Julia beamed at the two young girls who'd just come through the door. 'Welcome to A Passion for Fashion! How can I help you?'
Her mental cataloguing systems booted up.
The first one... Early teens. Still mid-growth spurt, so somewhat gawky and awkward, probably petite size when she reached full height. Slim build, long brown hair, oval face, blue-grey eyes that sparkled under the light. Good. Standard teenager procedure. Should have just the things...
The other... hm. More of a challenge. Same age, build, and height as the other, no problem there. Grey skin, slitted white eyes... should have something to match those... small nose and mouth, mane of brown hair trailing down her back - careful with that, it is a mane, hair following the spine, wings-
Wings folded behind her back. Grey, featherless things that ran almost the length of her body... hmm, not quite batlike or birdlike... seemed too flexible for those... hmm, morphic clothes, maybe?
Julia glanced down at the girl's feet. They were somewhere inbetween human and bird - long toes, claws extending from each one, curved almost into talons.
Inwardly, she winced. The poor girl, having to walk around on those. No wonder. Where was she going to find shoes?
This would be a challenge.
'Um... Er, yeah. I'm Xeffy, this is Ayna, and, er... we need a whole new wardrobe. Two whole new wardrobes.' the first girl said. 'Um... it's just that we've moved in, and we've, er... had a big clearout of our old clothes.'
Julia looked from one to the other. 'I see... Hmm.' She started rooting through the racks. 'This may take a while. Any particular styles you had in mind?'
#Nothing too pink. Or frilly. Or with too many bows and ribbons.# the other one - Ayna - trilled.
'More... casual wear, everyday wear, that sort of thing. Ooh, and something for parties, too.' Xeffy added. 'And pyjamas, dressing gowns, underwear...'
'A full wardrobe...' Julia frowned. Hmm.
'For both of us,' Xeffy said.
#Money no object# Ayna added, handing Julia a Galactic Express Latinum card.
Julia whistled, grabbed both girls, and headed headlong into the racks like the wrath of God's fashion designer.
A quiet beach, gradually sloping up from the sea, gentle waves lapping at the shore. Soft, pale sand which scattered the light as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. Palm trees along the shoreline, with sunbeds, loungers and tables in the shade.
Sitting by one of the tables, a tall glass of iced rum in front of her, was a woman in her late twenties, blue eyes twinkling as they caught the last of the light, her brown hair in a bob which outlined her features just so, a swimsuit that set off her figure in the appropriate places, and a pair of mirrored sunglasses pushed up over her hair.
She took another sip of the rum.
Yes... Just the way she liked it.
She sat back in the lounge chair.
All in all, she reflected, she'd got it particularly lucky.
Not many people got to enjoy a retirement like this. An unintended consequence of her benefactor's agreement.
Not that her benefactor knew she was here. Her own little tropical haven, a refuge from the world.
She realised she was tapping her fingers against the glass.
The downside to all this, unfortunately, was that she was practically cut off from any human contact - she'd have to go through her benefactor for that.
Food, yep. Drink, yep. Entertainment, yep. Catch it on the TV or the radio, no problem.
That was the trouble with desert islands. They were deserted.
She'd spent too long alone, even before she'd ended up here. No-one to talk to, to chat with, share pieces of gossip with.
At least, that was what she remembered other people did. Things shouldn't have changed.
She had, though. Isolation had become something of a... habit.
There was no substitute for actually going out there and looking, was there? And her benefactor had provided her with the perfect pathway.
She pushed the chair back, stood up, and made her way along the promenade, looking down at her feet, and at the shadow she cast.
Finally, she shook her head.
'Ah, what the hell. Let's do it.'
She slipped sideways, and was gone.
Xeffy and Ayna finally left the boutique, staggering just a little.
Fortunately, Ayna had had the foresight to ask if they did home delivery first.
Julia had agreed happily. For customers who spent that amount of money, almost nothing was too much trouble.
But, she'd insisted, Ayna was not leaving the shop without a pair of shoes.
Which meant that Ayna now wore a pair of sturdy hiking boots originally designed for Draconian feet.
Xeffy didn't laugh. Well, not too much.
Ayna, however, had other things on her mind.
#He's going to kill us when he finds out# she told Xeffy.
Xeffy waved it off. 'Don't worry. It's on the Mafia's account.'
#That's what I meant...#
'You can say that again.'
#Um... Xeffy, your lips didn't move.#
'I didn't say anything.'
'No. I did.'
The Wondrous and Adorable Nyssa's Knight-Errant Regiment - also known as WANKER - were making their way down the main street.
The less-than-fearsome foursome had turned up at This Time Round that morning on - as they would put it - a holy and sacred pilgrimage to look upon the face of their goddess and pray for some benediction from her, or - as everyone else in the known Omniverse would put it - yet another Nyssa drooling session.
Fortunately - at least from Nyssa's perspective - she'd popped into town to see if she could pick up any inspiration for new methods of offing Adric.
Upon finally learning this, the WANKERs had promptly set off after her.
They marched down the street, their eyes glinting with determination, purpose showing in every move, the strength of their faith evident to all who looked upon them.
At least, that's what they thought.
Back in reality, Eric was looking nauseous from his battle with motion sickness, Tyson was looking nauseous from clearing up Eric's motion sickness, David was wondering when they could get something to eat, and Darren was looking around for any sign of Her Holiness.
No-one blinked an eyelid at the high-pitched scream. The proximity of This Time Round, home of the Friday Night Screech-a-thon, had resulted in the development of selective deafness among the town's inhabitants - at least when it came to screaming, screeching, and cries of 'DIE, ADRIC!' and 'EXTERMINATE!'.
Huh, a tiny part of Darren's brain observed. Her Holiness would never scream like that. Her screams are far more refined.
The rest of his brain kept an eye out for any signs of Her Holiness.
'Wh... Wh...' Xeffy stammered. 'Wh...'
Ayna's jaw moved up and down soundlessly.
The object of their attention crossed her arms and stared at them. 'What are /you/ two looking at?'
'Y... Y...' Xeffy managed to get out.
'I hate twelve year olds...' the object of their attention said, shaking her head. 'Excuse me? Excuse me, could I have a coherent response, please?'
Xeffy would have been more than happy to oblige, if it weren't for the fact that her reflection was apparently talking to her, without her actually saying anything.
Her reflection looked down at herself. 'Damn. Hold it just a moment.'
She wavered, then reformed.
Standing where Xeffy's reflection had been was the reflection of a woman in her mid-twenties, her brown hair styled in a bob, with a pair of mirrored glasses shoved up over it, in an extremely well-fitting swimsuit.
The swimsuit hastily reformed into a strapless tan dress with matching jacket.
Satisfied, she tugged at her jacket, then returned her attention to Xeffy and Ayna, who were staring at her wide-eyed.
She waved her hand in front of them. 'Helllooooo? Am I getting through?'
Xeffy's speech centre gave up on coherency as a lost battle, and advised her brain to settle for a nod.
'Good.' the reflected woman said. 'To be honest, this wouldn't have been my first choice of manifestation, but you have to take what you can get.' She leaned forward. 'So that's what you look like from the outside. Hmm. Bit gangly. Not exactly developed yet, either. Not that much of a problem.'
Strange women in your reflection are one thing. Strange women in your reflection who critique your appearance are another.
Especially when you're twelve years old, and /extremely/ sensitive about your appearance.
'What did you just say?!'
'Hey, check out the babe!' Eric pointed to the other side of the road.
'Where?' Tyson said.
'Shh! There! In the shop window! Behind that girl and that girl... thingie!'
The members of WANKER followed Eric's finger, currently pointing at the brown-haired girl now visible in the shop window opposite.
David whistled. 'Wow. Talk about babeage.'
'Not exactly stacked, though.' Tyson said critically.
'There is that,' David admitted. 'but look at those legs...'
Their collective gaze locked onto the indicated body parts.
'Whoa.' Eric finally said.
'And check out that face.' Tyson said. 'If that doesn't make up for the non-stackage, Her Holiness alone knows what does...'
'Yeah...' David said cautiously. 'I mean, she's not Her Holiness, no way... nowhere near as cute, natch...'
'And that lack of attributes... well, she's not in-' Darren hawked, and spat. 'Adric's girlfriend's league. Maybe a bit below.'
'Only a bit, though.' Tyson said.
Darren thought for a moment. 'Yeah, I suppose... Shame she isn't built like that, though.' He moved his hands to indicate a breast size which would make it hard for any woman to even walk.
'Hey...' David said, his mental processes finally catching up. 'you don't think she's single, do you?'
Xeffy and her reflection shuddered.
'Yeeeuch.' Xeffy said. 'Felt like a slug crawling up my spine...'
'Thank God for that. I thought it was me...'
Ayna finally managed to find her voice. #Who are you?#
The reflection looked surprised. 'Me? Well, Xeffy originally called me Anya.'
'Anya?' Xeffy said. 'You're Anya?'
#Um... Why do I feel like I just walked in on the middle of something?# Ayna said.
'I was part of something much larger, once... a part of... let's say... empty, hungry, lonely things... abandoned things, entities that found common cause in destruction... destruction for the sake of freedom.' Anya said quietly. 'Xeffy was kind enough to give me somewhere to stay, after their defeat. Admittedly, she didn't know she'd done that... besides, I needed the rest.'
Ayna turned on Xeffy. #You never mentioned this!#
'It never came up!' Xeffy protested. 'I didn't know she was hanging around!'
#What the Hades is this?!# Ayna exploded, throwing her arms in the air. #We can't turn around without tripping over another alternate!#
'That's normal in Subreality.' Xeffy defended. 'Every different fanfic timeline creates another set of fictives.'
#Yeah, but we're not in Subreality!!# Ayna squawked. #I mean, talk about family planning - Dad only had two kids, and he's ended up with five!#
'Actually, he's not my father.' Anya pointed out. 'Think of me more like... a symbiote, something interlinked with Xeffy.'
#That's not the point! The point is, there are far too many of us running around!#
'Tell that to EighthDoc.' Xeffy said. 'I dunno how many of him running 'round there are.'
#That's no excuse! I mean, it feels like every time someone gets bored, they decide to see what'd it be like with yet another crukking alternate! I mean, hello? There are enough of them around the place as it is!#
'Did you hear something?' Ember Ashe said.
'Uh-uh.' Number One said, shaking her head.
'Funny,' Number One said, a frown creasing her pretty features. 'Could've sworn I heard something.'
'Shut up and pass the popcorn.' Embericles the Muse said.
'Chow Yun Fat marathons, sixpacks of Bud, and jumbo buckets of popcorn.' Embericles Ashford observed. 'Short of an afternoon with Nyssie-chan, this's one of the best sorta days you can have.'
'Uh-huh. Now gimme.' Sailor Alabama said.
There is a basic problem in the essential WANKER thought process.
Actually, there are a number of problems. We'll focus on this one for the time being.
The problem comes when they attempt to talk to other women. To the WANKER mindset, Nyssa is a goddess, divinity and holiness incarnate on Earth, possessed of a beauty compared to which all others are but mere shadows.
When they're talking to someone like, say, Tegan, there's no problem. She dares to infringe on Her Holiness's screen time, and Her Holiness must be defended.
However, when it comes to any other women they try speaking to, usually someone who gets them drooling, a schizoid attitude sets in.
On one hand, Nyssa is Our Lady, most beautiful and gracious. On the other... the woman they wanna speak to is a babe, too. If they try asking her out, then this is tacit blasphemy against Holy Nyssa, implying you're willing to settle for another girl - but it is a chance to go out with a girl. If they don't try asking her out, then they have remained true to Nyssa, but missed out on a chance to go out with a babe.
Blasphemy or a date? Blasphemy or a date?
By the time the confusion can get itself sorted itself out, the woman has either clubbed them senseless or walked off, and so the drool gets channelled into further devotion to Nyssa, and the hope, one day, of actually... being allowed to kiss her.
This situation is a little different.
The babe in question has stayed right where she is, available to any pervert fanboy brave enough to go and ask her.
This is causing a short-circuit in the WANKER mindset. With predictable results.
'Eww! What's that sound?' Xeffy said, her face twisting up with distaste.
Anya grimaced in disgust. #Eww! Those guys over there are drooling!#
'Nyssa's not around...' Xeffy muttered. 'Can't be her...' She looked around, to see if she could see the unfortunate object of their attentions.
Okay, they haven't budged a bit, so whoever it is must be sticking around here... Funny, the only people sticking around are me and Ayna... and...
The train of thought finally reached its terminus.
Oh Hera. They haven't...
They don't think Anya's a physical girl, do they?
They can't be that stupid...
Memory cut in.
They are that stupid.
Xeffy took a deep breath. Okay... unless she wanted to put up with the Pervert Squad following her around...
'Aww, she's going inside...' David moaned, as the babe retreated into the distance.
'Um, excuse me?'
The WANKERs blinked in unison. The idea of a female actually saying 'excuse me' to them was a new and unfamiliar one.
Even if said female was actually a teenage girl.
'Yeah?' Darren said, rediscovering the power of speech.
'Um... My cousin's noticed you guys,' Xeffy said, pointing to the girl in the shop window, who could just be made out as indicating the WANKERs. 'And she was wondering... are any of you free Saturday night?'
It should be noted that there is an even more basic problem with the WANKER mindset. To whit: they're such complete idiots, any girl in her right mind - and any girl in her wrong mind - would gnaw off their own limbs, pausing only to ask for the special sauce, rather than ask them for a date.
The corollary to this is that, even factoring out the Nyssa-fixation, their idea of asking a girl out is 'Uh... uh... g-girl... hehehe... girl... hehehe... touch... girl... boobies...', in the long and honourable tradition of Beavis and Butthead. With predictable results from the girl in question.
Which meant that, confronted with a situation it was utterly unable to cope with (not particularly hard), the mutual WANKER brain suffered a collective blackout.
'G-guh-guh...' Eric said.
'F-F-Fr...' David stuttered.
'S-S-Sah...' Tyson stammered.
'Cuh-Cuh-Cuh...' Darren said, drooling slightly.
' 'Cause she's planning a Doctor Who video marathon that night - from some story called "Keeper of Tarken" to... what was it again? "Terminate". That's it. Says it's where one of her favourite companions turns up.'
Beautiful, intelligent, and Nyssa-worshipping.
'And... I really shouldn't say this, but...' Xeffy lowered her voice. 'I think she gets really excited by Doctor Who costumes.'
Beautiful, intelligent, Nyssa-worshipping and excited by costumes.
'Especially that green and yellow pyjama thing.'
'Reminds her of that guy.' Xeffy continued, apparently oblivious. 'What's his name... Adic, Adwic, something like that. Her favourite companion, anyway.'
Nyssa and Adric worshipping.
Someone who likes both Adric and Nyssa.
Faced with an apparently insoluble paradox, every fuse in the collective WANKER mindset exploded.
'Um...' Darren stuttered. 'Um... er... we're washing our hair that night, right guys?'
'Got a headache.' Eric offered.
'Note from my mum.' David said.
'Contagious skin condition.' Tyson chipped in.
'Um...' Darren looked around desperately. 'Hey, we're late for our doctor's appointment! Give our apologies to your cousin, 'kay?'
Xeffy watched them run off, stumbling to keep up with each other.
'Score one for our side.'
'G-girl...' Eric mumbled.
'How does he do it?' Darren shook his head. 'How can he get so many babes?'
'Man...' David said. 'There's gotta be something to that Incarnation of Evil stuff. No way he'd get any girls after him otherwise.'
'Maybe...' Tyson hesitated. 'Maybe if we tried showing her just how despicable he really is, right? Once she knows just how much of a dork he really is, then she'll dump him like a lead weight.'
'Tyson...' Darren said. 'That's so crazy, it might just work. But I've got a better idea.'
'We show her how much of a slug he is, she drops him like a lead weight, and then she turns to the sacred cause of WANKER!'
The others mulled this over.
Oddly enough, the same thought was running through each of their brains.
Girl. Girl in WANKER. Girl who's gonna be really, really happy with the guy who saves her from him. Girl who's gonna wanna date the guy who saves her...
As one, four minds decided 'I'm gonna save her!'.
'That's brilliant, Darren!'
'That's a great idea!'
'Hey, that's why I'm the leader, right?'
'Er...' Tyson said. 'Er... But who is she? And where's she live?'
Darren waved Tyson's objections off. 'Can't be that hard to find out. How hard can it be to find one girl?'
For some reason, Tyson wasn't completely convinced by his leader's assertation.
He kept quiet, though.
Xeffy shook her head. 'Honestly, this wouldn't be a problem if you weren't stuck to me.'
'I'm not about to go back to what I was,' Anya said. 'Which is probably what would happen if I weren't stuck to you.'
'So what do I get out of this?'
Anya sighed. 'Well... to be honest, I'm not sure. I manifest through your reflection - it was the strongest pathway available - so I can reshape my manifestation, and you get access to my knowledge and abilities, but apart from that...'
#You're not sure?# Ayna hummed in disbelief.
In the store window, Anya shrugged. 'It's been so long since I had any sort of body, I've forgotten. But my manifestation doesn't suggest anything to affect the physical world.'
'Strongest pathway... wait, are you saying you only pop out like this 'cause it's the way I thought you should pop up?'
'It's your mind. You tell me.'
#Why Anya?# Ayna interrupted.
' 'Cause I'm crap at names.' Xeffy said.' 'Sides, it wasn't like she had a better idea...'
'And, of course, she has to rub it in.' Anya retorted.
Ayna rolled her eyes. #Runs in the family, doesn't it? Okay, okay, no problem. Just so long as we make sure absolutely no other versions of us show up when we're not expecting them.#
'Like you, you mean?' Xeffy ducked Ayna's wingslap. 'Hey, I was just joking!'
'Wonderful. I'm stuck as one of the Three Stoogettes.' Anya muttered. 'Be afraid. Be very afraid.'
#I'm not# Ayna said, in all innocence.
'Okay, okay...' Xeffy thought. 'Just keep out of sight 'round anyone else, right? Dad, Al and Imran're gonna do that funny eye-twitching thing they do if they find out.'
'I wonder why...?' Anya murmured.
#Got me...# Ayna hummed innocently.
Xeffy eyed her counterparts darkly. 'Har har. Very funny, you guys. Now come on, we've gotta be getting back. I wanna see Al and Imran do that funny eye-twitching thing when they see our credit card bill...'
Anya and Ayna facefaulted.
Copyright 2002 Imran Inayat