didn't improve the friendship between the two of them."
"I didn't know you drank whisky," Hank said, somewhat surprised that Kitty would like the stuff.
"Oh, it wasn't for us two," she replied. "A friend of Pete's from London came up to visit a couple of nights ago, and as both he and Pete are whisky drinkers Pete went and got hold of one of Moira's expensive bottles. Unfortunately he forgot to ask her first."
"Ah," Hank nodded, understanding. He had heard that Moira and Pete weren't exactly close, and the scene before him merely confirmed his suspicion--Moira was the purebred Scot, and Pete was the Englishman brave enough to cross the border.
Pete knelt down in front of the fire, eager to get the thing lit so he could go outside and have a cigarette. He'd been dying for a smoke ever since dinner, but given the current situation with Moira didn't dare light one up in the same room as her, in case she tried to put it out with the fire extinguisher or something equally daft.
He was also getting slightly worried about the whisky. He'd known it was an unusual brand by the label on the bottle--it had been handwritten--but he was beginning to realize that getting a replacement bottle wouldn't be quite as easy as he thought.
Pete looked at the logs on the fireplace and concentrated. Not too much, he thought, just enough power to get the things lit without blowing a hole in the back of the firewall. He stretched his hand out towards the logs and let loose a few of his mutant 'hot-knives'-- small blades of intense heat concentrated into a tiny area that were his particular mutant talent. Playing the knives carefully over and into the thick logs set them blazing into a instant mini-inferno. Using firelighters, it would have taken a lot of work to get the logs hot enough to sustain the fire, but the heat generated by his knives worked better than phosphor flares.
Once the fire was going he stood up, feeling slightly smug at his demonstration of the control he had developed over his powers. With a quick "'Scuse me, all, I'm goin' for a fag," Pete left the room.
Cassie's jaw dropped as her eyebrows arced upwards in astonishment. Seeing this, Kurt tried and failed to stifle an ungentlemanly chortle. Hank, also trying not to smile, merely said, "British expression, Cassie. Pete's going out to smoke."
"Oh!" Now she smiled with the others at her misunderstanding. "Silly me, I knew that!"
"So," said Kitty, kindly changing the subject as she stretched out in the armchair she had wholly appropriated, enjoying the warmth of the fire. "What do you think of our island? Or at least, what you've seen of it so far."
"Oh, it's lovely!" Cassie replied enthusiastically. "It's so...open, and the air here smells so...ocean-like." Which was actually not bad, now that she was getting used to it. "It must be wonderful living here!"
"Aye, 'tis a fine island." Moira allowed herself a small flush of pride at the praise of her home.
"And this house, and the center--it's amazing! There's so much here!"
"Yes, and your computer systems have developed considerably since my last visit," Hank added. "I may have to come here more often."
"You see, Katzchen? Even the great Dr. Hank McCoy says your work on the computers is an improvement. Fine praise indeed!" said Kurt, beaming at Kitty.
"Ye know," Moira said, leaning forward in her chair. "It's been a while since I've opened a bottle o' that whisky, and since we've got guests over why don't I go and bring a bottle doon?"
At that moment the door opened and Pete walked back into the room, looking somewhat more relaxed and smelling slightly of smoke. On the hearth, Lockheed burbled a faint hissing growl. "Someone mention whisky?"
"Oh, no, none for ye, Pete Wisdom. Y've helped yuirself to more than enough o' my whisky as it is!"
"Oh, so you'll let your OTHER guests have some of the bloody stuff, but when I grab a bottle you hit the roof?" he complained, squeezing in grumpily next to Kitty, who shifted back aboard his lap with ease, helped by her phasing powers.
"You know perfectly well that I'd've been happy tae let any of my guests have a dram or two 'o whisky. At least most other people have the manners tae ASK before helping themselves!" And with that she left the room, not giving Pete a chance to get the last word in.
"God Almighty. Will that woman EVER let it drop?!" Pete muttered, half to himself.
"Oh, don't worry about it. We've got a shopping trip to London in a couple of days, and we can go and get her some more then. That and a better apology from you should calm her down." Kitty ran her hand through his hair, managing to not let him see the laughter on her face. "So, Hank" she said, resuming the previous conversation. "What do you think of what I've done to the communications suite?"
Cassie sank further into Hank's arms, and the side of the chair, content to let the technical conversation wash over her for a while. For some reason, even with Pete and Moira bickering, and a dragon on the hearth, Muir Island seemed more friendly and homey, more...more NORMAL, than the mansion presided over by Professor Xavier. It was encouraging to meet mutants like Kurt having FUN with their powers; to see people like those who'd been outside, flying--actually flying though their work--and moving pieces of metal and rocks the size of a truck! A relief, in some strange way, to discover powers were good for more than fighting.
Just then the quiet conversation was interrupted by a scream of rage coming towards the room. "PETE WISDOM, AH'M GONAE KILL YOU!!"
As everyone looked round in surprise Moira burst into the room like a galleon in full sail, sheer fury emanating from her in a wave of physical force. She stormed up to the bewildered Pete and yelled into his face, "Ye went and did it AGIN! Not only d'ye steal from me ONCE, ye went and did it AGIN! Ye...ye...ye ENGLISHMUN!!"
"What the bloody hell are you talking about, woman?"
"Ye know perfectly well what I'm talking aboot, Wisdom! Ma whisky! Ma old, expensive, rare whisky! Ye've been at it again, helping yuirself to ma stuff!"
"Again?! No, I didn't!" Pete tried to protest his innocence against the force of Scotland raging inches from his face. "Look, I only took the one bottle..."
"Oh, ye think I'd believe ye? Ye've stolen from me once, ye'd do it again!" Moira was quieter now, exuding a calmer, more controlled fury. Pete didn't know if this was better or worse.
"OK, I stole one bottle. I admitted that, alright? But I didn't take any more!"
"Really? Prove it then!"
"Huh? How d'you expect me--"
Pete was spared the task of proving his innocence for the moment. There was a slight hiss from the fireplace, followed by the sound of a small, somewhat muffled explosion. The group turned as one to the fireplace, thus ensuring they all got caught full in the face by a cloud of thick soot that boiled out of the chimney. Lockheed, who had been sitting watching the argument with a smug look on his face, jumped up and flew from the room like a shot.
"What was that?"
"Gott in Himmel!"
"Are we under attack?"
"Moira, you haven't suddenly developed mutant powers, have you?"
While the cloud of soot settled, everyone kept their eyes fixed--between blinking against the irritating stuff--on the fireplace, ready for another explosion. Hank was the first to investigate once the air had cleared somewhat, moving forward to rummage around in the ashes of the now-extinguished fire.
"I believe this might be the answer to our conundrum," he proclaimed, holding something up to the light.
"What is it?" Kitty asked, moving forward to get a better look. "A piece of glass?"
"I think it is more a question of what the glass contained," he replied, wiping some of the soot off the shard. "Moira, do you recognize this?"
He handed the piece to her, and she saw that it had a label on it, with some handwriting saying....
"Ma whisky! This is part o' a bottle o' ma whisky!"
"Exactly. I would imagine that if you searched through the rest of the ashes you would find all the other parts of the bottle. The heat of the fire obviously caused the contents to expand rather rapidly, creating the explosion we have just witnessed."
"Moira, if you wanted to hide the whisky from me, don't you think there were better places to put it than up the bloody chimney?" Pete asked, somewhat confused.
"Wait a minute! I didnae put it there!"
"Then how did it get there?" Kitty asked. "Wait, you said you hadn't used that fireplace for a while. Perhaps it could have been put there years ago for some reason?"
"I donae think so, luv. The other bottle just went missin' today. It MUST be one o' mine."
"Then the question remains as to who put it there." Hank pondered as he attempted, with little success, to dust off his hands.
"Well, besides the fact that not many of us could reach up to put ANYthing in there," Kitty pointed out, "why would anyone do it anyway?"
"Perhaps," offered Kurt, "perhaps we have a poltergeist in the house?"
"A poltergeist? Oh, come on, Kurt! I know we've seen some pretty strange things with the X-men, but isn't that a little ridiculous?"
"Poltergeist? Oh, great, now the German's flipped as well."
"There better no' be any poltergeists in MA house!"
"Well, it would explain it, wouldn't it?" Cassie spoke up, while trying to unobtrusively clear the soot out of her hair. "I mean, how else could the bottle have gotten up there? And it's exactly the sort of thing a poltergeist would do, isn't it?" Plus, she thought to herself, any house that has a real live DRAGON in it is sure to have a ghost or two around the place.
They all stood around for a moment, thinking to themselves.
"Nah," Pete snorted. "'s all a load of rubbish, isn't it?"
"Ja, you're correct." Although Kitty is right, thought Kurt. We HAVE seen a lot of strange things. So why not a poltergeist?
"Och, for once I'll agree with him. Anyway, what say we all move into the kitchen and we can have the whisky in there?" Moira began to move them all out.
Pete was the last one out of the room, and just before he left he turned to glance again at the fireplace. Nah. Load of rubbish. Isn't it?
Cassie slowly surfaced out of what had been a sound sleep, muzzily wondering what was disturbing her. The room was absolutely black except for Hank's little battery-powered travel alarm, set to local time, which said 1:47 am. He was rumbling away next to her, not QUITE snoring, but definitely not awake.
Vaguely annoyed, Cassie realized what had woken her up. No doubt due to the time difference, she needed a bathroom. And unfortunately, the makeshift guestroom they were using did not have an adjoining one.
Moira said it was just down the hall, around the corner, she remembered, sitting up quietly. Weighing the comfort of having Hank's presence as a guide and protector against her inclination to not be a bother, Cassie perched on the edge of the bed a moment. Then she stood up resolutely in the darkness, determined to make this small expedition on her own. She fumbled around and found her bathrobe where she had left it, over the back of the chair next to the nightstand.
Now she wished they had chosen practicality over romance and taken the flashlight Moira had offered, rather than a few assorted candles. But Cassie found the matches right away, and striking one to light the largest taper didn't disturb Hank in the slightest. He slept on as she walked across the cold bare floor and out the door to the corridor. She left it open just a crack for ease of identification later and headed out.
Comforting herself with Kurt's assurance that the power would definitely be back on tomorrow, Cassie padded down the hall. It looked different in the light of one candle than it had when Moira had shown them to their room with the bright battery-powered lantern. In fact, it looked completely unfamiliar from within her faint circle of light.
Cassie realized soon that she was quite lost. The hallway had ended at a modern looking door. On the other side of it was an entirely different building--the public section of the research center. She remembered following Rahne through it briefly that afternoon, as a short cut to the leeward side of the complex. But if this was the public section, there should be...yes! Restrooms!
The lights were even working in this area, Cassie found as she entered the door marked 'Ladies'--modern automated ones! But this realization gave birth to a new worry--if she wandered into the wrong part of the public section, would she trigger lights AND alarms? Had she already?
As quickly as she could, Cassie finished and returned to the older hallways for further candle-light explorations. At least now she had no need to hurry, she thought with wry relief. If need be, she could just trail around the place until dawn, or whenever someone got up....
As if in answer to her thoughts, Cassie heard a sound off to her left, like a door thudding open. She paused, then tiptoed hesitantly in that direction. No further noises followed, but bits of the territory she was traversing began to look familiar. Wasn't this the way to the kitchen?
Just as she was thinking she should surely go back the other way, and never mind the first sound, she heard a stifled gasp. Cassie froze. Who was that? she thought, mind racing. Should I say something? I should. But what?
Before she could answer her self-imposed questions, a dark shape leapt from the connecting hall to land and growl at her from the shadows where the candlelight did not reach. Although a frantic shriek burst within her mind, Cassie's throat spasmed, and only a strangled peep squeezed out. The candle in its holder wavered and almost fell from her grasp.
Then an animal--a dog?--walked forward, questing for her scent. To Cassie's astonishment, it began to rise up and change shape as it came forward. "Cassie? Is that you?"
"Rahne?" she managed to croak. It was indeed the Scots girl standing before her now, and she looked as shocked as Cassie felt, though almost certainly not for the same reason.
"Did ye hear it too?"
"Hear what? That thump a minute ago?"
"That too." Rahne's brown eyes were huge. "But I heard somethin' strange before that. And I thought, what if it's the...."
"The ghost?" Cassie swallowed hard. In daylight, she did not believe in ghosts. But that conviction was more difficult to cling to in the dark.
From the same direction came another lighter thump and a clank. Rahne and Cassie instantly clutched at each other, almost losing the candle in the process. "It's comin' from the kitchen," Rahne whispered.
"A haunted kitchen?" This abruptly struck Cassie as unlikely in the extreme. Feeling a bit like one of her own characters, she murmured, "You want to go check it out?"
Rahne straightened her spine, visibly gathering her nerve. "Aye, let's." Together they crept towards the suspect room, from which new tinks and muffled clunks were now coming with an ominous regularity.
Just outside the entrance, they paused to link gazes. "On three?" said Rahne, speaking as the professional of the duo. Cassie nodded. "One, two, THREE!"
They dashed into the kitchen, and a hail of cooking utensils exploded in an ungodly clatter out of a floor-level cupboard, rattling around their ankles. Jumping in a panicky attempt to avoid God knew what, Cassie dropped the candlestick. The candle guttered out as it fell.
The clank of the brass holder hitting a saucepan was the last of the noise. Silence deep as the darkness surrounded them now, broken only by Cassie and Rahne's rapid breathing. "Now what?" Cassie asked at last, truly hoping Rahne would have an answer.
"We'd best go get Moira," Rahne said, with only a hint of a quaver in her voice.
"And Hank." Cassie thrust a foot out blindly and kicked something that skittered across the floor at a distressing volume. "Might be easier said than done, though."
"Dinnae worry, I'll just shift tae wolf form--I can get along quite well in the dark then. Hang on tae me, and I'll guide us."
A Seeing Eye werewolf. Why ever not? Cassie grinned to herself. It was simply amazing how quickly all this sort of thing was becoming handy but unremarkable. "Lead on, then."
Not long afterward, a small group stood in the kitchen, looking over the mysterious visitor's mess by the brilliant glow of two heavy-duty lanterns. Moira, muttering, cleared a path through an unlikely assortment of mismatched cookware to peer deep into a floor level storage area. "As I thought, nearly empty. Thorough, our prankster."
"Scattering pots and pans IS traditional poltergeist activity," Hank said slowly, clearly resisting the absurd notion with all his might.
"You girls saw nothing?" Moira demanded, although she had already heard their breathless account of the whole thing.
"I dropped the candle almost right away," Cassie admitted. "But even before, it didn't shed enough light to show much of this big room."
"Rahne, did YE see anythin' strange?"
"Nooo...but, after I shifted...I SMELLED something." Moira looked expectant, but her hopes were dashed when Rahne's next word was, "Whisky."
"Och, o'course ye did--we'd all had a nip in here afore bed. I'd hoped ye'd gotten a sniff of whoever played this foolish joke."
Rahne looked dubious. "It seemed...fresher than that. Like it was spilled just then. Sharp enough, anyway, to keep me from pickin' up any other scents." She shared a nervous look with Cassie. "IF there was anything to scent...."
"Still--perhaps you should recount your bottles, just in case?" Hank suggested. Moira inhaled sharply, whirled and stormed from the room. In a few moments, there came the faint echo of an unearthly screech from upstairs.
"Oh, dear," said Cassie. "That doesn't sound promising."
By the time a seething, nearly speechless Moira returned to the kitchen, Hank and the ladies had gathered up all the loose cookware and secured it in the cupboard. "This cannae, and SHALL nae go on!" the furious Scots woman promised. "I'll nae be robbed in ma own house! I'll...I'll--" Words failed her.
"Perhaps it would be wise to return to bed, and let our sleeping subconscious minds form a plan of attack, or rather, defense," Hank suggested.
Seeing the logic of this, Moira managed to calm down enough to agree. "Aye, we can do nae more tonight. But tomorrow the thief had best beware!"
Safe again in their room, with Cassie warming her freezing feet against Hank's furry legs, the couple waited for sleep to find them again. "What time did you say the alarm was set for?" Cassie asked.
"Six AM, per your instructions, madame," Hank replied. "Since you feel you MUST shoulder the burden of feeding the troops." He thought he did a good job in managing to keep his lingering disapproval out of his voice.
"I promised Rahne I would help her--she's so tickled by the idea of learning to cook over a campfire." Cassie yawned. "Guess she didn't get to be in Girl Scouts."
"I believe it is Girl Guides, on this side of the pond, but no, probably not." He hesitated, then continued, "As long as this is something you WANT to do...?"
"I'd feel awful just sitting around in the middle of this disaster, not doing anything to help," Cassie said, a little too quietly. She DID grasp that he wasn't pleased by her assuming housekeeping duties as though it was all she was good for. "Especially now that I know I CAN...and after everyone has been so nice."
"You feel more comfortable here, don't you?" Hank asked, changing the subject.
Cassie understood he was referring to her continuing unease among the X-men. "Yes, well...it's different here."
"How so?" he asked, stroking her thigh to reassure her.
There was a pause while she searched for the right words. "We're both just guests here. All we have to do is follow the Good Guest rules, and we're fine."
"Politely ignore all bickering, help track down poltergeists--" He was interrupted by Cassie's laugh and a light elbow dig in the ribs, exactly where he was most ticklish.
"See, it's EASY to fit in someplace temporarily," she continued. "But...back at the mansion, I'm...I guess...more than a guest, really. But not a member of the household."
"Why do you think that's so?" It was surprisingly difficult to frame questions like this to sound non-judgmental, he thought in passing.
"Because I'm just...THERE. I don't DO anything, I don't contribute--"
"You contribute to my well-being," Hank pointed out. "I don't consider that 'nothing'."
"Well, no, I don't either. But...." Cassie trailed off, not sure how to put her instinct into words. "That makes an attachment between US--not with me and any of the others." She stopped to think again. "I don't have a ROLE in the household, the group. Not like everyone else does."
"So...it's not that you think the rest of the team doesn't like you?" Hank ventured, feeling he was on the verge of understanding something that had somehow thus far eluded him.
"No, of course not."
"Were you...upset to be left out of the meeting about Joseph?"
"Oh, no. Not at all," Cassie assured him. "Actually, I was glad it worked out that you could go explain for me. Everyone was so...so on edge...I wouldn't have enjoyed being there much."
Now they both lay in silence, contemplating the implications of each other's words. "I suppose you will just have to create, and grow into, your own role," Hank said at last.
"Knowing I am setting a precedent for untold generations of X-girlfriends and boyfriends," she replied, expressing her fear of inadequacy as a joke.
"That," Hank said, as he pulled her close for a kiss, "will be THEIR problem, my dear; how to live up to your brilliant success."
Like unexpectedly fed stray cats, most of Excalibur came creeping hopefully around the kitchen again early the next morning. They were rewarded by the sights, sounds and smells of an impromptu breakfast buffet: eggs, bacon and sausages happily cooked by Rahne over the campfire, bread and jam, boxed crackers and cold cereal. And Cassie had more successfully repeated her experiment in campfire-oven biscuits. She entered the kitchen--where the crowd had doubled since her last trip in--bearing a tray of these, while Hank followed, carefully carrying a small kettle by its hoop handle.
An appealing aroma wafted from it, and Pete Wisdom's head snapped up. "Is that...coffee?"
"Yes, it is," Cassie replied. "Would you like some?"
He approached with a distrustful slouch, clearly not letting himself get his hopes up. When Cassie used a ladle to dip a dark brown liquid out of the pot, an expression of extreme suspicion crossed his face, but he held out his hand for the cup she proffered. That look became astonishment after his first sip. "Bloody 'ell. I'm impressed! How'd ya make this?"
"I couldn't find a coffee pot, so I had to use this," Cassie explained, pointing at the kettle Hank had placed on the counter. "You just boil some water, and put the ground coffee in it--"
"And some eggshells," Hank added helpfully.
"Eggshells? Why?" Pete eyed his cup doubtfully, searching for organic foreign objects.
"I don't know--it's just how you do it," Cassie said apologetically. "Anyway--then you boil it a bit, and let it sit awhile--and it's coffee."
Kitty, looking faintly distracted by worry, joined them for a cup. "D'ya see this?" Pete demanded. "Boiled over an open fire with eggs thrown in it--"
"Shells," Hank said again.
"--and it's FAR less of a witch's brew than that poison Moira cooks up! She HAS to be doin' it deliberately!"
"Oh, Pete!" Kitty took her cup and moved over to make room for a yawning Kurt, who was at the head of a line of others seeking a dose of morning-antidote.
"How's Lockheed this morning?" Cassie asked as she dipped up coffee, filling the cups that Hank passed to her.
"Feeling sick again," Kitty said. "He was so much better last night--I'm starting to get worried."
"Once we put the computer back on line, Moira and I can do a more in- depth analysis of the little fellow," Hank suggested. "Perhaps that will give us a clue."
Next in line for the freshly made coffee was the large blonde man Cassie had only briefly been introduced to recently. He didn't LOOK like Betsy's brother, but she supposed it was one of those mutant things.
He took the offered cup and sniffed at it in a surprisingly genteel manner for such a large person. "Hmm," he said, in a deep resonant baritone. "You don't happen to have any tea, do you?"
"Uhm, I'm afraid not, no. I don't think this way of cooking will work as well with tea as with coffee, sorry," Cassie offered her apologies.
"Oh," he replied, with a somewhat crestfallen look on his face. "Unfortunately all the tea strainers were destroyed, and I've got a tin of Earl Grey sitting neglected in a cupboard somewhere."
"No problem, Brian, mate," Pete called out from where he was nursing the remains of his coffee. "I'll pick up a pack of Typhoo next time I'm on the mainland."
Brian turned towards Pete with a slightly pained expression on his face. "Teabags?!?" He sighed and turned back to Cassie. "Londoners," he said, with a slight grin. "I'm sure your coffee will be wonderful, thank you."
Cassie passed over a plate of food, unable to help herself grinning in response, even though she didn't quite understand the connotations of the conversation. Yet another member of Excalibur who, with just a few lines, had managed to make her feel involved in the easy going teasing that went on between the team members.
As breakfast progressed, Kurt wandered amongst the individuals present, casually setting up the day's workload. Cassie marveled once again at the 'all in a day's work' attitude the group seemed to be taking towards the need to reconstruct a large portion of their home. Maybe it WAS something you somehow got used to?
The food quickly disappeared, and the people more slowly followed suit, off to their various tasks. "I'm afraid my work with Moira is likely to be dull to watch," Hank told Cassie, as he prepared to join his colleague in the computer center. "You might prefer to just rest, or walk down to see the ocean...."
"I'll see what I feel like later," Cassie told him. "Um, after I finish helping Rahne clean up in here." At Hank's level look, she said, "Well, I can't just leave her to do it all herself!"
"No, of course not." With a fondly dubious shake of his head, Hank gave her a quick kiss. "If you SHOULD want to seek me out, just ask anyone to lead you to the computer lab. But I think I can persuade Moira to break for lunch, so I should see you then."
As Cassie opened her mouth to agree, Rahne poked her head in the kitchen door. "Should I let the fire go out, or will we be wanting it for lunch?"
"Kurt said he'd have the power on in here in a couple hours," Cassie replied, evading Hank's eyes. "So we probably don't need it anymore."
"I'll just douse it then," said Rahne, with mostly hidden disappointment, and darted back outside.
"What are we having for lunch?" Hank asked blandly.
"It, uh, depends on what they have around, I guess," Cassie said sheepishly. He didn't comment further, and she hastened to add, "But Hank, I have to feed YOU, and if I'm cooking for you it would be RUDE to ignore everyone else."
He couldn't help laughing at the appeal on her face. "Your logic is impeccable." He kissed her again, on the forehead. "Have a most enjoyable morning, Ms. Crocker, and I will see you at noon."
"Soo, Hank. D'ye think it'd work?"
Hank pondered. Moira and he were back in the main computer lab, and had been discussing the prospect of setting up some sort of security device around the remaining bottles of whisky in Moira's room. "Well, a basic security alarm would be relatively simple--we could set it to react to anyone attempting to move the bottles, with only you and me able to shut it down. But what particular reaction did you have in mind for the thief?"
"Weel, I KNOW it's that Englishmun helping himself, so something painful. Very painful. Horribly, long-lastingly, torturously painful."
The vengeful light in Moira's eye unnerved Hank a bit. He THOUGHT she was merely indulging in a bit of hyperbole to vent her anger, but.... "Don't you find," he suggested diffidently, "that the most effective punishments, ah, fit the crime?"
If she knew he was hinting for a reduction in severity of sentence, she didn't show it. Her eyes narrowed over a daunting smile of anticipation as she stroked her chin in thought. "Ye know, maybe I should rig it up ta play ma tape o' highland bagpipe music on continuous loop. I know as an Englishmun he wouldnae have the taste tae enjoy that."
Hank let a slightly panicked look steal across his face. "Hmmm," he pondered aloud, "with a good burst of adrenaline, and adding two minutes to collect Cassie, I believe I could make it to the Blackbird and leave the island in a minimum of thirteen and a half minutes." He looked at Moira pleadingly. "Moira, please. Thirteen and a half minutes of bagpipe music...."
She grinned in response to his joke and gave him a light bat round the shoulder. "Just because ye've nae got the taste f'r good music is nae reason tae let that Englishmun off lightly. And ye never know, ye might learn to like it."
"Well, I'm sure it'll make Pete think twice about crossing you again," Hank suggested.
"Nae, that's the trouble. He won't. He baits and pesters ever'one continually. I dinnae see how Kitty stands it."
"Maybe because Kitty understands his reasons?" Moira frowned her lack of comprehension, and Hank continued his impromptu analysis. "Maybe he, for some reason, feels a need to keep others from getting too close to him?" Hank tilted his head, considering his colleague, someone he both knew well and didn't know at all. "I think you can understand that, Moira." 'You do the same thing', he added silently.
Moira seemed to grasp what Hank was hinting at, because she shrugged in irritation. "If I want to listen to psychobabble, Dr. Jack o' all trades and master o' none, I'll call Rory in. Fer now, we ha'e work before us."
Their conversation was interrupted as the door swung open and a large boxful of complex-looking equipment walked in on a pair of silvery metal legs. "Where would you like me to place this, Moira?" it asked in a Russian accent.
"There's a table to yuir right, Piotr. Just prop it up there, thanks."
The box deposited itself upon the nearby workspace, and was instantly leaped upon by Moira, who carefully pulled out the individual pieces of equipment and started laying them out in an orderly fashion. Piotr, his work done, was about to leave when he was interrupted by Hank coming over from the far side of the room.
"Ah, Piotr," Hank called, beaming at him. "Good to see you again."
"And you, my friend. I am sorry I was unable to meet you yesterday...."
"No need to apologize, my Russian comrade. Moira explained that you and the others were somewhat busy." At this point Moira finished her thorough analysis of the box's contents, and tactfully decided to leave the room. "Are you thinking of returning to the mansion soon?" Hank asked sociably.
"I...do not think that would be wise, at the moment," Piotr replied, his eyes only briefly leaving the floor.
"Ah, yes. Kurt mentioned the recent altercation." Although perhaps he had not explained the full extent of what happened between Kitty's former boyfriend and her current lover, thought Hank, studying the melancholy man in front of him. Even though he had never become as close to the Russian as he was with his older friends, he could still recognize that the man in front of him was suffering a great deal. Piotr had always been so...intense, so driven by his emotions....
In an attempt to lighten the mood, Hank said, "Of course, having met Mr. Wisdom recently, I must confess a certain desire to give him a good thump or two myself." He waited. "That was a joke. Please indulge me by laughing sometime soon...?"
"I am sorry. I do not feel much like laughing about it at the moment."
Hank began to worry. Things were DEFINITELY worse than they had first appeared with the young Russian. He made a mental note to have a good talk with Ororo about the situation when he got back. But for now he decided to change the subject.
"I have some news for you. About Magneto."
Piotr's eyes lit up at the name. "Magnus? You have heard of him?"
"More than that. He arrived at the gates of the mansion the day before yesterday--"
"Arrived? How do you mean? Has he recovered?" Piotr's eyes were now fixed on Hank, eager for news of his friend.
"Not...quite. He IS perfectly functional physically; indeed, he's remarkably healthy. He calls himself Joseph, and seems to have retained at least some knowledge of how to use his powers. However, he has no memory of his life previous to Charles wiping his mind."
"And no one has told him?"
"About who he was? No, not yet; at least, not to my knowledge. The professor HAS given him the option of learning about his past, but I do not know what...Joseph has decided to do."
Piotr stood still for a moment, absorbing the information. "Then...perhaps I SHOULD return to the mansion sometime soon," he said with slow deliberation.
"You are always welcome," Hank replied, thinking that now would probably be a very good time for Piotr to do so. He knew the Russian felt a great deal of guilt over the events of the past few months. Seeing 'Joseph' being given a second chance might reassure Piotr he deserved at least as much.
Pete Wisdom shouldered his way in through the kitchen door, both hands occupied with grasping the handle of a large wicker basket containing the pitiful huddled form of Lockheed. When Rahne and Cassie turned to see who had come in, he scowled to cover his embarrassment. "Kitty wants 'im to get some fresh air an' sunshine," he muttered.
"That might help," said Cassie, and Rahne chimed in, "Aye, a good idea."
Wisdom scanned their faces for any sign they were secretly mocking him, nodded brusquely, and continued through the room. At the door leading outside, he paused. "Don' suppose there's any a'that coffee left?"
"Oh, yes, we poured what was left into a big Thermos we found," Cassie replied. Pete started to lower the basket to the ground and she added, "Go on, your hands are full. I'll bring a cup out to you."
The mid-morning sun was warm in the lee of the building, out of the wind. Lockheed had responded to the brightness by pulling his wings up over his head, and huddling into an even smaller lump. Pete was leaning against the side of the building, lighting up. He took the cup from Cassie's hand with a grunt of thanks.
"He doesn't look all that good today, does he?" Cassie said, gazing at the strange creature, her interest now mixed with concern.
"Like me after a night out with the lads," Pete agreed, flippant as usual.
Cassie gave him a sidelong look that was just the slightest bit reproachful. "It must be scary for Kitty, not knowing what's wrong with him."
"Yeah, Kitty's fond of the little git." A half-sigh escaped him as he flicked his cigarette ash. "Can't think why."
"It could be worse, you know," Cassie suggested diffidently.
"What, she could have a pair, and be breedin' 'em on the roof like bloody pigeons?"
The mental image made Cassie laugh in spite of herself. "That too. But I was thinking about my own situation. I have a cat, you see, and when she met Hank--"
"--the fur flew?" Wisdom finished for her, smirking. The Beast on the run from his girl's tabby was a sight he'd pay good money to have witnessed.
"No, the opposite. She really liked him. She ADORED him, actually. Wouldn't leave him alone--sitting on him, climbing his legs, licking his fur...." Cassie shook her head. "It was really embarrassing."
Pete Wisdom pictured himself with Lockheed clinging around his neck at every opportunity, and shuddered. "Yer right, that would be worse." They both again considered the little dragon, and he found himself saying, "It's not like I'm glad he's sick, or hopin' he'll pop off. I've been figurin' that sooner or later, he'll catch on that I'm here to stay, and give over with this feudin'."
"That sounds likely," Cassie said. "You know, my folks used to keep Cornflower for me when I was away--they're doing that right now, actually--and at first, my Dad would grump around about 'Cassie's damn ol' cat' being spoiled rotten." She grinned. "That was because she liked my mom best, and ignored him. Then suddenly one day she was his little cutie, following him everywhere."
"She just got used to the idea, huh?"
"Mom says she caught Dad sneaking her special treats."
Pete just shook his head. "I've tried that. The little sod took it, and still hates me anyway."
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Kurt and Kitty, with Rahne bringing up the rear. "Congratulate me, I AM a genius," Kurt proclaimed. "The power is now fully operational, as good as new, or possibly better!" He bowed modestly as Cassie and Rahne dutifully applauded.
The noise made Lockheed poke his head out from under his wing, emitting a whining growl of complain. Kitty instantly picked him up and attempted to comfort him. "It's okay, little guy. The computers will be up and running soon, and we'll find out what's wrong with you."
She blinked hard, trying not to cry, and Pete rose to the occasion, flicking away his cigarette before putting an arm around her shoulders. "I could be wrong, but I think he was more comfortable up in his den in your room."
Kitty sniffed and nodded, and let Pete guide her away, carrying her sick little companion. She turned back to say, "Kurt, will you please tell Hank and Moira I'll be down to help directly?"
"Immediately, katzchen," he promised, and vanished with a soft pop.
"You know, they might be ready for a break. Let's take down the rest of the coffee before we start lunch," Cassie suggested to Rahne, feeling it was a good excuse to see Hank for a moment. This was quite agreeable to Rahne, and after they gathered mugs and other necessities, she led the way to the computer lab.
They were only just nearing the labs when they saw Moira march through the door, and seconds later march out again followed by a somewhat bewildered Hank.
"Moira, exactly what is wrong?" Hank asked, attempting to get an explanation as to why she was pulling him away from the very work she was so anxious for him to complete.
"Oh, just ye wait and see," she replied, moving briskly up the stairs. "Ye'll have tae see this tae believe it."
Cassie followed them automatically, catching up with Hank. The portable coffee break was set aside, unheeded. "Hank, what...?"
"Weel, luv, let's jus' say I'm beginning tae giv' this poltergeist idea a wee bit more consideration," Moira replied over her shoulder.
The little procession met Kitty in the hall, and took her in tow as they continued to Moira's room. Opening the door, the excited Scot guided them through to one of the wardrobes and flung it open. "There!"
They all peered into the dark depths of the old oak wardrobe. It contained the usual wardrobe innards: a rack of clothes--mostly thick coats, a pile of shoes and assortments on the floor, and in the corner a cardboard box full of bottles of whisky.
"Ummm, it's a wardrobe, Moira," Kitty pointed out, unsure of what she was supposed to be seeing.
"Aye, tha's right. It's a wardrobe, an' the one where my whisky's bein' stolen fr'm. Rahne, could ye get one o' those bottles oot f'r me?"
With a puzzled look on her face, the young girl complied. The wardrobe was very deep, and the bottles were stored right at the back. To get to them she had to step right into the wardrobe. However, as soon as her foot touched the wooden floor she jerked it back in alarm.
The room had suddenly filled with an awful groaning and wheezing noise, echoing madly around like the last agonizing gasps of a dying soul. Still jumpy after their encounter last night, and with thoughts of poltergeists and ghouls still fresh on their minds both Rahne and Cassie leapt for the nearest source of masculine comfort--Hank. Kitty just covered her ears and grimaced.
"Well, the alarm system is clearly working correctly," Hank said loudly to Moira, automatically comforting the two trembling females in his arms. "Moira?"
Moira was standing still, her eyes half closed in dreamy contentment as the caterwauls and wails droned over her. "Hmm? Och, yes. Sorry." She reached out towards the side of the wardrobe and the horrendous noises ceased. "Ahh, Ah've nae heard tha' in a long while."
"What was it?" Rahne asked in a shocked voice, disentangling herself from Hank.
"The GlenMorran Pipers," Moira replied, still looking slightly dreamy with nostalgia. "An album of auld airs and strathspeys. Beautiful stuff."
"I take it the correctly functioning alarm system was not the reason you requested our presence here," Hank said.
"Nae. The problem is, another bottle's gone."
"Ah," Kitty said as realization dawned. "So you set up an alarm system to stop anyone from stealing any more of your whisky, but it didn't work."
"But surely it wouldn't be too hard to get around it? If all you did was make the floor pressure sensitive...."
"We did a bit more than that, Kitty," Hank responded. "Not only will the alarm go off if there is any registered pressure on the floor, but there are infra-red beams crossing the entrance to the wardrobe. To be able to get through those you would have to be rather smaller than an average person. Which, I'm afraid to say, Moira, discounts our ruffled Englishman from the list of suspects."
"Aye. 'Tis a pity, but yuir right. In fact the only person who COULD get through these defenses easily would be Meggan, with her shape-shiftin' powers. But I can't see her drinkin' whisky, an' she certainly wouldnae steal..."
"Not Meggan, no way," Kitty said firmly, and Rahne also shook her head in vehement support of her friend.
"Could Kurt, um, pop in and out?" Cassie suggested, drawn by professional interest into the mystery. "For a joke?"
"I doubt it," Hank replied, after an instant's consideration. "Unless he has refined his powers considerably since we last met."
"Nae, lass, he needs to teleport into free, open space," Moira explained kindly. "He'd ne'er try such a mad thing as popping into my wardrobe for just a joke."
"Agreed," Kitty added. "Which leaves..."
"The poltergeist?" Rahne finished off, rather tremulously.
"Or at least SOMETHING with rather remarkable abilities," Hank clarified.
"Y'know, I remember Kurt telling me about facing something similar not too long ago," Kitty said. "It was when he was training the Technet a while back. There were reports of items going missing, and no amount of security seemed to stop it happening."
"So what did he do about it?" Hank asked.
"He set a trap."
"Far be it from me to point out the obvious," Hank said gently, "but we just did exactly that."
"Then we obviously have to upgrade," Kitty smiled, taking no offense. "Pretend we're crossing over from Excalibur to the X-files."
Hank, Kitty and Moira gave over the remainder of the morning to this new project. As the attempt to catch the thief in the bedroom had been unsuccessful, they decided to set the trap in the other area of poltergeist activity--the kitchen.
Fortunately, Hank and Moira had repaired the worst of the physical destruction the afternoon before, and this morning had made fair progress in retrofitting the software and connections between peripherals, and regaining access to the core database. Now, with Kitty's help added, it was a quick task to prepare the new trap.
The X-ghostbusters broke for a festive lunch with the rest of the team, roast chicken and potatoes and vegetable marrow pie made even more festive with another bottle of Moira's dwindling stock of whisky. The resulting half-full bottle was left innocently on a worktop in the kitchen. Innocently, that is, except for the motion detectors rigged up to it that would register the slightest bit of movement of the bottle. None of the group helping load the dishwasher came anywhere near it, and it soon stood in lonely splendor in the silent kitchen.
The motion detectors had been connected to the now more or less up-and-running computer network, so that if the bottle was moved, screens all over the rest of the building would give a visible signal of the occurrence. With the trap set, all the computer wizards went back to the tedious task of finishing up the details, eyes flickering constantly to the various computer screens that would give warning of the poltergeist's activity, even though all agreed they likely wouldn't get a nibble until after dark. The waiting made time pass very slowly.
When Pete came in to inform Kitty that Lockheed was up out of bed on his own power, she took the opportunity to grab both Pete and Moira, suggesting some clearing of the air was in order. She leaned comfortably against a workbench, enjoying the all-too-rare spectacle of Moira apologizing to the rumpled Englishman.
"So you admit it wasn't me, then?" Pete asked, a slight grin on his face. He was prepared to enjoy this.
"Aye, I'll admit it couldn't have been ye who took the last bottle, unless yiv suddenly got a lot better with them hot-knives of yuirs," Moira replied grudgingly. "And since I know ye didnae take that 'un, I suppose I can believe ye were nae responsible f'r the others, either."
"So yer gonna apologize for accusing me, then?" He was grinning openly now.
Moira sighed deeply. She hated to do it, but honesty won over her natural Scottish desire to not give an inch where the English were concerned, and she forced the words out. "I'm sorry for accusing you."
"None of this was my fault?"
Pete's evil grin grew wider. "I'm not sure that's enough. Y'know, maybe you should tell that to the whole team, public-like."
Moira's eyebrows rose, then dived to a glare. "Any more o' that, young man, and ye can take yuir apology and stick it right up yuir--"
"Moira!" Kitty interrupted. "The alarm's gone off!"
"The alarm! Someone's grabbed the bottle!"
Trying to keep as quiet as possible the three of them rushed to the door of the kitchen, bumping into Hank, Cassie and Rahne as they did so. "What're ye plannin' to do, Lady Moira?" Rahne asked in a hushed whisper. "If'n it IS a poltergeist..."
"If it IS a poltergeist, then I want it OOT o' ma hoose!" Moira replied in an aggressive whisper. "So we're gonnae take a look."
"On three, then," Hank whispered, unknowingly echoing the events of the previous night.
The six of them burst open the door, rushed into the kitchen and stopped dead at the sight before them. The bottle of whisky had been lifted into the air, turned almost upside down and held while its contents were swiftly guzzled by....
Caught mauve-handed, the little dragon tried to flee. Hank snagged the nearly empty bottle as it fell, and Kitty, due to years of experience, made a flying leap to catch her reptile delinquent. "Lockheed, I am TOTALLY ASHAMED of you!" Her bright red cheeks betrayed her chagrin at her pet's misbehavior. Lockheed smiled blearily, already feeling the alcohol's effects, and gave her a hopeful nuzzle, angling for instant forgiveness.
"We should get her a squirt gun," Cassie murmured to Hank, who recalled that device's quelling effects on Cornflower's antics, and nodded.
"Och, we should hae guessed," Moira exclaimed, managing to look puzzled and indignant at the same time.
"Lockheed, you had me so worried--and you were just HUNG OVER the whole time?" Kitty held him out and shook him lightly, which made his head weave alarmingly. "Oh, you--you DRAGON!" She then clasped him to her chest.
Pete cleared his throat. "Can't blame the little devil fer havin' a taste fer th' finer things in life."
"Pete, don't you start--" Kitty began, then listened to his actual words. "--defending him?"
This brought forth from Pete an 'I've been naughty but you'll forgive me' grin uncannily similar to Lockheed's. "Only to be expected he'd go for quality stuff, when you see who he picked for a mistress."
Kitty tried and failed to suppress a smile. "Strange how I seem to attract rascals." From his position over Kitty's shoulder, Lockheed eyed Pete thoughtfully.
"Well, now your only problem will be how to devise a dragon-proof storage compartment for your potables," Hank said. "No doubt a piece of cake."
"I wonder what made him develop such a thirst of a sudden--it's obviously bad for his system," Moira mused.
Kitty's eyes widened. "Pete! It has to be--do you remember? When that friend of yours from London was here you poured a nip in a saucer for Lockheed as a joke!"
"WISDOM gave MY ancient whisky to Lockheed in a saucer!?" Moira gasped. Then further comprehension made her smile with fierce anticipation. "So I guess ye'd be wrong about this not bein' yuir fault, eh, Wisdom?"
"What's that? I canna hear ye!" she crowed. "I guess we'll have to make this a matter for a public apology after all."
"While you're considering your options, Moira," Hank suggested, hoping to avert another fight, "perhaps we could wrap this up and finish our work with the computers. I think we can get you totally back on line this evening, with a bit more work."
"Verra weel," Moira grumbled. "But I'll nae be fergettin' this soon--and it will be longer than that before yon beastie gets even a whiff o' ma whisky."
"Or ANY alcohol," Kitty added firmly. Lockheed gave a faint keen of dismay.
"Hey, that's a bit rough," Pete protested. "A little drop now and then won't do any harm."
Ever eager to disagree with Pete, Moira replied, "We've SEEN what happens when he starts on the beers."
"This WAS his first time. The little'un just don't know 'is limits yet," Pete argued. "An' OK, he gets a bit rowdy when he's had a few--at least he doesn't start pickin' fights, like SOME I could mention." Moira glared, but declined to dignify that remark with a response.
"Well, we'll see," Kitty said, stroking the back of Lockheed's neck lovingly.
And from over Kitty's shoulder, where no one else could see, Lockheed winked a grudging thanks to Pete.
Continued in Part 38.