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Pick Your Battles

Posted on Wed Apr 12th, 2023 @ 10:23 by Mhairi McIntyre & Cameron Johnston

Chapter: Prologue: Dawn of Avalon
Location: the Blue Door Inn, a.k.a. Top Pub, New Cresthill
Timeline: Immediately after "Three Messages"
4316 words - 8.6 OF Standard Post Measure

When Cameron had first started familiarising himself with the town, one of the first things he'd been forced to navigate was the social implications of which pub?. Like any self-respecting small Scottish town, New Cresthill had three pubs, and whilst they all had their own names, The Rose, Hope & Anchor, and the Blue Door Inn, they were colloquially referred to as Bottom Pub, Middle Pub and Top Pub respectively. The origin of these names was absolutely no mystery has they referred directly to the location of the pubs in relation to the initial layout of the original main street. Extension in both directions no longer made the two outer taverns the last pitstop before leaving the township but they protected the cultural boundaries and honoured a sense of clanship and bitter rivalry that dated back...well, decades at the very least.

Very early on, Cameron had made the mistake of believing it in his best interest to frequent all of them, presuming that a lack of favouritism would sit well amongst a populace already a little wary of him. That had turned out to be a mistake Graeme had swiftly put an end to. Better no allegiance at all than to dunk your head at a rival's drinking hole. After that, he'd primarily frequented the Top Pub, because that was the old mechanic's local, and once in a while, the Middle Pub, given its almost-insidious emergence as a buffer between the two. It was a place for the newer folks to congregate, and also tended to attract the most tourists because it was the more modern of the three. It didn't participate in the ongoing feud that stoked the fires in its older rivals' furnaces but it was more than happy to pass commentary on it. It tended to exist for those who didn't want to take sides but, like most things, not-picking-a-side had become a stance all of its own.

It was very complicated. Cameron didn't understand it in the slightest. Something about a turkey. And perhaps a potato. And a terrible storm that was perhaps a drought and then everyone fell sick from something that was the fault of the other clan. He'd given up trying to keep track of the difference between fact and embellishment.

It hadn't surprised him at all, therefore, that his meandering walk with Mhairi had eventually lead them through the doors of the Blue Door Inn. He'd had a drink there often enough with her father, whose status had been significant enough to allow a mutant's presence with minimal fuss. Cameron wasn't stupid, he knew there was plenty of grumbling still beneath the breaths of the oldest patrons but there'd never been any trouble and he quite liked the current serving staff. The food was hearty and rich and mostly potato-based, which suited him just fine. The familiar tingle of the bell above the door was normally enough to help him relax. He had...friends here. Of sorts.

Today, as they ushered inside, Cameron took a moment to look around and stopped. The place was nearly empty, currently catering to the lone figure of Old Gus sitting at the end of the bar, and 'Dafty', whose nickname would have been considered highly insensitive anywhere else in the world given the middle-aged man's clear intellectual disability. He was a familiar face around town, however, and the only one permitted to wander in and out of enemy lines with impunity given that he made his pocket money running small errands for local businesses. He was currently sweeping the floor and probably didn't actually count as a patron despite the fact that his payment was a warm pint he would likely nurse for over an hour. There hadn't been as many people on the street, now that Cameron thought about it, not for lunch time. Not for any time. His shoulders hunched a little higher.

"No fighting over tables today then."

It had taken the entire walk from their altercation with the local bigot to this pub for Mhairi to push down some of the feelings of anger and disbelieve. And it was just a tut. She knew that people like Cameron had endured worse, but she'd never been part of that. "Too bad. I'm still in a bit of a fighting mood." She gave a bit of a smile to her companion, in a way of apology. Knowing that she had made him a bit uncomfortable by her confrontational attitude. In her mind the young mechanic just felt that she had to stand up for them, against bigotry. And she obviously knew that the best way to do that was not to go in swinging, but the dude had just struck a nerve with her with his passive aggressive behaviour.

As they headed for a nearby table she gave a small wave to the bartender, and flashed him a smile. "Two orders of haggis neeps & tatties" She looked over at Cameron with a bit of a smirk, "I'm sure the old man made you eat this before."

The look of pained acceptance was more for her benefit than an attempt at accurately expressing Cameron's opinion of the meal staple, since it seemed expected by the locals that anyone from outside make a fuss over their offal-ly questionable tastes. Cameron had learned not to be fussy, the nutritional requirements of his body were demanding enough without him getting squeamish over which part of a dead carcass he consumed. "And two from the green," he added, to show he'd been paying attention in regards to beer selection too. Mostly. If they'd changed the colour of the taps since he'd last been in, he was screwed. He winked at his lunch partner before executing a move he was reasonably sure was going to annoy her and pulled out a chair for her to sit in. "We've shared a wee swally or two in here, for sure." The slang sounded a little odd, his perfection of the accent still a work in progress.

There was a bit of wince, though Mhairi didn't comment on whether that was about the attempt at local slang or the fact that he pulled out the chair for her. She considered for a moment to just sit down in a different chair, but her appreciation of the fact that he cared enough to try was enough to sway her otherwise. She sat down and allowed him to push her a bit closer to the table. "Such a gentleman, is that what Cavendish teaches? Upper class etiquette?"

"Actually," Cam replied, taking up his own seat opposite, "I just decided a while back that I was going to be doomed either way so I might as well opt for the demise that painted me in the best light possible." He grinned, eyes twinkling. "I think Claire would disown me if she ever had reason to unleash me on high society. Way too many forks for my liking."

"Go down swinging, I appreciate that." The corner of Mhairi's mouth rose up a bit at that. She pulled a fork and knife from the nearby pot that held about a dozen of each. Plenty of cutlery but all for the same purpose. Wolfing down proper pub-grub. "So..." She mulled over what she wanted to ask him, and whether it was appropriate. "Tell me a little bit about yourself." She decided to leave it more open than some of the more personal prying questions she'd have for him down the line.

As it happened, prying would have been a lot more up Cam's alley, since he found that the one topic he had the least success at launching into idle conversation about was himself. Depending on the intent of the interrogator, he liked to think himself a reasonably open book, if not a wholly uninteresting one that would probably get put to one side several pages in. He just never knew where to start when he was given open slather to reveal all. "Well, I've been a mutant most of my life." There was a pause for effect before the comic adjustment. "Well, all of it actually. Snuck under the radar a bit because I wasn't fully activated until I was just out of the 10-year warranty stage." His features wore their amusement openly, hopefully conveying his comfort with the topic.

"So your family knows?" Mhairi immediately followed up when even the slightest lull in his story came around. Two draft beers were put in front of them and she immediately picked on up and raised it to him, "Sláinte."

Returning the cheers without second thought, Cam nodded his response. "There's a lot of complicated situations out there but I don't think you could count mine among them." Perhaps, if he dealt with the part where he was the product of a rogue element in the donor system then that claim might fall to pieces but Cam himself was still coming to grips with what that revelation meant and how to fit the ramifications into the rest of his life. Lacking the same genetic heritage as his siblings, despite his parents' best attempts, was one thing; acquiring at least two known half-siblings in the process was something else entirely. "My story's pretty typical up to a point. Tried to keep it a secret until I couldn't, the entire world flipped upside down for a bit and we moved to get closer to support. I'm not going to say it was easy but I was never left high and dry. Still go home every break." It explained why he hadn't been around when she'd first returned. Cam grinned. "Just became an uncle again."

Mhairi's face lit up at that, "Awesome!" She didn't have any siblings so she'd not be an aunt for a long time still. She then frowned a bit, "that's a good thing, right? I mean. I..." She wanted to comment on his mutation and that it would probably be difficult to raise kids with that in this day and age. There was no way to properly bring that up. "I don't have any brothers or sisters." She hoped that he would accept that this was the root of her hesitance.

Despite it not being something that he spoke about much, having been somewhat succinct even when it came to confiding in Reagan and Claire about his half-siblings, Cam nevertheless found himself confronted with his own need to set a record straight from the start. "My brother and sister and I...we're kind of more or less half-siblings. Biologically, at least." It still hurt, knowing that he'd been duped out of the carefully-planned genetic synergy his parents had mapped out when they'd first selected a donor. "My brother's older, sister's younger, I'm stuck in the middle. Dad has some fertility issues so they went the donor route and I..." He took a sip to cover up his discomfort. "...don't have the same biological father. Different donor." He added the unnecessary. "Since verified mutant."

"Oh." Mhairi took a sip herself, "I'm sorry." Clearly not confident in that particular choice of words. "They messed up? Nothing nefarious I hope." Just as she asked the bartender came over with their meals and put them in front of them. "Thank you." She gave a polite nod at the man bringing their food before turning her focus back on the man across from her.

"Honestly not sure, the whole thing's still under investigation." Which was about as much of that particular topic as Cameron was going to indulge. The interruption was a welcome one, met with an easy smile, and the meal in front of him became instantly the cause of several impatient grumblings from his stomach. "That's about the extent of my mystique though. Falls a little short of impressive but you take crazy genes out of the mix and I think my life's been pretty standard. By comparison at least." It was a typical underplay, the way that Cameron usually made sense of his place amongst the tapestry. Watching her as he loaded up his fork, he added before shoving it into his mouth, "Not even going to compete with solo-trekking across Africa."

Mhairi blushed a bit at that, then tried to shrug it off. "It wasn't a big deal. Besides there were enough other people, so it never really felt like a solo trek." That was of course a lie, there were plenty of others, that was true, but it was also still a very big deal. She was alone, in a strange place, working as best she could to improve the lives of the people there. "You know how if you give a man a fish you feed them for a day and such?" She pushed around her food a bit. "We in the west think we're doing amazing work, sending over farm equipment, huge tractors. Combine harvesters. What not. Within the year eighty percent of them break down. And the mechanical knowledge and resources are not there to fix it." The Scottish mechanic shook her head at that, "then we send a new tractor and feel good about ourselves again. I went there to fix the underlying issue."

It wasn't just the mouthful of food that Cameron had taken that gave him pause for thought. It occurred to him, especially under current circumstances, that it was all too easy to break the world up into 'mutant issues' and 'human issues', and yet there was so much that went on that surely should have counted as 'everyone's issues'. For every mutant out there with destructive capabilities, there were just as many who might have made a significant difference when it came to global issues. Instead of exploiting them, efforts should have focused on solidarity. He wondered, as he chewed, how long it would take him to cross Africa given the conditions. The opportunity to actively out-pace a Cheetah had never occurred to him.

"Not a bad effort for a girl carved out of Cresthill granite," Cameron quoted her father with a warm smile. "I won't lie. When Graeme told me what you were up to, I was partway disappointed I'd never thought of it myself."

Mhairi shook her head, she knew that it wasn't for everyone and she'd heard some of her peers make the same claims. She'd gotten a lot of help, from the organisations she was working with as well as her father and extended family. Sure they'd been scared for her safety, and there had been times that it got a little too close for comfort for herself. But it had a profound impact on her life. One that she wouldn't have missed for the world. She was contently eating away at the food that had been served to them, something that she could also appreciate much more now that she had seen that it wasn't common to just have three meals a day ready and waiting for you when you got home, or decided to stroll into town.

She smiled a bit at the familiar words, "You've been talking to my old man too much, you must've been lonely up in your castle."

Cameron made a sound that wasn't exactly denial, though followed immediately with a more circumspect response. "Your Dad's got a way of looking at the world that's hard to replicate." Whilst he respected his colleagues and held many of them dear, there was just something about congregating with mutants that had a tendency to make every conversation about mutant issues eventually. Add that to the complexity of a school, where not discussing work was almost impossible, and there were times when Cameron found it hard to connect with the world his family resided in. There was something infinitely gratifying about spending time with someone who barely even acknowledged the 'whole mutant thing'. Graeme had entertained one demonstration of Cameron's powers before declaring the man 'daft enough at normal speed' and that had been the end of it. He'd made it perfectly clear that he admired the younger man for his technical skills and the rest remained a topic mostly off-limits.

Taking the moment to have a couple more bites Mhairi couldn't help but smile at someone speaking so fondly of her father. Running the garage and raising a daughter on his own he did go through a lot after her mother passed, and her dad had always been there. "He says you can disassemble and reassemble an engine block at impressive speeds. Even without cheating." She washed away some of her food with the drink that Cameron had chosen, mimicking her dad's order. "Did he try to give you some weak excuse for not being so fast himself?"

"Not even an excuse. Just keeps telling me he'll show me how a real mechanic does it once I'm old enough to grasp the nuances." The recollection evoked a fond chuckle, along with the kindness that suggested Cameron had never challenged the man openly on the unnecessary amount of face-saving. It had taken him a while but a Scotsman's pride was the most valuable asset he had and any damage to it was lasting.

"There's a method to his madness, that's for sure." Mhairi had to admit that her father was a brilliant mechanic, though she was certainly careful never to do so to his face. She took the last bits off her plate and finished the meal before sitting back and looking at Cam across from her. "I'm guessing now the new school year is about to start for you guys up at Avalon?"

His mouth full, Cam simply nodded at first. "Despite everything, the best thing we can do is soldier on and give the kids some stability. I'll be up to my elbows in flying toasters before too long." It was a cryptic remark that likely warranted explanation but he opted instead to take a drink and then load up his fork again. "I can't imagine what I do is all that different to what you've been up to, when it all boils down."

Mhairi shook her head a bit at that remark, "I've nae taken down any military robots." She remarked on his extra curricular activity at the train station that had indirectly prompted his visit today. She kept her eyes on Cam as she finished her beer. "but I guess you might be right. You're educating the next generation, and I'm on the Sisyphean task of keeping Elwick's beetle running. Same thing." She leaned back and gave a bit of a smirk in his direction, "how many parts can you replace in a car and still call it the same car?"

"As long as her heart's still there." The thump of his closed fist against his chest was followed by a circumspect chuckle. Moving the last of his food onto his fork, Cam caught up and chewed thoughtfully before he continued. "So what made you come back?" He was aware that, in all likelihood, it was something as boring as working visas or the availability of funds but now that he'd met her in person, albeit somewhat briefly, Cameron had a sense of why Graeme felt his daughter was built for greater things. It wasn't that she seemed out of place, it was very clear that this small town was woven intricately into her tapestry, more that he couldn't imagine there was a great deal of satisfaction in switching out starter motors in recreational vehicles after months spent saving people's livelihoods.

"Running around having this grand adventure is all well and good, but at some point you have to come back from that." Mhairi didn't necessarily lie, just leave out some of the details that weren't important right now. "I felt like I did what I could, and besides, I didn't know you were looking after my dad already." She bit her lower lip a bit at that last comment and quickly diverted her eyes. "It seems like adventure had followed me home, though. I mean. Robots?" She turned to look at Cameron again.

"Didn't see that one coming, no." Cam paused over a sip of beer and added, "Which is a feat in itself given the size of it. Still can't figure out how it flew over so much air space it flew over and yet still arrived without a single intervention." As far as Cameron could tell, that level of complicity was where the real alarm bells started to sound.

"I don't buy the whole 'it must've flown under the radar' bit either." While Mhairi wasn't sure how deep the conspiracy went, she was pretty sure there was at least a bit of conspiracy happening in that whole ordeal. "Even if it went around Ireland, that's a whole lot of coastline, with a whole lot of lighthouses along it." This sort of thing didn't sit well with her for a couple of reasons, least of all the fact that there were people out there that felt it was valid to be sending military hardware after their own citizens. "I'm just happy we have you to protect us." She leaned forward and smiled, "You would come to our protection too, right?" The our was said with just the right emphasis to imply all sorts of things.

"Well, I'd rather not be the reason you need protecting in the first place," Cam replied ruefully, his smile tired with regret. "But absolutely." There was an undercurrent of certainty to his tone that was unshakable. "Every time."

In the silence that followed, there was room enough to reflect on the whole incident again, to address his anger and his concern and find it just as potent as it had been during the initial aftermath. In fact, the more he considered this town that had become an odd sort of home-away-from home, the more Cameron felt an intense frustration that politically-motivated fear had produced a weapon capable of posing such far-reaching threat to people who weren't even an intended target. Just collateral damage. The callousness of that made his blood boil.

It took him a moment to realise he was staring at her and, that awareness now uncomfortably in his possession, Cameron's mind raced with typical speed to land on the first available refuge as a means of covering up the lapse. "You should come up and visit some time." The moment the words left his mouth, Cameron began second-guessing their wisdom. Claire had never directly stated 'no visitors' but there were obviously many considerations when it came to the operation of a school and even more now that it was a school that had come under direct attack. He was pretty sure the head mistress would love Mhairi on sight but that wasn't exactly the point. What was the point? He cleared his throat. "To check out the Camaro. I could do with a second opinion on a few things and I don't think I'd be able to pry your dad away from her."

"Aye. He'd probably stop eating, looking out the window waiting for the sun to rise so he could go back. Hopelessly infatuated." Mhairi had told her dad about the Camaro and the effect it had on him had been profound. She then realised that this was probably more than just an invite to come look at the car. That the car might be just a bit of a distractions or cover-up. "I'd like that though. I think I can manage my emotions."

If she'd figured out a deeper meaning, she was miles ahead of Cameron, who was left with a very frazzled disarray of possible motives that failed to assemble into any sort of coherency. Talking with Mhairi was odd, he'd heard so much of her through her father's eyes that he was inclined to view her favourably to begin with but he hadn't counted on sharing such a similar energy with the woman. Several times already he'd had to remind himself they'd only just met. "She's a glorious beast, I wouldn't blame you for pining a little. I'll, uh, clear it with management and get back to you, yeah?"

"Looking forward to it." Mhairi found it a convenient little way out for the man if he did decide that things were moving too fast, or in a direction that he wasn't comfortable with. She was happy to play along. "I guess I should get back to the garage, to make sure the old man isn't twisting himself in knots trying to fix something that's a two man job to fix."

Disappointment wasn't the reaction Cameron was expecting. Clearing his throat, he finished his drink, wiped his face on a napkin and scraped the chair across the floor just a little too loudly. "I'll grab the bill and walk you back if you like."

"Like a proper gentleman, who are you trying to impress?" Mhairi pulled away from the table herself, and despite herself was quite flattered with the attention he was giving her. "We can split the bill."

It was, most who knew him would agree, very difficult to leave Cameron stumbling for a response. Quick-wit formed part of his genetic inheritance, after all, and he'd long ago stopped taking himself seriously enough for embarrassment to be much of an obstacle. Her question threw him, despite the fact that it was likely rhetorical and didn't require a response. He wasn't known for his blushing but he did manage to look sheepish for a moment, rubbing at the back of his neck as if understanding he'd just dodged a bullet he'd pretty much aimed at himself. "Yeah, of course we can."

Who are you trying to impress?

He didn't really know what to do with his natural response to that.


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