Not sure if I'm happy with this chapter or not. Doreen is kinda tricky for me to write. Oh well.
Chapter 7: Nutshells and Scraps
The rising sun woke Doreen up the next morning, streaming through the window of Alpine’s guest bedroom. Instead of beds, long wide ledges covered in bear skins ran along the two of the walls; Doreen and Black Widow occupied one, and Tony, Cap, and Bucky were spread out on the other. They were all still asleep, which surprised Doreen a little.
She carefully pulled her scaly tail out from under Black Widow and rolled off the ledge, claws clicking on the stone floor. She stretched her wings, watching for a moment as swirls of lavender and violet poured across the cool blue surface, then trotted over to the room’s single window and pushed it open.
She shivered at the cold air, breath rising in billowy plumes as she stuck her head out the window and called out in Squirrelese.
It took a minute, and then a little red-furred squirrel approached hesitantly. “(You...you’re a talking dragon?)”
The squirrel stopped, eyeing the nearest tree. “(This is some kind of trick, right? You learned to mimic Squirrelese to lure unwitting squirrels to their doom, or…)”
“(Oh, no,)” Doreen said. She flicked her tail reassuringly. “(I would never eat someone. Some of my best friends are squirrels, and besides, I don’t even eat meat.)”
“(Okaay….)” The squirrel approached a few feet more, but he was clearly still nervous. “(What do you want?)”
“(I’m looking for someone called Wickerwist,)” Doreen explained. “(You know her?)”
“(Oh! Yeah! ...Why do you want her?)”
“(To talk. She’s been helping me out with some stuff. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna eat her either.)”
The squirrel hesitated, then sighed. “(I guess...I’ll go get her.)” He darted off, looking relieved to be away from her. Doreen frowned; even squirrels she didn’t know were usually not afraid of her. Of course, she also wasn’t usually an apex predator, so that probably had something to do with it.
The little redfur returned a few minutes later, Wickerwist on his tail, and scampered off to observe from a big old ash tree near the house. Wicker waved a greeting in Tailspeak, jumping up to the windowsill with a walnut in her mouth. “(Thought you might like something to eat,)” she said, cracking the nut with her powerful teeth and holding it towards Doreen, “(what with other dragons being meat-eaters ‘n’ all. Ain’t much for someone your size, but it’ll be a start.)”
“(Thanks,)” Doreen said, popping the nut into her mouth and twitching her tail to imply gratitude. She could have cracked it herself--jaw strength was included under “proportional strength of a squirrel”--but Wicker wouldn’t know that. “(It actually wasn’t too bad last night, ‘cause Quagmire made this really awesome vegetable stew, but I’ll probably need a lot of help from you and your friends for the next little while, since I doubt that’s going to be a regular thing and I don’t know where any of the good foraging spots are.)”
“(Wickerwist, ma’am?)” the red-furred squirrel called from his tree. “(Are you sure this is safe?)”
Wicker sighed. “(Yes,)” she called back. “(I spent near all of yesterday with Doreen. Do I look eaten to you?)” The sounds in the name Doreen, of course, were unpronounceable to squirrels; she had a Squirrelese version of her name (courtesy of original squirrel sidekick Monkey Joe) which translated to something like “green-acorn liaison-warrior.”
Wicker turned back to Doreen. “(Ignore Twitch--he’s scared of everything. So what can I help you with today, chitterwings?)”
Doreen flicked her tail ponderously. “(I believe the plan is to investigate the place Vibrant found us and see if we can figure out how the heck we got here. Mesa was gonna help us with that, but she’s probably got her hands full with all the assassins who were running around last night. And she got injured, I think.)”
Wicker nodded. “(You remember much else ‘bout before you showed up in the forest?)”
“(Not really. Just the name of the guy we were fighting,)” Doreen answered, thinking hard. “Doctor Eston Taggart,” she added in English (that being another name that used non-squirrel sounds).
“(Hmm. Looks like your other Avengers are still asleep. D’ya want me to send out a team to check if there are more random dragons appearing out in the forest?)” Doreen nodded, so Wickerwist turned towards the ash tree Twitch was watching from. “(Hey, Malarkey! Will you go get me, oh, Chet Hawkslayer, Hysteria Twist, Catkin Stormblessed, Blizzard Ashley, and…)” She paused, considering. “(Ninja Master Squint-eye?)”
“(Squint-eye? Are you sure?)” Twitch ran from one end of his branch to the other and back.
“(Of course I’m sure,)” Wicker chattered, flicking her tail in the way that meant annoyance. “(He’s eccentric, but he’s competent.)”
Twitch nodded uncertainly and scampered off.
Behind Doreen, someone shifted. She glanced over as Captain America stretched.
“(Huh. They’re finally waking up,)” Wicker noted. “(I should probably let you go. I ought to find some more grub before Twitch and the others get back, anyway. Meet you in a couple hours to share info?)”
“(Sounds good!)” Doreen answered. Wicker jumped down from the windowsill and scampered off, waving a farewell with her tail. Doreen waved back, then turned around. “Good morning,” she said quietly.
“Morning,” Cap mumbled. He yawned, a bit of smoke drifting from his mouth, and pushed himself into a sitting position.
“I didn’t expect to be up before you guys,” Doreen remarked.
Cap shrugged. “Tony didn’t stop talking until nearly midnight. He does that sometimes. And Bucky and Nat were fighting off assassins.”
“That would explain it. Should we wake them up?”
He shook his head. “No, they need the extra sleep. I don’t think any of them sleeps enough in general.”
“Natasha has insomnia, Bucky has insomnia…” he listed. “I think Tony just gets into a project and forgets to go to bed.” He hesitated. “I don’t know if it’s a scientist thing or a Stark thing, but Howard used to do that too.”
“Oh yeah, I always forget you were friends with Tony’s dad,” Doreen said. Cap shrugged.
A gust of cold air skittered into the room, and Doreen shivered. She quickly pulled the window closed.
“So are you up before everyone else often?” Doreen questioned.
“Yeah. I--” Cap broke off as Tony rolled over, muttering in his sleep. “We should probably go in another room.”
Doreen followed him out into the hall, tail swishing cheerfully. “So what do you do when you’re up early?”
He shrugged again. “Make breakfast. Train. Paint the shield.”
“Wait, paint the shield?”
His ears twitched. “...Yeah. The paint’s not bulletproof.”
Alpine glanced up as they entered the main room, but didn’t say anything. She and Mesa sat side by side at a counter, cutting apart a small deer with their claws. Mesa held her blistered left wing out from her body slightly, and her snout was visibly scratched up. Apart from them, the room was empty.
“Morning!” Doreen called cheerfully.
“Good morning,” Mesa replied, looking up briefly before returning her attention to Alpine. “Is this an isolated occurrence, though, or are they striking against the whole Initiative?”
Alpine tilted her head skeptically, plumes of smoke drifting from her mouth as she spoke. “It must be the whole Initiative. Why would they send assassins after us specifically?”
Mesa shrugged with her wings, then winced and quickly stopped moving them. “Maybe we’re closer than we thought. Regardless, we need to get a message to the Director as fast as possible. When’s Redtail making his rounds?”
“He was just here the day before yesterday, remember?” Alpine pointed out. She looked hesitant as she offered, “I could take it myself….”
“No,” Mesa said firmly. “Your dragonets are already stressed enough. They need you here. I’ll pay one of the kids in town to take it. Flatiron is pretty reliable, or maybe Rhodochrosite.”
Alpine nodded thoughtfully. “If you think we can trust them with top secret material. I’ll draft the report after breakfast.”
“Top secret?” Doreen asked curiously.
Alpine and Mesa looked at each other. “For the Blazing Initiative,” Alpine explained. “You...you know I’m a member, right? Didn’t I tell you that last night?”
“You did,” Cap confirmed.
“It’s really just a routine report, urgent but not super secret since the Claws already know they tried to kill us,” Mesa clarified, “but we’d rather not panic the whole town over something that’s not going to affect them.” She shrugged. “It’s really only because official reports are supposed to be secret.”
Doreen wasn’t sure she understood that, but Cap nodded like it made perfect sense to him. Stretching his wings, he went to sit down next to the table. Doreen followed, not sure what else to do.
A couple minutes later, there was a thump outside, and Karst pushed open the door. She stepped inside, followed by another, larger MudWing with cinnamon-brown scales, claw scars on his face, and a large bag slung across his shoulders.
“Good morning, Dr. Rush,” Mesa said. She stood up, wiping her talons on a rag.
The other MudWing grunted, marching across the room to set his bag by the fire. “You said there were two patients?”
Mesa nodded. “Spider’s still asleep.”
“Well, somebody go wake her up. Not you, Mesa, you get over here.”
“I’ll get her,” Cap volunteered. He stood and vanished into the hall.
Doreen pushed herself to her feet and trotted over to Rush with Mesa. She watched with interest as Rush began pulling jars of powder out of his bag and mixing them together. “So you’re a doctor, huh?” she asked.
Doreen shrugged, vaguely noticing the dark blue pouring across her hands (claws? paws? talons?). “No reason. It’s pretty cool, though. Where’d you learn?”
He eyed her suspiciously as he began inspecting the burns on Mesa’s wing. “The Queen Otter Institute of Healing and Medicine.”
“Sounds cool. In the Mud Kingdom, right?”
Rush released Mesa’s wing and looked around. He picked up an iron pot from next to the fireplace and handed it to Doreen, scowling. “Why don’t you take this outside and fill it up with snow?”
Doreen wilted slightly. “Right, of course, sorry,” she said quickly. “Didn’t mean to bother you. I really like to talk, you know? So I sometimes forget that...not everybody….” She trailed off as his glare darkened. “Sorry.” She took the pot from him and hurried outside.
As she began packing snow into the pot, pausing every now and then to warm her hands (or whatever) under her wings, a squirrel called out to her from the trees.
Setting down the pot, Doreen hurried over. The squirrel was a grey-furred female with white speckles on her tail, and she carried a couple of acorns.
“(You called?)” Doreen asked.
The squirrel flicked her tail in the affirmative, holding out the acorns. “(So you’re Wickerwist’s dragon friend. Seems like you impressed Twitch Malarkey quite a bit. I’m Blizzard Ashley, by the way. Whatcha squeak by?)”
“(Doreen,)” she answered, taking the acorns and flicking the Tailspeak sign for thanks. “(You’re one of the ones Wickerwist sent for, right? You guys find anything?)”
“(Nutshells and scraps,)” Blizzard reported. “(My littermate Catkin says he found traces of blood from one of the freezing-death-breath dragons that live up north. He’s tryna track it now, sent me to come find you.)”
“(How can you tell it’s IceWing blood?)” Doreen wondered. She hoped Bucky hadn’t gotten hurt in the fight last night.
“(They’ve got this weird sky-colored blood, you know? None of the other kinds of dragon have that.)”
Doreen flicked her tail in the sign for “weird.” Blizzard shrugged like, “I know, right?”
“(Well, my team’s not awake yet,)” Doreen stated. “(I need to wait for them. You guys go keep investigating, and we’ll come see what you’ve found later.)”
“(You got it, boss. We find anything weirder, we’ll come get you, okay?)”
Blizzard Ashley scampered off into the trees. Doreen popped the acorns into her mouth, chewing on them as she rushed back to finish filling the pot of snow.