Treehouse Morning Scramble
Standard disclaimer: They’re not mine, which is okay because I still get to play with them from time to time.
Dedicated to SunKrux, the only person I know who likes peaches as much, and possibly even more than, I.
She woke up slowly. In the dim moonlight the contours of her room seemed unfamiliar and vaguely threatening. What had roused her from her sleep? She sat up in her bed, a feeling of dread nagging at her. She looked around, but didn't see anything suspicious. She couldn't hear any noises that were cause for concern. What was it? And then she knew.
"Oh no," breathed Veronica. She rose swiftly, pulling with her the thin sheet under which she slept. She wrapped it around herself as she rushed from her room. She reached the common room and made a beeline for the kitchen, calling worriedly, "Marguerite?"
Her fears were vehemently confirmed by the site of the dark-haired heiress standing in front of the wood-burning oven, which spewed forth black smoke like a particularly large and filthy hookah. "What are you doing?" she demanded.
"Shh!" hissed Marguerite, then choked on a wisp of smoke. She waved a hand in front of her face to clear the air. "You'll wake the others."
Still unclear but willing to follow the older woman's lead for the moment, Veronica lowered her voice. "Well?"
Marguerite looked annoyed but answered honestly. "I’m cooking breakfast. Well," she amended, "I’m trying to cook breakfast."
"But why?" Veronica kept her query short; she didn't think it would help matters to point out what a wretched cook Marguerite was or how very unusual it was for her to do anything spontaneously generous.
"Do I have to have a reason?" Marguerite took two towels from the counter and used them to pull a tray of something unidentifiable from the oven. Whatever it had once been, it was now nothing but charcoal.
"Yes." Veronica continued to stand in the doorway, waiting for an explanation. She tried to keep her expression neutral as the brunette scraped the blackened mess from the tray into the pail of kitchen waste that couldn't be composted or recycled. Smoke swirled in the lamplight, slowly finding its way out into the predawn. She fought back a cough.
"I just thought it would be a nice gesture," answered Marguerite, still scraping away at the pan with a flat, wooden spatula. "You were all out the past few days working hard—presumably." She shot a suggestive look over her shoulder, acknowledging Veronica's attire with a single raised eyebrow.
Veronica stood straighter and made a futile attempt to look appropriately dressed for anything other than an ancient Roman brothel. "You know perfectly well that I was collecting botanical samples with Summerlee and Malone. The number of plants we brought back should convince even your suspicious mind that Ned and I were busy doing respectable things," she said indignantly.
"I never said you and Malone had done anything at all," replied Marguerite too innocently, returning her attention to her task.
"So just who is this 'nice gesture' for?" persisted the blonde. Marguerite had annoyed her with her implications, so she decided to return the favor by not letting the heiress off the hook by demanding an answer to her original question.
"If you must know," Marguerite replied coolly, "it's for Summerlee. It's his wedding anniversary today."
Veronica felt an unexpected and almost unprecedented warmth toward Marguerite. For her to have found out and bothered to remember this piece of information about the expedition's elder statesman surprised the huntress. Without a word, she stepped all the way into the kitchen and opened a drawer. A moment's searching found a flat piece of metal, one long edge of which had been curled over to make a sort of handle.
"Here," she said, holding it out to Marguerite.
The toiling woman paused and looked up. "What is it?" She wiped her forehead with a sleeve, scattering crumbs from the wooden spatula.
"A metal scraper. I use I for scooping cut fruits or vegetables from the counter into a bowl or pot, but it's good for...other things."
Marguerite eyed the device and the woman who held it with equal skepticism.
Veronica shook the scraper a little. "Take it. It isn't sharp."
"Thank you." Marguerite discarded her wooden utensil and took the metal one in its place. She began to scrape the charred remains from the tray. The thinner metal edge got under the burnt and sticking stuff far more easily than the thick spatula had. She smiled, pleased at the result. "Thank you," she repeated with greater sincerity.
"You're welcome. What..." Veronica paused. She wanted to make sure she phrased her next question properly. She knew she'd get nowhere with the touchy and enigmatic woman if she inadvertently offended her. "What are you making?"
"It was supposed to be sour milk biscuits. It's the one thing I know I can make." She glared accusingly at the results of her labor as if blaming the burnt buns for their incinerated condition. "Roxton and Challenger brought flour, sugar, and fresh peaches back from the Zanga village, and I know Summerlee likes peaches, so I thought..." She trailed off and sighed in frustration.
"Peaches?" asked Veronica in surprise.
"They're over there." Marguerite gestured with her head to a covered crate in the corner.
Veronica moved to it and opened the lid. She took an appreciative sniff. "Mmm. They smell wonderful." Then she frowned. "I hope the men bartered well for them. Old Chana doesn't usually let go of her peaches for love nor money."
Marguerite merely shrugged a shoulder. "You'll have to ask Roxton and Challenger." Finally, she straightened up and shook the last crumbs into the bin. "There," she said with satisfaction. She looked at the flat pan. "Good as new. Too bad I can't say the same for the biscuits."
To her own surprise, Veronica took further pity on the brunette. "I’ll tell you what," she began, replacing the cover on the crate of peaches. "Give me a few minutes to get dressed, and I'll come back and help. It can be tricky keeping the oven at a consistent temperature," she added, cleverly dispelling any suggestion that it was Marguerite's cooking skills that were lacking.
Now, however, it was Marguerite's turn to ask suspiciously, "Why?"
"Will it make you happier if I say, 'I just want to help' or if I say, 'I want a breakfast I can actually eat'?"
"The second one. At least I know it's the truth."
"I want a breakfast I can actually eat." Veronica glanced at the mess in the bin and dared a joke. "I don't think even a raptor could get its teeth through that," she said with a smirk.
Marguerite raised the pan she held threateningly and Veronica made a giggling and swift exit. The heiress glared daggers at her back, her expression poisonous enough to scare a scorpion. Slowly, her angry look softened to one of mild annoyance. "It's not like she's wrong," she muttered to herself, giving the contents of the bin one last, disgusted glare before putting the bin's lid back on securely.
She briefly considered mixing a fresh batch of biscuits, but decided against it. Veronica had left her alone, trusting her not to cause further damage. The least Marguerite could do was respect that. She instead selected the ripest of the peaches from the crate and set about pitting and slicing them.
Roxton entered the common room, adjusting the straps of his suspenders as he went. He glanced around, smiling at Challenger, Summerlee, and Malone, who all sat around the large dining table. There was a pot of freshly brewed tea on the table, steam rising gently from the spout, and each of the seated men had a china cup of the stuff in front of him. Beside the pot was a small bowl of sugar and pitcher of goat's milk.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Roxton said, heartily clapping a hand on Malone's shoulder as he took a seat beside him.
"Morning," the journalist replied once he'd had a split-second to recover.
"Good morning," said Challenger.
"Good morning, my dear fellow," Summerlee responded pleasantly. "Tea?" He lifted the pot and held it hovering over an empty cup. At Roxton's nod, he poured some out for the dark-haired lord.
Roxton smiled broadly. "Thank you, Professor." He accepted the teacup and poured the slightest splash of goat's milk into it. He sipped it happily. "You know, I think I've actually gotten used to goat's milk in my tea."
"I can abide the goat's milk," put in Challenger, "but I don't expect I'll ever be able to abide the goat's cheese."
There were general nods of agreement around the table from all but Malone. "I don't know," the young man said, "it wouldn't be my choice at home, but it sure is good when you put it on a pterodactyl egg omelet."
"I can't argue with you there, Neddy-boy," grinned Roxton. He looked around the room again. "So where are the women?" he asked. Then he inhaled deeply and his grin broadened. "And what smells so delicious?"
Veronica entered just in time to hear his questions. "We're right here," she answered. She carried a large bowl of sliced peaches in one hand and a stack of small plates in the other. She set everything on the table and took a seat as Marguerite followed her in from the kitchen. She poured out two more cups of tea—one for herself and one for the heiress.
"And this is what smells so delicious," Marguerite finished, placing a basket on the table. The heady scent of fresh baking emanated from under the cloth napkin that covered the basket.
"What is it?" inquired Roxton.
Malone sniffed the air. "It smells like biscuits," he said, doubt in his voice.
"It is biscuits," confirmed Marguerite. She removed the napkin as if she were unveiling a great work of art. Before the men could dive in, however, she reclaimed the basket and held it out to Summerlee. "Professor?" she offered.
"Thank you, my dear." The bespectacled man smiled and took one of the hot pastries.
"Here." Veronica quickly took a plate from the stack and set it in front of him.
"Thank you," he said again, placing the biscuit on it.
"And don't for get the peaches," Marguerite reminded him. She set down the biscuits and pulled the bowl into reach. "Oh! Spoon!"
"I'll get one, and forks," Veronica added, realizing they'd also forgotten to bring in any eating utensils. She rose and disappeared into the kitchen.
While they waited for her to return, Malone, Roxton, and Challenger all eyed Marguerite dubiously. She returned their suspicious looks with an indulgent smile. "Dig in, boys," she chimed cheerfully, knowing her unusual good humor would only make them more curious. She grinned internally at their increasingly perplexed looks.
Veronica returned at that moment with a large spoon and a handful of forks. She slipped the spoon into the bowl and handed the forks around before reclaiming her seat.
As Summerlee scooped juicy sweet peaches onto his plate, the others each took a biscuit and plate of his or her own. Marguerite and Veronica exchanged an amused glance, noting the continued confusion of the three younger men of the party.
Malone split open his biscuit and, accepting the offered bowl from Summerlee, spooned the fruit on top of it. "This looks great! Did you make this, Marguerite?" he asked, forgetting to hide his amazement.
"Surprised, Malone?" the heiress inquired, thoroughly enjoying the momentary look of fear on the journalist's face.
"No," he lied quickly.
Roxton chuckled and slapped him on the back. "Good try, Malone," he whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear. He took the bowl from the younger man and took his turn at the fresh fruit. "So, what's the occasion?"
Veronica and Marguerite exchanged a brief glance and a smile. It was the brunette who answered. "Arthur is."
"My dear," the silver-haired professor said, "you really shouldn't have gone to all this trouble."
"It was no trouble at all," Marguerite lied easily. Summerlee didn't need to know about the early morning baking catastrophe that had preceded the successful batch of biscuits.
"Why Summerlee?" asked Malone. Realizing how tactless he must have sounded, he hastily added, "Not that it shouldn't be Summerlee. I just..." He turned to the older man. "Is it your birthday?"
"No," Summerlee answered, a slight flush in his round cheeks.
"Then what is it?" Challenger asked.
"It's my wedding anniversary." Summerlee looked from Marguerite to Veronica kindly, his blue eyes shining. "I can't believe you remembered and went to all this bother. It's been so long since I've had anyone to share it with..."
Veronica spoke up. "It was Marguerite who remembered," she admitted, giving credit where it was due. "And the breakfast was all her idea, too."
"But I couldn't have managed it without Veronica's help," the older woman countered. "That damned oven has it in for me, I'm sure of it!"
"Well I think it was most thoughtful and sweet of both of you," Summerlee declared with gentle finality.
"Quite," agreed Challenger readily, surprising them all. His professional animosity towards the botanist had mellowed in the months they'd been stranded on the Plateau, but it was unusual for him to let it show. He held up his teacup, and the others followed his lead. "To Arthur and Anna, God rest her soul."
"Arthur and Anna," the others echoed.
"To Anna," Summerlee said.
They drank to the toasts.
Summerlee set down his cup, tears welling in his eyes. He rubbed them with a thumb and forefinger and sniffed. "Thank you, all," he said, readjusting his glasses on his nose. Uncomfortable with all the kind attention, he turned to Marguerite. "So, my dear, how did you spend the time whilst we were all away?"
Marguerite recognized the deflection for what it was and played along. "If you all looked in your rooms before falling into your beds last night, you'd see I did quite a lot of mending while you were gone." Her tone was a mix of teasing and indignation. She had no desire to rile anyone up that morning, but she was happy to carry the conversation away from the gathering's somewhat shy guest of honor. "Other than that, I did quite a lot of reading. It was wonderfully quiet without you all pounding around the treehouse." She directed an accusing look at Roxton.
He froze with a forkful of biscuit and peaches half way to his mouth. "What?" he asked defensively.
"You, with your heavy boots and manly stride," she mocked lightly. "One would think a herd of elephants had moved in, the way you walk sometimes."
Veronica wasn't sure how far the heiress would go with her teasing, and she was equally unsure if Roxton would recognize it as such. She decided she'd rather not find out. "What did you read, Marguerite? I know there are a few good books with all sorts of gemological data in them."
But Marguerite was in a mischievous mood. A sly smile curled her lips, and she said, "Actually, I was reading Malone's journals. Tell me, Ned," she went on, turning to the young man, "are you a great fan of Sir Richard Burton?"
Malone barely had time to register indignation at her invasion of his privacy before being confounded by her question. "What? I suppose. Why?"
"I just thought you must be very well versed in his work. There were bits in a couple of those journals that read like his translation of the Kamasutra."
"I... Uhh..." Malone sputtered, blushing bright red to the roots of his blond hair.
"Really," continued Marguerite mercilessly, thoroughly enjoying the effect of her words on not only Malone, but the rest of the assembled company, too. She regarded him over the rim of her teacup. "It made me wish for a cold shower at times, but I settled for a swim instead. I had no idea you had it in you, Malone. Well done."
Finally, the young man regained his tongue. "There's no such thing in any of my journals!" he exclaimed. He looked back and forth from Roxton to Challenger to Summerlee, desperately seeking support. All he got was a knowing smirk from the lord and amused chuckles from the two professors. "Honestly! Veronica, you believe me, right?" He looked at her hopefully.
Before the huntress could answer, Marguerite chimed in again. "Are you sure you want her to believe you, Malone? I may have just raised your stock immeasurably."
Roxton couldn't hold back a snort of laughter as Malone's flush deepened to a rich crimson and Veronica's cheeks went rosy. The youngest inhabitants of the treehouse suddenly found it imperative to avoid eye contact with one another.
"Would anyone like more tea?" asked Veronica, rising swiftly. "The pot's about empty. I'll make a fresh one." She grabbed the pot's handle and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.
Stuck with no excuse to leave, Malone continued to sit there, pink and perplexed.
Summerlee leaned over and whispered conspiratorially in Marguerite's ear. "You really shouldn't tease them so, my dear," he said, a impish twinkle in his eye.
"But I wanted to get you something for your anniversary. I couldn't think a good present, so I thought a little entertainment might suffice," she responded slyly.
The old man chuckled softly. "The breakfast was more than enough...but I did enjoy the show."
"What are you two whispering about?" Challenger asked curiously.
Veronica returned with a fresh pot of tea in time to hear Marguerite's reply.
The heiress flashed her most innocent smile at the ginger-haired scientist. "I was just wishing Arthur a happy anniversary."
Summerlee smiled. "And I told her that although Anna isn't here in person, I'm sure she's here in spirit, and there's no one I would rather spend this day with than all of you." He raised his teacup and saluted each of his companions in turn. "To you all," he said, and drank.