Prologue: Masters of the Multi-verse
"Is it working?"
The rainbow swirl of painfully bright, manic color, which brought to mind nothing less than the remains of a twelve year old girl's personal website regurgitated by a projectile-vomiting, high resolution computer monitor, faded until it left only a disturbing afterimage across Xander's eye. He sat up slowly, holding the side of his head.
He was so not on the "bus out of hell" anymore.
"Dude! It worked! You rock the hardcore tech-magic like it's a goddamned granny-chair!"
Xander blinked in the dim light of the wood-paneled room. He could just make out three male forms clustered around him, and a scrolling text screen-saver on a monitor behind them.
"Masters of the Multi-verse! Masters of the Multi-verse! Masters of the Multi-verse!"
"God, Andrew," Xander leaned forward, still cradling his head. "I know you want to relive your ‘glory days' but remaking Warren's basement is NOT the way to do it."
"Holy crap, dude, he just compared us to the Trio! We RULE!"
"Quiet, Steve." The guy-shape on Xander's right leaned into his personal space, and Xander leaned back instinctively. "We come in peace."
"You be quiet, Frank!"
"Shut up! This was my goddamned idea!" The center guy-shape shoved the right guy-shape, only to get shoved back. Xander swung his head around to peer at the left guy-shape, hoping for something resembling normality.
"What the hell is going on?"
"Steve, Frank, dude, you're freakin' him out! Stop flirting and chill. The fuck. Out!"
Xander shook his head. Left guy-shape wasn't going to help matters, after all.
Center guy-shape and right guy-shape snapped apart abruptly, wearing matching manly sneers of non- attraction. Right guy-shape poked Xander in the shoulder.
"Yeah." Xander scooted further back on the grimy, seventies-brown carpet, only to run into a beanbag chair. "And you are hopefully a freakish hallucination brought on by lack of sleep and bad pizza."
"Naw, dude," Right guy-shape puffed up his narrow, geekish chest. "We're totally real. Way realer than you, even. I'm Steve."
"Frank." Offered center guy-shape, tossing long, thin hair over his shoulder the same way Xander had seen Willow and Buffy do it over the years. Xander turned a suspicious eye to left guy-shape.
"Mike." Left guy-shape gestured to the still dim, but gradually coming into focus room. "This is my place. We're in RL. And now, so are you!" Mike leaned back dramatically, as if this statement should make some sort of sense to Xander, perhaps even to the point of impressing him.
Xander shut his eye. He could feel a headache building, though whether it was an aftereffect of whatever the hell kind of cracked-out spell had been used to bring him here, or the close proximity to geeks that seemed to rival even Warren and his crew at their peak, he wasn't sure.
"Dude," Steve whispered to Frank. "If we're the trio, I'm so totally Warren."
"Are not," Frank hissed back. "I'm Warren. Mike's the mage, so he's Jonathan."
"Not even! That'd make me--"
Xander opened his eye and watched the pair bicker curiously. "Andrew," he offered.
"I'm so totally not Andrew!"
"S'not so bad, Steve," Mike grinned. "At least that'd mean you survive."
"No way, Andrew's totally gay! And annoying. He thought Timothy Dalton was the best Bond!"
"And this conversation will begin making sense . . . when?" Xander leaned back against the beanbag, eyeing Steve and Frank suspiciously. "How the hell do you know who the Trio were?"
All three shared a glance. Mike shrugged. Steve grinned.
"Dude, we're like the biggest fans of BtVS EVAH!"
Steve rolled his eyes. "Duh, Buffy the Vampire Slayer?"
Xander shut his eye again. "Oh no. Nononono. Don't ever tell Buffy she has geek-boy fans. We'll never hear the end of it."
"Dude," Frank peered at Xander, his expression clearly showing that he thought the one-eyed man had to be the biggest dork in the world. "The show?"
"Buffy has a tv show now?" Xander shook his head. "There's no way I could have missed that."
"Steve, shut up!" Mike smacked Steve upside the head. Mike was suddenly Xander's new best friend. "To him it's REAL."
Scratch that. Mike had to die. "What do you mean, to ME it's real?"
"I told you, man, you're in RL now. Real life?" Mike placed what was supposed to be a calming hand on Xander's knee, completely ignoring Xander's eyeball of doom message that he would lose it if he didn't remove it again. "Out here, you're just a character in a tv show, called Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Xander nodded slowly. "Okay, I get it . . . ." He peered around the room. "This is the real world."
Mike, Steve, and Frank all nodded.
"And my life is a tv show."
They nodded more swiftly now, excitement shining in their eyes.
"And Buffy has top billing. I'm, what, her wacky side kick?"
"Um, yeah." Frank looked a little embarrassed. Xander just nodded.
"Okay. Can I have some of whatever you guys are smoking? Because I'm thinking it's damn good stuff."
Steve giggled, patting a small cloth bag at his side. "That's not such a bad idea."
"Dude, we're not high." Mike shot a glare at Steve. "Okay, not all of us are high. We're talking true, man. We brought you here, from the creative ether."
Steve raised his eyebrows and nodded excitedly. Frank looked slightly bored.
"Okay." Xander shook his head. "Assuming that what you say IS true, why the hell would you bring me here? What, is this just a sick joke, or something?"
"Nope!" Steve was practically bouncing, until his eyes caught something over Xander's left shoulder, and he apprubtly stopped, seeming to drift in his own little world for a moment. Xander assumed he'd spotted something shiny. The boy was like a ferret, completely with the lanky, boneless body. Steve shook his head, snapping back into focus. "You're gonna be our champion!"
"Your champion. You have, what, a demon after you that you need me to be eaten by?"
"Pfft." Frank snorted. "Demons aren't REAL."
"Yeah." Xander deadpanned at him. "Neither is magic."
Frank, Mike, and Steve all blinked at him. Xander sighed.
"In the Masters of the Multi-verse competition." Frank got to his feet, a process which involved a lot of grunting and puffs of breath as his large belly jiggled slightly. He pushed at something on the table the monitor was on, and the screen lit up. A website was open, bearing a large, overly cheerful insignia that seemed to combine the X-men logo, the Batman symbol, the Superman S, and a number of other icons that Xander couldn't immediately recognize. Xander scooted forward.
"Masters of the Multi-verse online application form." He frowned. "Huh." He scanned the page, reaching out blindly for the mouse, which Frank relinquished with no little irritation. He scrolled down. The entry form was pretty basic, asking for names of team members--Frank Jones, Steve Smith, and Mike Dominguez-Polinsiak--the team name--"SMG Teacozy", whatever that meant--and character-- Alexander Lavelle Harris. He winced. How the hell did these guys know his middle name? The webpage went on to describe an elaborate ritual with which to bring the chosen character "into game play", some of the ingredients of which he could see scattered about in a small circle around where he'd been sitting. Xander sat back. "You guys know you're COMPLETELY insane, right?"
"No way, man, we're totally going to win." Steve bounced up to Xander's left side, and Xander winced. "Eesh, sorry, dude. It's real simple, see? Buncha teams, anyone who can cough up the dough to enter, pick a champion. The champions duke it out in the arena in a full-on, no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out, ultimate ‘who would win' game, until one is named the winner."
"Right. And that includes, what, any tv show character?"
"Pfft." Frank snorted again. "That would be way too lame. This is any comic, tv, movie, or book character you can bring across."
Xander nodded. "Superman?"
"Megan's team already got him."
"Resevoir Dogs. Niiiiice."
"Dude," Frank rolled his eyes. "I said ANY character."
"Uh-huh. And you chose me."
"You're sitting here, aren't you?"
"Yeah. About that." Xander shook his head. "I'm not playing."
All three geeks spoke at once.
"Aw, come ON!"
"This is your CHANCE, man!"
"You have to."
"No I don't. I refuse."
"Can't." Frank had returned to the computer, clicking a link on the website. Seventeen pop up windows advertising every possible human sexual depravity in full technicolor pictures flashed and squealed onto the screen. Frank stared at them each for a long moment as he closed them. He licked his lips. Finally, the website was revealed. "Says right here. Once a champion has been chosen and summoned, it cannot be returned to the creative ether until the Master of the Multi-verse is chosen. You have to fight."
"I'll live here."
"No can do." Mike leaned back against the desk. "Characters aren't meant to live in RL. You stay here too long, you'll fade away."
"Like Yoda in Empire!" Steve pulled out a lighter and a glass pipe. "Only you don't get to come back all spectral-y. You'd just be, you know, gone."
"Gone, how, exactly?"
"Totally gone. You wouldn't even be a character, any more. The whole history of your show would be rewritten, without you in it. Gone-gone."
Xander paled. Then he clenched his jaw. "What the hell kind of sick freaks ARE you people?"
"Not freaks, dude." Steve lit his pipe, taking a long hit. "GEEKS."
"I'll throw the fight!"
"You wanna die?" Frank cocked his head to one side, as though the idea intrigued him. "‘Cause, you'll go back to the ether that way, but you'll totally feel it. I imagine it'd be really painful."
Xander stared at him for a long moment, then glanced at the two others. "What makes you people think I can win? I mean, Spongebob, yeah, I could probably take him. But Superman? Spiderman? Mr. Pink would have me full of holes faster than you can say ‘cannon fodder'. I can't win this,"
"That's where we come in." Mike picked up a drawing tablet. "We can give you any weapon, device, tool, whatever, you can think of. All you gotta do is use it."
"Anything?" Xander perked up. "Can you make me know kung-fu?"
Steve looked confused. "You don't know kung-fu?"
Xander ignored him. It seemed the best way to handle the idiot. Mike shook his head.
"Um, no, I could make you a gi, and some ninja weapons, but you have to know how to use them. We can give you weapons, not skills."
"And again, I ask, what makes you think I can win this? You know, assuming this is actually happening, and not just the result of Dawn's anchovi and marmelade pizza?"
Mike, Frank, and Steve blinked at him. "You know, soldier stuff."
"Guns. Grenades. Green beret tactics. Guerilla warfare. I bet the hyena'll help you out, too."
"Hyena?" Xander could feel bile rising in his throat. The room spun.
"Well, yeah. You still remember that stuff, right?"
Xander very slowly shook his head. The geeks exchanged looks again.
"But," Steve sounded as though he might burst into tears at any moment. "You can use a rocket launcher, right?"
Sick, Sad World
Xander leaned forward in the computer chair. His expression was reminiscent of someone watching a horrific car-wreck in action. His mouth was open and dropping lower by the minute. His single eye was as wide as it could get, but the muscles of his eyelids were straining to open it wider. His eyebrows were nearing his hairline. He wanted, very badly, to close the browser window, turn off the computer, and curl up into a little whimpering ball on Mike's beanbag chair until the entire world just faded away.
There was absolutely no way he could possibly be reading what he was reading.
Now, Xander knew from sick, sad people. He was well acquainted with the fact that there were sadistic assholes in the world who liked nothing better than to cause people pain. He knew there were masochists in a more abstract sense; with the exception of Riley before he left, he couldn't come up with anyone he'd known personally who might fit into that category. He knew there were depraved individuals out there in the wide world.
He'd even stripped for one or two of them, in the summer that "nope, didn't happen, still repressing it, thanks". But he was fairly certain that even Caleb on his most evil day could not have come up with the torture that he was currently enduring.
It had started out tamely enough. After a long discussion with his abductors over what he could and could not actually do (yeah, okay, he knew in theory how to hold a gun, and had passing familiarity with a sword, crossbow, or bow and arrow, but let's be honest, he'd just frickin' lost his EYE, okay? He was lucky he hadn't eviscerated Dawn accidentally in that final battle. He and depth perception just didn't get along so well right now), Mike had offered up his computer as a way to pass the time while he and his friends hammered out a battle plan that might get him through this "Masters of the Multiverse" competition in the smallest number of pieces possible. Xander had agreed on the grounds that they run their ideas past him before actually sending him into battle. They obviously, despite of being "the biggest fans of BtVS evah", had no idea who he actually was.
He'd scanned over the rules of entry on the Masters main page, and they confirmed what the geeks had already told him. If he were to forfeit, it would mean turning himself over to another team to use as they saw fit. If he didn't show up for a fight? Well, that was forfeiting, wasn't it? Fights not ending in forfeit were to the "death"--the site did specify that all characters would be returned to their points of origin in the same condition they'd been in when summoned, but Frank had a point: it WOULD hurt. Xander was not a fan of pain. He had to fight. That, in and of itself, was sick and sad enough.
He had then used his limited computer abilities to call up Google, and looked up "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" out of a sort of morbid curiosity. The search had turned up 1,590,000 results, including episode guides, the official webpage, fan pages galore, actor pages, and fanfiction. He was startled to discover that the television series spanned the entire seven years since Buffy had moved to Sunnydale, but had been canceled two years ago. Which meant he was two years in the future. Or something. The fact that Angel had gotten his own spin-off series made him slightly ill, though he was gratified to see that it only lasted five seasons, and ended one year after the original show. His face was on the cover of DVD box sets. Spike, apparently, was not as dead as they all thought. Or maybe he was. He made a mental note to get word to LA whenever he managed to get back and see if he could warn them ahead of time about Wolfram and Hart's plans, then had to scratch the idea due to implications of universal shut down should he attempt changing what had apparently already aired, over here. The entire idea gave him a headache.
He'd checked out some of the transcripts and screenshots, but the former made him feel like a voyeur, even when they were describing events he had personally been witness to, and the latter just made him wince. He knew he'd packed on the pounds in the months prior to the wedding-that-wasn't, but had he really gotten that . . . puffy?
He pulled his dingy, stained flannel shirt away from his chest and peered down. Oh god, he really had.
With some hesitation, he'd turned to the fanfiction. If nothing else, seeing what adventures fans had written for him and his friends might give him insight into where the geeks had gotten their wacko ideas.
And thus he sat, shocked, horrified, and more than a little traumatized.
Fans, he concluded, were the sickest, saddest individuals on the face of the planet.
They killed people off. Sometimes without even so much as a tear being shed. Yeah, so he wasn't everyone's biggest fan, but even Spike and Angel deserved more consideration than some of these "authors" gave them. Maybe not Parker, though. He had to admit to a smirk of satisfaction whenever he saw that "character" get his comeuppance.
The killing wasn't the worst of it though, not by a long shot. The way some of his friends were portrayed . . . yes, Buffy had gone a little off her rocker over the last couple of years, but she was not the heartless, self-obsessed bimbo some of these people painted her as. And Willow had had a tendency to take Buffy's side on occasion, but some stories had her acting like a brain-dead, power- hungry "yes man", rather than the logical, occasionally power-hungry woman she had grown up to be. And Riley . . . Xander had LIKED Riley. He was a cool guy. He was one of Xander's few male friends, in fact. Xander could barely recognize the man in this "Fish-Boy" some of the writers had described.
But, still, there was worse.
He'd decided to hit up some of the NC-17, sorry, "18" fanfic he stumbled across, against his better judgement, in hopes of finding some good, honest, sweet lovin'. And there was some of that to be had, but . . . .
Him, with Faith. Him, with Willow. Him, with Buffy. Him with all three AT THE SAME TIME. ALL THE TIME. He thought Anya had been an adventurous lover, but they had never even come close to the pure energy and kinkiness that was brought into these stories. It was astounding. God, fan-him was some kind of slut.
Okay, honesty time again? He'd had to adjourn to the bathroom a few times in the course of skimming through those fics. They were undeniably hot, and he was, after all, a male of the species. While BDSM was not really his cup of tea, he couldn't help but get a little chub over some of the more erotic scenes. Frank had had a particularly knowing gleam in his eye when he'd returned after bathroom break number three that he didn't want to examine too closely. He could just picture the large man leaning over the keyboard, breathing hard, and whispering
"Best. Fanfic. Ever."
The only thing that could make Frank worse, he decided, was if he worked at a comic book shop. Simpsons characters were best left in the television, and not embodied in people he actually had to talk to.
Then he'd stumbled upon what really made him ill. Not that he'd realized it at first, of course.
"Hey guys? What does ‘slash' mean?"
They snickered in response.
So he'd opened the link.
Curiosity, he'd decided, did not only kill cats.
One little, made-up word. A word that sounded like it should be the name of a part of the warp core on Star Trek. One, little, seven letter word.
Xander's brain had broken.
He could not tear his eyes away from the screen. It was that horrible. It was graphic. It just kept going. There were pages upon pages of fanfic devoted to it. And he could not look away.
He had nothing against gay men. Really, he didn't. He wasn't homophobic or anything, he just wasn't gay himself. And his ridiculously awful joke after his last date notwithstanding, he'd never had the desire to be gay.
Online Xander, he discovered, could be gay. Not just gay, but a flaming, over the top homosexual to rival Jack from Will and Grace.
And attracted to Spike.
Or Angel. Or Riley. Or GILES. Even, on one particularly strange website he encountered, ANDREW. But mostly Spike.
He closed his eye. He took a deep breath. He opened his eye again.
IT WAS STILL THERE.
"You still got any of those Gatekeepery powers lurking in your system?"
The spell broken, Xander shoved himself back from the computer. He hurriedly closed down the browser and hit the power button on the monitor.
If he pretended it didn't exist, would it go away?
"Dude," The sound of Mike's hand hitting the back of Steve's head, a particularly distinctive, slightly hollow thud which Xander had heard over and over throughout the evening, echoed through the basement. "That was the BOOKS. We have TV Xander."
"Oh. Right." Steve's voice tightened, as he spoke from the very top of his lungs to keep the pot smoke in as long as possible. "Why didn't we get that Xander?"
"Hey!" Xander spun around in his chair. "There will be none of that. There will be no ‘regretting' that you chose me. You did, and I'm here, and I'm not wanting to die horribly at the hands of--claws of-- whatever of Godzilla, so you will focus on the ‘how can we get Xander to the point that he can survive being stepped on?' and not ‘why did we chose Xander again?'"
Steve looked properly abashed. Of course, he was also staring down into the bowl of his pipe, so that expression might have had more to do with finishing off his stash than hurting the feelings of what he considered to be an imaginary character.
"Hey," Frank stared at Xander, the light of the monitor reflecting eerily off of his glasses in the dim light of the basement. "You weren't even our first choice, moron."
"Oh?" Xander decided he would not be offended by what a class-A jerk like Frank thought of him. Mike had a pop-up blocker installed on his computer, for chrissake. Frank had had no reason to sift through the porn ads while using the thing. "And who was?"
The response came from all three at once, accompanied by looks of glee. "Faith!"
Xander nodded. "Of course. I should have guessed. And why, may I ask, am I here, then, and not Faith the Wonder Slayer?"
Mike shrugged. "She was disqualified."
"Yep." Mike leaned back against the wall, folding his hands behind his head. "Seems that twenty- seven different teams all tried to summon her at the same time. The moderators of the Masters challenge had to disqualify her to keep her from being ripped apart and eradicated by the energies."
Xander squeezed his eye shut and swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He was not Faith's biggest fan, but the thought that she could have been destroyed like that, for what these psychos considered to be a game . . . .
He'd died. He was dead, like Anya, in the pit that was once Sunnydale, and he was in hell. That was the only explanation. "Is she okay?"
"Pfft." Frank waved the question off like a particularly annoying gnat. "She's just a character."
Xander didn't quite know how it happened. One minute he was sitting in his chair, staring at the geeks. The next, he was crouched over Frank's bulging stomach, his hands wrapped around the man's bloated throat. He lifted him slightly off the ground and then slammed his head back to the floor. That felt pretty good, so he did it again.
"She" *thunk* "is not" *thunk* "a CHARACTER!"
He expected, somewhere in the part of his brain not busily being royally pissed off at the fat man beneath him, for Steve and Mike to come to their friend's rescue. Instead they just beamed at him.
"See!" Steve bounced up and down. "See! You see! You can fight! I knew it!"
"Well," Mike tilted his head. "Frank's not much of an enemy."
Frank said nothing. He probably couldn't have, if he wanted to. Instead he just stared up into Xander's eye, a small smirk on his face. Xander threw himself to his feet, wiping his now sweat- covered hands on his grimy jeans.
"Whatever." He threw his hands up. "It's probably for the best. Faith would have kicked your asses into next Tuesday by now."
The computer behind him chirped out an electronic riff. He turned away from his abductors and ran a hand down his face, trying to calm himself down. He shouldn't have reacted like that. Beating up on Frank was a distinctly Tony thing to do. He shuddered and turned the monitor back on.
A friendly little message box operated as a censor bar across the scantily-clad-Willow.
"Congratulations! The Masters of the Multiverse competition has begun! Your champion, Alexander Lavelle Harris, is scheduled for his first battle in twenty minutes!" Xander swallowed, and clicked "okay". There was no cancel button in sight. A new message box popped up. "Battle number one: Alexander Lavelle Harris vs. Count Duckula!" A counter ticked off the remaining minutes and seconds.
Mike leaned over his shoulder. "Well, that should be an easy one, at least."
Steve appeared at his other shoulder. Frank still lay on the floor. "Oooohhhhhh, twenty minutes! That's going to be at the same time as the pre-qualifiers!"
Xander knew he shouldn't ask. He knew he didn't want to know anything else about this bizarre competition he'd been entered into. Yet the words came out of his mouth. "What pre-qualifiers?"
"The Bat-Off!" Steve giggled. "All the versions of Batman entered into the competition are going to square off in a giant brawl to see who is the ultimate Bat! The winner goes on to the actual competition."
Xander blinked. To be honest, he rather wanted to see that himself. "Okay, you guys get me my gear, and then you can go watch the ‘Bat-Off'."
Mike and Steve exchanged a worried glance. "Right. Gear. About that."
Xander sighed. "We covered this. You know what weapons I can kinda use. You said you'd get them for me while I surfed the ‘net. So give ‘em."
"We, uh, don't have any yet."
Xander rubbed at the bridge of his nose. He wondered briefly if he should invest in glasses, just so he could clean them. He was beginning to see the value of such a gesture. "You don't have any yet."
"Um, no. I can probably whip you up something real quick, but it'll be kinda . . . rudimentary."
"You do that." Xander turned to Steve. "You tell me why, when you had the last seven hours to put together an arsenal, you're telling me that you DIDN'T."
Steve swallowed, glancing back at Frank, who was contemplating the ceiling with an idle curiosity. "We got distracted. We kept PLANNING to build the arsenal, really."
"Got distracted by what?"
"A . . . philosophical debate."
Xander glared at the stoner.
"It's a really tough question!"
Mike appeared back at his side. The counter read fifteen minutes and forty-three seconds. "Here." He shoved something into Xander's hand.
Xander rolled his eye. "This is a stick."
"If you think you can draw an automatic pistol in fifteen minutes, down to the precise specs and with all the pertinent details, be my guest."
Xander pondered the stick. It had a lot of weight to it, with a club like end, and a sharpened point. "At least I'm going up against a vampire first. Er. Duckpire."
"Vampduck." Steve offered.
Xander raised his stick.
"It really was a tough question!"
"Well," Steve shrugged. "Who would win in a fight? Superman or Dark Phoenix?"
Xander tightened his hand on his stick. "That's . . ." He lowered the stick slowly, as his geek-brain kicked into gear. He blinked. "Okay, that really IS tough question."
On the monitor, the clock continued to tick.
Xander vs. Honeysuckle
"Okay." Mike stood in front of Xander, his face covered in a thick layer of multi-colored grease paint. "Now, just stand in the circle."
Xander flicked a glance at the timer on the computer monitor. Five minutes to showtime. "Shouldn't we be getting to the playing field?"
Mike rolled his eyes. "That's what we're doing, dude. Now stand still."
Xander blinked. "You're magicking me to the playing field?"
"Duh," Steve grinned at him from over Mike's shoulder. Xander lifted his stick again, but the geek didn't seem to notice. "This isn't Dragonball Z. We're not gonna just walk down the block and find ourselves in a gladiator arena. They set a place up in the creative ether."
"Right." Xander lowered his stick. "And who, exactly, are ‘they'?"
"The organizers of the tournament." Mike put his hands on Xander's shoulder and steered him into the chalk-dust circle on the old carpet. Xander shrugged his hands off, but Mike was already shaking his "magic bone" at him. "They got together the best writers they could find and designed a whole universe for the tournament to take place in. That way, we don't have to worry about the fade effect in RL."
The room started to swirl, making Xander more than a little nauseous. As he doubled over, he caught a glimpse of Mike, Steve, and Frank grinning at him. "Good luck, dude!"
And the whole world shifted to the left.
Xander took several deep breaths in hopes of keeping the remains of his hasty lunch of a tuna sandwich down. When he was no longer in danger of embarrassing himself in front of god-knew how many other "fictional" characters, he straightened.
He was standing in the midst of some kind of lobby. The walls were a dingy white color and covered with banners announcing the various teams. People and creatures of all shapes and sizes were scattered about the room with him, all looking about as bewildered as he felt. He locked eyes with someone wearing a very realistic looking Magneto costume, then blinked.
Make that he locked eyes with MAGNETO. The Omega level mutant scowled back at him, and he grinned sheepishly. "Uh, good luck in the tournament, Mags!"
The scowl deepened. Xander cast about for someone to help him. He was NOT in anyway prepared to take on the X-men's arch-nemesis. At least his stick wasn't made of metal.
"Now, now," A nondescript man wearing a suit and holding a clipboard stepped in front of the frowning mutant. "You know the rules, Magneto. There will be no violence outside of the Arena." The man turned around to look at Xander. Xander blinked.
Nondescript was really, seriously, the ONLY way to describe the guy. Someone hadn't wasted a lot of creative power in making him up. Xander got the vague impression of glasses, but that was about it.
"Ah. Alexander Lavelle Harris."
Xander winced. "It's Xander, actually."
The man frowned. Sort of. "Our list indicates that SMG Teacozy entered Alexander Lavelle Harris."
"Yeeeeeeah. But I go by Xander."
"Of course, Alexander Lavelle Harris." The man clasped his clipboard to his chest. "I am the Man. I am acting as the liaison to all of the champions. If you will follow me, I will take you to the Arena. Your first battle is in 4 minutes and 37 seconds. We have very little time to spare. 35 seconds."
Xander trailed after him. The Man lead him into a dingy, white hallway, also filled with characters. They passed Fox Mulder, Flash Gordon, Chris O'Donnell wearing a blue musketeers robe, and Optimus Prime. Xander concentrated on keeping his eye in his head and his jaw off the floor.
A blast of red light shot across the hallway at shin level and Xander jumped back. The Man turned and leveled a blank stare at a small, brown bear with a large red heart in the middle of its white stomach. "Tender Heart Bear. There are specified training facilities in the Town. You will have to take your care bear stare there."
The Man actually said that with a straight face. Xander couldn't help but be impressed.
"The Town?" He jogged to catch up with the Man as he walked down the hallway. "You mean there's more to this place than . . . this?"
"Yes, Alexander Lavelle Harris. There is. You will have time to explore the Town and the surrounding Forest after your match, should your team leader allow it." The Man stopped in front of a plain, brown doorway. "This will lead you to the Arena. Your battle against--" The Man checked his clipboard. "Honey Suckle will commence in one minute and 56 seconds. Are you prepared?"
"Wait, wait, no," Xander ran a hand through his hair, careful not to upset his eyepatch. "That's a mistake. I was told I was fighting Count Duckula."
"Team Duckpire's check bounced. Count Duckula is no longer in the running. You will be battling Honey Suckle."
Xander shook his head sharply. "Who the hell is Honey Suckle? I'm not prepared for this!" He brandished his stick in the Man's face, and didn't receive so much as a flinch in reaction. "You've got to give me more information?"
"Your battle will commence in 1 minute and 13 seconds." The Man looked at Xander. "Do you wish to forfeit?"
"What? No, I--"
"Your battle will commence in 51 seconds. I recommend that you take the field, Alexander Lavelle Harris."
Xander stared at him for a long moment, before deciding that a man who was simply named the Man, didn't speak in contractions, refused to use nicknames, and hadn't even warranted a real face probably wasn't capable of bluffing. "Can I call you Manny?"
"Your battle will commence in 36--"
"Alright, alright, I'm going!" Xander threw his arms up, spun, and stepped through the door.
And found himself standing in the middle of a bare, dirt field, surrounded by stands filled with screaming fans. An announcer bellowed over the loudspeaker.
"Welcome one and all to the first annual Masters of the Multi-verse competition!"
The screaming of the fans got even louder. Xander fought the urge to cover his ears.
"In this corner, straight off the bus from the mouth of hell, the one, the only, the oh-so-very human . . . ." The announcer paused for drama. "That's right, Multi-verse fans, let's hear it for Buffy the Vampire Slayer's ALEXANDER LAVELLE HARRIS!"
Xander decided he would have to do something drastic to his team for registering him under his full name.
"And in this corner, fluttering in from Flutter Valley and nearly twenty years of being off the air . . . . Please give it up for Honey Suckle, the Flutterpony!"
Xander spun in place. Behind him stood a very pink pony with insect wings. A very confused and annoyed looking pink pony, with a darker pink mane and tail, a bright pink ribbon, large pink eyes, and an arrangement of pink flowers on her haunches. He shut his eye and shook his head.
"No way. There is no way I'm fighting a My Little Pony."
Honey Suckle reared up onto her hind legs, her front legs kicking in the air. She screamed and took to the sky, her wings making a joyful tinkling noise, and hurtled herself at Xander.
"If you think I'm going to let you steal our sunstone and turn my home into a dark, gloomy place, you've got another think coming, buster!"
Xander dove into the dirt. "Steal your WHAT?"
"Don't you play dumb with me! My friends told me what you're after. Like I told Marigold and Rose Dust, time and time again, you can't just let people walk all over you! It's time to take action!"
The pony dove at him again, and once again Xander found himself face first in the dirt. It was fortunately tasteless. Much like the idea of pitching him against a freakin' MY LITTLE PONY.
"I'm not after your sunstone! You've been lied to!"
Honey Suckle wasn't listening. She dove at him again, and the crowd in the stands went wild. He raised his stick in defense and caught her on the right front . . . hoof-thing. The pony shrieked and took off higher in the air.
Xander struggled to his feet, dusting himself off. He stared up at the pony, who favored her leg, even in midair, and glowered back at him. He threw down his stick and held his hands out to the sides.
"What's this?" The announcer's voice boomed over the field. "That's a brave move by Alexander Lavelle Harris. What could his game plan be?"
"Look!" Xander held his arms out wider. Honey Suckle stared at him, as if looking to see if it was a trick. He swallowed.
My Little Pony was a children's show. He'd never watched it personally, but Willow had been VERY into it. Unfortunately, that had been during the time that she wasn't quite speaking to him, after he stole her Barbie. But he was pretty sure that the ponies weren't into violence.
"Can we talk about this?"
Honey Suckle blinked. "You want to talk?"
"But," Honey Suckle fluttered herself to the ground. "You're a Bad Guy."
Xander smiled softly and shook his head. "No, I'm not. You have no idea what's going on, do you?"
Honey Suckle's eyes narrowed. "My new friends told me that I was here to fight against people who wanted to destroy my home. They said you were evil."
"Then they lied to you." Xander took a hesitant step forwards. He swallowed again. This had to work. "This is . . . it's like a game, to them. They want us to fight. To the death."
Honey Suckle turned a lighter shade of pink. "D-death?"
"Yeah." He aimed for sympathy. "There's not a lot of death where you come from, is there."
"Flutter Valley is a happy place. We mostly just get caught in nets and have to use our wits and friends to get us out."
"That's good, that's good." Xander took another step forward. Friends were important in kids shows. If he could get Honey Suckle to decide they were friends, he might be able to win an ally. "Friends are very important. I want to get back to my friends."
"What-what happened to your friends?" Honey Suckle's voice dripped with sadness. It was working.
"I don't know. I was taken away from them, like you were taken away from Flutter Valley. My home was destroyed. I don't want to destroy anyone else's home."
"Oh." Honey Suckle lowered her head. "Then--then my new friends lied to me?"
"Yeah." Xander took the final step forward to stand face to face with the pony. She came up to somewhere around his lower ribs. He patted her on her shortened, strangely bulbous horse head. "Doesn't sound like they're very good friends."
The crowd in the arena had fallen silent, as though hovering in anticipation. Xander weighed his options. He could try to strike now, while Honey Suckle trusted him, and win his first battle. He could forfeit, but that would mean giving himself up to whatever team decided it would be fun to tell an innocent pony that he was going to destroy her home. Both options made him feel slightly sick, and more than a little foolish.
His brain rebelled against the very idea that he was standing here, talking to a life-sized talking pink horse. With insect wings. And a little heart on her foreleg. He was never, ever going to live this down.
"Listen." He leaned in close to the horse's ear. "I have an idea, that might help us get back to my friends and yours just a little bit faster."
"I'd like that."
"Yeah. Me too." He rolled his eye inwardly. His bad-ass cred, while never on terribly steady footing, was going way down the toilet with this one. "I'd like to be your friend."
Honey Suckle's eyes shone. "I'd like that, too."
"Then forfeit the fight. Join me, and we can get home just a little bit faster, and no one has to get hurt."
Honey Suckle took a step backwards. "You mean, quit?" She shook her head. "But quitters never prosper!"
"It's not quitting!" Xander held his hands up again. "It's more like a tactical retreat."
"Yeah. You just say that you forfeit, and then you can join my team and we'll get ourselves home."
Honey Suckle looked up at the sky, as though considering.
"I, um," Xander rubbed at the skin just below his eyepatch. "I think Merry-go-round and Rose Petal would approve."
"Marigold and Rose Dust."
Honey Suckle looked him in the eye. "And you'll be my friend?"
"I'd like to think I already am."
She nodded sharply. "Right then." She took off into the sky, her wings tinkling, and faced the crowd. "I forfeit!"
The crowd stayed silent. Xander crossed his fingers.
"Well." The announcer's voice, still booming, sounded bemused. "Honey Suckle of Flutter Valley forfeits to Alexander Lavelle Harris of Sunnydale! Alexander Lavelle Harris is the winner! Honey Suckle will now join SMG Teacozy, as per the rules of the Masters of the Multi-verse challenge!"
The crowd erupted into halfhearted, slightly confused cheers. Xander grinned at them. "Take that, loser geeks!"
Honey Suckle fluttered to a landing beside him and pressed her forehead against his shoulder. "You're my good friend, Alexanderlavelleharris."
Xander winced. "Please. Just call me Xander."
* * *
"WHAT did you do?"
Xander spun around from where he and Honey Suckle were relaxing after the "battle". The winner's lounge was small, windowless, and of course, dingy and white. Mike, Steve, and Frank all stared at him. "Hey guys, how was the Bat-Off?"
"The Michael Keaton Batman won." Frank sounded distinctly bored. He eyed Honey Suckle with suspicion. "And you're cuddling with a pink horse."
"This is Honey Suckle, the flutterpony. Count Duckula's team got booted."
Steve was blinking very quickly. He stared at Honey Suckle, as though he wondered if someone had slipped something "extra" into his latest stash. Mike just looked angry.
"What did you do?" He repeated.
"Honey Suckle and I talked about it and decided we'd rather be friends than fight. She forfeited."
Steve continued blinking. "So, you won, right?"
Steve burst into his wide, half-aware grin. "Dude!" He slapped Xander on the shoulder. "You rule!"
"He doesn't rule!" Mike spun on Steve. "He TALKED his way out of fighting."
"And still won." Xander threw an arm around Honey Suckle's neck. "Go team SMG Teacozy."
"I don't see what all the fuss is about." The group turned to see two young women walking into the winner's lounge. "After all, you now have two champions. We don't have any."
Xander smirked at Frank, who was watching the taller, larger-breasted of the two with a distinctly hungry expression. "Ah, Frank, you're drooling." He gestured at the tall one. "Guys, meet Mehri," He swung his arm towards the shorter, redheaded woman. "And Susan. Team Paradise Estate."
Mike sneered at them. "You chose a My Little Pony as your champion. You deserve to lose."
Susan rolled her eyes. "Whatever. We're in this for FUN, or did you miss the memo? We thought it would be funny."
"Besides." Mehri grinned. "Honey Suckle here is a FLUTTER pony. Not a My Little Pony."
"And," Susan wrapped a companionable arm over Mike's shoulder. Xander smirked as Mike moved his eyes from her breasts to her face in what looked like a conscious move. "Your team now has three new members. This is a good thing."
"Right." Mike tugged at his t-shirt's collar. "Well, if Honey Suckle's going to be joining you in battle, we'll have to get some armor, er," He shot a glance at Mehri and Susan. "Knocked up. So to speak. And maybe a saddle."
Honey Suckle looked confused. "Why do I need armor?"
Xander patted her on the mane. "It's just for protection. Not everyone we go up against is going to want to be our friend. Now." He turned his glance to the geeks and ladies. "Let's get back to RL. I'm going to have to fill you in on the new game plan."
Xander vs. The Ravening Hoard
Xander tipped the visor of his baseball cap up slightly to get a better view of the array of comics in front of him. He'd accompanied Steve to work at the comic book store/gaming den in order to conduct some necessary research for the upcoming challenges. Xander hadn't had much time to bone up on the world of geekdom in the final year in Sunnydale, and this reality had at least two years on him on top of that. He was going to have to read a lot of comic books.
Back in the basement of retro-tackiness, Mike and Frank were working out the specs on some weapons and armor for Xander and Honey Suckle to use, with the help of Susan the gun-nut and Mehri the Aikido master. It seemed strange to Xander that team Paradise Estate was so uniquely skilled when it came to combat, yet had chosen Honey Suckle as their champion. He wasn't so surprised that they were both very attractive women. Attractive women simply didn't surprise him anymore.
"I'm telling you, that's HIM."
"No way. There would have been an announcement, or something."
The not-so-subtle stage whispers around him were beginning to get on his nerves. It seemed that Steve's baseball-cap-and-sunglasses disguise was working less than well. He sighed and slowly turned around. "I'm not, actually. You know, ‘him'."
The two preteens stared openly at him. One clutched a Vamp-Darla action figure to her ample stomach. The other flashed her green and blue braces at him as she handed him a picture.
"Mr. Brendon, sir, could you sign this for me?"
Xander rolled his eye. "I'm not ‘Mr. Brendon'. I just kinda look like him."
The chubby one's eyes widened even further. "Are you Kelly?"
"Omigod!" Braces started chanting. "Omigodomigodomigodyou'reKellyomigod,"
Xander frowned. "Who?"
"WE'RE HUGE FANS!" The two rushed him at once, sending Xander staggering backwards into the comics display. He cast about for an exit, and not finding one, searched instead for a rescue. Steve was nowhere in sight, probably having ducked out back for a toke, the bastard. Xander stuck his hands out hoping to ward off the shrieking girls, but to no avail. They were incredibly agile for geeks, ducking and weaving around his attempts to stave them off until they both clutched handfuls of his borrowed "Can't sleep, clowns will eat me" shirt. "WE LOVE YOU, MR. BRENDON! YOU'RE THE GREATEST ACTOR IN THE WORLD! XANDER'S THE GREATEST!"
Chubby tugged her shirt up, baring a very pale stomach. "Sign me!"
Admittedly, a small part of Xander wanted to lean back, bask in the glow of being a celebrity, and enjoy himself. A larger part of him was terrified.
"I'm not Nick Brendon!"
"Did someone say Nick Brendon was here?"
Xander's head twisted to one side fast enough to pop his neck. It seemed nearly every person who'd been in the comic book store, which was a considerable amount seeing as there was a Magic tournament going on, was crowding into the tiny aisle between stacks of comic books, and headed straight for him.
He was so screwed.
He pushed hard against Chubby and Braces, trying not to wince when his t-shirt ripped. "I'M NOT NICK Brendon!" He hurtled himself towards the front door of the store desperately, shoving geeks out of the way with every step. His glasses and cap were lost at some point in the struggle, and a gasp rippled through the gathered masses.
"He's got an eyepatch!"
"He looks just like him!"
Xander spun back around as he reached the other side of the mob and continued backing towards the door. "Look, I PROMISE you, I'm not Nick Brendon."
"Wait, isn't Steve in the Masters of the Multi-verse competition?"
Xander was nearly at the door. He could feel the blast of air conditioning from the vent just above him. Nearly to freedom.
"Dammit, I HATE Xander!"
"Aw, crap!" He spun again and lunged for the door, only to get tackled inches from freedom.
"Keep your hands off of him, you Angel-loving freak!"
"He lied to Buffy! I'll kill him!"
"Nooooo! Xander just wanted to save the world!"
The remains of Xander's t-shirt shredded away as people alternately tried to attack him or molest him.
"I love you, Xander!"
"You never should have cheated on Cordy!"
"Willow is your one true love!"
He was going to die if he didn't get himself out of here. He managed to throw off an overly affectionate 35 year old man and locked his gaze on the back corner of the store. It was a long shot, but he didn't have any better ideas.
"Look! A distraction in the form of a topless Spike!"
His voice cracked on the name of the blonde vampire, and miraculously, it worked.
"Spike? Where? I love Spike!"
"He's here with Xander?"
"Did he say ‘look, a distraction'?"
Xander didn't pause. He threw himself out the door before they could realize they'd been tricked, and bolted for Steve's car, bellowing for the stoner as he went.
"Stellaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" A female voice bellowed back cheerfully. Xander turned to look, and then slammed less-than-gracefully into the side of Steve's sedan.
Mehri grinned at him even as she tossed geek after geek onto the sidewalk. "Thought you might get yourself into trouble."
"Get in!" Xander spun again, wincing as he pulled more muscles in his neck. Susan lay sideways across the front seat of Mike's land-yacht, holding the passenger side door open. Xander lunged for it, ignoring the pained cries of fans and anti-fans behind him as Mehri continued to "distract" the ravening hordes.
Xander slammed himself onto the bench seat, only to get shoved to the middle as Mehri hopped in behind him. "Floor it!" he shrieked, then blinked as he realized that Susan had already done just that. He stared at her. "What are you, some kind of CIA operative?"
Susan smirked. "Sorry, that information is classified."
"Riiiight." Xander leaned back in his seat, looking for the seatbelt. There didn't seem to be one. His neck hurt from craning it to look at Susan, so he stared forward and did his best not to be twitchy with her in his blind spot. "So, not that I'm complaining or anything, but what exactly were you two doing here?"
"Mehri here belongs to a ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer' mailing list. Someone at the store must have had a blackberry or something, because she got an email saying that ‘Nick Brendon' had made a surprise guest appearance at Steve's store. We figured that a real celebrity wouldn't be caught dead there, or at least, not without advance notice, and came to bail you out." Susan's voice remained calm even as she swerved in and out of traffic.
"Well, I'm glad you did." Xander tensed as Susan expertly ran a red light at a busy intersection. "Geez, when did you get so good at this?"
"I took stunt driving classes after college."
Xander ignored the twinges in his neck as he shot a glance at Susan. "Seriously?" She nodded. "You two are, like, too good to be true."
Mehri and Susan exchanged a look, then began laughing. It sounded rather forced. Mehri cleared her throat.
"We, um, we get that a lot."
* * *
Xander slammed his way down the stairs even as he tugged vainly at the hem of his latest borrowed t- shirt. This one, a green camouflage shirt with "Oh no! It's snowing!" printed in white across the chest, belonged to Mike's younger brother, and was subsequently about two sizes too small for him. He glared across the basement at Frank and Mike, who sat in the midst of a pile of gleaming plate-mail. "From now on," He jabbed a finger at Mike. "I'm staying in the Town."
"Pfft," said Frank.
"No can do." Mike completed a drawing with a flourish and a chant, and an ornate, jeweled broad sword appeared in mid-air before dropping to the carpet with a clank. "I only know the spell to get you to the playing field, not the Town."
"That's okay!" Susan bounced down the stairs behind Xander. "Mehri's a wiz with the creative magic. She'll have no trouble getting Xander to the right section of the Town. How's the armory coming?"
"Armor-like." Mike gestured to his pile. "I haven't gotten the gun drawings detailed enough for them to work, yet, though."
"Pfft." Mehri sounded disturbingly like Frank for a moment, and her wicked grin said that she knew this. "Susan's got all the specs you'll need. Just trace them out, and we'll be fine."
Frank narrowed his eyes at the duo. Mike looked like he'd fallen in love. Xander clapped his hands. "Right then. Let's go to Town." He glanced around, suddenly noticing that someone was missing. Well, aside from Steve, who still had another three hours on his shift. "Where's Honey Suckle?"
"We put her in a stable in the Town." Mehri picked up the broadsword one handed and tried a few expert slashes. "She's probably fending off Mr Ed's advances as we speak." She made a stabbing motion at Frank's gut. He just continued to stare at her with that ominous, flat gaze. "The balance on this thing is way off."
"If all goes well, I won't need to use it anyway." Xander leaned over towards the computer. "Any word on my next match?"
"No." Frank's eyes never left Mehri. With the reflection of the monitor off his glasses, it was impossible to tell if he was ogling her or trying to kill her with his laser vision.
"Oookay." Xander glanced at Mike. "Sorry ‘bout the shirt, man, it was either it or me."
"Whatever." Mike took a rolled up schematic from Susan. He was drooling slightly. "I figured it would get screwed up, anyway. What with the fighting, and all."
"Never fear, Mikey," Xander grinned as he reviewed the rules of engagement on the Challenge's home page. "No more fighting. Me and the Multi-verse are going to become good friends."
Second Banana Heaven
"The Town", Xander was surprised to see, was much more thoroughly detailed than the Arena or the areas surrounding it. He also had a suspicion that the creators of the Town were very, very into Renaissance Fairs.
The road through the middle of the town was hard-packed dirt, with deep wagon wheel ruts running through it. There were no wagons in sight, and there wasn't really any possibility that the road or the town had been in existence long enough to have seen the kind of traffic the ruts suggested, so Xander assumed that they were decorative, only.
The buildings that lined the road were built in a haphazard array of styles, from Spaghetti western saloon fronted establishments to giant, arching stone castles. Many of the structures were physical impossibilities. Xander might not have been all that good at math or spacial relations, but he'd been working in construction for long enough to know that a quarter-inch thick piece of wood couldn't support an entire wall made of red brick. He crossed his arms and frowned. Whoever these creators were obviously didn't care much about the laws of physics. Either that, or they were hoping the buildings would collapse on top of a group of champions, thereby eliminating them from the competition.
Closer inspection revealed that the buildings were, in fact, the same seven structures repeated over and over again along the edges of the road, just with different signs. Apparently "the best writers they could find" REALLY weren't that great.
He would have to worry about that later. First, he was going to have to find a place to stay. The road stretched out seemingly into infinity in either direction, with the buildings lining every inch of it. Most of them seemed to be completely empty, with signs advertising butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. A troupe of cheerfully singing elves loitered under a sign shaped like a shoe. A man holding a strange wooden rack covered in paper bags meandered up and down the street. He spotted Xander and grinned.
"You, good sir! Care to sample my enormous nuts?"
Xander avoided making eye contact and walked determinedly down the street.
"Perhaps you'd just like to lick the salt off of them!"
Xander's eye flicked from sign to sign, searching for some sort of escape.
"I assure you, they're the best nuts in Town!"
His eye landed on a bright yellow banana with the words "barre and inne" painted in faux old English across the peel. When in doubt, fight bawdy innuendo with a cheap visual pun. He darted for the doorway.
"Oh, sure. Take the banana. Everyone prefers the banana to nuts!"
Outside on the street it had been mid-day. In the bar, it was some time past midnight. The whole place was lit by candlelight and a fireplace that seemed to take up an entire wall. Long wooden tables filled the stone room from end to end, each filled with about a dozen different characters, all leaning over their drinks, talking and laughing with their fellow champions. A short, somewhat circular man with white hair stepped up on Xander's blind side.
"Welcome to Second Banana Heaven!" The man gestured to the rows of tables. "Take a seat where ever you like. We're all friends here!"
Xander turned to get a better look at his host. He blinked. "You--You're TV's Frank!"
"Yes. Yes I am." TV's Frank lead Xander to an empty seat at one of the long tables and placed a pint of beer in front of him. "Enjoy your stay here in Second Banana Heaven!"
He wandered off before Xander could get his jaw working enough to ask him questions. "TV's Frank. Wow. Second Banana Heaven."
"Yeah," said the man beside him. "I thought it was a bit much, myself."
Xander half-turned in his seat, and once again found himself trying to keep his jaw off the table. "I know you,"
"Do you?" The man peered at him. "You seem kind of familiar, yourself. Are you from LA?"
"Sunnydale." Xander looked closer. The man was somewhat heavy set, with short, dark hair, large brown eyes, and a thick scar on the right side of his neck. "Wait, no, I know this one," He tapped on his forehead to facilitate his thought process. "You're from ‘Alias'. Vaughn's friend. Agent White?"
"Weiss. Eric Weiss." The agent grinned and offered his hand. "I think you're the first person to recognize me."
"I'm Xander." Xander took the hand and gave it a good shake, matching Weiss squeeze for squeeze. "Good to know you survived the shot to the neck."
"Yeah?" Weiss shook his head. "That was years ago."
"Huh." Xander shrugged. "I didn't have much time to watch TV this year. I caught your season premiere, but not a lot after that. I loved the first season, though. ‘Specially that Rambaldi stuff. Made it seem more real."
"More real?" Weiss shook his head. "Rambaldi's like, straight out of fantasy land."
"Yeah, well, my world practically is fantasy land, so what can you do."
Weiss' eyes widened in recognition. "Wait, you're from ‘Buffy', aren't you? Man, I loved that show. Trying to watch all seven seasons kept me occupied at the hospital. Good to meet you."
"I would have thought that Buffy or Willow would have made a better choice for this thing, though."
"Yeah, well, I'd have picked Sydney, or Jack, or even Irina Derevko over you."
"Touche." Weiss took a long swallow of his beer. "You're among good company, though. I've been hanging out here since a little while after I got dragged into this thing." He nodded to someone arguing with a short, blonde, cartoonish man. "Over there we've got Donna Moss from ‘West Wing' and Barney Rubble," He tilted his head the other way. "There we have Wash from ‘Firefly', Tonto of ‘the Lone Ranger' fame, and Pete from ‘Smallville'," He smirked at a shape sitting well away from the others at the end of the table. Xander squinted. "And of course--"
"Wesley frickin' Crusher. I don't believe it."
"Yeah, I wouldn't have picked him as my ‘champion' either." Weiss shrugged. "He's moping because apparently his team picked him just so they could watch him get killed horribly in his first fight."
Xander wrinkled his nose. "That can't be right. That's just . . . mean."
"Yeah, well, his team's called ‘Crush Crusher'. They told him to his face."
Xander winced in sympathy as he tried to decide what was worse, being over-estimated by a bunch of fan boys, or being sacrificed for the sake of a few cheap laughs.
Another dark-haired guy with fashionably bad hair sat down across from them. "Hey, I'm Aaron. Can you believe this place? I ran into C-3PO over by the bathrooms, and some kid named Ron keeps poking at his PDA and yelling for ‘Kim'. It's nuts."
Weiss and Xander introduced themselves.
"Oh, I know. I live with my parents. I spend a lot of time watching TV. You guys at least have a chance. I'm going to get killed." Aaron concentrated on his beer.
Weiss and Xander exchanged a look. There was a lot of Aaron's pessimism going around; they could hear similar comments from the folks at the tables around them. Weiss took another sip of his beer. "You don't have any special skills?"
Aaron shrugged. "I know more about the world's religions than probably anyone else here, but I doubt that's going to save me on the field."
"No offense, but why the hell did anyone pick you as their champion? You're not another Crusher, are you?"
Aaron shook his head. "My team is a trio of girls my sister's age. They apparently just thought I was hot."
A light bulb seemed to go off in Xander's head, and he quickly glanced around for a mirror. In this universe there was no telling if a light bulb had ACTUALLY appeared above him, or not. No one seemed to be looking at him oddly, so he decided it probably hadn't. It was time to spread the word. He leaned back slightly and checked to see if anyone unidentifiable as a champion was in the vicinity. Seeing that the coast was clear, he leaned back in.
"Listen. I have a plan."
Weiss and Aaron raised their eyebrows and leaned forward. Weiss pulled a pen out of his pocket and whipped off the top to reveal some complex circuitry topped by a little red light. At Xander and Aaron's looks of confusion, he shrugged. "Bug-killer, courtesy of Marshall Flinkman. Luckily I had this in my pocket when I was . . . summoned, or whatever."
Xander raised his eyebrows. "Does that work on magic bugs, too?"
Weiss shrugged. "No idea. We have two minutes."
Xander nodded. "Gotcha. Have you looked over the rules of engagement?"
"A little." Weiss waved his hand. "My team didn't really give me a chance. They explained the basics, showed me the website, and then dumped me in here."
Aaron nodded. "I think I was too busy freaking out to really pay attention."
"Fair enough." Xander dropped his voice. "Did you see the rule about forfeits?"
"Doesn't it say that if you give up, you become like, slave labor for the other team?" Weiss made a face. Xander shook his head.
"It says that you'll be given to the other team to be used as they see fit. If you plan it right, that means extra fighters on your side. I've already had my first battle, and now I have something of a war horse. So, let's say every battle ends in a forfeit. What would you get?"
Weiss nodded slowly, comprehension dawning in his eyes. "I get it. You'd end up with an army."
Xander poked the table with his finger. "EXACTLY. Work it right, get diplomatic, and nobody has to die."
Aaron shook his head. "What if you go up against someone who won't quit? Like, say, Darth Vader?"
Xander frowned. "Okay, so it only works if you get enough good guys on your team before you run up against a bad guy. If you had, like, Wolverine or someone on your team, they could take Darth Vader out. The idea is to minimize the killing. If we can get enough teams together, we could probably put a stop to this whole thing, once and for all."
Aaron groaned. "I don't know. This whole thing is too crazy. If my sister didn't talk to God or whatever through a bunch of toy animals, I'd never be in this mess." He blinked, then shook his head. "Or, possibly, if I believe the whole ‘I'm really a character on a canceled TV show' thing, if my sister didn't talk to toy animals, I wouldn't even exist."
Weiss nodded. "Makes your brain hurt. Though it does explain a lot about the Bristows. No one's family tree is that screwed up."
"Yeah, no kidding. Though I'd love to see Buffy and Cyclops get together. Buffy thinks HER Summers family is weird? The X-men have her beat, hands down."
Aaron laughed. Weiss smiled. "We should probably compare notes, too. Between everyone here, we can probably figure out how to talk to or beat down pretty much anybody we might come up against. I know TV shows pretty well, but the life of a spy doesn't leave a lot of room for catching up with comics."
Xander nodded. "Not here, though. I get the feeling we need to keep this on the down-low. The sign said this was an inn?"
Aaron nodded. "You'll have to talk to Torgo for a room."
Xander stood. "Right then. Let's get to it." Xander stood and turned only to find himself face to non- face with the Man. He was distinct in his indistinctness. "Manny!" Xander forced himself to grin and sat back down. "How's it going?"
"Hello, Alexander Lavelle Harris. It is going quite well, thank you." The Man turned to Aaron. "Aaron Tyler of ‘Wonderfalls', I have come to inform you that your first battle will occur in precisely twenty minutes. Your team awaits you at the Arena with your weapons. Please follow me."
Aaron quickly downed the last of his beer and stood up shakily. "Who am I fighting?"
The Man checked his list. "It seems that you will be battling Julian Sark from ‘Alias'."
Weiss spit out his beer. "Forfeit!" He hissed. "Forfeit like you've never forfeited before!"
Aaron was noticeably pale. "Um,"
The Man clapped a hand on Weiss's shoulder. "That is quite enough from you, Agent Weiss."
Weiss scowled. "Hey, I HAVE a first name, you know,"
The Man ignored him. "Aaron Tyler, if you wish to forfeit to Julian Sark, you will have to do it on the battle field. Follow me."
Aaron trailed after the Man like a someone on his way to his execution. Weiss and Xander watched him go. Xander raised his beer. "Good luck, man."
"Oh god," was Aaron's only answer.
Weiss clinked his pint glass against Xander's. "Here's to a fallen compatriot. We won't be seeing him again any time soon."
Xander blinked. "He might forfeit."
"And if he does, he'll be joining Sark's team. Not such a nice place to be. I imagine that even if his team members are good people, Sark's managed to manipulate them into controlling the situation. Besides, the rules say that a champion will not battle a character from their own fandom unless absolutely necessary. Which means I, for one, will not be coming up against Sark's team anytime soon."
Xander set his beer down, untasted. While he hadn't taken his meds for his eye in more than a day, he wasn't willing to risk upsetting his stomach. "I don't remember seeing that rule."
"Apparently it was an addendum once things got rolling. The first thing I asked my team was whether or not I'd have to fight Sloane. They explained it to me."
Xander nodded. "Good to know. Now," He stood again. "It's time to go see a B-movie monster about a room."
* * *
Xander leaned against the window of his room, gazing out across the Town's only street. Weiss had agreed to meet him there in an hour to discuss tactics and characters, barring one of them having to go to battle. That gave Xander plenty of time to settle in.
Not that he had any clothes to unpack, or anything.
The room wasn't much, of course, little more than a double sized mattress and box spring resting on the floor, a crate for an end table, an alarm clock, a phone, and a copy of the Gideon Bible. There was an ensuite bathroom, though, which he appreciated. He considered a shower, but decided it wasn't worth it if he couldn't change clothes. Instead, he leaned against the window and people-watched.
It was amazing. Characters he'd loved since he was a little kid were all walking about the Town, talking, laughing, and occasionally glaring at each other. So far he'd spotted Jimmy Olsen, Fozzie Bear, Kramer, and a very blonde, very effeminate looking man in a suit all wander into Second Banana Heaven. Half of them were chased there by the nut-seller. The bigwigs: Luke Skywalker, Tony Soprano, Jean Grey, and William Wallace, to name a few, gave the place a miss. It seemed it really was for "second bananas" only. Xander had to groan at how quickly he'd decided to take shelter there.
"Dammit, I'm a main character in my life. Not a second banana."
He decided not to think about it too hard. Instead, he tried to spot a friendly face in the crowd.
He spotted a flash of red and peered closer. It was Willow.
"Oh thank god." He leaned halfway out the glass-less window and started waving frantically. "Willow! Willow, up here!"
She turned and scanned the street. He waved harder. "Xander!" She started pushing her way through the crowd until she stood just under the window. "Hold on, I'm coming up!" She waved cheerfully back, then looked around for the door.
"It's the one with the banana-shaped sign!" He pointed as broadly as he could at the entrance to Second Banana Heaven, but she just shook her head, looking confused.
"What banana-shaped sign?"
He blinked. Dammit, she couldn't see it. Did that mean she wasn't a second banana?
"I'm NOT a second banana." He pushed himself away from the window. "I'm coming down!"
She nodded, and he dashed for the door. He left a note with Torgo for Weiss, receiving a "the master will be pleased" in response, and hoped that that meant he'd pass on the message. It took some maneuvering, as the bar was rapidly filling with sidekicks, but he finally made his way out onto the street.
Only to be engulfed immediately by a red-haired wave of affection.
Xander had to laugh. "I'm okay, Willow. It's so good to see you." He hugged her back with equal affection, closing his eye. "I fought a My Little Pony."
"What?" Willow pulled away from him, frowning. "Oh, you didn't kill it, did you?"
"I'll have to tell you my master forfeit plan." He smiled. "I didn't kill her. She's one of the flutterponies. Honey Suckle."
Willow gave her "confused but still outwardly cheerful" face. "I never thought I'd see the day when you were on a first name basis with a My Little Pony."
"Yeah. Me neither." He brushed the hair off her forehead. "How about you, did you have to kill anything?"
Willow's confused face turned into her "disgusted but outwardly cheerful" face. "Yeah. But it looked like a demon, so I sorta felt okay about it."
Xander nodded, hoping it wasn't someone like D'Argo that she'd had to kill. On the other hand, Willow had been an even bigger fan of Farscape than he had, so D'Argo was probably safe. "Can you get us out of here?"
Willow's face fell. "No. It's weird. I can use my magic for just about anything, but even with all the details on the spell that brought us here and the one that takes us to RL and back, I can't seem to get out."
Xander shook his head. "Damn. I was really hoping that Witchy Willow would be able to solve this thing."
"Hey." Willow punched him lightly on the arm. "None of that, Witchy Willow will do it, she just has to keep researching. Now, what's this about a plan?"
"Not here." Xander looked around for Manny, but didn't see him lurking about. Of course, that didn't mean there weren't other "officials" from the organizers in the crowd. "Come on, we'll go to my room." He tugged Willow toward Second Banana Heaven, but she tugged back.
"Xander, you walked straight out of a wall over there."
Damn. She really COULDN'T see Second Banana Heaven. He let go of her hand and messed with his hair. "Come on. She's as much of a sidekick as I am,"
"I'm not a sidekick!"
"Neither am I!" He sighed. "Look, just close your eyes and trust me, okay?"
Willow nodded, took his hand, and closed her eyes. Xander took a deep breath and lead her into the inn. She shivered slightly as she crossed the threshold, but otherwise came through just fine.
TV's Frank showed up at their sides on cue. "Welcome to Second Banana--oh. Sorry, no main characters allowed."
Xander growled under his breath. "She's with me, okay?"
TV's Frank gave him an odd look, then shrugged. "Whatever. Just don't tell Torgo I let her in."
"No problem." Xander tugged Willow over to the table. She was staring about the bar in confusion.
"What is this place?"
"Apparently, this is where all the worthless characters come to hang."
"You're not worthless, Xander,"
"You know that, and I know that. I'm willing to think of it as a fluke."
Willow nodded and took her seat. A beer materialized in front of her. "So. Tell me about this plan."
To Make a Long Story Short
Xander lay stretched out across his "bed" in Second Banana Heaven. He was staring at the ceiling and tapping out "Wipe Out" on the mattress. It wasn't going well; he just didn't have enough rhythm to get it right.
He was very, very bored.
He'd go down to the bar to chat with the other combatants, but most of the interesting ones were currently doing battle, or preparing to do battle, or celebrating having done battle, or possibly being sent back into the mysterious "creative ether" after having done battle. The last time he'd ventured downstairs, he'd somehow ended up cornered between Threepio and Crusher. Boredom was preferable to listening to the two space whackos ramble on.
He'd managed a brief brainstorming session with Weiss and Willow about a half an hour before, where they'd started constructing game plans for all the various enemies they might be matched against. It seemed that the choice of who fought who was made by a randomizing computer program, or something like that. Willow had managed to weasel a laptop out of somewhere, but had had no luck in breaking into the Masters of the Multiverse server. She was able to call up imdb.com, which was probably going to be a life-saver, and had fashioned amulets for him and Weiss to wear, should they need to contact her. Apparently she was already booked into a castle for magicky types somewhere along the Town's "main strip". She and Hermione Granger had struck up something of a geeker friendship, and were working with a version of Merlin to find a loophole in the barrier that kept them from "apparating" out of the competition. With that kind of magical know-how, Xander was pretty sure they'd all be out of here in no time.
So he waited. And drummed. And nearly bolted out of his skin when the Man suddenly appeared, standing above him.
"Good morning, Alexander Lavelle Harris."
"For the last time, Manny, call me Xander." He glanced at the window, not having any hopes of actually getting the Man to change his way of addressing him. Willow got to be just "Willow", as her team hadn't used her last name, much less her middle name. On the other hand, Weiss's team didn't seem to even know he HAD a first name. At least the Man wasn't going to be eternally greeting him as "Mr. Harris". "It's morning?"
"Morning, noon, afternoon, evening, and night are all the same here. ‘Good morning' seemed the most cheerful manner of greeting you."
"Ah." Xander eased himself back on his elbows. "But knocking wasn't appropriate?"
The Man cocked his head, as though knocking were some alien term to him. "You go into battle in twenty minutes, Alexander Lavelle Harris. Your team has agreed to meet you at the Arena for preparations."
Xander suppressed a groan. If it weren't for the whole "fight to the death" thing, he might have enjoyed a chance to hang out with his favorite fictional characters. "Who's up?"
"You are scheduled to do battle with Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise."
Xander sat up straighter and began to grin. "Really?" He didn't even bother to wince at the distinct traces of fan-boy in his voice. "I get to meet Picard? Manny, I could kiss you!"
It was hard to tell, indistinct as his features were, but the Man didn't seem pleased at the prospect. "That won't be necessary, Alexander Lavelle Harris. Follow me." He turned stiffly before Xander could even indicate his willingness to do so, and headed for the door to Xander's room. Xander followed, looking forward to seeing the route from the Town to the Arena.
Which apparently just consisted of walking through his doorway. One moment he was in Second Banana Heaven, the next, he was standing in the small, white preparation room with the Man, Mike, Frank, Steve, Mehri, Susan, and Honeysuckle. The Man indicated a large clock on the wall, which bore a striking resemblance to school clocks everywhere, but for the fact that the numbers counted down backwards from twenty. They had eighteen minutes left. "When you are ready, simply exit through that door." A plain, brown wood interior door appeared in the wall. "Good luck, Alexander Lavelle Harris."
Steve snickered. He was munching on a handful of cheetos. Frank glowered at Honeysuckle and her team. Mike leered at Mehri. Mehri and Susan ignored all three in favor of cleaning a large stack of guns and blades.
"Mike got his hands on the specs for a phaser," Susan was saying. "It'll be ready in just a minute. You're gonna wanna hit Picard hard and fast--he's an old guy, but he's in remarkably good shape. Don't let him make the first move."
Xander blinked at her. "You're kidding, right?" He spread his arms. "No weapons. Remember," he shot a glance at Honeysuckle, who seemed to be wilting beneath a heavy suit of armor. "We're here to make friends."
Frank snorted. Mehri frowned, shooting a glance at Susan, who shrugged. "Whatever, it's your funeral."
"You can't go out there unprepared." Frank stared at Xander, somehow managing to get the light to reflect off his glasses, even when the strange, ambient light was without source or direction.
"I won't." Xander turned to Mike, who was clutching his tablet to his chest. Probably to keep it out of drool range. "I need some stuff. I don't have any specs, but they should be pretty easy to slap together."
Mike blinked, then glanced at Xander as if just noticing his arrival. "What's up?"
"Chairs." Xander stuck his hands in his pocket, his grin splitting his face. "And a travel mug of fresh, hot, earl grey tea."
* * *
"Are you sure he's going to want to be my friend?" Honeysuckle walked very close to Xander's side as they stepped onto the hard-packed dirt of the Arena. She looked much more cheerful now that she wasn't wearing her armor, but was struggling to balance the two beach chairs across her wings.
"Yeah. Picard is a great fighter, Susan was right about that. But he's also all about the peace. As long as we don't make any threatening moves against him, he'll be willing to ask questions first. Then it's just a matter of deciding who'll forfeit to who."
Honeysuckle nodded, a look of determination on her face. "He'll forfeit to us, of course. I won't leave behind my new friends."
"They followed you to me, didn't they?"
Honeysuckle's hairless, pony-eyebrows slid forward towards the front of her blunted pony-nose, but she didn't say anything else.
Across the field, Captain Jean-Luc Picard exchanged some final words with his team of four, consisting, it seemed, of two pimple faced adolescents and a pair of over-fifty trekkies. All five wore starfleet uniforms and communicator pins. Picard looked rather annoyed. Perhaps Honeysuckle was right, maybe he WOULD forfeit to them, if for no other reason then to get away from the fan-boys. Trekkies were notorious when it came to geekdom.
Xander had considered, in his meeting with Willow and Weiss, whether or not it would be better to forfeit himself and leave his trio of dorks behind. They'd finally decided that the devil he knew, and seemed to be at least partially in charge of, was preferable to an unknown team. He might end up with a (he shuddered) Spander fan.
Picard finally turned toward the field, and the announcer's cheerful voice boomed out over the Arena.
"Laaaaaaaadies, Gennnnnnnntlemen, and non-humanoid sentient beings of all shapes and sizes, welcome once again to the Masters of the Multiverse competition! Iiiiiiiin THIS corner, direct from perhaps the most popular science fiction series in existence, we have the one, the only, the incredible CAPTAIN JEAN-LUC PICARD OF THE STARSHIP ENTERPRISE!!!!!"
Cheers ran almost universally through the crowd. Xander could make out Picard's disconcerted expression from 50 yards away.
As the applause died down, the announcer allowed for a tense pause, then continued. "And in THIS corner, fresh from his first battle in the competition--"
A series of boos rose from across one side of the stands. Xander decided to ignore them.
"--the human mascot of the Buffy universe--"
Xander's back straightened. "Hey."
"Alexander Lavelle Harris and his new partner, Honeysuckle the Flutterpony!"
Was it his imagination, or had the announcer's tone taken a sinister turn on his name? Xander shrugged it off. He lead Honeysuckle towards the center of the field. Picard strode carefully forward, his posture screaming out his readiness. Xander stopped just short of the halfway mark, leaned down, and set the steaming mug of tea on the ground next to his foot. He offered Picard a friendly smile, then turned his back on him to get the chairs off of Honeysuckle.
"This looks like an odd tactic from Alexander Lavelle Harris, ladies and gentlemen. What could he be planning?"
Xander spotted Susan shooting him a dark look from the stands, her hands clutching the phaser. Mehri was talking on a cellphone. He gave them a quick thumbs up and unfolded the chairs. He turned back to Picard, not letting his harmless grin slip by even an inch, as Picard watched him warily. He held out the mug and gestured to the chairs.
"I thought we could talk this out over a cup of tea?"
Boos erupted from the stadium again. Picard stepped closer.
"I was made aware that we were to fight."
"Yeah," Xander shrugged. "Don't really want to, though. But, well, if you do," Xander settled his feet into a classic, goofy boxer stance, and waved loose fists in front of his face.
Picard stepped closer. "Is the tea poisoned?"
Xander took a long sip, trying not to grimace. He hated tea. He lowered the mug, still smiling. "It's earl grey."
Picard's face brightened. He gestured for Xander to sit, then took his place carefully across from him, accepting the mug gracefully. "Mr. Harris, was it?"
"Call me Xander."
Picard nodded. "What did you wish to talk about?"
"How's your team?" Xander leaned forward slightly. Honeysuckle stretched out on the ground.
Feedback sounded from the announcer's booth, along with some angry muttering.
* * *
"And you're absolutely certain that Q has nothing to do with this?" Picard glanced at Xander as they parted ways to return to their respective lodgings. Xander shrugged.
"No? But if he does, he's playing it really close to the chest." Xander grinned at the captain before stepping into the doorway he was now well aware that Picard couldn't see. He let out a breath of relief as he was greeted by TV's Frank, and sank down onto a bench across from Weiss.
Overall, Xander would call his "battle" with Picard to be a rousing success. He'd really enjoyed his chat with the captain, though he'd had to be careful not to let his own inner Trekkie show. They didn't have much in common when it came to musical tastes, or literature tastes, or any other tastes for that matter, but they both shared a rather positive outlook on humanity, and their discussion of philosophy (most of which Xander had gathered from television and movies) and the rules of the challenge had been fun. In the end, Picard decided to forfeit. Xander was right in thinking that the Trekkies had been somewhat overwhelming.
Picard didn't even seem bothered by the fact that he was now teamed up with a bright pink, cartoon horse. He seemed to look on Honeysuckle as being a sort of alien life form, which Honeysuckle didn't mind, because she wasn't entirely certain what an "alien life form" was. Susan and Mehri had been quick to reassure Xander that they were only looking out for his own good when they warned him to shoot first, and were extraordinarily cheerful about the prospect of having Picard on the team. Mehri had even engaged in a long conversation with the captain about the physics of the warp drive, while Susan had cheerfully chatted with him about Shakespeare and Vonnegut. Steve had watched the whole thing with a look of stoned awe, Mike had managed to stop drooling for long enough to get Picard's opinion on the drawings of various space-aged weapons, and even Frank had stopped glowering in the face of meeting one of his childhood heros in the flesh, though he had muttered something like "it should have been Kirk" when he thought no one was listening.
"Good fight?" Weiss lowered his pint glass to the table, and Xander caught glimpse of an impressive black eye.
"Yeah. Apparently yours didn't go too well?"
"Eventual forfeit, but she got in a lot of good hits before that." Weiss grimaced, touching his cheek gently. "So much for my bizarre childhood crush."
"Who'd you fight?" Xander vaguely remembered that it Weiss had been pitted against a muppet. Surely it couldn't have been Animal?
"Miss Piggy." Weiss grinned. "She's got a mean karate chop."
Xander nodded, sipping carefully from his own glass. "Any word on Aaron?"
"Harley over there says she and ‘Mistah J' spoke with Sark a couple hours ago. Aaron is apparently okay, but after he forfeited, Sark hit him once, anyway."
Xander winced. "How about the others? Has the word spread?"
Weiss nodded. "Oh yeah. Like a bioweapon. Merry the Hobbit teamed up with Robin of the Batman fame, Harry Kim from ‘Voyager' is now on Peter Venkman's team, and some cabbie named ‘Chaz' managed to somehow coax a forfeit out of this amazingly hot woman named Max."
"Excellent." Xander took a much larger, celebratory gulp of his beer. "I'm beginning to enjoy this."
"Hey," A nervous looking black kid in glasses and a red hat paused by their table. "Did you hear? They're having a battle of the bands event at the Amp and Pick!" Xander recognized him after a moment as Tucker, from some Nickelodeon cartoon show. He'd introduced himself the night before. "They've got Spinal Tap, Josie and the Pussycats, Dingoes Ate My Baby, Drive Shaft, and the Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of Death!" He scurried off again, and Weiss and Xander exchanged looks and followed without a word.
* * *
"No, Honeysuckle, don't touch--"
Xander leapt backwards without finishing his warning, pulling Picard back just in time to miss getting squashed by the six-hundred pound, unconscious pink pony hurtling out of the sky.
Above them, the woman with the white streak in her hair stopped screaming, turned a brilliant shade of pink that clashed with the red in her uniform, and turned to the crowd.
"Ah forfeit!" Rogue screamed, in a distinctly higher pitched voice than she'd been yelling threats in only moments ago.
"Well." Xander crouched down beside Honeysuckle. "That's one way to do it,"
* * *
"Ah still say that wasn't fair." Rogue struck a saucy, yet offended pose in the victor's room. "That wasn't me who forfeited. Ah had that horse in mah head."
"There, there," Steve patted the X-man gently on her covered shoulder, still wearing his goofy, stoned, fan-boy grin. "There, there."
* * *
"These people are looking for someone to lead them, Xander. Whether you like it or not, you're that someone."
"I get it, Locke!" Xander rolled his eye at the bald man next to him. "Enough with the philosobabble already!"
John Locke shrugged with an enigmatic smile.
* * *
Weiss' shoulder's tensed as he leaned away from the growing crowd in Second Banana Heaven. Xander caught his eye, and glanced over the agent's shoulder.
"Is he still staring at me?"
Xander nodded, trying not to make eye contact with the scruffy blonde not-hobbit. "Oo," He leaned toward his friend, trying to contain his smile. "He's coming over here. I think you might have an admirer, Weiss."
Weiss grimaced, then plastered a false look of cheer on his face as the guitarist from Drive Shaft approached. "He's been staring at me since the concert." He hissed.
"Sorry, mate," The blonde frowned at the agent. "But I could swear I recognize you from somewhere."
"Oh?" Weiss' eyes contained the only remnants of his earlier grimace. "I don't think we've met, I'm Eric."
* * *
Things, Xander decided a few "days" later, were going well. His team now consisted of himself, Honeysuckle, Picard, Rogue, Locke, a zombie killer named Shawn, and Artie, the strongest man . . . in the world. Weiss had managed to gather Miss Piggy, Ivanova, Bubbles, Der Flatermaus, and Austin Powers, while Willow had teamed up with Velma, Sydney Bristow, Remus Lupin, Prue Halliwell, and a small blue thing called "Blue", and defeated a vogon before it could even start reading its poetry. Torgo had been forced to relax his rule against main characters slightly in the wake of the growing teams of characters who were using Second Banana Heaven as their prime meeting point, and Mike, Frank, and Steve were so afraid of Locke that they hadn't even bothered to try and retake control of SMG Teacozy. It was looking more and more like he would be coming out of this Masters of the Multiverse thing alive, and with all his limbs attached. He was just about to strike up a conversation with Chiana when a familiar voice spoke up from behind him.
"Alexander Lavelle Harris?"
He turned, expecting to find the vague features of the Man staring down at him to tell him of his latest battle, and froze, the name "Manny" dying on his lips.
Behind him stood two very large thugs. They shared the Man's ambiguity, but while the Man expressed a sense of order, like an accountant, the only thing these two expressed was size.
And rather a lot of danger.
"You're not Manny,"
"Please come with us."
Xander shot a glance at the rest of the room, only to find that Second Banana Heaven had vanished completely. He turned back to the thugs, who seemed to be smiling. Thug One cracked his knuckles. Thug Two cracked his neck. Thug One was sort of dark, while Thug Two was kind of white. Both spoke with the same voice as the Man. "Can I help you gentlemen?"
"Heh." said Thug Two.
"You're going to stop getting people to forfeit," said Thug One. "You're going to start fighting."
"Am not," said Xander, even as he glanced about him for an escape.
"Are too," said Thug Two.
Thug One decided to voice his opinion, by way of his fists.
"Are too," said Thug Two.
"Ow," said Xander.
"You're going to play the challenge the way it was intended," said Thug One.
"What makes you say that?" Xander edged backwards, gingerly touching his lower lip. He winced.
"Because if you don't," said Thug Two, obviously enjoying what he was about to say, "the girls get it."
"Which girls get what now?"
Thug One stepped to one side, revealing a large, interrogation room window looking in on two preteenaged girls, tied down to chairs. They were crying. Xander swallowed.
"You're going to lose your next fight." Thug One stepped back in front of Xander. "By fighting."
Xander took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Ah," he said.
Xander was greatly subdued after his little "chat" with Thugs One and Two. He had begun, over the course of the competition, to relax and enjoy himself, getting into the spirit of the massive crossing-over (which always made him feel like cracking a joke about John Edwards), and generally having a good time. He'd managed, however briefly, to even forget about the whole "impending doom" scenario should he get lined up against a bad guy. Thugs One and Two, and, of course, the mysterious "organizers" of the challenge, had put quite a damper on THAT spirit.
They'd held him in that room for quite awhile after making their threat, so he could witness what, exactly, might befall the two captive girls. Thug One, it seemed, preferred to do the majority of his communicating with his fists. And occasionally his feet.
When they were finished with the "demonstration", he'd found himself dizzyingly back in Second Banana Heaven, once more seated next to Chiana, and with a large drink in front of him. He'd gulped it down rather fast, and was currently sitting staring blearily at the table, trying desperately to come up with a plan.
Okay, so drinking the whole pint in one go probably hadn't been terribly conducive to planning. He'd have to work on that.
"Alexander Lavelle Harris!"
His entire back tensed at the sound of his full name. He spun, fists out, ready to at least TRY and take down the Thugs, only to find himself facing the Man.
The Man looked harried. His horn-rimmed, thick glasses were slightly askew, and his pale blonde hair stuck up in tufts. He clutched his clip board to his chest, gasping for breath.
"I've been looking for you everywhere!"
"What is it, Manny?" Xander blinked slowly. He was pretty sure he shouldn't be feeling quite so tipsy on a single pint of beer. He tried to remember the last time he ate. He peered at the Man's murky gray eyes as his brain started to catch up with his ears. "Did you just use a contraction?"
The Man drew himself up, his breathlessness evaporating. "I have no idea what you are talking about. Alexander Lavelle Harris, you go into battle in eight minutes."
Had Xander still been drinking his beer, he would have spit it out. "But you usually give me a twenty minute heads up!"
"Which would be why I have been looking for you everywhere. Your team is awaiting your arrival. You are scheduled to fight--" The Man checked his clipboard. "‘Darien Fawkes of the Invisible Man, you know, the Sci-Fi Channel version. They never should have canceled that show, dammit.'" This was stated blandly, without any hint of actual rancor at those who decided the fates of television shows. "It seems that team ‘The Agency, Yeah' felt the need to be very descriptive when filling out the entry form."
Xander shook his head. "I never watched it."
The Man, if it was possible, looked apologetic. "I am sorry, but knowledge of the fandom from whom your opponent originates is not required in the official Multiverse rules."
Xander continued to stare at him. "You look . . . different. Did you cut your hair?"
The Man checked his watch. "Six minutes and forty-three seconds remain, Alexander Lavelle Harris. You have to hurry."
Xander nodded, lurching to his feet and trying not to sway too much. Dammit, he'd only had one pint of beer! "Lead the way, Manny-the-Man."
"Indeed." The Man strode toward the entrance to Second Banana Heaven, earning himself a sharp salute from TV's Frank. Xander followed with a slightly less stable gait. TV's Frank grinned at him. "Good luck, Xan!"
"Er. Thanks." He grinned sharply at the barkeep, trying not to let his nervousness show. He felt like a man walking to his execution.
Of course, if Thug One and Thug Two had anything to say about it, he was doing exactly that.
He dug his hands into his pockets, and felt his fingers wrap around a warm stone. It was Willow's medallion. He clutched at it.
* * *
It no longer surprised Xander that stepping through the doorway of Second Banana Heaven lead him not to the Street, but to the preparation room of the Arena. Time and Space in this particular corner of the creative ether was very flexible. He let his eyes wander over his gathered team, taking in Artie's heroic stance, Rogue's saucy-yet-defiant slouch, and Locke's knowing lean. Shawn stood, taking practice swings of his cricket bat.
"‘Bout time you showed up," the Zombie hunter said "Right then, what's the plan?"
Xander let his eyes drift to the clock. A little more than five minutes left. "I'm going in alone." He held up a hand to ward off protests. "This Fawkes guy is an unknown quantity. I'm not letting him hurt you guys. The rules say I'm the only one who has to fight." He glanced at the trio of geeks. "What do you know about him?"
Mike shrugged. "Not much, man, sorry. I caught the first ep, but then Mom forgot to pay the cable bill."
Frank merely stared stonily at him.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. Xander turned to Steve. "Steve-o. Hey-Steve. Anything?"
Steve was doing his bouncing ferret thing. "Oh yeah! I totally loved that show!"
"So? What's the deal?"
Steve's pipe appeared as if from nowhere, and the geek took a long hit. "He can turn invisible."
It took most of Xander's beer-infused willpower to remain outwardly calm. "Right. Guessed that when Manny said he was from ‘the Invisible Man'. What else?"
"Well." Steve set down the pipe. His eyes practically glowed. "For one thing, he used to be a thief. But that was mostly a reaction to the success of his older brother as a scientist. He was breaking into this old guy's house, see, and actually gave the dude a heart attack, and then got caught when he stuck around to perform CPR. He was sentenced to life in prison, but his brother had this whole, experimental gland thing and sprung him to use him as a human test subject. Then his brother was killed by terrorists looking to sell the project to the highest evil bidder, and Fawkes was recruited by the Agency to help bring the terrorists in."
"The Agency? This guy's CIA?"
Steve shook his head. "Department of Fish and Game."
"And this explanation will start making sense, soon, right?"
"So, anyway, see, Fawkes is a good guy, right? But he's got this thing against authority. The Agency had to totally manipulate him to get him to work with them. See, dude, this part is great, the gland that let's him turn invisible turns out to be kind of like a narcotic." Steve's hand drifted, seemingly without his knowledge, towards his pipe. Frank quietly picked it up and stuck it in his pocket. Xander gave him a brief, surprised and thankful glance. Frank merely nodded. "After awhile, it makes him go all crazy-like. Turns him into a living Id."
"What, like the creepy Tim Curry character?"
"That's ‘It'." Frank sent Xander a despairing look. Xander just stared back.
"The Id," Picard broke in, "is a psychological concept that was coined by Sigmund Freud. He hypothesized that man's consciousness contained three parts, the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego."
"Imagine the old scenario of the devil and angel advising a person on what choice to make." Locke gave Xander a squinty-eyed, confident glance.
"Okay, Id equals bad. But I thought you said Fawkes was a good guy?"
"Depends on whether or not he's got his fix." Steve looked forlornly at the spot where his pipe had been. "The Agency developed a counteragent that helped put off the QSM. Um, Quicksilver Madness. That's what they called the Id thing."
"The agency which is part of the Department of Fish and Game."
Xander shook his head. "So, assuming this Darien guy has gotten his drugs, he'll be open to reasoning?" Maybe he could make this relatively painless.
"And if not, he'll just try to kill you."
"Oh. Good." Xander looked at the clock. Thirty seconds. His hand clenched against the amulet again. "Here goes nothing."
Everyone in the room started talking at once, trying to warn him off. Honeysuckle made as if to follow him out the door, but was restrained by Mehri, who gave him a long, appraising look. Susan held out a perfectly manicured and callus free hand.
"Um, thanks." Xander ducked out the door and yanked it quickly shut behind him. He hoped his team would understand.
He had something of a plan, and he was just drunk enough to think it might work.
* * *
Xander spun wildly in place, jerking this way and that in what he hoped was an entirely unpredictable manner. All around him, the audience shrieked and cheered. The announcer was, for once, actually getting to give commentary on a fight. An invisible and very cold fist slammed into Xander's shoulder, and he took to the dirt.
Darien Fawkes had apparently NOT been given his fix.
Xander winced as a freezing foot caught his ribs. The fight was not going well. Fawkes was almost completely invisible; Xander only occasionally managed to make out a slight outline when the flying dust landed on Fawkes' form. He tried to shut his eyes and listen for his opponent, the way Buffy had said she'd done it when she fought Marcy Ross sophomore year, but the noise of the crowd drowned out any possible sound Fawkes might make.
His plan was for shit. He was so going to die.
Steve said Fawkes had a problem with authority. Said he'd been manipulated. When in doubt, Xander really only had one thing to fall back on in a fight.
"You don't want to do this."
"Oh, don't I?" Fawkes' disembodied voice was as cold as his invisible feet as they continued to strike him.
"No," Xander coughed roughly into the dirt. "You don't."
Fist to the jaw. The dust around Xander's head took on a sparkle.
"They're using you! Don't you get it? This is all some kind of game to them!"
"Yeah." Hands around his throat. "But I kinda like this game."
Xander pressed his fingers up against seemingly solid air. A human shape exploded into being, silvery and rather T-1000-esque. The silver compound scattered out into the air, and Xander found himself staring up into the face of his attacker.
More specifically, into Fawkes' horrible, heavily blood-shot eyes. He tried to force words out around the hands at his throat, but couldn't make a sound.
Dammit, he HATED being strangled.
The amulet in his pocket started to hum and heat up. Fawkes backed off slightly, glancing down at Xander's pants.
"Gosh, I didn't realize I was THAT pretty."
"You're . . . not . . . ."
Fawkes backed up a little more, still not removing his hands from Xander's neck, but giving him enough room to breath. "Then what's that?"
"That's . . ." Xander grinned. "That's the cavalry."
A primal war cry split the air of the stadium, and Honeysuckle slammed into Fawkes from the side.
Xander stayed on the ground, clutching his ribs, and stared.
A My Little Pony in a berserker rage was not, after all, something one saw everyday.
"That's my--" Honeysuckle stomped at Fawkes' head, missing by inches as the man shimmered back out of sight. Honeysuckle did not seem deterred. She altered her aim, and was rewarded with a sharp cry. "FRIEND. You don't hurt--" She took to the air, scanning the arena. Fawkes must have slipped out from under her. "MY FRIENDS!!!"
"Honeysuckle!" Xander rolled to his knees. "Chill! We want a forfeit, not a death!"
Honeysuckle's head twisted to face him. One of her large, pink eyes was narrowed into a slit. A muscle in her pony cheek twitched. "He hurt you."
"He's not exactly himself right now." Xander tried to smile, but his face hurt.
"Stop struggling, invisible fiend!"
Honeysuckle and Xander both turned to where Artie stood, wrestling with something they couldn't see. Shawn stood off to one side, wielding his cricket bat threateningly. Rogue and Picard both stood poised to act at a moment's notice, while Locke approached holding a syringe filled with a strange blue liquid. All of them wore thermal-imaging goggles. Locke stuck the syringe into the air at about Fawkes' neck, and they all watched in silence as the quicksilver fell away and dissolved, leaving a passive, thoroughly shaken looking Darien behind.
". . . forfeit. . . ." He said, before passing out.
The crowd stared at them all silently for a long moment. Then it erupted into boos.
* * *
Susan gazed at Xander with a look of approval mixed with a healthy dose of shock. "I cannot believe you pulled that off."
Xander relaxed backwards against the white wall of the victor's room. "I get by with a little help from my friends."
Willow leaned against him, blushing. "Awwww. It was your plan."
"But it was your amulet. Without you? I'd'a been on the first, very painful bus back to the very painful bus."
"That's true." Willow nodded once, and then settled back against the wall again. "I rule."
"I admit," Mehri turned one of the pairs of thermal imaging goggles in her hands. "When you first said you were going in alone, I thought you were dead, for sure." She gave Xander a sharp look. "You couldn't have spared a moment to let us in on the plot?"
"Not enough time." Xander turned to Weiss, who slouched in the opposite corner, looking exhausted yet victorious. "So you didn't have too much trouble with the Thugs?"
Weiss grinned. "Between me, your witch, and the Harry Potter knock off? They didn't stand a chance."
Xander winced. "Tim Hunter came first, actually. ‘Books of Magic'. He could probably kick Harry's scrawny little butt."
"I don't know about that," Susan set about cleaning up the equipment. "You haven't read the sixth book." She glanced at Weiss. "How'd you guys find the place the girls were being held?"
Willow sat up, visibly switching into lecture-mode. "Hermione figured it out, actually. Time and space are only very loosely defined in this universe. All we had to do was focus very hard on where we wanted to be, in this case, in the room where the girls were being held, and we went there. She says it's like apparating. Apparently, whoever set up the rule that we couldn't travel out of the bounds of this universe, forgot to limit our travel WITHIN it. Anyone can do it--it doesn't even require any magical power."
Susan's eyes glazed over slightly. Either she was lost in the explanation, or, Xander suspected, taking mental notes. "Uh huh. And who brought Marshall in?"
"Team ‘Geeks'r'hot'. And I, for one, am not complaining." Weiss nodded to his friend, who was deep in conversation with Picard and Mike. "Without him, Willow, or Steve, we'd never have gotten that counteragent figured out."
Xander glanced around the room. "And the girls?"
"Are tucked safely back in their homes in RL." Willow patted Xander on the knee. "You done good."
"WE done good."
"Who were they, anyway?" Rogue raised an eyebrow. "How'd the bastards get their hands on them?"
"We, um," Willow shot a glance at Mehri and Susan, who Xander noticed had tensed at the question. "We don't know." She exchanged glances with Weiss, who nodded.
"Never mind that," Weiss stood, his eyes lighting up. "We have a victory party to attend at the Amp and Pick. I hear Drive Shaft is planning to play a twelve minute version of ‘We All Everybody'."
Mehri winced and shot a glance at Susan. "I think we'll pass. I have a hard enough time getting that song out of my head as it is."
Weiss shrugged. "Your loss. That Charlie guy isn't so bad, once he stops staring at you like you're a ghost. And asking about giant metal security systems on tropical islands--" Weiss' eyes, Xander noticed, never left Mehri and Susan even as he started to ramble on about Charlie. "--or dumb pilots who steer their planes off course before crashing, or the various merits of living drug free with a beautiful Aussie girl and her son, Turnip Head, versus the warm glow of a good heroin high, or--thank god," He broke off with a sigh as soon as Mehri and Susan had closed the door behind them. "I thought they'd never leave."
Xander let his eye drift from Weiss, to Willow, and then back. Willow was looking sadly at Honeysuckle, who was standing guard over a still unconscious Darien Fawkes. Weiss was back in "agent mode". "What's going on?"
"The girls." Willow's expression took a turn for the sad-but-hopeful. "We know who they are."
Team SMG Teacozy watched her in silence. Finally, Xander spoke.
"And . . . ?"
"Their names are Celia and Leigh." Weiss shot a glance at Honeysuckle, who'd stiffened.
Rogue was similarly tense, and had moved to stand guard at the door. "Why didn't y'all tell us that when Susan and Mehri were here?"
Xander blinked. For some reason, it sounded odd to hear team Paradise Estate referred to as "Susan and Mehri" and not "Mehri and Susan".
Willow leaned forward. "Honeysuckle?"
The Flutterpony had closed her eyes. "They were my friends. But they lied to me. But they got hurt?"
Xander raised a hand. "Someone wanna explain for us confused people?"
Weiss scowled. "Celia and Leigh were the original members of team Paradise Estate. Apparently, Thug One and Thug Two grabbed them just after your ‘battle' with Honeysuckle."
"Wait a minute." Shawn crossed his arms. "I thought Mehri and Susan were team Paradise Estate."
Xander continued to watch Honeysuckle. Large, glistening tears were forming in her eyes. "Honeysuckle, why didn't you tell me?"
"You-you said. . . ." Honeysuckle let out a sniff that shook the walls of the room. "You said that if I joined your team, I'd make new friends. I thought Mehri and Susan were new friends."
Steve widened not-quite-as-stoned eyes. "They LIED to us!"
Frank smiled slightly. The light glinted off his glasses.
"Okay." Xander stood and started to pace. "So if Celia and Leigh were Paradise Estate, then who the hell are Mehri and Susan?"
The group in the victor's room exchanged glances. No one seemed to have a theory.
The Meat Locker
Xander's eye switched from the piece of notebook paper clutched in his right hand, to the wooden sign in front of them, to Weiss, and then back to the sign, then back to the notebook paper. It did so so rapidly that he was beginning to feel moderately nauseous.
"Right," he said finally, swallowing. "This seems to be the place."
Weiss nodded silently, his eyes scanning the crowded street behind them. The normally jovial man was completely serious, something which Xander hadn't really seen before, but was loathe to complain about. Apparently, he was in full "spy mode".
Team SMG Teacozy and friends had spent nearly an hour in the victor's room trying to work out the mystery of Mehri and Susan with no success, before adjourning to Second Banana Heaven, where they hoped to enlist some other "fictional" characters in the brainstorm session.
They'd been discussing manga as a possible source for the ladies when Manny had appeared to inform Willow of her impeding fight:
"Willow." Manny pushed his glasses up his narrow, slightly crooked nose. "I had not expected to find you here."
The Man straightened his tie, blushing slightly at the exuberance of Willow's greeting. "You have a battle scheduled, Willow." He cast barely a glance at Xander, who was peering intently at him. "Hello, Alexander."
"You didn't use my full name."
Manny ignored him.
"So," Willow stood, grinning broadly at the Man. "Who's butt do I kick today?"
"That of Jesus Christ."
The entirety of Second Banana Heaven fell silent. They wasted a good five minutes of Willow's prep time merely staring at the Man. It was Locke who finally broken the silence.
The focus of some fifty-odd people shifted from the Man to Locke, simultaneously. The Man, however, wasn't in the least perturbed.
"From a Canadian movie titled," Manny checked his notes. "‘Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter.'"
The staring recommenced immediately. "Well," Marshall smiled, looking a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, Marshall ALWAYS looked uncomfortable. "That, um, should be an easy forfeit then."
Willow didn't seem reassured. "But . . . I'm JEWISH. And a witch. And a lesbian." She shook her head. "This sucks."
Xander grabbed her hand. "Have one of your team members talk to him."
Willow sighed. "Right." She held up a hand, ticking off fingers. "Velma's an atheist, Prue's another witch, Remus is a werewolf, and Blue? Yeah, I can just see the second coming LOVING that conversation."
"What about Sydney?"
Willow rolled her eyes. "Thinks God hates her."
Weiss shrugged, smiling slightly. "Which considering her history, is kinda understandable."
Xander squeezed Willow's hand, then kissed her knuckles. "You'll be fine. He's Jesus, right? He has to make with the understanding."
Locke stared at him. "Have you actually READ the Bible?"
A few hours later, Willow had not yet returned, and the group had tentatively decided that Mehri and Susan were villains from a particularly obscure series of novels, possibly of the harlequin variety. TV's Frank had come to the table, sporting a tray full of beer, which Xander had been carefully NOT drinking, and slipped Xander the piece of paper he was now clutching.
"Meet me at the Meat Locker," it said. "I know who Mehri and Susan are. Don't bring your team."
Frank, when asked, had merely shrugged. He had no idea who the note was from, just that it had appeared on his tray when he was coming over with the drinks.
So, here they were, standing outside a brick warehouse building crammed in between a seaside resort and cottage on chicken legs, prepared to make a very, very suspicious meet with an unknown person.
Weiss reached up to the small black device tucked into his inner ear. "You reading us, Marshall?"
"Loud and clear," the tech geek's voice echoed through static in Xander's ear.
The CIA duo were the obvious choice of backup for this meeting. They were professional, reliable, and most importantly, not on his team. Weiss caught Xander's eye and nodded. Xander's hand drifted tentatively to the glock he had strapped to his side under the blue canvas jacket Shaun had lent him. He nodded back, but hesitated before stepping up to the metal door to the Meat Locker. He titled his head toward a small, metal plaque to the side of the door, which he had been studying. "What do you suppose that means?"
"Proper attire enforced" it read.
Weiss shrugged. "I bet we'll find out in a minute." He took a step forward. "I'll go on point."
"Right." Xander followed Weiss to the door, then paused briefly. "What does ‘on point' mean, anyway?" The metal door squealed as it opened, and Xander shrugged. He stepped over the threshold with no small amount of apprehension.
A stiff breeze, stinking of sweat and carrying grinding, pounding bass, swept past him. Xander shivered. Goose bumps sprung up over his suddenly bare arms. And legs. And chest. He whimpered softly.
"Oooookay," Weiss' voice echoed from somewhere to his right. "That was weird."
Xander swung his head toward the other man's voice. "Your powers of understatement are astonishing," he said. Or would have said, were it not for the large piece of plastic that had somehow materialized in his mouth. He thought he was doing rather a good job of not panicking, considering he was suddenly blindfolded and gagged. And very nearly naked.
He took a step forward, hoping another breeze would come by and rectify the situation, when his foot was brought up short with a rattle of chains and he tumbled abruptly forward with a muffled shriek. He tried to catch himself before hitting the floor, but his arms refused to move from their position crossed behind his back.
Make that blindfolded, gagged, nearly naked, and CHAINED. It was like he'd gone on another demonic date, only hadn't even gotten a hot chocolate first.
"Wow," Weiss said. "That Fawkes guy really did a number on you, didn't he."
"Uh huh oo," Xander replied.
"What happened?" Marshall's voice crackled over the coms. "Was it a trap? Should I send in reinforcements?"
"No," Weiss replied, as Xander felt hands messing with something at the back of his head. "I think this is what the sign outside the door was all about."
The blindfold fell away, leaving Xander lying prone on the cold wood floor, peering up at Weiss, who was busily trying to remove the gag.
Weiss himself had apparently not come through the door unscathed. He was now rather pimped out in a gold PVC suit at least two sizes too small for him, with a bright red tie that hung loosely over his now bare chest. The coloring of the suit matched the Slave-girl Leia loincloth that was now the only thing Xander was wearing perfectly. A long, thin gold chain led from the collar around Xander's neck to Weiss's left wrist. Even the blindfold was red.
Weiss finished unbuckling the gag and sat back. "You okay?"
Xander worked his mouth and coughed slightly, before tilting his head toward his ankles. "Just so you know," He attempted to get to his knees, but only succeeded in flopping over onto his back. "I hate bondage."
Weiss nodded, his face appropriately grim. He turned his back to start working on the red leather cuffs circling Xander's ankles. "Duly noted."
Xander detected a hint of amusement in the agent's voice and glared at Weiss' shiny, gold back.
The coms buzzed again. "Um, what's going on?"
"Nothing," Xander and Weiss responded, simultaneously. Weiss tossed the leather and chain hobbles to one side and lugged Xander to his feet by his elbow.
"Gentlemen." A cool, familiar voice echoed from behind them. They spun around, and Xander nearly tumbled to the floor again. Only Weiss' hand on his elbow kept his nose from meeting the floor again. "Welcome to the Meat Locker."
Weiss tried to smile. The chain leash rattled as he attempted to pull his suit jacket closed over his chest. Xander just glowered.
The Man stood in front of them. Or, a variation on the man, at least. Gone were the clipboard and glasses. Instead, the Man held a wicked looking riding crop and wore a studded, black leather collar and leather short-shorts. He looked about as comfortable in that outfit as Xander and Weiss weren't. "I am the Bouncer. I see you are attired properly."
Xander rolled his eyes. Weiss tried to surreptitiously get rid of his gold PVC wedgie. The Man ignored both and gestured to a purple velvet curtain behind him with his riding crop. "You may enter, Gentlemen."
Weiss cleared his throat. "Thanks." He lead the way to the curtain, jerking on the leash when Xander didn't follow. "Come along." He paled slightly at the sight of Xander's face. "Erm."
They stepped through the curtain.
"Well," Weiss commented, as they stood just inside the main room of the Meat Locker, staring at the crowd. "At least I finally have Sydney beat on really, really bad undercover situations."
The Meat Locker was the bondage club to end all bondage clubs. Everywhere Weiss and Xander looked, or tried not to look, were creatures of varying humanoid shapes, wearing very little, and engaging in acts that Xander could only refer to as appalling. He recognized Tim Curry in a corset and fishnets and then very carefully stared at the ceiling. "How are we supposed to recognize our contact?"
"Not by looking at the ceiling, that's for sure." Weiss tugged gently on the leash. "Let's get going. I don't want to spend any more time here than I have to." Xander spared a glance at his *coughohdeargod* partner, and caught what was either a shrug or an attempt to get the gold jacket to fit better. "I don't even still have my gun."
"You wouldn't be able to hide it in that outfit, anyway."
Weiss tugged futilely on the waistband of his pants. "Point taken."
"Why do I have to be the sub?" Xander caught sight of what looked like Ewan McGregor wearing little more than glitter and blushed, then turned his gaze back to the ceiling.
"Please." Weiss tugged Xander forward again. "Like you could ever dominate me."
"I hate you. You know that, right?"
"I kinda figured." Weiss froze, and Xander walked directly into him.
"The booth on our left."
"Move, NOW!" Weiss leaped to the side, dragging Xander along behind him. With his hands still bound, Xander barely avoided hitting the floor again. He stumbled along behind the agent, his gaze flicking rapidly over the horrible, leather- and plastic-clad crowd.
"What, what, what?"
Weiss yanked him into the curtained booth and quickly drew the velvet closed behind him. He pushed Xander back against the seat, only to inadvertently drag him forward again when he leaned over to peer through the crack in the curtains. "Photographer," he bit out, then finally seemed to relax. "He's gone."
Xander stared at Weiss, his eye wide. "Oh. That would have been bad."
"Did anyone see you?"
Weiss and Xander both whirled and peered into the darkness of the booth, trying to catch sight of whomever was there with them. Xander quickly adjusted his loincloth to make sure all his bits were covered, or as covered as they were going to be, and Weiss tried, again, to close his jacket. A dark, disheveled shape was squeezed into the back corner, one hand clenched around a tall glass of what looked like a gin and tonic.
"Dear god," Xander breathed, when he was relatively certain he hadn't flashed anyone. "I hope not."
"Good." The shape leaned forward into the dim, blue light over the table. Weiss let out a low whistle.
"Aaron." He leaned his elbows on the table. Xander leaned forward as well, mostly to avoid getting accidentally choked by his collar again. "Man, I thought we'd never see you again."
Aaron shrugged, taking a long drink from his gin and tonic. "Considering the fact that I've now nearly been killed by Sark, Sabertooth, a pair of really creepy guys in suits wearing blue gloves, Uma Thurman in a yellow track suit, Sean Connery in a large black beanie baby costume, and a particularly nasty version of Loki, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be seeing anyone again, either."
Xander peered at the man. He was looking about as bad as Xander himself was looking. Bruises of varying age covered what flesh was visible, which considering that Aaron had apparently been determined a sub by the front door magic, was quite a bit. "Not to be rude, or anything, but what are you doing here?"
"This was the one place I could be pretty sure Sark wouldn't find me." Aaron shrugged. "I see you got my note?"
"That was YOU?" Xander narrowed his eye. "How do you know who Mehri and Susan are?"
"There's an internet cafe down the street. I've been reading a lot of fanfiction, trying to get a handle on who our ‘hosts' for the competition might be." Aaron leaned forward again. "I think I might have figured it out. See, Mehri and Susan are--"
"Alexander Lavelle Harris?"
All three men at the table let out squeaks when Manny, the clipboard-toting, glasses-wearing Manny, appeared suddenly at the crack in the curtain. Xander let his head fall forward onto the table. "Dammit."
The Man ducked into the booth. He smiled sadly at Xander. "Alexander Lavelle Harris, you go into battle in twenty minutes."
"Gimme a frickin' BREAK!" Xander lifted his head. "Tell me that I get my clothes back when I leave, at least?"
The Man adjusted his glasses. "I am certain I do not know." He seemed completely unfazed by the strange outfits the other three men had on. "Your team awaits you in the preparation room."
"I'll go in a minute." He cast Aaron what he hoped was a meaningful look. Aaron looked back, confused and slightly appalled. Wrong kind of meaningful look, apparently. "We were discussing something kind of important."
"That would be inadvisable, Alexander Lavelle Harris." The Man looked apologetic. "You are pitted against Agent Smith, from the Matrix trilogy."
Xander let his head fall back onto the table. "Aw crap."
Weiss patted him reassuringly on the back, but the affect was somewhat marred by the chain leash and Xander's near-naked state. He turned to Manny instead, lifting his hand. "Um, can you get us unchained first?"
"But of course, Agent Weiss." The Man waved a casual hand, and the leash fell off of Weiss' wrist. Weiss blinked, then nodded, then turned back to Xander, who was glaring at him again.
"Go." Weiss nodded to Aaron. "I'll get the information and let you know after the battle."
"You get all the breaks." Xander sighed, and started inching his way off the bench seat of the booth. The leash swayed across his chest. The Man stepped back and waved Xander on ahead of him. He stepped through the curtain.
And into the preparation room. Mike and Steve took one look at him and promptly started looking elsewhere. Rogue blushed. Honeysuckle looked confused. Locke and Picard exchanged glances. Shaun let out a disgusted howl and raised his cricket bat to shield his eyes. Artie seemed entirely unfazed, and Darien just shook his head.
Frank stared at Xander with something resembling sympathy.
Xander looked down. He was still wearing the loincloth. The leash dangled just in front of his groin. His hands were still locked tightly behind his back. He tilted his head up to the ceiling and let out a very long, very loud sigh.
"I am SO screwed."
Xander vs. Agent Smith
Xander lifted his head. Okay, so he was wearing a loincloth that barely covered that which needed to be covered. So he had a frickin' collar around his neck and a leash banging against his chest. So his hands were literally tied. So he had to face off against a guy so powerful that they had to find some shmo with a destiny to fight him and even HE had trouble taking him down.
That didn't mean he was beaten.
Well, okay, technically, considering the bruises that covered his body from his battle against Darien, he WAS pretty well beaten, but that was past-tense beaten, not present-tense beaten. Or something. The point was, he wasn't going to quit.
"Rogue?" Xander glanced at the X-man, noting that she'd quickly regained her composure. Made sense, he wasn't wearing much less than Psylocke ever wore around the x-mansion. Or Storm. Or, well, any of the other X-men. Come to think of it, why the hell had Rogue blushed in the first place? Must be part of the whole southern belle thing. He shook his head internally, trying to get his internal monologue back under control. Keeping his knees firmly in the together position to try to avoid flashing anyone unnecessarily, he turned his back on her. "Can you break the chains?"
"Sure, honey." Her gloved hand brushed against his arm, and after a brief moment and a sharp tug, he pulled his arms forward.
"Thanks." He shot her a smile, then turned to Mike. "Clothes. Now." He turned back to his team. "Right. Who here has seen the Matrix trilogy?"
Mike, Steve, and Frank raised their hands, of course. So did Darien, Locke, and Shaun. Artie continued bouncing and posing. Rogue tried to examine her nails through her gloves. Picard wore an expression that seemed to read "I'm from several hundred years in the future. We didn't bother with your puny movies. Anything made after 1940 is crap." The starship captain could be very subtly expressive when he wanted to be. Honeysuckle tilted her pony-head and fluttered her pony-wings.
"What's a matrix?"
"Okay, Darien, Locke, Shaun, you're on planning committee with the geek triplets. The rest of you, um, talk amongst yourselves." The team split up. Xander turned back to the geeks. "Mike, clothes?"
Mike was bent over his tablet, his tongue sticking out slightly in concentration. "Two seconds." He finished a sketch with a flourish, and a pair of blue pants materialized out of nowhere.
Well, they looked like pants, anyway. Sort of. They had two legs, and a waist band, but that was about it. The waist was approximately 15 inches, while one of the legs was at least a 40. The other was probably about 30-something. There was absolutely no way they'd ever fit him. "Mike, what the hell?"
"I'm not a fashion designer, okay?" Mike scowled at the pants and turned back to the tablet. "Let me try again."
"Keep at it." Xander sighed, glancing down at his loin cloth. "Right, what do we know about Agent Smith?"
"He can possess people." Steve offered. "And dodge bullets."
"He's a computer program," Darien shrugged. "Hates humans, sees them as a virus."
"The guy who played him was also in ‘Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert'." Shaun turned his cricket bat over in one hand. "Made it damned hard to take him seriously as a bad guy."
Mike glanced up. "And that helps us, how?"
"Mike, you're on clothes duty. Something I can actually wear." Xander glanced at the clock. Time was running out. "Right, how do we stop him?"
"Find Neo?" Darien shrugged.
Locke shook his head. "No time, and against the rules. He manipulates the laws of physics enforced by the Matrix program. He's aware that it is only a virtual reality situation. Only our expectations and faith in those laws keep us from matching his strength and dexterity."
Xander nodded. "So,"
"So if you have faith that you, too, can over come the laws of the universe, then you can." Locke peered at him. "You have to maintain that faith."
Xander shut his eye. "Right. Right. Faith. ‘Do you think that's air you're breathing?'"
"‘There is no spoon.'" Mike muttered, his head still bent over the tablet. Another pair of pants appeared. They might have fit Honeysuckle. "Dammit."
Xander glanced back up at the clock. "No time. Okay. Weapons. What do we have?"
Shaun held his cricket bat aloft. Darien and Locke both had pistols. Xander turned to the rest of the group. Rogue just punched one hand into another, Artie struck a particularly absurd pose, Picard pulled out his phaser, and Honeysuckle raised her eyebrow ala the Rock. Xander closed his eye again, groaned, then took a second look at Picard's phaser. "That ever have any effect on holographic projections?"
"On the holodeck."
"What about outside it? Does it, I dunno, disrupt electrical fields or anything? Maybe we can just screw up Smith's programming." Xander scratched at the skin under his manacles. "Does that make sense?"
"It's a possibility," Mike offered. He was still scribbling away on his tablet, though Xander had given up hope for pants before the battle.
"Right." Xander considered his options. "Okay. When we get out there, I want Rogue and Honeysuckle in the air asap. Darien, did Marshall make any extra counteragent?"
"Then you go invisible. We want as many tricks up our sleeves as possible. Artie."
Xander stared at the so-called "strongest man in the world" for a long moment. "Keep bouncing. That oughta confuse the hell out of him. Picard, Locke, you're with me. Maybe we can get him in a crossfire that he can't dodge. Shaun, you're on distraction with Artie." He scanned his team. "Got it?"
They offered a variety of assents. Xander nodded and turned to the door. "Let's go kick some computer ass."
"We miss anything?"
Xander spun to see Mehri and Susan leaning against a wall of the preparation room, looking smug and, well, incredibly hot. They were dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts bearing early eighties cartoon characters that were stretched out of proportion across their ample breasts. He swallowed.
He still had no idea who they really were. "Just about to go into battle."
"Agent Smith." Mehri nodded, looking incredibly saddened for a moment. "We heard. You have a plan?"
Xander glanced over his rag-tag crew. "Yep." He went back to peering at the two. Susan held out an uzi, butt first. He took it cautiously and held it away from his bare chest. She swept her gaze up and down his torso and blushed cutely.
"Good to hear." She averted her gaze, as though disappointed that his body might be marred soon by lots of bloody, mortal wounds. Xander tried not to think about that. "We wanted to wish you luck."
"Thanks." Xander stared at them for a moment longer, trying to work out if he recognized them in a pop-culture way. He still didn't. "Well. We'd better get going."
Mehri's eyes flicked to the clock. "Yeah." She stepped over to Mike, who glanced up at her from his tablet, then flinched and licked his lips. "I'll work on drawing you some clothes, yeah?"
"Er, yeah." Xander held the uzi up with one hand and reached for the door handle with the other. He jerked his head to signal his team. "Guys, let's go."
* * *
"Laaaaaaadies and gennnnnnnnnnnnnntlemen!" The Announcer's voice echoed over the Arena. "Alexander Lavelle Harris and team SMG Teacozy!"
The crowd in the stands didn't match the Announcer's enthusiasm.
"Who will this intrepid team battle today?" The Announcer paused for drama. "None other than that scourge of the Matrix, that obsessive, evil bastard, AGENT SMITH!"
The crowd went nuts. They really seemed to want to see Xander dead. He decided against flicking them off; considering what he was wearing, they would probably just laugh at him. He flexed his hands into his fists and stared across the field at Agent Smith as he stepped out the door on the other side of the field.
Come to think of it, Agent Smith looked a heckuva lot like Manny.
The agent stopped about a quarter of the way across the field. He cracked his neck in what was probably supposed to be a confident, threatening manner, but was so cliched by action heros and villains everywhere that Xander almost laughed. Smith lowered himself into a stance, then swept his sunglassed gaze over SMG Teacozy. He straightened.
"Mister Harris. This," Smith's nose wrinkled, his sibilant Ss rolling off his tongue with a sneer. "This is an insult."
Xander glanced back at his team. Locke and Picard held their guns at ready, one in cargo pants and a sweat stained t-shirt, one in federation uniform. Rogue was in her traditional green and yellow, which clashed horribly with the bright pink of Honeysuckle's hide as they hovered side by side. Honeysuckle's wings tinkled joyfully as her wings blurred with the effort of staying aloft. Shaun had tied his tie around his head and spun the cricket bat from hand to hand. He was still wearing his electronic's store uniform. Artie was resplendent in his red and blue striped shirt and tight red pants, gleefully bouncing about and posing with a look of utmost seriousness on his face. He looked down at himself, slaved out in his glam loin-cloth and gold chain leash, matching the gold chains that dangled from both his red leather manacled wrists. He grinned.
They did look kinda ridiculous, didn't they.
"Oh," he scoffed. "Like you're all that in your MiB suit and your doofy sunglasses. What are you supposed to be, new wave?"
"You look like a chartered accountant!" Shaun swung his bat again.
"I think," Smith dropped back into his stance. "That I will enjoy this." He leaped.
Agent Smith suddenly changed trajectory, flying sideways, his body twitching and shuddering as one side of his head disappeared in a gory cloud of blood made up of greenish 0s and 1s. He landed in the dirt and stopped moving, then slowly faded out of existence.
With a slightly musical shattering sound, Darien appeared. He held his pistol in one hand and stared down at the ground at his feet. He was grinning. "Heh," he said. "Dodge this."
"Fawkes." Xander grinned. "You magnificent invisible bastard. I could kiss you."
Darien glanced at his outfit and smirked. "Let's not."
* * *
"Xander!" Willow's voice was the first thing that greeted Xander as he lead the way into the victor's room. She flung herself at him. "Xander! I was so worried! You won! That was amazing! What the hell are you wearing?"
Xander blushed. "Willow. Good to see you too. Darien gets the credit."
"Bah." She stepped back, about an inch, then disentangled Xander's wrist chain from her hair. "And who came up with that plan?"
"Um," Xander glanced back at the group. "We had a plan?"
Darien shrugged. "Distraction," he nodded to the team, "plus invisible sharp shooter. Sounds like a plan to me."
"I can live with that." Xander turned back to Willow. "How'd the Jesus fight go?"
"It was fine. This Jesus doesn't care about lesbians or witches and he pointed out he's Jewish, too, and he's actually a really nice guy and even fights really well and he doesn't even LOOK like Jesus." She leaned in close to him, lowering her voice to a whisper. "He has an EARRING."
"So your team . . . ?"
"Has a guy who doesn't die. Well, he dies, of course, but he comes back to life. We were comparing vampires for, like, three hours. Apparently lesbian skin keeps them from dying in the sun." Willow scowled. "Which is, like, the dumbest thing, ever,"
Xander hugged her again, being more careful with the chains hanging from his wrists this time. She squeezed him back, sighing happily, then pulled back again. "Weiss says he has something weird to tell you, but he got called to battle a few minutes ago. He's fighting Cheetara."
Xander sighed as melodramatically as possible. "That guy gets all the breaks." He glanced down at his outfit again, then looked at Mike and Mehri. "Any luck on the clothes?"
Mehri proudly held out a stack of army-green and cammoflage clothing, topped by a pair of black boxer briefs and a black gun belt. Xander accepted them cautiously and unfolded the pants. They were well cut and sported numerous pockets. He had a feeling they'd fit him perfectly. He glanced back at Mehri, who put an arm over Mike's shoulder and winked. Mike looked pale.
Xander set the clothing to one side and smiled slightly. Sure, he was still achy from fighting Darien. He was still trapped in a bizarro universe, forced to fight any number of fictional characters who could all kick his ass. He was still wearing the loincloth from hell. But he'd gone up against his first real bad-guy and won. He had a team of heros to back him up, and a group of friends who were willing to help out even if they were officially his competition.
Who knows? He just might be able to win this thing. Plus, he had clothes now. Clothes that would fit. They were quite possibly evil clothes, but that still beat out the loincloth.
Look out Multiverse, here comes SMG Teacozy.
Bad, in the Latin
"So." Steve took a long toke from his pipe. "Who's up next?"
Team SMG Teacozy had nearly doubled in size. Along with Honeysuckle, Rogue, Picard, Locke, Artie, Shaun, and Darien, they had Indiana Jones, a tall black man who went by Lord Bowler, a brontosaurus by the name of Monica, George the Tarzan-wannabe, Vivian the hard core British punk, and a very tall green alien who had forfeited on the promise of unlimited sandwiches and snacks and asked to be called "the Tallest". With Mike, Steve, and Frank present as well, the preparation room was beginning to feel very crowded, even if Monica only ever stuck her head through the door.
Mehri and Susan were late, as they had been for the last several battles. While Xander was worried about what they might be up to, he was also relieved that they weren't there. He still had no idea who they were; after their adventure in the Meat Locker, Xander hadn't seen Weiss for more than ten seconds at a time before one of them was suddenly called away to battle. He hadn't seen Aaron at all, and Willow was just as battle-busy as Xander and Weiss were. It was as though the creators of the Multiverse challenge were trying to keep them apart.
They probably were.
Xander surveyed his team and grinned. Conspiracy theories aside, he was glad to have each and every one of them. Even the obnoxious "Tallest" guy. He turned to Steve and shrugged.
"Some guy named ‘Mal'. Captains a space ship, or something."
Steve's eyes brightened. "Mal! Excelle-" The light faded. "Oooo. Unexcellentay."
Mike, Steve, and Frank all exchanged worried glances. Xander barely refrained from rolling his eye.
"What?" He crossed his arms. "Everything I hear points to this Mal guy being a good guy. We talk to him, we get him to forfeit, we have another fighter on the team. What's the big?"
"Major big." Steve muttered. He was staring gloomily into his bowl, refusing to meet Xander's eye. Xander turned to Mike, who grimaced apologetically.
"Very major big." Mike agreed. "Nathan Fillion."
Xander nodded, as though that statement had anything to do with anything. "Oh. Him. Okay." He shook his head in frustration. "What?"
Frank was as inscrutable as ever. "Actor who plays Mal on Firefly and the in the movie Serenity. Written by Joss Whedon."
That name sounded somewhat familiar. "The guy who ‘created' my show?"
Mike and Steve looked away. Frank's gaze remained steady. "Right. Fillion worked with Whedon more than once. Played this crazy preacher. By the name of Caleb."
Xander stared. He distantly heard Rogue muttering a question to someone behind him. He ignored her. "Wait." He rubbed at the skin above his eye-patch. "What exactly are you saying, here?"
Mike kept wincing as he spoke, still not meeting Xander's eye. "Mal and Caleb were played by the same guy. So Mal looks like Caleb. Talks like Caleb."
Steve looked like his heart was breaking. "He's not, though! Mal's a total good guy! Sure, if you get into the social and historical parallels of the brown coats in the Firefly universe they most closely resemble the confederates from the American Civil War, what with the western-y theme, and the fighting for independence from another government and losing and all, but he's a good guy! He wouldn't hurt--okay, so there was the one time when he had Wash start the engines and suck someone in, but that guy was a bad guy. And he shot that other guy in the eye, but again with the bad guy, and he wouldn't ever stick his thumb--"
Xander squeezed his eye shut, wincing. "I get it, Steve. Please stop speaking."
Steve nodded sadly and stuck his pipe in his mouth. Mike kept shooting surreptitious looks at Xander from the corner of his eye. Frank's creepy reflected-light gaze never wavered.
"Right. So this guy ISN'T Caleb."
The three nodded.
"He just kinda looks like Caleb."
"Had a different hairstyle, too," Mike offered, still pretending to work on his tablet.
"So, there's no big deal." Xander nodded to himself. He could do this, no problem. Looks like Caleb, sounds like Caleb, isn't Caleb. Not even an issue.
Still, no telling how this rebellious Mal person would react to the idea of being asked to forfeit and turn command over to someone like Xander. Best to be prepared. Something easy to defend, with a lot of fire power.
Like a tank.
"Okay, we'll send in," Xander glanced over his team. "Picard, Rogue, definitely Bowler, if Steve's right about the wild west-y analogy, and, um, Locke. You guys can be diplomatic and won't freak him out. I'll stick back here with the rest of the team."
Mike let out a very long sigh. Xander spun to face him, then forced himself to calm down. "You have to go out on the field, Xander."
"The rules." Mike finally met his gaze. "They put in an addendum. In case of massive forfeits, the initial champion must always be present in battle. He's the only one who has to die or forfeit for the battle to end. The rest of the team is just, um, gravy."
Xander nodded, considering this new piece of information. "Right. So we'll forfeit then. ‘Bout time someone with more experience stepped into the lead, anyway. I'd rather just be a team member, even on the team of a guy who looks like the guy who poked my--" Looks like Caleb, sounds like Caleb, isn't Caleb. "New plan. We go out there, all of us. I still want Picard, Rogue, Bowler, and Locke at point. Everyone else holds back, let Bowler and Picard take the lead and talk to the guy." And then guard him, because Xander sure as hell didn't want Caleb behind him on his team without someone keeping an eye--looks like Caleb, sounds like Caleb, ISN'T Caleb. Xander looked over his team again. "Monica, when we get out there, step on the bastard."
Team SMG Teacozy, facing their general, exchanged glances. Glances Xander had no trouble reading. They thought he'd completely lost it. He glanced at the clock. Ten minutes to go.
He was so screwed.
* * *
For the first time in the entire Masters of the Multiverse championship, Xander didn't lead his team out onto the field. He told himself it was a tactical maneuver; if only he had to be killed for SMG Teacozy to lose the competition, he shouldn't be at the forefront of any battle. Instead, he let Bowler and Picard take the lead as they marched across the field.
The only one who hung further back in the group was the Tallest. Monica, who couldn't fit through the door, would be coming out on her own when she'd made her way to the "oversized characters" entrance to the field. It wouldn't take long, since it ultimately meant pulling her head out of the human- sized door of the preparation room, and sticking it through another door down the hall.
They gathered together in a tight formation at the center of the field, with Xander hovering just behind Picard and Bowler, and the rest of the team fanning out around them. Xander realized after a moment that he was holding his breath and forced himself to relax. They weren't going to fight, he reminded himself. Just talk. Looks like Caleb, sounds like Caleb, isn't Caleb.
No problem at all.
No one would say anything, of course, if he hung out wayyyy back.
"Team SMG Teacozy, ladies and gentlemen!" The Announcer shrieked. The crowd remained silent. Time stretched out. Xander scuffed his Mehri-drawn army boot against the dirt.
The door on the other side of the field opened.
"And let's hear it for Captain Malcolm Reynolds and team Browncoat Serenity!" The Announcer was obviously pouring all his energy into his job, but, still, the crowd didn't make a sound. Xander glanced around. The stands were only about half-full. It seemed the Multiverse wasn't expecting this to be a very exciting match. He hoped they were right. He stepped a little closer to Bowler and Picard to get a better look at the approaching ene--potential teammate.
Team Browncoat Serenity was nearly as large as team SMG Teacozy. It seemed this "Mal" guy was a proud member of the "forfeit like you've never forfeited before" club. SMG Teacozy tensed almost as one as Browncoat Serenity took up position across from them. For a long moment, no one moved. Dana Scully, to the right of Mal, who Xander refused to look at, was staring open mouthed at the Tallest. Her gaze flicked to Honeysuckle, then back to the Tallest. Her hand rested on her glock. Silent Bob gazed up worshipfully at Rogue. Shaun's eyebrows were furrowed as he pointed his cricket bat at a guy in a bathrobe. His other hand gestured vaguely as he tried to work something out in his head. Bowler stared at Ash and scratched his head under his hat with his gun. A tall guy in a suit with bushy green hair locked oversized eyes with Honeysuckle. His expression was impassive, but Xander noticed that the way he held his gun was not entirely casual. John Crichton held his gun at ready while Cat carefully licked at the cuff of his sleeve.
The stalemate lasted all of two seconds, then Indy and Han Solo, wearing matching expressions of incredulity and fear, fired on each other, and the field erupted into chaos. Kay from Men in Black and Scully both fired on the Tallest, who threw his bag of snacks straight up into the air, let out a high pitched shriek, and then curled into a quivering ball on the dirt. Honeysuckle started dive bombing the shooters, screaming incoherently, joined by Vivian, who charged at Bathrobe headfirst. Bowler started firing in the other team's general direction, while glancing over his shoulder at Xander and Picard.
"I thought we was gonna negotiate!"
Xander ducked down towards the ground as bullets and lances of energy shot past them. He spotted the green haired guy launching a flying kick at Darien, who's invisible form was outlined in the dusty air. He shrugged. "Change of plans?"
A dull thud, accompanied by an impact tremor, halted the action as both teams turned as one to stare at Monica, who was lumbering onto the field, her oversized pearl necklace swaying gently with the motion of her head. "So sorry I'm late," she said. "Did I miss anything?"
Green Hair fell to the ground mid-kick, shouting something in what sounded like Japanese. A row of white text appeared at his feet, reading "What the--" Scully swung her aim from the Tallest to Monica, but didn't fire. Team Browncoat Serenity stared up and up and up at Monica's pleasant smile.
"Now," said Mal. "There's somethin' ya don't see every day,"
Xander's eye flicked over to the captain, then snapped away to shut tightly. He swallowed. Looks like Caleb. Check. Sounds like Caleb. Also check. Working with a woman on his team, apparently in a position of respect and power. A woman with a loaded weapon who obviously knew how to use it. Thus, not Caleb. Check. His body refused to relax.
Monica's voice thundered over the Arena. "Do you still want me to step on him, Xander?"
Xander opened his eye and glanced again at Mal, trying to look at him longer while continuing to swallow the bile that was rising quickly in his throat. Mal looked quickly from Monica to Xander and then back, with an expression of fear that made Xander feel a little bit better. "Now, let's not be too hasty here." He gestured for his team to put their weapons away. "I'm sure if we all just sit down and talk this out like . . ." he said something in an oriental language, but no sub-titles appeared to help translate, ". . . we can come to some sorta agreement that satisfies all parties present."
Monica smiled again and lowered her foot with another earth-shaking thud. Xander stood and did his best to wipe dust from his fatigues in a dignified manner. "Glad we could get that settled." He rested his hand on the pommel of his sword and, with one last swallow, stepped to the front of his team. "Captain. Let's talk."
* * *
Xander rubbed the skin below his eye-patch and leaned heavily against the wall of the victor's room. He had one hell of a headache forming. Looking at his new, very large team didn't help. How the hell was he supposed to lead 23 people into battle after battle? Sure, he'd had some success organizing his classmates against the Mayor, but he'd grown up knowing those people.
Okay, he'd grown up knowing a lot of these people, too, but that was different. These people hadn't grown up knowing him, back.
He was now expected to order around not one, but three spaceship captains--one of whom just happened to look almost exactly like the guy who'd stuck his thumb in his eye socket--two alien hunters, one alien, one pony, one dinosaur, two bounty hunters, one archeologist, one humanoid cat, two zombie hunters, two superheros, one invisible man, one jungle man, one astronaut, one "prophet", one rather distracted looking British guy in a bathrobe, and one punk. And Locke. He had no idea how to describe Locke. That didn't include the three geeks and the two enigmas that made up their "support team". He was expected to organize them into a cohesive team that could defeat supervillains and evil people to win the Multiverse championship. His headache grew worse.
He was just considering seeing if Mike could draw him up some tylenol when a familiar, hated voice spoke up from his blind side.
Xander swallowed for the umpteenth time that hour and slowly turned to face Cale-MAL. "‘Sright,"
Mal tilted his head slightly, his eyes narrowed. "I can't help but notice you got yourself some kind of problem with me and my crew. Since it seems we're going to be working together, I thought I might be best if we work out these issues as quickly as possible."
Xander let out a long breath, gathered his few remaining reserves of strength and shoved his hands into his pockets. "I've got nothing against your team, Captain Reynolds."
Mal nodded. "Just me, then?"
"I'm thinking I know enough about this challenge here to say with certainty that this has nothing at all to do with the Alliance, so what the gorram hell is your problem?"
Xander let himself smirk slightly at the captain's language. He'd overheard Crichton refer to something as being "frelling" earlier. You had to love how tv writers worked their way around the censors. "You look like someone I used to know."
"Wasn't someone I particularly liked."
Mal nodded. "Thought so. Any particular reason?"
"Guy gouged out my eye with his thumb."
Mal nodded again, seeming a bit more respectful. "So then how do you wanna go about makin' our associations more civil-like?" He tilted his head again. "Seems to me, bein' on the same team and all, there's--" he babbled something Xander couldn't catch "--we can avoid each other,"
Xander glanced over SMG Teacozy, his eye landing on Rogue's form as she had a . . . well, not a conversation per se, but some sort of communication . . . with Silent Bob. She was wearing her red and black uniform from Xtreme X-men now. He'd always preferred the green and yellow, personally, but hot was hot was hot when it came to the X-girls.
And suddenly his head ache started to clear as the answer came to him. "We'll just have to split up." He turned back to face Mal, vaguely surprised when he didn't feel the need to swallow again. "I've got a good system set up with my people, and I suspect you've got the same with yours, right?"
Mal shrugged. "They ain't half bad as a crew, all ‘round."
"So, you lead your people, I'll lead mine. Like having different squads. We'd have to start splitting into teams and platoons eventually if we hope to build up a massive army, and I sure as hell don't want to be trying to direct 23 people in every battle. You can have as much control as you like, so long as you don't do anything to hurt my people. Copacetic?"
"That sounds like it just might be a plan, Harris."
"Call me, Xander, Reynolds."
Xander nodded, offering his hand and managing not to flinch when Mal moved quickly to shake it. "Mal, then." He blinked. "Doesn't that mean--"
"Bad, yeah, so I heard."
Time didn't mean a whole lot in the competition's corner of the multiverse, but Xander was pretty sure he'd been there for at least a month, if not longer.
Things in the multiverse had certainly changed.
Team SMG Teacozy had reached epic proportions. Xander could no longer keep track of who everyone on his team was. He could barely keep track of his "generals". Mal was easy of course, having been the first, and still someone Xander could barely speak to without his eye socket starting to throb. Picard's expertise had proven invaluable, as he'd taken over command of the so called "original team". The other generals, eleven in total, included Samurai Jack, Abe Lincoln as a teenager, the fifth Doctor, Al Calavicci, and a Scottish guy by the name of Richard Mayhew.
Make that twelve, total. SMG Teacozy had just gained another subdivision in "battle". The whole thing was just getting more and more ridiculous. Barely eight members of SMG Teacozy had made it onto the field before Darkwing Duck had forfeited.
That was almost twice as long as the "battle" against Dr. Smith from Lost in Space, which had lasted maybe half a second. The Announcer had barely finished yelling "Laaaaaaaadies".
Even the battles against the bad guys were over quickly, with Monica around to step on people.
Xander was mind-blowingly, earth-shatteringly bored.
TV's Frank had taken to manning the door of Second Banana Heaven, ever since Manny's compatriot, the Inspector, had come by and told Torgo that they were well over their maximum capacity for patrons and threatened to shut them down over code violations. Xander got the feeling that no one had expected the side-kicks to last this long in the competition. Of course, if things had gone the way the Organizers had originally planned, the "main characters" wouldn't have lasted this long, either.
And if the rumors were true, a lot of them HADN'T.
Glory hogs. . . .
TV's Frank didn't meet Xander's eye as he approached the bar. "Mr. Harris, sir."
Xander grinned at him. "What's with the cowering doorman act, Frank?"
TV's Frank took a deep breath, wiped his brow, and stepped in front of the door, blocking Xander's entrance. "Sorry sir, secondary characters only."
Xander blinked. "I know that, Frank. I live here, remember?"
TV's Frank looked like he might cry. "Not anymore. You're the Commander-in-Chief of a massive, undefeated army. You're . . . you're . . . a PRIMARY CHARACTER!"
Xander reacted without thinking. "Am not,"
Frank nodded sadly. "Are, too."
A series of beeps, whistles, and squeals echoed from the interior of the bar. Frank rolled his eyes. "Not you!"
Xander frowned. He wasn't going to keep arguing his status as a second banana. "Where'm I supposed to GO, Frank?"
Frank just shook his head sadly. Someone came up to the door behind Xander, and Frank suddenly smiled. "Mr. Verbal, sir! Right this way."
And Verbal Kent limped his way past Xander with a smile. Xander felt his jaw drop. "You're letting him in and not me?"
Frank shrugged. "He's a second banana."
Xander shook his head. "Are you kidding?! He's. . . ." His mouth opened and closed several times. "Have you even seen The Usual Suspects?"
Frank looked thoughtful. "Was it a good movie?"
"Then no, I'm afraid not." Frank gave Xander a sympathetic look and stepped through the door of Second Banana Heaven. "Good luck, Mr. Harris."
And he closed the door on the sounds of the second bananas in the bar, leaving Xander out on the street alone.
Xander stood for a moment, just looking at the door. The perpetual gray twilight of the Town seemed to dim to late dusk. He turned slowly and scanned the street.
It was emptier than Xander had ever seen it. Gone were the characters. Gone were the elves outside the shoe shop. Not even the nut seller was in sight. As Xander started down the street, he thought he heard a harmonica in the distance.
The wind picked up. Xander pulled his army jacket tighter around himself and kept walking.
It got darker. Xander walked.
A tumbleweed blew by. Xander stopped.
"Alright, already!" he shouted. "We get it! I'm lonely!"
A single crash of thunder made Xander wince, and suddenly it was pouring down rain. A quartet of violins crescendoed. Xander crossed his arms and glowered.
* * *
He wasn't sure how long he stood there, waiting for the violins and the rain to stop before he heard the now familiar call of "Ey, Santa."
Well, that's what it sounded like with Spike's accent. Xander turned to face the anime character with a smile. "Hey Spike, what's going on?"
Spike was, as usual, looking somewhere below Xander's chin as he spoke, in order to read the subtitles. The woman with him, an attractive girl wearing an eyepatch, smiled. As did the white mouse, also wearing an eyepatch, sitting on her shoulder.
"Hi!" The woman held out her hand. "I'm Grace, and this is Dangermouse. We're headed to Phantom Pains." She gestured to her eyepatch. "You're welcome to join us."
Xander lowered his chin and peered at the trio. "What's Phantom Pains?"
It was Spike who answered, so Xander hastened to read the subtitles. "A bar and inn for those of us who have lost body parts."
Grace took Xander's arm to lead him as they started down the street. "I'm surprised you haven't heard of it. There's a whole slew of us one-eyed folk who hang out there."
"Yeah?" Xander peered sideways at Spike. "What body part are you missing?"
Spike touched his face. "Eye. This one is a replacement. There is a ‘loss of eye' support group meeting tonight, but we should still be able to find something to do." He leaned closer to Xander. "I say this only because I am on your team, but I wouldn't get too close to Grace. Her boyfriend's an assassin, and very possessive."
Xander glanced over at Grace, who was still holding his left arm, and chatting with Dangermouse. "What fandom is she from?"
"A book, I think." Spike shrugged. "I've never read it."
Xander nodded, trying to keep an eye on Spike's subtitles and an eye on Grace at the same time. "Figures. I always attract the dangerous ones."
* * *
Xander, Spike, Grace, and Dangermouse entered Phantom Pains to the sound of a loud, deep voice sobbing. Grace rolled her eyes and shook her head. "That's just Polyphemus. He and King Lear always take over the eye-loss support group sessions." She gestured to a door on their right. Xander leaned in to get a better look.
A giant man wearing an eyepatch over his only eye stood at a podium, sniffing and gurgling into a giant tissue. A shorter, older man in a crown, wearing a bloodied bandage over his eyes held the giant's elbow and snuffled.
"Calling himself ‘Nobody'." The old man shook his head. "The nerve of some people." The giant sobbed harder while the people gathered in the audience talked quietly amongst themselves. "Why," said the old man. "It's almost as bad as ‘out, out vile jelly.'"
The giant wailed.
Grace tugged on Xander's elbow and pulled him out of the room. "Ignore them. They're still upset over the loss of their eyes, and it's been hundreds of years. They do this every week." She shook her head. "Some people humor him, but Spike and I usually go sit in the bar until those two have cried themselves to sleep."
Spike nodded, leading the way towards the back of the establishment. Xander followed, and was relieved as the giant's sobs faded into the distance.
The bar was filled with people, all sporting crutches or slings, canes or eye-patches. Xander spotted Ash and waved. Ash talking with who he assumed was probably Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. He couldn't remember any other Gary Sinise characters with missing limbs. Long John Silver and Captain Ahab seemed to be sharing sea stories in the corner, and Luke and Anakin Skywalker seemed to be having an in depth conversation that involved a lot of glowering, and, Xander thought, probably a fair amount of daddy issues. Xander shook his head. This place was insane.
He was very surprised when he saw Aaron, sporting an eye-patch, sitting at the bar talking to a man, also patched, wearing a dark black suit and smoking a cigarette. His heart dropped and he disentangled himself from Grace to hurry over.
"Aaron!" He leaned up against the bar next to his friend. "Geez, man, how did that happen?"
Aaron cast a quick look around, then leaned toward Xander and lifted the patch. Xander flinched, but underneath was a perfectly healthy eye, blinking at him. Aaron grinned. "It's a disguise. I knew you'd show up here eventually."
The man in the suit cleared his throat and Aaron hurriedly dropped the eye-patch. "Xander, this is Pete Wisdom. He's the one who gave me the idea."
Wisdom grinned and tapped his own eye-patch. "This is the eyepatch of love. Best thing I ever invested in. Gives me the mutant power of being horribly sexy."*
Aaron rolled his visible eye. "Yeah, we get it. You've said that about three times already."
Xander just stared at Wisdom. "You know, from someone who really IS missing his left eye, I find that joke in bad taste." He twisted his mouth. "Even if it is probably true, which I say in a totally heterosexual, one manly-man to another, kind of way." He turned back to Aaron. "I'm glad you're okay though. Is it okay to talk, here?"
Aaron nodded. "None of the NPCs are missing limbs or eyes, so we're in the clear."
Xander blinked. "NPCs?"
"You know, like the Man. The folks who are just here to run the competition and aren't actually fictional characters themselves." Aaron shrugged. "I got the term online, it seemed to fit. But that's not important. Mehri and Susan."
Xander nodded. The pair of mysterious girls had been showing up to the SMG Teacozy battles regularly, but, like the geek trio, hadn't really had much to say or do there lately, other than distribute weapons to the army. He'd barely even talked to the two lately. "Who are they?"
Aaron tilted his head. "See, that's not the easiest question to answer. They're fictional, but not like you and me, and as far as I can tell, they're not NPCs. I think they're something called a ‘Mary-Sue'."
"Their NAMES are Mehri and Susan."
"Right. And that's who they are. Mary-Sues are part of fandom culture. They're characters written by fans who are somehow good at absolutely everything. They're not usually dangerous to the characters from the fandom, though. Not the good guys, anyway."
Xander shook his head. "Then why are they here? Why are they on my team?"
Aaron shrugged. "That I don't know yet. You should be able to trust them, though. They're one heck of an advantage."
"Not that it matters," Wisdom added. "We're not going to be here too much longer."
Xander ran his hand over his face. "What do you mean?"
Wisdom cast him a skeptical look. "You mean you haven't heard? The competition's ending tomorrow."
Xander shook his head. "How? There are still thousands of characters left."
Aaron nodded. "Right, but there're only six TEAMS left. Three good, three bad. The audience is so sick of watching us forfeit to each other that the Organizers have changed up the rules. Tomorrow is the battle royal, good vs evil, winner take all. No forfeits allowed."
Xander stared at the two for a long moment. Wisdom and Aaron stared back. "Well," he said, finally. "At least it'll be over."
He wasn't sure how to feel about that. On the one hand, he'd finally be getting the hell out of this place. On the other, he'd made a lot of friends.
And he sure as hell didn't want to die. And tomorrow, he probably would. "Who are the teams?"
Aaron held up his hand and counted them off. "SMG Teacozy, of course. And Sark's team, the L Conspiracy. Then there's Weiss' team, Spy Buddy, which combined with AH Love this afternoon, and Double-0 Amazing on the good side, and Jokes on You and Refrigerator Magnet on the evil side." Aaron looked at his hand. "It should be quite the battle."
Xander took a deep breath. "Yeah. You seem to be pretty up on all this stuff, which team is Buffy on?"
"Short bint? About this tall?" Wisdom held up his hand around his shoulder. Xander nodded. "She went down early. Possibly her first fight. I heard she didn't even fight back."
Xander's knees went loose and he gripped the bar. He held out a hand, and a beer appeared almost magically in it. He took a very long drink. "How?"
Wisdom shrugged. "Guess she didn't feel like fighting. Said something about having done this twice before." He shook his head. "As far as I knew, this Multiverse championship thing was a one time deal."
"Dying." Xander's voice hurt. "She's died twice before." He took another long drink. "Damn. At least she got out."
Wisdom nodded. Aaron put his hand on Xander's shoulder. "Hey, look on the bright side. Maybe dying tomorrow won't hurt."
Xander just stared at him. Aaron had the grace to look chagrined and turn his attention to his drink. Xander set his down firmly on the bar and went to look for Spike and Ash.
It was time to start planning strategy for tomorrow's big battle.
Good vs. Evil
Xander swallowed convulsively as he followed Manny through the halls of the Arena that he hadn't been in since the first time Mike and the other nerds had beamed him into the Multiverse's little corner of the creative ether. Manny's blonde hair was meticulously combed over the small bald spot at the back, which Xander could observe quite clearly, considering that the Man was, apparently, nearly a foot shorter than he was, and keeping his head bent over his clipboard during the entire walk.
He remembered how vague Manny had seemed when he'd first met him, however long ago that actually was. Things in the Multiverse really had been changing. Manny had taken on a life of his own, separate from that which the creators of the contest had intended. At least that was the popular theory amongst his fellow "fictional" characters.
Manny paused in front of a particular doorway in his slow, steady walk, startling Xander from his thoughts. He opened his mouth to ask if they were at the planning room yet, but the look of distant melancholy on Manny's sharp features made him pause.
He stood silently behind the Man as he seemed about the speak. Instead, the Man just gestured to the room.
"So this is the planning room?"
"It is a planning room, yes. It is not yours."
"Then why are we here?"
The Man cast a quick glance to either side, before gesturing to the door again. It was then that Xander noticed the narrow window. He leaned in to get a better look.
The first person to catch his eye in the room was Mandy Patinkin, and for a moment, he wondered if he was looking at a much older Inigo Montoya. Then he spotted the two blondes rolling their eyes at whatever Patinkin was saying, along with the eurotrash kid and the rather pissed looking police officer.
Behind that group was what really clued him in as to what was going on in the room, however.
An animated skeleton holding a large gardening tool and wearing a black cowl was talking to . . . another animated skeleton holding a large gardening tool and wearing a black cowl. The first skeleton seemed to be quite angry, judging by the V shape of his apparently flexible eye sockets. The second listened impassively.
NO, ACTUALLY, came a voice, seemingly inside Xander's head, like Willow's was, sometimes, but much, much louder. I DON'T THINK WE SHOULD FORM A UNION.
"We must be moving on, Alexander Lavelle Harris."
"Manny," Xander pointed into the window. "That's DEATH."
"Yes. They all are." Manny lay a hand on Xander's arm, startling him. The Man had been in his blind spot. "They must prepare for the battle as well."
Xander watched as Mandy Patinkin started handing people post-it notes.
"They will be very busy, today," said Manny sadly. "We must be moving on."
Xander fell into step behind the Man again, but couldn't shake the sight of the room full of death from his mind. "This really is it, isn't it. This really is the final battle."
"It really is." The Man stopped again. "Just here, then, Alexander Lavelle Harris."
Xander straightened and brushed off his already dust-free fatigues. "It's been nice knowing you, Manny."
"It has been good to know you, too," The Man paused to collect himself, pushing his glasses higher up on his nose. "Xander."
Xander turned to comment upon Manny using his chosen name, but the Man had vanished. Along with every other door in the hallway. He swallowed again.
"See you around, Manny."
He stepped through the door and into the planning room to the sound of uproarious cheering.
* * *
Planning HALL would actually be a great deal more accurate. SMG Teacozy had long since outgrown the bare, dingy-white walled room they had first been sent to, much less the nerds' basement. The Hall was the size of two or three gymnasiums, and filled to brimming with heros of every shape and size. Weiss stood just to the right of a podium raised on a platform in front of the door, dressed in what looked like riot gear. He smiled at Xander as he came in.
"We're just about to get started."
"You were waiting on me?" Xander asked, looking over the crowd as he stepped up onto the platform. In one scan he spotted Spiderman and Wonder Woman in full costume, three of Bruce Willis' characters, and what appeared to be a giant suit of armor wearing a loin cloth and a cat on its head.
He scanned the other way, and there was Spider Jerusalem, two Power Rangers, Bill S. Preston Esquire, and an eye-patched mercenary named Pip that Xander had met the night before at Phantom Pains. Pip was talking rather animatedly to a John Cusack character, apparently, from the hand gestures, comparing notes regarding weapons.
Or possibly bust-sizes.
How the hell had he managed to become commander and chief of an army of super-heros?
"Well," Weiss said, nodding to someone just behind Xander's shoulder. "Not just for you."
Xander turned to face three beautiful women.
Those seemed to come standard with any fandom, really, so it came as no surprise.
It was one of those multiverse moments, really, when the light (which he'd yet to identify the source of) would hit at just the right angle, seeming to surround the girls: a bouncy redhead, an exotic brunette, a cynical blonde. They ought to have been the Charlie's Angels or something.
Then the redhead grinned and threw her arms around Xander and the spell was broken.
"Hi." Xander hugged her back. "Almost the end."
Willow pulled back and smacked him on the chest. "Don't talk like that. We're going to win."
"Well, yeah," Weiss said from his own position with the brunette leaning happily against his side. "But it's still an ending." Weiss nodded to his girl. "Xander, this is Nadia Santos, and that," he nodded to the blonde, who was standing with her right hand on her hip, her left clutching a large binder, "is Veronica Mars. They've been working with the rest of AH Love to help research our opponents."
Xander raised his eyebrows. "Good to know. What have we got?"
Veronica held out the binder, which was stuffed full. He opened it and started skimming the pages. Veronica was all business.
"Backgrounds on as many of the ‘bad guys'" this she said with a bemused smirk "as we could identify, plus a quick run down on the basic skills of our own team and a complete inventory of our weaponry. The weapons marked with the asterisk are the ones Mehri and Susan are finishing designing for us, now."
Xander winced. "Yeah, about those two--"
"What about us?" A familiar, silky voice said from behind him.
How all these people kept sneaking up on him, he'd never know.
He turned and smiled at the two ladies. "Do you know you're fictional?"
"So's the Man." Susan shrugged. "Never stopped him."
"Yeah, but why--"
Mehri smiled. "We were developed by the Creators to convince you to fight instead of forfeiting."
Xander tensed. "So what happened?"
"We got to like you, instead." They both adopted almost identical sad expressions. "We're really sorry for lying to you the way we did. Can you forgive us?"
Xander studied them both. "I'm about to lead an enormous army of super-beings into battle. Now really isn't the time."
"Now might be the only time," Susan said softly.
"If we win, you're forgiven."
"Xander! Man!" Again from behind. Just how many behinds had Xander developed, today?
"Steve," Xander nodded to the scrawny geek. "Mike, Frank . . . girl I don't know who's hanging off of Steve,"
"This is Megan, my girl." Steve wrapped an arm over the nerdy, somewhat heavy set woman, who nodded happily. "She had Spiderman."
"I wanted to wish you luck," Megan held out a hand. Xander took it.
"Thanks." He looked to the trio of nerds. "And you three: for the love of god, no more magic spells on seemingly fictional characters?"
Frank nodded solemnly, with a hint of disappointment. Mike's nod was more absent, as he was still ogling Mehri and Susan.
Xander suspected his disappointment had more to do with their essential nature than being forbidden to work any more magic.
"I hate to cut this short," Nadia's voice was accented, but Xander couldn't place where she might be from "But we're running out of time."
Xander nodded, hefting the binder again. "I can't look through all this and plan a battle in five minutes."
"No need." Nadia smiled up at Weiss. "Eric has been leading a planning team all night. We know what to do."
Weiss nodded. "Just up to you to give the troops a rousing speech."
"Rousing. Right." The last one of those he'd given had inspired a group of teenaged girls to run off and get injured and killed. He stepped up to the podium and looked out over the sea of expectant faces.
"Right." Weiss and Nadia stepped up on his right. Willow grabbed his hand and stood to his left, Veronica just beyond her. Mike, Frank, Steve, Megan, Mehri and Susan were . . . well, he suspected they were behind him. He leaned over to the microphone. The crowd fell silent.
Just like in the movies.
"Just wanted to say," Xander licked his lips. "Just wanted to say: kick their asses."
A cheer went up and Xander stepped back, looking over his friends. Willow smiled and nodded. Weiss smirked.
"See you on the flip side, Alexander Lavelle Harris."
"I hope so, Agent Weiss."
One of the walls of the planning hall faded from existence as time ran out, revealing the Arena and a screaming audience.
"Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadies and geeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeentlemeeeeeeeeeeeeen, give it up, for team Good!"
The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny
Xander had been through a number of battles in his time as a Slayerette. But this . . . this was a battle unlike any other he'd seen. And not just because of the glowing, floating numbers that appeared over everyone's heads the moment the fight started.
Those were strange. On the one hand, they were extremely distracting, the way they counted down as people got hit, vanishing along with the combatant when they reached 0 (and just who, Xander wondered, had decided that Rogue's number should be in the thousands while his barely reached two digits?). On the other, they were helpful. With all the people on the field, it would have been impossible to tell who was on which team if it weren't for the fact that the ‘good' team's numbers were the color of flourescent light bulbs and the ‘evil' side's seemed to occasionally spit flames.
Or maybe that was the result of the red and black demon to Xander's right who kept launching fireballs from his bare hands.
That was another thing. Xander had never seen a battle with a larger variety of weapons and tactics. Guns, swords, crossbows, magic, and every now and then, Xander caught sight of what looked like thin, black lines ripping something apart--
There was the sound of something sizzling and a deep, earthshaking cry, and suddenly the battle field seemed a bit emptier.
Someone had taken out Monica.
Xander couldn't let himself feel that loss now, though. That much he knew from experience. Members of his team were vanishing left and right, sent back into the creative ether with bangs and whimpers, and there was nothing to do but keep fighting and try to send even more of the other team back with them.
There was no hope for a forfeit now. Everything was just too chaotic.
Still, there was something surreal, despite the boom of the artillery and the blood that filled the air. Maybe it was that a lot of those guns seemed to be larger than the tiny girls wielding them. Maybe it was that the blood ranged the entire color spectrum. Something lent the entire scene an almost cartoonish quality.
Maybe it was just that, unlike any other battle Xander had seen, there were never any bodies left behind when someone died.
He had to keep reminding himself that that didn't make it any less REAL.
"Honeysuckle!" Xander spun, striking at the T-1000, though he didn't really expect the thing to stay down. It had a higher floating hit point number than Rogue did. "Behind you!"
Honeysuckle spun in mid-air, barely dodging the flying monkey.
Come on, now. Who the hell picked a FLYING MONKEY for their champion?
Something blasted by very close to Xander's left cheek, and he spun again just in time to watch a blonde woman in a skimpy red dress — who WASN'T Glory, thank god — collapse in a heap. Another blonde, this one with short hair and wearing some kind of grey fatigues, raced by, a blaster in her hand.
"Watch yourself, you frakkin' dumbass," she shouted, even as she took aim at another enemy. "Frakking toasters,"
Xander thwacked at the T-1000 again with his axe.
"Stay. Down. Dammit!"
Then a mulleted hulk of a man — though not THE Hulk, Xander had spotted him early on pummeling a woman with a staff and a really bad hat — slammed past and ripped the T-1000's head off with his teeth. The two teenaged boys following him stopped and did some kind of modified high five thing.
"Go team Venture!"
"Oh, sure," Xander muttered. "Do it the easy way,"
"You're welcome," said Thor — who wasn't really Thor of course, Thor was on the other end of the field fighting Ares — before he roared and lunged after a dalek. The teenagers hooted and ran after him — straight into an on-coming black wire which sliced them in two. The vampire in the three piece suit with a monocle smirked, but the expression faded as the boys respawned . . . as slightly gooey pink naked things.
Really, could you blame Xander for not quite taking all of this seriously?
Then the T-1000's head melded itself back onto its body and the thing started to stand.
"Aw crap." Xander lifted his axe again, but a green power ranger leapt in front of him, striking a powerful marital arts pose.
Was that a SIREN on the side of his head?
"Kill it!" Xander shouted. "Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!"
The power ranger straightened. "You know, I'm sure if we tried we could come up with a peaceful solution that would value each other's humanity and dignity and--"
The T-1000's eye started to glow.
"Orrrrr not." The power ranger fired some kind of blaster and then did a lot of jumping around and shouting.
In theory, this was a fight.
Then he pulled out a cellphone looking thing and held it up. "It's judgement time!"
Xander blinked. "You've got to be kidding me."
"You are charged with, uh, beating up on a defenseless one-eyed guy--"
"--and generally being an evil robot thing! And you are found . . ." A red X flashed on the cellphone. "Guilty!"
Xander wasn't entirely certain what happened next, but it seemed to involve more shouting, an excessive amount of smoke, flashing lights, and sound effects, and then the T-1000 was gone.
Well, okay, it was turned into some kind of moving trading card thing that looked like it belonged in a Harry Potter movie.
"Okay," Xander lowered his axe. "Wow."
"No need to thank me, it's all in a day's work for . . ." The ranger struck another pose. "Space Patrol Delta!"
Then he flipped into the air to go fight something else.
Xander blinked. A lot.
Did he smell TOAST?
Then Gargamel's cat jumped at his face.
* * *
And so it went, each encounter getting more ridiculous than the last, until the green ranger seemed like a breath of fresh air.
Take, for instance, the giant cat thing named Pete who tried, in the midst of battle, to sell Xander a used car.
Or the talking eggplant that shot vegetables at him.
The people who picked bad guys as champions were on crack. And not the good kind.
Honeysuckle fluttered by, howling in rage, chasing Shredder. Artie, bounding and posing, seemed to be involved in some kind of combat with Cobra Commander that consisted solely of overemphasized words.
Not to mention the pink-haired teenaged girl who was swooping about the battlefield on rollerblades. . . .
Right. So EVERYONE who'd entered a champion in the multi-verse competition was on crack.
Xander was getting tired, and even the tiny bottles of potion that had been handed out by Link didn't seem to be helping.
It'd be all over soon.
At least, he hoped so.
He raised his axe, let out a hoarse yell, and swung at the person who seemed to be creeping up on his blind side.
Fortunately, Weiss ducked.
"Whoa! Whoa! Friend here!"
Xander lowered the axe. "Sorry. Battle, you know." He blinked at Weiss's number. "How the hell did you get triple digits?"
Weiss shrugged. "Mad spy skills. You look like you're running a bit low."
"I was low to begin with."
Weiss frowned for a minute, then reached out to grab a number from a passing telephone sanitizer. The man in question vanished in a puff of logic, and Weiss reached up to put the glowing number next to the ones floating above Xander's head. "We don't need him anyway. No telephones."
Xander blinked at his now triple digit hit point score. "That's . . . bizarre yet ingenious."
"When in doubt, go with the flow. Listen, have you seen Nadia anywhere?"
Xander shook his head.
"Damn. I think she might have gotten zombied. Again."
"Long story. Watch the DVDs. I've got to find her."
"Yeah, I'll--" The world suddenly shifted around Xander and then he wasn't on the battlefield any more. "--help, okay, NOW what?"
"Alexander Lavelle Harris," Manny stepped out of a convenient shadow, clutching his clipboard like a security blanket. "Welcome to the Control Room."
Xander turned slowly in a circle. There wasn't much to the room, but that seemed to fit with the general theme of most of the places he'd been in the Masters of the Multi-verse challenge. Unlike, say, Second Banana Heaven or even Phantom Pains, though, the Control Room hadn't been imbued with details from hundreds of characters spending time within it. Manny himself seemed extraordinarily fleshed out against the dull gray of the walls, and as Xander looked closer, he noticed that the control panel buttons resembled low resolution images on an old computer monitor. It was all just so . . . half- assed.
Like the challenge itself, really.
The most interesting thing, by far, in the room was the megaphone with feet and a tongue that was announcing the events down on the playing field in a rapid fire tone usually reserved for auctioneers and race commentators.
This, it seemed, was the Announcer.
Only slightly less interesting was the fact that Thug One, and his compatriot, Thug Two, were also in attendance. And cracking their knuckles.
"What am I doing here, Manny? I'm supposed to be down on the field. Fighting. Like you guys have been trying to get me to do all along."
"Indeed." Manny stared sadly down at his clipboard. "You've done very well in this tournament. But I'm afraid we've chosen one more opponent for you, due to . . . ah . . . popular demand."
Xander sighed and straightened as much as he could. "Whatever. Bring on . . . whoever it is. Then can I get back to helping my team?"
"Heh," said Thug One, cracking his knuckles again.
"Heh heh," said Thug Two, rolling his neck.
Xander sort of hoped they were his enemy. He wouldn't mind braining them with his axe, if nothing else.
"We . . . ah. . . ." hedged Manny.
". . . andtherefereeismakingacalland, YES, itlooksliketeamSMGTEACOZYhasbeendisqualified!"
Xander spun to face the animated megaphone. "What?!"
"You left the field," said Thug One.
"Thas against the rules," said Thug Two.
"You BROUGHT me here! This is crap! I want to talk to whoever the hell you've got running this stupid thing, and I want to talk to them NOW."
"I am, actually, the second in command." Manny adjusted his glasses. "You may address your concerns to me."
"Like hell. Who's the first in command?"
"That would be telling." Manny set his clipboard to the side. "But we digress. Alexander Lavelle Harris, it behooves me to inform you of your final battle. You will be facing. . . ."
The sound of a door opening and closing came from somewhere behind Xander and he turned.
". . . Alexander Lavelle Harris," continued Manny.
"Hey," The other Xander grinned cockily, adjusting his grip on a very, very large gun. "How's it going."
Xander stared. "You've GOT to be kidding me."
Xander slowly circled his doppelganger, who just kind of smirked.
He had to be clenching. Nobody had an ass that inviting. Certainly not Xander. And Xander certainly didn't think about other guys asses. No way, no how.
Still, that was a damned fine ass. . . .
"Manny, I'm thinking there's some kind of mistake." Xander tore his gaze away from the other Xander's ass to look to the Man. "That is NOT me."
"No kidding. You're way too . . . puffy."
Xander turned to glare at . . . himself. "I'm not puffy! I just might have hit the Chinese take out a bit too hard after breaking things off with Anya, that's all! And what about you? That tan is so fake. You look like you're made of bronze. No one is that color."
"You are correct, in fact, Alexander Lavelle Harris." Manny adjusted his glasses again. "And about more than the Chinese take out, or the unnatural nature of his skin tone. That is not, in fact, you. Well, it is, but it isn't. Do you understand?"
"Not even a little."
The other Xander huffed. "It's not that difficult. . . ."
"You shut up!" Xander pointed a shaky finger at him, then turned back to Manny. "You! Explain!"
"This," Manny gestured to the doppelganger. "Is Alexander Lavelle Harris. As are you. However, you are the Alexander Lavelle Harris that was created by Joss Whedon and presented in the television series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. He, however, is the Alexander Lavelle Harris that lives in the hearts and minds of the viewers of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer', or, at least, the hearts and minds of the viewers who write stories and post them online. Well. The ones that write fiction that is read by the creators of the challenge, at the very least."
"Oooooookay," Xander turned to look at the other Xander. "So you're telling me that the people who watched the show think I'm like THAT? He's . . . kind of grotesquely epic."
The other Xander grunted slightly and seemed to pose. "Am not,"
"You are correct in your assessment, I believe. In fact, I do have a few statistics on him, if you would like to listen."
"I will not."
"With the DETAILS, Manny,"
"Oh." The Man perused his clipboard. "Very well. The man standing before you is to be described in the following manner: ‘despite the physical, emotional, and at times sexual abuse in his childhood at the hands of one of his numerous fathers'--"
"Numerous fathers? ABUSE?" Xander shook his head. "Okay, I'll be the first to say that Tony was no ‘Father Knows Best'--and I know that for a fact now, because I met the guy last . . . weekish or so ago, but he wasn't THAT bad,"
The other Xander shuddered. And seemed to shrink at the very idea, looking broken and confused and Xander was NOT going to hug him and make him feel better with smooches, no matter how strangely tempting it suddenly was to do so.
"Your Anthony Harris was not. His, on the other hand, was a monster. Mostly. You need only read the fiction to know it's a fact, for him." The Man raised an eyebrow. "May I go on?"
The other Xander whimpered softly. Xander shoved his hands in his pockets. "Yes. Okay."
"As I was saying, despite that fact, THIS Alexander Lavelle Harris grew up to be a generally upstanding individual. He is caring, naturally, since he is in fact a powerful empath--"
"Oh come on! I don't HAVE any powers."
"You don't. He does. Thousands of them, in fact, due to something called YAHF."
"Close enough. He also maintains a piece of the hyena spirit that possessed you both shortly after you made the acquaintance of Buffy Anne Summers. This piece has developed greatly over the years until
it is almost a second personality for him. The same may be said for the soldier memories, which he maintains in full."
"That's dumb," Xander muttered, beginning to feel rather . . . jealous of his fictional half.
"He also has heightened, near vampiric senses thanks to a 'blood-claim bond' that he shares with. . . ." Manny flipped one page on his clip board. Then another. Then another, and another, and another. "Quite a few vampires of his acquaintance, actually. It's a small miracle that he has not been turned in fact--oh." Manny looked up and adjusted his glasses. "He has. A few times."
Xander turned slowly to look at his doppelganger, which looked back at him with a smirk and a full game face.
And a golden tan.
This was getting just a little bit ridiculous.
"Wait, you're telling me this guy has been turned by vampires MORE THAN ONCE? Manny, that doesn't make any sense."
"And yet it remains the truth. It is also of note that Alexander Lavelle Harris can transform himself into a multitude of creatures, is familiar with any type of explosive device or ballistic weaponry you put in front of him, knows multiple styles of martial arts, has alien DNA, is part-demon, has had affairs of varying steaminess with every member of the cast of characters of the series, and several other series as well. He is nigh-indestructable, militantly straight, and ‘oh-so-very gay'."
The faux-Xander grinned saucily. Xander scowled.
"Manny, stop oggling the fake me. Fake me, for god's sake, stop flirting with the Man!"
The faux-Xander shrugged. "I can't help it. He's just so . . . attractive. A character created with minimal development, cast to float free in this corner of the creative ether, to sink or swim without help from his creator. He's had to essentially create himself, and he's done a very good job of it, no matter how lonely the existence is. Look at him, Xander. So melancholy but loyal to his position. He's called the Man, but it would be more accurate to dub him ‘the Middle-Man', or ‘the Lackey'. Perhaps ‘the Figurehead. Or ‘the Scapegoat'. Of all the original characters in this corner of the ether, he is the most compassionate."
Xander blinked, and turned to look at the Man again, as if in a whole new light. The Man sniffed slightly, looking down.
"He is also extremely perceptive." Manny took a deep breath and looked back up at the two Xanders. "Thank you, Alexander Lavelle Harris."
The faux-Xander's cocky expression returned. "Of course, he's also dweeby beyond belief."
The Man's face closed off. "And at times entirely callous."
Xander was beginning to get a handle on this situation. "So you want me to fight . . . an idealised version of myself?"
"To the death?"
". . . Is that considered suicide?"
"I am sure I do not know."
Xander turned to face his doppelganger. "But how can you even exist? There's so many parts of you that don't make sense. How can you be militantly straight, but also completely gay? I mean, you've had sex with Spike, haven't you?"
The faux-Xander nodded. "A bunch of times. Top and bottom. Mostly bottom, though."
"But you hate Spike."
The faux-Xander scowled. "I hate all vampires. Every last one of them. What they did to Jesse is completely unforgivable, and I refuse to even consider that not every single vampire on the face of the planet isn't entirely responsible for that and therefore has to be eliminated."
Xander shook his head. "But . . . you've had sex with vampires. You are a vampire, sort of. You've got blood claims with them and fight along side them. How do you explain that?"
The scowl deepened. "Are we here to fight or not."
"I'd rather not, actually, if you're going to give the option," Xander stepped closer. "But I hit a nerve, didn't I? You're supposed to be, what, a combination of all the different Xanders in different fanfiction stories, right? So you've got the conflicting opinions of thousands of different writers in your head."
"What the hell does that matter? I'm almost indestructible." The faux-Xander grinned. It was a predatory expression, right down to the slightly elongated and pointed eye teeth. "No, wait, I AM indestructible. That was established in at least one of the stories."
"You calling me a clown?"
Xander shuddered. "We're afraid of clowns, remember? I'm not afraid of you."
"Oh, I think you are. You're terrified that I'm better than you. That I've accomplished things you couldn't even imagine doing. I'm everything you've always wished you were and more."
"You're not even real."
"I'm as real as you are. More. I'm the Xander of the fan mentality. There's a whole lot more of them than of YOUR writers."
"You're a walking contradiction. I've read some of those stories. How about Angel? You hate him. So do I. But you're also sleeping with him. You're terrified of Faith, pissed off at Faith, never even met Faith, and having hot, kinky affairs with Faith. All at the same time. You're a natural magician with no magic ability at all. A highly skilled fighter who no one has ever bothered to train. You're obsessed with guns, or never touch them. Immortal, but dead hundreds of times over."
Xander turned to glance over his shoulder at the window out onto the Arena. "I'm in charge of an army of good guys. Without having to suddenly get new powers because of a costume or a random new father, without having kung fu downloaded into my brain, and generally without killing anything. I'm pretty sure that means that I'm not weak."
"You think you can beat me?"
"In a fight? Not at all. You'd kick my ass in a matter of moments, if for no other reason than because you've got seven guns within easy reach and a sword strapped to your back and know how to use all of them, while I've just got an axe. Plus, you have two eyes." Xander stepped closer again. "Or do you? Sometimes, and this might be because of my own lack of depth perception, it looks like you've got an eyepatch. And sometimes your left eye is a different color. You've got so many parts all smashed together that I'm not even sure how you can move."
On a whim, Xander reached out a finger and poked at his double's chest.
His finger sank in about half an inch, as though his double were merely an illusion cast over a much smaller person.
"Now that's interesting,"
The other Xander backed up and smacked at Xander's hand. "Stop that."
"No, wait, I think I'm onto something here." Xander pushed again, with his whole hand this time, then dragged it downwards, opening a rip in the other Xander's shirt. It tore easily.
"Hey! Stop! Let go!"
"You're, like, some kid wearing an uber-Xander suit. What do you think you're playing at?" Xander kept stepping in as his double kept backing up, ripping the shirt further, revealing something dark and empty underneath. He cast a glance towards the Man, who watched impassively.
"You know what? I take it back. I don't think you can beat me. I think I just." He started pulling the torn bits of Xander costume away. "Might," He reached up to pull off the face, which he really, really hoped was some sort of metaphysical mask. "Win."
As the last of the form that made up the fanon!Xander pulled away, a swirling, colorful mist in the shape of a man was revealed. It spiraled into a dizzying fractal, then expanded and seemed to explode.
As it blew past him, Xander closed his eyes. It was cold and smelled slightly of cinnamon buns.
"Congratulations, Alexander Lavelle Harris," the Man said softly from somewhere to his left. "You've just won your final Masters of the Multi-verse Challenge."
Xander shook his head. "There's still the battle. Good vs. Evil, remember?"
"Open your eyes. Take a look."
Epilogue: Are we there, yet?
He was back on the bus out of hell. He sat up straighter and looked around. Everything was as it had been when the colorful mist had first descended on him when Mike, Frank, and Steve pulled him into the "real world".
Had that even happened?
Most of the surviving mini-slayers were sleeping, or staring out the windows, still recovering from the fight in the high school.
"Pull over," someone called, from about midway up the bus. "Pull the fuck over right NOW."
The bus screeched to a halt on the desert road and Giles spun about in his seat behind the wheel. "Faith, what--"
But Faith had jumped to her feet and was running for the front of the bus by the door, her hand over her mouth in the universal gesture for "I'm going to spew". Xander pushed himself to his feet to follow, as did the rest of the Scoobies.
Faith knelt by the side of the road, her hands gripping her biceps tightly. Giles managed to get to her side first. Xander stopped just to the side of the door to the bus. "Faith,"
She shook her head. "Don't know. Maybe a side-effect of Red's spell. Felt like I was being ripped apart."
"Seems that twenty- seven different teams all tried to summon her at the same time. The moderators of the Masters challenge had to disqualify her to keep her from being ripped apart and eradicated by the energies."
It was real, alright.
Faith let go of her own arms and stood. "Fine now, though. Let's get going."
Xander nodded slightly, then looked over to the rest of his friends.
Giles was cleaning his glasses. With rather furious intensity. There was soft *snap*, and then Giles was cursing softly. He'd snapped the bridge. He looked up and caught Xander's eye. "That was . . . most strange."
"So cool you mean!" That was Andrew. He was practically vibrating. "I met James Bond!"
He went on, but Xander stopped listening. Instead, he turned to look for Buffy.
She was standing off from the group again, staring off into the desert with that small, half-smile, like she was relieved that something was over and looking forward to what might happen next.
"Guess she didn't feel like fighting. Said something about having done this twice before."
Three times, now. Xander couldn't help but wonder if letting herself die in the first battle had been really smart, or really, really foolish.
Then again, he could say that about a lot of the things she'd done, lately.
A hand landed on his arm, and Xander turned. Willow looked up at him with a slightly mournful expression.
They both asked it at the same time. Then they both shrugged.
"You disappeared from the field. I thought you'd died."
Xander shook his head. "I won. They dragged me out to . . . meet myself."
"You mean, like a Toth way?"
"Kind of. He was kind of a prick, though. What happened? On the field? Who won?"
Willow smiled slightly. "No one. Once SMG Teacozy was told to stop, we all just kind of realized that the whole thing was really, really dumb. Good guys and bad guys. Then this weird color-storm kind of swept over everything, and we were here."
"Seems that way."
". . . and Wolverine," said Andrew, as they piled back onto the bus. "And Luke and Leia and Spiderman and. . . ."
And they drove off, into the sunset, and a giant sign reading