The blue rectangle of the portal flickered open, and Agents Dafydd and Selene stepped through into the Department of Sufficiently Advanced Technology. The electric fire still raining down on the badfic threw stark shadows across the laboratory, framing the agents as bleak silhouettes until the portal quietly closed.
Dafydd looked around the empty lab, then cocked his head, listening. “There’s no-one here? But there’s always somebody on hand.”
“Check for the secretary?” Selene suggested. “Or… hang on.” She hopped lightly onto the bench in front of them and bent down to peer underneath. “Aha.” Reaching down, she dragged the whimpering form of Makes-Things out into the light. His glasses were skewed, his eyes tightly shut, and as soon as Selene let go, he crumpled back out of sight.
“Another one of his episodes?” Dafydd asked. “Maybe we should leave a note.”
Selene frowned. “I really thought he was getting better,” she mused. “Maybe we shouldn’t have portalled straight here?”
“We were probably quite… alarming,” Dafydd admitted, considering their entrance. “The crash of thunder as we stepped through might have been a bit much.”
“Mm.” Selene glanced over the side of the desk again and stiffened. “He’s banging his head on the side of the desk,” she reported. “Get-”
Dafydd was already moving. He darted out of the lab and into the reception area, skidding to a halt in front of the secretary. “Makes-Things is having an episode,” he told her, all in a rush. “Get the Morale Officer down here - she’s trained for this.”
The secretary glared at him over her sunglasses for an instant, then typed rapidly on her console, leapt out of her seat, and stalked through into the lab. Dafydd hurried after her to find Selene on the floor, bending over Makes-Things and looking up in surprise.
“What have you done to him?” the secretary demanded, advancing relentlessly on Selene. Dafydd’s partner leapt to her feet and backed away, holding her hands in front of her.
“I haven’t touched him, Tess! You know what he’s like - we portalled straight in, we didn’t mean to set him off.”
Tess let out a disgruntled hrmph and knelt down by Makes-Things. She touched a finger to his neck, then straightened his glasses. “If I find out you’ve been-” she began.
“Gangwaaaaay!” A girl barrelled into the room, leaving a trail of brightly-coloured leaflets. Her jacket was peppered with vivid buttons and badges, and her brown hair was dyed pastel pink at the front.
“And the cavalry arrives,” Dafydd said. “Hey, bjam-”
“No time to say hello,” the girl exclaimed. “This is a morale emergency!” She threw herself into a dive, clipped the side of the desk, and came down into a clumsy roll that nearly knocked Tess down. “Makes-Things! You have to listen! Everything is sunshine and rainbows!”
Dafydd and Selene exchanged a look.
“Shall we leave them to it?”
“Definitely.” Selene led the way out into the lobby, where she snatched a sheet of paper and scrawled a note in her spidery handwriting. Folding it over, she labelled it TESS and propped it up against the computer.
“A loan of any of my weapons if she doesn’t mention this to anyone,” Selene said. “No point looking for trouble, is there?”
“Surely you should be trying to placate Makes-Things,” Dafydd pointed out. “I mean, bjam won’t tell anyone - she’s good like that - but he’s going to be pretty annoyed.”
“I doubt he’ll remember,” Selene said with a shrug. “He’s pretty good at blocking things.”
“Fair point.” Dafydd crossed to the door, then paused. “I’m thinking… let’s not go back to the Response Centre yet,” he said. “I don’t feel like being beeped at, and you know the console will start up as soon as we arrive.”
“You’re not wrong.” Selene glanced both ways along the corridor, then brightened up. “I hear the Cafeteria’s got some new steak in… shall we take a look?”
“I think it’s this way,” Dafydd said, pointing down the hall. Then he chuckled. “And so we go…”
“The other way,” Selene chorused with him, and off they went. Through strategic use of random conversation, they managed to make their way to the atrium just outside the canteen. On this particular day, the centre was filled with a large fountain, surrounded by life-sized bronze mini-Balrog statues. The sight of them seemed to remind Dafydd of something - or rather, someone.
“Have you seen Thanduril recently?”
Selene frowned. “Not recently,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t worry about him, Daffy; he’ll turn up when he feels like it.”
Dafydd stopped dead, and turned to stare at her. “Daffy?”
Selene blinked, then grinned sheepishly, showing her canines. “It seemed like a good nickname. No?”
“No, Sellie,” Dafydd growled. “I don’t see why you feel the need to mock my chosen name, and…” His voice trailed off, and Selene followed his suddenly-transfixed gaze to the fountain.
In front of one of the statues, the lonely figure of a mini-Balrog was slumped on the floor. Its flames were low, its wings drooping, but despite that, it looked very familiar.
“Thanduril?” Dafydd exclaimed. The little mini looked round, his fire flickering hopefully. He turned back to the statue, hesitated a moment, and then clambered into the air and flew slowly towards his owner. He landed gently on Dafydd’s shoulder, making soft noises under his breath.
“There’s a good little demon of flame and shadow,” Dafydd said, reaching up to stroke the mini before thinking better of it. “Whyever did you run off?”
Selene rolled her eyes. “I swear, that creature is a surrogate child to you,” she muttered, then pointed at the statue. “Look. You ought to rename him Pygmalion.”
In front of the bronze statue, a small, sad pile of bacon lay on the tiled floor. Around it were several little heaps of crushed eggshell, and a scorched patch that still showed the telltale glitter of Sue blood.
“Oh, dear,” Dafydd said. “Only you, Thanduril… I didn’t know mini-Balrogs even had courtship rituals.”
Selene chuckled and headed towards the Cafeteria. “It explains where he’s been, though,” she said.
“And why he looks so feeble right now,” Dafydd agreed. He followed her through the door, Thanduril riding on his shoulder as if he’d eaten the parrot, and together they wound their way through the sparse crowd of agents and Flowers. “You didn’t have to give her all your food, you know,” Dafydd said to the mini.
“Don’t encourage him,” Selene said, joining the queue at the counter. “The statue’s an it, not a she.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t know that.” Dafydd chuckled. “Maybe it’s easier this way, though - at least they won’t bicker.”
“Says you,” Selene shot back. “This is HQ, you know…”
Since PPC agents come in all shapes, sizes, and species, you could always guarantee a good selection of food at the cafeteria. That did not, however, imply good food. Selene chose the largest, rarest steak on offer, while Dafydd equivocated for a long time before the shouting of the queue behind him forced him to just grab the nearest thing that didn’t look actively malevolent and hurry over to their table.
“Really?” Selene asked, her eyebrows raised high. “‘Snacks for the Salt-Deficient’?”
Dafydd nibbled on a kernel of popcorn. “Actually, it’s not too bad,” he said. “Hides the taste of the so-called food. There’s not much they can do to ruin salt.”
“Don’t take any bets on that,” Selene retorted. “You could have gone with a sandwich or something.”
“At least it’s not as raw as Thanduril’s,” Dafydd said, looking between his partner’s steak and the mini’s plate of raw bacon and eggs. “Seriously, what were you thinking?”
Selene shrugged, her shoulders tense. “I like what I like,” she said. “Sort of like Pygmalion there; I see he’s still making eyes at the statue even through the door.”
“Poor thing,” Dafydd said with a sigh, and looked down at his mini. “Does he look like he’s not eating properly? He might be pining.”
Selene didn’t reply. Dafydd looked up to see her staring at a point just above his left ear, her face locked in an expression that looked suspiciously like fear. Frowning, he turned - and found himself nose-to-elbow with a brown-haired agent wearing sunglasses and no badge.
“Agents Windflower and Illian?” the agent asked, his voice a slow drawl.
“Eep.” Selene coughed, then put on what Dafydd recognised as her ‘confident, bored, and not prone to saying ‘eep’’ voice. “Yes. Can we help you?”
“My name is Agent Radix,” the newcomer said, “of the Department of Internal Affairs. I don’t believe we’ve met. May I have a word?” The question-mark on the final sentence was placed with a delicate emphasis that turned it into a statement of intent.
“Ah - take a seat,” Dafydd said, aiming for nonchalance and missing by a league. It wasn’t often the DIA took an interest in an agent - and it was usually something the agent in question regretted.
Agent Radix did not take a seat, or even move. He performed a facial grimace that bore some vague resemblance to a reassuring smile if you turned your head sideways and squinted, and turned to Selene. “I was wondering how you were settling into your new department, Agent Windflower.”
Dafydd heard Selene swallow. “Very… uh, quite well, thank you.”
“Hm.” Agent Radix didn’t move a muscle. “You were in the Department of Sufficiently Advanced Technology a few standard time partitions ago, correct?”
“Yesss.” The tension in Selene’s voice manifested as a distinct hiss. “We portalled straight there after our last mission.”
“For what purpose?”
Dafydd cut in. “Is this about Makes-Things’ latest episode? Because-” Agent Radix swivelled his head to face due Dafydd. Dafydd swallowed, but continued. “We had no idea that portalling in would scare him so much.”
“Really, Agent Illian,” Agent Radix said. “We’ll come to that in time, I’m sure. What was your purpose in-”
“Our console isn’t working properly,” Dafydd interrupted, and had the pleasure of seeing the DIA agent’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly. Then they narrowed, and Dafydd found himself on the end of a glare that fixed him to his seat, driving him down. “The, uh, the beep,” he managed. “It’s too loud.”
“I see.” Agent Radix didn’t move, his eyes searching Dafydd’s face. Then, abruptly, he straightened up. “I see,” he repeated. “Do try not to do it again.” He rotated his head again and locked eyes with Selene. “Enjoy your steak,” he said, turned a neat 180°, and strode away.
Dafydd turned back to look at Selene, his eyes wide. “What in Arda was that all about?”
Selene grimaced. “The DIA hate me,” she admitted. “Don’t… don’t ask me why. He probably thought I’d attacked Makes-Things, though I’ve got absolutely no reason to do so.”
“He’s the second person to think that,” Dafydd observed. “Tess was-”
“Thank you for sticking up for me,” Selene said over him. “You didn’t have to.”
Dafydd shrugged. “That’s what partners are for, right?”
“I guess. But… thanks.” Selene shuddered and looked down at her plate. “Bang goes my appetite. Oh, well, maybe I can go on a diet.”
Dafydd followed her gaze and blinked. “I’d swear that was bigger a minute ago.” Selene’s steak was a wretched little thing, dusty-seeming and looking as if the edges would crumble if you touched them. It seemed almost to have been drained of all moisture.
“It’s probably something in the air,” Selene suggested, tension creeping into her voice again.
Dafydd looked between her face - her lips were a particularly vivid red - and the steak. Then he elected to drop the subject. “Come on,” he said instead, “let’s get back to our RC.”
Selene raised an eyebrow. “You do know that we’ll be sent on another mission the instant we walk in the door, don’t you?”
Dafydd grinned. “Yes. And I also know that after a ‘break’ like this? Killing a Sue and setting something on fire will be welcome therapy.”
Selene returned the smile. “That’s a very good point. Let’s get to it.”
Author’s Note: This version of the Interlude has been heavily rewritten from the original, which was mostly penned by Selene’s creator. The first version can be found here.