2017 Halloween Party
Summary:Gall gets Derik into a drinking contest with a Space Marine. He loses, of course. Meanwhile, the authors Ironic Overpower decides to throw all of Derik’s major traumas in his face. In the throes of sloppy, drunken oversharing, he manages to bond with Thoth. Gall does not help at all.
Timeline:Oct 22—Nov 16, 2017 (set Oct 31, 2017).
Rating:PG-13/T - Drunkenness, weapons-grade angst, and mildly self-destructive behavior.
Players: Neshomeh (Derik, Gall Knutson, and Jennifer Robinson)
Thoth (Tom Andrews and Thoth)
Iximaz (Alex Dives, Ix Saibhir, and Charlotte Webb)
Novastorme (Theo and Cinnabar)
The Host (The Host)
Notes:The events of this RP are canon as they pertain to Neshomeh’s and Thoth’s characters, but not Iximaz’s (not Ix and Charlotte, anyway). HQ is weird like that.

The PPC Halloween Party was just beginning to get underway. Agents mingled here and there, some sitting at tables and chatting over food, others milling around the room, dancing and admiring each other’s costumes. A long table full of sweets and snacks was set up along the back wall of the ballroom, and in the corner was a tub of apples floating in cold water. A cloud of live bats fluttered about the ceiling, à la Hogwarts, and spooky music oozed softly from speakers disguised as Jack-o’-lanterns set around the room.

Two men entered. . . . Although perhaps calling an 8-foot-tall bioengineered supersoldier a “man” is a bit misleading.

“Remind me, again, how I allowed myself to be convinced to do this,” said Thoth. His helmet was off, as usual, revealing a pale face and, surprisingly, a long beard. “It will take an eternity to strip this coat of paint from my armor, and growing this beard was . . . an unwise decision.”

Tom grinned, taking a swig of Coke. “You’re the one who can read minds. I just thought it would be funny. Which it is. Maybe you have more of a sense of humor than you say you do.”

Thoth’s face darkened. “Had you been there, you would perhaps not think it so funny. However, I allowed myself to be convinced: Perhaps you have a point. I shall reflect upon it after the end of this . . . ceremony.”

Tom frowned, adjusting his costume—red robes, the Mechanicum symbol, and a frankly excessive number of prosthetics. “Thoth, I am sorry for your loss. If it helps . . . don’t think of this as a ceremony. Think of it as an opportunity to mock your greatest enemies and longstanding rivals.’

The edges of Thoth’s lips twitched upwards, forming the beginnings of a smile. “Once again, you make a good point.” He adjusted the fur cloak hung over his armor, making visible the wolf icon inscribed on his pauldron, which was now grey-blue and yellow in contrast with its usual bright blue and gold. “Drinking contest, anyone?”

“I’ll take you up on that,” Theo said as he walked up to Thoth, giving the Space Marine a once over. “I could have sworn that that’s the colour of a Space Wolf though. Kudos to you for giving it a go.”

For his part Theo was dressed up in black trousers, with a red t-shirt that was covered by a black coat with red lining inside, black and red gloves covered both of his hands while an ornate white and red mask covered his eyes.[1] “Although I warn you, this stupid mask gives me less than ideal vision.”

“You’re one to talk about less than ideal vision,” Cinnabar said as she pushed through to where her partner was standing. She was wearing ornate red, black and gold robes with a heavy golden helmet on her head, rather thin eye-slots the only opening in it, meaning she had to remove it every time she wanted to eat or drink.[2] “I still don’t know how you convinced me to wear all of this.”

Thoth nodded. “It is indeed the armor and markings of a Space Wolf. Now, as for drinking . . .” he pulled out a large flask.

Tom sighed. “Thoth, you may be dressed as a Space Wolf, but you cannot kill your drinking partners.”

Thoth frowned, slightly. “But if we compete in the consumption of regular ale or a similar drink, I will most certainly win. The competition must be fair.”

“And if you give him that stuff, it won’t be!”

“A handicap then.” Thoth pointed towards the bar. “I drink the mjød, he drinks the ale.”

Tom shrugged. “Seems fair to me . . .”

“Tell me. Just how strong is this mjod?” Theo asked, aware he’d probably butchered how the drink was meant to be said. “It sounds like a decent drink for this competition. Regular ale may be good enough for one like you,” he tilted his head towards Tom, “but I’ve got a few tricks of my own up my sleeve.”

“It’s not a matter of your capacity to hold drink . . .” said Tom. “A full glass of mjød can kill the average man. The stuff is strong enough to get Space Marines drunk: that’s why Thoth here drinks it. Which means the toxins in it are potent enough to shut down or override an organ specifically designed to prevent such toxins from having an effect.”

Thoth turned to Tom. “You’ve drunken it before . . .”

Tom glared. “I’ve had sips. I had half a glass once and the next thing I knew it was three days later and I was in the medbay being fed Klatchian Coffee.” He shrugged. “But you’re welcome to try if you’ve got an exceptionally high tolerance.”

“Did someone say drinking contest?” A woman bounded up to the armored giant and grinned up at him. It was a long way up: although the Thanagarian hawk helm she wore granted her an extra few inches, in reality she was all of 5’4”. But she wasn’t in the habit of letting petty things like reality slow her down. “I like your style, brother,” she remarked. “You look like you could pose a challenge. I’m so in. And—” She turned around and shouted. “Derik! Come on!”

A Green Lantern with lacy scars extending above and below his domino mask on the right side pushed his way over and eyed the gathering skeptically. By the looks of the glass in his hand, he was already a leg up on thematic pumpkin spice ale. “This is a bad idea.”

“He’s in, too,” Gall chirruped sweetly. “You wouldn’t believe the way this man can drink when he’s got a mind.”

Tom shrugged. “All right, four contestants, I’ll be judging; anyone else joining?” said Tom. “In addition, do we give a handicap to the mortals?”

“I vote against,” said Thoth, earning him a glare from Tom.

“Too late for me,” said Derik. He polished off the last mouthful of his pumpkin ale. “I’ve already handicapped myself. Against most people, I’d say that was fair, but . . .” He eyeballed Thoth and shrugged. “I suppose a man must sometimes fight a losing battle if only to say he fought.” He stuck out his free hand to Tom. “Derik, by the way. My partner is Gall. Our response center is number 1110. If we both pass out, please make sure we get back there.”

Gall rolled her eyes. “Ugh, defeatist. Haven’t you ever heard the expression ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’?”

Tom nodded. “Hey Derik, Gall.” Tom shook Derik’s had firmly. “Tom, and my that’s partner Thoth. RC 65536+3i.”

He scratched his head. “Anyways, I guess we’re up for the first drink. For the mortals, mjød or regular?”

Gall grinned and filled her lungs.

“Oh, no,” Derik muttered.

She burst into song:

Drinking mead in the halls of Whiterun
The maidens and the men!—

“Gall, please, not this,” Derik groaned, but she ignored him.

We swig our brew
Until we spew
Then we fill our mugs again!

You can keep your filthy Skooma
It makes our bellies bleed
Cause when we raise our flagon
To another dead dragon
There is just one drink we need . . .


This was by way of being her answer to the question. Having not the slightest notion of what she was actually asking for, she held out a hand and beckoned eagerly. “Bring it on!”

“You know I hate that song,” growled Derik, ex-dragonrider of Pern. If looks could kill, Gall was lucky his expression was partially masked.

“Yeah, but you’re gonna drown your sorrows in booze anyway.” She turned back to Thoth. “Come on, jötunn, show me what you got.” She winked.

Tom shrugged. “’S your funeral. Take it in sips and you just might make it. Don’t gulp, and don’t get cocky. You’re pressuring your defects here—breaking down is inevitable.” He grinned. “Anyways, Thoth?”

Tom produced two glasses, and Thoth, giving a glare that could cut stone to Gall, poured some of the liquid into each. “I feel that you would work well with those I came dressed as. A pity then: I am not them. However, the necessity of Bleeproducts in our line of work means that I have learned to drink like them.” He casually took a glass and quickly downed it.

For a fraction of a moment, Gall’s brazen facade cracked. She held up her glass and swirled the dark, viscous fluid—more like petroleum or blood than beer or ale—around the bottom. The substance had a strong, chemical reek that made her cough, but she turned the reaction into a noise of derision. “You call this muck mead, do you? When this is over, I’ll introduce you to the real thing.”

“Gall . . .” Derik’s sense of caution broke through his anger. “Maybe you shouldn’t—”

“Shut up, Derik,” she snapped. She was committed, and there was no backing out now. With a deep breath to fortify herself, she locked eyes with Thoth and knocked back the whole shot.

It was fortunate that HQ was governed primarily by the Laws of Narrative Comedy, and by that token, what happened next was completely predictable: Gall shuddered and tried valiantly to hold on, but her stomach was smarter than she was. She convulsed, retched, and spewed the noxious brew right back up again, saving herself from committing suicide by stupidity. It was quite unfortunate to be standing in front of her.

Derik shook his head and patted her on the back while she hacked up the last drops of mjød. “On second thought, some fights aren’t worth fighting. I’ll stick to pumpkin spice ale.”

Tom sighed. “It’s ale, you know. Not mead. Not that it makes much of a difference with that stuff. Just be glad you hacked it up: I don’t have any Klatchian Coffee handy.” He produced some rags. “That’s for your mouth. Here, Thoth, take a few to wipe off your armor with. And don’t try to burn it off or anything: the smell will get everywhere.”

He turned to Derik. “Sorry about that. Anyways, I think I saw some of the spice ale at the table . . .” He went off and grabbed a glass. “There you go.”

Thoth frowned at Gall. “That was . . . an interesting decision.” He had managed to wipe most of the ale off of his armor . . . before burning the rest. Thankfully, the smell was minimal.

Gall snatched a rag from Tom’s hand. She took off her hawk helm, revealing a head of dark, wiry red hair plaited against her scalp, and mopped off her face. To Thoth’s comment, she replied hoarsely between heavy breaths: “I’m Gall Knutson, Fellrazer’s rider, of the Hairy Hooligan tribe. ‘Interesting’ is what we do. If by ‘interesting’ you mean brave, stubborn, and just a little bit insane.” She grinned—no hard feelings. As far as she was concerned, anyone who could outdrink or outfight the likes of herself was to be admired. “The hell are you made of, jötunn?”

Derik, meanwhile, sank his ale in a few steady gulps and slammed the glass down on a nearby table. “One. And, in good news, I think I just spied Nurse Robinson as the spitting image of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Maria Hill. I think she keeps Purple Stuff handy for occasions like this.”

Tom once again prepared two drinks. He handed one to Thoth—who once again downed it—and a considerably less horrific one to Derik.

Thoth nodded to Gall. “I am Thoth, of the XVth Legion Astartes, otherwise known as the Thousand Sons. I am—or was—the unwilling servant of the Architect of Fate, and have my origins in the Warhammer 40k continuum. My partner is Tom Andrews.”

Tom bowed. “Tom Andrews, computational demonologist, at your service. I’d tell you where I’m from, but then my brain would fry. It seems there was only so much DoSAT could do about that.”

Derik put away the second drink as easily as the first. “Two.”

Gall shook her head impatiently. “I didn’t ask for your life story, man, I asked what you’re made of that you can drink that rotgut. I’ve never felt a burn like that, and I ate some of Fellrazer’s Nightmare Gel on a dare once. Does being a Fifteenth Ass-whatsit do that for you?”

Derik, who knew that his partner’s hearing comprehension was excellent, cuffed the back of her head. “That’s not what he said and you know it.”

Tom grabbed some more drinks for Derik and Thoth.

Thoth took the next one just as easily as the first two: the glasses weren’t really that big, all things considered. “Three, I believe.”

He turned to Gall. “I am,” he said, “One of the Adeptus Astartes, the Angels of Death. Sometimes known as Space Marines. When I was a boy, I was selected as a candidate, tried, and eventually inducted into the ranks of the Thousand Sons. I was upgraded, artificial organs inserted into my body, its chemistry altered, my mind conditioned. All to transform me into one of the most fierce warriors mankind has ever known.”

He sighed. “One of the side effects of the process is that this rotgut, as you call it, is one of the few things capable of actually getting me drunk, or getting any sort of toxin into my blood: On missions, I carry an alcohol-substitute version with Bleeprin inside it. It is the only way that the Bleep works on me.”

Gall considered the implications of this. “This sounds like one of those stories where the gods offer you something awesome, but then screw you when your back’s turned,” she said, looking Thoth up and down. “See, the way I figure, there’s three things that make life worth living, and that’s drinking, fighting, and fu—”

Derik finished his third drink and let off a resonant belch. He didn’t look sorry about it, either.

Gall went on: “So what I’m wondering is, to be the best at one, did you have to give up both the other two?”

Thoth took his fourth glass. “Thanks to mjød, we did not have to give up two of them,” he said. “Not that I ever drank anything but wine before coming here. It was still a worthwhile trade.” Thoth’s cheeks were slightly redder, but other than that, he seemed to be entirely functional.

“As for the third . . . the hypno-doctrination took care of that. The requisite equipment is still there, but the urges have been . . . largely repressed. They no longer serve any function.”

“You didn’t have to answer that,” Derik said. He, too, was sporting a flush by now, which made the pale scars on his right cheek stand out even more. He shook his head and chuckled at his partner’s aghast expression. “It isn’t as though it could have worked out either way, you know.” He held up one hand at Gall’s head-height, then raised his arm as far as it would go to indicate Thoth’s.

“Oh yeah?” Gall stuck out her right arm. On her wrist, she wore a device that looked a bit like a watch, but had a curious ring around the outside of the face.

Derik blinked, then groaned in comprehension and checked himself out of explaining by finally drinking his fourth ale.

“See,” said Gall, “I got this handy bit of tech that lets me shrink my dragon so he fits in the RC. But it works the other way, too.” She waggled her eyebrows. “So, jötunn, if you ever wanna get un-repressed, I’m your girl.”

“I’ll have the next drink quickly, please,” Derik said grimly to Tom. He cast Thoth a baleful look through his one functioning eye. “You don’t agree with her, though, do you? Those things are not what makes life worthwhile. It’s duty, loyalty, joy . . . and if all else fails, just duty.”

Tom nodded. “I might want one as well, actually . . .” He grabbed some more alcohol.

“Yes,” said Thoth, softly. “Duty.” He downed his drink, with noticeable haste. “Knowledge. Understanding. That is what makes life worth living. There is no higher calling then the pursuit of knowledge. If I am to be a criminal, then that is my crime.” It appeared he wasn’t exactly talking to those around him.

Finally, his eyes focused on Gall. “I have no interest in your offer. And I do not think that you do either. Not for me. For the man whose paint I wear tonight, perhaps.”

Derik also chugged drink five in a hurry. Though for him it was actually five plus one, and the world was starting to feel decidedly fuzzy around the edges.

Gall folded her arms. “Well, can you put me in touch with that guy, then? Thor’s beard, why are all the really buff dudes around here either taken or too messed up to appreciate what’s in front of them?” Here she shot a resentful glare at Derik.

He slammed the latest glass down slightly harder than was rational. “You try being enthralled to a Mary Sue and losing everything that mattered, then see how you feel,” he growled, then shook himself and turned to the other two. “Sorry. She does this on purpose. No empathy, this one, none at all. Knowledge is good,” he went on, “knowledge is vastly preferable to ignorance, but without the wisdom to use it as it ought, that’s how we end up in these situations.” He waved a hand, indicating Headquarters and everyone in it.

Tom backed away.

Thoth grabbed the next glass forcefully, pouring it down his throat. “I suppose I could. The next time the chance comes up, I could recruit one of them. And I could introduce you to one of the hypocrites who came down to slaughter my people, destroying my home, murdering countless civilians, helping to consign me and my brothers to the service of a mad god for over 10,000 years.” The words came out bitter and forced. His voice lowered as he turned to Derik. “You don’t need to tell me about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The blood upon my hands and the hands of my brothers taught me that well enough.”

Gall followed Tom’s lead, muttering, “Jeez, it was a rhetorical question . . .”

Faced with drink six plus one and rapidly taking up the previous ones, Derik groggily weighed the merits of his options and decided, based on experience, that he’d reached the limits of his tolerance, so there was no point in risking death on something as stupid as this contest. Instead, he lurched forward and put a clutching hand on Thoth’s vambrace. All dragonriders had some latent empathic Talent, and Derik’s was enough to widen the scope of his anger to encompass them both.

“I think we’re the same,” he said. “Or similar. The universe is cruel—it takes everything, and it makes you keep going anyway, even when you’re not sure who you are anymore, or what’s the point. We should talk . . . sometime we’re not both extremely drunk. Or when I’m not. I don’t know about you. Oh, by the way, you win.” He nodded solemnly and belched some more. “And I will never drink anything pumpkin spice again, because it is vile when it repeats on you.”

Thoth bowed his head. “I am somewhat drunk myself. I appreciate both your competition, and your spirit. I shall keep your words in mind.”

Tom returned, clutching a bottle of Coke. “Well, I’m glad that’s sorted. It was a pleasure to . . . erm, not drink with you.”

Before Derik could reply, he was distracted by the arrival of a newcomer in a dark blue S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuit. She’d taken advantage of Tom’s slipstream to make her way to them through the crowd. “Is everything all right over here?” she said, taking in the scene with a pair of concerned green eyes. “I thought I heard—oh, Derik. Again?”

“Jenni!” Derik’s expression had lit in recognition, but just as quickly collapsed back into the intense concentration it was now taking to string words together. “Thoth. Tom. This is Jenni—Nurse Robinson. She recruited me, but it’s not her fault. What happened, it’s not her fault. I have given it a lot of thought, and it was the Suvians, not her. She’s good. She understands what it’s like, and she’s the only one who does, because she’s been there. Sort of.” He looked to Jenni. “You tell him.”

Jenni, looking mortified with guilt no matter what Derik said, shook her head. “Derik, why don’t you let go of this fellow and come with me for a minute?” She evaluated him again. “. . . You’re clinging for dear life, aren’t you? Can you walk on your own?”

“Ah.” Derik looked down at himself, considering. “No, I don’t think so. Sorry,” he said to Thoth, swaying as he tilted his head up.

Jenni sighed and turned to Tom. “Make yourself useful and find a chair, would you?”

Tom grabbed a chair for Derik. “Terribly sorry,” he said. “This was partly my fault . . .”

Meanwhile, Thoth fixed the nurse with a level gaze. “You are not an ordinary mortal. Not one who has a gift, as Derik does. Who and what are you?”

At the sound of those words, Tom pulled out his phone, pointing it at Jenni. “Yeah . . . that’s not normal. Nothing OFCUT can recognize, but not normal.” He sighed. “I really need to get around to making the OFCUT scanner more useful . . .”

Jenni raised an eyebrow at their scrutiny. “Nice to meet you, too,” she quipped.

She held off responding further in favor of pulling Derik’s free arm across her shoulders and easing him off Thoth and down onto the chair. He was significantly larger and heavier than her, but she was experienced at this sort of thing. “Come on, hon . . . there you go. Don’t go falling off, all right?”

He nodded, and she briefly cupped the unscarred left side of his face before straightening up and facing the others.

“My name,” she said, “is Jennifer Robinson, and I’m a nurse in the Department of Fictional Psychology. That ought to cover the who. As for the what, since you’ve been so blunt as to ask, I tend to favor the term ‘PTB’—Powers That Be, which doesn’t have a good singular form. Satisfied?” She folded her arms.

Thoth nodded. “I am not satisfied, but the answer is acceptable for now,” he said.

Tom scratched his head. “Powers That Be . . . that rings a bell. Would you happen to be a House Denizen or a Seemsian?” He shrugged, and busied himself helping the nurse with Derik.

“It’s a fairly common term,” Jenni said. She eyed Tom’s phone guardedly, but forced a half-smile. “I wasn’t expecting some sort of Spanish Inquisition.”

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Derik slurred loudly. It was widely held that one was not a proper PPC agent until one could quote Monty Python at the drop of a hat, so he’d learned.

“Thank you, dear.” Jenni patted his shoulder.

At that point, Gall returned to the group carrying a plate piled high with snacks, acting like nothing odd had happened. “So I grabbed a bunch of pretzels—oh, hey, Green-eyes—and anything else that looked bready or greasy,” she told Derik. “I don’t want to drag your unconscious ass back to the RC if I don’t have to, so eat.” She stuffed a deviled egg into her own mouth and put the plate in his lap. “You lot can get your own,” she said to Tom and Thoth, though if they understood her it would be quite the feat.

Tom shrugged again. “All right. Once again, I must offer my apologies.”

Thoth looked at Gall and Derik, his brow furrowing slightly. “It occurs to me that I have yet to ask you about your home continua. I could, of course, extract the information forcibly, but I have been informed that such acts tend to . . . upset people. I would prefer to be allowed remain here if possible.”

Jenni nodded acceptance at Tom, then chuckled drily at Thoth’s “upset people” remark. “Boy, that’s an understatement.” She felt it better to leave unsaid that she would personally smack down anyone intruding into her friends’ minds on her watch, but she kept a discreet eye on Thoth. She was even in the right costume for defending people from dangerous metahumans and aliens. How convenient.

“Dude, didn’t anyone tell you not to say creepy stuff about forcible extraction, either?” Gall asked, more amused than alarmed. “You can just ask. Most people won’t explode if they tell you.” She gave Tom a flat, skeptical look, letting him know she hadn’t forgotten his weird remark, either. “Fer instance, I’m from the How to Train Your Dragon ’verse. Three guesses what we spend most of our time on these days. First two don’t count.”

Thoth nodded. “I believe I am aware of that continuum.” He turned to Tom. “Did you not read it?”

“I did!” Tom said brightly. “Quite entertaining. A tad disappointed with the film, but it was decent as well.” He turned to Derik. “You then? If you’re still capable of telling us, that is. I’d tell you mine, but . . . well, I already mentioned: bound by geas, if I tell you my brain probably starts fizzing.” He frowned. “Oh, and don’t worry about Thoth. He hasn’t tried to read anyone’s mind since . . . well, the point is, don’t worry.”

Gall planted a fist on her hip. “I’m from the filmverse, and it’s awesome. It’s not just one movie, either, it’s two going on three, and a show, too!”

“Technically,” Derik put in, stumbling over the long word a bit, “you’re from a badfic in the filmverse. I should know—I recruited you. And I’ve regretted it ever since.” He was obediently doing his best to consume some ballast to the booze in his stomach, but it was slow going.

“I love you, too,” Gall sneered.

“I don’t regret it,” he rambled on, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction, “but you’re a constant reminder, you know. You and Fellrazer.” He swung his gaze up to Thoth. “Bleeprin doesn’t work for me,” he said, “because the memories that hurt so much are the good ones. I can only forget those when I’m unconscious, so that’s why I drink like this.” He said this matter-of-factly, as though relating a simple universal constant.

Jenni, however, looked pained on his behalf. She squeezed his shoulder again and filled in softly: “Dragonriders of Pern continuum. Know it?”

Tom squinted. “Heard of it, vaguely. It’s on my to-read list. I mean, from what I can tell, it looks good . . .”

Thoth looked down at Derik. “I can understand. I too have things that I would . . . rather forget. I did not become who and what I am with minimal pain. Those are not good memories, but I cannot be rid of them. I would cease to be.”

Jenni nodded. “For is it not written, ‘I need my pain’? Kirk, James T., Star Trek V.”

She glanced down at Derik, who’d sagged in his seat and turned away to stare into the middle distance. Pressing her lips together, she resolved to speak further. “On the other hand, Sybok had a point about dragging it out into the light. What you need to know about Pern,” she said, returning to the point, “is that the dragonriders have an indelible telepathic bond with their dragons from the moment of Impression at the dragon’s hatching until death. A total sharing of the psyche—a constant companion who knows the depths of your soul and loves you unconditionally. There’s nothing else like it. Nothing comes close.” Tears welled in her eyes, and she blinked them away. “If that bond is broken, it shatters you. Riders rarely survive the death of their dragon, and even if they do, they’re never whole again.”

“Then there’s the whole freaky Phantom of the Opera thing,” Gall added, swiping a couple of chocolate-covered pretzels, decorated like bats, and crunching loudly. “Don’t forget that.”

Tom looked down. “Gods and demons . . . Derik, I’m sorry. We’ve all lost friends, but . . . I couldn’t imagine . . .” He trailed off.

Thoth merely stood silently. His focus didn’t seem to be on the world around him, or anywhere close.

“Don’t do that.” Derik swung around to glare at Tom. “Don’t be sorry.” He sneered the word. “Nobody be sorry for me.”

“I’m not!” Gall chirped.

Jenni shot her an angry look, but this went ignored.

Thank you,” Derik said profoundly, flourishing an arm in imitation of a bow to his partner. “That’s what I like about you. You’re rude, and annoying, and selfish—but you’re not sorry. And you brought me food. . . . What is this?” He held up something that looked like a cocktail wiener, but its sauce had somehow been turned a noxious shade of green.

“Um, I think the sign said ‘Alien Guts’? Gimme one.” The two of them bent over the plate.

Jenni shook her head, gave a sniff to clear her sinuses, and took a step toward Tom and Thoth. She couldn’t help but observe the Astartes’ withdrawn silence, and the nurse knew trauma when she saw it. Her work was never done. “Hey, big fella.” She gently rapped a knuckle against the back of his armored hand. “You want a turn in the sharing circle?”

Tom looked down. “All right, then. I won’t be sorry.” He shrugged, and turned to Thoth. “Do you want to tell her?”

Thoth shrugged. “She will find out sooner or later if she really wants to, anyway.” He turned to the nurse. “The fifteenth legion’s story is not a happy one, and our doom was neither quick nor painless. We were accused of sorcery, the Wolves sent to our world to bring us back. As to whether the judgement were just . . . that is not for me to say.”

“The orders were changed, telling the Wolves to destroy us. Our own primarch found the judgement just. He did not inform us of what was coming, lowered our defenses.” He looked down again. “We tried to fight back. At first, it went well. But they had brought the Sisters of Silence with them. And as the battle wore on . . . more and more of my brothers succumbed to our defects.”

“They called it the flesh-change. A menace accentuated by our psychic talents. Those who succumbed became . . . something I’d rather not think about. Death was preferable. And as our city burned and our brethren and citizens lay slaughtered in the streets . . . our primarch made a pact to save us. A pact that gave us our lives, but cost us our pride and our freedom. We were taken to a new world, our powers amplified—and we had become servants of the Architect of Fate, choice or no.”

Thoth looked down. “As the flesh-change grew worse . . . a group of us made an attempt to fix it. They failed, the ritual going horrifyingly awry. Most of our number were turned to dust, their souls fractured and trapped within their armor, becoming little more than mindless automatons, doomed to eternal torment.” He looked back up, still seemingly distant. “I saw my brothers fall around me, cursed to a fate worse than death. A fate I myself narrowly escaped. That is what happened to me.”

A soft sound arose. The lament was Celtic in flavor, each high, mournful note unspooling with aching slowness from the throat of the man singing:

The tears I feel today
I’ll wait to shed tomorrow,
Though I’ll not sleep this night
Nor find surcease from sorrow.
My eyes must keep their sight;
I dare not be tear-blinded.
I must be free to speak
Not choked with grief, clear-minded.
My tongue cannot betray
The anguish that I know.
||: I’ll keep my tears till later;
But my grief will never go. :||[4]

Derik could rarely bring himself to sing anymore, but he still had a clear, near-perfect upper register. Even off-kilter as he was now, with his sound further disturbed by the ambient Halloween music in the room, it was an uncommon soul that could fail to be moved by it. Even Gall listened quietly, her expression slack.

“For your brothers,” said Derik. “For Skepnadth. And for us.” He looked around and chuckled. “Normally someone would offer a toast at this point, but I’m already toasted!”

Gall rewarded him for the terrible joke with a punch on the shoulder. “You maniac. Eat your, uh, I think that blob thing is ‘Fried Ecto Cooler’.”

For the moment, Jenni stood quietly, contemplating.

Thoth simply nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

Tom turned to look at Gall, his face displaying a horrified expression. “They fried Ecto Cooler? Good god, that’s horrifying. What will they do next? Dip Doritos in Mountain Dew?”

Derik and Gall shared a look and each took a piece.

Gall broke hers open and made a revolted face at the gooey, neon green innards. “Ugh, it looks like Fellrazer’s poop.”

Her being her, she didn’t hesitate to put it in her mouth anyway. Derik was right behind her, and they reacted with near-identical sour faces.

“It’s so sweet . . . gack.” Derik coughed on the acidic lime fumes in his throat. “Why?”

Gall laughed. “Oh, gods, what is this even supposed to be? It’s so gross! Forget what I said earlier; you have to try this.” She thrust a greenish fritter at Tom.

Despite being momentarily distracted by the others’ antics, Jenni had kept most of her attention on Thoth, and now she spoke up. “Do you still worry about . . . the flesh-change?” It was a term she was uncomfortable having on her tongue, evoking nightmarish Akira-esque images even without context. She knew the power of names, and agreed that this was one best invoked as little as possible. Yet she had to ask. “Are you afraid that could still happen to you?” This was a two-pronged concern: one for the man himself, one for everyone around him.

“Aw, Jenni, you’re not picking everyone’s brains, are you?” A blond boy dressed as a dragonrider, accompanied by a blue fire-lizard perched on his shoulder, approached, munching on one of the same green fritters. “This is supposed to be a party, not a therapy session.” Alex shoved the rest of the pastry in his mouth, cheeks bulging, and he held up his fingers for Zeke to lick.

“I am curious, I admit . . .” Tom said. He tried a piece of the fried drink. Then he grabbed his Coke, and began gulping furiously. “That . . . that was worse than I expected.”

Thoth turned to Jenni. “No, I am not. For those of us who survived the ritual, it did, in fact, serve its purpose. I am stable.”

“And a great relief it is to the rest of us, too,” said Tom, finally recovered. He turned to the newcomer. “Ah! ’Allo! Who’re you?”

Jenni gave a little sigh, relaxing. “Okay, good,” she said. “There might have been something I could do, but the red tape alone would’ve been a challenge.”

When Alex arrived, Derik took one look at him and froze in place like a hunted animal. His mood had been lightened somewhat by the cleansing act of commiserating with a brother-in-spirit, but it abruptly blackened. He said nothing.

“Alex,” Jenni greeted him. “They started it, not me.”

“I’m sure they did,” Alex said.

Zeke lifted off his shoulder and flew over to Jenni, chirping happily.

Alex turned to Tom. “Alex Dives, DoSAT,” he said, and jerked a thumb at the fire-lizard. “And the little guy is Zeke. He’s generally pretty friendly, but he’ll bite your fingers if they smell good.”

Zeke turned his head to Derik, eyes whirling with shades of green and blue.

Tom reached out his hand to shake. “They almost put me in DoSAT! Then they decided not to. Something about ‘danger to fellow agents,’ or whatever.” He shrugged.

Thoth, meanwhile, was staring intently at Alex, trying to discern why he had such an effect on Derik.

“Hi, Zeke!” Jenni smiled widely despite herself and held out her forearm so the little blue could perch. “Not eating too much junk tonight, I hope?” She rubbed his eye-ridges with one finger and let him feel her affection.

Following the fire-lizard’s gaze, her heart sank. “Leave him be, little one,” she murmured, and turned to put her body in their line of sight.

“It’s fine,” Derik growled, turning away himself and handing the half-full plate of snacks off to Gall. “’S time I left anyway—it’s a party, after all. I’ve dragged it down long enough.” He pushed himself up with one hand on the back of the chair, and it was a good thing, too, because he swayed on his feet and nearly collapsed as it was.

Gall snorted. “Nice try, buddy. Sit back down! Don’t let an ugly, soft little runt like him—eep!”

Derik jerked her forward with his fingers down the neck of her breastplate. The snacks went flying.

The ex-rider snarled in her face, “Do not. Insult. Dragonkin. In front. Of. Me.”

“Whoa, hey, it’s fine!” Alex stepped forward, putting a hesitant hand on Derik’s shoulder. “I mean, he was the runt of his litter. Hatching? Thing?” He swallowed; though he was tall, both Derik and Gall were obviously stronger than he was, and he didn’t want to get between them if they started trading blows.

Thoth stepped forward and placed his hand upon Derik’s back. “I would not suggest this course of action. And I think you would regret it.”

Meanwhile, Tom walked over to the dragon. “Hi, Zeke!” he said. He gently stroked the beast. “Aww . . . He’s adorable!”

Jenni watched anxiously over her shoulder as the scene played out.

At Alex’s touch, Derik jerked and likely would have lashed out at the boy whose every aspect seemed calculated to mock him, but then Thoth was at his back, deep voice rumbling in his ears and his bones. He went still.

Gall took the opportunity to wrench his hand away and step back, glaring. “Do that to me again and I will kick your Spandexed butt, got it?”

Derik shuddered, his muscles shedding their combative tension, and straightened up—well, more or less. He reeled backward, and was rather grateful for support at that moment. “I—I apologize, everyone. I shouldn’t—it’s not his fault.” He gestured vaguely at Alex. “It’s not your fault.” And at Gall. “Most of all, not the little cousin’s fault. I’m sorry.” He hid his face behind one hand.

Surprised and relieved not to be the one controlling the situation for a change, Jenni had done her best to keep Zeke calm throughout. Now she felt up for responding to Tom’s interest. “He’s a Pernese fire-lizard,” she explained. “Genetic forebears of the dragons. Zeke’s two, so he’s fully mature, or just about.”

Zeke crooned happily. The little blue puffed his chest out proudly.

“You all right?” Alex asked Derik anxiously. “I, um. I can leave, if you’d feel more comfortable.” He whistled, and Zeke took off to land on his shoulder once more.

“Cool!” said Tom. He peered at Zeke enthusiastically. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dragon or a fire-lizard before . . .” He turned to Alex. “What do you feed him?”

Thoth kept his hand on Derik. “Perhaps you should sit. You seem to be slightly unstable. If you wish, you may tell me your tale.”

“Shrimp and mussels, mostly.” Alex made a face. “Stinks up my RC to high heaven. It’s awful. I give him bits of my own food as a treat, sometimes.” He tickled Zeke’s eyebrow ridges, and the blue crooned. “They nest near the beach in their home continuum, so lots of fish. I can’t stand the stuff, personally.”

“Oh, all right.” With a sigh of capitulation, Derik sank down onto the seat again. He glanced at Alex, but since he’d gone off in conversation with Tom, there wasn’t much point in saying anything to him. It was fine. Fine. He took off his green domino mask and rubbed his face, particularly the scarred right side. With the mask off, it was easier to distinguish the blind milky-blue eye from the functioning hazel one, slightly bloodshot. “My tale, my tale,” he muttered to himself. “Does it start at the beginning, or the end? There are things I remember that never happened, but they did; things that weren’t true, but are. Jenni—” he turned toward her “—how should I start it?”

“You could start when we met, I think,” she said, drifting closer. Having been there, she had never heard him speak fully of his recruitment, and she was curious to hear his account.

He nodded. “Yes. Yes, that’s fine.” He looked up, not at anyone in particular, but into the distance of remembrance. “It was the Hatching. Alanna and I were on the hot sands with Yunith and my Skepnadth, watching over the eggs. It was a proud clutch! But they always were—with such parents, how could they be anything but? What a pair! Yunith, living statue of pure gold; Skepnadth, night-black marbled with bronze. Which he shouldn’t have been.” Derik’s brow creased. “There are five colors, not . . . but . . .” He shook his head. “But there we were. There was a queen egg, even though all the Weyrs had a full complement, and a particularly large one at that. At the time my only concern was finding a match for her, but Alanna had everything well in hand—she usually did.” His mouth twisted with bitterness. “I remember holding her that day . . . tall, beautiful, proud. Her hand on my shoulder.” He reached up to touch the spot. “She was mine. I loved her. Nothing else mattered.” He lapsed into silence.

“That was when I saw you,” Jenni put in. “I was there in the viewing gallery with Agents Supernumerary and Ilraen. Oh, I was so angry!”

“Yes, and you made a commotion. I remember that. Everyone looked, and I saw three harpers I didn’t know, but I thought nothing of it. I thought nothing much of anything. The four new candidates had come up to us, bowing quite prettily to the sires of the clutch, and Alanna kept the girls near us, near the queen egg. These four had been Searched at the last moment by Yunith herself, a thing unprecedented in the history of Pern. Travelers from another world—but it wasn’t the first time we’d had such.”

Jenni explained, “It was a crossover with Harry Potter. He’s talking about Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny; they’d transported themselves over in a magical accident. Sirius Black and an OC called Roma Lupin were already there. Sirius got there after falling through the Veil. I still have no idea how Roma was supposed to have arrived. They’d both Impressed somehow, even though Sirius at least must have been too old.” She shook her head, still irritated by the idiocy of that fic.

“The four newcomers shortly did, too,” Derik went on. “That’s too much to tell, but suffice to say I now know it was utter nonsense, every moment of it. I mean,” he chuckled, “honestly, the rattlesnake-hide bronze. We don’t have rattlesnakes on Pern! And there I stood, smiling like an idiot, at least until the gold egg hatched out a little green-gold sport from one end. That was a shocker even then. But Alanna felt she might clutch like a gold, so we decided to train her up as a junior queen, and all was well again. The egg hatched a proper gold from the other half—I say proper, though she wasn’t really. Shards, looking back on it I feel like such a benighted fool.” He leaned back and sank down in the chair, looking away. “I had two eyes then—how could I not have seen it was all wrong? I was a harper, I knew all the teaching ballads, I—”

“Derik, hush,” Jenni said gently. “You were never at fault. That was why I had to get you out of there.”

He thought a moment, then picked up the narrative again. “Before the Hatching Feast, Skepnadth and I decided to look in on Yunith, make sure she’d eaten and was resting well. A queen doesn’t leave her clutch when it’s near to hatching, so she fasts until it’s over,” he explained. “She had returned to her weyr, and Skepnadth went up ahead of me. He told me two strangers was there, bothering her. I came up the stairs in a hurry, and there was this woman.” He indicated Jenni. “Something was odd about her, but neither of us could place it. We went down to the Bowl to avoid disturbing the dragons any further, and she opened my eyes. She reminded me of everything I should have known, but couldn’t think of for the fog in my head. She told me what was really happening. Mary Sues—a blight on the universe worse than Thread. Eaters of living ideas, was that what you said?”

Jenni nodded. “Leaving behind only the shiny dead bits to decorate themselves.”

“I was one of those,” Derik said. “An ornament. An affectation. Not even my name and face were my own!” He leveled a resentful look at Jenni. “You didn’t care about me for myself—you cared about him.”

She flushed guiltily. “To begin with, maybe. But it was a dragonman I had to win over, not a Phantom. Erik would have been easier to convince.”

“I’m not him. I’m not, I’m not.”

“I know, hon. We all know.”

“Well, mostly,” Gall said dubiously. She’d never heard the whole story, either, so she’d hung around to listen.

Jenni shot her a repressive look.

“You haven’t seen what I’ve seen,” the Viking protested, but she shut up again.

“The point is,” Derik cut back in, raising his voice somewhat more than necessary, “my whole life was a lie, and my only choices were to stay an ignorant thrall and die, or to give up everything I thought I knew and live to find some other purpose for myself and my dragon. I chose the latter, because it was my duty to Pern. Because dragonmen must fly when Threads are in the sky. So I said I would help save Pern from Alanna and the rest.” His tone was agitated, self-mocking. “So that’s what I set out to do. I went to the Hatching Feast, like I was supposed to. I sat beside her, and I watched, and I waited. The plan was—ah, it went so wrong.” He hunched forward, covering his face with both hands. “It never should have come to dragons fighting dragons, but Alanna—Yunith—they went wild. I tried to stop it, we both did.” His shoulders shuddered. “He was so brave. My fine bronze. And she killed him. Yunith, his mate, attacked him like a wild feline.

“Ilraen—Ilraen had become a gold dragon himself to keep the Weyr under control, that was the plan, but he couldn’t control the morph quickly enough. You can’t have a dragon without a rider, it’s not possible. He tried to save Skepnadth, but by the time he killed Yunith and the rest of the Sues were under control, it was too late. At least . . . at least I got to say good-bye before he went between.”

Thoth bowed his head. “I am sorry for your loss. I do not know your pain. I cannot. But I can remember your story. We can learn from it. And the dead can be remembered. We cannot do more. We should not do less.”

Tom looked at them. He scratched his head. “You know, I’ve never really seen Thoth like this . . .”

“Oh. Oh, god.” Alex looked like he wanted to sink through the floor and disappear. “Derik, I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t have—” he gestured at his costume, his face red “—if I’d known, and I . . . oh, god.”

Zeke, his eyes whirling violet, dug his claws into Alex’s shoulder, making small chirps of distress.

“I’m just gonna . . .” Alex gestured awkwardly away from the group before shuffling off.

Derik raised his eyes. “Those are good words . . . very good words. Thank you, Thoth.”

Gall grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “get a room,” though not so loud that she thought anyone would notice. She thought about taking off in Alex’s wake, but didn’t. She was learning things. Uncomfortable, mushy things, but things might be worth knowing anyway.

Jenni wanted to say something to Alex, but what was she going to say? It was all right? It wasn’t. She decided to catch up with him another time and make sure he was okay. For now, she did her best to pretend she wasn’t quietly weeping, and tilted her head inquisitively at Tom.

Tom shrugged. “He’s usually a lot . . . colder. Very distant. Not so much right now. Maybe it’s the alcohol.”

Thoth nodded at Derik. “I am glad that I could assist. Thank you for telling me your tale.”

Jenni nodded thoughtfully. “It’s funny,” she said. “Usually I’m the one having that effect on people. But I could never draw Derik out like this, either. I think it’s the similar betrayal and bereavement . . . and drink.”

“I can hear you, you know,” said Derik, looking at her from under his brows. “I’m drunk, not deaf.”

She jumped. “Er. Sorry.”

He rolled his eyes and turned back to Thoth. “There’s more, if you want to know. Less awful—almost funny, really. D’you want to know how I lost my eye twice in one day?”

Thoth shrugged, which looked odd when a Space Marine did it. “That may be an interesting story. I would listen, if you wish to tell.”

Tom looked at Derik curiously. “Actually, that sounds really interesting.”

Ix wandered past at that point. Well, for a certain definition of wandered; she was skirting the outside edge of the group, hoping to stay out of everyone’s way, but she froze, ears pricked when she heard Derik mention losing an eye twice.

Derik happened to look her way. He took in the cape, the rose, the white half-mask on the wrong side. For a moment, his frazzled limbic system tried to react in every conceivable way at once, and he sat still with his face contorting in a muddle of expressions. Then he gave in to the absurdity of his existence and laughed. It went on for a while, strident and hair-raising, and abruptly trailed off into a rich chuckle. “Oh, this is perfect! An admirer of Himself! Come on, then, you’ll want to hear this, too.” He waved her into the circle.

“Wow. Your timing sucks,” Gall observed with something like admiration.

Tom nodded. “’Allo Ix! Welcome. No need to be shy.” He sipped his Coke. “Or feel free. Everyone else is.”

Ix swallowed, but inched closer. She didn’t like the man’s laughter at all, but who was she to disobey a direct order like that?

“Hear what?” she asked, eyes flickering to the other people in the group.

Derik grinned. It was a disturbing expression on his face at the best of times, distorted as his mouth was on one side, and his tear-damp, splotchy cheeks and bloodshot eyes didn’t help. Nor did the fact that what he felt wasn’t happiness, but a fatalistic sense of irony. “I was just about to finish the story of my recruitment,” he said. “I was going to skip a certain part, but now I simply can’t.”

He cleared his throat, which was starting to feel a little dry with all this talking, and began. “Jenni tells me I lay in a catatonic state for roughly a month after she brought me back here, willing myself to die. You see I didn’t manage it, even though I didn’t have quite the best of care. Headquarters was in the midst of a quarantine thanks to an epidemic of macroviruses, and FicPsych’s resources were stretched thin. They had to consolidate their patients in order to protect them. Am I telling it true?” he asked, checking with the nurse.

She nodded, keeping a wary eye on him and Ix. “True. And my bosses still wouldn’t let me near you most of the time.” She would always resent that, even if there were good reasons for it.

“So it was,” Derik went on, “that I was finally roused thanks to the intervention of my erstwhile roommate. The first thing I remember clearly is looking up into the yellow eyes of a man in a full black mask. My ontological progenitor—and yours for the night,” he added to Ix, grinning some more. “Erik. The Phantom of the Opera!”

The Halloween soundtrack obligingly filled the pregnant pause with a roll of thunder and some eerie organ music.

Gall flinched and looked around in irritation and real unease. “Jeez, every time!”

Jenni just facepalmed.

“Oh, he had words for me!” Derik chuckled. “Called me ‘impostor’, accused me of trying to usurp his identity despite not knowing pain as he did. Hah! That made me angry. I felt something for the first time in weeks, and it was anger. I set him straight, and I invited him to kill me as he’d threatened to do. We understood each other then, a pair of scarred, broken souls, alike but unlike, and the bastard let me live. He left, but not before telling me I had a chance to make a new life for myself, and that I’d be a fool not to take it. If you’ve never heard his voice, you don’t know what it’s like, but you can’t shut it out. It invades you, it gets its hooks in your brain. That voice haunts me. Sometimes it sounds a lot like my own. One more form of torment I can’t seem to escape.” He glanced at Ix then, but just as quickly looked away again.

Ix’s mouth had gone quite dry. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Derik was mad at her. He just seemed so . . . different from the person who had been so kind to her over messages.

It didn’t exactly help her nerves when the soundtrack thundered ominously at the worst possible time. She just hoped nobody had noticed her jump.

“How—” she began, then cleared her throat when her voice was barely above a hoarse whisper. “How did a canon get in HQ?”

Thoth merely watched Derik, a serious expression on his face.

Tom looked at Ix. “Come to think of it, good question. How DID a canon get in?”

Derik blinked at them in confusion. “This was in FicPsych,” he said. “Did I not mention that?” He looked at Jenni. “You lot still take in canons for healing, don’t you?”

“Of course.” She gave a little huff of wry humor. “When anyone bothers to bring them in.”

“Oh. Right, I should’ve guessed.” Ix laughed nervously, feeling sweat drip down inside her mask, tickling her cheek. Her face twitched, and she delicately reached inside with a finger to scratch at the irritation, only to yelp when the motion proved enough to dislodge the sticking charm she’d used to hold it in place; the mask fell to the ground and cracked in two.

She looked up at everyone else and blanched, one hand scrabbling for the pieces while the other came up to cover her face. “I, um, um, that’s, um, FicPsych, yes, that makes sense, that, um—”

“. . . Wait a minute.” Derik shook his head as though unsure if he were seeing clearly. Alas, his vision was not the problem. A bit of his right brain had been kicking him for the last few minutes, and he finally understood why. He knew this person. They just hadn’t met in person before. She was shy, or so he’d been led to believe.

A random stranger turning up in a Phantom mask? Fine. The universe hated him. Hilarious.

Someone he knew and aspired to mentor, turning up in a Phantom mask, and seeing him like this? He wasn’t sure if he felt more betrayed or more ashamed.

He tried vainly to sit up straighter and school his affect to respectability, but he couldn’t quite keep a petulant note of accusation from his voice: “Ix? What are you doing here?” He wondered if another drink would be entirely out of the question.

“I was . . . I was just . . .” Ix finally managed to snatch up the pieces of the mask and repair them with her wand, quickly shoving it back onto her very red face. “Charlotte—my partner—she wanted to come a-and she thought this would be a good costume for me—I didn’t realize, I, I—” She realized she was starting to hyperventilate and forced herself to take several deep breaths. “I’m sorry.”

Tom simply nodded. “’S all right, Ix. I think.” He turned to Derik. “It is all right, isn’t it? She couldn’t have known.”

Derik nodded back. “Right. No, you’re right.” Shame had won out. He raked his fingers up through his hair, which had been gelled down for the occasion, and thus he succeeded only in making himself look even more disheveled. “I am being very self-indulgent, Ix,” he said with the profound solemnity of the very drunk. “Very selfish. I—I didn’t want you to know me like this.” He fidgeted, growing agitated again, and mumbled: “I should, um . . . I need the necessary.” He got to his feet, swayed, and put out a forbidding arm. “Nobody help me. I’ll go. You stay.” He staggered off into the crowd.

Jenni shifted anxiously on her feet. “I’ll go after him. I’m sure it’s fine, but . . . I’ll go after him.”

Gall looked around, shrugged, and took Derik’s chair. She leaned forward and looked up challengingly up at Ix. “So how do you know my partner?”

Ix flinched back at Gall’s attention. “I, erm . . .” She took a deep breath—and promptly looked back down at the floor. “Messaged him asking how he dealt with people staring,” she mumbled. “At the, at, at the scars.” The last word was whispered in shame.

“Makes sense!” Tom said. “He seems friendly enough, usually. I would think he gave you pretty good advice.” He shrugged.

Thoth just sat there, silently watching.

Gall relaxed. “Yeah, okay. That’s cool. Did he tell you to do the scary grin at people who are bugging you? That’s always hilarious. C’mon, give us a scary grin!”

Meanwhile . . .

Derik managed to weave his way out of the crowd with a minimum of awkward collisions. After relieving himself, he felt a bit better; a full bladder could wreck even a sane and sober man’s mental coherence. He washed up, splashed his face, and stood staring at the mirror above the sink. The symbol of the Green Lanterns stood out on his chest.

“Willpower,” he muttered. “You’re a disgrace to that uniform.”

Leaning against the wall outside, Jenni started at a crunch of glass and a muffled yelp. She spun around, quite prepared to barge in, but the door opened before she could get her hand on it and she almost ran into Derik coming out. Startled in turn, he reared back, flailing, and they grabbed onto each other’s arms.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, scowling. He’d restored the green domino mask over his eyes.

“What are you doing?” she retorted. She turned over his right hand, took in the freshly reddened knuckles, and looked up in expectant concern.

“Restoring a measure of clarity,” he answered. “Don’t look so panicked, it’s not a habit. But it is effective.”

A thousand protests were on her tongue, but she swallowed them. “All right. Now what?”

“Now I go back and apologize like a man, tell the story I promised, and go home before anything else ironic happens. Coming?”

Jenni sighed. “You bet.”

“I, I never, I didn’t . . .” Ix swallowed. “I’m not very good at scary grins . . . or any grins . . .”

Tom grinned at Ix. “I really stopped believing you about your abilities a while back, Ix. You have a nasty habit of selling yourself short.” He grabbed a sip of Coke. “Go on, give it a go. I’m sure you’re good at it.”

“I don’t really want to,” Ix said, swallowing. “People get upset with me when I show my teeth,” she added, fiddling with her rose. “They think I’m going to hurt them when I do.”

“Really?” Gall looked even more interested. “Why? Are they pointy? Or just horrible? Come on, now I have to see!”

“They’re not, they’re just . . .” Ix raised a shaking hand and pushed her upper lip away from her teeth. They were perfectly normal, if a little large in the front.

She dropped her hand and tugged her cloak tighter around her shoulders. “Happy now?”

“Oh, come now,” said Tom. “Why’re you hiding? That’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He paused. “Rather charming, really.”

“Oh.” Gall made a disgusted face. “I am disappoint. Way to oversell it.”

“It looks a lot worse without the mask,” Ix muttered. A shadow fell over her face, and for a moment, she actually looked rather wolfish. “The one time I snapped at someone, it . . . didn’t end well for me.”

“Now see,” said Tom, “THAT was scary.” He turned to Thoth. “Thoth, that was scary, right?”

“No,” said Thoth. “No it was not.”

Tom laughed. “Don’t worry. He always says that.” He turned to Ix. “So anyways, how have you been doing?”

“I’ve been . . . fine.” Ix glanced around and swallowed. “Just fine. What did I do that was scary? I won’t do it again, I’m sorry . . .”

Meanwhile . . .

“Will you at least let me wrap up your hand?”

“No. I want to be able to bang it against something if I need another dose.”

Jenni shook her head. She wasn’t sure if he was quoting House on purpose or not, but it didn’t matter. She contented herself with fending him off from running into anyone on the way back and detouring to the drinks table for a big cup of water. “Here. I heard your voice cracking.”

Derik glanced down at the cup and gave her a skeptical look. “You’d have a harper wet his throat with plain water? The Master would be appalled.”

She flinched. “Hey! Invoking Robinton is below the belt. And you’d better start hydrating anyway, or you’ll be a worse mess tomorrow. Unless you want the hangover.”

He sighed, resigned. “No.”

And so they made their way back.

“I dunno if it was scary,” Gall said, looking at Ix closely. “The weird shadow thing, though . . . is it a Phantom thing? Does it come with the mask and stuff? Cuz—oh, hey, One-eye. Totally not talking about your weirdness behind your back!” She grinned.

Derik rolled his eye(s).

Ix swallowed when the others returned to the group. “I’m sorry,” she said again to Derik.

“No, I’m the one who must apologize. To everyone,” he answered, looking around to include Thoth and Tom (and probably even Gall). “My behavior has been atrocious, and I can only hope for your forbearance. . . . If you’ll permit me, I would like to deliver the part of the tale that I promised, and then I’ll go.”

Thoth nodded to Derik. “You need not leave if you do not wish to do so, brother.” Thoth noticed Derik’s injury. “Your hand has been injured. Do you wish me to attempt to repair it?”

Tom stared at his partner as if the marine had sprouted an extra head.

“I already offered and got turned down,” Jenni said a bit peevishly. She could never help being irritated when prevented from doing her work.

“It’s all right for now,” Derik said. “But thank you . . . brother.” He nodded and laid his free hand on Thoth’s wolf-painted pauldron. In addition to being a companionable gesture, it helped him stay upright, since Gall hadn’t seen fit to give up the chair and he didn’t want to start a fresh fight about it.

“Are you sure you’re all right, Derik?” Ix bit her lip. “It’s just, you don’t look so . . . good. Right now, at this moment. I’m sure you look quite nice normally. Not that I’d think you look nice—I mean—I do—I mean—I have a girlfriend,” she mumbled, face bright red.

Tom smiled at Ix. “You have a girlfriend? That’s fantastic, Ix! Who is it?”

Thoth did not respond significantly to the hand upon his pauldron. But there might have been a hint of a smile on his face.

“I’ll be fine!” Derik promised, a trifle embarrassed himself. Barring all the other excellent reasons he was no good for anyone, he was surely too old for Ix, and he suddenly regretted his choice of a skin-tight costume that might tend to attract attention to his physique. He glanced at Gall, who tended to have one of two reactions to other girls noticing him: jovial agreement or bitter enmity, with scant middle ground.

In this instance, her eyes had narrowed at Ix, but once she mentioned her girlfriend, the Viking relaxed again. She left Ix and Tom to it and turned to her partner. “So are you gonna finish the story, or what?”

“Her—her name’s Charlotte.” She quailed under Gall’s glare and forced herself to focus on Tom. “She’s a Twilight vampire . . . she came as Christine today . . . um . . .” She swallowed again and glanced at Derik. “Sorry. Um. Continue, please?”

Tom nodded. “I’m sure she’s very nice. I’m happy for you, Ix.” He turned to Derik. “Of course. If you want, continue.”

Thoth simply nodded his assent at that last statement.

And suddenly all eyes were on him again. “Right.” He took a preparatory drink of water. It was good, and he did need it; he’d have to remember to say something nice to Jenni later. But now, he had said he would do this, and whatever else he was, he was a man who upheld his commitments. “Where was I . . . ?”

“Awake in FicPsych, about to give me conniptions,” Jenni said with a half-smile.

“Right,” he said again. “Erik, the original Erik, had just left me with his injunction to live ringing in my ears. I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I got up and found my few belongings—my boots, my belt, my flight jacket—and I started walking. If you’ve lived in Headquarters for any amount of time, you know it’s nearly impossible to get where you’re going if you think about it, but it’s equally impossible to get anywhere if you’re as empty of purpose and drive as I was. I went on in that fugue state for some time, I don’t know how long. At times I slept, and then I would get up and go on again. I saw no one, or if I did, I don’t recall . . . but I felt as though someone, or something, was watching me, guiding my steps.

“I had gone by many doors, all the same, and taken no heed of them, but finally I came to one I could not pass by. This portal that loomed up before me was different from the others. It was large, and I could feel the heaviness of its metal. Something ominous was on the other side, but I wasn’t afraid—I was still numb. With no thought of any direction but forward in my mind, I turned its great wheel and stepped inside.

“The door slammed shut behind me, and I was in total darkness. Robbed of vision, I stopped.

“But something could see me. This presence was not sapient, I think, but it had logic and a purpose with me. Everything I was, had been, and might have been was laid bare to it, as though I were as insubstantial as the spoken word. First it looked at me and through me, and then it began to change me.”

He had to pause for another sip of water.

“The first thing I knew differently was knowing. Whereas before all I could hold in my mind was my half-life with Alanna in our narrow, ill-begotten mockery of Pern, now I knew my world as it really is. And I knew my real place in it. Not as a Weyrleader, because the leadership of all the Weyrs is well known, but yet a bronzerider, one who chose a life in the untamed Southern Continent during the Ninth Pass. Before that, a harper, and a headstrong, reckless young man.”

He shook his head ruefully. “I said I would tell you how I lost my eye twice in one day, and now we come to the point. You’ve seen my face.” He took off the green domino mask so they could get another look. The right side was covered in a sunken, sinusoidal pattern of scars. They extended down the side of his neck, down into his unitard. They’d cut through part of his right eyebrow and left his hairline ragged. They had caused muscle damage and distortion that rendered the right side of his mouth permanently stretched to the side and unable to properly pull up in a smile. And they had taken the sight from his right eye. “This is Threadscar. This is the hazard we face on Pern, and it is what dragonriders exist to combat. I remember when I got this.

“It was our first Threadfall. No more were Skepnadth and I confined to the ground. At last, we were in the air, where we were meant to be! Our job was to carry firestone to the fighting wings—firestone is the substance that gives a dragon his flame. We had practiced our throw over and over, and we were good at it. We were strong, our power boundless, and our joy fierce. . . . Every man thinks he’s immortal at nineteen. A Fall lasts four hours, and I began to tire of the heavy goggles on my face. I was hot; sweat dripped into my eyes, and I could hardly see. So, fool that I was, I took them off. Just for a little while, I thought. We were such excellent flyers, what could possibly go wrong?

“A thick tangle of Thread. A gust of wind. Both of us screaming, the sound swallowed in cold between as Skepnadth jumped to safety. We were lucky to live.”

He paused. The memory was strong, painful in many ways. But he’d indulged himself in grief quite sufficiently for one night.

“I remember when I got this,” he said again, indicating his scars with a nod and a raised cup. “I was standing in the dark with a face belonging to another man. But something looked at me, and saw a dragonman, not a Phantom. It changed me. I felt the burn of something superficial sinking deep into my flesh . . . and when the door to the Reality Room opened again, I was half-blind, who had been twice blinded. . . . And lucky to live.”

“That’s . . . wow. I’m sorry.” Ix looked down at the ground, twisting the stem of her rose until it began to split. “About your eye, and, and your friend. My, uh, my mum read the books to me. And . . . I don’t think the words did it justice, describing what that felt like. I can’t even imagine . . .”

She resisted the urge to stare, instead keeping her eyes on the ground. He looked . . . almost the same as her. A mirror image. It was more than a little unsettling.

Tom bowed his head. “That . . . that’s awful. I’m sorry, Derik. I . . . That . . .” He trailed off. What else was there to say?

Thoth merely sat there. He was watching Derik closely, but the expression on his face was difficult to discern.

Derik looked around at their solemn faces in consternation. He had rather warmed to his performance as it went on, and this was not the reaction he’d hoped for. “What . . . ? No, you’ve missed the point. That was the good part.”

Jenni had to laugh, a small, contained chuckle. “Oh, Derik. What about the part after that, where you battled your way back to FicPsych, terrified poor Elms, and proceeded to muscle your way through a heavy dose of fellis juice in order to help us fight off the Mary Sue invasion?”

“You shouldn’t have dosed me,” he muttered mulishly.

You were falling-down exhausted and shouldn’t have been moving, let alone running around fighting Sues! He did, though,” she told the others. “I wasn’t there—I thought I’d left him safely asleep and had gone to help in Medical—but I’m told it was impressive.”

“Right! It was!” Derik held up his cup to her. “So please stop pitying me, for the Egg’s sake!”

Ix flinched. “Sorry,” she stammered. “I wasn’t—I was just—I’m sorry—won’t mention it again—” She glanced around at the others as if hoping one of them would come to her rescue. “You, uh, you must be a really good fighter, then?” She cringed and ducked her head.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Could you be any more obvious you don’t know how to carry on a conversation? Pathetic.

Tom laughed. “I’ll say. I’ve seen Thoth fight, and even so . . . That’s impressive.”

Thoth nodded. “Indeed. Were you born to another universe, you might have made a good Space Marine.”

“Eh.” Gall tilted her hand, so-so. “Less good, more brute strength and bloody-mindedness. When you can swing a twenty-pound sledgehammer like this guy, you don’t really have to be good. Now, me, on the other hand . . .” She got up and hefted her mace, which she’d kept on her belt because it fit her costume and no amount of good sense could talk her into leaving it behind. “If me and Fellrazer had been there, we’d have wasted them!” She gave the mace a half-speed swing to demonstrate.

“Stop that, you barbarian!” Derik snapped at her. “You’ll hit someone!”

Jenni edged further away from Gall and toward Ix. “May I suggest a couple of deep breaths? You’re all right.” She reached out to pat the kid on the shoulder.

Ix tried to do as Jenni suggested. Her breathing started to drift towards hyperventilating, though, and she dug her nails into her palms until she bled. The pain helped her to think a little more clearly, and she sucked down several deep breaths. It helped, a little.

“Thank you,” she murmured to Jenni.

Tom sighed in exasperation. “Must you all wield such dangerous weapons and scare people like that? I usually wield sinister demons from beyond this realm forced into service although they would love to break free and destroy me and anyone nearby. And I’m fine . . .”

Thoth looked unflinchingly at Gall. “Sheer bloody-mindedness can get you a reasonable distance in a fight. Although I have my own preferred means, of course . . .”

Complete Control

Gall rolled her eyes at Tom. “Yeah, that sounds much safer. I’m sure that’s never gotten horribly out of control. I, on the other hand, am in complete control of my weapon at all times.” She showed this by extending her spiky mace like a sabre and poking it at Thoth’s breastplate in what she fully realized was an absurd move, because she could.

Derik facepalmed, wobbling slightly.

Jenni watched warily, one arm around Ix’s shoulders.

In a sudden motion, Thoth grabbed the mace and snapped it in two. “Even casually, I would not suggest threatening me.” His voice was low, and entirely calm. “That is one of approximately twelve ways I could have dealt with that scenario. The rest of them would have been far less pleasant for you. I hope that we understand one another.”

Tom nodded to Gall, acting as if nothing had happened. “Well, it does go wrong occasionally. I did tell her not to touch that wire—had to go before the auditors for that . . .” He shivered visibly. “However, that means that we’re more cautious than someone with an ordinary weapon is.”

“Oi!” Ix stepped forward, fists balling. “You can’t just go around breaking people’s stuff and then threatening to do the same to them!”

“Hey!” Gall yelped. She looked on in horror at the ruin of her mace. “That wasn’t a threat, yak-brain! You’re like the one guy I literally couldn’t threaten if I tried!”

Derik was taken aback, but unsure how to respond. On the one hand, Gall was attached to her weapon and was likely to mope and carry on about this until she could get Agent Brightbeard to repair it, possibly even after, and he couldn’t help feeling a little sympathy for her. On the other hand, she did so richly deserve to be checked, even thus harshly. He settled for a muted “Steady, there,” which might have been addressed to anyone. He did find himself awkwardly patting Thoth’s pauldron, for all the effect that would have.

It was Jenni who jumped into the middle, putting out her hands and turning ’round to create a space between Gall, Thoth, and Ix. “Easy, everyone!” She then spoke to Gall: “You were asking for trouble, so hush, and keep your pointies to yourself next time.” Then Thoth: “And you, you could have just taken it away, and I reckon we’d all have cheered you on. I know your universe doesn’t leave much room for temperance, but work on it more, eh? You’re not a child to break things in a fit of pique.” She gazed steadily into his eyes, one immortal to another.

Ix ducked her head, face burning with shame. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, backing away. “I’m just gonna . . . go.”

Her foot hit the broken pieces of Gall’s mace; she knelt and gingerly picked them up, repaired it with a quickly muttered spell, and held it out to Gall, still keeping her eyes on the floor.

Wait, crap. Was she getting blood on it? Maybe Gall wouldn’t notice?

Her heart began thudding in her chest. First losing her temper and now this.

“Wait, Ix!” Tom called. “Come on, don’t go!” He sighed, turning to Thoth. “Bloody hell, look what you’ve done now. I get that you like to make a point, but . . . You know what you have to do.” He fixed the Marine with a glare.

Thoth bowed his head. “I am . . . sorry. I recognize that what I have done is wrong and I am prepared to make amends. Please, do not expel me.”

Tom nodded. “Better.”

“Good.” Jenni also nodded approvingly. “And don’t worry, the only authority I have is ‘moral’, and even there I’ve got people who’d argue the point . . . or would have.”

Derik was relieved, too, and felt happier taking his new friend’s part. “It’s all right, mate. The wretch had the lesson coming—and look, all’s well.”

Meanwhile, Gall took her mace tentatively from Ix, somewhat shocked at getting it back in one piece so suddenly. “Huh. Thanks, Bucktooth. You’re all right.” She slapped Ix bracingly on the shoulder and made to slide the mace back into its loop on her belt, and her hand encountered a stickiness on the haft. “Oi, what . . . ? Hey, did you cut yourself or something?”

A shadow had passed over Jenni’s face, but just as quickly lifted, and she turned around, concerned. “Ix?”

Ix yelped at Gall’s slap. “I’m fine,” she stuttered, shoving her hands in her pockets. “Please don’t hurt me, I—I can clean that . . .” Her eyes darted around as she scanned for the closest exits. If Gall didn’t want to listen, she could be out the door in approximately eight seconds. Less, if that crowd of agents between her and the exit happened to part.

“Gall, take your arm off of her, would you?” said Tom. “She’s shaking like a leaf . . .” He turned his attention to Ix. “Ix . . . you do realize nobody’s going to hurt you, right? It’s okay! Just relax.”

“I barely touched her!” Gall held up both hands (mace dangling from her arm on a loop) to show that she was innocent. “I didn’t do it!”

“Do what, though?” Jenni said. “Ix? Please tell us what’s going on. Or just me, if you want.” She gestured an invitation to step off to one side.

Ix, dread settling in her stomach, went with Jenni.

Ten seconds from the nearest exist, now.

Twelve seconds.

Unless she Apparated out? No, she didn’t want to try that in HQ again. She’d been lucky enough to arrive in one piece as it was.

Besides, for all she knew, Jenni could talk to the Flowers. And then the Flowers could decide she was more trouble than she was worth and throw her out. And then what? Her memory wiped, no place to her name, no safety net during the full moon and no Wolfsbane—

“I got blood on her mace,” Ix said, ashamed. “I . . . I can clean it, though, it wouldn’t be any trouble. I didn’t mean to lose my temper, it was an accident, please . . .”

“Wait, what?” said Tom. “That’s what you’re worried about?” He tried not to laugh: that wouldn’t help. “Ix, I don’t think anyone’s upset with you. Honestly, I think most of us are just wondering if you’re okay . . . Are you okay?”

Jenni shot Tom a warning look. His excitable energy, well-meaning though it was, was reason number one she’d wanted to step away, and he had not been invited along.

“Yes, thank you,” she said curtly. “A moment, please?” She pointed him back to the others.

With a perimeter firmly established, Jenni calmed her own feelings and addressed Ix again. “He’s not wrong,” she said. “But first things first: where are you hurt?”

Meanwhile . . .

With the others out of earshot, Gall shrugged, stuck her mace back in its belt loop, brushed her hands off on her trousers, and sat back on the chair. “So, Jötun, we’re cool, right? You know I was just messing around. Didn’t think you take me seriously. I mean, come on!”

“Do I detect the meagerest hint of an apology?” Derik muttered dryly. He gave in to gravity at this point and plopped down on the floor beside Thoth. Much easier.

Thoth nodded curtly. “I do not consider you a threat. However, I thought that a warning was in order.”

Tom had been frowning, wondering what Jenni had meant, but Thoth’s statement caught enough of his attention to earn the Marine a glare. “Thoth. Try to do it properly.”

“Very well,” said Thoth, slowly. “We are . . . cool.” The word felt slightly wrong in his mouth.

“It’s just my hands.” Ix kept them closed by her sides. “It’s nothing, it was just an accident.” She glanced back at the other agents, then back at Jenni. “You’re . . . not upset with me?”

“Good.” Gall grinned, amused. “Cuz I was thinking about inviting you to join our Australian Indoor-Rules Quiddich team, but—”

Derik, who had settled into the amiable state of drunkenness he’d shot through earlier, barked a laugh. “That is a horrible idea! No offense, brother—rather the opposite—but it hardly seems fair.”

“So? No rule says the teams have to be fair. Blast Hardcheese got killed last season, and I don’t want a repeat. Even the Physical Therapy nerds kicked our asses thanks to their precog and your totally divided loyalties.”

Derik shook his head. “No, I keep telling you, Bjørnsen’s useless in Headquarters. And my loyalties are perfectly intact!”

“Whatever. All I’m saying is that if Nevermind can have a kender, we ought to be able to have a giant. I hate playing those guys; half the time we can’t even find the stupid ball cuz it’s ‘fallen into his pocket’ again.”

“Now, you know Earwig can’t help that. Anyway, we’ve got Suicide. He’s, what, eleven percent cyborg? And arguably crazier than I am.”

“Yeah, but he’s sweet on Green-eyes over there, so he doesn’t want to bust up her friends. You both suck when we’re against PT, so we need some muscle who’s willing to do the damn job. Look at this guy.” She gestured at Thoth. “We could just have him stand in front of us and let the other guys knock themselves out trying to get through!”

Meanwhile . . .

“No, I’m not upset with you,” Jenni said. “No one is. Gall’s happy to have her mace back, and I agreed with you jumping in. I only did myself because I thought it was safest if things did escalate any further. Fortunately, they didn’t.” She smiled. “Now . . . are you going to be stubborn like ‘GL’ over there, or are you going to let me have a look at you?”

Ix pushed her hands deeper into her pockets. She wasn’t about to show off the malunion and scars that gnarled her hands. “It’s just little cuts,” she said. “No big deal, really, I can heal it myself.” She swallowed, worrying that what she said had come off as rude. “I’m sure you could do a good job, though,” she said, “but I don’t want to trouble you.”

Tom laughed. “Thoth, standing still in a fight . . . heh, that’s a good one. I’m siding with Derik in this one: I’m pretty sure the other teams would object to a two-meter tall player with centuries of military training who can shoot fire, read the opposing team’s minds, and see the future, among other things.”

“You overstate my abilities somewhat,” said Thoth. “I am rather poor with fire. Nor am I excellent at reading the future. In any case, I would be happy to join you in combat.”

Derik snorted. “It’s not combat.”

“Yes, it is!” Gall said.

“It’s a game,” Derik went on, ignoring her, “and there are rules. You play in a pitch-dark corridor and hit a light-up ball back and forth until one team can’t continue. No magic or powers, no weapons but padded bats.”

“And no protection unless you’re a wuss.”

“Unless it’s for other players’ protection. We don’t actually want to seriously injure anyone.”

Gall grinned. “Just to the point where they cry for mercy. If they’re still conscious.”

“But it isn’t supposed to be a brawl, which you always ‘forget’.” He looked up at Thoth. “I’m not saying you wouldn’t be an asset, but someone has to worry about safety! And that’s for our own team, too. It all gets very mixed up in the dark. If I had your word it would be all right, perhaps . . . ?”

Meanwhile . . .

Jenni blinked, not particularly thrilled at being balked twice in one evening, but shook it off with a subtle shift of posture. “Oh, that’s good,” she said. “Go on, then.” She indicated that Ix should proceed with her healing. As long as it got done, she supposed.

“I’ll—I’ll take care of it later.” Ix swallowed. “Can we just go back to the group, please? If . . . if that’s all right with you. I’ll be fine, promise.”

“Well, no powers evens the score a bit . . .” said Tom. “But I still don’t think it’d be safe for him to compete. For one thing, he might spit on somebody.”

“I have never spit on anybody accidentally,” said Thoth.

“Well, that’s not the only issue. For another, you’re two meters and built like a ogre. Frankly, having you on any team would be a balance issue.”

“I have no doubt that Headquarters contains equally powerful agents who would be willing to participate.”

Tom sighed. “Okay, yes, but then you have to worry about killing us normals.”

“I would not endeavor to kill . . .”

“There, see?” Gall smirked triumphantly at Tom.

“Wait, wait.” Derik waved his hand. “Say rather, ‘endeavor not to’. World of difference.”

And . . .

Jenni sighed. You could lead a horse to water, etc. Oh well. This one wasn’t hers, and there was only so much meddling a new acquaintance would tolerate. “All right. Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Are you sure you want to jump back into that circus, though?”

Ix glanced at the group, then back at Jenni. “Not really,” she said sheepishly. “I . . . my partner wanted us to come here, try and . . . make me talk to people.” She sighed. “It’s not really working out too well right now.”

“Very well. I will endeavor not to kill anybody,” said Thoth.

“Can you also endeavor not to spit on anybody?” asked Tom.

“I thought that was implied.”

“It wouldn’t necessarily kill them . . .”

“Great! Then it’s settled. Welcome to Team Blast Hardcheese!” Gall stuck out a hand, then thought better of it and made it a fist for bumping.

Derik looked from Tom to Thoth in puzzlement. “You keep mentioning spit. Someone explain the spit.”

Nearby . . .

Jenni nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, you had some bad luck there. Where’s your partner, anyway? What if they joined us?”

Thoth bumped the fist gently.

Tom sighed. He pulled a spare metal plate off his costume. “Thoth, demonstrate, would you?”

Thoth took the plate and spit on it. The liquid sizzled, bubbling ominously and leaving a hole in the plate. “My spit is acid. It is occasionally useful, although sometimes inconvenient.”

“And,” said Tom, “it’s a good charge for any Sue who endeavors to kiss a Space Marine—rare, but fun when it happens. Or rather, popping them into a Reality Room afterwards is fun.” He looked at Derik. “Oh. Sorry . . .”

Ix looked around. “Charlotte? She’s . . . around here somewhe—”

There was a sudden breeze, and Charlotte appeared beside them, her elegant gown held above her knees and her hair coming unpinned. “Is everything all right?” she asked, and then her nostrils flared. “You’re bleeding!”

“Just little cuts, I’m fine, Lottie,” Ix said, face turning red when Charlotte pulled her hands out of her pockets to inspect them.

“Jenni didn’t bug you about healing them?”

“She did—Charlotte, I can take care of it myself, stop worrying so much,” Ix said, pulling her hands away and shoving them back in her pockets.

Charlotte sighed and looked at Jenni. “Everything all right over here?”

Gall and Derik looked on in fascination.

“Cool!” Gall said. “But you might’ve mentioned that when I was hitting on you, man.” She leaned over and backhanded his arm. It went clang. “Ow.”

Derik tetchily waved off Tom’s concern. “I told you, that doesn’t bother me. I thought it would be a good story. Apparently I’m rustier than I knew.”

Whilst . . .

“Oh! Hi, Charlotte,” Jenni said, blinking in the gust. As to whether everything was all right . . . “More or less. The Ironic Overpower is having its way with some of us. Bad timing, mostly, I think.” She looked over at the other group, who seemed fine. “Derik’s always a bit unpredictable, and it’s worse under the influence. He didn’t mean anything, though; you know that, right?” she asked Ix.

Tom brightened. “Ah! Well, anyways, it doesn’t always work—Space Marine biology is poorly defined at best, sometimes the acid is something they can control—but it’s nicely ironic when it does. Unless of course the Sue is also a Space Marine. Which is between one and five charges in and of itself . . .”

Thoth nodded. “A Sue who dares to think itself an Astartes deserves no less than a painful death. Possibly prolonged.” He took a long swig of mjød.

Ix’s cheeks colored and she shook her head.

Charlotte sighed and rested her chin on Ix’s shoulder. “Whatever it was he said, he was just being a jerk,” she said. “Want me to go talk to him?”

“No!” Ix pulled back. “No,” she repeated. “It’s fine, really. Like Jenni said . . . I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

“You sure?” Charlotte said, turning to glare at Derik. “Because I—”

Ix grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “Please, don’t,” she said frantically. “You’ll just make it worse.”

Gall nodded. “Or a dragonrider, eh, One-eye?”

Derik’s lip curled. “Or a singer. Or, scorch us, all bloody three.” He took a deep drink from his cup and was once more disappointed that it was only water.

Gall wished she had a drink at all, but, though she’d never admit it, her stomach still wasn’t quite right after her one taste of mjød. So she settled for teasing Thoth some more. “Just to be clear, Jötun: are you drinking to forget my charms again—cuz don’t think I didn’t notice that the first time—or is it that you’ve got a sordid tale of Sueage for us?”

Concurrently . . .

Jenni added her voice to Ix’s: “No, no, no, please don’t set him off again.” She continued, “It wasn’t even anything he said, really. At least, I don’t think so.” She tilted her head at Ix. “Was it?”

“I just . . . really upset him. The way he looked at me when he saw me . . .” Ix swallowed. “I think it’s the costume—I should’ve known it would be sensitive for other agents, I should’ve just worn my robes and said I was Mad-Eye Moody and they wouldn’t suspect a thing—”

Charlotte put her hands on her shoulders. “Ix. Hon. Breathe.”

Ix sucked down several deep breaths.

“You want me to go over there and clarify with wossisface that he’s not mad at you?” Charlotte asked. “Because I can totally do that.”

Ix swallowed. “If—if you want,” she began, knowing there was no arguing with Charlotte. Before she could finish, Charlotte had zipped over to Derik and gently tapped his shoulder.

“Hey, hi, sorry to interrupt. Just heard there was a bit of heated words exchanged over my girlfriend’s costume. You cool with her now?”

Ix looked at Jenni, terror in her eyes.

Derik gave an undignified yelp and attempted to leap to his feet and face the newcomer. What actually happened was that one foot went out from under him so that he keeled to the right, caromed off Thoth, spilled water on himself, and landed on his ass. But at least he was facing Charlotte now.

Gall burst out laughing.

Derik blinked and massaged his right hand. He’d banged his knuckles again, because of course he had, and it bloody hurt. “Sorry. Didn’t catch that,” he growled.

And . . .

Jenni shared Ix’s trepidation, if not quite horror. At the commotion, though, she winced hard. “Ooh. I’d better go referee.” She trotted back over.

“You. Her costume. We cool?” Charlotte pointed to Derik and Ix in turn before giving a slightly sarcastic thumbs-up.

Ix, cringing, pulled out her wand and cast a drying charm on Derik, apologizing profusely as she did so.

Tom and Thoth just watched.

It took Derik a few moments to process the situation. A lot was happening to him all at once. He’d just noticed the wet splash on his costume when it went away, there was Ix going off in one ear and Charlotte being sarcastic in the other, Gall still snickering at him, and everybody else staring. His head swung from Charlotte to Ix and back again in befuddlement.

What?” he finally said. “Yes! At least I thought so until just now! Was I wrong?” Again the bewildered looks back and forth, like a kicked dog that doesn’t understand what he’s done to incur his master’s wrath.

“Just wanted to make sure,” Charlotte said brightly. She turned to Ix and grinned. “See? Tolja he wasn’t mad at you. And I’d bet anything Jenni was telling you the same, but you didn’t believe her. Am I right?”

Ix’s face reddened and she looked at her feet.

“Right then!” Charlotte clapped her hands together. “I probably shouldn’t forget my manners. Charlotte Webb, Ix’s partner. Hello!”

Tom smiled. “Nice to meet ya, Charlotte! Tom Andrews, Computational Demonologist and Floater, and this is my partner, Thoth, Tricksy Conniving Schemer and Sorcerer, formerly of the XVth Legion Astartes.”

Thoth frowned. “Tricksy Conniving Schemer?”

“You’re a Thousand Son. That title comes with the territory.”

Gall gave one last cackle. “Gall Knutson, DMS. See you’ve met Derik.”

Derik just scowled at Charlotte and turned himself around again, holding his swollen right hand to his chest.

Jenni couldn’t take it anymore and knelt by his left side, one hand on his shoulder. “Would you please let me do something with that?” she murmured, sotto voce. “Or him, even?” She pointed her eyes at Thoth. She didn’t trust the idea of 40K warp-sorcery at all—and that was the way she imagined the Astartes had meant to help—but she’d force down her own raised hackles if it got the job done.

Derik would have preferred to be left alone entirely at the moment, and only felt more humiliated by the nurse’s concern for his idiotic self-injury. Shockingly, it turned out that punching a wall, even with a mirror on it, might not have been such a good idea after all, but he’d be dashed if he was going to admit it when he’d already been made to look a fool. He leaned away and growled something incoherent along the lines of “push off.”

“Well, if you won’t do it for your sake, could you do it for mine?” Charlotte folded her arms uncomfortably. “You and Ix both, actually? Because I haven’t fed in a while and the smell of blood is making me really thirsty. I’d rather not turn this Halloween party into a full-fledged horror show.”

Ix blanched and hurriedly pulled out her wand to heal her own hands. “I’m so sorry, Lottie, I didn’t even think—”

“It’s fine,” Charlotte said. “You’ve been a bit distracted, that’s all.”

Thoth frowned in thought. “If you would like me to fix it, for Charlotte’s sake, I am quite capable. The Great Ocean surrounding Headquarters is extremely calm. In fact, since the . . . retcon, I believe it was called, I am not entirely certain it is even the same Great Ocean across all dimensions. If the Four are present, they are far less powerful here.”

Tom sighed. “All the same, I wouldn’t risk it myself. But it’s your choice, Derik.”

Derik, feeling quite persecuted, said nothing at first.

“Ugh,” Gall groaned in exasperation. “Quit sulking and give over already, or I’ll come over there and ‘fix’ it.”

That prospect was alarming enough to shake him. “All right! Do what you’re going to do. I don’t care who.”

“Drama queen,” Gall grumbled.

“Shut up!”

He held his hand out a little way, and that was enough for Jenni to seize the opportunity, and it. Derik gritted his teeth through her examination. At a particular wince, she nodded grimly.

“Uh-huh. Fifth metacarpal neck fracture. I’m not surprised.” She sighed. “The Flowers still get twitchy if I do anything too overtly supernatural, so here’s what I propose: I slather this with numbweed, your buddy Thoth drives the psychic bone-setting engine, and I keep a hand on the steering wheel just in case. Is that all right with everyone?”

Thoth nodded slowly. “An additional psychic on hand would lessen the risks significantly,” he said. “If Derik would give me his hand, we may begin, provided you have numbweed on hand.”

Tom shrugged. “Sounds fine to me.”

“A S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is always prepared. I don’t know if that’s a thing,” Jenni added, “but anyway, I am.” She popped open a case on her utility belt and produced a small, brown glass jar that contained a creamy white salve.

While she gently rubbed a dollop into Derik’s knuckles (numbing her own fingers in the process), she opened her mind and tentatively reached out to Thoth, just brushing the edge of his awareness. ~Testing, testing . . . is this thing on?~ She glanced up and gave him a wry half-smile. She was nervous, and a little embarrassed to be nervous, and she let him feel it. It wasn’t personal, it was just a sort of bitter aftertaste, a dissonant semitone, that was woven into the fabric of his universe and set her on edge. It scared her, not so much because she felt threatened, but because she felt tempted to address it. What might a being like herself accomplish in sweetening what was bitter, in tuning the clashing chords, and bringing redemption and hope where there was only tragedy and despair?

Not enough, and yet too much.

Thoth closed his eyes. He marshaled his thoughts, going through the Enumerations in his head, focusing his mind on the task at hand.This was a simple task, really, but he wasn’t the most adept biomancer, and it wouldn’t do to make a mistake now.

He lay his hands gently upon Derik’s arm, feeling the damage, finding the best ways to correct it.

+Yes. I can hear you. I am ready.+

Jenni ’pathed back acknowledgement and approval. Merging a little more deeply into Thoth’s consciousness, she could feel his concentration and concern, and liked him better for it.

~The body has everything it needs to heal itself, wanting only time and energy,~ she advised, ~but it tends to go overboard if left to its own devices. The trick is to restrain as much as to encourage . . . like a carefully pruned topiary. Though, that said, don’t let’s leave any bone matrix in the shape of dolphins or unicorns or whatever.~

It was a funny image, but she withdrew it and got serious, not wishing to undo Thoth’s mental preparations. She laid a hand on his, just to reinforce that she was there, ready to help and guide if necessary. “Ready, Derik?” She put her other hand on his shoulder again, completing the circuit.

He was watching them, aware that things were happening beyond his ken. With his pain dulled by numbweed, curiosity surfaced and his resentment at being ganged up on receded. He nodded. “Yes.”

Jenni nodded back. ~In your own time, then.~

+I will begin.+

Thoth released the energy, keeping it tightly controlled as he pushed it into Derik, concentrating on the task at hand. He could not lose control, but to think as such was to do so. He kept his mind above such thoughts, focusing on what he was doing in that instant: bringing the bones together, sealing the cuts and scrapes, ensuring that his corrections did not cause additional damage.

He may have been, by the standards of the Pavoni, a poor biomancer. But he’d had 10,000 years to hone the craft channeling power from a more chaotic source. Well, more or less 10,000. Time was funny in the Eye. But he wasn’t thinking about that, not now.

Despite being forewarned, Derik jerked as at a static shock when it started. The sensation wasn’t painful, exactly; more of a deep itch as his tissue and bone knit itself back together at rapid speed. He watched in fascination.

Jenni did chip in a little, helping to sweep the excess lymph and the debris of broken cells away from the fracture site, to be disposed of properly by the appropriate organs. Mere janitorial work, really, but it gave her satisfaction to be an active part of the effort. It was good to do what she was meant for, and she was pleased with the painstaking job Thoth was doing, too. She shared her love with the others—all of them, for a brief moment, before she reined in her aura again.

“. . . Is it done?” Derik asked.

Thoth nodded, slowly removing his hands. “It is, in fact, done.”

He turned to Jenni. “Do try to keep a tighter grip on your aura in the future should we work together again. I am sensitive to such things, and the additional distraction makes it harder to keep my mind focused. I can, of course, do it, but there is no need to make the task more difficult. And I do not like to think of what may happen if my focus were to slip. Other than that . . .” He gave a short bow. “It was a pleasure to work with you. You are clearly quite skilled.”

Charlotte watched all this with a skeptical look on her face. “You know, it would’ve been a lot easier for everyone involved if you’d just let Ix do that,” she said.

Abashed at Thoth’s rebuke, Jenni withdrew completely, like a luminous green and blue anemone retreating into its dark column. She wouldn’t have let anything bad happen, but he was right; she had no excuse to be projecting all over the place like a neonate. Cut off and alone in her mind again, she felt diminished, but at his ending words she raised her eyes, and their liveliness had returned.

“You’re not so bad yourself,” she said, smiling. “I’d say ‘any time’, but I’m under some pretty tight restrictions here. This was probably a once-off thing.” She sighed and turned to Derik. “How’s it feel?”

He’d been flexing his hand, testing it out, and he nodded. “Still numb, of course, but moving well. Strong. Thank you, friends. I am unworthy of you.” At Charlotte’s remark, he added, “The next time I do something that stupid, I’ll come to Ix first, and spare everyone else a repeat performance.” Even he wasn’t sure how much he meant it.

“Please don’t,” Ix said, hunching her shoulders. “I’m not a trained Healer, I can only do little cuts and things.”

“She once fixed her own broken arm—”

“That’s child’s play—”

“And healed me up when my nose got broken in human disguise—”

“Any half-decent wizard can do that—”

“And fixed up those burns she got up her face from that dragon—”

“Charlotte!” Ix cried. “Just tell him to go to Medical! I can barely take care of myself, let alone other people!”

Charlotte nodded at Derik. “You tell that to him yourself, then,” she said. At her words, Ix promptly clammed up and took a half-step to the side, putting Charlotte between her and everyone else.

Tom grinned. “Ah, come on Ix! You’re more competent than you think you are. And to hear Charlotte tell it, you’re a pretty good healer. But . . . well, you were an Auror, weren’t you? It makes sense.”

He felt Thoth’s hand clamp down on is shoulder. “Tom. I believe you should leave her be for now.”

“Ah! Okay . . .” said Tom, Thoth’s grip giving him noticeable discomfort. “We can talk about something else, I guess.”

Gall sat forward. “I can haz storytime nao?” She ignored the cringing of those around her at the lolspeak. “Come on, anyone? Something good—something scary! That’s what this holiday is about, right?”

Charlotte hmmed. “Want to hear the story about the Bill/Hermione fic where Bill and Lupin both had an ‘inner wolf’ that would periodically take over their minds and make them do disgusting things?” She shrugged. “I don’t really know what else might qualify.”

Ix shuddered.

Tom made a motion somewhere between a shiver and a laugh. “That sounds . . . horrific. Jeez.” He winced. “We get the odd bad ship, but . . . well, we tackle a lot of smaller fandoms, so we don’t usually get things like that.”

“I don’t know if that’s scary,” Gall said skeptically. “But since no one else is volunteering, go for it! And make it good.”

Derik and Jenni glanced at each other, shrugged, and settled in for a listen.

“So the way we figured, there were multiple Sues running around,” Charlotte began her tale, happily oblivious of Ix slowly edging away from the group. “The worst offenders were the ones that had made themselves at home in the werewolves’ heads. Seriously, we had them saying things like they were owed access to ‘female’ bodies, and whenever the replaced canons regained control, they would agree. And meanwhile, there were otherworldly angelic beings watching this from the astral plane, eating popcorn and laughing at the spectacle.” She shuddered. “You really had to be there to understand how bad it was. And the whole time, Hermione was begging and pleading to be let go before just giving up and accepting her lot in life.”

Tom winced. “Euurgh. I can see it already.”

Thoth nodded. “I very much doubt that any such thing is canonically accurate in this case, although I have not read the novels in question yet.”

Tom blinked. “In all your canon research, you haven’t read Harry Potter yet?”

“I have not. I have spent much of my time reading in further detail regarding my own canon.”

“That does it. I’m shoving the books in front of you when we get back to the RC.”

Derik frowned in confusion. “I don’t see it. You had Sues inside canon characters’ heads? And what were these ‘angelic’ beings?”

“Author avatars?” Jenni guessed. If she cast a derisive glance at the Fourth Wall, one would have to be looking very carefully to notice.

“Like I said, it was weird.” Charlotte held up both hands. “Like, you had the replaced canon, and then living inside their head was a separate malignant entity. And they kept fighting each other for dominance, but the only major difference is that one was more vocal about how horny they were.”

Ix was on the edge of the group by now, and was very glad of it when she caught Charlotte’s words. She bit back a strangled choking noise and started coughing.

“As for the angelic beings, they were . . . I dunno what the deal with them was, other than they were into voyeurism and took bets on what the characters would do next,” Charlotte said, making a face. “Absolutely no place for them in the Potterverse.”

Tom scratched his head. “Yeah . . . Imagine how weird it would be if there were entities watching over us right now, taking bets on everything we do? That has no place in almost any fictional universe.”

(( Hey, Nesh! 50 Zorkmids says Charlotte will be comforting Ix extensively later. XD ))

Jenni found herself afflicted by the same mysterious cough as Ix. Derik thumped her back in a would-be helpful manner, and she swatted him off. “I’m fine, I’m fine!”

Gall shook her head at them and turned to Ix. “You leaving, Bucktooth?”

(( If by “comforting” you mean “snogging" . . . Nah, not taking that bet. {X D ))

Ix froze. She’d been hoping to escape unnoticed, but it looked like that wasn’t going to happen. “N-no,” she stuttered, “I’ll . . . I can stay.”

Charlotte turned, frowning. “Ix? You all right?” Her eyes widened. “Oh, god, Ix, I’m sorry, I didn’t think . . .”

“You’re fine,” Ix said, forcing a smile. “You should . . . you should tell them about . . . um.”

“How about someone else takes a turn?” Charlotte asked, going over to Ix and wrapping her arm around her shoulders.

(( Both of you are wrong, they’ll go back to the RC, wipe off their makeup, and then Ix will cuddle up in a blanket and they’ll watch Rocky Horror together. :P ))

“You lot play many games?” asked Tom, trying to break up some of the awkwardness. “D&D? 40K? Magic? All of the above?” He shrugged. “I’d be the latter. Human Wizard, Guardians of the Covenant, and Blue/White, respectively.”

(( Well, I was imagining her cuddling up to Charlotte . . . XD.

(( Anyways, I guess I may as well give the 50 Zorkmids to you Ix. Use them well. ))

Charlotte made a face. “I don’t, but Ix totally does.” Her grimace disappeared and her eyes lit up. “Waitasec! Are you looking for a game, by any chance?”

“Lottie . . .”

“Because Ix is super into the really dorky stuff but she, like, never gets out of the RC—but if you got her into a game . . . ?” Charlotte trailed off, raising her eyebrows meaningfully.

The other three shook their heads.

“No RPGs,” said Jenni. “That’s too meta even for me. But, if you lot want to start something, go ahead! I should get going soon anyway; the boys are probably about done trick-or-treating. . . . Bets on whether the eight-year-old or the Andalite will have the worst sugar rush?”

Tom shrugged. “Didn’t really want to start anything. Just making conversation.”

Derik yawned. It took him quite by surprise, though it really shouldn’t have. It had been a drunken and emotionally tumultuous evening, with a healing thrown in to boot, and that would tend to catch up with anyone.

Jenni smiled at him. “Maybe we should all think about going home.”

Tom nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty worn out. It was nice meeting all of you, though. Thoth?”

Thoth’s armor burned for a moment, changing from the colors of the Space Wolves to his regular blue and gold. “I, too, will go. It seems that I have more than ever to learn. And it is good to have my own colors again.”

The two men took their leave.

“Thoth . . .” Jenni jogged after them. Catching up, she hesitated and laughed at herself. “This might be silly, but I’m running with it anyway. Would you permit me to make you a rather ostentatious, slightly personal gesture? You’d need to take a knee . . .”

Thoth stopped. “I see no harm in such a thing. Very well.” He bent to one knee in front of Jenni. “What is it that you had in mind?”

“A few words. Because I am what I am, and you are what you are, I have this fancy that we might send a message to the multiverse at large. We’ll see.” She gave her signature wry half-smile.

Then she grew solemn, and laid her hands on Thoth’s bare temples in an attitude of benediction. “You were made for war, and have known more than anyone’s fair share of horror and grief. I have neither the power nor the right to correct the imbalance at the source, but if I could, I would. There are benevolent forces in the multiverse; there is hope; there are second chances. In token of that, I say to you: go now in peace and in love, that you might know both, and show that it was possible.” She drew his head down and placed a soft kiss on his crown, then released him and stepped back.

Thoth rose, giving a quick bow. “Thank you.” He stood silent for a moment, thinking.

“I can remember a time when peace was close. When we spoke of what we would do after the war that we had been built for. That hope was torn from us. In part, by the actions of my brothers and my primarch. We turned our backs on those we were made to protect, even as they turned their backs on us. There was no turning back.”

“But here . . . here, I am outside His reach. I am free, for the first time in millennia.” He smiled slightly. “I suppose, in a way, I have begun to serve my purpose again.”

Jenni beamed back. “If you ever need anything—either of you,” she added, having not forgotten Tom, “my office in FicPsych is C-14. If the door’s open, come on in. Or just, you know, reach out. I don’t mind,” she told Thoth. “. . . Now, I’d hug you both, but you’re a walking tank and you’re all over pointy bits. So I’ll just say goodnight.”

She waved, wiggling her fingers.

Next, to make sure Gall took proper care of her partner, and then home herself to make sure Henry and his friends hadn’t eaten themselves comatose on chocolate.

What an excellent night.

This website is © Neshomeh since 2004. This page’s content was last updated 11.18.2017.
The PPC belongs to Jay and Acacia and is used with permission.
All characters belong to their original authors.