In a corridor not far from the entrance to FicPsych, Nurse Elms walked up and down, peering at the walls and ceiling. "How are we supposed to make it dark? This place doesn't have any lights, just . . . light. How do you turn it off?"
"Doctor Freedenberg has loaned me one of his Muggle-use wands," Nurse Mirrad said, producing the magical implement from a pocket of his Minbari Ranger's uniform.
"When's the other team getting here?" Nathonea's voice was slightly distorted: she had the end of a strap clenched between her teeth, and she was tugging on it to fasten foam-rubber padding around her metal Borg arm. Her hand was still free, but they all figured it would be all right as long as she refrained from any wild punching motions. She had already switched off her eyepiece, ensuring that she'd be as blind as anyone else in the dark. "They got the message, right?"
Parwill pushed off the corridor wall with hope. "If they don't show up, we win by default. Victory without violence is the best."
"What?" Immac, who had painted a thick black stripe across her face in an attempt to get into the spirit of the thing, looked like a crestfallen raccoon. "But then we wouldn't get to play!"
Elms paused a return stroll up the corridor to give Parwill a look much akin to one usually awarded to an unexpected and startling yet shiny and fascinating bug. "You guys really get away with that stuff in your 'verse?"
Parwill nodded. "Oh yes. The Federation may have big guns, but our real strength comes from peace and cooperation with our fellow beings, not fighting."
"Mind you," Nathonea put in, having tied the last knot around her arm, "Kirk tended not to follow that too closely. Kirk was more a fan of swinging his big stick around than speaking softly, if you know what I mean." She waggled the one eyebrow she had to her name.
"Kirk was a renegade and a cowboy," Parwill answered with an eye-roll. "A famous and highly decorated one, but still."
"Tch." Elms shook her head and turned to the sixth member of Team Physical Therapy. "How're you holding up, Mister I'm-a-Pacifist?"
Alex was trying to keep out of sight behind Mirrad. Although in theory this was a good idea, since the Minbari looked very imposing in his blacks and browns and tended to draw the eye, the intern was a few inches taller. He went up on tip-toes, peeking over Mirrad's head crest. "I don't think this is a good idea. Playing here, I mean. It's—"
"Wait, I hear something." Elms spun around. "Is that them?" She looked to Nathonea, who had the best hearing among them.
Nathonea peered down the corridor. Nobody was visible yet. "Sounds like about six people. And . . . oh. I know that voice. And that one." She glanced back at her teammates. "Hey, guys? Do we actually know who's on Blast Hardcheese?"
"I did not see a roster, only team names," said Mirrad. "Who is it?"
But by then, the approaching group had rounded a corner and come into view. They were all carrying bats, which definitely made them the other AHAIRQL team. Most of them were clad in odds and ends of uniform, plus various accessories from their home continua, and Saline still had the naked mole rat on her head.
Behind her walked Gremlin and Noir, the former chatting with—or more accurately, at—the latter. Each carried a heavy padded bat: Noir’s was a standard cricket bat, probably drawn from HQ stores, but Gremlin had found a giant clown hammer from somewhere and was idly swinging it back and forth while she chattered at Noir about Gotham street crime. The taller assassin only occasionally replied with a word or two, but at least he didn’t seem too fazed by his teammate’s talkativeness. His unscarred eye widened slightly when he saw the other team, and Immac waved to him and chirped “Hi, Void Guy!”
Suicide, carrying a much-battered Louisville Slugger with several conspicuous acid stains, brought up the rear. Somebody (cough, Diocletian, cough) had actually combed his hair and put it into a ponytail, but that was his only concession to the occasion. His walk was entirely too aimless and casual to actually be either, and onlookers had the distinct feeling that he ought to be whistling innocently.
At the front was Derik, wearing his usual thick wherhide jacket. He stopped short in unexpected recognition. "Mirrad?"
"Agent Derik," Mirrad said, greeting the scarred ex-dragonrider with a small bow.
Derik gestured for his teammates to hang back and approached to shake his fellow captain's hand. Gall Bonecrusher, sporting matched vambraces and a heavy lead ring tied to the end of her braid, followed close on his heels, carrying out her sworn duty as Derik's co-captain to undermine his leadership at every turn. She halted beside Derik, crossed her arms, and aimed a glare at the nurses—not out of animosity, but as a general statement of “I’m going to have to kick your ass. No hard feelings.”
The man looked over Team Physical Therapy. "Mirrad, Nathonea, Elms . . . are you all FicPsych? I can honestly say I never expected to find you here, any of you. I suppose the location should have been a clue."
"You know these losers?" Gall said, idly switching her bat from one shoulder to the other. "That's rough, knowing you're going to mercilessly slaughter people you know." She grinned at them.
Derik's mouth pressed into a line, albeit a crooked one. "Ladies and gentlemen, my partner." He turned to her. "Don't underestimate them. You haven't seen them in action."
"Technically you're not going to now, either, since it'll be dark," Nathonea interrupted.
"Hey. Are we here to talk, or kick ass?” Gall demanded. “What is this?" Her gesture left it ambiguous whether she was referring to just Nathonea or the FicPsych team as a whole.
Elms eyed Gall up and down, nodding. "This one's a mean drunk. I know the type." She cracked her knuckles. "Welp, don't worry, Derik. We'll give you guys a good game, and then see who's kicked whose ass."
"Oh, it's on, lady!" Gall hefted her bat menacingly. "Let's go already!"
The captains shrugged—”What can you do?”—shook hands, then turned to their respective teams.
Derik slipped seamlessly into Wingleader mode. "All right, you lot, listen up!"
“Sir, yes sir!” Saline responded, snapping into an exaggerated salute. The mole rat made a chittering noise, and several members of the team snickered despite Gall’s and Derik’s glares.
“Do we have to start now?” Gremlin said. “I still say we should’ve done the slow-motion walk through the smoke first. There’s rules about these things, y’know?”
“Yeah, but Maintenance gets annoyed when we set a corridor on fire for the sake of drama,” Saline pointed out. “Maybe if we win, we can blow something up and walk slowly away from the explosion? That’ll work well with the bruises and injuries.”
“‘If’ we win?” Noir said levelly. Now the glares were coming from Team Physical Therapy.
Suicide gently but firmly smacked Noir across the back of the head. “Don’t tempt the gods, boy. Or worse, the Ironic Overpowers. Gods’ll just kill you, but Ironic—”
"Is this a gaggle of wherry-hens, or is this a team?" Derik roared in a voice that evoked threats of falling chandeliers and kidnapped opera singers. Just as abruptly, he pulled back the intensity and carried on at a more rational decibel level while auditory whiplash was still in effect. "We are not starting out by mocking our opponents. We may have a physical advantage, but don't forget that all the strength in the world is useless if you cannot use it. We're going to be in the dark, and since I don't trust you lot to hold to any kind of formation or strategy longer than three seconds, we're completely reliant on luck. Those people, on the other hand—" he swung an arm around to point at the nurses "—work with each other every day. They know each other's strengths and weaknesses. They know each other's presence.”
The members of Blast Hardcheese shifted, and Gremlin muttered something sotto voce that made Noir almost grin. The effect of the Erik voice was wearing off.
Derik quickly tried to quell them with a blazing look from his one good eye. "They know what respect is. You all ought to know that the popular narrative favors the underdogs with heart over the contentious bullies with muscle every time, so if you don't plan to dine on your shameful words later, you'd better start serving up a better attitude right now."
From behind him came the sound of applause. He turned to see that Physical Therapy, having long since abandoned any attempt at talk amongst themselves, had been following him instead. Elms slowly waved a lighter over her head. Why she had one, who knew, but she did.
“Sum up!” someone yelled from the ranks of Blast Hardcheese. Derik rounded on them, redoubling the glare, but it was a lost cause. If his speech had inspired a team, it wasn’t his own.
He opened his mouth again, perhaps intending to shout them down for not being up to the standards of proper dragonriders, but was rescued from a potential inter-captain fistfight by the abrupt arrival of Unger. The small barbarian came sliding down the corridor like he was heading for home plate, having apparently hit a patch of freshly-waxed Generic Surface just outside of the playing area. Fortunately, he was carrying a water bucket and towel of +5 dexterity, but even so he narrowly avoided what would have doubtless been a too-hilarious collision with Derik.
“Sorry I’m late!” he panted, finally getting his feet under him and slumping against the wall. “I couldn’t find the bucket.” He held up the article in question, which judging by the smell of the sloshing colored liquid inside, was filled with Bleeprin-laced Gatorade. “Kelok told me I should bring something like this, so I can help the team. And I brought a ball! Makes-Things threw it at me yesterday.” So saying, he produced a large light-up rubber ball with the Bleeprin logo printed on it. Clearly, the month’s batch of trademarked promotional items had turned up. “Oh, hey, what’s everyone glaring about?”
"Hax!" Alex declared formally, if a bit shrilly, from the back of PT's ranks. "Only six per team is the rule. It's an automatic forfeit."
“Hey! I’m here as a spare!” Unger shouted, apparently taking Alex’s comment as a slight on his team’s honor. “Are you accusing Blast Hardcheese of cheating? Come say that to my face, you—”
"Oh for the love of—" Elms rolled her eyes, snatched the Muggle-use wand from Mirrad's hand and shouted "Nox!" The corridor was plunged instantly into darkness. "No more stalling! GAME ON ALREADY!"
"Give me that!" Derik, whose spatial awareness had been honed by many years of training, grabbed the ball. "Now clear off." He turned and flung it hard in the direction of Elms' voice.
The impact briefly lighted the stunned expression on her face before the ball bounced away. "OW! You bastard!"
"Somebody get it!" Nathonea shouted.
"Screw that; get them!"
"Ooh, I got it, I got it!" Immac called.
Whoosh. The ball went sailing toward Team Blast Hardcheese, arriving shortly before Elms. Noir bunted the ball awkwardly, sending it ricocheting upwards at a hard seventy-degree angle and triggering a disco’s explosion of color as it hit the ceiling and went slamming downwards towards the floor again. A babble of curses broke out as members of Blast Hardcheese scattered, trying to avoid the bouncing yo-yo of hard rubber death now boinging down the corridor.
Gremlin’s scramble, however, was slightly hampered by the fact that she took a ballistic Elms to the midsection. The two players landed hard in an awkward tangle of limbs, Gremlin sparking a little.
"Oh no you don't, she's mine!" Guided by the electric glare, Gall bore down on the two of them and hauled Elms roughly to her feet.
"Perfect," Elms growled through gritted teeth, grappling for purchase.
Meanwhile, Mirrad had stepped to the fore and took a swing at the ball with a padded PVC pipe—not quite what he was used to, but close enough—and sent it back down the other end. "Elms! This is not a brawl!"
"But I'm good at brawls!" A lucky flail brought her hand into contact with Gall's braid, which she grabbed onto. The Viking snarled and ran her up against a wall in return.
The rest of the corridor wasn’t nearly as civilized. The ball had managed to bank an angle off some unfortunate’s skull, and after several flailings at it from the nurses’ side of things, Parwill hit it a creditable whack and sent it winging back down the corridor towards Blast Hardcheese. Suicide swung wide, barely clipping the ball, and lurched back as its little blinker registered the contact and flashed bright blue three inches from his eyes—burning the words “BLEEPRIN™: QUAFF A KIND NEPENTHE” across his corneas. He let out a guttural curse and swung again, but the ball was already on its way across the hall, and all he managed to do was knock the naked mole rat off Saline’s head.
“All right, enough of this,” Saline said matter-of-factly, scooping up the errant member of genus Heterocephalus. “When in doubt—CHAAAAARGE!”
The yodeled word seemed to send an electric shock down the collective spines of her team. Gremlin scrambled free of the tangle of Elms and Gall, seized her clown hammer, and pelted into the ranked mass of Team Physical Therapy like a small sparking battering ram. Noir and Saline followed seconds behind, Noir slipping into the women’s wake in a way that was entirely too finesse-sneaky for indoor-rules Quidditch.
"Get back here, you lunatics!" Derik shouted after them. This was not, he was quite certain, how the game was supposed to work.
Gall was still busy pummeling (or being pummeled by) Elms, leaving only Suicide blinking and swearing as he rubbed his eyes and tried to focus in the dark corridor.
At the sound of approaching feet, Mirrad's makeshift staff whirled into action, and he leapt forward, distancing himself from his teammates and driving toward the approaching foemen before they had time to change course. Each one caught at least one stinging blow, and Gremlin took a final humiliating smack to the backside after stumbling past the initial dervish. And then they were between Mirrad and his team, and all hell broke loose.
"Forth, and fear no darkness!" Nathonea cried, before Gremlin careened into her and sent them both stumbling backwards.
Immac bounded forward to help. "I'll save you!" But she tripped over somebody's outstretched leg instead and crashed face-forward to the floor. "Oh! I found the ball, guys!" She bounced it off the floor toward the other end of the corridor.
Alex, who had been quite happily hanging back and letting things happen around him, suddenly found himself face to face with a looming presence that turned out to be Noir. It was impossible to be sure in the darkness, but the assassin gave off a distinct sensation of grinning.
"Boo," said Noir.
Somebody went "Eeek!" but it wasn't Alex; he'd gone quite rigid. It was Immac. Noir swung his head in her direction.
She must have felt the look, because she answered, "Somebody had to do it!"
There was a moment of startled silence. And then, in adherence to the Universal Laws of Comedy, the ball hit Immac in the back of the head.
“Molon labe!” Suicide bellowed as the ball bounced off Immac and headed straight for him. “Quaff this, you rubbery freebie bastard!” He swung and hit—too hard. Instead of being punted back down the corridor, the ball was carried along by the force of his swing and hit the wall, whereupon it rebounded with malice aforethought and beaned Suicide between the eyes.
Fortunately, he had extensive experience with head injuries. Another whack sent the ball bouncing back down the corridor towards the nurse faction, and Suicide grinned, wondering vaguely if he was going to have another concussion.
Alex finally shook out of his paralysis and called out, "Immac! Watch out for the ball!"
Thwack! The ball impacted squarely with his ear, ricocheting harmlessly against Noir's chest.
The assassin shook his head. "Sit down, kid." He gave Alex's shoulder a firm downward shove, and the dazed intern sat down. Noir flowed away to go loom at somebody else, but not before tossing the ball in the air and swinging at it with his bat.
Crack! The blue light went arcing down the hallway.
"Mirrad! Incoming!" Nathonea called, momentarily distracted from the headlock in which she'd trapped Gremlin. Gremlin promptly socked her in the kidney and slithered free. Mirrad spun around, staff whirling, and managed to deflect the ball into the wall.
It careened off and landed in the midst of the ongoing scuffle between Elms and Gall, which neither one noticed. It had descended to the level of biting and aimless swearing, and neither one seemed to recall that there was a game on.
"Mine," Derik growled, stalking in the direction of the ball. He scrambled for a handhold on each of the women, receiving abuse from both of them in the process, and hauled them apart. "That's enough! Give up the ball!"
Elms thrashed in his grip. "What ball?"
"You first, buddy! You give 'em up!"
Derik gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to knock both their heads together. Instead, he let go of Gall and took a firmer hold on Elms. "Hey, Mirrad! I'm sending your teammate back! See if you can return the favor!" With a great heave, he sent the nurse sliding down the hall.
He was then pegged on the side of his head. "Ow!"
Gall caught the ball again. "That's for breaking up a perfectly good fight, you fun-killing jerk." This time she hurled the ball down to the FicPsych side of the arena, starting a back-and-forth volley with efforts from Nathonea and Parwill on PT's end and herself, Derik, and Suicide on BH's.
Meanwhile, Gremlin was on the offensive. “Hey! Baldie!” she yelled, waving her clown hammer at Mirrad and sparking brightly enough to briefly illuminate the corridor. “I’m gonna get you for that!” Swinging the hammer, she charged towards the Minbari, who fell into a defensive stance and readied his weapon.
Which was exactly what the other members of Blast Hardcheese wanted. While Mirrad was distracted, Noir slipped up behind him and dropped Saline’s naked mole rat down the collar of his shirt.
There was a yelp and a brief flail of limbs. Noir and Saline silently shared a grin while Gremlin, grinning from ear-to-ear like her fiendishly fuzzy namesake, cannonballed into Mirrad and knocked him ass over teakettle. The rat chittered furiously as it escaped from the Minbari’s left sleeve, looking only a little worse for wear but extremely annoyed all the same.
Elms found a wall and used it to push herself upright after recovering from her dizzying trip down the hall, just in time to catch a wild shot from Parwill and decided that getting up wasn't worth it anymore. "Outskies," she declared in tones that suggested that was the most eloquent thing she could come up with at the moment.
"Crap!" Nathonea looked around wildly, of course not seeing anything. "Who's still functional over here?"
"Me!" Parwill called. Two members of Blast Hardcheese immediately dogpiled the nurse.
"I think my ribs are bruised, but I—ack!" Mirrad cut off abruptly when the naked mole rat, apparently still annoyed, leaped on his face.
“Who’s got the ball?” Saline yelled. Gremlin, getting into the spirit of the flying tackle, attempted to deck her and was narrowly dodged.
Suicide’s words were cut off by a brilliant flare of blue light. Everyone in the corridor recoiled, shading their eyes, but the adrenaline-hyped Hardcheesers leaped on it. Someone yelled, someone else went “Ooof!”, and two bodies crashed to the ground. A voice swore, faintly, in what sounded like Welsh.
Saline frowned as she poked at the person she was currently sitting on. “I can’t feel the ball. Did we knock it into the corner?”
“I can’t feel them either,” the person groaned weakly. In the light of Gremlin’s sparks, Suicide made a face at the voice.
“Hey!” Saline yelled. “Can we get some lights here?”
After a moment of groaning and cursing, Elms managed to find the Muggle-use wand and raise it. “Lu—ow—LUMOS!” she said. The wand tip began to glow, at first faintly, and then with a stronger, clearer light.
The scene revealed was one of devastation, chaos, and questionably hilarious accidents. Various agents were strewn around, some prone, some still tangled in their own personal fistfight-slash-wrestling-matches. Unger was watching from the very end of the corridor, eyes wide. Saline was sitting on a slender agent with wavy blond hair, who would have been All-American handsome if his face wasn’t currently very red and contorted. Gremlin and Noir were crouched over another man, this one dark-haired and dressed in worn traveling clothes.
“Huh,” Suicide said. “Hey, co-captains? We just knocked out Snafu and Aragorn.”
Derik and Gall exchanged a look.
"That's . . . bad," Derik said. He rounded on the agent. "What are you even doing portalling into corridors like that?"
Agent Snafu blinked vaguely. “I was on a mission in Two Towers. Aragorn was in love with Thranduil. Supposed to bring him to FicPsych. Where am I?” He blinked again, looked around, and paled. “Oh, no. Oh hell no. Look, man, I swear, I never touched her! We just went to a movie! You didn’t have to get all your crazy friends to lynch me!”
Derik stared. "What are you—?"
But Gall, struck by inspiration, jumped in over him. "FicPsych, you say? Hey, who's bringing in ringers now, huh?" She pointed an accusing finger at the most obvious nurse still standing, which happened to be Nathonea.
"What? You people tackle a canon character to the ground and accuse us of cheating?"
"Told you we shouldn't have played here," Alex muttered.
"Enough, enough!" Mirrad staggered to his feet, mole rat clutched firmly by the nape of its neck in one hand. "This game is over. Even if we had orchestrated this interruption, the other team still has more players standing. They win. Let us leave it and get back to the business of helping the canons, yes?"
The nurses—the ones still able to pay attention—nodded.
Derik, who had somehow escaped relatively unscathed, stepped up to give Snafu and the future king a hand. "Sorry you got tackled. My teammates are . . . overly enthusiastic."
At which point, Unger stepped up and poured the bucket of Gatorade over his head.
Derik sputtered, wiping at his good eye, as Blazin’ Yellow Lemon dripped down his face. Team Blast Hardcheese cheered, seemingly unaffected by the devastation and confusion they’d wrought, and Unger just shrugged and grinned up at the seething, half-blinded dragon rider. Snafu sputtered, shocked out of his impending panic attack by the edge of the Gatorade splash, while Aragorn stared blankly and licked the back of his own hand.
“Kelok says it’s traditional,” was all Unger offered by way of explanation.
Derik honestly had no response to that.