Make your own free website on Tripod.com
Ring Child
Summary:In which Suicide and Diocletian come along for "evaluation" and Nume says the F-word a lot.
Source:"Ring Child" by Xx_Kiamii_xX.
Continua:Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
Timeline:Mid-2011.
Published:June 2, 2011.
Rating:PG-13/T - Implied disturbing things on the fic's part and almost everyone losing their cool.
Betas:DigitalSocrates and PoorCynic.
Co-writer:Tungsten Monk.

Pre-Mission

Every agent has his or her own method for getting around Headquarters. In most cases, this is something like playing very loud music on a CD player, or even one of those newfangled "eye-pods;" or perhaps arguing vociferously with one's partner or one's equipment; or even, in a few instances of desperation, actually banging one's head against the wall to induce a dazed state. Therefore, seeing Agent Supernumerary walk down the hall with only a fried CAD in his hands, solitary, silent, and not concussed, tended to draw attention. Sometimes, new agents even tried to ask the green-spectacled man for directions. He liked this just fine: the effort of ignoring them only made his trip go faster.

To get around Headquarters, Nume liked to read a book. In his case, the book was in his head.

As he reviewed the timeline of the Great Years from The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, he passed more or less directly from the matte black hall outside his response center, past the Fountain of Bleepka and the cafeteria, to DoSAT. Normally he would have made Ilraen run this sort of errand, but since their response center wasn't much better than DoSAT these days thanks to his partner's tinkering, he had decided to go himself. Anyway, the techs might need some persuasion, and while Ilraen could get away with quite a lot with his "clueless bit character" act, this was time-sensitive and called for a more direct approach.

Entering the department, Nume mentally closed the book. The secretary, Tess, glanced at him and waved him through after deducing that he wasn't about to shout, throw things, or otherwise cause damage.

"Everyone's in the hangar," she informed him. "Some big project."

"Thanks."

He passed through the labs and down a short corridor, emerging into the vacant whiteness of the hangar. The mutable space was currently filled with booms and cables suspending the command deck of a Federation starship, torn roughly from the rest of the ship, judging by the ragged edges. Nume's experienced eyes couldn't pick out what model it was supposed to be, but the large, glittery blood stain in the captain's chair explained the lack of details. The DoSAT techs swarmed all over the thing, apparently stripping it for parts.

Suddenly, there was a loud snap!

"Scheiss, get clear!" someone shouted, and techs scrambled away in all directions. Metal groaned, and half the deck collapsed to the floor, splitting itself down the middle in a rain of dust and sparks.

After a few moments, with no further destabilization in evidence, the techs slowly approached again, surveying the damage.

"Everyone all right?" the first voice called, followed by another one exclaiming, "Who was cutting into the axial tensioning beam? This was a weight-bearing structure, dammit!"

Nume was right: this was never a job for Ilraen. The Andalite would probably have tried to help, and god only knew what time-consuming disaster that would have led to. He took a deep breath and a sip of Bleepka to steady his nerves and approached the work zone. Movement from beneath the wreckage caught his eye.

A dust-covered tech pulled himself out from under the collapsed section, got up, and brushed himself off like nothing unusual had happened. Nume approached him.

"Excuse me. You look like you could stand stepping away for a moment, and I need—oh good lord."

The small Korean man took off his glasses to wipe them rather ineffectually on his coveralls, squinted up at the black-clad agent, and made a startled leap for the cover of a nearby workbench. "Are you an assassin? If you are, go away!"

Nume followed him. "I'm a disentangler. Aren't you supposed to be dead?"

"No! I think I would know if I was dead!" Makes-Things shoved his glasses back onto his face and glared. "What do you want?"

Nume stared down over the rims of his own glasses. "This is going to be one of those kinds of days, isn't it?" He put up his free hand and shook his head. "All right, fine, no argument from me. I need a Canon Analysis Device. Mine's broken and I have a mission waiting." He proffered the burnt-out device.

Makes-Things looked it over, muttering dire imprecations in Korean, and gestured for Nume to follow him back to the labs. Nume almost ran into him when he stopped and turned abruptly in the middle of the department.

"To fix this, it'll take probably a day," he said. "The way out is that way, goodbye."

Nume didn't move. "Point of order: no. Mission. I have one, now. I need a CAD, now."

"Hey." Tess rose from her desk and took a step toward them with attitude. "You hassling my boss, mister?"

"I just need a CAD!"

Makes-Things huffed. "You agents, always so angry all the time! Fine, fine. Get one out of the Refurbished box, but don't come crying to me if you break it before I fix yours! Goodbye!" He marched past Nume on his way back to the hangar.

Satisfied, Tess sat back down and smirked while Nume dug through the box for something that looked to have at least a decently solid chassis to contain the inevitable meltdown. As he was about to leave, she spoke again.

"You're Ilraen's partner, right? I recognized you by the hip flask. Listen, when you guys get back, tell him to come pick up some spare parts. He's welcome here any time." She flashed a slightly predatory smile, which Nume returned with a narrow-eyed parody of a happy face before stalking out.

He returned to Response Center 999, shaking his head. Ilraen peered up at him with his stalk-eyes from his grassy sanctuary under the bunk, where he was studying a map of Middle-earth. Nume stuffed the CAD into their bag.

"The Weird Shit-O-Meter is jacked up to eleven today, Ilraen. Come on, let's get this over with." He reached for the console.

<We cannot go yet,> the Andalite interrupted.

Nume's outstretched hand snapped into a fist. "Why not?"

<A message arrived just after you left. We have been assigned with another team again.>

"Don't sound so insufferably happy about it. Did it say who?" He sat down at the computer and pulled up their inbox to look for himself. "Why do we need another team, anyway? We both know Harry Potter and Tolkien."

<The message only says they are on probation and are not to use weapons, but only to observe and aid us as we require. I am looking forward to meeting new people,> he added with just the lightest spritz of acid.

Nume read the missive, which was every bit as uninformative as promised. "Oh, this day keeps getting better and better. Fine, but if they're not here in ten minutes we're going without them."


The burly dandelions dropped Suicide and Diocletian off at the door of RC 2771a. For a moment, the two newly reinstated agents stood silently, staring at the familiarly warped door. The cheeseburger wrapper that had once marked it as their home was no longer there, and there was a faint whiff of lemon furniture polish.

"Well, we're back," Suicide said.

"You already said that," Diocletian mumbled.

"No, you already said that. We each get one allotted use before it becomes stupid." Suicide shook his head, still looking at the door. It sure didn't look like their door used to; for one thing, it had brand-new lintels that had been polished with Lemon Pledge. "Speaking of stupid . . . no weapons?"

Diocletian wavered slightly in place. "I think I kinda see where they're coming from," she said, rubbing her eyes and trying to focus. "We're a flight risk, right? It was the other part that killed me. No CADs, no portal remotes . . . ."

"And 'being placed with an agent pair in good standing for field monitoring and evaluation'." Suicide spat on the floor at the word "evaluation," to which Headquarters responded with a warning groan.

"I don't care anymore. I just want to sleep." Diocletian pushed past him, opened the door to the response center, and promptly stopped dead.

The RC 2771 they saw was entirely unlike anything they had lived in before. Gone were the random scorch marks, the faint odor of pickles, the fermenting socks under the console. Gone too was the console: it took Suicide several moments of squinting to realize that the hand-carved sideboard had some familiar, console-specific lights stubbornly glinting through the lace-trimmed cream silk cloth and tasteful flower arrangements. At the other end of the RC, a beautiful four-poster bed had somehow been crammed in between the door to the equipment closet and the refrigerator.

"Hello?" Suicide said cautiously. A door in the far wall opened—that had never been there before—and a slender Elf emerged, carrying a silver dish. Her long, dark hair had been plaited into elaborate coils, and her step was graceful. The PPC jumpsuit and distinctly annoyed expression were not.

"Shoes off," she ordered, pointing to the mat by the door. The agents scrambled to obey. "We barely had any warning that you two were going to be coming back; you're going to have to sleep on the Air of Isildur until we can get some mattresses out of storage. And since the new manager of Storage is a Vogon, that'll take some time. Sit."

Exchanging glances, Suicide and Diocletian sat. "Air of Isildur?" Suicide ventured after a moment.

Mithiriel waved to a rather kingly, rugged, and handsome air mattress poking out from under the bed. Suicide and Dio exchanged further glances.

"Um," Diocletian said intelligently. She and Suicide had spent enough time sharing camp space that she had no problem sleeping next to him, but the item itself was slightly dubious. Especially since it was an air mattress. "How does one go about—um—?" She coughed. "How do you go about blo—"

The impending worrisome innuendo was cut short by a delicate ripple of harp music. Mithiriel set aside the silver dish and hurried across to the console, quickly tapping out several commands on a carved-oak keyboard and peering through the spray of roses decorating the monitor. "You have a mission," she reported coolly. Diocletian and Suicide exchanged yet another glance, though their necks were beginning to cramp. "And you're already late for it. You should've reported to RC 999 five minutes ago."

"Well, shit." Suicide leaped off his chair; Diocletian managed to extract herself from hers. "Is any of our equipment still here? My needles—"

"No weapons," Diocletian muttered, making the Scythian stop dead. "No CADs, no remote activators . . . ."

Mithiriel rummaged in a cabinet under the console for a moment and extracted a small box. "Litmus strips," she said briskly, thrusting the box at Diocletian. "Hide them. Now go. If you make it back alive, we're having lamb chops."

"Soul of decency, that woman," Suicide commented as the two agents hustled out of the RC. "Pity for Ithalond that Elves don't divorce."

Diocletian shook her head. "She needs to be tough," she commented, surprising Suicide. "Ithalond's probably still a wreck. You know what they did to him in 'Celebrian'."

"I know, but I didn't think you did." He assessed his partner with a skeptical eye. "Are you going to be sane again?"

"Dunno. Maybe. I'm still testing it out, seeing if it's me."

The entrance to RC 999 was Star Trek-style, with tightly sealed metal doors and a keypad. Suicide frowned at the keypad for a moment. Normally, he reacted to all things futuristic and highly technological as he did to everything else: blunt-force trauma, or if he was feeling sophisticated, non-blunt-force trauma. Trekverse equipment, however, had a bad habit of being hard for him to damage. As far as it was concerned, he was a random, primitive enemy warrior, and random enemy primitives almost never manage to do any real damage to Star Trek tech.

"Hey in there!" he shouted, pounding on the door with a closed fist. "Are we gonna do this or what?"

Inside, Nume glanced at his timepiece. "Nine minutes, thirty-one seconds," he observed, mentally tipping his hat to the Powers That Be and getting up to toggle the door open. His expression fell flat at the sight of Suicide and Diocletian. "Well, frell me sideways, if it isn't the prodigals."

<Hello,> Ilraen called cheerfully, climbing to his hooves and busily folding up the map. He started to ask if the pair was new here, but then registered the stiffness of Nume's shoulders. <Oh. I sense a backstory. Shall I set the disguises while you recap, or must I learn the details later, at the most inopportune times?>

"Hello again, Nume," Suicide said. "We're not gonna make this awkward, are we? Having a dramatic past involving someone else always leads to assloads of angst, and I'd prefer to just get through this whole shitpile with as little drama as possible."

Nume wavered for a moment between the equally tempting options of snapping an acerbic response to Ilraen or taunting the others. Finally, he gave up and just shrugged, accepting the older man's logic. "Screw it, then. Let's get 'er done." Here he did turn to his partner, who was still clearly waiting for an explanation. "That's right, you weren't along for that part. Brief introductions: Ilraen, meet Suicide and Diocletian. I worked with them once, before your time, and we're not discussing it. Ever." To Suicide and Diocletian, he added, "Ilraen's my current partner, and though not completely useless, he's not nearly as savvy as that pithy little remark of his suggests." Ilraen looked hurt, but Nume either didn't see or, more likely, didn't care. "Moving on: did they give you a mission report, or just kick you to our doorstep?"

Suicide shrugged. "It's the PPC."

"Doorstep," Diocletian added.

"I did sneak a peek over Mithiriel's shoulder while she was shoving you out the door with the broom," Suicide told his partner before turning back to Nume. "It's Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, right? Do we have to be Elves?"

Nume raised an eyebrow. "You'd prefer what, Orcs? Unwashed, foul-smelling, barbaric . . . actually . . . ." He smirked, leaving the implied comparison to speak for itself.

"Yeah, but they have the best parties." Suicide grinned, all teeth, as he shouldered his pack.

<I understand that they are the standard for this continuum,> Ilraen said, managing to type the settings apologetically under Nume's disappointed stare. Orc disguises programmed, he opened a portal and picked up the messenger bag. <The fic opens inside Bag End. I have put us outside, in the garden. After you, please.> He gestured for the guests to go first.

Diocletian slung her own duffel back over her shoulder and nodded to Ilraen as she and Suicide stepped into the portal. Nume followed, pausing only to give his partner a look that laid the blame for any impending unpleasantness at his hooves. With a fortifying breath, Ilraen came last.

Mission Part 1

The two disgraced agents landed hard, thumping face-first into the damp soil and gravel of the Bag End garden. Diocletian stifled a sneeze as she extracted several blades of grass from her new, flat, orcish nostrils. "This," she said in a low voice to Suicide, who seemed unfazed by his own rough transition into the fic, "I did not miss at all."

"Buck up." Suicide crossed his eyes, forcing them to unfocus so he could get a good look at the Words. "You'll get back into the swing of things before long. It's just like riding a bike; you'll remember how it works once you get hurt enough."

"Tonight seems to be metaphor night for you." Diocletian frowned as Ilraen and Nume landed with significantly less trauma. "Now I know what they mean by faceplanting," she added to no one in particular, removing more grass from between her teeth.

Nume and Ilraen both took a moment to inspect their new bodies, Nume oozing disgust. His orcish form was of a darker, stringier variety; Ilraen was bigger and almost blue-grey.

"First time back in Arda for years, and I bloody well have to go like this," the man muttered, shaking out his hands as though the disguise were some foul, clinging liquid he could shed. Then he remembered that he was nominally in charge of the whole wretched affair, and pulled himself together to stare down Suicide and Diocletian. "Right. You two are supposed to be here to prove yourselves, so I suppose you'd better take point on watching the scene." He gestured toward a window and glanced at Ilraen, now staring avidly at the idyllic Shire landscape. This early in the fic, it was relatively undisturbed. It almost made things worse.

The taller of the other two orcs began to pat his belt pouches, searching for something. "Diocletian, do you have—"

"NO," the other orc interrupted. Suicide gave his partner a surprised look. "You're looking for a buck, right? So you can pass it to me and comment about Nume passing the buck. Let's give the literalisms a rest and please get this over with so we can go back to the RC and sleep."

"Azeroth made you less entertaining," Suicide noted sadly. Nevertheless, he stopped his search and the two of them shuffled cautiously toward the window, peering in.

The scene that greeted them was . . . rather odd, to say the least. Gandalf could be clearly seen through the window, but standing in front of him was a rather indistinct figure that shimmered oddly. From one angle, it resembled Harry Potter, but the world seemed to know that Harry Potter would have his head sticking through the ceiling of Bag End and appeared to be trying to shrink him. A quick glance at the Words revealed the truth: his appearance had not yet been defined, but he was already out of character, and Arda had no idea how to deal with this bizarre interloper.

Harry froze. Was it just him or was this man expecting him...? Ignoring that, the man seemed enormous compared to him! The place was indeed unfairly normal but, made the man looked extremely towering compared to Harry. Something was wrong with this… Harry looked down at his hands and his eyes widened and he felt like he was going to faint. No way… This couldn't be happening! His hands were extremely tiny.

The shimmering shape began to resolve itself: Harry Potter, hobbit-sized. Suicide tsked a little and shook his head sadly. Diocletian dipped a hand into her belt pouch, searching for litmus strips, but Suicide stopped her: not yet, he mouthed.

"May I be informed of a name that beholds you, young one?" The old man asked him kindly.

"That beholds . . . ?" Nume tilted his head—Gandalf wasn't exactly keeping his voice down, so he and Ilraen had no trouble overhearing the dialogue hunkered down behind the other two. "Names are Beholders, are they? Lemme get my d10 to determine whether Harry turns to stone or is enchanted or just dies."

"I'm Harry, who are you?" Harry asked very quietly. The old man looked at him with such a puzzled look that Harry felt his cheeks heat up.

"Harry? Such an odd name that is.”

Suicide's broad orcish brow furrowed. "Dio?"

"Yeah?"

"I thought the hobbits were supposed to be typical English countryfolk. With names like Rose and Merry and stuff."

"'All right, all right,' said the man," Nume quoted. A breeze stirred at the invocation of canon. "'I meant no offence. But you'll find maybe that more folk than old Harry at the gate will be asking you questions.' The Fellowship of the Ring, chapter nine, 'At the Sign of the Prancing Pony'; emphasis mine."

At that, Diocletian sighed and flipped open her notebook. "Making . . . a . . . fuss . . . over . . . common . . . names," she carefully wrote, biting her lip between her pointed teeth. "I'm also adding a charge for blushing because somebody looks at you with a puzzled expression. What would you call that? Asynchronous Anatomy?"

"Stupid."

"That works too."

Gandalf, meanwhile, busily explained that Harry was special: not just special, mind you, but speshul, an "Istari Child ... one of which never existed before... until now of course."

“You are a wizard from your world, I have heard from the Valar. Here, you, as a wizard, are known as an Istari and are very much different than my kind though they are classified as one and the same. We use staffs and I believe you bear wands. You require words of another language to work with magic, I should assume." Gandalf explained.

"Istar," Nume growled through gritted teeth. This was extremely effective as an orc. "The singular is istar. And there's a bloody good reason there's no such thing a child istar, which is that none of them would be so stupid as to take such a useless form." His growl turned to a snarl as Gandalf uttered something inane about his kind only becoming istari "as a man, when we reach a very old age." Startled, Ilraen put a restraining hand on his shoulder. He abruptly shrugged it off.

"Nume, I haven't seen you react like this to a fic before," Ilraen marveled.

"It's Arda," the dark orc snapped. He gave his partner a measuring look. "You've never been here before, have you? You wouldn't understand anyway. These books are my childhood."

"You had one?" Ilraen blurted, earning himself a full-on glare. The sudden mental image of Nume as a small boy about the age of little Henry Robinson, Jenni's adopted son, left Ilraen confused and unsettled. Although he knew for fact that Nume had a non-fic-related life in World One prior to finding the PPC, it didn't seem possible that the man had ever been so young.

"They were my childhood, too," Diocletian noted over her shoulder. "Technically. I think I actually came into existence five foot ten and one hundred five pounds."

"Shhh!" Suicide hissed. "Harry's just found out he's a three-year-old!"

Indeed, Harry protested that he was seventeen, but it didn't have much of an effect: he was now a tiny, watery-eyed child, practically chibi if Arda allowed for such a thing, and entirely too eerily cute to be a normal child. Gandalf, ever the reasonable individual, decided that the best way to comfort a disturbed and newly de-aged "Istari child" was to have him sit on his lap. A distinct smell of frying litmus strips arose.

Captain Exposition made a brief appearance as Gandalf, still with de-aged!Harry on his lap, proceeded to explain about hobbits and the fact that Harry was now in an alternate universe. Diocletian marked down two more charges: one for the lap-sitting, and one for everyone being unusually blase about the existence of different universes.

She frowned as she noted the charges. "Harry," she said, "is being way too calm about this. He went nuts because people were just talking behind his back; shouldn't he be busting out the Capslock o' Rage right about now?"

In reply, Suicide dropped his sizzling litmus strips onto the cobblestone path, where they began to char. After considering them for a moment, he discreetly laid a couple of pieces of bacon on top of them.

Inside, Gandalf explained that this was the home of Frodo Baggins, who would be "leaving on a journey on the eve of his birthday in a few days, and I am simply present here for today, about to marvel on a journey to find my own explanations."

A wave of distortion rippled through the story and the world heaved, toppling the agents dizzily to the ground. In all of a moment, the temperature dropped, the leaves on the trees turned red and yellow, and it was late September. With the familiarity of experience, the three who were habitually human fought down their nausea and picked themselves up in time to watch Gandalf make a valiant attempt to fade out of the scene, only to be warped back into full resolution by the fic.

"No, no!" Nume moaned, clutching his head in a manner suggestive of hair-pulling, even if he didn't have any at the moment. "If Frodo is about to leave, you should be taming Shadowfax in Rohan right now!" He scrabbled for his hip flask, the operation of which was made quite awkward by his clawed hands, but he managed to get the top unscrewed and took a strong pull. "Charge for mangling the timeline," he added weakly. Diocletian nodded and added it to the list as, to add to the confusion, Frodo abruptly bamfed into the scene in order to be shocked at the whole situation. Frankly, nobody could blame him.

"Ah Frodo my dear boy! I would like you to meet a very unique child that I have stumbled across, Archir the Emerald, a wizard child." Gandalf said in joy. Harry, now dubbed Archir, looked at the elderly man with a quirked eyebrow. Archir? What kind of name was THAT!

"Hey, hey, hey! We'll do the mocking around here," Suicide added sotto voce. "Dio, charge for retardation."

"I'm pretty sure the charge is Nonsensical Naming," Diocletian responded as she started a fresh page on the charge list. "Aren't we supposed to be at least trying to get it right? This is our evaluation mission, remember?"

"Fine. Charge nonsensical whatever and put retardation as a cash sale."

"If it helps, I do not think the exact words are important," Ilraen volunteered tentatively from flat on his back, one arm flung defensively over his eyes. His head, with its built-in Andalite time sense, still reeled from the distortion. He also had the start of a headache. "As long as we say the charges, the Flower-Princes do not seem to care how we say them. Even if they are rude."

Suicide gave Diocletian a "see?" look, and barely ducked the pencil that went flying towards his head.

Frodo, meanwhile, reacted to "Archir" with the first bit of sanity in the fic and showed some severe skepticism over the whole business. Gandalf—or Creepy!Gandalf, as the heap of fried litmus strips was beginning to attest—merely smiled and "adjusted" Harry on his lap. Suicide narrowed his eyes slightly and fished in the bottom of his pouch for an unfried strip.

"I'm starting to get worried here," Dio murmured. "Harry's not acting at all like himself. At all. He hasn't asked one question, or even wondered if this might not be real. And Gandalf seems a little too happy to have a kid on his lap."

"Name-change is a strong indicator of character replacement," Nume confirmed. "As for the rest  . . . ." The grinding of his teeth was nearly audible.

Ilraen sat up groggily. "Having looked at the Words, I believe the scene is simply meant to make Harry, or 'Archir', seem cute."

"It is cute," Diocletian noted, peering at the scene.

"Too cute," Suicide added ominously.

Gandalf announced, to absolutely no one's surprise, that Archir would accompany Frodo on his journey. Archir "looked up and bit his lip before nodding, seeing as he could do nothing else." That done, Gandalf left, and Frodo went to make lunch.

Nume squinted through the window, then leaned back and blinked quizzically. "That's it? Frodo has nothing to say about taking something that's supposed to be three years old on a perilous journey?"

"Damn, and he was well-written up until a minute ago." Diocletian sighed. "Serves me right for daring to hope. I think that's it, by the way," she continued, glancing up at the Words. "Everyone carries on being very unruffled about the random istar appearing out of nowhere, Harry accepts everything incredibly easily, and the fic starts referring to him as 'Archir' all the time. We've pretty much covered all the charges associated with that kind of stuff, though; I say we portal to chapter two and see what happens when the quest gets underway."

Nume nodded. "Considering that the next chapter jumps straight to Bree, do not pass Buckland, do not collect Númenorean daggers, I concur. Though," he gestured at the Words, "some note should probably be taken of the premise that Harry's been sent here to have a second childhood, yet still has to face a war because it's a part of life, yet not be obligated to fight. The contradictions in this excrement are dizzying."

Ilraen pulled the remote activator out of his pack and dialed up the portal. "Not as much as the time distortions." He shuddered and hurried to the other side as though afraid the scene change might sneak up on him and demand his brain's lunch money, despite being several paragraphs off yet. The others followed with varied amounts of eye-rolling.

Ilraen had placed them in a dark corner of the common room of the Prancing Pony. Their orcish night vision more than adequately made up for the lack of light. Therefore, a moment of panic ensued when Ilraen noticed that his skin had suddenly become spotted.

"What is this?" he hissed, frantically brushing at the perfectly round dots on one forearm.

"Calm down!" Nume grabbed him, forcing him to hold still so he could look. "I have no idea," he admitted a moment later. "I'm not affected. You?" He looked at the other two. Suicide also appeared unaffected, but Diocletian held up one of her hands, staring at the new coin-sized spots as if she wasn't quite sure her eyes were focusing properly.

"Well, would you look at that," she said, dumbfounded.

"Maybe it only affects girls," Nume suggested. Ilraen was not amused. "All right, all right. Gimme a sec." He let his eyes unfocus and scanned for a clue. It didn't take much looking to identify the problem passage.

The men of Bree were very independant and friendly, their brown-haired broad faces spotted. Many types of creatures could be spotted from Hobbits to Dwarves to even Elves!

"My god, the Breefolk. Look!" He gestured at the common room, where indeed every Breeman and about half the other patrons displayed the same markings. "That's . . . new," he said, too nonplussed to even get angry over it.

"Always said this line of work was going to give me a rash one day," Diocletian said, fishing in her pack for a camera. She snapped several quick shots of the Pony patrons, none of whom so much as blinked at the bright flash of the camera: at the speed the story was going by and with the lack of descriptions available, they were barely more than spotted scenery. Suicide, one eye on the Words, took advantage of this collective lack of intelligence by bellying up to the bar and ordering a large tankard full of something that smelled like an Electrick Floorbanger.

Butterbur, meanwhile, smiled kindly at the semiconscious Archir now being carried by Frodo (despite the fact that Archir was only supposed to be a foot shorter than Frodo, which complicated the issue somewhat. Hopefully a young, spry hobbit like Master Baggins wouldn't be a martyr to lower back pain). Frodo gave the Underhill name but neglected to assign a pseudonym to the young Canon!Stu about whom "word had spread around Middle Earth now." This surprising display of carelessness caused Diocletian to smack herself in the face with the charge notebook, leaving several smeared charges written backwards across her forehead. Suicide merely rolled his eyes at the continued breach of secrecy for the Quest and slurped the foam off his drink.

To his own surprise, Nume joined him, though he stuck exclusively to his hip flask. "Nothing much goes on until Aragorn turns up," he said by way of explanation. "You normally drink on the job?"

Suicide blinked. "There are people who don't?"

"At this point, I'd probably set my veins on fire if I tried." The younger man shrugged.

That got a raised eyebrow from Suicide, who was generally of the opinion that without alcohol, life wasn't worth living. "Little too much high living as a youth, eh?" he said, knocking back a swallow of his own drink. "Too bad. If you gotta go, passed out with an empty mug and an unpaid bar tab is the best way to do it." He grinned. "Well, one of the best ways. I knew a brothel in Pontic Olbia . . . "

"That's revolting." Nume shifted away and took a pull, wondering what had possessed him to talk to Suicide in the first place. Certainly not the Scythian's charm.

Suicide frowned a little, uncertain of what exactly was 'revolting' about it. He glanced at Diocletian, wondering if he should ask whether Pontic Olbia was a hive of international evil or something in Nume's time, but she was too busy charging for everything she could spot.

There was plenty to spot, too: a combination of typos produced the mini-Balrog Baliman, who was busily chatting with what appeared to be a flamboyant troupe of theatrical "costumers;" and when a hobbit "erected" a smile only a few lines later she made certain to photograph the hobbit in question with the suddenly appearing Legos he was building the smile out of. She seemed determined to do the mission right, come Hell or high water. Her seriousness was, as Suicide loudly pointed out, harshing everyone's buzz.

Feeling himself going unnoticed, Ilraen slipped away from the others to take advantage of the food situation. It wasn't often that he had the chance to indulge in the culinary opportunities of the multiverse, particularly without Nume lecturing him about stupid Andalite clichés, so if someone's leg of mutton went missing here, and a bit of yellow cheese there, he felt it was a fair exchange for his general restraint. After the first few bites, though, he felt himself drifting toward one table without really knowing why, except that there was just something magnetic about the man sitting at it. This was odd, given that he couldn't even see the man clearly, hooded and cloaked as he was.

Nume performed an expert double-take from his seat at the bar. "What the hell is my partner doing? And . . . uh . . . ." He swallowed hard and wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his trousers, staring at the shadowy figure.

Diocletian glanced after Ilraen, fanning herself with her notepad. "I don't know," she said in an oddly embarrassed tone, biting her lip (a hazardous maneuver for an orc). "I should probably go check on him." Stumbling a little, she straightened her shoulders and tried to "casually" sashay after Ilraen. Suffice it to say that with her current body, it was less than effective.

Suicide, his attention grabbed, turned away from the bar with his mug in hand. His eyes locked on the figure in the corner, and for a moment, they unfocused oddly. "Okay, that's not right," he muttered, shifting uncomfortably. "I haven't even punched anyone yet." Seeking a distraction, he gulped another mouthful of his drink and fixed his eyes on the ceiling, scanning the Words for something.

"Uh, Nume," he said cautiously. Nume's own gaze was still fixed on cloaked man. "You might want to take a look at this."

"Uh?" Nume replied. With some effort, Suicide grabbed Nume's head and pointed him straight at the pertinent passage.

Frodo turned his head before noticing that he was being spied upon by a man of strange appeals, having a tall tankard in front and smoking a long-stemmed pipe that was most oddly carved.

Nume blinked a few times, shook himself, and regained some clarity. The temperature of the room dropped a few degrees. "Strange appeals," he quoted flatly. "Excuse me. I'm going to go hurt someone." However, he remained perfectly still.

"Dio. Hey, Dio!" Suicide's voice snapped the ex-Sue out of her trance, making her hurriedly blink and mop the collecting drool off her chin. "Charge for bad phrasing and making Nume question his sexuality."

Fortunately, Suicide's shout also stopped Ilraen short of sliding into the seat next to Strider, and he turned in time to see the icy stare his partner leveled at the other man, which clearly advised Suicide that he had better shut the hell up about things that weren't his business if he knew what was good for him. Ilraen thought about it for a moment and decided that he really had to ask Jenni why Nume got so worked up about "sex things." He then focused on crawling away from the canon characters before one of them noticed him.

"Ah, Master Underhill if I am assuming right from old Butterbur's words."

"It is," Frodo said quietly, darting his eyes.

"Well, young sir, I would chance to stop the young hobbit friend of yours before he revealed many things needlessly and dangerously might I add. Don't you agree?" Strider said with an ironic thinned look.

Suicide was in the middle of asking Nume why the younger man was, quote, "eyeing me up like I've killed your favorite gods-damned goat," and the impending quarrel was luckily cut short as all four agents tried (with varying levels of success) to figure out exactly what an ironic thinned look was. The only thing any of them could agree on was that it wasn't a good look: it heralded the abrupt reappearance of Pippin, "smashed as a hobbit could get with beer."

Then, all of a sudden, the Pony gave an abrupt lurch sideways. Suicide toppled off his stool, drink flying, as the narrative voice jumped forward several hours to inform them that "that night didn't end particularly well for Frodo." The patrons of the bar flickered like bad video footage all around them, evidently unsure of where they were or whether they even existed at that particular moment, while the uniquely awkward narrator gave a quick summary of events needed by the plot.

"Remind me again why we wanted to come back," Diocletian said shakily, extracting herself from under a table which might or might not have actually been there.

"Revenge," Suicide managed to say as he probed his heavily bruised jaw for loose teeth. He was interrupted by a sharp elbow in his ribs.

"You won't live to see it if you don't get the fuck off me," Nume enunciated with chilling precision. The shifting scene had tossed the Scythian into him, and now he was pinned underneath. The faceful of beer—well, it might have been beer—did nothing to improve his mood.

"After that look you were giving me?" Suicide grinned, picking up his now-empty beer mug. Though technically a professional, Nume's near-humorlessness and glaring (seriously, what was wrong with Pontic Olbia?) had been getting on Suicide's nerves for a while, and part of wanting to die is having no sense of self-preservation. Or decency. Or personal space. "I thought we could use this opportunity to get to know each other better."

"Let me make this as clear as possible. I don't want to get to know you better. I want to take a shower with antibiotic soap, but unfortunately, they don't have those things here. Get. Off."

Suicide raised an eyebrow. "Care to rephrase that?" His grin only widened, seeing Nume's frustrated expression.

"Excuse me," a headachey Ilraen ventured, "but the canons have all gone to the parlor. Should we follow them?"

"Why not? Wouldn't want to miss the eerily pedo-tastic Aragorn," Suicide said casually. Diocletian, the former native of Middle-earth, was beginning to show evidence of an interesting twitch in her right eyelid, and Suicide finally got the message. He rolled off of Nume and moved towards his partner (was that just a hint of a triumphant, I-just-made-someone-I-don't-like-really-uncomfortable swagger in his walk? Why yes, it was), making sure to take the pencil from her grip before herding her towards the parlor door.

Nume vaulted to his feet and scrubbed at his face with the nearest thing to hand, which was a tablecloth, wiping away the alcoholic whatever-it-was as best he could. He could do nothing about the grimy feeling left by the combination of Aragorn's "strange appeals" and Suicide's more honest sleaziness, though. Sulking like a wet cat, he followed the two, and Ilraen went with him. The barroom scene, no longer relevant to the botched world of the story, froze and began to gently fade around them.

Ilraen wore an intense look of concentration, or possibly just pain, as he beheld the scene already in progress inside the parlor. Aragorn sat in a chair with Archir on his lap, which alarmed everyone except himself and Archir—and Ilraen. The Andalite was mostly confused by the expressions of equal parts rage and disgust on his partners' faces. "Is this what you mean by pedo-tastic?" he asked. "I'm not familiar with that term."

"Oh, Jesus," Nume groaned. "I am not explaining this."

Suicide and Diocletian exchanged glances. "You're the girl," Suicide said after a long moment.

Dio snorted. "Oh please, mister anything-that-moves. You're not going to get squeamish about sex now, are you? Wasn't Sparta all over this kind of thing?"

"Scythian, Dio. Not Spartan."

"Tough. You were the one who brought it up." Diocletian turned to the confused Ilraen. "Suicide will explain," she added. "This is sort of his area of expertise." A stealthy shin-kick attempt by a disgruntled ancient Greek was dodged.

"Okay." Suicide sighed and turned to Ilraen, who blinked in polite confusion. "There's a method of . . . uh . . . . All right. Some people have different standards of . . . . According to society, certain . . . ." He coughed and tried again. "When a Daddy Human and a Baby Human love each other very much—"

Ilraen continued to stare, but, probably for the best, Suicide was cut off by a sudden vox dei recitation of Gandalf's letter.

As paraphrased by the author.

After the first mangled lines, in which Frodo was advised to "leave Bad End as fast as possible," the sound of Nume's teeth grinding turned to the only slightly less grating sound of him counter-reciting the Word of Canon in a battle that would have approached the level of Saruman versus Gandalf in the movieverse version of the blizzard on Caradhras, if not for the necessity of conducting it under his breath. The Pony shuddered, and the smoky, beery smell of the common room wafted toward them as canon attempted to reassert itself. Unfortunately, after the second postscript, Nume lost his focus.

"There are verses that go here! Where are the damn verses? And the lumber-room! G-bloody-rune!" He fell silent, panting slightly.

"Somebody hasn't had his medicine," Suicide murmured, glancing around for more available beer. Unfortunately, there was none to be seen. The odor receded, not entirely missed, as the common room faded out again.

Diocletian double-checked the Words and frowned. "'Bad End'. That sounds like anomalous geography to me. We'll need to remove it and find Bag End before we leave. Dammit."

Meanwhile, Aragorn (fortunately no longer a man of "strange appeals") was lecturing the Hobbits on how easily they believed him once he mentioned Gandalf's name. However, this brief moment of common sense was not to last.

"I trust you," Archir said softly, interrupting the silence that hung. Strider blinked and looked down, having heard the soft and childish voice in his lap.

"In his—" Suicide began, flabbergasted.

"Not a word," Diocletian hissed as she clapped a hand over his mouth. "Not. A. Word."

With Archir's requisite moment of cute innocence now over with ("Saccharine speech," Diocletian charged for), the author once again kicked things into quick summary form. Within the space of a few sentences, the Hobbits learned about the threat of the Black Riders and transferred their things into the parlor, and Archir cuddled down in Aragorn's lap. ("Mmmphrl mph mprh," as the gagged Suicide observed with added colorful gestures.) The scene then switched to "later in early night."

The Black Riders had come and gone already, so the lucky party weren't ambushed and horribly slaughtered when they all traipsed down to their rooms to take a look. Instead, they found "a massacre of feathers and mat" in the suddenly merged single room, now that they were in it.

"They really should have sent us someone from DOGA for this," Nume grumbled, rubbing the back of his neck.

Ilraen regarded the others. It took a few moments for his eyes to uncross. "Perhaps, once they leave, we could borrow the room," he suggested. "The beds are a little small, and full of sword-holes, but I wouldn't mind."

"Time-shifts getting to you?" Nume asked. Ilraen just stared back, making it quite plain that he wasn't about to risk nodding. "Right. Well, it's not a half-bad idea. We won't get too many chances at real beds."

The agents waited. The canon characters failed to go back to the parlor and sleep.

" . . . What the hell are they doing?" Nume asked ten minutes later.

"Strider has just suggested that they leave," Ilraen said, grimacing at the Words. "And . . . and they're . . . ." He trailed off, casting a nervous look at his partner. "I believe we skipped the rest of the night somehow. But there is plenty of time to rest." He swallowed in anticipation of the inevitable moment when the others would look at the Words themselves, and quietly shuffled out of striking distance.

"Don't be stupid. If they're leaving, then . . . ." Nume looked at the Words. "What. What?!"

Suicide followed Nume's line of sight, and for the first time in living memory, couldn't think of anything to say. Diocletian removed her hand from his mouth, but he still didn't take the opportunity. It wasn't so much a case of being struck dumb as being unsure of what he had just read.

It took a few days to reassemble their runaway ponies and work for Butterbur for cost.

Diocletian opened the charge notebook, then paused, herself uncertain of what to do. "Wait a moment," she said slowly to no one in particular, trying to process the scene. "They're on a quest. A big, important quest. They've just been attacked and have been warned—by a wizard, no less—to vamoose. So the group, including one of the richest Hobbits in the Shire, stops to work off the cost of the broken furniture . . . ? Did I miss a meeting?"

Nobody responded. It wasn't the most insane or horrific thing any of them had ever seen, but the sheer incongruous dimwittedness seemed to have left most of the agents at a loss for snark. Diocletian leaned over and gently closed Suicide's gaping jaw, and lifted Nume's wrist to check his pulse.

Startled back to himself, Nume snatched his hand away. "Don't touch me." He checked the Words again to make sure that he wasn't imagining things, then took the opportunity for a gulp of Bleepka.

"What I would like to know," Ilraen began tentatively, gaining strength when it seemed no one was about to lash out, "is what happened to Bill the Pony. I find no mention of him. Is this an elaborate effort to write him out?"

"I think his role's being filled by Archir," Suicide said, pulling himself out of his daze with a visible effort. "You know, something small that comes with a lot of baggage . . . ."

"Oh, swell! So we have to pull a pony out of a plothole now, too!" Nume violently capped his flask again.

Diocletian flipped through her notes and glanced up at the Words again, brow creasing. "Maybe not. Bag End is supposed to be a huge focal point for the story, or at least for the Hobbits and Gandalf. Archir is bad enough, but the Bad End can't be helping things. Once we remove it, it should at least snap some things back to normal." For one of the first times during the mission, she smiled. "We can set it on fire!"

"Fire's too good for them," Nume spat. "You know, there's the expression, 'to come to a bad end'. There must be something we can use in that."

"Well, if the Bad End is anything like the bad that Jay and Acacia found back in the day . . . ." Diocletian couldn't suppress an odd giggle. "Coming to the Bad End might be sort of, uh, awkward."

Now it was Suicide who muffled his partner. "I don't know about you," he said, "but the geography and time shifts have worn me the hell out. I say we make use of the beds the Hobbits are apparently risking their lives to pay for, and fight about who or what to incinerate in the morning. Everyone okay with that?"

"'Morning' being a relative term, since we've skipped the night," Nume grumbled, but he nodded, and so did the others. The need for rest temporarily overruling the need for retribution, the four agents slouched into the abandoned room and made themselves as comfortable as possible on the eviscerated beds, all but Ilraen dropping their disguises. True, they would be picking feathers out of their clothes and gear for days, but a soft surface on a mission was worth it.

Eight hours later, Ilraen woke himself up. It was, as far as he could tell, the middle of the same day; there was sun, in any case. His head still hurt, but it was bearable, and it was time to get the others moving. A glance around the room revealed that Nume and Diocletian were approximately where he'd left them (though Nume's height left his long feet sticking awkwardly over the edge of his bed), but Suicide appeared to have taken his mattress and barricaded himself underneath it in a corner. Ilraen decided to start with the other two.

Nume was generally amenable to waking up and much revived. Diocletian looked rumpled and mildly surly, but for a woman who routinely slept badly due to nightmares of waking up with double-D breasts, she seemed to have had a decent night of it. The cocoon-like lump of mattress and bedding that was Suicide, however, failed to respond to Ilraen's initial poking and only let out a muffled grunt.

"Agent Suicide?" Ilraen called. "I apologize, but it is time to go." He glanced at the others for any hints. Nume only shrugged in the midst of stretching out his back and limbs.

There was a general shuffling of fabric, and a heavily tousled gray-haired head poked out of one end of the cocoon. "The bright morning brought no favors," he mumbled, "for Helios' unforgiving darts struck cruelly 'pon the eyes of those who were sickened in their blood by the evil shadow cast over them. Piss off."

Ilraen blinked. It didn't help at all that he could hear Nume having a good chuckle behind him, which could only be a bad thing. He ventured a query anyway. "Are you not well?"

"He's fine," Diocletian interrupted, striding briskly over to the bundled-up Suicide. "He's just hungover, and since he's a character from an epic Greek historical fiction piece, the universe wants him to talk like that. He controls it most of the time." She nudged Suicide with the toe of her boot, only just skipping back in time to avoid the snap of large white teeth. "Up and at 'em, soldier," she commanded, though Ilraen couldn't help but notice that she was now standing behind him to say it. "Rise and shine! We've got another full day of blood, devastation, death, war and horror to get through. Who knows, this might be the one that gives you that heart attack you've always wanted. What d'you say?"

There was a momentary pause before the blankets began to shuffle again. Suicide finally emerged from one end of the cocoon, blinking irritably and rubbing at the fresh coating of stubble on his jaw. There was another momentary pause, this one significantly less comfortable.

"It's a Scythian thing," Diocletian said gently, feeling the odd urge to shield Ilraen's eyes. "Su, dear, put some pants on."

Ilraen was not, in fact, terribly bothered, but he was unique in that respect. Up until that point, Nume had not been paying attention, but he couldn't quite stop his eyes' reflex to check that his ears had actually heard what Dio said. He arrested the impulse and raised an arm to block his view, but by then it was too late. He'd looked. "Oh, fucking Christ, man! What're you doing?!"

Suicide groaned and cradled his head in his hands. "Being shouted at, apparently. Ow, dammit, ow . . . Dio, do you have any—"

"Pants first, Su. Then Tylenol."

"Slave driver." Suicide painfully knelt and began sorting through the various wrappings he had been sleeping in, searching for his clothes.

Diocletian muffled a snicker behind her hand and concentrated on gathering up her own gear. It took her a few moments to realize that, contrary to her own position, not everybody had spent a lot of time in close quarters with her partner. "Uh—Agent Nume—is everything okay?"

His response was a shell-shocked "I did not pack enough Bleepka for this," prior to officially kicking off the day by draining his flask in a few mouthfuls, then rooting in his pack for a refill.

"My partner is not comfortable with nudity," Ilraen explained.

"Shut up, Ilraen!"

Diocletian, determined to do things right after her partner's sizable gaffe, dug in her bag for rations and the charge book. Biting off the end of a protein bar, she idly glanced at the Words while she chewed. Her eyes widened. "Shit!"

Frodo opened his eyes to find himself upon a bed, soft and silk made he realized sleepily before his eyes shot open as he remembered last of his memories.

"Guys, they're at Rivendell already!" She almost dropped both protein bar and notebook in her haste to open it. "What the hell is wrong with this timeline?"

"That's not possible!" Ilraen gaped at the Words. "I am certain that much time has not passed. It—it can't have!"

"Well, it did." Having refilled his flask and replaced the bottle in their pack, Nume pulled out the RA and threw it at Ilraen. "Let's go before anything worse happens to me right here."

Shaking his head, the Andalite dialed up the portal. Nume wasted no time jumping through, leaving the others to catch up as they were able. Diocletian stayed long enough to assist a somewhat off-kilter and green-looking Suicide into the rest of his gear, and then the two of them followed, leaving Ilraen to bring up the rear once again.

On the other side, the three experienced a moment of confusion as they suddenly changed from their previous forms to elves. Nume, seeming at home in a Noldorin guise, had been waiting for them with his DORKS, which was currently a jar of jam.

"No need to stress the canon more than necessary by having orcs in Rivendell, with the shape it's in," he said in smug explanation.

"Could've warned us," Suicide muttered, rubbing one eye. The new disguise had removed their bloodshot appearance, but no disguise generator could ever make Suicide look fully Elvish. "I always feel like I ought to be following an annoying little glowing fairy whenever we do the Elf disguises."

Diocletian, looking pretty much unchanged except for pointy ears and better clothes, flattened herself against the wall as Ilraen came through the portal, now even more androgynous than usual and sporting long reddish hair. "Shhh!" she whispered fiercely, charge notebook clutched in one hand. "Listen!"

"Gandalf! You are here!" Frodo said with a glow.

"Unnatural . . . Illumination," Diocletian charged, squeezing her eyes shut as sickly yellow light began to seep out from the cracks around the door. There was a faint odor of cheese.

"Yes I am indeed," Gandalf chuckled, smoking his pipe, "and young Archir was given quite a fright until you were finally away from peril. Bless the poor lad, he weeped needlessly, wanting confirmation that you were well. He would be here at this moment to see your eyes unclosed but, he had been drawn away by Aragorn who has taken quite a protective streak over the boy.

"Y'know," Suicide said vaguely, slouching against the wall and sticking a cigarette between his teeth, "I just don't get it. This has absolutely nothing to do with Harry Potter, so why'd they make it Harry in the first place? And if Archir—" he removed the cigarette to spit before before replacing it again "—is so gods-damned pure and innocent, why don't they give HIM the Ring and let Frodo go home, as I'm sure he'd love to do? Dio, help me out here. It's not making any sense."

Diocletian passed him six Tylenol and a flask of absinthe. Suicide brightened considerably.

In the room, Frodo and Gandalf continued to talk in a doggerel form of the book's dialogue until Frodo fell asleep. Unfortunately, there was no respite for the agents, since he "awoke soon after." They still had to keep out of the way when Sam came to visit.

"Mr. Frodo! You are up and at it once again, I am overjoyed!" Sam said with a grin. Frodo smiled back at the hobbit as Sam raved about the wonderful Elves everywhere.

"Tell me dear Sam, where is Archir?" Frodo asked curiously.

"He is sleeping away the exhaustion of a party held in his arrival. The elves seemed to be overwhelmed and horrified to know that no party had ever been made for Archir's birth." Sam chuckled.

"Is this really what we're concerning ourselves with, story?" Nume wondered aloud. "The Ringbearer was almost killed, but that's not important! Archir must have a birthday party! Elves celebrate the day of conception, anyway, not birth, and I sure as hell don't care to know about that."

Suicide wordlessly offered Nume the flask, but was ignored. Diocletian waved for them to be quiet again. Then, wide-eyed, she skipped back from the door as it creaked open, revealing dazed Frodo and Sam.

Despite the presence of four random Elves lurking in the hallway, one of whom was smoking a Sobranie, neither of the thoroughly brainwashed canons appeared to even notice them. They wandered past, and since their dialogue and actions weren't defined, the two of them were practically sleepwalking with jaws slack and eyes blank.

"They're going to the riverbank for Archir's party," Diocletian said. "Should we follow them?"

"Nah, they'll be back in three or four paragraphs anyway."

Nume shook his head. "You two can stay here if you want, but it would be stupid to pass up the chance for food. Ilraen and I are going foraging." After a moment of hesitation, he awkwardly continued: "Do you, er, want us to bring you back anything?"

Diocletian gave him a smile. She wasn't good at it, but the feeling was genuine even if Nume got the impression that he was suddenly facing an angry baboon. "Thanks. If you can find anything that'll keep, that would be great. All I packed is protein bars and Su's jerky, and I'm pretty sure that would kill a normal person." Suicide opened his mouth, and she hastily jumped into the gap again. "Speaking of which, Su shouldn't have anything but water, bread and fruit right now."

"Dammit, Dio, you're not starting on that again—"

"You're hungover, and you're not getting any younger."

"I've died already! Meat for breakfast isn't going to—"

"Death in battle is one thing, arteries that could deflect a bullet are entirely another—"

At this point, Nume took his partner's arm and dragged him away toward the feast with nary a word, but only a bemused expression. In total sympathy, Ilraen went along. The other two didn't even look up.

"I'm forty-fi—thirty-fi—thirty-se—I'm some age, I think, and I don't need my partner hanging over me like a specter of doom to make sure I don't do what I've been trying to do since I was fifteen!"

"I'm sorry! I didn't realize that actually caring about you was a problem now!"

"Goddammit, Dio, we're turning this story into a drama!"

"It already was a drama!"

"Yeah, but this is the boring interpersonal kind of drama that people don't want to see in a humor story!"

"Yeah!"

"Yeah!"

" . . . Seriously, though, that stuff'll kill you."

Suicide glanced up at the Words. "I think these timeshifts'll do it first. It's night already, did you know?"

"It is?" Diocletian followed his gaze. "Oh, jeez. Seriously? 'Elrond had yet to give up the sleeping bundle, finding Archir both a treasure and delight of his own.' . . . Gag me with a spork." She slumped against the wall, irritated. "No wonder we're fighting. What a mission to come back to, huh?"

"You're telling me. I keep looking for Chris Hansen." Suicide took advantage of Diocletian's weary mood to steal the absinthe flask from her pack. She rolled her eyes but didn't stop him. Instead she grabbed one sleeve of his pretty Elvish tunic and towed him, protesting, down the corridor towards the Hall of Fire.

In the meantime, Nume and Ilraen made good time to the party, seamlessly slipping into the crowd of Random Elves. Given that it was Rivendell and the story didn't attempt its own description of the food, the dinner fare was everything a hungry guest could hope for, and the two made a quick job of stuffing anything that could stand it into their messenger bag. They were about to make their way back out, but Nume stopped short upon overhearing a snippet of conversation between "Gluin" and Frodo.

"You were very fond of Bilbo were you not?" Gluin asked with a sly smile. Frodo sighed with happiness.

"Nume?" The man's expression had taken on a particular frozen quality. "Shouldn't we get back?"

He gave his partner a hollow-eyed look. "Ilraen, do me a favor. Tell me what you see wrong with that passage. Go on, rookie, tell me the charges."

Ilraen reviewed the dialogue via the Words, frowning lightly in concentration. After a moment, he answered, "It continues in the style of poorly paraphrasing the book, and of course created the mini-Balrog 'Gluin'. Additionally, due to the description, I suppose the reader could construe Frodo's feelings about Bilbo to be of a romantic nature, which would be uncanonical. However, I am certain that was not the intention, so the only viable charge would be creating a mini."

Nume sighed. "You're entirely too forgiving. Between the cretins we've been saddled with and this welnitz of a fic, I don't know what's driving me insane faster. God help me, I'm relying on you to be . . . ." He gestured randomly, unable to select the right words. "Fuck it. Fuck it all." This last particularly severe coming from Elven lips.

After a moment, in which they watched Frodo and Gandalf leave for the Hall of Fire, Ilraen said, "As your partner, it is my job to protect your sanity, correct?"

Nume raised an eyebrow—a very half-hearted "I'm confused" Level One. "Something like that."

"To that end, then, I feel I must tell you I have noticed that you have not been yourself on this mission." He paused, and when Nume said nothing, he shook his head and continued. "You see, you didn't even make a joke about being in disguise."

"It's a stupid joke."

"Yes, but that is not the point. I do not understand what is bothering you so much, but I learned from you that you must face badfic with all the snark you possess, or you will not survive. If something is preventing you, then I think it would be best if you went back to Headquarters. I will stay with Agents Suicide and Diocletian and finish the mission."

Nume stared, and Ilraen stared right back, elvish features set with determination and concern.

Nume sighed and dropped his head, pinching the bridge of his nose where his glasses usually sat. "You're a piece of work, Ilraen. After what happened the last time I let you out of my sight, do you really think there's any way in hell I'd trust you alone with those morons? Come on, we're missing the fic."

"Ah, there's the old Nume," Ilraen said with a cheerful grin. Nume swung the messenger bag at him, but he dodged easily in his elven disguise.

They followed in the footsteps of the canons and made their way to the Hall of Fire, where the regularly scheduled storytelling and singing were shunted aside so that everyone could talk about Archir. They found their compatriots lurking near the fireplace where Frodo sat talking with Bilbo, doing their best to look like Random Elves and not Random Creepy Stalkers. They were failing, but in this story, it was hard to tell. At least Suicide wasn't saying anything.

Having missed the opportunity to damage his partner, Nume settled on throwing his bag at Suicide, who couldn't easily dodge. The bag left a noticeable bruise on the Scythian's forehead, eliciting a pained grunt and a muttered stream of Greek swearwords.

"There you go, continental breakfast a la the Hotel Rivendell. Enjoy."

Suicide opened the bag and rooted through it. In addition to the spoils of the feast, it contained most of Nume's equipment, including a hard-shell case with a syringe and a small vial in it. The Scythian raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't say anything. Contrary to every piece of evidence, he was actually quite intelligent, and while the mysterious syringe was tempting to say the least (Look at me, Suicide . . . I'm not technically a weapon, right? C'mon, pick me up. You know you want to. Look how shiny and pointy I am), he recognized a man clinging to sanity by the ragged stumps of his fingernails when he saw him. He closed the case without further comment and snagged a pastry instead, chucking a piece of fruit to Diocletian.

"You didn't miss much," he said, folding up the napkin the pastry had been wrapped in. "Dio's using a few leftover litmus strips to try and determine if the Bilbo-Frodo dynamic is technically slashy or not, but she's having a tough time."

"Ah, you got that, too?" Nume suppressed an eyebrow twitch and shuddered.

Indeed, Diocletian was crouching on the floor about ten feet from the hobbits, carefully holding out a litmus strip between one thumb and forefinger. There was a faint sizzling noise, and she dropped it, sucking her burnt fingers.

"Screw it," she pronounced finally. "I'm charging for Aggravated Creepifying. That should cover all bases."

Fortunately, Bilbo soon escorted Frodo back to his room, leaving behind a particularly insipid scene in which Elrond held the sleeping Archir on his lap and chatted with Arwen and Aragorn as though they were a perfect Norman Rockwell family.

"You are quite attached to the youngling, father," Arwen noted in amusement. Elrond smiled at his daughter and to Aragorn who sat beside her.

"He is a child of love."

Three of four agents guffawed, snickered, or otherwise evidenced amusement, leaving Ilraen to wonder whether they were quite all right as he slipped the messenger bag back over his shoulder.

"What? Did something happen?"

"Charge for hippie!Elrond," Nume suggested. "Christ, that takes me back."

Diocletian was still giggling as she flipped to a new page in the charge notebook. "Long hair, wants peace, fighting against the Man . . . or would it be the Maia in this case?"

"Oh, it gets even better if you look at Saruman," Nume interjected. "Peace-loving, nature-based elves versus the rise of industrialization and the impersonal machine, et cetera. Tolkien wasn't an allegorist, but you could still easily get a term paper out of that."

The moment of camaraderie would have ended there of its own accord, but to seal its fate, the scene spontaneously jolted from the Hall of Fire to Archir's room. However, it didn't bother with the travel in between, resulting in a mass teleportation of canons and agents. The canons went about tucking Archir into bed without appearing to notice, but it took the agents a moment to recover. When they did, this happened:

Elrond excused himself after he rested a light kiss on the boy's forehead of where a lightning bolt scar was.

"A grand father you'll be Aragorn," Arwen told him, looping her arms around his neck as he did so to her waist. Aragorn gave her a smile and the two didn't realize that they were kissing until they parted lips.

"You do realize that we are doing this in a child's room?" Aragorn whispered, smiling.

Nume hissed through his teeth. "You bloody well are not."

"Snark," Ilraen prompted, earning himself an Elven Death Glare.

"That's decades of patience and restraint thrown out the window for the sake of necking! You can't snark at that! It's just wrong!"

Oblivious to the ruckus, Archir rolled over in his sleep. The next moment, it was as though someone had flipped a switch and turned on the sun. All four agents winced at the sudden light, and Ilraen in particular sank to his knees with a whimper.

For the second time in as many minutes, the scene had changed around them. Now they were standing in a vague, undefined space: from one angle it seemed like a terrace, from the other like a garden, but all they could really figure out was that they were outside somewhere. Archir and Pippin wrestled on the ground while Frodo watched fondly, now fully subsumed in the bizarre world of the fic.

"N-No! I Give Pip!" Archir laughed as he giggled under the pressure of his sides. He looked up at the hobbit as Pippin released him.

"That tickled!" Archir giggled, sitting up and allowing Sam to pull him up and tug him over towards Frodo. Archir fell into Frodo's lap and cuddled up to the hobbit's chest.

"I thought you were gone Frodo," Archir admitted, taking in the scent of the hobbit.

"Creeeeeeeepy," Diocletian muttered, making a check mark next to "Pedotastic" in the charge list. "Seriously, I keep waiting for Archir to break out the uke face. Are we really supposed to believe the author didn't know what she was writing?"

"I am fairly certain." Ilraen winced as he got back to his feet, one hand to his head. "The . . . general ineptness of the writing suggests as much."

"'Taking in the scent'." Suicide shook his head. "That's the kind of detail you don't focus on unless it's for a reason. Now either the scent of a hobbit is going to be an important detail later—Chekhov's Pheromones, or something—or this is maybe thirty seconds from turning into the kind of story that Japan isn't allowed to export."

Meanwhile, Archir complained (cutely) about how the Elves were paying so much attention to him and never leaving him alone. Frodo responded "lightly" that the council was starting soon, and Archir begged to go.

"You shall be present to discuss your current residence and status, youngling." Gandalf said, coming up behind Frodo and slipping the Istari child up into his own arms, "Come now, we must make time to get to the council."

"And once again, the Stu inserts himself where no Stu is meant to be." Diocletian closed her notebook with a sigh. "Look, this may just be an ex-OC thing, but is anyone else feeling . . . jarred? Sort of uncomfortable and jangly? I'd swear something is coming, but I'm not sure what."

"Perhaps, but that may simply be the time shifts," the other former badfic character responded. Ilraen cast a half-hopeful, half-shamed look in Nume's direction. The man rolled his eyes at the pitiful display, but also shoved his hip flask into Ilraen's hands.

"You really need to start carrying your own," he said. "If this keeps up, neither of us will make it out of here."

The agents followed the group of OCs, and soon the Council of Elrond was assembled. The mini-Balrog Gluin made another appearance, apparently hanging out with Glorfindel in the corner despite the fact that the Balrog-slayer was visibly sweating at the strain that situation was placing on him. Another flaming mini popped into existence as the group was joined by "Cnrdan the Shipwright," a name Diocletian tried unsuccessfully to pronounce. ("Snerden?")

Elrond beckoned Frodo to his right and was beaming when he rested Archir on his lap. So precious were young children to elves, and even more so was this certain young lad who sat quietly against the elf's chest--

"Oh, come on!" Suicide said disbelievingly. There was a moment of awkward silence as the council members sought for the source of the disturbance, but the Scythian kept quiet and soon the conversation resumed. "Seriously," he muttered to the other agents. "Now they're just teasing us."

Nume shot the Scythian a disgusted look. "You have a sick mind." If there was irony to this statement, he missed it. "Look, can we not keep on about this? If anything actually happens, we'll kill it, all right? Or would that not be satisfying enough?"

Ilraen nodded approvingly and returned Nume's flask. The dark-haired man regarded it a moment, then resolutely slipped it back into its place.

"Συγγνώμη," Suicide responded sarcastically. "I forgot I was talking to the local fun police. How in the name of all the gods did you survive in this job without the ability to laugh, anyway? Or do you prefer to bottle it all up until something snaps and the dandelions are cleaning lime Jello and brains off the walls?"

Disgust turned to offense. "Look, bucko, if we want to talk about surviving in this job, I'm the one of us with the track record to back me up, so fuck you. How I manage it is none of your business."

Suicide snorted. "Sweetheart, my track record for surviving makes yours beg on its knees. And I did it by enjoying myself, thanks, not by walking around being tightassed. If you spend your life tying yourself into knots and refusing to have any fun, you're going to hurt a lot more and die a lot sooner."

"You want me to have fun?" Nume raised both eyebrows, an event perhaps unprecedented in living memory. "How about I tell you what I find fun, then? What I enjoy is when fast and loose assholes like you trip over your god-damned self-assurance and land face first in the gutter with the trash you call entertainment. If I experience something, I experience it forever—there's no going back, no second chances. Forgive me if I choose to be a little more selective!"

"Um, guys—" Diocletian said worriedly. The mini "Cheif of the Dunedain" scampered out of the fic towards them, flicking its little fiery whip, but even the small Balrog at their feet didn't seem to distract Nume or Suicide. The Council was getting dangerously close to hearing them, too. "Guys, please, this really really isn't helping things. Just calm down—"

"Trash I call entertainment?" Suicide repeated. "First, you say that to Dio's face next time. Secondly, this isn't about what we do to distract ourselves, it's about the distracting itself. Thirdly—a photographic memory? Ai Tabiti, Papeus, Artimpasa, Oetosyrus and bloody Targitaus, that's all you're complaining about? I've died. At least once, maybe more if you count a couple of heart attacks and all the head trauma. If the technology of the Word Worlds can bring someone back from the dead, you really think there isn't something out there that can knock that memory right out of your head? Or would you prefer to hang onto it as an excuse for being a sour bastard?"

"Oh, you know everything about me!" Nume flung his arms in the air, spitting vitriol. "My god, I have been blind! My last partner was a little too fond of the neuralyzer, you know, maybe that explains the gaping hole in my head that I must have to miss such an obvious fucking solution to all my problems. What the fuck do you think I carry the damn flask for? Could it be possible that's not quite the sum total of what I am? Or what does that make you, the maniac who couldn't even stay properly dead? Brilliant! You have unmanned me with your stunning intellect!"

"You weedy little shit," Suicide hissed, his teeth flashing through a grin that was completely humorless. "If you talked that way to a veteran warrior in the days of my tribe, you'd be on your knees crying for forgiveness right now. I'm not surprised you're in with this bunch of eunuchs—you probably couldn't kill in real battle if your life depended on it—"

Nume's badly frayed temper snapped. It wasn't so much the actual words that did it, but a need to stop that arrogant, sneering mouth. In a flash, he hauled off with his left fist and drove it home into Suicide's jaw, surprising himself as much as anyone else by connecting. Ilraen shouted something and stepped toward him, but he gestured urgently for the Andalite to stay out of it.

For a moment, Suicide almost forgot to breathe. He stood agape, a rapidly flowering bruise in the shape of Nume's knuckles spreading across his face. Then his eyes narrowed, and viper-quick, he seized Nume by the collar of his Elvish tunic and lifted him clean off the ground. "You're going to regret that, you little co—"

The rest of his words were cut off by nothingness. Deathly quiet rippled out from the center of the council, a bloom of silence that left the council members frozen like statues. For a moment, the agents only stared open-mouthed, their quarrel forgotten as a sense of dread overwhelmed them all. Then, something shivered deep within the earth, and for a moment the world fell apart.

Mission Part 2

The agents acted instinctively, grabbing onto each other in a desperate attempt to keep from being separated. Diocletian's fingers sunk into Ilraen's leg, someone had Suicide by the hair, and Suicide's grip on Nume's collar tightened to nearly a stranglehold. The world heaved underneath them, splintering into thousands of shards. Gravity vanished, existence inverted, and for a moment the PPC agents hung suspended in null space, the glittering shards of Middle-earth vanishing into the darkness.

And then, just as suddenly as it was done, it was undone again. Physics reasserted itself, dumping the agents hard onto the stone floor of the council chamber. Sunlight washed over them, and the solemn voices of the council members murmured in the background, seemingly unaffected by . . . whatever it was . . . that had just occurred.

Ilraen disentangled himself first, gently massaging circulation back into his leg as he looked around, eyes wide. "What was that?" he whispered. "I have never felt anything like that before. It was terrible!"

"I . . . ." Diocletian stopped to remove someone's discarded shoe from her mouth. "I think that was . . . dang, I've only ever read about them. That must've been what I was sensing." She squinted her eyes painfully, trying to get a look at the Words.

Upon the hush, all eyes were on them as Frodo nodded and very slowly pulled out the Ring of Power. He had a look of surprise as he felt no reluctance to hand it to Archir, though he did to show the council. Archir touched the ring and stiffened, alarming Elrond before the boy looked ever so daring and to all amazements of the council, he slipped the ring on his finger...

"Oh, Glaurung." Diocletian swallowed. "That's it."

And nothing happened.

"Complete canon break. Complete canon break." She shifted dazedly but didn't make an attempt to crawl out of the pile. "An istar put on the Ring . . . and nothing happened."

Nume groaned and attempted to drag himself off of Suicide, only to hiss as his left wrist informed him how much of an idiot he'd been moments ago. On top of it, he'd cracked his skull against the other man's in the tumult and had the start of what promised to be an impressive headache. He tried to roll away instead, but Suicide still had a vice-like grip on his collar. He coughed reflexively. "Let go, damn it!"

The Scythian cracked one eye open, albeit reluctantly. Nume's forehead had fetched him a pretty nasty crack on his left eye, which was now swelling shut. He would have a lovely shiner in a few hours, which, coupled with the bruised jaw, actually put him into negative points on Elf Realism. Slowly, with an audible cracking of joints, he unclenched his fingers from the fabric. "I'm gettin' too old for this shit."

Nume succeeded in flopping onto the ground, where he stayed for a minute with his forehead pressed against the cool flagstones. "Fuck me," he mumbled almost inaudibly. "Did he really . . . ? Only Bombadil could get away with that. Don't they know what that could mean?"

"They made him Eru." Diocletian's jaw was hanging open. "Even I . . . a Maia, yes, but . . . I would never . . . ."

There was a guttural growl from Suicide. He was still half-sprawled on the ground, but his fists were clenching again, and thanks to Nume's awkward punch his teeth were reddened with his own blood. "I want to live," he said in a low, flat voice. "I want to live long enough to see this little bastard burn."

With a heave, he rose from the ground, flexing his creaking joints. His expression was calm, but then, it wasn't a very put-together expression. He spat out some of the blood and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, his eyes murderous. "Dio. Up. We need to go steal some weapons."

"Is that wise?" Ilraen said. He offered to assist his partner off the ground, but Nume shook him off. "Canon break or no, the parameters of the assignment specify—"

"Look, Ilraen, I like you. But the last time we had a would-be god on our plate, the only thing that saved me and my partner from being cooked alive was the real god—" Suicide stopped to wipe away more blood, and Diocletian took the opportunity to intervene. Climbing to her feet, she put her hand on Suicide's arm and caught his eye. Silently, she shook her head, mouthing something that Ilraen didn't quite understand. Suicide spat again but didn't finish the sentence, instead falling into an unwilling silence.

Nume pushed himself up awkwardly on his right arm and reached for his hip flask. He jarred his heavily bruised left hand, swore, rebalanced, and pulled the flask out with the other hand, unscrewing the cap as quickly as possible and downing half the remaining contents in one go. As the edge of the headache faded, he turned a cold glare on the rest of the party, as though daring any of them to comment.

"All right," he grated out, slightly hoarse from the combination of shouting and chugging Bleepka. "This thing is going down, and hard. But it's still my god-damn mission, and we're doing it right or not at all. No more bullshit, no more screwing around, and no tempting the Flowers to come up with something worse the next time by going off like a damn maverick." This with an especial glare at Suicide.

The Scythian and Diocletian exchanged glances yet again. Nume was extremely serious, but neither of them could shake the feeling that he had temporarily morphed into a cigar-chewing black chief inspector who was giving them twenty-four hours to crack the case. Suicide opened his mouth again, and Diocletian once again jumped into the gap.

"All right then, but that means both of you need to stop fucking around." She aimed a glare right back at Nume. "You've been downright rude to us this whole time, and asserting your authority is only going to make yogurt-for-brains here more inclined to taunt you. How about everyone acts like a grownup? You can go back to wrestling later. Or just lay 'em out on the table and measure, if you're that het up about it."

Suicide stared at her for a moment, seemingly unsure of whether to grin or swear. Seeing Diocletian show her fangs like that was unusual in his experience. Nume was scandalized into speechlessness, so Ilraen answered.

"I agree. I think." He wasn't quite sure what her last line meant, but he pressed on. "We must work together to accomplish the Duty at any cost. Yes?"

"Fine, just as long as the only thing getting laid out is a charge list." Nume eyed Diocletian with new and deep mistrust.

"Speaking of which . . . I think mine's missing." Diocletian looked around. "I must've lost it when the universe imploded."

"I think that's an acceptable excuse," Suicide said. "Here, try this." He rummaged in his satchel and produced a take-out menu from Wing Lo's House of Meat. Diocletian took it and began to scribble down the charges she could remember.

Nume took the opportunity to inspect the damage he'd done to himself. His wrist didn't hurt so much now, thanks to the Bleepka, but the swelling and stiffness were irksome. He had never hit anything that hard before. This, he decided, was probably why.

"Will you be all right?" Ilraen asked, peering more anxiously than Nume felt was strictly necessary. "I am sorry about this. I feel as though it is my fault you fought with Agent Suicide."

"Yeah, well. Look, don't just hover over me, all right? Do we have anything we can use as a wrap? This should probably be stabilized."

They didn't have anything in the bag, but a sash from Ilraen's disguise proved handy. Ilraen was another matter; despite Nume's direction, he'd never done anything medical, and worrying about hurting more than helping made him hesitant. After starting over a few times, Nume's increasingly frustrated dictation and Ilraen's proportionately apologetic responses couldn't help but draw the attention of the other two.

Diocletian nudged Suicide. He ignored her. She nudged him again. He gave her a look. She mimed wrapping up an arm, which made him roll his eyes. She mouthed the name Dienekes, and he sighed and got up.

A large bronzed hand briskly inserted itself between Ilraen and the bandage. "Not like that," Suicide said, plucking the sash out of the surprised Andalite's hand. "A glancing punch like that wrenches the wrist. See the swelling? You need to immobilize it in order to prevent further damage."

He tore the sash into strips. "Silk," he added. "Good for bandages—soft, but tough."

There are few things more irritating than being in close proximity with someone who was recently calling you some extremely unflattering things. It was hard for Nume to tell Suicide off, though, because he was taking advantage of the Sam Vimes Method of Acting Like You Know What You're Doing So It's Damned Hard for People to Tell You Off, No Matter How Much They'd Like To (copyright S. Vimes, Year of the Receding Pork Pie). Nume settled for scowling at him, which Suicide studiously ignored. With depressing efficiency he braced the arm, realigned the wrist, wrapped up the swollen joint and checked everything over. "Don't use it," he said straightforwardly. "At all, if you can help it. And next time, don't keep your wrist so loose; no sense in punching someone if you're going to tear the joint while you're doing it."

"Thank you, I'll try to keep that in mind," he answered without an ounce of sincerity. "Are we done here? I doubt if we can snatch Archir with all these potential defenders around, so we'll have to find a way to get him alone somehow."

"Wherever we do it, we should do it sooner rather than later," Diocletian said worriedly. "I'd swear Gandalf and Aragorn are possessed; they look awful. And they can't seem to leave that . . . thing alone. He's in Elrond's lap again!"

As if to emphasize the point, a bizarre word choice resulted in Elrond and Gandalf lying cuddled up on the pavement together for the inevitable debate over whether Archir should travel with the Fellowship or not. Elrond finally decreed that they would choose on the day of departure, and the council disbanded.

"Should we follow them?" Ilraen asked.

"Screw that," Nume said. "This is a Stu in Middle-earth; we already know where and when he's likely to do the most damage. Let's just—"

He didn't get the chance to finish. The fic, it seemed, was on to him. Inside a paragraph, the time went from the evening after the Council to two months of "endless fun and healing" later, when the Fellowship was to depart. Suicide and Diocletian, who had been standing, were tossed to the ground again, and Nume had to perform something like a breakdance to keep from landing on his left hand. Ilraen cringed at the renewed insult to his time sense, gritting his teeth and curling around his drawn-up knees.

"That's it," Nume said, jumping up as though the ground itself was out to get him. "I'm convinced: this god-damned thing is actually trying to kill us."

Suicide made a complicated gesture. It might have been a sign of protection against the Evil Eye, and it might have been Suicide's way of telling the fic that it had a questionable relationship with its family dog. Either way, the less-than-admiring sentiment behind it was clear.

Nume hauled Ilraen up, and the four agents made their way to where the Company of the Ring had gathered. For some reason, they all gave their lines from the movieverse version of the council, but with the author's variations, and capped by the oddest of all from Archir.

"I wish to come, if only to prove my worth and to help. If not for that, then let me go to give you breath." A small voice came about. The many inhabitats gathered looked around wildly for the boy whose voice belonged.

"Here," Archir said softly, swarming into view right beside them all. He was smiling as innocently as he always did, this time a touch of plead in his eyes.

The Fellowship stopped breathing and turned blue in the face until Aragorn spoke after Archir, reminding the world that breath was needed for talking, therefore they must have it after all. Nothing could help the fact that Archir now appeared as a swarm of tiny insect-like versions of himself, nor the fact that his eyes turned "plead," which manifested as a hreen-blello plaid.

While the agents gawked at the spectacle, Archir went on about how he'd learned some spells under Gandalf's tutelage, culminating with:

"I can become invisible as well, since the ring does not want me," Archir said, pouting like always as he mentioned the rings hate of him. Gandalf knew this was because an Istari could not be influenced by the ring, and oddity in itself.

"Are you reading this?" Nume hissed. "Look!" He pointed at the line in question.

Ilraen blinked. "If istari cannot be influenced by the Ring in this world, why would Gandalf not simply take it and storm Barad-dûr himself?"

"Don't say that!" Diocletian whispered fiercely. "Canon's barely holding together as it is!" Indeed, the world flexed around them at Ilraen's words. Rivendell had taken on an oddly frayed and washed-out look, and the secondary canons moved stiffly and jerkily, like animatronics in a Pirates of Middle-earth ride.

"I do not see why not," Elrond told them and Aragorn sighed, flating in defeat.

There was an audible creak as the world tried to figure out exactly what Aragorn was doing. Finally, it settled for the closest alternative, as Aragorn slowly deflated like a mylar balloon and then turned into a two-dimensional version of himself. Diocletian couldn't stop herself from taking a picture: headaches and canon breaks may come and go, but bile fascination is eternal.

Suicide, meanwhile, meaningfully eyed a nearby robotic Elf's spear. He seemed to be doing the mental calculations of how much effort it would take to lop about three feet off the shaft and turn it into a convenient projectile, something the Flowers had neglected to specifically forbid him from doing. Diocletian elbowed him again, and he reluctantly turned away, compensating himself with another mouthful of absinthe and a cold leftover pastry.

The world froze for a moment as they went thundering into the next chapter. From on high, the voice of the author boomed down:

Yes Harry has his memory of his old self... The good memories. He does not remember the terrible memories as much as the others. He is still humbled down by his childhood with the Dursleys, for his manners and behavior never faded from that torment.

"I have to admit," Suicide said idly, tucking his hands into the pockets of his tunic. "I've never seen anyone do such a neat job of surgically removing every possible piece of character development. You almost have to admire it, in a way. Anybody can write hermaphroditic Snape rape, but it takes a real genius to turn a world completely on its ear like this."

Chapter Four "Going South"

None of the agents commented on that. It was too obvious, even for them.

The landscape whizzed by as time, once again, sped up. The narrative whipped through several weeks' worth of travel in a few short sentences, and the agents had the odd sensation of being inside a fast-forwarded movie. The mini Bormir came rocketing out of the story at high speed, almost knocking them over as it ran to hide behind Ilraen. The only thing not contributing any quickness was the small herd the Fellowship had with them in place of Bill the Pony: in the rough foothills of the Misty Mountains, nine uncanonical horses didn't have it any easier than folk on foot.

Archir attempted a few dabs of Harry-like characterization, drawing parallels between his traveling mates and various Potterverse characters. It didn't go over well, especially when he compared the normally stern and wary Ranger Aragorn to Molly Weasley. Diocletian heard a worrisome grinding of teeth when it was pronounced that Faramir had a great deal in common with Percy Weasley.

To her surprise, when she looked, it was Ilraen whose jaw was clenched, as well as his fists. "I am not sure whose character is being eroded more. What could possibly be gained by this comparison?"

"Faramir's for sure. Percy didn't have that much character to start with." Nume folded his arms across his chest. "Look, this is idiotic. Like I was saying before, the next thing on the Gary Stu to-do list is to pop open Durin's Doors, so instead of trying to follow the horrible pacing—not to mention the Nine Walkers mounted on horses, for Christ's sake—let's skip ahead. Ilraen, you still have the remote activator, right?"

"That I do!" With an unusual level of glee, he dug the device out of their bag. "First I will send Bormir and the others home . . . and now we can go."

They portaled into chapter five, where the Fellowship stood around scratching their heads below the Gate of Moria. They were, of course, forced to turn the horses loose, making their inclusion one of the most utterly pointless things any of the agents had ever seen.

"Horsies!" Diocletian said instantly, drawing perplexed looks from her three fellow agents. She immediately trotted up to the nearest of them, a gray mare, and produced one of the stolen apples from her pack. The mare eyed her skeptically for a moment before deciding, hey, food was food, and devouring the apple in two bites.

Suicide, oddly enough, seemed affected by their presence too. "We're not leaving them here," he said firmly, stroking the mane of a bay gelding. "Good useful animals like these don't deserve to get eaten by wargs or Watchers. Hey, Ilraen, open a portal to RC 2771a, would you?"

"You're going to send them to Ithalond?" Dio said skeptically.

"He's an Elf. Elves like horses."

"He's a traumatized Elf."

"Trauma makes Elves not like horses?"

"Ilraen . . . ." Dio rubbed her forehead, clearly getting a bit of a headache. "Could you please open a portal to send the horses to wherever you think is best in Headquarters? I'm sure there must be a stable or something."

Ilraen, quite the efficient Andalite when given the chance, quickly opened the portal to the grassy courtyard where Alice the Meara lived. He may have murmured something under his breath about how pleased he was to do something that made sense, but everyone knew that Ilraen was very polite, so it couldn't possibly have been true. The agents quickly herded the nine horses through the portal via a combination of shooing, halter-pulling, and blatant bribery with apples. Suicide stole a Sharpie from Dio and neatly wrote DIBS. —S on the neck of the bay, an act to which the horse clearly objected and which quickly got Suicide bitten.

While the agents dealt with the horses, the Fellowship gathered around the Doors of Durin and registered confusion at not being able to see them.

"That is because Dwarf-doors are made to be hidden, only found with the right secret." Gimli said, finding the door somewhat.

There was another depressingly familiar groan and a gust of cold wind due to the canon's difficulty deciding whether Gimli had actually found the door or not. Diocletian took two Tylenol and drew a little picture of a teenage author being eaten by the Luggage.

Nume gave a muffled shout as the gust blew a swath of material at him from the direction of the Doors. After a brief struggle in which Ilraen was nearly clouted on the ear in his attempt to help, Nume freed himself enough to examine the sheet.

It was a flannel blanket, and it bore the image of Fëanor, High King of the Noldor. Nume stared, afraid to look for the explanation.

"The emblems of Durin could be seen as brightly as the Tree of the High Elves and Star of the House of Flanor as they stood proudly in the arch," Ilraen read, probably thinking he was being helpful, though the expression on his face indicated he was as much baffled at the misspelling as anyone else.

"Looks warm," Diocletian said after a long moment, apparently struggling to find a comment that actually made sense. "And Eru bless us, at least it's not sentient." She eyed the flannel sheet. "Hopefully."

Suicide just frowned. He wasn't looking at the mysteriously soft and cozy High King; his eyes were focused on the sky. In the distance, a caped figure streaked between the clouds. "That's not good."

Diocletian followed the direction of his gaze. "Crebain from Dunland?"

"No; Captain Obvious." Suicide shot an irritated glance towards the doors, where Legolas had just brightly concluded that Archir had said "friend" in Elvish. "Son of a whore. I'm not even surprised any more."

"Told you. Card-carrying Stu," Nume pronounced, carefully folding the flannel blanket into the messenger bag and not looking at Suicide.

"Definitely a Stu," Suicide added out loud. It was a general comment, and could've been addressed to anyone. Diocletian rolled her eyes and mouthed "therapy" at Ilraen.

Ilraen offered an uncertain half-smile in return, then cocked his head in the direction of the continuing half-assed effort to remind everyone that Archir was Harry.

"Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on woshi." Archir said lightly, making everyone pause to look at him.

"I show not your face but, your heart's desire?" Gandalf guessed, suddenly seeing what Archir said. Archir smiled brightly, nodding.

"It was a mirror that showed what you most desire out of anything in the world," Archir admitted to Gandalf in a whisper. The wizard "ahh"ed for a moment before they began to walk inside when Frodo cried out and they swung around to see a creature gripping onto Frodo's ankle, the sound of the water smashing against a tentacle.

"Double sonic improbability!" Diocletian yelped, still vainly trying to be professional. "The water can't 'smash' against the tentacle, and there's no way that the words of the Mirror of Erised would translate into—oof!" That was courtesy of her partner, who bodily hauled her off her feet and yanked her towards the Doors of Durin. Ilraen and Nume were already making tracks, nobody intending to get stuck outside the Doors with a rather irate Watcher in the Water. (Especially since it had developed a bit of a dislike for anything agent-like after they stopped bringing it treats.)

Despite the agents' head start, though, they barely made it through the Doors ahead of the Fellowship: the desperate struggle for Frodo's life against the tentacled monster had been truncated to a quick "Sam managed to rip his master from the squid." They crammed themselves into a corner of the corpse-strewn hall as the Doors were slammed closed by the Watcher, plunging the scene into darkness.

"Weird creature," Archir stated.

The agents were too disgusted to reply.

Now that they were in Moria, Nume produced the DORKS and did a quick switch, turning them back into orcs. By the time the device (now masquerading as a heavily annotated copy of Return to the Valley of the Dolls) had been returned to the bag Ilraen carried, Gandalf and Archir had lighted their respective mystical sticks of wood and the Fellowship had vanished into the depths of Moria. And "vanished" was the accurate term: within a paragraph they had gotten to the guardroom with the three passages. The agents were left catching their breath in the entry hall.

With orcish night vision, Nume picked out Ilraen leaning heavily against the nearest wall in response to the latest time distortion. "On the bright side, this means it will be easy to follow them, even in here," he remarked. "Also, there's still some Bleepka left in the bottle in there. You better use it before you pass out or something."

Ilraen started to nod, changed his mind when he saw actual stars (the constellation of Sagittarius, to be precise), and just dug the bottle out of the bag instead.

Nume scanned the Words and scowled. "Oh. So that's where Aragorn's verses went." Archir had fallen asleep again and was enjoying prophetic dreams set to Tolkien's poetry. The agent blinked away in disgust. "Are we all set?"

"I can go on now," Ilraen confirmed. Nume thought the words were a bit forced, but looking at him revealed nothing in his current form.

The now-Orcish agents made sure to gather up their gear and headed deeper into the Mines. By this point, both time and space were in such bad shape that it only took them a few minutes to catch up to the Fellowship. Gandalf had chosen the path while Archir was asleep (this being an event not considered worthy of mention in the story itself) and the company was walking again. Archir was, of course, carried by Aragorn, who had gone into full Nanny Mode. Suicide nudged Diocletian, and she charged . . . actually, she just stabbed the takeout menu several times with her stub of pencil. The message was the same, though.

Another lurch of time distortion, and the company stopped for the night in an undefined chamber.

As they relaxed, Sam commented on the 'holes' that were made around the place. Gimli looked indignant and launched into a chant of long ago, about Durin. The words 'In Moria, in Khazad-dym' stuck to Archir's mind as he was laid in Boromir's lap this time, and it seemed Sam agreed, having echoed the sentence.

The agents braced themselves, waiting for the inevitable burst of flame as the latest of the many, many mini-Balrogs popped into existence. For a moment, there was nothing. Then there was a dull plop, and the mini appeared—glued, by the power of the Narrative, to the side of Archir's head.

" . . . What do you know," Dio said finally. "That is . . . that's a new one on me."

"New one on Archir, too," Suicide added.

Diocletian grimaced. "Seriously? That one's just horrible."

"We might have to kill a Stu version of Eru. Kinda scraping the bottom of the barrel here."

As if to emphasize the point, a bark of laughter from Nume startled the others. "Look at Frodo," he answered their interrogative looks. "That's a style that should have died and stayed dead back in my time."

The others looked. Thanks to Archir nicknaming him "Fro," the world had taken it upon itself to give the hobbit a beachball-sized poof of frizzy hair and the disco pants and shades to go with it. Boogieing didn't seem too far out of the question either, but the Words dictated that it was time for another sleep instead. At least Frodo would have a soft cushion for his head.

Although the agents could have used a rest themselves, none of them wanted to risk it after what had happened in Bree, so they went ahead to the Chamber of Mazarbul. For the moment, the room appeared as it should have, with a light slanting downward from high in the eastern wall and lighting the face of Balin's tomb, and a deep coat of dust on the floor. Unwilling to disturb the chamber, despite the speculative looks Suicide cast at the old weapons discarded around the doorway, the agents sat outside and occupied themselves with snacking on the last of the pilfered fruit from Rivendell.

Far too soon, the Fellowship caught up to them.

They stumbled across a wall that Gandalf discovered to be the record of the fate of Balin's folk.

"Yeah, because the pile of dead Dwarves wasn't enough to clue them in," Diocletian muttered sarcastically. The other agents, though, were more interested in what appeared to be the Wall of Mazarbul. Since it was given not much in the way of description, it appeared to be the entire Book of Mazarbul chiseled into a rather handsome piece of granite, complete with the trailing "they are coming" carved by what must have been a Dwarf extremely dedicated to stonework.

Nume leaned in with an arched eyebrow, giving every evidence of reading the wall. "The castle of . . . aaaaargh," he groaned with a ghoulish grin. "He must have died while carving it."

Ilraen blinked. "But if he were dying, he would not bother to carve 'argh'. He would just say it."

Nume's grin fell away. "Damn it, Ilraen, I can't tell if you're paraphrasing or just clueless."

It was Ilraen's turn to show his teeth—even a disguise couldn't teach someone who habitually had no mouth to grin properly, but the message was clear.

Suicide contented himself with a golf clap.

In defiance of the agents' increasingly desperate attempts to keep their sanity, Archir stood in front of the Wall of Mazarbaaargh and, being as special as he was, had clairvoyant visions of what had happened to the Dwarves who made their last stand. The mini-Balrog Flui quickly spawned, sneezing small puffs of flame. ("Misspelling a name that consists of four letters," Diocletian charged on what little space the takeout menu had left.)

Then, with an odd lurch, the danger was upon them. There was a boom—or rather, a Boom—and the sound of running feet. The Fellowship drew together, instinctively protecting the Ringbearer and their sickeningly precious cargo. The agents pulled aside, tucking themselves into the crevices that lined the chamber and bracing themselves for the inevitable roll and thunder of drums. "Drums, drums in the deep," Diocletian murmured, biting her lip.

But there were no drums. Instead, accompanied by the racing feet and the guttural howl of goblins, there was an odd shuffling and a wet smacking noise. The agents exchanged puzzled glances. The Fellowship quailed as the sounds grew louder.

"What in the . . . ." Suicide detached himself from the wall and, curiosity getting the better of him, hurried across the chamber towards the door. He stuck his head out as quickly as possible, then withdrew it like a startled turtle seconds before Boromir slammed it closed. He didn't retreat back to their little niches, though; instead, he stood still against the wall next to the door, eyes wide and a confused expression on his face.

Then, moving slowly, brows furrowed, he shuffled back across the chamber towards the other three.

"'A hord'," he said, "'was being blown'."

Nume squeezed his eyes shut in denial. "I'm sorry," he said. "I can't have heard that properly." He couldn't shut his ears, though. The noise outside wasn't going anywhere.

Ilraen shot a cautionary look at Suicide. Although not entirely clear on the euphemism being invoked, Nume's face was enough to give him a hint as to its nature.

Suicide wandered back to his niche and leaned stiffly against the wall, resting his forehead against the cool stone. Behind them, the Fellowship were preparing for battle, but he didn't seem to notice. It was almost as if he didn't know how to process what he had just seen.

"Huh," he said finally. "Let me put it this way. Did Tolkien ever one-hundred-percent confirm that goblins actually wear pants?"

"I believe the Professor was polite enough not to discuss such things," Nume muttered stridently in response. Then, in an alarming reversal of tone and demeanor, "Hey, gang! What say we get a move-on? Places to go, people to kill; an agent's work is never done!" He struck out deliberately for the open eastern door, jolting into a run as "there was a mighty blow upon the [western] door and it began to open. A large toe less foot peaked into the room, silence now adorning them all."

Diocletian tried to get a picture of the lovely paper bows and boutonnieres now adorning the members of the Fellowship, all printed with "Silence Please," but the foot was making a determined entrance into the room and yes, the leg it was attached to was definitely not wearing pants. The remaining agents simultaneously decided that the other door might be the best prospect.

As they ran, the world jolted and froze, transitioning into the next chapter. An author's note thundered down from on high.

billy jean - I find that rude that you think I don't read my own story. As I've said I lose train of thought very easily, I have no beta, and at least I have some grammar in me unlike some writers today. If you can't see past the grammar mistakes that a 15 year old kid like me can make, don't bother reading because it'll keep happening until I either finish High school or find a beta to look this over for me. I'm still in school and learning how to form a scene so until then, yeah I know I suck at this.

"Too . . . easy . . . " Suicide panted as they ran.

Now that I could finally reply to that, you wouldn't believe how irritated I have been about all these people on my back about that. Yes I rush my scenes. It's my habit and my style. At least it still makes enough sense, right?

That was what was known in popular Internet vernacular as an "oh exploitable," but the agents weren't taking the bait. Nobody wanted to be there when the goblins and their blown hords came through: there were some sights that Man Was Not Meant to See, and that was about six of them. They didn't stop, author's notes or no author's notes, until they had reached the bottom of the stairs outside the chamber.

The Fellowship wasn't long in catching up. As they passed, the agents could see that, surprise surprise, Archir was back in Aragorn's arms, but something seemed a little off about him. As Gandalf's voice drifted back to them, the reason became abundantly clear.

"Very relieved am I to know you are very much undead mellon-nin." Gandalf softly said, frowning as he saw Archir's hidden pain.

It was downright bizarre. The disturbingly cute Archir had completely changed: now he was practically skeletal, flesh and ridiculously fancy green robes replaced by bone and a ragged shroud. A chilling blue light shone from his eyes, and . . . Diocletian squinted. Were those gold rings on his fingers?

"That looks . . . familiar," she said cautiously. Her pencil was poised over the menu; she wasn't quite sure what to write.

"But . . . ." Ilraen screwed up his face in horror. "Can that be right?"

Nume grimaced at the Words. "Archir took the blow meant for Frodo and got himself uncanonically poisoned. Damn showboating Stu. The undead thing is a bit over the top, though. I mean—" he snickered in spite of himself "—zombie apocalypse in Middle-earth? And Gandalf is awfully happy about it."

"Wight apocalypse, you mean," Diocletian said. The pencil was moving again, but tentatively. "He just turned into a barrow-wight. That's a little . . . well, it's not what I thought the universe would do when it said 'undead', that's for sure."

"Maybe it's what Middle-earth thought was most appropriate for him?" Suicide suggested dryly. "He's such a little parasite anyway, it's practically perfect. No wonder Gandalf's happy: he always did seem to have a good sense of humor."

"I don't have a canon analysis device," Diocletian said thoughtfully, "and it's a good thing, because it likely would've blown itself up to end the agony. But if I did have a hypothetical one that could withstand this kind of thing, I'd say that it might be registering some kind of possible attempt by canon-Gandalf to fight back. Do you think this means that's really him, and not a copy?"

"I'm not risking our CAD now," Nume said. "It's borrowed, and I wouldn't trust it as far as I could spit. I'd say all the canons are themselves, though. They're basically doing everything they're supposed to do, and they still have their proper names. Archir, on the other hand, I'm fairly confident is not Harry Potter in any way, shape, or form. But if he's a wight, how do we kill him? 'Aim for the head' doesn't quite apply."

Suicide frowned. Then one eyebrow rose, slowly, followed by the corners of his mouth. "I might have an idea about that."

That got a skeptical expression from Nume. "I'm afraid to ask, but go ahead."

"Our target does tend to gravitate towards normally-impressive warriors," Suicide pointed out, crossing his arms. "All the most powerful—Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn—fawn over him and talk about how precious he is, and he plays to that." He flopped down on the ground, brushed his long hair over his shoulders, and immediately became dewy-eyed. "Such a wondrous, blessed little thing . . . I can't imagine how he suffers on such a dark and dangerous Quest . . . ."

Nume recoiled in not-entirely-affected horror. "I shouldn't have asked. Thank you, that's a disturbingly accurate rendition. Stop it."

"Awwww," Diocletian said, smiling a little worrisomely. She crouched down next to Suicide and planted a kiss on top of the Scythian's head. "You'll be such a great father one day, you big psycho, you."

Suicide merely let his lip wobble a little as he gazed down at an imaginary child. "This is no place for one born of love, even though his power may one day save us all! If only there were a way to . . . you know, I'm staring at my lap here, and it's kind of awkward after that Moria thing. And Dio, pray to Na'an I never have children, because one of 'em's gonna wind up killing me in a fight over a fifteen-year-old prostitute. So are we going to do this or not?"

"I believe we can skip ahead to Lothlórien," said Ilraen, who was quietly reading along with the Words and trying not to focus on his headache, which stubbornly refused to go away and had taken on an eyeball-stabbing aspect. "Archir does not prevent Gandalf from falling, so there is no major charge to record. Gandalf is made to speak an extra line, however: 'Do not lose hope'."

Nume rolled his eyes at the sappiness. "I prefer 'Fly, you fools'. Go on and make the portal if you're going to—but if we're going to Lórien, or even 'Lurien', we're being Elves again. I'll not have us sullying that wood with these forms."

Ilraen handed him the DORKS, and while Nume switched their disguises, Ilraen opened the way to the Naith of Lórien.

Even the influence of the Stu couldn't completely dim the Golden Wood, and the agents felt an odd sense of peace steal over them as they appeared amidst the trees. Here, the bark was ivory-white rather than silvery, but the beauty of Lórien was as unmistakable as ever. The four, now Elves deep in an Elvish wood, relaxed.

The peace lasted about a quarter of a second. The Fellowship, Haldir, and of course, Archir were all gathered not too far away. Haldir seemed to be in the process of distributing blindfolds. It was all wonderfully canonical. But . . . .

"Please do not blind the Istari child though," Haldir said to his brother. Archir, in the arms of the elf, wriggled as he saw his companions become blindfolded. Haldir held him more securely, Archir lying on his back in his arms, tucked under the elf's chin.

Ilraen frowned. "That is simply unfair. I notice he does not really protest, either."

Beside him, Nume squinted at the Stu-creature and snapped his fingers. "Damn it, he looks normal again. Well, you know what I mean. He couldn't even do something entertaining like turn into a zombie. Waste of a good malapropism."

"True," Diocletian said hopefully. "But maybe we should try head-shotting him anyway. You know, to be on the safe side."

Nume raised an eyebrow at her. "With what? Unless you've got an inflatable rifle or something they didn't take from you."

"I was planning on improvising. The undead are a genuine public safety threat, you know."

"Mm, true. Desperate times, et cetera."

During the banter, the party set off, and the agents trailed them gingerly. The ground seemed to flee away under their feet with each step, and Nume ended up half-carrying his partner as day and night flickered by. Finally, they came to Caras Galadhon and made the long climb up to the talan of the Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel. Once there, they had a break from walking through the relentless time distortion, but not from ridiculous typographical errors. Due to a particularly odd one, the Lord and Lady briefly appeared to be seated on a Catholic elementary school before it turned into a pair of sparkly thrones.

"Well, that's hardly better," Nume remarked. "They're just described as chairs in the book." Then, as the two rose, "And since when is Galadriel shorter than Celeborn? 'Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord'; that's what Tolkien wrote."

In the sensitive state the canon was in, the enormous mallorn quivered at the agent's words, and Galadriel seemed to straighten up as though she'd been slouching.

Diocletian had actually run out of room on the takeout menu, and was now writing the charges on her arm in Sharpie. "Shrinking . . . Galadriel," she carefully wrote a few inches below her elbow.

Suicide patted her awkwardly on the head, attempting to reassure his partner with his usual lack of finesse. Fortunately for him, he was looking at her instead of the Words, so he had no idea what was coming next.

As Galadriel looked into Archir's eyes, a flashback appeared with a distinctive click-clack to show them what was going on in his mind, like an old projection:

Privet Drive and being five years old, Vernon Dursley towering over him with his belt, about to bring it forth upon his back. Petunia slamming a frying pan into Harry's head, giving him a concussion. Burning a meal at age eight and Vernon forcing Harry's small hand onto the heated stove. The pain. All of it. The hurt. The fear.

"Oh, balls," Diocletian said.

Part of being a PPC agent was learning to live with, teach, survive, and occasionally manage your partner. Partnerships didn't last unless they could deal with each other, and Dio had done her share of gently steering Suicide around the various obstacles that modern(ish) life and the craziness of the fics had placed in their paths. Coming from the time and place he did, and considering the patricide in his background, he had some issues about the depiction and treatment of families.

Now his jaw was set, and there was a gentle grinding noise that told her the Medical Department would have to send him to the dentist again. They really hated it when they had to do that.

Nume opened his mouth to make a comment, about either the fic or Suicide's reaction to it; the multiverse would never know, because he was distracted by movement at the corner of his eye. When he looked, he saw Ilraen rifling determinedly through their bag with a steely look in his eyes.

"Ilraen, what are you doing?"

The red-haired elf ignored him. A second later, Nume caught the glint of metal and glass that could only belong to his syringe. "Oh, hell! Grab him! We haven't read the charges!" He gestured uselessly with his wrapped-up hand as Ilraen staggered toward Archir.

Diocletian let out a colorful Black Speech curse and took off after Ilraen, running as fast as she could. Ilraen had the advantage of height and distance, but his brain was just keeping it together enough to let him stand on two legs, and Diocletian managed to reach him. With a yelp, she tackled him at the very edge of the talan, landing hard on top of him and trying to pin the thrashing agent. "Down, horsie!" she yelped, hanging on for dear life.

"He's defiling the character of the Dursleys!" Ilraen raved, doing his utmost to dislodge Diocletian without losing his grip on the syringe. "And using uncanonical child abuse as a cheap excuse for drama and speshulness! He goes too far!"

"Su, help me!"

Suicide didn't budge. "Damn, the kid's got moxie. This his first psychotic episode?" he added to Nume. He tucked his hands into his belt, affecting a calm demeanor, but there was still a hard look in his eyes. Archir was whimpering and being cuddled by Lady Galadriel herself, completely unaware of the homicidal foursome lurking not far away.

"Mm, more or less," Nume answered. "The incident of reading the journal might count, but we'd been locked in the RC for two weeks at that point. Then there was the failfest of last mission, but it really did look like a character replacement, so . . . yeah, first completely unmitigated loss of sanity. All this over the Dursleys, I ask you."

"First one's always toughest, but Dio's sitting on him pretty hard now. Oughtta watch out during future meltdowns, though; looks like this one's a flailer."

"At least he isn't a Draenei this time. Still, this is becoming problematic. Uh, you want to stop them falling off the very high talan?"

"Might be a good idea." Suicide broke into a jog-trot, but stopped only a moment later. "C'mon along, would you? I'm gonna show you how to restrain a thrashing psychopath. If you keep working with this kid, I think it's gonna be a skill you'll need."

Nume loped along after him. "Make sure you grab his wrist. You do not want to get jabbed with that needle. I hear cells instantaneously dehydrating is very painful."

"Don't tempt me. I actually want to live long enough to finish this job, for once." Suicide grabbed Diocletian by her shoulders and pulled her off of the frothing Ilraen, who immediately tried to roll away. The Scythian quickly stamped down on his wrist, breaking his hold on the syringe. "See, Nume? It's all about leverage. You want to remove the weapon from the equation as quickly as possible, of course, but remember that the entire body is a weapon—wow, those teeth hurt—as he is now demonstrating. You've got two feet, so use 'em." A second foot, planted on the back of Ilraen's neck, pinioned him. "You may now restrain the rest of the body in whatsoever manner you choose. I usually just impale them at this point, but I kinda get the impression that's not your bag. Sitting's a good choice."

Having recovered the needle, Nume folded his arms and looked down his nose at the proceedings. "If you're done, I did want him still functional. Can he breathe?"

Ilraen gurgled something that might have been a response and slapped the floor.

"Technically," Suicide said. "His brain'll start shutting down in a minute or two." At Nume's aghast expression, he relented slightly and lessened the pressure on Ilraen's neck. "Relax, I wasn't gonna kill him. It's all about pressure on the—what was it, Dio? Those things in your neck? The ones that sounded like the English word for a woman's—"

"Cervical vertebrae," Diocletian interrupted. "Okay, Su, you can let him up now." She was red-faced and gasping for breath herself, something else that made it even harder to take her as an Elf. "You know, this is weird. We shouldn't be able to do this kind of stuff! We're twenty-five feet away and the Stu didn't even blink!"

Indeed, Archir appeared not to have noticed any of it. Galadriel was still cuddling him and rubbing circles on his back, which was admittedly something that would've distracted anybody, but the thrashing homicidal maniac normally would've attracted some attention.

Suicide glanced up at the Words and shook his head. "He's busy," he said bluntly. "Haven't you noticed? Every time we've made a disruption, he's been busy nestling up against some incredibly powerful canon. He's . . . feeding, or something."

" . . . Su, that's weirdly insightful. Are you feeling okay?"

"Yeah, brilliant," Nume interjected. "Now seriously, get off my partner before I grant your wish and stick you with this thing." He waved the syringe before slipping it back into its case with the assurance that it would not be needed.

"Of all the ways to go . . . ." Suicide shifted his feet and hoisted the red-faced Ilraen off the ground. "You're gonna be lightheaded for a minute or two while the blood goes back to your head, okay? Don't go leaning over any railings."

Nume deigned to let Ilraen lean on him again while he recovered his equilibrium. "Let's portal. I don't need any more proof that this thing is frelled beyond recall. The Fellowship leaves in a few days, and it looks like they're not taking Archir with them. It'll be the perfect time to grab him. The activator's in the bag; one of you'll have to set it. I can't do anything with Ilraen hanging on me."

"I'm not sure," Dio said. "We're not supposed to—" Then she saw Suicide reaching for the RA, and hastily swiped it before he could get it. Her partner gave her an exasperated look. "Thank Eru," she continued, ignoring said look. "I'm running out of arm space for this damn charge list."

The exhausted agents tumbled out of the portal towards the middle of chapter eight, where Aragorn and the Fellowship were reluctantly bidding Archir adieu and telling him he couldn't accompany them any further. They all parted with tears in their eyes, though if the agents' eyes weren't deceiving them, some of the tears looked distinctly forced. Gimli practically danced a jig as the boats rounded a bend in the river, passing out of sight.

Haldir comforted the sobbing Archir and put him to bed, kissing his forehead and in general fawning over the little bundle of joy. ("Woobifying Haldir," Diocletian wrote, rolling up her trouser leg and awkwardly scrawling it on her shin.) Then, at long last, Archir was alone and asleep, and the agents made their move.

Three of the four lurked at the base of the tree where Archir's flet was while Suicide climbed up alone. He'd scrubbed dirt into his palms and face, and a quick reconfiguration of the DORKS had turned him into a Ranger version of himself, with added stubble for maximum scruffiness. Sighing deeply, and trying to shake the feeling that he was about to be caught by Dateline NBC, Suicide knelt next to the "bassinett" and began to speak.

"It's not fair," he said, pitching his voice lower than usual and putting a wobble in it. Archir twitched on his cot. "We are in a war . . . a war that may very well sweep across the entire world and claim our lives. And yet, a child is here—a child who may well hold the key to saving us, yet would lose himself to do so . . . ." He stifled some heavily dramatic sobs with his hands. Below, he could hear the distinctive call of the Lothlórien Gagging Diocletian.

Archir awoke, blinking eyelashes that were entirely too long and lush for something not featured in an X-rated anime. There was an eerie glint in his eyes as he caught sight of the Scythian Ranger. "Don't be sad," he said, simpering at the kneeling Suicide. "I'm not afraid, so why should you be?"

"My friends are afraid," Suicide said, standing and gazing dramatically out the window. "We have long heard prophecies of the Star Child of Light, the one who would bring the key to our salvation, but they do not believe it . . . . We are only Dúnedain, and we are not privileged to look upon such great and pure beings as istari . . . ."

Below, Diocletian was sorely regretting teaching her partner to read: evidently, he had found her Barbara Cartland novels, and been taking full advantage of them, too. But it seemed to do the trick: Archir slipped out of bed and cuddled up to Suicide.

"I will go with you and show them that they should not be afraid." He slipped his hand into Suicide's. "I'll help them! They don't need to be scared any more."

"You would do that for us?" Suicide gasped, wondering if Na'an would honor his prayers for insulin and booze. "You are truly the Star Child, indeed! Please, let us go in haste, so that they may learn what has come among us!"

The two of them headed for the stairs. The minute they reached the top step, though, Archir immediately stopped and looked expectantly at Suicide. With a sigh, the Scythian picked up the simpering OC and hurried down the steps, trying to ignore the fact that Archir was apparently sniffing his neck. A cold feeling crept down his spine. It's for the job. It's for the job. It's for the job. Na'an, if you could add an extra fifth of Glenfiddich to that order . . . .

At the sound of footsteps, the other three agents retreated into the shadows, moving further away from the flets and from any Elvish ears. Suicide followed, Archir still wrapped lamprey-like around his neck.

At last, the Scythian emerged into a small clearing. The branches of the trees intertwined overhead, leaving only a small path of clear moonlight in the center, and it was there that Suicide gratefully dropped the clinging Stu.

"Archir the Emerald," a slightly hoarse female voice said. "Alias Harry Potter and the Little Istar that Could. You are hereby charged as a Gary Stu by the Protectors of the Plot Continuum. Stand and hear your charges."

Archir blinked his wide, pretty eyes in innocent confusion. "What?"

"You are charged," the female voice continued, "with usurping the role of a canon character, to wit, Harry Potter; with replacing said canon character via a combination of infantilization, character corruption, and saccharinity; with perpetrating distortions of space, to wit, having Gandalf exist in two places at once; with perpetrating distortions of time, to wit, everything . . . ." There was a rustle of paper. "Committing no less than forty-seven counts of aggravated creepification, making everybody fawn over you . . . um . . . giving the people in the Prancing Pony spots, stopping to work off the damages of the Black Riders' attack despite it being the stupidest possible thing to do at that moment, putting the safety of yourself over the safety of the frickin' Quest of the Ring, with controlling and degrading moo shu pork with hot curry—no, wait, hang on a sec . . . ."

"After all that fuss about getting just the right charges?" said a quicker, more sarcastic male voice, followed by a sigh. "Addendum: you are further charged with making a fuss over common names, nonsensical naming, asynchronous anatomy, unnatural illumination, mangling the canonical timeline, horribly misquoting passages from the book despite clearly having a full knowledge of it, various geographical aberrations, multiple counts of bizarre descriptions, malapropisms, ridiculous nicknames, and other proofs of having a very weak grip on the English language indeed; and let's not leave out setting yourself up as Eru by being able to put on the One Ring with absolutely no effect whatsoever, apart, of course, from completely shattering the canon.

"As if that weren't enough, you also went on to join the Fellowship of the Ring, mount the Fellowship on horses—which is completely asinine since you knew full well they'd only lose them at Moria anyway—to cause the existence of a flannel Fëanor, open the Doors of Durin, cause Frodo to sprout a 'fro, cause unspeakable things to happen in Moria, turn yourself undead, woobify Haldir, and cause my normally polite and level-headed partner to turn into a raving maniac, forcing us to subdue him to a degree such that I think he's actually passed out under that tree now . . . ." The male voice faded and there was a pause and a shuffling of feet. Then it came back. "Yup. Ahem. I know damn well I'm leaving charges out, but that's all the important ones."

"Oh, and for making me lose my notebook when the universe exploded," the first voice added. "And for making me write all this extra stuff on myself. I'm going to be finding charges for weeks."

"You forgot 'mass goblin sex'," said the voice of the Ranger who had brought Archir there.

"I said 'unspeakable things in Moria'," the second voice snapped. "Unspeakable, as in should not be spoken of ever again."

"Sheesh. Cranky much?"

In the ring of moonlight, the istar trembled, his lip quivering. His eyes had reached a point of dewiness normally only possible in Disney universes. He reached for his wand, but he had left it on the flet—and unlike Harry Potter, Archir didn't have the presence of mind to try any of that wandless magic he was supposed to know. Especially not when there was nobody there to adore him.

Then, unexpectedly, the first voice spoke again. "I . . . I don't know about this, Su," it said uncertainly. "He's just a kid. I mean, look at him. Do you think we can salvage—?"

"No, he isn't," the gray-haired Dúnadan interrupted. He reemerged into the light and grabbed Archir by the collar. "It's not a kid. It never was. Taking on an innocent form while sucking all the strength and backbone out of the strongest warriors in the Fellowship?"

"Put . . . me . . . down," Archir said angrily, clenching his small fists.

The gray-haired man smirked at him. "No."

"I said put me down!" the child screamed in a very un-childlike voice. For a moment, the strained canon trembled, and the agents felt something ripple past them in the darkness.

"The power of Tolkien compels you!" Suicide shouted, giving Archir a good shake. "The power of Tolkien compels you! Show us your true form!"

Archir flailed, trying one last tack. "I'm just a child!" he squeaked, his eyes filling with tears. "Don't you feel sorry for me?"

"Nope."

"Not remotely." The owner of the second voice, every inch the tall and wrathful Noldo in that moment, stepped out of the shadows with a copy of The Silmarillion thrust out in front of him. "In the name of Eru Ilúvatar, Manwë, Varda, and all the Valar, reveal yourself!"

The form of the "Istari child" wavered. With nobody to fawn over him or cuddle him, with nobody to comfort him about his OMG so HORRIBLE past with the mean, mean Dursleys, he was quickly running out of power. His skin rippled, and cracks of red light appeared in the childish façade, burning Suicide's hands. The Scythian cursed, but didn't let go, and the cracks widened.

With an explosion of red light, Suicide was thrown head over heels and sent crashing into the trees at the edge of the clearing. The fake childlike form peeled away, and a mass of darkness came boiling out, forming in midair into a strange hunched shape with protruding teeth and a shadowy, skeletal body. Glowing ice-blue eyes surveyed the horrified agents as it landed again in the midst of the clearing, and it bared its teeth in a mirthless grin.

"What in the . . . ." Diocletian stopped, dumbfounded.

Nume took a step back, staggered by the blast. "A wraith! It's got to have a glitter level over seven hundred!"

"It's not a wraith, it's practically a vampire! Fic vampire. Fic incubus. Ficubus?" Diocletian backed away slowly, trying to look at Suicide and keep an eye on the monster at the same time. "Nuuuume . . . " she said worriedly. "No weapons, Nume, remember? Nume?"

"Shit." The apparition seemed to make a decision and swooped toward the dark-haired agent. "Shitshitfuckandtits!" Nume lobbed the book at it, but since he was using his right hand he was wildly off-target and only just managed to dodge, tumbling hard to the ground and rolling away with a grunt. The wraith banked and headed back toward Suicide, who had struck one of the trees headfirst and slumped at its base, unmoving.

Seeing it heading towards her partner, Diocletian let out a high-pitched, panicky war cry and dived towards the thing. "The power of Tolkien comp—ooof!" One shadowy limb thudded hard into her gut, knocking her wind out. Diocletian collapsed like a house of cards, wheezing and clutching her stomach.

In desperation, Nume lurched painfully back to his feet and shouted at the ficubus. "Hey!" He threw a stick at it, again missing embarrassingly even for someone using his off-hand—there was a reason he didn't carry any real weapons, after all. The wraith hissed, almost as though it were laughing. Nume kept after it, intending to tackle the damn thing if he had to. "Let's see how you feel about the local pantheon. 'There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones'—"

The shadowy apparition didn't like it much. It turned and slammed Nume back to the ground, leering down at him as though considering a snack before dinner. Nume looked death in the face and quoted canon at it. "'And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was'—oh Jesus—!" At the last second he closed his eyes.

There was an odd pounding, and a swish, and the air was rent with an eldritch scream. It seemed to say, "I will use flamers to cook my omelett!" and then it was gone.

After a moment of definitely not being dead, Nume cracked his eyes open and raised his head. There was no sign of the ficubus; instead, a startlingly blue Ilraen dropped to all four knees beside him. The Andalite panted heavily and his eyes were bloodshot and not quite focused, but he was there, and the ficubus was not.

<I realized I was the only one of us who is armed.> He touched his tail-blade as though surprised it was still there. <I am so sorry—I should have been here sooner. If I had not—>

Nume let his head fall back to the ground. "Damn it, Ilraen. You just saved my ass. Shut up with the guilt." Ilraen shut up, so Nume pushed himself upright and called out to the others. "You guys alive?"

Diocletian was on her hands and knees, still wheezing. "Andalites like human food, right?" she managed. "Come by our RC sometime. I swear to Eru that we will feed you into unconsciousness."

With an effort, she got to her feet and stumbled to the edge of the clearing, where the crumpled form of her partner lay. His eyes were open now, staring up at the sky, but he didn't move: for a moment, Diocletian feared the worst. Then the eyes flicked towards her. "Hi."

"Hi," Diocletian said, wondering where this was going.

"Nice night."

"It is, isn't it? Is that a new head wound?"

"Oh, this old thing? No, I've had it for a while. The concussion is new, though." Suicide's eyes crossed briefly. "I think I can hear colors."

Diocletian was about to pat her battered partner on the head, but changed her mind and switched to the shoulder. "Don't worry, Dr. Fitzgerald has pills for that. C'mon, up you get."

"That was something, wasn't it?"

"Yeah. Sure explains why the universe thought he was a barrow-wight." She hitched an arm under Suicide's shoulders and heaved, trying to pull him up. That didn't go so well.

" . . . Maybe it's just me," Suicide observed calmly as he fought his third losing battle with gravity, "but has the world not changed back yet? Everything still feels thin and stretched. Like bullshit scraped over too much board."

"Er—something like that, I suppose," Diocletian hazarded, rearranging her grip on Suicide and finally managing to get him upright. "There's still a lot of noncanon stuff hanging around, and I bet at least one of the canons will need neuralyzing." With some effort, she managed to haul her dazed partner back to where Nume and Ilraen were now standing. Suicide's eyes bugged out at the sight of the Andalite.

"Dio, is there a blue—"

"Yes."

"Damn. I thought this concussion was about to get entertaining."

"In reference to the bullshit," Nume said, "first of all, we've had enough horrible paraphrasing for one mission, thanks. Second . . . I concur." He took a moment to scrub at his face. "I'll hazard that the Fellowship still thinks Archir's hanging around in Lothlórien. We'll have to disabuse them of that notion."

"And we still have Bad End to take care of," Diocletian added, glancing at the Words. "It looks like there might be an extra Lonely Mountain to take care of, too, though if we're lucky an error made so close to the time of the ficubus' death will have reversed itself naturally. Drink your absinthe, Su, you'll feel fine in a couple of minutes."

"That actually strikes me as a terrible idea for someone whose brain is already not firing on all cylinders. But then again, if anyone believed that, alcohol wouldn't be nearly so popular. Ilraen, where's our bag?"

<I left it in the trees. It is safe.>

"Good." Nume strode away and came back after a minute with the bag over his shoulder, the DORKS (a tangle of Christmas lights) in hand. "Here you go." He switched Ilraen back to his elven guise and put the device (prrrp—a stapler) away, then squinted at the Words. They were hazy and faded out in places, but still very much there. "It looks like . . . damn, this is uncomfortable . . . it looks like Gandalf turns up a few days later—on Shadowfax, for some screwy reason. We might be able to grab him first."

"Shouldn't be too hard," Diocletian said as Suicide finished the flask. "I swear that Ar—" The world gave another groan, and she coughed. "—that the ficubus was feeding on him right from the start. I'm not surprised he didn't fall into shadow; it hadn't finished zombifying him yet. I say we just throw a bag over his head."

Nume raised an eyebrow. "Got a bag?"

Diocletian turned her equipment rucksack upside-down and dumped it onto the ground. "There. Bag. Let's go grab him and get out of here."

The tall agent stared down at the alarming amount of uncanon littering the ground and very nearly had a facial tic, but he shrugged it off and managed to dial up a portal one-handed. "Fine. We'll grab. You two" —he gestured at Ilraen and Suicide— "stay here and don't die. Too much paperwork."

Nume and Diocletian jumped ahead a few days, to when "a white angelic king of all horses ... Lord of horses and chief of Meras" bore Gandalf into Lothlórien.

"Gwaihir was out of the office on holiday, apparently," Nume said. "I got the mini. Have fun with pedo!Gandalf."

Diocletian frowned at him, double-checked the Sue-tracking bracelet on her ankle (now masquerading as a strip of colored leather) and then shinnied up a nearby tree.

Gandalf rode slowly, a blank look in his eyes. There was a rustle of leaves, a muffled thud, an offended neigh from Shadowfax, and inexplicably, the sound of plates breaking. Diocletian and possessed!Gandalf ended up in a dusty heap on the forest floor, Diocletian's rucksack over Gandalf's head and Shadowfax's hoof planted firmly on Diocletian's solar plexus.

"Ow," Diocletian said intelligently. "Um. I had a reason?"

Shadowfax gave her the stink-eye that only a thousand-pound animal with very large teeth can give, but after a moment's consideration, reluctantly let her up. As she clambered to her feet the horse nosed worriedly at Gandalf, who hadn't budged since landing in the dirt. Rubbing her bruised chest with one hand, Diocletian fished one final litmus strip out of her belt pouch and waved it carefully. The strip turned into a pumpkin.

" . . . Yeah," she said. Gandalf still hadn't budged, so she put her hands under his arms (silently apologizing to Eru as she did so) and hauled him to his feet just like she had Suicide. "I'm sorry, Mithrandir. We'll get you fixed up right away."

Meanwhile, Nume managed to herd the skittish mini-Balrog Meras through a portal to Headquarters. Only slightly winded, he jogged toward Diocletian and eyed her vapid captive. "Think our partners can keep an eye on him while we grab the others? I figure Aragorn and Elrond had better come along, too."

"Yeah, I'm sure the alien and the concussed loon can watch the catatonic guy," Diocletian said. She carefully towed Gandalf back towards Nume. " . . . That wasn't meant to be as sarcastic as it sounded. Should they go to Fitzgerald or FicPsych?"

"They're not hurt. It'll have to be FicPsych. Hell, I might leave Ilraen there, too." He quickly rerouted the portal back to the clearing.

"You're not," Diocletian said firmly. "We have to feed him first. C'mon, Mithrandir, through the big glowy door . . . ."

The capture of Aragorn and Elrond went more or less along the same lines, although Diocletian nearly dropped a sword on her foot and Nume suffered a slight bruise when Aragorn fell on him. Soon both dazed and confused canons were herded through a portal to the clearing, where Ilraen kept an eye on things. Sadly for the canons, he was not having a difficult time. He had apparently found the opportunity to repack the contents of Diocletian's duffel into Suicide's backpack.

Diocletian patted her still-woozy partner on the head absentmindedly, as if for good luck, and glanced at the Words.

"Bad End?" she said to Nume.

"Bad End." He scratched the back of his neck. "This is going to be really bad or really anticlimactic, I can't tell."

Opening one more portal, all four agents and three canons jumped (or were propelled) straight into the heart of the Shire. It was just turning evening, and the grass was cool and green underfoot, the sky tinged with violet, the hobbit hole . . . .

"I'm gonna go with bad," Diocletian said after a moment's pause. "Big, big bad."

Instead of Bag End, a bizarre thing had its head stuck out of a hole in the hillside. Its black fur was coated with grass clippings to help give it the appearance of the green hill, and its gigantic mouth was wide open, displaying a door-sized mouthful of interlocking sharp teeth. Some thoughtful party had crudely painted a green door onto the teeth; the drool rather spoiled the effect. From behind tasteful curtains, malevolent red eyes peered at them. It was indeed a bad.

"Huh," Suicide said.

"That's big," Ilraen added.

"That's really big," Nume finished. He was disappointed to note that nobody recognized the quote.

Suicide cocked his head, looking at him out of his good eye. "That's no moon?"

"'That's a budong'. They did that joke, actually, yes."

Diocletian, recognizing a word that Suicide could not possibly leave alone no matter how concussed he was, hastily intervened. "Does Headquarters have a wrangling department?" she said, carefully approaching Bad End on the balls of her feet. The curtain-eyelids flickered, and she stopped. "Eyes looking a bit glazed there, big fella . . . . Anyone have a working CAD?"

"Electromagnetic candy," Nume mumbled to himself, pulling the borrowed Canon Analysis Device out of the messenger bag. He had chosen it for its tough-looking chassis, and indeed it looked to have been reinforced with spot-welding in places. It would have to do. He pointed it at the bad.

It hissed and fizzed a bit, and Nume got ready to drop it and run, but finally it produced a message. [Bad End, Hobbiton. / Uncanon for sure, my friend. / To sum up, hell no.] And it went black.

"Well, that's not helpful." Nume slapped it against his thigh, to absolutely no response. "A CAD that does haiku? Really lame haiku? God damn it, DoSAT."

"We have to get this thing out of here," Diocletian said. There was a guttural rumble from Bad End. "Nonviolently," she added hastily. The hill subsided somewhat as the bad relaxed again. "Nume, do you still have that book?"

"Yeah." With determination, he tucked the CAD away and brought forth The Silmarillion, and stalked toward the bad. "Begone, creature of foul writing! Leave this canon place and trouble it no more!"

The bad looked like it was about to protest—as much as a furry version of a sand worm can protest—but Nume had been through a lot in the last twelve hours or so and it knew it wasn't going to win this one. With a guttural rumble it squeezed forward, emerging from the hill in a shower of earth. The canon flickered as it withdrew, and Bag End phased into existence, filling in the gap left by the bad's removal. It sneezed, spraying the PPC agents with dust, and regarded them balefully with its glowing red eyes.

"They are going to love you at Headquarters," Diocletian said happily, eyeing its three-foot-long teeth. "We finally have an extracanonical monster to feed Sues to! Too bad Jay Thorntree isn't with us any more, she'd love you . . . ." Getting an idea, she rounded on Suicide. "Can we keep him?"

"Sure, do whatever you want," Suicide mumbled.

Diocletian frowned. "You're just saying that because you're brain-damaged."

"Prolly. But you'll have to take it up with Mithiriel too, remember?"

" . . . Never mind." Diocletian sighed and turned back to the bad. "We'll find you a home, big fella. Maybe Otik can use a friend? In the meantime, I think I've got . . . hang on . . . ." After a moment's rummaging in Suicide's backpack, she produced a small plastic ziplock bag. "In you go."

"Is that—?"

"Baggie of Holding. Don't ask." The bad shuffled into the baggie, which expanded to accommodate it and then shrank back to the size of a sandwich, contents included. Diocletian carefully tucked it into the backpack before continuing.

"That just leaves—" another glance at the Words "—the Wall of Mazarbaaargh? Hate to destroy it, but it's not exactly the most practical of souvenirs. Even if it DOES have psychic powers."

Suicide blinked sleepily, rubbing his good eye. "Do you think that talking wall thingy at the Official Fanfiction University of Middle-earth would like a friend? The watcha—the Witch-Wall?"

"Tell me you're kidding."

"Does this face kid? No, wait, don't answer that. But what's the worst that it could do?"

"I—"

"Don't answer that either."

Diocletian sighed. "Witch-Wall it is." She glanced over at Nume, who'd been watching the whole bizarre exchange with a mixture of bemusement, bafflement, and straight-up irritation. That particular expression was growing to be very familiar. "What next, chief?"

"Get your wall taken care of, then get back here so we can leave." Frustrated by the limitations of being effectively one-handed, he shoved the RA at her rather more aggressively than necessary. Or he might just have misjudged the distance.

It only took a moment to portal to Moria and throw a quick transport field around the psychic wall. Then Diocletian opened another portal to one of OFUM's bathrooms and stuck her head through—carefully, since even ex-Sues tended not to get the kindest reception at that particular institution. Fortunately, there was nobody in her area of vision but the Witch-Wall, who couldn't have left if he wanted to. He was perusing an IKEA catalogue and seemed to be spending an awful lot of time staring at a luxurious full-color spread on stone-texture treatments.

"Brought you a friend!" Diocletian called out as the Wall of Mazarbaaargh phased into existence opposite him. Then she vanished, leaving the Witch-Wall staring at his new bathroom buddy.

"So . . . come here often?"

Post-Mission

One final portal brought the bedraggled lot into the lobby of FicPsych. From beneath the sign of the multiple exclamation points, the nurses' station overlooked the entrance and the intersection of Section 31's various corridors. The nurse on duty, a woman with a brown braid and a white jacket, stared intently at whatever there was to look at in there and did not immediately raise her head.

Nume's eyes, sitting behind green glasses again now that they were back in Headquarters, went wide. "Oh, Christ. Just my luck." He turned and made a bid for escape, but the canon characters barred the way and were too stupefied to move.

Diocletian gave him a Raised Eyebrow of Being Too Tired for this Shit. "What's up your butt all of a sudden?"

"That's Jenni Robinson, possibly the worst busybody the multiverse has ever seen. I do not need this right now." He tried another way, but came up firmly against Ilraen's tail.

<I think we should stay,> the Andalite said. <There are things we should discuss.>

At that point, Jenni stood up and got a good look at them. It was impossible not to recognize the large blue centaur-alien. "Hey, Ilraen! I'll be with you guys in just a second." She crouched down and tapped at the station's computer, triggering a delicate musical chime that, to the initiated, translated to "Whoever's closest, hurry the hell to the lobby right now, por favor," and then gathered up the necessary paperwork.

Nume grabbed Suicide's sleeve and spoke with utmost seriousness. "Listen to me. Don't tell her anything. This woman is deviousness incarnate. She may twist your words. Beware!"

The concussed man only grinned in the general direction of the nurse—he was off by a couple of degrees, but close enough. "She's smoking hot, though. Green eyes. I like green eyes."

Nume appeared horrified. "No, she isn't! She has clutches, and she will snare you in them, and your soul will never be your own again!"

"What, that old thing?" The Scythian shrugged. "Haven't had much use for it lately. Could be worth it."

"Shit, it's too late."

Jenni, who had overheard everything, now approached them with a clipboard and pen in hand. Her trained eyes took in the canons first, and then swept over the agents, lighting on Suicide's bruised jaw and Nume's wrapped-up left hand. "Nice to see you again, too, Nume. I can see you've been going out of your way to make new friends, even to an extent I might call out of character for you. Should I prepare a special room?" She grinned.

The tall agent sighed. "I don't suppose there's any chance you'll take the canons and leave me alone? You know, do your actual job?"

"Nume, the Kudzu specifically gave me your file years ago. You are my job. Anyway, with a display like that, you're practically begging me to take an interest. First, though, somebody's gonna have to fill out these forms."

Nume, the semi-official mission leader, got to check off boxes and sign the deposit paperwork with his off-hand, resulting in a barely legible scrawl and giving Jenni far too much time to eyeball his injuries.

"You really have to stop hurting your hands," she remarked. "Honestly, I think all four of you had better come with me. Just as soon as—ah, Alex, good timing. Can you handle getting the three canons into beds until someone else comes along?"

"I think so, Nurse Jenni," said Alex, a young blond man with glasses, whose every affect screamed "newbie keenness." His uniform even appeared to have been ironed. "Should I put them in the same room?"

Jenni flipped through the clipboard. Her eyes widened. "Jeez. Yeah, they should be fine together; just don't let them near anyone under four feet tall. Go ahead, then get Nath or somebody."

Alex nodded and took the clipboard from her, then started as though he'd been bricked and turned to the four agents. "I'm so sorry. It won't be easy," he said vaguely, then nudged, tugged, and otherwise encouraged the canons down a hallway.

<Is that usual?> Ilraen wondered uneasily, speaking for all of them.

Jenni rolled her eyes. "New intern; he got kicked out of his home 'verse by his author, poor guy. He gets 'visions'," she air-quoted, "but they're mostly useless around here. I wouldn't worry about it. I am worried about you," she said to Suicide, who was now listing slightly to one side.

Jenni apparently had the gift of clairvoyance, because at that moment, Suicide's sense of balance decided it had had enough. The Greek's knees buckled, and he slid off Diocletian's supporting arm, collapsing like a ragdoll. Jenni leaped into action, catching the falling man just in time to prevent him cracking his head open on the tiles. Unfortunately, his weight was too much for her to support, and they both wound up sprawled on the floor with her supporting his head and shoulders in her lap.

Suicide grinned dazedly up at her. "Nice catch. You can pick me up any time, nurse."

Jenni smiled back with a mixture of sympathy and something not entirely appropriate for the workplace. Suicide, it had to be said, wasn't bad-looking, even with the bruises on his face. "Tell you what, honey: come back when you can see straight, and we'll see what happens." Nume groaned, and she pinned him with a look. "Since you're here now, though, it would help if you told me where all these hurts came from. Because it looks like you two beat the crap out of each other, but Nume doesn't hit people. Or does he?"

Nume glared at her. "Don't think you can bait me just by using the third person at me."

"Oh, lighten up, junior." Suicide struggled to sit up, but his head reeled, and he slumped back into Jenni's arms. How much of this was intentional was never mentioned. "You know Nume, do you? You'd be surprised . . . ow . . . what he gets up to when you're not around."

"I don't 'get up to' anything, and if I did it wouldn't be anyone else's business," Nume snapped. This resulted in unimpressed looks from everyone. He subsided without dignity. "Fine. I socked him, but I didn't concuss him; that was the fic's fault. This is my reward." He waved his bandaged hand at Jenni. "Are you happy? Can I leave?"

<I think you should let Jenni look at that,> Ilraen said.

"I concur," the nurse said, leaving Nume to mutter impotently about conspiracies. Irrespective of him, she brushed gently at Suicide's long hair. "You at least should be under observation. And what about the rest of you?"

"I think Ilraen and I are fine," Diocletian said cautiously. "Little bruised, but that's hardly unusual."

Ilraen nodded. <I am not badly hurt. I would like to talk, but I can come back another time. If it is all right, I would also like to visit young Henry.>

"Sure, Ilraen." Jenni peered up at him. She could see the strain in his face, but his main eyes focused on Nume. "You guys really went through a wringer, huh? Well, don't worry. I'll take care of your partner, too, even if he is being more of a jerk than usual."

The Andalite nodded again, this time taking his leave, and departed for the Nursery.

"Don't be too hard on 'im," Suicide mumbled, blinking dozily. "I did kinda try to piss him off. He just . . . wasn't . . . laughing." His eyes crossed briefly. "Damn, that light up there is bright . . . but yeah. Shouldn't have goaded 'im into punching me . . . how was I supposed to know he couldn't throw a left hook?"

"It's not like the mission was a cakewalk, either," Nume said, arms once again folded defensively. "All that . . . lap-sitting, and neck-sniffing." He shuddered. "Shouldn't have let it get to me, though."

At that, Suicide tried to sit up again. This time, he almost made it. "So," he said, bracing himself against Jenni's arm while he tried to stop the room from spinning, "you do agree that the lap-sitting was creepy? 'Cause it didn't look like it bugged you, but that sure as hell got to me."

Nume looked at him. "Absolutely, it bugged me. You lectured at me for not enjoying myself, for Christ's sake. I didn't think you had a problem. And . . . everything else," he finished with a mistrustful look at Jenni, who was wearing her "yes, but tell me how it makes you feel" face.

"Of course I had a problem. I had a problem when I found out the Persians used Leonidas' damn head for a football, but I didn't say it. You have to laugh or you go under." Suicide sagged against Jenni. "Ai Na'an . . . I'm having a civilized conversation with someone I don't like while being held by an extraordinarily beautiful woman. I think this is finally my death scene. Dio, can I have my lampshade, please?"

"Nobody's dying on my watch," said Jenni, laying a protective hand over his chest. "Anyway, I get it now. Nume's a prude, you're Greek, and even I know better than to stick my nose in any deeper. So, come on. I can at least make sure you didn't damage yourselves permanently."

"You know, they have a whole department for that," Nume said. "I'll try them for a change. It's not that I don't trust your medical skills, it's just that I'm leaving now."

To emphasize the point, he turned on his heel and headed for the door. With a worried glance at her partner, who was now dazedly following the progress of lights only he could see, Diocletian gathered up her things and followed him.

Then:

"Oh my Eru. Harry! Bill!"

Before Nume could stop her, Diocletian turned a rucksack (Suicide's, this time) upside-down in the middle of the FicPsych lobby and began pawing through the mess. "Where is it?" she muttered to herself. "Where is it? Oh Eru, we're so dead . . . where did I put it?"

She yanked the Baggie of Holding out of the pile. From within it, the now-gerbil-sized Bad End glowered malevolently at Nume, its little glowing red eyes standing out against its plush black fur. It was cute. For about two seconds. Then Diocletian opened the bag, and whoompf.

"Bad End, I choose—urk—" Her words were muffled by a mouthful of fur. Chairs went flying, a magazine rack exploded, and two walls snapped like Melba toast as the gigantic form of Bad End experienced a spontaneous, five thousand and twenty percent growth rate.

As its head thrust into the nurses' station, foot-long teeth parted, and it gave a noise something along the lines of "urg." Its form convulsed, and two large, slimy masses were deposited on what remained of the desk. Bad End blinked, coughed up a couple of hairballs (or possibly cats), and settled down in the ruins of the lobby to go to sleep . . . leaving a very confused, and saliva-covered, Harry Potter and Bill the Pony to assess their surroundings.

Nume grinned. Everyone else was on the opposite side of the bad from him. He was nearest to the door. He waved. "Sorry about the mess!"

Neshomeh's Notes

Oh my ever-loving Eru, this fic must be read to be believed. We only got through about a quarter of it, so proceed with caution: "Ring Child" by Xx_Kiamii_xX. The badness is funny at first, but as you've seen, it sneaks up on you in the worst ways. O.o;

I'd like to thank my wonderful co-writer, Tungsten Monk, for enduring it with me. Her agents kick ass, and writing opposite her is a ton of fun. If you haven't read her spin-off yet, what are you still doing here? Go! But we'll be back. This is all leading up to something. Something evil . . . .

To address what may or may not be a burning question: yes, Makes-Things. All I have to say on the matter is this: Did you see him die "on-screen"? For all it was talked about, did you ever see a first-hand observation of a corpse? I didn't. Under these circumstances, the Narrative Laws dictate a certain outcome. This has been coming for a long time.

Tungsten's Notes: Phew! This was a long'un, and surprisingly difficult once we got into the thick of it. I'd like to thank Neshomeh for letting me play alongside her amazing agents during Su and Dio's first outing in a long time, and I'd also like to apologize to everyone for what happened with the goblins in Moria. (THIS is why spellcheck is important, folks.) Thanks also to DigitalSocrates and PoorCynic for the beta work and feedback.

This thing took over eighty days to write, but it was a great experience. In a slightly creepy, argumentative, goblin-involving way.