TO DIE FOR: THE FEMININE MISTAKE
PART 5: HELL'S BELLES
Grandpa glanced up from his workbench to see his oldest daugh-
ter's boy standing in the doorway, head down. Behind his sun-
glasses, the old man's eyes slitted at the sight of the seven-year-
old's bedraggled appearance. Somebody had worked the boy
over, but good.
"C'mon in, Little One," he said as he returned to his work. "Pull
up a stool and sit awhile. I may need your help in a bit."
"Okay, Grandpa," the boy replied in a mouse-quiet voice. He
pulled a work stool free from the mounds of plumbing parts that
took up most of the shop and clambered onto it, eyes still down-
"So, how was school today?"
The little boy shrugged.
"Did you get in another fight?"
Now the child looked up, and his eyes glittered in the shop's dim
light as a single tiny tear tracked down his face. The left looked
puffy and had the beginnings of a dark bruise around it, while
his chin bore streaks of dried red from a split lip. "Yes," he said
with a mild quiver of self-disgust. "I lost."
Grandpa nodded, as though it were something he'd been expect-
ing. "Want to tell me about it?" All the while, his hands kept
busy with files and pliers.
And so, the little boy told. Reluctantly at first, but with increasing
heat and vehemence. How the other boys pushed him around at
recess and taunted him for being smaller than they. How they'd
mocked him and called him names after he'd been the only one
to get an 'A' on their math test. How six of them had jumped on
him on his way home and taken turns holding him down while
the others beat him. How he'd tasted dirt and blood as they
knocked him around. How the biggest boy's shoe had ground
into his gut again and again until he was ready to vomit from the
pain and humiliation.
"Why did they do it, Grandpa? I thought it was _good_ to be
smart and do good in school and be nice." This was asked with
the shocked indignation of one who is learning that most impor-
tant of the schoolboy's lessons: the nail that sticks up gets itself
"You really want to know, Little One?" Grandpa asked, not look-
ing up. "It's because you're weak."
"Yup. You see, people don't like other people being different
from them. It makes 'em nervous. They get ornery. Most times,
they just act mean, but don't never hurt that person. But, if that
person is weak, too, then they know that they can do whatever
they want to. You're smart, and they don't like that. If you were
smart and _strong_, they wouldn't like you any better, but they'd
leave you be. But you're little and weak, and so they can get by
with anything because they know you're not going to hurt them."
The child digested this, lost in silent thought. "So," he said at
last, "if I get big muscles like you and Dad, they'll leave me
The boy looked confused and rubbed absently at the blood on
his chin. "But, you just said if I was strong..."
Grandpa turned to face him, and poked him on the arm. "Not
just that kind of strength," he admonished. "You aren't just
weak here, you're also weak _here_." He tapped his grandson's
chest, directly over the heart.
"Weak here? What's that mean?"
The old man kept talking as he turned back to his work. "When
those boys were beating you up, did you cry?"
"Uh-huh. It _hurt_!"
"That's what I mean by weak in your heart, Little One. When
you did that, you let them know that they had you, that you were
too weak inside to stand up to them Even if your body was
strong, with a weak heart and spirit, they'd still come after you."
"But _why_, Grandpa?"
"Let me ask you this," Grandpa replied. "Those kids who beat
you up, do you want to hurt them?"
After a moment's thought, the boy answered, "No. 'Cause it's not
good to hurt people. I just want them to leave me alone." There
was a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
"Is that how you feel, or is that how you think you're _s'posed_ to
feel? Think about that boy who was kicking you in the guts. The
one who laughed and called you a sissy. Now, tell me true, do you
want to hurt him? Don't talk that gutless crap about 'turning the
other cheek'. Tell me what's really down there in your heart."
"What was that, Little One?"
The boy's wounded-puppy eyes took on a narrow glare as he
raised his face to his Grandpa's back. "Yes, I want to hurt him,"
he said, giving each syllable a sharp edge. "I want to beat him
up and step on him and spit in his face. I guess that makes me
bad, but I don't care."
Grandpa flashed a thin, secret smile. "Then, maybe you're not so
weak, after all."
"They won't stop picking on me until I hurt them, will they,
"That's most likely so," he replied with a slow nod.
The two sat in silence for a while.
"So... being strong means hurting people, Grandpa?"
"No," the old man replied instantly. "Being strong means not
letting other people do what they want to you. It means never,
ever letting them get the upper hand on you, and taking them
down when they do. Hah! That's got it!" Grandpa grinned and
held up the dagger he'd been working on, letting the sparse light
play off its edge. He twirled it once along his fingers, feeling the
balance. "Perfect! Grab some of those scraps of plywood, Little
One," he ordered, "and we'll go see how straight this joker flies.
I may even teach you how to do thing or three with it!"
The little boy was still thinking as he trailed behind his Grandpa,
a load of scrap wood clutched awkwardly to his chest. One day,
he'd be strong and quick like Grandpa, and be able to throw
knives and shoot guns and do all the other things that Grandpa
did so well. "I'll be the strongest one day," he silently swore.
"I'll be the Best. I'll be... Number One."
A dagger flashed through the air like a streak of black lightning,
its point driving hard into Lucas Buck's exposed throat.
Number One smiled slowly to herself as she pushed her rain-
dampened hair back from her face and walked over to retrieve
the weapon. A perfect throw, straight into the neck at ten yards.
"I've still got it," she murmured. "Thanks, Grandpa."
With a quick yank, she pulled the blade free of the wooden target
and slid it back into its sheath over her shoulderblade. There
were four practice sillhouette targets set up for her workout, each
with the face of one of her sworn enemies taped to it. There was
Lucas Buck, Number Six, whose grave she yearned to one day
spit on. Next to him was Catbert, Number Five, the co-author of
her troubles with her own people. On the far side was Dwight
Greenwell, Number Twelve, Lucas's smarmy little bootlicker.
And in the middle, HIM. The Swamprat. The Geek from Beyond.
The Dweeb-child himself. Adric. Her ultimate foe.
She scowled as she walked back to the firing line, thinking of
each face and letting the hate and anger build in her. This was
almost a meditative exercise for Number One, except that instead
of achieving a state of pure calm, she worked herself into a state
of pure, white-hot rage, emptying her mind of anything extran-
eous to the task of killing.
"Hyyaaaaahh!" With a cry of pure animal fury, she spun in
place, right hand blurring toward her shoulder-holster for the
long-barrelled .357, her left snatching the Makarov 9mm from
the holdout over her lower spine. Up went the two pistols,
hammers already thumbed back.
She tracked from left to right, triggering off the Makarov twice
after each of the Magnum's thunderous blasts. Within four
seconds, it was over, with eighteen aimed shots sent downrange
at four targets. She let out a ragged breath, then walked over to
inspect her handiwork.
Lucas Buck's mocking grin was split where a .357 hollowpoint
had caught him squarely in the chin, while a second gaping .357
wound was torn into his collarbone. Four smaller holes clustered
in the chest showed where the Makarov rounds had struck.
Poor Catbert would be on his way to the Pet Cemetery. A .357
had caught him in the guts, while a pair of Makarov rounds had
hit squarely between his eyes.
And, perhaps Director Greenwell would be lucky enough to get a
State funeral. A trio of Makarovs and a single .357 through
the lungs would be an end to any other hopes of his.
And, as for Adric...
"I _missed_?" Number One mumbled disbelievingly. "No way. I
should've caught him at _least_ two or three times, if not five."
She inspected the target board carefully, and found two nicks
near the corners that were as close as she'd been able to get.
Neither shot would've been within two feet of an actual person.
She looked at the target for a long moment, frowning, then resol-
utely marched back to the firing line. Drawing the dagger from
over her shoulder again, she focused on the target as she absently
shifted the weapon in her hand, feeling for the proper grip.
"The eyes. Focus on their eyes." That was Grandpa's teaching.
She locked her gaze on the photograph's dark eyes, eyes that
even then seemed to look back at her with a sort of lively but
"Yah!" Her arm snapped forward, sending the black dagger into
a smooth and deadly arc. The dagger flew straight and true.
Straight over the target's head and truly into the muddy weeds.
The redhead looked at her hand, noting the almost imperceptible
tremble there. The misting rain picked up a little, but she didn't
seem to notice.
"Well, what have we here?" a voice drawled from right behind
her. "Getting a little practice in, Miss Saigon?"
"I'm not in the mood for this, Buck," she hissed, turning to him.
"Why don't you just go off somewhere and have a nice crap?"
"What, and leave you in your time of need?" the Sheriff said with
a liquid chuckle. "It's obvious you're in an emotionally-frail state
right now. Is it that time of the month?"
For reply, she invited him to attempt a semi-legal sex act with a
He smiled thinly at her and wiggled a finger. "Now, now. Is
that any way to talk to your boss? Your... master?"
Number One folded her arms and glared stolidly at him, trying
not to show any more reaction to his barbs. "What. Do. You.
Buck's smirk took on a lecherous appearance. "What does any
man want with a beautiful girl in wet clothes?" He laughed as
she took a step backwards. "Actually, I just wanted to ask how
things went last night. You didn't do anything that nice girls
don't, did you?"
"I'll write a report and give it to the cat later," the redhead sullenly
"Fine, fine," he replied airily, wandering over to examine the
targets. He shook his head, clucking in disapproval. "You know,
Catbert won't be flattered that you think he's only worth three
rounds, especially since you gave _me_ six. But, what of Adric,
here?" He cocked his head impishly as he looked back at the
half-girl. "Could it be that love has put a tremor in that once-
steady hand? A blur in that once-deadly eye?"
"Kiss my ass."
Lucas Buck just laughed at her. "Self-deception only makes it
easier for me to read your mind, remember? Why, right now,
your sick little brain is as open to me as a whore's legs, if I may
turn such an _apt_ metaphor. You may as well just give up and
admit that you _like_ the little rat and be done with it. Just own
up to your heresy. Get it over with."
"And then get executed for it, is that it?" she shot back with
Lucas shrugged. "There's only one way to redeem _black_
heresy like that. With any luck, maybe you'll get to go to
"I'm not gonna make it that easy for you, Buck. If I ever go
down, you'll go with me, and that's a fact."
"But, you already _have_ made it that easy, sweetness. Just in
case you don't realize it, let me summarize and bring you up to
speed, since taunting you is only fun when you actually realize
just how screwed you are. As of right now, the Radical Faction
of the Brethren exists in a state of near-balance with you Tradit-
ionalists. All it'll take to tip the scales in our favor for good is
for the highest-ranked Trad to be eliminated from the picture,
and that would, of course, be your own dear self. We'd been
working on a plan to quietly knock you off for some time, now,
but then you went and accidentally gave yourself a Jusenkyou
Curse and gave the Nameless One his brilliant notion for this
'Cupid's Arrow' business." Lucas paused to have a short chuckle
that he made quite clear was at the other's expense.
The redhead's eye had taken on a mild twitch and her voice
strained under her taut control. "Well, aren't you just a veritable
Fountain of Exposition? Ain't this kind of cliche'? The bad guy
telling the hero all his secret plans, and stuff?"
"'Hero'? _You_?" Lucas seemed genuinely amused by the idea.
"By no means! 'Villainess', perhaps, and a minor one at that."
He laid special tension on the '-ess' part, noting with satisfaction
the way it pushed her that much closer to the breaking point.
He prodded a little harder. "No, Little One, I'm not telling you
all this as part of the old 'Bad-Guy-Tells-His-Plans-Before-He-
Screws-Up-And-Loses' deal. I'm telling you so that you will
have a full appreciation for the fact that we're going to beat you,
and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.
"Your nuts -- when you've got 'em -- are on the stomping block
even as we speak. On the one hand, you've got your assignment
to try and worm your way into Geek-Boy's heart. If you fail at
that... Well, you know the punishment for serious failure." He
drew a finger slowly across his neck. "On the other hand, to
succeed at it, you're going to have to engage in some conduct
that might be viewed as rather suspect by many of your fellow
Brothers, possibly even _heretical_." He kicked his smarmy,
cat-by-the-birdcage smile up another notch. "And all the while,
you're slowly losing your grip on your identity. Your sanity, too,
not that your hold on that was ever too tight. How long can you
keep playing this game, Number One? Doesn't it make you just
"I'll tell the Nameless One what you're up to," she ground out,
barely in control. "He'll..."
"He'll do nothing," he replied in a voice of total assurance. "He
expects these kinds of internal power-games. There's even a
chapter in the Book on it. It's a good way of culling the incom-
petent and inadequate from our ranks. You're completely on
your own in this one, kiddo. You haven't got a single _real_
friend to help you out. Well, actually, you do have a friend, but
he's the one you're setting about betraying, isn't he?" She was
close, now. He could sense it. Just a little more nudging to get
her to the very edge...
He stepped closer, looking down and using his presence to remind
her how small she was. "But, the really _sad_ part is that this
situation didn't _have_ to turn out this way. You only lost control
of the situation because you are a... Weak. Little. Girl."
That was the moment Lucas Buck had been pushing toward. An
entire lifetime of resentment and anger brought to an uncontrolled
boil, just waiting to spill over and do damage. Number One's
self-control splintered apart as her mind reeled from the upwelling
flood of black rage.
Male or female, sane or crazed, wide-awake or half-asleep, the
one thing that was always unchanged was her draw. There was a
momentary blur and the .357 was in her fist, knuckle whitening
on the trigger.
"DIE!" she screamed as she jammed the Magnum into his gut and
hauled on the trigger as fast as she could.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
Lucas just kept smiling. In a spookily-accurate Elmer Fudd voice,
he said, "Why, what do you know? No more buwwets!"
She swung the pistol butt at his head, but he caught the blow
easily and pushed her backwards, sending Number One asprawl
into the wet grass. "Now, now," he chided as he turned and left
her there. "Little girls shouldn't go picking fights they can't win."
"I am _not_ a girl!" she howled after him.
He slipped into the seat of his black Ford, still chuckling. "Ah,
but remember what Nietzche said. 'The mind is but the plaything
of the body.'" He tipped his hat. "Good day to you... Ma'am."
She watched him drive off, pounding her fists against the mud.
"Damn it! Damn it! Raaaarrrggh! DAMN IT!"
The mud made no reply.
"I don't care. I don't care. It doesn't make a bit of difference to
me. I have no reason to be bothered. I don't care."
Nyssa ran the razor edge of the arrowhead down the whetstone yet
again, despite the fact that the steel had long since passed any
reasonable degree of sharpness and was now on its way to becom-
ing a danger to passing electrons. But then, she wasn't really
looking at it, either.
"Whatever he decides to do, or whoever he does it with, it doesn't
matter to me, right? Right. No reason at all to care."
The arrowhead shweeeeped down the whetstone.
"It's not as if he's anything to me, other than a target of opportun-
ity. Whatever he does in his personal life is of no interest to me,
She shifted her grip on the whetstone slightly, and felt a curious
absence about her arm. It took her a moment to realize that it was
the lack of the customary jingling of her charm bracelet.
"He's not... not..." Her eyes fixed on her wrist, right about at the
spot where her bracelet used to be. "He's not..." She shook her
head, recovering a little. "He's irrelevant, is what he is. I'm not
even going to think about him."
Shweeeep, went the arrowhead.
"No, I'm not going to devote a moment's more thought to that
little two-timer. I mean, that little weasel. I'm going to think
about something else."
She turned the arrowhead over, starting on the other edge, which
was merely sharp enough to win a debate with a Jesuit. She
hummed a merry, tuneless nothing as she worked, and thought
about bows and arrows. She quite liked the aesthetic qualities of
the bow, she had decided. Especially her new polymer compound
bow, with the counterweights and the adjustable sight. There was
something about the meld of traditional technology with modern
material that just appealed to her sentimental side. Plus, being a
purely kinetic weapon, it was immune to the suppressive effects
of the TARDIS's internal weapons neutralizer. Yessir, the bow
was a weapon for a true artist, someone who took pride in their--
"She has bigger boobs than me. I'll bet _he_ likes that, the pig!"
Nyssa blinked, startled at her own exclamation.
"Nys? D'you... need to talk about anything?"
She turned to see Tegan leaning on the doorframe, a look of worry
creasing her brow.
"Hello, Tegan," she said, willing herself to sound casual. "What
brings you 'round the non-canonical part of the TARDIS?"
"I've been worried about you," her friend replied with total frank-
ness. "You skipped breakfast this morning--"
Nyssa shrugged. "I was still feeling a bit ill from last night. The
neurotoxin, I mean. You know."
"Okay. But that doesn't explain why you've been hiding back here
"I just had some projects to work on in here, is all."
"Like sharpening that one arrow for an hour-and-a-half?"
The Trakenite blinked owlishly at the weapon in her hand, seeming
almost surprised by its presence. "Aheh. Well, you know..." She
trailed off, glumly thumbing the arrow's point.
"I _do_ know, Nys." Nyssa looked up, slightly taken aback as
Tegan walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder. Usually,
even her very best friend tended to keep a bit of distance when
she had a weapon at hand. "I know you're hurting right now."
Nyssa leaned back against the workbench a little, lightening but
not losing the contact of Tegan's hand. "Don't be silly, Tegan,"
she half-mumbled, looking at nothing. "That crazy gymnast
barely even touched me..."
The uncharacteristic hardness in Tegan's voice made her jerk her
gaze up, locking her eyes with the older woman's.
"Just stop it, Nyssa," Tegan repeated, a little more gently. "Quit
trying to hide your feelings, because you really suck at lying. Not
that that's a bad thing," she added as an afterthought. "I know
how much that must have hurt last night, seeing Adric in the
arms of another woman like that."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Nyssa retorted stiffly,
her whole body going rigid with suppressed anger. "I keep telling
you, I have no interest in Adr... Swampr... _him_, except as a
target of opportunity. Whatever he decides to do, and whoever
he decides to do it with--" This came out as a near-snarl. "--does
_not_ concern me at all."
"Nyssa, I'm trying to _help_ you!" A trace of exasperation wound
into Tegan's voice. "If you'll just stop denying what's so bloody
obvious, first. I mean, how stupid do you think we are? A blind
Cybermat could tell that you like him!"
With an angry twist, Nyssa shook off Tegan's touch. "You're
reading things into my actions that aren't there, and I don't much
like it," she said, eyes narrowing dangerously.
Tegan remained unmoved by both the outburst and the glare. "Oh
bull_shit_!" she shot back. "I was reading it wrong when you threw
your bracelet at him and ran off in tears?!"
"I don't want to talk about this any more," Nyssa hissed.
"Why? Because you know I'm right?"
"That's enough, Tegan. Drop the subject. Now. Or I'll..."
"You'll _what_?" Tegan flicked her eyes to the arrow in Nyssa's
hand, leaving the second half of her question unsaid.
Nyssa saw the look, and very pointedly set the arrow back on her
workbench. "Or I'll leave," she answered.
"That won't make it hurt any less, Nyssa."
Nyssa turned her green eyes to the ceiling. "Will you _please_
just--" A flash of red appeared in her peripheral vision, and she
snatched up the arrow without thought, lunging toward the
doorway with a snarl of total hatred twisting her lovely face. "Die,
you redheaded slut!" she screamed, raising the weapon to slam
it through her victim's chest.
Turlough reeled away from her, his finely-honed survival instincts
putting some air between his tender flesh and his somewhat-
homicidal friend. "Whoa, Nyssa!" he yelled, hands up to ward her
off. "I know I'm a little bit of a flirt sometimes, but _please_!"
Nyssa stepped back, embarrassed, dropping the arrow from nerve-
less fingers. "I'm... I'm sorry," she croaked. "I thought you were...
"Really? Since when did you take to calling Adric a 'redheaded
Nyssa reddened even more. "No, not-- I meant--" She floundered
for a moment, then gave up. "Just nevermind, all right?" With a
glum sigh, she slouched against the doorway.
Turlough merely shrugged in reply, having learned early on the
virtues of minding one's own business. While people were
watching, anyway. "If you say so. No harm, no foul, right?
Anyway, I just came from town, and Mr. Carter from the Imports
shop asked me to give you a message. He said to tell you that
something called a D'Artagnan Kit was in, and that you could
come pick it up whenever you cared to."
A flicker of interest flashed in Nyssa's eyes, but quickly died
away. "Thank you, Turlough," she said in a listless, preoccupied
tone. "I think I'll go get it right now."
"It's still raining, a bit."
"I don't care."
He watched her walk off, eyes troubled. "What's with her?" he
asked Tegan when she joined him.
The Aussie just motioned him toward the kitchen. "C'mon. I'll
fill you in while you put the kettle on..."
Number One rather mechanically slipped her weapons into their
hiding-place under the mattress and wiped the mud off her hands,
her movements stiff and eyes far away. The anger was a vast
poisonous snake, awakened to fearsome life and writhing and
twisting within her guts, its venom setting her brain to a fevered
simmer. She'd been helpless, _helpless_! Completely at his
She tasted bile and spat carelessly into the corner. She could
feel the hate and, worse, the humiliation all through her being.
She would strike back, of course. That was the only possible
choice. Only the spilling of blood could set things right again.
That bastard Buck would see, oh yes!
She was too far gone to realize that this was exactly what he'd
been pushing her toward.
"I am _not_ weak," she muttered. "And I am not a girl."
The first order of business was to get more bullets.
Outside the apartment window, a crow watched impassively,
eyes gleaming softly in the drizzling rain.
Catbert set the telephone receiver back in its cradle just as the
door opened. "Well," he said cordially, "how is your morning
going, my Brother?"
"Very productive," Lucas replied with a tight smile. "I've just
been arranging for a certain wad of feces to hit a certain fan.
You'd better hope my timing is right, or we may have a visit from
someone anxious to use our guts for dental floss. How about
Catbert merely raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. "I've been
getting a few loose ends tidied up. You remember me telling you
about Number One's idiot Minions getting ripped-off by a used-
car dealer? Well, I've just been sealing _that_ one's fate." He
gave a nasty feline chuckle, which might sound a bit odd, but is
actually pretty frightening. "Also, Twelve called to let us know
he'd be sending us some backup in the next few days. Eight-man
team, trained and equipped for SWAT ops, plus an OV-10 on
standby, with the full counter-insurgency package."
The Sheriff sank into the chair across from Catbert and stretched
contentedly. "You know, if there's anything in the world more
fun than abusing your power to crush people who get in your
way, I don't know what it could be."
"Really?" Lucas asked, intrigued. "What's that?"
"Abusing your power to crush people just for kicks, regardless of
whether or not they get in your way."
"Ah. I stand corrected."
By this point, the astute reader will have noticed that the place
known as 'Outside Continuity' -- or merely 'Outside' for short --
has its own particular set of physical laws that it functions under.
To improve understanding of the relationship of these physical
laws to the events currently unfolding, a brief summary of these
laws is provided below.
Newton's First Law: A body at rest will tend to remain at rest,
most likely because Nyssa has stuck a knife in it.
Newton's Second Law: A body in motion will tend to stay in
motion until it runs into exactly the wrong person at exactly the
wrong time (see Saotome's Law, below).
Waterhouse's Corollary to Newton's Second Law: A potentially
lethal object in motion will tend to stay in motion until it encoun-
Murphy's Law: If anything can possibly go wrong, it will, and
under the worst possible conditions. Similar to the functioning of
Murphy's Law in other Universes, but seems especially vindictive
Saotome's Law: The worst possible person will always show up
at the worst possible moment (see Newton's Second Law, above).
Law of Conflict Resolution: Negative interaction between two
parties will tend to degenerate into violence whenever possible,
as rapidly as possible.
Tendou-Nikaido Principle: Common sense will never be applied
to a situation until all other alternatives have been attempted.
With a firm grasp of the operation of these laws, certain events
that may at first appear to be a chain of rather unlikely coincidences
can be seen as inevitable in light of Outside Physics. Consider the
following, for instance.
In the present situation, we have two bodies in motion. Nyssa is
walking to Carter's Imports to pick up her D'Artagnan Kit, in a
state of mind that could be described as 'unsettled'. Number One,
in female form, is also in motion, en route to obtaining more
ammunition and in a state of mind that could be described as
'rabid'. Applying Newton's Second Law informs us that these
two will remain in motion until they encounter exactly the wrong
person (each other) at exactly the wrong moment, which is a
given occurence under Saotome's Law.
It should not be a bit surprising, then, to learn that Carter's Imports
is the only store in town that sells pistol ammunition, nor should
it be surprising that a certain psychotic Trakenite and a certain
psychotic aquatranssexual will arrive there within minutes of
Did we say Murphy's Law was in operation? Murphy was an
The rain had turned to a fine, drifting mist by the time Nyssa had
paid for her purchases and exited the store, a long, paper-wrapped
bundle in her hands. She paused under the awning and tried to
shuffle the package into an easier position for the long hike back
to the TARDIS, a trip she was dreading the end of. If only Tegan
would just let her _be_, instead of harping on such nonsense about
her supposed feelings. Perhaps she could avoid her altogether and
slip off into some disused part of the TARDIS, where she could
try out her D'Artagnan Kit in peace.
Except... except that she really didn't have any enthusiasm for her
new toys now, for whatever reason. It was as if her motivation
had been somehow removed, leaving only a hollow shell of direc-
Shifting the burden in her arms again, she heaved a sigh, feeling
an odd bleakness start to steal over her. She was acutely conscious
of the absence of faint metallic jingling when she moved her arms.
She stepped out onto the walk--
--only to have her package knocked from her hands as she collided
"Excuse me," she began, "I didn't see..."
"Watch where you're..." Number One trailed off as well as the
two locked gazes.
The frustrated rage that had settled into Number One's brain flared
sharply as the girl ran into her, bringing a growled warning to her
lips. But the harsh words died in her throat as she realized just
who she'd run into. She stared up at the face that had haunted her
dreams for so many years, that made her days worth living. The
face she'd fought and bled for. The face she'd lied and killed and
"This is a sign," she thought through the red fog of murder that
was on her brain. "This is a sign that everything I'm going through
is worth it. I'm _not_ forsaken. I'm blessed by the presence of--"
Nyssa brought up a hand and slapped her in the face, as hard as
Stunned, Number One slowly brushed her fingertips over the
stinging red of her cheek, mouth open but no sound coming out.
"Look what you've done to me, you pathetic, clumsy little bitch!"
The redhead's eyes widened in injured confusion. She hurriedly
knelt and started to gather up the bundle Nyssa had dropped. "I...
I'm sor--" She fell back onto her rear as Nyssa's hand shoved her
"Stay away from what's mine," the Trakenite hissed, wolf-deadly.
She snatched the bundle to her and stood, glaring icily at the other
girl. "If you know what's good for you, you won't touch anything
of mine, ever again."
Number One rose slowly to her feet, the red-tinged fury returning
full-force. "Don't push me," she said in a quiet, shaky voice. "I'm
not in the mood for it right now."
Nyssa replied with a sneer. "Well, perhaps you should've consid-
ered that before you went blundering about in my business."
"I'm leaving now," the half-girl said in a taut voice. "I'm sorry I
ran into you." This was said in a tone that left several possible
"Not as sorry as I could make you."
Number One's jaw clenched as she stepped around the fever-eyed
Traken, fist curling at her side. She managed to say nothing,
despite the bloodfire burning at her brain and the twists of pain in
"Hmmph," Nyssa snorted at her back. "What a weak, pathetic
bimbo. What he sees in you beyond your breasts, I'll never know."
Number One stopped dead in her tracks and turned with danger-
ous, glacial slowness. Her eyes were slits of blue balefire as she
began walking back toward Nyssa.
Truth be known, Nyssa was nearly as surprised by her vicious
response to the redhead as the other girl was (apparently being
unfamiliar with the Law of Conflict Resolution). After all, all the
girl had done was bump into her, which was primarily Nyssa's
fault anyway for having the package in front of her face. Yet,
somehow she felt an almost desperate need to hurt her, to make
her cry and feel a special kind of pain inside. Even as she
wondered at her own actions, they felt _good_, in a dark and
selfish way. They felt _satisfying_, and gave her something to
feel aside from that dreadful hollowness.
The image of the girl in Adric's arms sprang to mind but was
ruthlessly pushed aside as irrelevant.
Still, for all her righteous (somehow, that word seemed to fit)
anger, she couldn't help but step back a little when the girl turned
back to her. There was something in the flash of those big blue
eyes that sent a shudder down her spine and made her almost
wish there was a nice, stout brick wall between the two of them.
"I wonder if this is what Adric feels when he sees me coming?"
she thought idly, then pushed the notion away, quickly recovering
With slow, deliberate movements, the redhead raised a hand, and
for a moment Nyssa was sure she was about to slap her. But then
the fingers curled, leaving the index finger thrust out at her like a
"Nobody," the girl hissed through gritted teeth. "Nobody calls me
that. Not even you, Milady."
"Truth hurts, does it?" Nyssa laughed with a dark joy that scared
her even as she embraced it. "Go on then, prove me wrong. Prove
you're the better woman."
The little redhead uttered a strangled noise that it took Nyssa a
moment to identify as stifled laughter. Her expression suddenly
changed, as though some inner switch had just been closed.
"Prove it?" The words poured out with the heedless ferocity of
pirates swarming from a ship's deck. "Why, I already _have_,
"Meaning what?" Nyssa demanded.
"You know what. Who's the one he can talk to? Who's the one
he can share things with? Who's the one he wants? You? Hah!"
The crow on the lamppost across the street went wide-eyed.
Catbert looked up from grooming his tail to see Lucas lying on
the floor, gasping in soundless mirth. "I take it that your timing
was on?" he purred.
The Sheriff recovered a little, using his chair to pull himself up.
"Oh, man!" he wheezed. "The little hermie's further gone than I
thought! This is great! Call--" A sudden fit of giggles overcame
him and had to be brought back under control. "Call up the
Nameless One and tell him to turn on his viewscreen, if he hasn't
already. Something good's about to happen."
"My, how touching." Nyssa's voice dripped sarcastic venom. "I'm
sure you're just what that rat needs, a simpering little eyelash-bat-
ting slut to feed his ego and his sick little fantasies. I'm sure you
make him feel quite 'the man' when you're around."
The two young women were now mere inches apart, the drizzling
mist doing nothing to cool either down.
"At least I know how to make somebody feel something other
than stark terror, you psychotic bitch. Do you even have a heart?"
Nyssa gasped at the cold poison in the redhead's words, her mind
reeling slightly. She floundered for a moment, then let her instincts
take over. One hand fished in a pocket, then, finding what she
wanted, lashed out across the other girl's cheek.
Number One didn't flinch as the glove struck her. In an icy growl,
she whispered, "That's the second time you've slapped me, and it
better be the last."
"That was a _challenge_, you brutish peasant," Nyssa responded,
putting extra arrogance into her tone to hide how shaken she was.
"I can see that there will only be one way to settle this, unless you
happen to be too weak and spineless to accept."
"Name your terms," the redhead spat back.
Nyssa thought for a second. "The roof of This Time Round, one
hour from now. Come alone, and we'll settle this woman-to-
"The roof?" her opponent asked, puzzled.
Nyssa sighed theatrically to indicate just how much forbearance
she was showing by explaining. "It's Sunday morning, so the
place will be mostly empty. It gives us a good open space, with
the added bonus that no one -- meaning _you_ -- can wimp out
and make a break for it at the last second. Plus, it's dramatic, and
this sort of thing requires that kind of setting."
"I'll be there."
"I look forward to it."
"A _duel_? Are you putting me on?"
Lucas shook his head, never losing his Satanic grin. "A sure-
enough duel, that's what She said. Oh, Christ on rollerblades, this
is too good!"
Catbert frowned nervously. "But, I mean, a duel? Suppose..."
"Suppose what? This is just what we've been waiting for, Five.
I was hoping to just get Number One killed, but this is even better.
When the others see this, the whole Trad cause will be discred-
The cat still seemed a bit put out. "Yes, I see that. But, suppose
Our Lady gets injured? If Number One's as far gone over the edge
as you say... What if Our Lady gets killed?"
Lucas Buck waved that aside. "You sound like a damn Trad. You
know that we're looking at this long-term. We're in Outside, so if
Our Lady gets killed, she just gets a Card and comes back. Any
incidental harm to Her now is for the greater good in the end,
right? That belief's what makes us Radicals, remember. Try to
see the Big Picture."
"Oh, I do, I do," Catbert insisted. "I just wonder about things
sometimes, is all."
Lucas reached over and scratched him behind the ears. "Don't
worry about it, amigo. Remember: we're right, they're wrong."
Rage is like a drug, in many ways. It affects the mind in a deep
and fundamental way, zapping the id in the crotch with a cattle-
prod a couple of times before letting it out of its cage, then
politely telling the superego to go bugger off if it knows what's
good for it. As is the case with many drugs, the enraged mind
knows no inhibitions and no restraint. The Universe is quickly
reduced to its simplest terms: the need to inflict damage; the
means to doing so; and targets. And, like a drug, the feeling
of liberation from such petty concerns as conscience can be
But, also as with many drugs, the come-down afterwards is
pure Hell. First comes the feeling of terrible emptiness inside,
as though the anger were a balloon that swelled up inside,
displacing everything else, and then popped, leaving only a
hollow of cool air. Then comes the exhaustion, as the body
winds down from the red-alert, sound-general-quarters state
of readiness it's been in. And finally comes the worst part, when
the conscience comes out of hiding and the realization of what
one has just done starts sinking in.
"Oh, shit," Number One muttered as she sank down on a park
bench. "What the Hell have I just _done_?"
With that horrible, morning-after clarity, the events of the past
few minutes replayed themselves in her mind. She'd treated the
Most Holy Goddess with the most blatant disrespect! She'd
_threatened_ Her (by implication, anyway)! She'd called Her a
'psychotic bitch'! She'd agreed to fight a _duel_ against Her!
And far worse...
"I actually gloated over being a better _girlfriend_?! What the
Hell's _happening_ to me?!"
She knew why she'd said that, of course, shameful though it was.
She'd been trying to lash out, to hurt Nyssa any way she could,
and had simply seized on that as an effective tool. That made it
no less disturbing that she'd said it, though. Arguably, from a
doctrinal standpoint, the motivation was actually worse than just
saying it out of genuine feeling would've been. She huddled
miserably in the wet.
("...remember what Nietzche said. 'The mind is but the plaything
of the body.'") She chewed her lip and moaned hopelessly as
the memory of Lucas's words crept into her thoughts. She shoved
it aside and went back to more immediate concerns.
It was just like Lucas had said, she had managed to thoroughly
trap herself. What was the right way out?
She could always not show up for the duel. But, then she'd be
breaking her word to Nyssa, an unthinkable sin. Plus, she could
never face Her again without the taint of cowardice. Her Holiness
never backed down from anything, and Her followers could do
She could go and fight the duel. That would be obedient, but
raising a hand against Her was far beyond heresy.
(Who am I any more? What have I become? What do I stand for?
Am I anything?)
She kept trying to push aside the doubts, but they kept pouring
(What matters to me?)
And then she suddenly knew just what she had to do.
Adric was at a loss. He had a vague notion of what he was looking
for, enough to figure that he'd recognize it when he saw it, but his
search had thus far proven fruitless. No luck at the Park, the
Library, or any of the few other places that were accessible on a
Sunday morning, so he ended up back here, where he always
tended to end up. With a sigh, he pushed open the door.
"Hello, dead boy!" Francois called from behind the bar. "How is?"
Adric waved back halfheartedly and surveyed the room, his spirits
sinking slightly. Aside from the Ogron barman, the only other
people in the room were Benny Summerfield and the Valeyard,
who would both seem to be natural contestants in the 'Who-
Starts-Drinking-Before-Noon-On-Sunday? Sweepstakes'. He'd
had the idea that what he needed might be here, but-- wait a
"Harry's not still here by any chance, is he, Francois?"
"Nope," Francois grunted back. "Smiley-man leave few minutes
ago. Just miss." His black brows suddenly knotted together as
he gave Adric a narrow look. "Dead boy having trouble? Apart
Adric just stared a bit distractedly around the room. "Nah," he
shrugged. "It's nothing, really. See you later."
The Ogron's sausage-like fingers drummed on the bartop for a
moment, making a noise like distant anti-aircraft fire. "Wait up,"
he called before the boy could reach the door. "Come sit for
"Er, I don't really--"
"Butt be parked _here_," Francois growled, jabbing a finger at
the closest barstool, "in five seconds, or Mr. Moggie be _most_
Adric swallowed hard and was on the indicated seat with three
seconds left to spare.
As the boy sat, Francois shot a meaningful glance at Benny, who
merely nodded, laid a fiver on the bar, and departed. He shot
another at the Valeyard, who didn't seem to catch on.
"Excuse, please," the Ogron rumbled at him. "Am afraid This
Time Round closing for little while. Come back later, yes?"
"Closing?" the Valeyard replied in a tone of disbelief. "The sign
says 'Open 24 Hours', my good Ogron."
"Yes, but now not one of those 24," Francois replied impatiently.
"So, come back later, yes?"
"But I haven't finished my drink," complained the Valeyard.
For reply, Francois's right paw snatched the highball glass out
from under the evil Time Lord's face and flung it into the fire-
place, hard enough that the glass didn't fragment, it _pulverized_.
Simultaneously, his left paw shot out and grabbed a fistful of the
front of the Valeyard's pretentious robe and pulled the man in
close, so close that Francois's broad nose was mashing his nostrils
shut. "Out," the Ogron said in a whisper that was more blood-
freezing than any bellow could ever be. "Now."
"I'll just be leaving, then, shall I?" the Valeyard said with an
uneasy laugh as Francois released him.
As the Valeyard made his exit, Francois thrust a finger at Adric.
"Not move, dead boy," he said in a firm but much more reasonable-
sounding voice. Once the two were alone, the Ogron quickly
padded over and locked the door, then flipped around the 'Closed'
sign, an almost unprecedented act.
Adric looked around nervously for an avenue of escape, should
one be needed, as Francois made his way back behind the bar.
"Um, what's this all about, Francois?" he asked, a bit squeakily.
"Is about dead boy. What is?"
"Dead boy having something on mind, something cause _much_
disturbance. Dead boy in bar, and Francois is bar keeper, so we
do traditional way, yes? Francois fix drink and listen while dead
boy tell all about, yes?"
Adric blinked, several times. That was... what he'd been looking
for. Someone he could spill his guts to and maybe get a few
words of wisdom from. But, Francois? Francois the big, violent
Ogron with the deranged hand puppet, who never seemed to look
beyond the next butt to be kicked or wad of cash to be obtained?
_Francois_ was offering to lend a sympathetic ear?
As he'd done a few times in the past, Adric surreptitiously checked
the room to see if maybe he'd slipped into an alternate dimension,
China clinked slightly as a steaming cup of Darjeeling on a saucer
was slid under Adric's nose, the steam rising in a ghostly dance
in front of him. Francois, meanwhile, to keep up the proper idiom,
plucked a perfectly clean mug out of the rack and began swabbing
it out as he leaned on the bar.
"Done with Francois's part now, yes?" The Ogron cocked his
shaggy head slightly, nodding toward Adric. "Scene set, so is up
to dead boy now. Francois give cue." He cleared his throat and
said, "Look like having much troubles, guv," then just stood
waiting expectantly for Adric's reply.
"Um, you could say that."
Francois nodded wisely. From somewhere, he'd come up with a
set of wire-rimmed spectacles that he now wore perched precari-
ously on the bridge of his nose. He gazed over the top of them in
something roughly akin to sympathy. "Thought so. Is woman
Adric gave a hopeless little chuckle. "And how. I may have just
committed one of the worst screw-ups of my whole life."
"Wow. Is saying a lot."
Adric glared up into Francois's slight smirk. "I thought you were
supposed to be the 'sympathetic bartender'," he huffed.
"Give break. Am new at such, yes? Anyway, talk on. Francois
Somehow, Adric found that minor insult a bit reassuring. At least
it proved he was still in the world he knew. "Well," he began,
loosening up a little, "it all started with that date I went on yester-
Nyssa noted with a mild hint of curiosity that the 'Round was
closed when she arrived and made her way to the fire escape
around back. So much the better, then. There'd be less chance
of anyone trying to interrupt and break up the fight.
Strangely, she found herself not looking forward to this duel as
much as she should be. Ordinarily, the chance to kill someone in
a new and challenging way would be enough to set her all aflutter,
but this was seeming more and more like a chore. A necessary
chore, she felt, although she wasn't completely sure why, but a
chore all the same. She hadn't even brought her journal along to
record her findings in.
Instead, that big, hollow, formless nothing that she'd been feeling
earlier was back, worse than ever. It disturbed her to feel this way,
but she couldn't make herself look into that awful inner void to
seek its source. She had a vague idea that if she looked too long
and too deep, she'd break open something that was best left
scabbed-over. At least the hollowness didn't hurt.
Not too much, anyway.
The rain had settled in as a sort of constant mist, like a cool, wet
blanket over the world, enough to thoroughly dampen everything
it touched, but not enough to make a sound or to annoy by its
impact. A very subdued and theatrical sort of precipitation. It
made the footing treacherous on the fire escape, and Nyssa looped
the two rapiers' baldrics over her shoulder to free her hands for
Even so, the going was slippery. As she reached the top, her foot
skidded on the bare metal and she stumbled, her right hand flailing
for purchase and not finding it.
A small white hand shot downwards and caught her wrist. For a
moment she hung there, off-balance, then managed to get her
"I don't need your help," she grunted as the hand released her,
voice rough with an indignation she only half-felt. With a quick
pull, she hoisted herself the rest of the way onto the rooftop.
"Naturally not," the redhead replied in an even tone.
Nyssa took a moment to swipe her damp hair back and shrug the
swords off her shoulder, appraising the other girl as she did so.
Something about her seemed different, but the Trakenite had a
hard time saying just what it was.
"So, you showed up," Nyssa said unnecessarily.
"I said I would, Milady," came the mild-voiced return.
The two just stood, sizing one another up. Nyssa's trained mind
began analyzing the girl's stance and body, seeking out potential
weaknesses or problem areas. Her opponent was a bit smaller
than she, with a correpondingly shorter reach, which would be to
Nyssa's advantage. On the other hand, the girl seemed to be in
good physical shape, and didn't betray any awkwardness or lack
of coordination in her movements. Of course, skill would be a
primary deciding factor, something Nyssa very much doubted that
she possessed. Still, it was best not to make assumptions without
She carefully searched the girl's face, looking for a hint as to her
frame of mind. Of course, she'd been utterly furious earlier, but
Nyssa could find little trace of that now. Nor was there any fear to
be seen. Instead, she seemed to be almost completely serene and
at peace with herself. Nyssa found this to be vaguely unsettling
in and of itself.
"Who are you, anyway?" Nyssa blurted suddenly.
"I'm..." The redhead hesitated slightly, a shadow passing over her
face, but just for the briefest of moments. "The name's Ember.
Nyssa filed the name away in her memory. "Well then, Miss
Ember Ashe, I offer you choice of weapons," she said, holding
out the two sheathed rapiers.
Ember nodded and took the right-hand hilt. With a smooth
'wheeep', she drew the delicate blade and slashed a quick figure-
eight in the air at her side. "Nice balance," she remarked. "Been
a while since I've used a rapier. You've got a good eye for
Scowling a little at the compliment, Nyssa reached behind her
back and drew a pair of long, thin daggers out of her belt. Each
had a hilt made to match the swords, with a long protective cross-
guard. "Parrying dagger?" Nyssa asked, offering the two.
The redhead considered for a moment, then shook her head. "I'd
better not," she answered at last.
"Your loss," Nyssa grumbled, selecting one for herself.
Her foe just looked at her, that same serene not-smile on her face.
"I suppose," she said, then began peeling off her shirt.
"Um, excuse me..." Nyssa began, a little taken aback by the girl's
action, then blushed slightly as the garment came on off, leaving
the redhead in just her rain-dampened shorts and sport bra.
"What are you...?"
She trailed off, as it was obvious what the girl was doing. She
took the waterlogged shirt and wound a loop of it around her left
wrist, letting the bulk of the cloth dangle from her grip. It would
make a serviceable shield against Nyssa's lightweight rapier blade
that way, and could also be used to entangle her weapons or arms,
or momentarily blind her. Apparently, the girl knew her way
around a sword-fight.
This would be challenging. And distracting. This Ember girl
really was built, all right. "Better than me," Nyssa thought rather
sourly. "I bet those boobs get in her way when we fight. And I'm
still prettier in the face, so nyah." She made herself stop staring.
She stretched a little and made a couple of practice passes with
her blade. With dismay, she noticed that her velvet blouse had
soaked up so much water, it was restricting her movements. She
swore under her breath and began unfastening the blasted thing
with quick, savage movements. Then she flung the heavy shirt
aside, moving much more easily in her silk undershirt. Better.
"Do you mind?" she snapped crossly at the redhead, whose eyes
were locked on the wet silk like twin targetting lasers.
"Sorry," Ember replied, a little abashed.
With a huff, Nyssa hefted the sword and dagger, balancing
herself on the balls of her feet. "Now, are you ready to die?"
"Just a minute," the other replied, holding up a hand. "Before we
do this, I just want to say that I'm sorry for the tone I took with
you earlier, and for the things I said. They were very disrespectful
and uncalled-for, and I deeply apologize."
Nyssa's lip curled in a sneer as her opinion of the girl, which was
starting to rise a little, plummetted. "You think you can 'sorry'
your way out of this?" she demanded. "This has gone too far
"I know, Milady," Ember interrupted in that same mild, calm tone.
"I'm aware that this won't end until somebody's dead up here. I
just wanted to clear that up, was all."
Nyssa blinked rapidly several times as her brain wrapped itself
around that. It reminded her of D'Artagnan a bit, who she'd been
reading about lately at the Library. She'd gone through Dumas's
_Three Musketeers_ three times already, and seen all the movies.
Indeed, the 1970's remake with Michael York and Charlton Heston
had been the motivation for her ordering this D'Artagnan Kit to
begin with. D'Artagnan had no problem with being polite to the
people he killed, and being the gracious sort herself, Nyssa could
appreciate that sort of thing. The girl had to die for what she'd
done, but there was no need to be _bitchy_ about it.
Plus, the idea of Ember Ashe outdoing her at _anything_ (else)
was anathema to her. She forced her own face to mirror the
redhead's cordial neutrality. "Very well," she said coolly. "I
apologize for my own rudeness, as well. I regret that my temper
snapped the way it did. Now, shall we set about killing one
another like civilized people?"
"As you wish, Milady." Ember bowed and began stalking forward,
sword at the ready as Nyssa did the same.
"...but I couldn't catch up with them. They were gone through the
PLOT hole by the time I got there. That's when I remembered that
I'd left Ember behind outside the bar, so I ran back there, but she
was already gone, too." Adric finished off his second cup of tea,
throat dry from the long tale. He'd started with the moment he'd
left the 'Round with Ember the day before, and told all the way up
to the catastrophic end of what had been a nice, if somewhat
mayhem-laden date, leaving very little out.
Francois had at least given the appearance of listening attentively
to the entire story, nodding where nodding was called for and
grunting in all the appropriate places. Of course, it could have
just been part of whatever 'bartender' act he was into, but at least
Adric had been able to talk.
"Hmmm..." rumbled the Ogron as he rubbed at his massive chin.
"Make sure Francois have all straight. Dead boy go on date with
big-boob redhead girl. All happen okey-dokey until sing in bar,
when big-boob redhead girl run outside all weird and hurt self
some way. Then, when dead boy go to help, little crazy girl show
up. Little crazy girl see dead boy and big-boob redhead girl and
get upset, then throw bracelet dead boy give her at dead boy and
run away crying. Dead boy leave hurt big-boob redhead girl to
fend for self and chase after, but not catch."
"Er... more or less, I guess," Adric mumbled, puzzling his way
through the Ogron's broken dialect.
"Okey-dokey. So, problem is what?" Francois filled another
teacup and waited expectantly.
Adric opened his mouth, then closed it, then just sat and thought
for a minute. "Good question. The problem is, Nyssa's acting all
weird now, and I don't know why. And I don't know what to do
about Ember, either. I mean, I think I like her. As a friend, for
sure. And maybe I could like her... more than that. I don't know.
But she's probably not very happy with me right now. What do
Francois's expression was unreadable. "Want Francois's opinion?
True, not-lie-for-be-polite opinion?"
"Okey-dokey. Dead boy ask, dead boy get." The Ogron rummaged
around behind the bar for a moment, finally pulling out a copy of
the 'Daily Mirror'. Before Adric could question, he rolled the
newspaper into a loose cylinder, then turned and swatted the
astonished Alzarian on the head with it several times. "Bad dead
boy!" he scolded. "Bad, bad dead boy! No biscuit!"
"Ow! What the Hell was that for?!" demanded Adric as the
bizarre assault ended.
"Is honest opinion. Francois think, if dead boy run off and leave
Francois's sister like do big-boob redhead girl, Francois be _most_
vexed. Tear off dead boy's hurty-bits and feed to seagulls, most
likely. Of course, if dead boy dating Charlotte, Charlotte handle
such own self, but seeing point, yes?"
Adric gulped and became keenly interested in the bartop. "That
bad, was I?"
The big Ogron leaned back, paws behind his head. "Just say,
dead boy not exactly cover self with glory."
"That _was_ rather rodent-like, to run out on a girl at the end of a
date like that, I guess. Especially while she was hurt."
"Is so," Francois agreed. "Dead boy needing only whiskers and
hunk of cheese, be Grade-A rat."
"I'm the lowest," Adric sighed. "I guess Nyssa was right about me
all along. But what's _her_ problem, I wonder?"
The Ogron's face took on an annoyed look. "Excuse, but just how
stupid is dead boy?"
"Francois knowing dead boy and little crazy girl much stubborn
and obtuse, but is no way be _this_ stupid!"
"What are you talking about?" demanded Adric.
"Okey-dokey. _Is_ this stupid. Francois impressed, in tragicomic
sort of way." He shook his head in wonderment, then leaned over
onto the bar, propping his chin on one ham-sized fist. "Francois
explain. Talk slow and use small words, so dead boy understand,
yes? Right, then. Little crazy girl... is _jealous_."
The Alzarian's eyes widened and he began to splutter in disbelief.
"What? That-- It-- You're joking!"
"No. If joking, Francois say, 'Why nursing homes give old men
Viagra? Keep from rolling out of bed.' Francois _much_ serious.
Little crazy girl have jealous mad-fit because dead boy out with
other girl. What part of 'duh!' dead boy not understanding?"
Number One dodged back slightly as she diverted a quick thrust
at her chest. With a nimble spring, she shifted to her left and sent
a counter-thrust of her own toward Nyssa's side, ready to pull the
blow at the last second, if necessary.
It wasn't. Nyssa's own blade easily intercepted the attack and sent
it aside. They separated and circled warily to each other's left.
Nyssa made a jab at her leg and she swung the shirt downward
to try and entangle the blade, only to find that it was just a feint as
the Trakenite's rapier suddenly darted toward her face. With a
desperate speed that her male form would never have been capable
of, she beat the blade aside with her own. But the movement was
awkward and left her exposed to the long dagger in Nyssa's left
hand. The blade licked out across her sword arm, cutting a short,
shallow scratch just below the elbow.
"First blood to you, Milady," she said, voice still as placid as
pondwater. "You're very good."
"I know. You aren't bad, yourself," Nyssa replied a bit grudgingly
as she parried a thrust at her midsection. The shirt in the redhead's
left came up across her face, blinding her for a split-second and
forestalling any counterattack on her part.
"I'm glad you think so," Number One said mildly, using a quick
slash to put more distance between them. "I'd hate to disappoint
Nyssa scowled suddenly and made a long lunge, trying to skewer
her opponent through the ribs, but the length of the move gave
Number One plenty of time to avoid it. "I know what you're trying
to do," she spat. "You're trying to sweet-talk me, thinking I won't
have the heart to finish you off."
"Not at all." The swords skittered and clanged off one another in
a whirl of cut-thrust-parry-counter. Nyssa parried another thrust
at her chest, only to have the redhead's blade slide around her own
and thrust again, the point barely touching her silken undershirt
as she leapt back.
"You've got a bad habit of parrying in seconde," Number One
explained as they fenced in place for a moment. "That's an
obsolete move. An opponent can double on you and run you
"I don't need advice from _you_," Nyssa snarled, aiming a cut at
"Okay, then." The two settled in for some close-in fighting, both
"Jealous?!" Adric repeated, still not quite believing it. "Why
would _she_ be jealous? It's not like I'm anything to her but a
"Dead boy having better explanation?"
"Give me a bit, and I'll come up with one," Adric shot back, in
accordance with the Tendou-Nikaido Principle of not applying
Francois growled a little in frustration. Not the sort of frustration
he usually showed, which generally resulted in messy dismember-
ments, more the sort of martyred 'why-do-I-even-bother' kind of
frustration that Jewish mothers are so good at expressing. "Look,"
he grunted, "Francois not as much idiot as all people think, yes?"
"I don't think you're an idiot," Adric said hastily.
"Dead boy just say that so not get fist in head." Francois waved
that aside as unimportant. "But Francois see much things. Miss
very little. One thing always with little crazy girl. Always come
after dead boy, not matter what happen. Always. Never go so
far for kill other people, only dead boy. Is meaning something,
"Oh, great," the boy spat. "You're another one of those 'she-kills-
"Love?" the Ogron mused. "Francois not say about love. Can
have possessiveness without love, yes? But is _something_ in
little crazy girl's mind, is for sure. One way or other, is hung up
on dead boy. Francois not know why, but is so. Now little crazy
girl have hurt feelings. Is only thing can be. Which bring up
question of why dead boy care, anyway. Dead boy talk much
in past months on how not care what little crazy girl do and wish
little crazy girl go away and leave alone. If is so, what dead boy
"I'm not worried," Adric replied too quickly. "I just think she's
"Maybe dead boy not care, like say, then. But, _if_ dead boy
care, little bit deep inside, think this. Little crazy girl feel hurt,
one way or other, whatever reason. Hurt do much bad things to
heart, make much change to person. Is same for big-boob redhead
girl. Feel inside like dead boy stick big rusty knife in back, yes?
If no thing done for girls, maybe both have much change inside..."
Francois trailed off, his eyes distant.
"Francois tell story to dead boy, maybe see what mean, yes? Was
once big, strong Ogron. Much tough, much handsome. Best
fighter in whole village. Also in village was three Ogron girls,
also much tough and much sexy."
Adric blanched a little at the thought of what would be considered
a 'sexy girl' among the Ogrons, but said nothing.
"Three girls all like big, tough Ogron, and much fights happen to
try and get attention. So happen, big, tough Ogron like all three,
but much like one especially. Only thing, big, tough Ogron never
say to girls what think. Not to especial one, or to other two.
Always thinking to say later, but never do.
"Time pass and things happen. In end, when big, tough Ogron
finally ready to say, three girls not care any more. In end, big,
tough Ogron have nobody. Is something for thinking about, yes?"
An oddly wistful smile was on the Ogron's face, something very
few people ever get to see. Not that many would want to. He
turned his eyes back to Adric.
"Know who big, tough Ogron was?" he asked in a low voice.
Adric shook his head.
"Was Gustave, who live down street from Francois. Always
thought was stupidest thing Francois ever hear, miss out on three
hot chicks! Can dead boy say, 'dumbass'? Sheesh, what loser!"
The Ogron shook his head and laughed ruefully as Adric picked
himself up off the floor.
"Oi!" a voice grumped from the stairs. "What's so funny,
"Hello, Bossman," Francois grunted in reply as the Proprietor
made his unsteady way down the last few steps. "Not think to see
up so soon, since was dawn when went to bed. Want coffee?"
"Please. And I didn't plan to be up this soon, but I couldn't sleep."
The man grumbled bearishly as he thumped down onto a stool
behind the bar.
"Ah," nodded Adric, a knowing look on his face. "Mad Sheila
"_No_," the Proprietor shot back. "I went to bed _alone_, thank
you. I couldn't sleep because _something_ is making a racket up
on the roof, bumping and clanging around. Maybe one of the
exhaust fans has come apart, or something."
Francois handed him a cup of coffee so strong and black it could
have beaten out Samuel L. Jackson for the starring role in 'Shaft'.
"Was storm earlier, maybe knock thing loose on roof, yes?"
"Well, how about one of you going up there and seeing?" He took
a sip of the coffee, wincing as scalding caffeine in a dosage just
barely below 'lethal' slammed through his system. "Gaagh," he
coughed in appreciation. "The Sontarans may be utter prats, but
they sure know how to blend coffee. Gotta love this 'Conqueror's
Meanwhile, Adric and Francois were each holding up a fist.
"One, two, three!" counted the Alzarian, thrusting out a hand.
Francois did the same.
Scissors for Francois, paper for Adric.
"Crud," the boy muttered. "All right, back in just a minute."
For the first time in a long time, since the Jusenkyou Water inci-
dent, if not before, Number One was in firm control of both the
situation and her own mind. She couldn't repress a little smile as
she used her shirt to block a vicious slash at her chest while
launching a threatening feint at Nyssa's eyes.
Yessir, things had been pretty choppy-dicey there for a while, but
now everything would work out. And the answer was so simple,
really. All she'd had to do was reduce everything to the fundam-
entals. What mattered to her? Nyssa mattered. For seventeen
years, Number One had fought for Her cause. Seventeen years of
battle, betrayals, deceit. Desperate double-crosses and murders in
the dark. Nyssa was the focus of all life, the sun and moon, the
firm and true rock against the battering waves of the world, for
whom any sacrifice must be made, any black sin committed if it
furthered Her cause.
And now, Nyssa wanted her dead.
It was so simple, then.
If it was Nyssa's wish to slay her in honorable combat, then she
would just have to die. After making an honorable and proper
defense, of course.
It was nearly time, now. She'd put on a good show and stretched
the duel out somewhat, defending herself while making sure that
none of her own attacks had any real chance of harming Her
Ladyship. But she could tell that the Trakenite was beginning to
tire, so an ending would have to come soon.
She began to slow her fencing somewhat, trying to give Nyssa the
chance to slip a thrust through her guard. She hoped to leave a
good opening for a thrust through the heart. While perfectly
willing to die for her faith, she'd prefer that her end be quick and
It wouldn't be so bad, dying. In fact, it would be a relief in many
ways. No more worries, no more uncertainty, no more of those
horrible, nagging doubts that she seemed to be having about
everything these days. It was what she deserved anyhow for being
so disrespectful to Her earlier. At the very least, dying by the hand
of Her Gracious Divinity was infinitely preferable to being killed by
Lucas Buck and his ilk, or being ignominiously defeated by the
blasted Adric Defense Force.
"Adric..." she found herself thinking. "I wonder if he'll miss me?
Like I care what he thinks. To Hell with him and everybody else.
I don't need anybody. I don't have anybody. My faith in Her is
what's important. I especially don't need an Alzarian idiot who is
the very incarnation of everything anti-Nyssa."
She watched the other girl's face as she absently wielded her
rapier in a half-hearted defense. "God, but She's beautiful," she
thought. The misting rain softened the Trakenite's features, turn-
ing her focussed look to one of mild contemplation. Her chestnut
hair hung in a wet sheet down her back, over the silken undershirt
that was molded tightly to her supple frame. "If there's a better
sight to leave this world to, I don't know what it could be. This
vision alone makes it worth it." Her smile widened at the thought
even as she slowed a little more. "Take your blow now, Milady,"
she thought. "Take it now, and I die fulfilled."
"I never told him goodbye, though..."
Nyssa scowled to herself as she matched blades with the redhead,
slowly backing her around. She had the upper hand, she knew,
but not by any great margin. Oh, she'd pretty much taken the lead
and set the pace all through the fight, but she had the sneaking
suspicion that the girl was holding back on her. It was as if Ember
was just fighting to humor her. She could tell for a fact that the
girl wasn't taking this seriously, just by the weird smile she kept
flashing and the way her eyes would gaze at her between ripostes.
She had wondered at first if it was just some bizarre attempt to
psyche her out, but had discarded that idea after her foe failed to
follow up on any of the minor hesitations she caused.
Nyssa wanted so badly to hate Ember Ashe. She needed the hate
and rage, tried to will it into existence, but it wouldn't come. The
image of Adric with his arms around the redhead's waist sprang
unbidden to her mind once again and for a moment she felt
something well up inside. But it was just that awful emptiness,
swelling like a foul tumor in her heart.
She blinked what she told herself was just rainwater out of her
eyes and sent a quick thrust toward her opponent to cover her
sudden despair. To her surprise, the strike went straight through
Ember's guard toward her unprotected chest. At the last moment,
she pulled the blow, the tip of her sword just catching the fabric
of one sports-bra-clad breast.
Surprised at herself, she backed off a little. Why had she done
that? She'd had the chance to end things then-and-there, so why
had she not taken it? More puzzling than that was the look on
Ember's face. She looked almost... disappointed.
"Why don't I end this?" she wondered as they traded some
desultory cuts. She'd killed plenty of other people, after all. One
more wouldn't really matter, would it? And it would solve...
what? Well, the girl had insulted her. Nyssa killed Adric all the
time for insulting her. So, why not do the same with this girl?
"But, that's different." How was it different? "It just _is_."
But Ember had called her a psychotic bitch, right? Didn't that
deserve some punishment? "Sure. And I hit her. Twice, actually.
And cut her on the arm. That's worse than what I did to Sam
when she called me a 'frigid nutjob from Hell'."
Again came the image of Adric with his arms around Ember,
their faces almost touching. "_That's_ why she has to die."
Why? What did it matter if she and _he_ were together?
"Because it isn't right. That's not how it's supposed to be."
Well, then how was it supposed to be? "It isn't supposed to
be like _that_." How did she know that? "Because if it was
right, I wouldn't feel so cold and dark and... empty."
So, why not kill her, then? "Because..." Because? "Because
that won't put things back like they're supposed to be. And
because then the fight will end, and when it's over, I'll have
nothing but the empty." But, what about the victory?
For the first time since the night before, Nyssa's lips twitched
upwards in the shadow of a ghost's dream of a smile. "The thrill
of the hunt is in the hunting, not the kill. The kill is anti-climax.
The same with a duel. Once I've won, what then?" Then, there'd
be nothing to focus on but the empty, right? And if _she_ put the
empty there, and the empty is all that was left, then _she_ would
be the real winner, right?
Ember Ashe wasn't going to win. That was for certain. She was
going to lose all the way around. Any other outcome was unac-
ceptable. And when she finally lost, it would be in a way that
would make the empty go away and never come back. Nyssa
would make _her_ take the empty with her. And then what good
would her charm or looks or figure or any of that do her? None
And then maybe she'd kill her. And kill the empty, too.
Did it ever occur to Nyssa how crazy she sounded sometimes?
Number One noted the slackening pace of Nyssa's attacks with
some degree of alarm. Was She getting that tired? Was the cold
or the wet getting to Her? It wouldn't do to cause Her harm that
way, even indirectly.
"This needs to end," she thought. "She needs to hurry up and kill
me and get it over with. I know! I'll let Her disarm me on one of the
next passes. Then She can kill me at Her leisure."
Adric swore softly under his breath as his feet slipped on the
slippery fire escape ladder. The thing was more than a little trea-
cherous, but Outside suffered -- if 'suffer' is the right word -- from
a dearth of building inspectors, fire marshalls, and other such
bureaucratic enforcer-types. The last building code inspector
they'd had had a terrible accident shortly after writing up Master-
Ful Contractors, Inc. for various Electrical Code violations invol-
ving the improper wire sizing and grounding of a Hadron Web.
Tragically, as he was returning to his office, he very unfortunately
slipped and stabbed himself six times with a letter-opener, then
fell out a third-floor window head-first in front of a speeding bus
and had a heart attack and an epileptic seizure and was electrocuted
by a freak lightning strike. At least, that's what Police Constable
Magister's report had said.
"Crud," Adric muttered as he levered himself back onto the ladder
rung. "Thought it was time for another card-punching there for a
second." Indeed, it occurred to him that he hadn't been killed that
often lately, and perhaps he'd fallen behind on some sort of quota.
Were things getting better, or was it mere statistical clustering?
Of course, in this case, Murphy's Law and Newton's Second Law
were merely operating together to ensure that he'd stay in motion
until the properly awful set of circumstances came together, but he
didn't know that.
He could hear the odd metallic rasping and clanging noises that
has awakened the Proprietor as he climbed. For some reason,
they didn't really strike him as being mechanical-type noises.
Thoughts of metallic noises turned his mind to the little golden
charm bracelet that was jingling in his pocket. He didn't know
why Nyssa's throwing it at him bothered him so much, anyway.
It wasn't as if his giving it to her had meant anything. It had just
been a way to humor Ryoko and the gang's ridiculous ideas. And
it wasn't as if the thing should have meant anything to Nyssa,
either. He'd even told her that the gift hadn't cost him anything.
Girls. He'd never understand girls. And, quite frankly, he rather
suspected that no one with a Y chromosome ever could, whatever
Chris and Fitz might say on the subject. Girls were scary, chaotic,
unpredictable things, apparently invulnerable to logic and reason.
Who knew what a girl might do, especially when upset?
Speaking of which, he knew of one girl who was going to be
pretty upset with him. Ember was usually so sweet, the thought
of her being angry with him made him want to go hide in a large,
mucky pond somewhere (a latent Marshman instinct, no doubt).
Would she shout at him? He was pretty certain he could handle
a good verbal tearing-down. He'd been on the receiving end of
enough of them. Would she get violent? She didn't seem to be
that sort, but then she _had_ manhandled those ADF troopers
pretty thoroughly a couple of days earlier. Would she cry? He
considered this for a moment, and decided he'd take either a
tongue-lashing or a beating over that any day of the week.
Or... a worse thought struck him. Would she simply go away?
She could very easily. She'd breezed into his life out of nowhere,
so how hard would it be for her to just breeze right back out? If
she were upset enough, _disgusted_ enough, she just might do
He wondered at himself as he climbed. A week ago, he hadn't
known any such girl as Ember Ashe existed. And now, the
thought of her out of his life left him cold.
At last, he reached the top of the fire escape ladder. He pulled
himself up, and saw, and froze.
They were in their underwear.
Nyssa and Ember were sword-fighting on the roof.
In their underwear.
They were up here, in the rain, fighting each other. With swords.
And in their underwear, don't forget.
The two girls who'd been on his mind all day were trying to kill
each other. On the roof, in the rain.
With their shirts off, by the way.
Yes, thank you, he'd certainly noticed that. Now, moving on to
other, more pressing matters--
They were in their underwear, and soaking wet, too.
Look, there were far more important things going on here than
just the prurient interest in their semi-clad and wet state. The
swords, for one thing.
And their wet bodies for another.
Adric was frozen in place, mouth agape and a tiny trickle of blood
seeping from one nostril, only his head and a bit of his chest
exposed above the low knee-wall at the roof's edge.
The two girls moved with the lithe grace of wet, half-dressed
leopards. Muscles bunched and stretched beneath their smooth,
creamy skin as they lunged and thrust, each chest jerking in short,
bird-like gasps. The rain had turned Nyssa's silk undershirt to an
almost transparent sheath that clung to her every curve above her
tight velvet trousers, making a luscious mockery of the modesty it
was meant to confer. Meanwhile, Ember's own curvaceous form
was telling modesty to go get stuffed. The ripped black sports bra
and jogging shorts merely drew attention to the areas they covered,
while leaving everything else to plain and glistening view.
They looked absolutely gorgeous to him, a furious beauty that it
almost literally hurt to look at.
But they were fighting. What on Alzarius _for_? As far as he
knew, the two didn't even know each other, had never even met.
At least, not until last night...
The Tendou-Nikaido Principle must not have been paying careful
attention right then, because Adric's common sense actually hit an
answer that was pretty much right, and on the first try. They must
be fighting because of (he almost said 'over') him! He had to stop
this! He had to break this up before--
Just as he heaved himself onto the roof and was about to call out
to them, Nyssa's blade suddenly sent Ember's own rapier flying
from her hand. This was what Murphy's Law had been waiting
for, apparently, and in accordance with Waterhouse's Corollary to
Newton's Second Law, the errant sword went point-first straight
between two of Adric's ribs, piercing all manner of vital organs.
Noticing his presence for the first time, the two girls turned to
him with wide, incredulous eyes.
The Alzarian's hand plucked feebly at the sword as he staggered,
a tinge of blood coming to his lips. "I was going to say," he
gasped out, "for you to stop before someone got hurt. Heh..."
He fell back, using the low wall for support as he thrust an increa-
singly numb hand into his pocket. Fumbling for a second, he
managed to dig out Nyssa's charm bracelet.
"Here," he whispered as he staggered toward her, holding the
bracelet out. He went to his knees before reaching her. "Nyssa,
this is yours, I think... Want you to have it back..." He then
turned his fading gaze on the redhead, who stood blinking at him,
mouth open. "Sorry I left you, Ember," he wheezed. "Didn't
mean... to hurt... feelings. Y'r my friend..." His voice grew more
distant as his lips numbed and blackness began creeping in. He
fell forward, the sword hilt turning him onto his side as his blood
turned the rain puddles to a sickly pink. "Deserve better," he
muttered with his last strength. "I'm sorry... Don't want... anyone
to go... away..."
His body jerked once, then went still. In accordance with Newton's
First Law, it remained that way.
In stereo, two slightly shaky female voices sighed, "Adric, you
Number One knelt beside Adric's corpse, looking at his staring
eyes. Nyssa knelt next to her, looking at the boy's hands. For
long moments, they sat just that way as the drizzling mist turned
to a light patter that sent the blood from Adric's chest runnelling
into thin puddles.
Nyssa slowly reached out to his right hand and took the charm
bracelet out of his dead grip. Wordlessly, she snapped it into
place on her wrist, then tucked the dead boy's arm carefully to his
While she did this, Number One gently slid her fingers over his
face and pushed his eyelids closed. When she looked up, she
found herself staring up the blade of Nyssa's rapier.
The Trakenite regarded her through strangely cool and calm
green eyes, then sheathed the blade with a quick flourish. "This
isn't over between us," she said, her voice flat and businesslike.
With that, she turned and disappeared down the fire escape.
Number One just kept sitting there, her gaze flickering back and
forth between Adric's corpse and the fire escape ladder. Every
now and then, she'd give a little shiver, but not from the rain.
"AHEM," a deep, massive voice coughed from over her shoulder.
"EXCUSE ME, BUT I HAVE BUSINESS WITH THE DEAR
DEPARTED THERE, IF YOU PLEASE?"
She rose and stepped aside as Death scooped the body up and
heaved it over one bony shoulder.
"BY THE WAY," the reaper said to her, "I'D SUGGEST YOU
GET IN OUT OF THIS WEATHER AND PUT ON SOME
CLOTHES. YOU'LL CATCH YOUR DEATH OUT HERE." He
shook his skull-head and chuckled. "I LOVE SAYING THAT..."
The next several hours were important ones, in their way, if rather
tame by comparison to what had gone on that morning.
Nyssa returned to the TARDIS, where she had to answer a vast
array of embarrassing questions all related to the topic of 'why are
you not wearing a shirt?' It took most of an hour to convince the
Doctor that, no, she hadn't contracted Lazar's Disease again,
which was widely known to have peculiar side-effects on the
Trakenite physiology, often causing spontaneous disrobing. But
she didn't tell them about the duel.
Number One returned to her apartment, there to spend the next
several hours in a hydrothermically-enhanced meditative state.
That is to say, he soaked in a hot bath for a while, brooding.
Catbert came by later, and sat with a knowing smirk on his face
while Number One gave a terse, tight-voiced report on the events
of the previous night. He didn't tell about the duel, either, but that
didn't really matter, since Catbert knew all about it anyhow.
Adric reconstituted about twenty minutes after his demise, there
not being a lot of physical damage to reconstruct. Since he
reappeared in his usual re-entry point, the Park, he had expected
to have to walk back to the 'Round in the rain. However, in a rare
lucky break, he was able to hitch a ride back with a trio of US
Army surgeons who were passing through on their way to a
Gadzikowski crossover. Major Winchester and Captains Pierce
and Hunnicutt, it turned out, all shared a liking for martinis, if
not for each other, and spent a fair bit of time and money in This
Time Round until a wiry, balding old Colonel came in and rousted
them out. While this was going on, Adric spent his time trying
and abysmally failing to make some sort of sense out of the age-
old puzzle that is woman. He didn't tell anyone about the duel,
either. Not that anyone asked.
The four present and ambulatory members of the Adric Defense
Force -- Heather, Charlie, Vick3ie, and Andy -- were busy scrub-
bing and polishing and getting things ready for the impending
return of their Fearless Leader from his captivity at the hands of
the dastardly Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Doug tended to hold
'surprise' inspections after every setback as a sort of morale-build-
ing exercise (it did wonders for _his_ morale, anyway). Judging
by the quick warning Landon had called in from Tokyo, this one
would be a doozy, too. Thus occupied, none of the four happened
to be monitoring any of the surveillance equipment they'd posted
outside the 'Round, and as a result missed out on a most intriguing
display of rooftop distaff swashbuckling. Murphy's Law is quite
the bastard in Outside, it seems.
Four other members of the ADF spent the time making the wet,
dreary journey back through the PLOT hole from Nerima Ward. It
had taken all night to soothe all the feathers that had been ruffled,
to get all the letters of apology written, and to be lectured at loud
and tedious length by an increasingly cranky Inspector Zenigata.
Doug spent the entire trip muttering epithets under his breath and
trying to cheer himself up with the idea of a lovely surprise all-
hands inspection, while Landon and Diane discussed the possibil-
ities inherent in starting a Japanese branch of the ADF. Frank, as
always, walked silently behind the others, his expression betraying
nothing of his thoughts.
Only a short distance behind them, the WANKERs stumbled
along, glassy-eyed and with mouths agape in mind-numbed
horror, which really didn't look all that different from their normal
expressions if you wanted to be catty about it. Every now and
then, one would mutter some feverish babble about 'the terror that
lieth between four and six', or 'he who awaits in the pauses between
the words', or simply 'Shatner', and then all four would shudder
and cringe and look over their shoulders. But then, repeated
exposure to 'Star Trek V: the Director's Cut' will do that to a
person. There are, after all, Things That Man Was Not Meant
To Behold, and Hollywood produces about 60% of them.
Lucas Buck spent the time arranging another Conclave assembly
and talking on the phone with Dwight Greenwell. Mainly just to
gloat and scheme like the totally evil S. O. B. that he was.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Reality, or at least the other side
of a PLOT hole, someone was in deep doo-doo.
"Are you Greg McCaslin?" asked the man in the dark suit.
"Uh, yeah. Why? Somethin' I can do for you?" the used-car
dealer replied nervously. He was afraid that the two largish men
who'd just pulled up at his lot were representatives of a certain
Mr. DeWitt Hawke, to whom Greg still owed several thousand
dollars in connection with numerous horse races and football
games. He swallowed hard. Hawke's thugs were a fairly creative
bunch, and Greg's mind played out several vivid scenes involving
the use of the various auto-body tools he had lying around. The
dent puller, in particular, left him feeling rather faint.
"Gregory Ray McCaslin?" asked the other dark suit.
"Yeah. Hey, look, if this is about that last payment, I've got the
money right here. I was going to bring it by DeWitt's place,
honest I was..."
The first dark suit stepped forward. "Mr. McCaslin, I am Agent
Thorson, and this is Agent Jansky."
Greg sagged visibly as a wave of relief washed over him. His
kneecaps were going to stay attached, after all!
"We're with the Internal Revenue Service."
It was as if a magician had snatched out Greg's guts like a table-
cloth trick and replaced them with a gallon of frozen tapioca.
Everything except his mouth went numb. "Th- the IRS?" he
squeaked. "The tax men?"
"That's correct. We're here to inform you that you are under
investigation for tax evasion. I have orders to confiscate all your
tax records, receipts, check statements, and any other financial
papers in your possession that relate to the years 1974 to 1997.
If these records are not handed over, you will face an additional
charge of obstruction." This was delivered in the flat, machine-
like, watch-me-not-care tone that only bureaucrats and bored
prostitutes can really produce.
"I... you... what... this..." Greg explained, hands fluttering like
epileptic robins. While he was thus expounding, a second large,
ominous car pulled up, disgorging another pair of dark-suited
"Mr. McCaslin?" one asked as he walked up. "I'm Frederick
Hayney of the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commis-
sion. I'm here to discuss charges of discriminatory hiring
practices that are being brought against you by the EEOC."
Before he could react to this new information, yet another car
pulled up, adding another suit to the fray.
"Mr. Gregory McCaslin? I'm Agent Hong of the Environmental
Protection Agency. We have reports of alleged illegal dumping
of toxic waste on property belonging to your company."
And this was only the beginning.
"Mr. McCaslin? I'm from the Federal Civil Rights Commission,
and I'd like to speak with you in regard to your business practices
as they relate to the minority communities. It has been alleged
"Greg McCaslin, I am Trevor Jackson and I am with the National
Labor Relations Board. We've received some complaints that
"Mr. McCaslin, we're lawyers for the Department of Housing and
Urban Development, and we are here to notify you of a suit being
brought against you..."
"...charged under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organiza-
"...violating the Americans with Disabilities Act..."
"...Treasury Department takes these matters very seriously..."
"...impound all assets until it can be determined..."
"...need to see all your employee records since 1953..."
Before the day was done, that dent puller wasn't going to seem
nearly so bad.
It was six o'clock and Adric had been on-shift for two hours. And
for those two hours, he'd jerked his head up each time the door
opened, only to sigh with disappointment as the person entering
turned out to not be either of the people he was looking for.
He told himself he was going to stop doing that, that it was silly
and pointless and made him look like some kind of hangdog fool.
Then again, a convincing argument could be made that it was a
bit late in the game for him to be worried about what people might
The bell chimed as the front door was opened and Adric's head
swivelled to it like a prairie dog's.
"Oh, hello Ian," he called with a weak wave. Chesterton lifted a
hand in reply and headed for a table. A moment later, Polly scut-
tled over to take his order. Adric went back to his mugs.
He should settle down, he told himself. There was no use in
worrying himself into a stew about things that he only half-under-
stood anyway. He should just relax and let things happen as they
Another tinkling chime announced yet another new arrival, and
Adric was pleased with himself that he didn't even twitch as if to
look in that direction, instead keeping steadfastly to his cleaning
"Hey, Swamprat," a maliciously melodious and exceedingly familiar
voice purred. "When I come into an establishment, I expect to be
acknowledged and greeted. Service with a smile, right?"
Adric's heartbeat stuttered a couple of times, but sorted itself out
as he turned to her with intentional but difficult slowness. "Greet-
ings, honored customer," he began, his voice carefully formal and
businesslike. "This Time Round welcomes your--" He lost the
power of speech momentarily as he got a good look at her.
Nyssa had on a green silk gown, similar to the one she'd worn in
_Cold Fusion_. Which is to say, a gown that did not seriously
endanger the global silk supply with its manufacture. Adric's
eyes followed a plunging line of green from one shoulder, down
between two gentle swells to a point not far above her navel, and
back up. He swallowed hard, trying to remember what he'd been
"At least there's no concealed weapons under _that_!" came the
thought from the rude part of his mind. He usually ignored that
part, but it had been getting more and more vocal of late. "That
dress clings like a... like a... clingy thing!" The rude part of
Adric's mind wasn't very good at similes.
Someone across the room wolf-whistled, and Nyssa proved him
wrong. She spun about, causing all manner of interesting things
to happen to both body and dress, and hurled something. Pained
screaming started up a second later as a shuriken buried itself in
the offending Manussan's shoulder.
That brought Adric back to the real world. "This Time Round
welcomes your patronage, ma'am," he finished. "How may I serve
"I'd like a Demise, and be quick about it, boy." She very pointedly
looked at everything but him.
"A demise?" he asked with carefully exaggerrated ignorance. "I'd
have thought you came close enough to your demise earlier, on a
"An _Adric's_ Demise, Swamprat," she shot back tartly. "Either
sort will suit me."
"Since I'm on the clock, you'll have to settle for the drink," he said
as he began mixing the concoction.
"A pity. And, by the way, your little friend never even came close
to touching me. I've had more dangerous hangnails. So, you need
not be concerned about _my_ demise, I assure you."
"So, who's concerned?" he shrugged.
The Adric's Demise at last ready, he slid it over the counter to her,
handing her the little Adric-shaped ice cube to drop in. "There
you are," he said neutrally. "And, I have something of yours that
I need to return."
A look of puzzlement flashed over Nyssa's features and she shot
an unconscious glance at her wrist, where a glitter of gold answer-
"You left behind your murder weapon," Adric explained as he laid
the rapier on the bartop. "I was assuming you'd like it back?"
Nyssa's lips parted in a dark smile that was two parts mischief,
one part irony, and God only knew what else. "_I_ wasn't the one
who killed you with it, Swamprat. It was being wielded by some-
one _else_ when it went through your chest, more's the pity."
"You knocked it out of her hand."
"Details, details." Nyssa brushed that off. "Anyway, I'd suggest
you save that to give to your redhead. She's going to be needing
it, I suspect. Now, if you will excuse me, I have friends to meet
and an _Adric's Demise_ to contemplate."
Adric relaxed a little. _This_ was the world he knew.
The Sun sank behind the hills, casting the valley into darkness.
One by one throughout the little nameless town, streetlights flick-
ered to life as their photocells registered the descent into night.
The very last one to light was, as always, the one at the rear of a
certain pub. It cast a yellowish and vaguely unhealthy glow over
the cluster of picnic tables, the back door, and the trash bins,
causing a brief rustle of panic in the various scavengers who
prowled there, as it always did.
There was a rustling whir of wings, and a large, black crow settled
itself in atop the light. For just a second, the light dimmed, then
revived itself, further panicking the rats and vermin. They felt a
vague, uncentered fear now and fled to the safety of their dark
And the crow watched.
Well, it was _that_ time. Adric sighed and motioned for Polly to
"Watch the bar for me," he said. "It's that time, you know."
"Will do," she answered solemnly. "There should be another way,
a better way, but..." She spread her hands in a gesture of helpless-
He nodded and spun about to march off and face his duty.
It was time to take out the trash.
With a grunt of effort, Adric hoisted the last of the bulging garbage
bags and stagger-walked it to the bins. How any group of people
could produce so much disgusting mess in so little time was a
mystery he wished someone would solve, or, better still, correct.
He kept a constant, roving glance over the shadows that surroun-
ded him. In theory, he should be perfectly safe from being killed
for another four hours, when his shift would end, so there should
be nothing to worry about. However, the fact of the matter was
that something out here was creeping him out, big time. There
was a peculiar crawly feeling between his shoulderblades, as if
something were standing behind him, reading over his shoulder.
He whirled suddenly, nearly dropping the bag, but there was
Somewhere close by, a crow cawed out in raucous avian amuse-
"I've been reading too many stories," the boy muttered, talking for
the sound of it. "At least there aren't a bunch of whippoorwills
nearby, or I'd probably be a real wreck..."
With a good deal of mashing and smashing, he managed to get
the last of the trash into the bins. He whistled in relief and tried
to make himself not sprint back to the doorway.
"Stop right there."
The voice was neither loud nor authoritative nor even particularly
menacing, but the sound that accompanied it demanded obedience:
the oily ratcheting click of a revolver being cocked. Adric stopped
in his tracks as a figure stepped out of the shadows.
It was a man, Adric saw. A dark, grim-featured man of indetermin-
ate but youngish age, wearing jeans and an old Molly Hatchet
t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off and, for some reason, mirrored
sunglasses. This despite the fact that it was almost pitch-dark out.
An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips as he walked to within a
few paces of the Alzarian, a long-barrelled pistol in his right hand
pointed at his chest.
"No sudden moves, no loud noises, all right?" the man said in a
"All right," Adric replied softly. "What's this about? Do I know
"We've met," the man answered in a drawling tone that seemed
almost familiar. Without taking his attention or his aim from
Adric, he flicked open a cigarette lighter and lit his coffin nail.
Adric's eyes narrowed in recognition. "I know who you are,
now," he spat. "You're that Number One, the Cigarette-Smoking
The stranger smirked a bit self-mockingly. "Guilty on all counts,
or so I'm told."
Adric felt an unfamiliar heat boil up in his guts, and his next
words came out more venomously than he'd ever imagined he
could speak to anyone, especially someone who had him at
gunpoint. "Well, then, the fact is that I've been hoping to meet
you at some point, Mr. One, or whatever your name is. I've been
wanting to tell you what a cowardly, worthless bastard I think you
are." Though he didn't raise his voice at all, the gunman took a
step back from the sheer force of his words. "You hurt a friend of
mine, a nice girl who never did anything to you." His shoulders
sagged a little and he went on in a sadder tone. "Even if she
doesn't like me much right now, I still think of her as my friend. I
tried to apologize, but I don't really know how she took it. She
hasn't come by to talk, or anything, and I don't know where she
is or how to find her. I hope she doesn't hate me..."
"I don't hate you."
"Eh, what?" asked Adric.
"I mean, ah, that's what I came out here to talk to you about." The
Cigarette-Smoking Bastard fidgetted for a moment, which was a
very strange thing to see a sinister nameless gunman do. "Hate,
and stuff. You see, there's something real important that I've been
needing to tell you..."
"And that is?" prodded Adric, intrigued despite himself.
Number One chewed at his lip for a moment, thinking. "It's like
this," he said at last. "You and me, we're enemies, right? Because
we're on opposite sides of this situation."
"If you don't know, I can't tell you. Anyways, we're enemies, and
we have to fight each other. But... But, that's all the reason. I
guess what I'm trying to say is that there ain't nothing personal in
this, okay? I do what I do because I have to, not because I hate
you. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Adric digested that. "You're saying that you'll kill me and attack
me and cause all kinds of trouble, but it's not because you don't
like me. Is that it?"
"Well, more or less, yeah."
"Gee, what a comforting thought. You'll have to excuse me, but
that's about the lamest thing I've ever heard."
The Cigarette-Smoking Bastard chuckled bleakly. "Don't think I
don't know that, myself. But it's the truth. For whatever it's worth,
I'm your enemy, but not a _personal_ enemy. Not any more." A
thought seemed to occur to him. "And I'll try to keep the innocent
bystanders out of it, too. What happened before, that was... unin-
tentional. This'll just be between you, me, and the ADF, okay?"
Adric shrugged. "It's not like I have any say in the matter."
"I reckon that's so."
The two just stood and looked at each other for a moment as the
harsh cackle of a crow sounded from atop the light pole. "Well,
then," said Adric at last, "I guess we're at the part now where you
"So we are," Number One replied, raising the revolver with a sigh.
"See you later." He pulled the trigger.
Blinded by the muzzle flash and nearly deafened by the Magnum's
massive roar, Adric let out a cry and staggered back. It took him
a moment to realize that he hadn't been hit. He blinked rapidly
and rubbed at his eyes, trying to get the bright blotches to clear
When he was able to see again, there was no trace of the Cigarette-
Smoking Bastard. The only sign he'd been there at all was the
bloody, shattered form of a crow lying in a drift of greasy feathers
beneath the light pole.
In a massive marble hall somewhere on the other side of Perceiv-
able Reality, a group of shadowy figures in brown velvet robes
sat silently around a long table, watching a viewscreen. One of
them, sitting in the sixth place, suddenly let out a groan of pain
and clutched at his head.
Number One closed his apartment door and began hurriedly
stripping off weapons and clothes. A quick trip through the
bathroom for a sex-change, then a hurried grab for a dress. She
only had another couple of hours before his shift ended, and
there was something she needed to talk to him about.
She paused at the mirror, giving herself a quick once-over, then
touched the little picture of Nyssa that she kept there. Just for
luck. At the same time, her eyes were drawn to another picture,
on the end of a big, tacky keyring.
"It's a rigged game," she muttered. "It's rigged all to Hell and
gone, and I'm gonna lose in the end. But, what the Hell? It's the
only game in town."
The vast marble hall of the Conclave of the Brethren stood silent
as the assembled figures digested all of the evidence they'd just
witnessed. Here and there, fists tightened, oaths were muttered,
and the occasional murderous glare was shot toward the conspic-
uously empty first seat.
All attention turned to the Throne of Shadows as He-Who-Is-
Never-Named ponderously arose and stepped down to the table,
his heavy footfalls echoing throughout the hall. "The evidence
presented by Number Five and Number Six seems quite irrefutable,"
he intoned in a voice like Doomsday, itself. "Our Brother, Number
One, has obviously become dangerously unstable and a potential
danger to both our cause and Our Lady, Herself. His conduct
toward both his associates and Her Gracious Divinity is most dis-
turbing, as is his apparent non-contempt for the Alzarian Demon.
While his continued presence on his current assignment is essen-
tial to the success of our long-term plans, I must reluctantly
conclude that it would be for the best that Number One not survive
the completion of Operation Cupid's Arrow."
Numbers Five, Six, and Twelve exchanged looks of barely-concealed
The Nameless One turned to Number Five. "I assume that you will
take all proper steps to see that these orders are carried out?"
"With pleasure," Five purred, tail twitching out from under his
robe. "In fact, with Number Twelve's cooperation, those steps are
already in motion."
"Excellent. Is there any dissent?" A look around the table revealed
general unanimity. "Very well, then. This Conclave is at an end."
The Nameless One returned to his Throne and watched as they all
filed out. When he was at last alone, he picked up a telephone
and punched in a long series of numbers.
"I just thought I'd let you know, it's done now," he said when
someone answered. "He was my best operative, but we can't have
loose cannons on deck... Yes, that should keep the factions occu-
pied as well, at least until I can bring some of them into our larger
plan. What? Yes, I suppose there's that chance, but Minions are
meant to be expendable, are they not? At any rate, you may tell
your superiors that all is proceeding to our satisfaction."
As he hung up the receiver, the Nameless One mumbled, "I swear
he sounds just like John Travolta..."