The Adventure Begins With One Step
Summary:In which Gall returns to make Derik's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day even worse.
Source:"The Adventure Begins" (deleted) and "With one Step" by FaerieForged (formerly DragonridingDunedain225).
Continuum:Lord of the Rings.
Timeline:March; between "One Tech's Nightmare" and "Recruitment: Team Blast Hardcheese."
Published:October 20, 2012.
Rating:PG-13/T - Homicidal maniacs don't play well with others.
Betas:Irish Samurai, Lily Winterwood, and KittyNoodles.

Derik lay splayed out on the floor in the middle of his response center, barefoot, bare-chested, and barely decent. He was surrounded by various small, empty bottles of alcoholic substances purloined during his first mission. A melange of sweat and booze soured the air. His boots and flight jacket hung suspended by mini-Aragog silk from the ceiling, and it appeared that the mini had made a start on stealing his trousers, too, before being interrupted.

Gall Knutson, a stocky young Viking woman with blue eyes and a fat, dark red braid, stared at the scene from the doorway and folded her arms. "I don't believe this. Hey," she called. "Hey! Wake up! Fellrazer, wake him up," she ordered the blue dragon at her heels, then went back to shouting. "Hey! You know you have a mission report here? Jeez, I can't believe this is our first assignment. What a total let-down."

"Uh?" Derik shuddered into consciousness with a set of very sharp talons pricking his chest and an evil-looking pair of yellow eyes staring at him down a long, grinning maw full of fangs. Imagine being awakened by a cat an inch from your face at five a.m., only the size of a Great Dane and with breath like Yellowstone Park's armpit, and you'll have some idea of how Derik felt right then. Add a pounding headache and a mouth that might have been stuffed with Yellowstone's armpit hair for a more complete impression. Derik groaned and covered his face with his right hand while blindly fumbling for a good place to shove the blue dragon with the other, but failed to make contact. He gave up his infantile gestures and settled for putting the left hand over his face, too.

The Monstrous Nightmare (Now Travel-Sized for Your Convenience) watched the man's roving arm with something like pity and turned to his mistress for orders.

"I thought you were better than this, one-eye," Gall addressed the man with a shake of her head. "Fellrazer, you might as well move."

The dragon stepped away to explore the response center, beginning with a mini-Balrog's fireproof nest in the corner behind the console. The owner, Arasgorn, was nowhere to be seen, but the charred remains of a hat fashioned from a shirt and belt poked out from beneath hastily drawn flame-resistant blankets.

Derik relaxed with the removal of the dragon's claws. "What are you doing here?" he mumbled through his palms. "This is an extremely bad time."

The Viking woman snorted. "I love dropping in on hungover wussy men. It's a hobby of mine. Thor's big toenail, can't people hold their drink where you come from? This doesn't look like enough to knock out your midget friend, let alone a guy with pecs the size of yours." A note of admiration crept into her voice in the last clause.

Derik didn't notice. "Hey. That's slander." The Harper-trained man waved his hand accusingly in the direction he thought Gall might be in. "My Hall produced some of the greatest drinkers in Pernese history, so shut up. And I started at the thing, you know. There's a word for it—we don't have them. Pub."

He let his hand fall to his side, and he encountered his pants on the way. Now awake enough to notice that they were sitting around his hips, unlaced and a couple inches south of where they were supposed to be, he risked peeking out from under his other hand to check. He grimaced at his state of undress and sat up to glare painfully around the room, mentally gathering his missing articles, until he spotted Severe.

Said mini-Aragog huddled in his high, cobwebbed corner of the room, the very picture of arachnoid innocence.

Derik made a sweeping, disparaging gesture in his direction. "Thank you very much. What a wonderful companion you are, looking out for my interests like this. Filthy crawler."

Severe hissed in rejoinder. "Nasssty agentses ignore consoles, they does. Not good agentses, precious."

Fellrazer, who had settled on Derik's cot and appeared quite at home, snorted at the mini, as though to invite him to come down here and say that if he was so tough.

"Speaking of which, where is that pipsqueak partner of yours?" Gall folded her arms and looked around as though Earwig might pop out from some hidden corner at any moment.

Derik lurched to his feet, doing his best to keep his pants on while cringing at a surge of nausea and renewed pain beating on his eyeballs. Just because one of them was blind didn't mean it couldn't still hurt, and it did so with gusto. "That faithless wretch," he enunciated, standing very still, "ran out on me a month or so ago. Something about an exchange program—of course, he told me nothing of this. I found out after he'd already been missing for weeks and I'd about lost my mind worrying for him. I don't envy whoever's been landed with him now." He reached up for one of his boots, winced, and thought better of it. "Listen, if you're going to stand there, hit the light switch. I don't suppose they have willow salic where you come from?"

"Never heard of it." She did turn out the light, leaving only the cool glow of the console to see by. "So, what, you've just been drowning your sorrows all this time? That's sad." This was an expression of scorn, not sympathy.

"No, I haven't," he growled, yanking his things down from the ceiling. The cobwebs clung on and stuck to his hands and arms. Trying to pluck them away only ensnared his fingers, too. "I told you, it's a bad time—and if the insect is to be believed, my console beeped while I was away, so I have work to do. Come back later." He shook his hand violently in a desperate attempt to lose the cobwebs. They didn't budge.

Severe snickered to himself.

"Sorry, no can do," Gall said. "Fellrazer and I've been assigned to you for training, though at this point I think I'll be the one doing all the work." She paced the narrow space between the door and the console, the small bones adorning her armor clicking in time with her steps. "This totally bites. I thought you were cool, you know? A bit mental, but like, badass. I thought we were gonna kick Sue butt, but not if we have to carry your hungover carcass through the whole mission. Argh!" She kicked the wall, raising a hiss from Severe, a growl from Fellrazer, and a curse from Derik.

"Are you finished?" The man gave her a sour look.

She glared back in answer.

"Good. I'm taking a shower and the first thing I find that looks like an analgesic. Then we're leaving. Just the two of us, mind you—I may not have a say in this assignment, but I do have a say about this. Unless we happen to be going someplace with dragons, you're not bringing him." He gestured at Fellrazer with a fresh shirt and trousers pulled from a trunk at the end of his cot, then vanished into the bathroom.

Notwithstanding, Gall shouted "We'll see about that!" at his back and satisfied herself with hearing him curse at the volume.

Fifteen minutes later, he emerged looking and smelling several times fresher. He had also discovered a bottle of ibuprofen in a cabinet, so between that and the water he'd taken with it, he hoped to feel better soon, assuming he didn't throw up. However, a renewed look at the state of the RC plunged his mood back into the red. Possibly the worst of it was Gall sitting on his cot with Fellrazer and grinning like the boy who ate the bubbly pie.

"Comfortable?" he asked. "Feeling right at home?" He threw his towel and old clothes at a hamper and ran a comb through his tousled black hair. It was longer than he used to wear it, and he hadn't bothered shaving in a few days. The stubble came in sparsely on the right side, giving him a mangy appearance. He didn't care.

Gall bounced experimentally and made a face at the squeak of the old, rusty springs. "Actually, I have no idea how you can sleep on something like this. Fellrazer seems to like it, though. Hey, if your partner's not using the other one, d'ya think we—?"

"No. Are you ready to leave? Do you have gear?" He pulled on his jacket (still hung with bits of spider-silk) and backpack. He didn't have to worry about anything mysteriously going missing from it anymore. The thought was not as comforting as it should have been.

"Well, no, not really. See, that's part of this training thing. I get my own equipment if I prove myself reliable in the field or whatever. I got my mace, though." She patted the handle of the weapon that hung at her hip. "And Fellrazer." The smug grin returned to her face. "You know how you said 'unless we're going someplace with dragons'?"

Derik looked up from lacing his boots. "That wasn't—I didn't—" He gritted his teeth. The universe was officially out to make his continued existence a misery. "Where?"

"Little old place called Middle-earth. I've taken the liberty of preparing disguises for all three of us, so don't worry your poor sore head about it." She got up and sashayed to the console, opening a portal before Derik could form his rage into appropriately scathing words. Fellrazer swooped through at a gesture from Gall. "Oops, off he goes. Guess I'd better make sure he doesn't burn down Rivendell!" With a triumphant cackle, she dodged a grab from the depth perception–challenged man and skipped through herself.

Derik picked up his sledgehammer from its place against the wall and went after them.

He emerged in the Word World and was relieved to find it dark, with only a high moon and stars lighting the scene. Quickly taking stock of himself, he noted that his disguise came with long, pale hair and light mail armor. He stood near a vaguely defined stream with a bridge across it; on the other side, he could make out a lighted window. The building it sat in was vague, as though obscured by mist, but recognizably Rivendell-shaped. Near the bridge, he could see two upright Elven guards on the Rivendell side. What they had to guard against over there, Derik couldn't guess. On his side of the bridge, and of more interest, was the crouching figure of a young warrior woman with a horse standing beside her.

He recognized Gall right away, but it took him a moment to understand that the horse had to be Fellrazer. Since he had been expecting to find the likes of Smaug, he was relieved that Gall had shown some sense in the matter of her dragon's disguise, but this did not make him less angry. She'd played him for a fool. He stalked forward with the intent to grab her by the braid and give her a good shake, but Fellrazer sensed him and stepped over her with a warning snort.

Derik dropped to one knee by the other side of the causeway. "That was a dirty trick, Gall," he whispered. His head was pounding again to the beat of his quickened pulse, and he grimaced. "I'll not forget it."

"Jeez, relax, old man," she hissed back. "I'm not stupid. And I thought you'd appreciate the disguises. We're Riders of Rohan. Get it? Riders?" She waited for a response.

There was none.

She scowled. "You're so lame. Fine, don't laugh. The freak is coming through here soon—just let me get ready so I can ditch you and her both." She gestured for Fellrazer the Horse to lie down. It was impossible to tell his color, but whatever it was blended in well with the dimly lighted background.

"Are you crazy? We have to collect charges first! Didn't they tell you anything?"

"I like a more direct approach!"

"Don't make me come over there, girl!"

"What are you, my father? You gonna spank me and tell me I'm a bad, naughty agent?" She pouted through the last words, then actually fell over holding herself against laughing too loud.

"Don't tempt me," Derik growled, earning himself a skeptical eyeballing from Fellrazer.

Gall recovered enough to speak again. "Okay, okay, I won't kill the freak. Promise! But that doesn't mean you can stop me from having fun with her. Don't mess this up for me. Write charges if you're so concerned about them."

Out of energy for argument, Derik made himself as comfortable as possible (read: not very) against the stone end-post of the bridge and took his first look at the Words. Immediately, he was obliged to fish his notebook and pen out of an easily reached pocket of the backpack and start writing. "Great, another one who can't even keep her own story straight."

The Sue, who was named Vanya and was either fifteen or seventeen, depending on which line one believed, was in the process of finishing a letter to her grandfather, Elrond. Her room was the one with the window visible across the stream, but she didn't stay there long once the ink dried: she was running away to "go out and find my father, Aragorn. I wish to become one of the Dunedain, like he is." Elrond was not to worry about her, though, because "if no one here can best me at the sword, then no one out there can either."

Derik frowned. "Gall, how much do you know about this 'verse?"

"They tried to make me read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Way too much work. So then they made me listen to the audio books."

"Fine. So you know that a teenager claiming to be the best sword-fighter in Rivendell is patently ridiculous. And, wait—if Elrond is her grandfather and Aragorn is her father, is Arwen her mother? When does this take place?" He turned back to the Words.

Gall shrugged. "It gets better. I read the first two chapters while you were in the shower."

"I am less than thrilled that you're the only one who saw the mission report, for the record," he informed her as he skimmed along. Before she could respond, his eyes went wide. "You can't do that in just an hour!"

If she was going to become a Dunedain, she could not wear an Elven dress. She trotted over to a large chest in the back corner of the room. Inside there were the clothes her father wore, Ranger's clothes. She held up some of the pieces and frowned.

"Too big," She said. "I must fix that." She found a sewing kit, used for emergency repairs. An hour later she had three outfits fitted to her frame.

"Told you," Gall said with a chuckle, tying a piece of fine rope to Fellrazer's saddle. She signaled for the dragon-turned-horse to stay put and shuffled across to Derik's side of the causeway, letting the rope play out after her. "I would have liked to watch that, but no way she wouldn't have noticed us in there at this time of night."

"I'm fairly certain a runnerbeast indoors wouldn't go unnoticed in daylight, either."

"Oh, shut up. No, seriously, be quiet—she's coming."

The two guards on the bridge walked away, because changing the guard sensibly by having the relief arrive before the old guards left their posts would have been inconvenient to the plot. Vanya came out of hiding and mounted "Ryersen," the horse she'd stolen from Rivendell's stables—the fastest and strongest, of course. She took One Last Look back at Rivendell, and galloped over the bridge.

Gall gleefully pulled the rope taut. Derik prepared for disaster, but they had both underestimated the intelligence of Elven steeds, even ones with silly names: Ryersen easily passed over it without missing a step and carried his rider away into the next chapter, leaving the agents behind with the drone of an author's note in their ears.

"Aw, son of a whore!" Gall cursed, no longer troubling to keep her voice down.

Derik slapped her with his notebook.

"Ow! What gives?"

"Conscientiousness," he grated, one hand pressed to his head. "Learn it."

"Come on, I can't even pronounce that. Anyway, it's not my fault you got yourself plastered." She got up to re-coil her rope. "Or that you didn't look at your own mission report. It was dated March 11, HST," she recited, "which I'm reliably informed means yesterday."

"Did your reliable informant tell you what that day is to me?" Derik struggled back to his feet, feeling at least twice as heavy as usual, only some of which was due to the extra equipment.

"Nope! Actually, I don't think it was really very reliable, since it was a talking weed."

"Suffice to say it was not a good day. You wouldn't understand, because that would require empathy. There's one person in the place who does, she wasn't available, and I tried the next best thing. Now—"

Gall never heard what now. The ending author's note stopped, and the next chapter picked up. In a normal story, this wouldn't have meant anything, but in this one the three from HQ didn't get a smooth transition to the next scene. Instead, they found themselves in a neutral gray zone with a Punch and Judy–style puppet booth the only thing to differentiate up from down.

Derik lost his battle with his stomach and added some additional décor to the place. It didn't help much.

Gall patted Fellrazer reassuringly, though she kept a tight grip on her mace, and watched as the curtains drew back in the puppet booth.

"Disclaimer!" shouted a disembodied voice, and crudely painted figures with large name tags appeared in the window.

DD: I don't own Lord of the Rings, and I certainly don't own the cold toes at the end of my feet.

Glorfindel: Why don't you put socks on?

DD: I don't feel like moving!

Legolas: first off, there IS a blanket behind you. Second, why am I here?

DD: Well... I need you to fall asleep.

Legolas:... why?

DD: *Hides hott pink hair dye* um... no reason.

Derik squinted up at the show and wiped his mouth. "Glorfindel and Legolas I recognize, but DD?"

"The author. DragonridingDunedain225."


At that time, they dropped back into the narrative, landing on hard and oddly warped Generic Ground.

Gall was no more accustomed to awkward scene shifts and bizarre fic effects than her draconic companion, but at least she had some mechanism for understanding what was going on. Fellrazer only knew that something was very, very wrong, and did his very best to fly away from it like any intelligent dragon would. However, he was currently a horse, so the best he could do was leap, kick, and turn in place, splitting the air with whinnies when he remained bound to the distorted earth.

Gall shouted at him to calm down. This did not help.

Derik was glad that he'd already voided the little that was in his stomach, because it left him free to help manage the panicking animal in their midst. He completely forgot about the author's pen name. The large ex-rider dropped his gear and closed in, disregarding his own safety in favor of a quick end to the problem. He tackled Fellrazer mid-leap, catching the animal around the neck, throwing him off balance and sending them both crashing to the ground. Derik landed on top, and when he didn't go anywhere, Fellrazer stopped thrashing and lay still, sides heaving.

"This," the man said a moment later, muffled by a faceful of mane, "is why bringing pets on missions is against regulations. How do you explain 'everything's okay, Vanya just rode over halfway to Isengard in one morning' to the likes of him?"

For once, Gall had nothing to say. She dropped her mace beside Derik's hammer and backpack and helped him off to the side.

He pulled a canteen out of his pack with quaking hands and drank. In his case, the key to future success was hydration, hydration, hydration.

With the weight on his neck gone, Fellrazer rolled back onto his feet and sneezed. In the light of the setting Sun, his coat was blue roan, without the dark face often seen with that color. He huddled close to Gall now, nearly tipping her over when she stood up to look around.

"So, uh, I guess it takes a lot longer than a morning to ride to Isengard?" she ventured. "'Cause this scenery is reeeally not right. Mountains shouldn't be flat."

"Yeah. Where's Vanya?"

"Hm . . . oh, there she is. She's just staring off into space."

"Check the Words, then. I think my head will burst if I try."

Gall rolled her eyes, but looked. Then she sighed in disappointment. "It's just a stupid flashback about her daddy. She's gonna leave in a minute, so we'd better get ready. Think you can ride without dying in some kind of comically exaggerated way?"

"You can pronounce 'comically exaggerated' but not 'conscientious'?"

"Shut up. Do you need help, or what?"

He didn't, or at least he stubbornly managed without, and they both got on Fellrazer's back by the time the flashback ended.

Vanya opened her eyes from the memory and smiled. Unshed tears still in her eyes.
"Yes father, I have courage." She said. "I will show it to you."

"My courage, let me show you it." Gall snickered to herself and kneed Fellrazer after the departing Sue.

Vanya stopped and made camp again "at the rising of the moon." Given that the time between the Sun setting and the Moon rising is often none (He has to feel like He's catching up sometimes, after all), this made for a very short trip, but she also contrived to arrive in Rohan. Even allowing for a generous margin, starting at "over halfway to Isengard" from Rivendell does not equate to being in Rohan by the next moonrise, so the world folded, taking the Sue and agents with it.

"Okay, old man," Gall panted a minute later, flat on her back where she'd fallen off her disguised dragon. "My head is splitting and I feel like I'm gonna hurl. I feel your pain now. This is what you wanted, right?"

Derik had kept his seat through sheer bloody-minded determination to stop Fellrazer from bolting, but he was a few dozen yards away by the time he succeeded and didn't hear her.

The agents regrouped and resumed stalking Vanya as she searched for Aragorn. Derik ruined his disguise by adding sunglasses to it in an effort to make himself more comfortable, but with only limited success. It was a couple of hours' worth of riding before Vanya spotted a company of Rohirrim in the distance. She crawled under a "bolder," which was like a big rock outlined in black, to hide herself, leaving Ryersen to take shelter in a nearby clump of trees. The agents joined the horse, grateful for the shade and for not moving anymore.

Three riders approached the "bolder," but one, who conveniently turned out to be Aragorn, dismounted and ordered the other two off while he examined the girl's tracks on the ground. Vanya emerged, the dirt that should have clung to her after sitting under a rock falling off in sheets. Derik added "dirt-repellent skin" to the charge list.

Vanya ripped off Arwen's first scene in the movies by sneaking up behind Aragorn—in an open field, no less—and putting a knife to his throat. The agents were spared the trite line that went with the scene, but instead had to sit through a spate of inane banter intended to make Vanya look clever.

"I can go by many names, my proper one you shall learn later, but for now you may call me 'The Huntress.'"
"Tis a strange name you have given." Aragorn replied.

"Now, I have given my name, let me hear yours." Vanya told him.
"Rogan is my name." Aragorn answered after a slight pause.

"The Huntress" didn't take the lie well, but the agents took it worse.

"All right, I'm not a Tolkien scholar like some agents, but even I know Aragorn was never called 'Rogan'," Derik said.

"Yeah. Isn't that a men's hair product?"

"How would you know?"

"The Internet—didn't they tell you about it? Anyway, even if it isn't, it's just the same letters from his real name, which is dumb all by itself. I mean, he is supposed to be in disguise, right? You don't hide someone named Roger by calling him Gregor; you call him Paul or Will."

"Or Thorongil."


Meanwhile, Vanya declared that she had been given orders to hunt Aragorn.

"Who has commanded you to do this?" He asked. Behind the hood, Vanya's bright piercing green eyes flashed menacingly.
"I serve no living man, Ranger!" She stated. With inhuman speed she placed her dagger back in her boot and unsheathed her sword, backing away a few paces from Aragorn.
"I tell you know, Ranger, Defend yourself!"

Gall pulled a double-take as Vanya attacked. "Wait, what? She comes all this way to find her father, lies to him, then contradicts herself, and then attacks him? . . . Granted, I could see me doing that, but I'd at least tell him who I was first. No fun otherwise."

"Witness the Mary Sue in its natural habitat," Derik deadpanned. Apparently he'd encountered David Attenborough films at some point. "Modern theories propose that such aggressive displays are meant to exhibit toughness and 'grrl power', thus winning the respect of said display's intended subject. However, the same behavior in controlled testing scenarios generally results in feelings of skepticism and even anger from the same subjects, and the premise is generally agreed to be wherryteeth."

They watched the fight, which was actually not badly staged for the first minute or so. Vanya and Aragorn swung and parried back and forth, each giving as good as they got, with only a few impractical flourishes.

It got weird when they both jumped up on the "bolder," since the size of it had never been specified: it shifted and flowed under their feet, and they constantly teetered on the verge of falling off as they struck at each other. Plus, the hole Vanya had hidden in earlier was underneath it, and it wobbled. Aragorn finally took one step too far back and had to jump down, pursued by Vanya.

She brought her sword down in front of him, knowing full well he would block. He did just as she expected. She kept her sword coming down and its point landed square in the blood grove on the flat of his blade. She used this leverage to vault herself up and over him. She spun in the air and landed on the guard of her sword. She clasped it in her feet and vaulted off, twisting it as she flew through the air. Aragorn bent back to avoid the point. She transferred the sword back to her hands as she landed.

Gall looked over her shoulder at Derik to make sure that he had just seen the same thing. Fellrazer even shot an accusative look at Ryersen, who just whickered as if to say he couldn't be accountable for the actions of two-leggers.

"Right," Derik said. "Neither of us is a duelist, but I think we can agree that stunt was physically impossible. You couldn't launch yourself off the blade of a sword held in someone's hand like that—you'd just force the blade down, and the holder would probably drop it."

The Viking nodded. "Nobody is strong enough to support the weight of another person on a sword. Also, why the hell didn't her sword fall when she was busy flying through the air?"

"And I almost had hope for a minute there." He added to the charge list, then checked the Words. The sunglasses at least made it bearable. "All right, the end of the chapter is coming up, and I'm not going through another of those childish author's notes." He slid off Fellrazer's back to facilitate removing his backpack so he could get to his RA.

Between the time they entered the portal and the start of the next chapter, Vanya had demanded "entrance in the Dunedain" and revealed her identity to Aragorn. He took it surprisingly well.

"He's not even yelling," Derik marveled. "That's . . . hm." He thrust his arm into the backpack again and this time pulled out a Canon Analysis Device.

[Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Dúnadan; a.k.a. Estel, Thorongil, Strider, Telcontar, ... ] The screen flickered a moment, then displayed a more sedate reading: [Aragorn. Human male. Canon. OOC 20.08%]

"As I suspected. Aragorn isn't one to show a temper, so he is surprisingly close to being in character. He should still be angry, though."

Vanya seemed similarly unnerved by her father's coolness, enough to drop the badass routine and behave like the petulant little girl she was. "Ada, I am sorry, but it has been five years, the longest you have gone without coming by six," she whined.

"And now he should be confused," Gall said, scratching her head under her braid. "I know I am. I mean, I'm not much for numbers, but I'm pretty sure what she just said is impossible." She attempted to work it out with a combination of counting on her fingers and tracing obscure forms in the air.

Derik nodded slowly. "At least we didn't get dragged through that particular distortion." He listened to Vanya's explanation for running off, which of course resulted in Aragorn's complete forgiveness. "And that would explain the twenty percent. If nothing else, he should discipli—oh, shards!"

The agents stared, slack-jawed, as Aragorn shot up in height, becoming tall enough to easily see over Derik's head, and Derik was six foot two.

"This girl is very bad at numbers," he said. "'Her five foot eleven inch frame was a head shorter than him', she says. That makes him at least six foot six, maybe as much as six eight."

"Wow. Making Aragorn a giant. That's special. Was Kana this annoying?"

"No, no. Kana was much worse."

Gall opened her mouth to reply, but something caught her eye and she gasped. "Hey, look out!"

There wasn't time. A curly-bracketed note of "{three years later}" came whizzing out of nowhere and blindsided Derik, striking him just back of the temple, and a wave of distortion followed. One second Vanya was hugging Aragorn in thanks for allowing her to join the Dúnedain, and the next they were riding into Rivendell, Vanya apparently grown to eighteen or twenty.

The combined temporal-spatial distortion and blow to the head were too much for Derik. His head didn't actually explode, but he saw sparks burst before his eyes as he gurgled and keeled over.

He struggled in and out of consciousness for what felt like days, although a small, rational corner of his mind pointed out that it didn't fit. At various points, he was aware of being hoisted off the ground or pitching dizzily down; of movement; of something cool and wet pressing against his head; dripping through his hair; trickling down his throat; of distant, musical voices and nearer, not-so-musical cursing. He couldn't interpret what was happening to him, but he knew he had to wake up. A sense of dread made him keep trying, even though rousing brought pain that twisted his gut and beat against the inside of his skull like an apprentice drummer who didn't know his strength. He wouldn't have minded just slipping into oblivion, but if he did, he knew something bad would happen. He had to fight. Had to. It was his duty.

Finally, he forced his eyes open and was able to keep them from sliding shut again. The gentle swaying motion he felt and the accompanying clip-clop of hooves told him he was on an equine back. Upon trying to sit up, he discovered that his arms were tied around the horse's neck to keep him from falling off. He couldn't see, and matters didn't improve much even when he turned his head with a groan so that his left eye wasn't pressed into the gray mane. It was dark, and all he could make out on the left was rock.

"Gall?" He didn't have a choice but to whisper. His throat was dry. He worked his mouth and scared up a pitiful measure of spit, barely enough to swallow. "Gall?" he tried again, a little louder.

"I hear you," she hissed back, and relief flooded him. Gall hadn't abandoned him! He must be on Fellrazer's back, then. Dratted creature was good for something after all.

"Where are we?" he rasped. "What happened? The mission—have you—"

She cut him off. "Shh!"

Fellrazer halted, and Derik heard the sounds of feet and armor moving cautiously away, then returning.

"Don't worry, I tracked the freak. She and daddy dearest just made camp up ahead."

Derik felt the rope grow loose at his wrists, and with the help of Gall tugging under his arms, he slid gracelessly to the floor. He didn't quite stifle another groan as he moved. Every joint in his body was stiff, and he could still feel the ache where the rogue brackets had struck him. The best he could do was lean against a rock wall. He hadn't felt like this since his last Threadfall with Skepnadth.

The thought brought a pang totally unrelated to his physical discomfort. He had been close to joining his dragon. Not something he wanted to dwell on right now.

"Where are we?" he repeated. He accepted the water bottle Gall thrust into his hands and drank reverently, one mouthful at a time, fighting the urge to chug it down. "What did I miss?"

"Moria, and not much. I skipped a lot of boring talk and travel." She settled down next to him, on his left, he noted with satisfaction. He could see her in the light from . . . come to think of it, he had no idea where the dim light was coming from. Gall didn't have a torch, and there didn't seem to be any direction to it. Something for the charge list, perhaps.

"It was mostly just her being chummy with the canon characters," Gall was saying, "though I did find out who her mother is: seems Arwen had a twin sister Tolkien never told us about. But she died shortly after giving birth, Single Tear, and Aragorn loves Arwen now. Isn't that convenient? Anyway, they're on some Ranger mission now, and if you didn't catch it, Aragorn just prophesied the appearance of the Balrog in Fellowship of the Ring."

"Huh," Derik grunted. If Aragorn knew about the Balrog, why didn't he tell Gandalf about it specifically before the Fellowship went in? He took another drink and changed the subject. "Gall . . . when I was aware of anything, I was afraid. I believed you would leave me to rot and murder Vanya without charges. Why didn't you?"

"Oh, trust me, I wanted to," she said, tossing her braid over her shoulder and facing away from him. "Your sorry ass has been nothing but trouble on this raid. Problem is, I realized that even if I told the best lie ever, they wouldn't make me a full agent without someone to vouch for me. I need you, one-eye." She sounded disgusted.

He nodded, slowly. "I see. Well, I'm grateful. And I—wait." He paused, listening. "What's that?"

A drum tapped in the distance.

"Oh, that's bad," Gall said, scanning the Words and jumping to her feet. "Orcs! The characters are running; we'd better run, too, unless you think you're up for a fight." She grinned, a feral challenge to anything dumb enough to take her up on it.

"Run," Derik agreed. "Help me." He extended an arm.

She nodded, grabbing on and hauling him to his feet.

He took hold of Fellrazer's saddle and, by dint of sheer willpower, forced himself to climb into it.

They gave chase and soon came upon Vanya and Aragorn's camp, where they discovered Ryersen and Roheryn, Aragorn's steed, apparently left behind in their hurry to leave.

"Wait a minute," Derik said. "They brought runners down here? Fellrazer's one thing, but the Fellowship left Bill the Pony behind for a reason."

"Brought 'em and forgot 'em," Gall observed. "The Words haven't even mentioned them since they entered the Mines. Here." She tossed the horses' reins to Derik.

He quickly lashed them to Fellrazer's saddle horn, and they resumed the pursuit. Thanks to the smoothing effect that badfics often had on Moria, not to mention the ambient light present in this one, they were able to catch up to the Rangers without anyone falling into a pit or breaking an ankle, even at a run. They arrived in time to see a large orc captain strike Aragorn to the ground as his horde cheered.

Vanya bent her head, and a great shockwave thundered through the ground. It's center, Vanya. She shook uncontrollably. A deep growl growing in her chest. The Orcs backed away a little. She broke the bounds on her wrists, and stood up. She lifted her head, her eyes had gone from bright green, to a luminescent yellow/gold.
"I dare you to place your hand on my father, pig!" She said. It was her voice and yet, not her voice. "You will die, Orc!" Fur grew from her body; it was the same color as her hair. Her nails grew long and pointed, as did her teeth.
The Orcs couldn't believe what had happened. The woman in front of them had turned into a massive black wolf.

The orcs didn't last long after that: Vanya ripped out the leader's throat, and most of the rest scattered, not even seeing the agents and three horses as they scurried away.

The agents stared in disbelief. Gall didn't take a single swing with her mace.

"A werewolf? She's a freaking werewolf?" She laughed. "Dude, we can kill her now, right? That's got to be enough, sequel or no sequel."

"Hold on, there's at least one werewolf in canon, as I understand. It was evil, mind you, and I doubt she'll . . . " he trailed off as his brain caught up with what his ears had heard. He frowned at Gall. "What do you mean, a sequel?"

The red-head froze, keeping her eyes fixed on the scene, where Aragorn and were!Vanya now fought side by side. "Uh, did I say that?"

"Gall. There are two fics?" He glared down at her, a sudden rage welling up inside. "When were you planning on telling me this? What else have you left out?" He squeezed Fellrazer's reins, and the beast tossed his head as though he could feel it.

"Hey, don't get mad at me! It's not my fault! When was I supposed to tell you, huh? I wasn't even planning to sit though all of this one!"

Derik ran a hand roughly through his hair, which currently fell past his shoulders in Rohirric fashion. This resulted in a tangle that only made him more angry. "You—!" He curled his lip in a silent snarl as he freed himself. "This is not acceptable," he started over, jabbing a finger at the young woman. "When we get out of this scene, you're going to tell me everything, understand?"

"Uh-huh, sure. May I say something?"


"The Sue is about to fall into the Anduin."


Gall pointed down the corridor. The Words had previously declared that they were near an exit from the Mines, but now Vanya, human-shaped again, knelt precariously on a ledge where no ledge should be, several hundred feet above a river that had no earthly business being there. The ledge gave way slowly enough that she had time to get shot in the shoulder by a stray orc and tell Aragorn she loved him in a sappy, melodramatic way, and yet somehow not enough time to actually get off the ledge.

Vanya fell to her knee. Aragorn turned to rush to her side.
"No!" She cried. Aragorn stopped. She looked at him, fear was in her eyes. The ledge was giving way. She readied herself for the fall. "I love you, Aragorn." And the ledge took Vanya down to the rolling water below.

The scene jolted, landing the agents and horses under a large tree near to the Great River. Derik cried out and slumped forward in the saddle, holding his head. Gall suffered a dizzy spell herself, but after a few moments she recovered enough to make out the huge bend the Anduin made to come this far west of its natural course. The effort put forth by the landscape was obvious: trees crowded together and leaned awkwardly out of the way to either side of the river, and the Misty Mountains themselves had thrust out an outcrop to allow for a straight fall from the open ledge to the rushing water without any inconvenient rocky slopes in the way.

"Wow," she mouthed in a rare moment of awe. She shook herself and turned to her partner. "Hey. You still with me?"

She got a whimper in response, which she took for a good sign. Still, she scowled. This was so stupid. "Are you sure you don't want to call it quits? I could kill Vanya right now, she's just washed up on the shore."

"No," Derik growled. "We do the Duty, no matter what."

Gall rolled her eyes. "Whatever."

"Tell me what's happening. I can't look yet."

Just then, the brothers Orophin, Rumil, and Haldir descended from the upper branches of a nearby tree to investigate Vanya. The narrative now called for snow on the ground so the elves could walk on it without leaving footprints, and the temperature dropped accordingly. Thanks to somewhat decent handling by the narrative, they spoke Elvish, so Gall followed along with the Words.

(Foolish mortal human.) Scoffed Haldir. (What is he doing out in weather like this, and without the right clothing?) Orophin turned the body over, and gasped.

(It is a woman brother!) He exclaimed. Haldir looked down, and sure enough it was a female.

"Jeez, you'd think they'd never seen a girl before." Gall shook her head.


"Never mind. These elf guys are taking Vanya up into the tree for first aid. And they're being dumb about it—they wrapped her in a blanket before taking off her wet clothes, and now they're putting the same blanket back on. Morons. Though, it looks like they're actually treating the arrow right. They aren't just pulling it out, they're making clean cuts, and they aren't using any fancy magical cures, just an ointment and bandages. And—oh, hang on. Chapter break coming; I'll make a portal. I sat through another of those puppet-booth author's notes while you were out, and I don't need to see any more."

"Agreed. That may explain why I didn't wake sooner."

They hopped to the next chapter, which didn't change locations. Once there, Derik risked raising his head and blinked painfully at the misplaced Anduin. "I surely hope that rights itself after Vanya's gone," he muttered.

"Yeah, it's a real bugger, isn't it?"

"Speaking of which, you owe me answers. Does anything important look to be happening, or can we talk?"

She checked. "Nah, it's totally boring again. She's just talking to Haldir about what happened. Lying about the whole werewolf thing, but I guess anyone with half a brain would. Afterward, it looks like they're going to take her into Lothlórien to heal and stuff."

"A rather excellent idea. Perhaps this one's not so bad after all."

Gall gave him a skeptical look, but he didn't respond. She shrugged. "Okay, Lothlórien it is. Portal?"

"Yes. But let's turn these poor beasts loose first." He gestured at Ryersen and Roheryn. "We can't drag them through the whole mission with us. Send them to Rivendell. I'm sure they'll be happy to have the one Vanya stole returned. He probably has a proper name there, too."

Gall suited actions to words. The animals needed some encouragement to walk through the glowing blue rent in space, but a whiff of the good valley air on the other side reassured them both, and thus the deed was done. She fiddled with the controls and the portal flickered, shifting to a grassy clearing within the Golden Wood.

Once through, Derik clambered down from Fellrazer's back and lay spread-eagle on the turf. There was no snow here, and the Suefluence was not yet sufficient to distort the timeless beauty of the realm. He wanted to fall asleep, but forced himself not to succumb.

"So," he said. "Tell me about this sequel."

She sat down next to him. "It's not anything ground-shattering, so don't yell at me if you don't achieve enlightenment, got it?"

He scoffed—he barely had the strength to speak, let alone yell.

She went on. "The report just said that Intel pegged Vanya as a Sue and that both stories in which she appears would have to be dealt with to ensure that her influence is thoroughly exup—explun—"


"Got rid of." She glared, blue eyes as sharp as tacks. "And there was something about an uncanonical dragon Cute Animal Friend sighted in the second fic. Makes sense they would send it to us, really, being the experts. Right? Eh?"

Derik did not respond, and his left eye had gone nearly as blank as his right.

"Hey. Did you pass out again?" Gall gave his shoulder an experimental shove.

He grunted, but kept staring off into the middle distance.

Suddenly, realization dawned. Gall snapped her fingers. "Oh, right! Buttload of dead-dragon-related angst. That's your deal, that's cool, but if you aren't going to talk to me anymore we're kind of screwed here, so—"

"How long is this fic?"

"Pardon?" Gall took a moment to reroute her thought process, having so suddenly gotten what she thought would take rather more effort.

"This fic. How many chapters? How long until we get to the next one?" Derik pushed himself upright and looked at her again. The blankness was gone, replaced with deep and furious anger.

She almost regretted the crack about the dead dragon. "Uh. This is chapter six, and there are twelve."

"Does anything important happen? Anything worse than what we've already seen?"

"Dude, I don't know, I only read through the first two. You're freaking out, and you're freaking me out."

"They're doing this to me on purpose," he muttered, eyes downcast and searching aimlessly. "This day, of all days . . . they're deliberately doing this to me. They sent you and him, too, that's part of it. Why? What possible reason—?" His voice broke, and he curled his fingers into his hair, his arm blocking his face from view.

Gall stared. "What . . . hell, are you crying? Aw, come on!" She was at a total loss. First he'd looked ready to chew iron and spit nails, and now this? Her first impulse was to smack him one to snap him out of it, but given the head injury, that was off the table. What else did people do in situations like this?

"Am I supposed to hug you or something?" she asked aloud, lip curling at the thought of being so nice. It just wouldn't be her.

No response.

"Well . . . good. Because I won't."

He spoke then, though by the sound of it he hadn't heard a word she'd said. "I'm so tired. Gall, I need to rest. Can you watch Vanya for me and keep the charge list a little longer?"

"Uh . . . yeah." She hadn't written anything in the charge list. "Sure. I got this. You just . . . yeah."

He lay back with a sigh and was asleep before his head touched the grass.

Gall looked at Fellrazer. "My friend, we are in big trouble."

Derik slept like the dead and woke up as ravenous as the undead, though he didn't mention brains and pilfered lembas seemed to sate him well enough. He acted as though he had forgotten his near-psychotic episode, and as exhausted as he had been, perhaps he truly had. Gall didn't remind him. She filled him in on the progress of the fic as he chewed.

"Not much to tell, really. They realized the arrow was poisoned, so they hurried Vanya into Lothlórien and fixed it, and she spent four days sleeping it off."

Derik nearly choked. "Four days?"

"Four days for her, not for us," Gall said with a reassuring hand wave. "It's weird, but the time didn't seem to touch us the same way. Something about this place, or the writing, or both." She shrugged. "I was going to wake you up anyway. She's taking a bath now, and then it'll be a new chapter."

"All right." He brushed off his hands and got up, still feeling unsteady, but in a great deal less pain than he had been. Indeed, the land called the Dreamflower had worked its gentle effects on him in his sleep.

One portal and ten minutes later, the two agents and a disguised dragon lurked at the base of Celeborn and Galadriel's huge mallorn while Vanya met with her great-grandparents above. While they probably could have led Fellrazer up the long ramps winding their way up the trunk, it was unlikely that a horse would have gone unnoticed on a talan once they actually got close to their target. Again, however, they found they weren't missing much.

"This . . . is so . . . boring," Gall complained, knocking her head back against the tree trunk. "She's done nothing but talk talk talk, and there aren't even any new charges!"

"Speaking of which . . . ." Derik had taken the opportunity to flip through his notebook and observed a distinct lack of writing after his own ended. He fixed Gall with a one-eyed stare of reproach. "You told me you'd keep up with these."

She flushed with anger. It figured he would remember the most inconvenient part. "Dude, there was nothing new after you went to sleep. Dead serious. Anyway, my writing is terrible."

He pulled a grimace, always extra-impressive with half his face already stuck that way. "It seems the writing in this chapter isn't, for a wonder. Let me see . . . ." He squinted cautiously at the Words, and though he hissed at a sharp pang behind his eye, it wasn't so bad that he stopped looking. Vanya had left the Lord and Lady's talan, escorted by Haldir.

Haldir was silent, he looked like he was thinking. They walked up to a Talan and stopped.

"This one is for you, it is right next to mine, so if you need anything just call." He said.

"Thank you." Vanya said, then kissed him on the cheek. She quickly turned and walked in her Talan. Haldir stood there and placed a hand on his cheek, where she had kissed him

Why did I do that? She thought furiously to her self. She sat down on the bed, then thumped back on the pillow.

"OW!" she said. "That was quite ill thought out." She rubbed her shoulder. She turned over and curled up.

"Well, we know who her love interest is, anyway," Derik muttered. "But still no charges. Come on, we can skip the nightmare she's about to have. It's word for word the same as the werewolf transformation scene we witnessed earlier, except that she eats Aragorn at the end."

Gall laughed. "Nice. That's my kind of story."

The first half of the next chapter was taken up with Haldir giving Vanya a tour of Lothlórien, which would have been nice if a little more attention had been paid to details.

For the whole day, Haldir showed her Lothlorien. She enjoyed everything he showed her. All too soon, it began to get dark.

"Some grand tour," Gall grumbled. "All this walking and we haven't seen a single thing besides Generic Mallorns."

Derik charged for making mallorn trees generic. It was a wimpy charge, but it was something to do.

The tedium was finally relieved when Haldir escorted Vanya to a grove completely encircled by trees.

He took her towards two trees that had overhanging bracken and ivy. He held the plants back and motioned for her to go inside. Vanya walked through them and gasped. Haldir followed behind, but she didn't take much notice. She had stepped into a rather large open area, it had a circle of trees surrounding it and flying around inside where millions of fireflies. It looked like the stars had fallen from the sky, and floated in the air. Vanya looked back at Haldir and he smiled. She walked farther in, and giggled as they landed on her. Their lights flashed on and ff as they danced in the skies.

It was fairly clichéd as a spot for a romantic confession, which the agents expected, but nobody said anything. Eventually, Haldir escorted Vanya back to her talan to rest, and that was that.

Gall kicked a silver-barked tree. "So. Lame!"

Fellrazer snorted at her.

"I don't know," Derik said. "I thought that scene was quite pretty." He frowned, plainly troubled by his own admission, and shook his head. "Well, it looks like Galadriel is about to take her to see the Mirror. That may be worth seeing."

"It better be. I was promised excitement, danger, and killing stuff, and there's been precious little so far."

They caught up with Vanya and Galadriel in an "extravagant garden," very little like either the bare clearing from the movies or the hedge-enclosed space with a stream in it from the books. In the center was the stone pedestal with the silver basin on top, of course, but behind it was a fountain. It was a nice little fountain, as it went, though the marble dolphin leaping up and spraying water from its nose looked a little too happy about the business. The agents took shelter crouching behind it, Derik muttering something about shipfish.

Vanya's look into the Mirror consisted of visions of past events from the fic and future events from The Lord of the Rings. Galadriel told the girl to "follow her heart" regarding what to do about them. The two discussed why Vanya had been given her werewolf powers, and Galadriel appropriated a line from Shakespeare:

"Some are born great; some achieve greatness, while others have greatness thrust upon them." She said. "While you, my child, have been given all three. You were born with a great power inside of you, but you must learn to control that power and use it wisely, it was given to you by your sires of old. There is a prophecy about you." Galadriel stood up.

"In many years to come, Isildor's heir shan't bear a son,

To him shall be a daughter born, A ranger be the child scorned,

The image of her father's sire, And when all hope is gone and dire,

Shall she show her true great power, When then comes her gravest hour?"

The mini-Balrog Isildor popped into existence and quickly scurried around the fountain to hunker down next to Fellrazer, careful to steer clear of the spray from the dolphin. Gall immediately took to him and scratched him on the head with her gloved fingers. "Aw, you ugly little monster you! Did the horrible rhymes scare you?"

Derik scowled. His Harper sensibilities were twinging. "I believe 'composing pitiful doggerel and calling it prophecy' is a charge. If not, it is now." He scribbled it into his notebook, right next to "forcing Galadriel to make prophecies about how special you are."

"Great," Gall said, interrupting his thoughts. "So we can leave now, right? I think I'm allergic to something in here."

Galadriel and Vanya left the garden, and Derik nodded. It was safe to stand up and open a portal. They sent Isildor to the Mini-Balrog Adoption Agency, where the staff would reunite him with his owner.

"We can go to the end now, I think," Derik said. "I can't see anything coming up aside from more talking to Haldir and another flashback before Aragorn arrives."

"Oh yeah, he's in this story."

They skipped a tearful but mercifully non-icky reunion of father with daughter!Sue and landed among the trees at the eastern border of Lothlórien. Vanya and Haldir stood together a little way off, and the agents caught the tail-end of a love confession that surprised no one except Vanya and Haldir.

Haldir stared at her for a long time. Vanya smiled and embraced him.

"I love you as well." She said.

Haldir was visibly relieved at this. He embraced her in return.

"I am glad." He said.

The two of them stayed like that for a few minutes.

Gall made an elaborate show of gagging and retching.

Just then a new sound interrupted them. Each turned to the new sound. An army of Orcs had crossed into the woods.

The Viking perked up immediately. "Hey, now this is getting good! All sappy love scenes should end with an army of orcs dropped on them."

Fellrazer whickered at the sounds and smells of the army, not averse to a fight himself, and Gall patted his neck.

"They shouldn't actually be here," Derik pointed out. "At least, I don't think any orcs got anywhere near Lórien's border until the Fellowship passed through. Certainly not the eastern border."

"Oh, shut up. This is the most interesting thing that's happened since Moria. The only thing better would be to actually get in there and break some heads." She looked at him hopefully.



Vanya and the canons hid themselves from the orcs, and the agents edged closer to overhear their conversation about what to do, skipping a chapter break in the process. Inevitably, Vanya had to transform in order to keep the army at bay long enough for help to arrive, but the agents were surprised when Aragorn made the suggestion.

"You are going to have to fight them without the use of your sword." He said.

Haldir knew not what they were speaking about. Vanya looked at her father incredulously. Promptly, she nodded her head 'no'.

"I cannot." She replied. "I know we were fine in the mines, but what if I try to attack you? I could not bear it if I hurt you."

"You must learn to trust yourself." Aragorn told her, cupping her head in his hand. "I know you can do it. You know us, you know we are friends. And you know the Orcs are the enemies."

Vanya bowed her head. After a short while, she nodded her consent.

"Alright, I shall do it." She said. "There is no other way."

Derik reached for his backpack and pulled out his Canon Analysis Device.

[Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Human male. Canon. OOC 25.01%]

"Seems like it should be more," the agent muttered.

"Why?" Gall grinned. "You think unleashing a monster you're not sure of controlling isn't a good idea?"

"Not really, no." The last time someone had tried that, his life had been ruined. Not that it was an exact parallel, but he couldn't help thinking it. "Then again, Aragorn is a bit reckless when his back's to the wall, going by the palantir and the Paths of the Dead. He's being far too . . . fluffy about it, though. It's the 'wary and stern Ranger' part that's missing."

He watched as Vanya revealed her secret to Haldir, who took it much better than he really should have, given that the only known canonical werewolves were minions of evil and enemies of the Elves.

"I do believe you." He said. "And whether you can transform into a beast of legend or not, that does not stop me from loving you. Shall we hold off the Orcs together?"

"Poor fellow's just plain besotted and doesn't know what he's saying. Sues will do that to a man." He stared into the middle distance.

Gall frowned at him. "Hey, you're getting weird on me again. Come on, let's watch Vanya trash the orcs. That should put the spring back in your step." She took him by the arm and hauled him after the characters, who ran to get in front of the advancing army. Fellrazer trotted alongside, keeping an ear open to the orcs.

Aragorn gave them a chance to leave, to his credit, but of course the orcs refused.

"Do you really think that you can fight us?" The Orc chief asked mockingly. "I have over three hundred at my command, and there are only three of you."

"I shall give you all one warning." Aragorn said. "You shall leave this place, and never return here again, or you shall all be killed. The choice is yours."

At this the whole host of Orcs laughed harder. Once they had finally calmed down enough to speak coherently, the Orc chief turned to them again.

"I have an entire army, and you only have a pointy-ear and a weaponless woman!" He said. "Sure, you may be able to kill a few of my soldiers, but you will be crushed, and this wood shall fall."

Vanya was angered by his comment.

"Vanya angry. Vanya smash!" Gall remarked as the girl began to change. To her disappointment, Derik didn't react, and she elbowed him in the ribs.

He flinched and glared at her.

"There, that's better. Ooh, lookit 'er go!"

Her eyes turned into a bright golden colour. However, unlike the first time where they were a pale gold, this time they were an almost pure gold. A growl resounded from her chest.

Fully transformed, Vanya quickly killed the orc chief, and then the slaughter started. The Wardens arrived ("That was fast!") and shot down any orcs that tried to run away, and the rest were laid waste . . . or, they should have been. Gall's grin faded as ten minutes stretched into twenty, and by the time half an hour had gone by she was scowling.

"All right, look. I can't tell how many Wardens there are, but assuming they can fire at a decent rate and don't miss, since they're elves, a handful ought to be able to pick off a host of three hundred easily in less time than this. That's not even counting Vanya knocking them down like bowling pins. What gives?"

"The battle lasted several hours," Derik read from the Words. Contrary to Gall's prediction, the conflict didn't perk him up; he just looked grim.

Gall stared at him. "That's insane."

"That's what it says. Threadfalls last about four hours, you know. Fortitude is an admirable quality."

"I'll fort your 'tude," she grumbled. "Fortitude's got nothing to do with it. If they're taking this long, they all suck. Do we have to watch?"

The man blinked at her. "I thought you wanted some excitement."

"I do, but this isn't exciting. It's an embarrassment to warriors everywhere. Look, even Fellrazer can't stand it."

Fellrazer was standing with his head behind a tree. He lashed his tail and stamped a hind hoof at the sound of his name.


Derik chuckled. "All right, Gall. You might as well take us to the next story. You won't want to see Vanya and Haldir's tearful goodbye." He frowned as he read the Words. "Actually, just a Single Tear."

"Still too much sap for me. One sequel, coming up!" She popped open a portal and dragged Fellrazer though by the bridle. Derik followed them.

It was a rough transition, like a bad scene change or going between times. It seemed to take too long to get from one side to the other, and when they emerged, it was at the beginning of an author's note. The puppet booth was back, this time populated with amateurish figures of the author and Vanya.

DD: lol, I just noticed the way I sign the disclaimer looks like a sad face.

Vanya: That has nothing to do with this, what brought it up?

DD: I have absolutely no idea...

"Oh, no," Derik groaned, covering his face. "Gall, why didn't you skip this?"

"I tried!" She banged the RA against her palm. "It brought us here anyway. Stupid thing!"

The puppets kept nattering on in squeaky, fake voices.

Vanya: Would you be so kind as to get on with it so your readers may enjoy the story?

"Yes, get on with it!" Derik crouched with his head on his knees.

"She thinks we're enjoying the story? Ha!"

Vanya: The quicker you get the disclaimer done with, the quicker you can get outside.

DD: wait, why aren't you outside?

"No one cares!" Gall snapped. She banged the RA harder than ever.

Derik lurched to his feet and took the device away. "Give me that! It won't do any good to break it and strand us here forever." He fiddled with the controls and tried to ignore what the featureless space was doing to his insides.

Vanya: I was, but Elrohir and Rumil shoved a large snowball down my tunic.

DD: You are such a child. Go make another snowball and pelt them in the face with it.

Unable to take the sheer silliness any longer, Gall walked up to the puppet booth and smashed her mace through the side. Wood splintered and DD's head went flying. "Die!" She vented her frustration at it over and over, until nothing was left but a pile of sawdust and kindling. "How's that in your face?!"

At last, the agents stumbled out of the pre-story space into the Word World, landing under a moonlit night sky. Leaves crunched beneath their feet—evidently it was autumn in Middle-earth, not winter.

"Finally," Gall huffed, taking a firm grip on Fellrazer's bridle to keep him from panicking. He stood stiffly, quivering all over, but the landscape was reassuringly normal.

"Where are we now?"

"I dunno, some forest—and look!" She lowered her voice to a hiss and pointed. "There's Vanya. She still can't spell 'boulder'."

The Sue was seated on another rock with an eye-watering black outline, kitted out in brown leather and a green cloak. Her head turned as if she could hear something, but she never saw the agents. Instead, she turned to look up at the Moon riding in the west. Evidently it was time to change watches: she woke Aragorn and bedded down in her cloak.

A small, four-legged figure crept over to her. It had shimmering red scales and a black stripe running from its head to the tip of its tail. Turning towards it, Vanya scooped it up and laid it next to her.

Derik hissed.

Fellrazer's nostrils flared and his eyes rolled. He let out a snort and shook his bridle as he pawed the ground, giving Gall all she could manage to keep her grip.

"So," said Derik. His eyes glinted in the moonlight, one bright spark and one pale ember. "So this is the reason we are here."

The small creature was a dragon. It had hatched only two days before and was slightly bigger than a cat. Vanya had named it *Minuial.

The misplaced asterisk linked to a footnote claiming the name was pronounced "mine-you-all." Even Gall, with no understanding of Sindarin, could have pointed out that a vowel had gone missing there, and Harper-trained, language-sensitive Derik could have added that a more correct rendering would have been "mean-we-all," emphasis on the second syllable.

However, neither of them were paying that much attention to the Words.

"I did warn you," Gall forced through gritted teeth, digging her heels into the ground to keep Fellrazer from attacking the other dragon. As little as Minuial was, he probably could take her even in horse form, but the element of surprise would be lost. "Stop staring and help me!"

Derik shook himself out of his daze and hauled on Fellrazer's bridle, forcing him backward into the trees.

With the small creature beside her, she quickly fell asleep. It seemed like only a few minutes before Aragorn shook her awake again.

'Let us go, the sun is up and we must get to Bree.' He said.

Time rippled.

Derik had to lean on the horse to keep from ending up on the ground again. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his face into the warm blue-gray mane. "Fall, Fog, and Fire," he muttered.

"Quit yer moping! It's old news!" Gall kicked him uncharitably in the heel. "Let's get on to Bree already. I remember there's a stable at the inn there, so we can stash Fellrazer for a while. Not that I blame him."

Unwilling to risk portaling again so soon, they mounted Fellrazer and tailed the Rangers. The miles seemed to vanish in a flash.

At the Prancing Pony, Smaug's history was given in the narrative, and it was made quite clear exactly why having a pet dragon in Middle-earth made no sense. The part where dragons were canonically town-destroying, man-killing creatures made of concentrated fire and malice figured somewhat.

Of course, when one was speaking of a Sue and her cute widdle pwecious Cute Animal Friend, then none of it applied.

Vanya and the dragon had a mental connection, each knew what the other was feeling, or thinking. Once Minuial was big enough, Vanya would be able to ride her. But until then, she had to teach Minuial about the world around her. But the mental connection was not restricted to just the dragon. Both Vanya and Minuial could make their thoughts know to other people. And as long as they kept the connection, the other person could reply in the same manner.

Derik actually pushed his pencil through several pages of his notebook as he wrote down the charges.

After that, nothing happened for a while. The Rangers settled in to wait for Frodo and his friends to show up, and the agents waited, too. Since Vanya and Aragorn had claimed the most shadowed corner of the common room, the agents made do with the second-most shadowed corner. Gall swiped the plate of beef Vanya ordered for her hungry dragon, so they had a much-welcomed bite of real food while Vanya had to struggle to keep Minuial from complaining loudly enough to attract attention and cause a panic.

Then the hobbits arrived, and things got weird.

'Can we-' began the one in the front.

'Half a minute, if you please!' shouted the man over his shoulder, and vanished into a babble of voices and a cloud of smoke. In a moment he was out again, wiping his hands on his apron.

'Good evening, little master!' he said, bending down. 'What may you be wanting?'

'Beds for four, and stabling for five ponies, if that can be managed. Are you Mr. Butterbur?'

'That's right! Barliman is my name. Barliman Butterbur at your service! You're from the Shire, eh?' he said, and then suddenly he clapped his hand to his forehead, as if trying to remember something. 'Hobbits!' he cried. 'Now what does that remind me of? Might I ask your names, sir?'

'Mr. Took and Mr. Brandybuck,' said the leader; 'and this is Sam Gamgee. My name is Underhill.'

Gall tilted her head. "This sounds really, really familiar."

Derik shrugged. "They do that sometimes, copy the dialogue. Lazy."

As the scene progressed, though, the world seemed to solidify and gain depth around them, with the sole exception of Vanya and Minuial's immediate vicinity, where everything was a little lighter and more vaguely defined, and ever-so-slightly out of sync. They seemed to blur at the edges when they moved.

"Look at the Words!" Gall demanded, shaking her partner's arm. "I swear it's straight out of the book!"

He looked. His face went slack and his mouth fell open with astonishment. "By the First Egg, it is. Single-quotes and all." He scanned over the chapter. "A lot of it is. Except for . . . Vanya mentally plants the idea to sing in Frodo's mind?" He scowled.

'Well, go on.' Shadow whispered. 'Sing them something.'

Then in desperation he began a ridiculous song about an inn.

As Frodo sang, Aragorn turned to his daughter.

'This is dangerous ground you're trading on, Vanya.' He said.

Bolding had taken the place of the previous story's parentheses to indicate Elvish language.

'I know that, I am making sure he believes that the voice is his own, something that is just tickling him, giving him ideas.'

"That couldn't possibly go wrong," Gall deadpanned. "Way to go, Vanya. Now it's your fault he slips up and puts on the Ring."

Which was exactly what happened, in Tolkien's own words, followed by some Elvish mental commentary from Vanya.

'That idiot!' Vanya hissed, making her thoughts known to Aragorn.

"No, you're the idiot!" Gall threw her hands into the air. "This is your fault, you stupid—!"

Derik clapped a hand over her mouth. "Shut up," he murmured in her ear. "You want to draw the whole inn down on us? With all this canon around, we stick out more. Who ever heard of Rohirrim in Bree?"

"Mph mph mph mph," said Gall. She wagged her eyebrows.

The man ignored her and checked the Words again. "Voluminous end-of-chapter author's notes coming up. Let's not sit through them."

He let her go and opened a portal, which again seemed to slow them down as they passed through, as though they were being pulled in two slightly different directions. On the other side, they followed Aragorn and Vanya, who were following Frodo, Pippin, and Sam, to the parlor where the hobbits had taken their quiet supper upon arrival. The agents made themselves comfortable by the fire and watched an eerily canonical dialogue between Frodo and Aragorn, thrown off-kilter by alterations made to include Vanya.

'I am called Strider, this is my companion Shadow.' Strider answered:

'And though he may have forgotten it, your friend promised to have a quiet talk with us.' Shadow finished.

'You said I might hear something to my advantage, I believe,' said Frodo. 'What have you to say?'

'Several things,' answered Strider. 'But, of course, I have my price.'

'What do you mean?' asked Frodo sharply.

'Don't be alarmed! I mean just this: we will tell you what we know, and give you some good advice – but we shall want a reward.'

"To quote an anonymous wit: what is this 'we' shit?" Gall groused—quietly, this time.

Derik shook his head, squinting at the Rangers. "I could have sworn I saw something when Vanya finished Aragorn's sentence. Did you notice anything—a flicker?"

The Viking shook her head. "Speaking of, though, what kinda dumb name is 'Shadow'? I mean, 'Strider' ain't so great either, but at least he's named for something that stands out about him. Apparently the only thing that stands out about Vanya is that Aragorn lets her tag after him. Totally weak."

"Totally Sue," Derik agreed. "She can't stand on her own merits, so she must rely on her association with a strong canon character to give her status." He blinked at his partner. "That was very insightful of you."

She shrugged. "Did I ever tell you how I got the horns on my helmet?"

"I thought they came standard."

"Nah. See, there was this Monstrous Nightmare, one of the red ones, totally off its nut, and—"

Derik was reminded uncomfortably of Earwig. He waved the Viking silent. "Another time. We should pay attention to the scene."

"Right. The scene."

They watched as the dialogue in the parlor went on. Gall sighed and fidgeted in her seat and gradually ceased to pay any attention at all, instead worrying at her fingernails with her teeth. Derik studied the scene intently, especially minding the instances in which Aragorn's lines came out of Vanya's mouth. There was a definite flicker every time it happened, but Derik couldn't be sure whether it was just the firelight and the angle or something more.

As the scene continued with little besides the pronouns altered from the original text, both agents dozed. The fire was warm, and neither of them had had much in the way of a good rest since Lothlórien. Derik's head fell forward, and Gall slumped sideways against his arm.

They jolted awake when Aragorn suddenly raised his voice.

'If we were after the Ring, we could have it – NOW!'

"Wha?" Gall said, sitting bolt upright and reaching for her mace. "Are we attacking?"

"Shards," Derik swore, realizing his lapse. "No, no, be quiet. Look!"

They stood up, and Strider seemed suddenly to grow taller. In his eyes gleamed a light, keen and commanding. Throwing back his cloak, he laid his hand on the hilt of a sword that had hung concealed by his side. Shadow crouched down and bared her teeth. Her eyes turned a bright golden yellow.

'Minuial' she called with her mind.

The dragon glided out of the shadows. She crouched and spread her wings out wide. Then she made a roar that came out more as a squeak.

Fortunately for the dramatic tension and for canon, the hobbits were still frightened despite the dragon's pitiful display. The agents, however, were not so impressed.

'But we are the real Strider and Shadow, fortunately,' Strider said, looking down at them with his face softened by a sudden smile.

Shadow stood up a smiled, her eyes turned back to their normal piercing green. Minuial perched on her shoulder and made a gentle humming noise.

'I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and this is my daughter Vanya; and if by life or death we can save you,'

'We will.' Shadow finished.

Vanya blinked, as though she had ceased to exist for a moment, and there was a corresponding distortion around Aragorn. Derik and Gall had to portal again to avoid more post- and pre-chapter author's notes, and the bastardization of Aragorn's lines continued on the other side.

'I see,' laughed Strider. 'I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter,'

'Not all those who wander are lost.' Shadow said.

'Did the verses apply to you then?' asked Frodo. 'I could not make out what they were about. But how did you know that they were in Gandalf's letter, if you have never seen it?'

'I did not know,' he answered. 'But I am Aragorn.'

'And I am Vanya.' Shadow said.

'And those verses go with those names.' He drew out his sword, and they saw that the blade was broken a foot below the hilt. 'Not much use is it, Sam?' said Strider. 'But the time is near when it shall be forged anew.'

Sam said nothing.

'Well,' said Strider, 'with Sam's permission we will call that settled.'

'Strider and Shadow shall be your guides.' Shadow said.

Something in the fabric of reality went snap. The agents' mouths dropped open in horror: suddenly, Aragorn had two heads, his normal one and a smaller, feminine one jutting awkwardly from the curve where his neck met his shoulder. Vanya had so completely abandoned any attempt at original writing that she had ceased to have a separate existence.

At the risk of breaking down in hysterical laughter—or possibly slaughter; the two were very alike—the agents silently agreed to exit the parlor so they could talk freely.

Gall let loose a hearty guffaw. "Finally, something interesting! We were nearly bored to death back there."

"And that, I believe, is all the justification we need for making Vanya very, very dead. Imagine being so unoriginal that you threaten your own existence, not to mention causing us to be bored in the midst of a great literary work." He emphasized the sentence with a fist slammed into his palm. His voice turned harsh. "Even the poor dragon isn't making an impact—no one has so much as looked at it since that little show. It's an ornament for her. She's just like Alanna." He ground his knuckles against his palm.

Gall took a precautionary step back, but grinned. "So you're finally ready to kill her?"

"I'm ready. I'd like to smash her into paste. But . . . ." He took a deep breath and forced his hands down. "We'll have to catch her separate from Aragorn. She must do something to distinguish herself again, or else what's the point?"

She nodded. "Although, fusing yourself to another guy sticks out pretty bad, if you ask me. Maybe we can just cut her head off Aragorn's body and call it good."

"Unfortunately, neither of us has a sword or an ax. We can't do anything to her here, in any case. There are too many people, and we'd surely be noticed." He paced across the hall and back. "We'll have to try and anticipate her next move. The next major plot point is the attack at Weathertop. I'd lay odds against a Bitran, that's our chance."

"Awesome!" Gall pumped a fist into the air, but stopped short. "Whoa, wait. Won't there be Black Riders?"


"Well, shouldn't we avoid them? I don't know how Fellrazer will react," she warned.

"One more reason to leave him behind in the future."

"Oh, lay off." She slugged him in the shoulder, not hard.

Reflexively, he raised his fist to her, eyes dangerously dark.

She backed off. "Look, all I'm saying is I want Vanya to die, not us, all right? Use your head!"

The sheer irony of such a demand from the impetuous Viking bought Derik around a few points toward sanity. He blinked. "All right, Gall. If you want to avoid Black Riders, we should leave now. They'll be coming soon."

"Right. Let's go if we're going." She tramped out into the inn's yard, and Derik followed.

They just missed Merry bursting in with news of the Riders, and hurried out of Bree as quickly as they could.

Derik portaled the group to Weathertop's foot, skipping several days of travel through forest and marsh that followed the books to a T, apart from Aragorn speaking with two heads. Again, the portal pulled at them, as though the proximity to canon caused a gravitational effect sheering it out of alignment. They arrived hours ahead of schedule and used the time to read the Words and to plan.

"You're insane," Gall commented. "Your plan is insane."

"Well?" Derik waited for specific objections.

Gall grinned. "I like it!"

They had to wait for nightfall to put it into action. In the meantime, the nascent Fellowship arrived, and the agents were treated to the sight of two-headed Vanyagorn climbing first up and then down Weathertop, having a telepathic, Elvish conversation with itself about the marks on a flat stone discovered at the top.

Shadow continued. 'If Gandalf did make the scratches, what do you think he meant?'

'I should say 'answered Strider, 'they stand for G3, and were a sign that Gandalf was here on October the third: that is three days ago now. It would also show that he was in a hurry and danger was at hand, so that he had no time or did not dare to write anything longer or plainer. If that is so, we must be wary.'

'Now, as we speak, the light that we saw three nights ago in the eastern sky comes back to my mind.' Shadow commented. 'Perhaps he was attacked on this hill-top. He is here no longer, and we must now look after ourselves and make our own way to Rivendell, as best we can.'

'We have at least a fortnight's journey before us, for I do not think we shall be able to use the Road.'

'A lot may happen in that time.'

'It may,'

Gall made an annoyed click of her tongue. "And now she's stealing other people's lines, too."

"And the poor hobbits will have no idea Gandalf left them a sign. What a selfish, thoughtless person she's turned out to be."

"I know!"

Derik gave her a look.

She looked back. "What? At least I never pretended to be anything else."

He had to allow that this was so.

Night came on with no improvement. The agents settled down on the northern lip of the campsite dell to keep a cold and cheerless watch. On the plus side, Aragorn's rendition of the tale of Tinúviel went unmolested, except when Gall chanted along with the bits she remembered, half a beat behind and with absolutely no sense of flow.

"What? I'm learning it," she snapped when Derik shot her one too many pained looks. "I may not be a fancy-pants Harper, but I'll sing if I want to."

"If you call that singing."

"Yeah? Well, I haven't heard a note out of you this whole time. If you're so special, why don't you prove it?"

He cuffed her upside the back of the head.

She punched his shoulder in return.

Silence stretched between them once again. An unnatural silence this time, devoid of Aragorn's voice or any other signs of life. All had fled in the face of the evil even now creeping toward the dell. Even Gall found her enthusiasm for conflict cooling.

"It's time," Derik said, his voice a hoarse whisper. His breath misted in the air.

Gall nodded. "I'm ready." She took a firm grip on her mace.

He crept forward and slipped down into the dell, careful to disturb the ground as little as possible. With the hobbits and Vanyagorn on high alert, his SEP field wouldn't stand up to so much as a hard look in his direction.

Five black shadows rose up over the western lip of the dell.

Shadow hid Minuial in the opening of a rock and stood next to Strider. She was shaking heavily, and her eyes were turning yellow. (A/N: remember, when she willingly changes her eyes turn golden, when something makes her change they turn yellow)

Derik yelped at the in-text author's note, a sharp pain like sudden pressure stabbing in through his ears, and he heard Fellrazer whinny above him, but everyone had other problems now. Vanya had finally split into her own uncanonical werewolf self again.

'Aragorn, I cannot stop it.' She cried, frightened. 'It is not within my control.'

'Vanya, look at me.' Strider replied, holding his daughter's head in his hands. 'All you need to do is know who the enemy is. Nothing more.'

Shadow nodded, then turned back to the wraiths, and allowed herself to shift. As soon as she had, Shadow noticed something was wrong.

This was partly because Frodo had gone missing, but it had a lot more to do with Gall leaping down on her from above and tackling her to the ground. Before she recovered from the surprise, the Viking raised her mace and dealt her a solid whack to the head. Being a werewolf, the blow failed to split her skull, but it succeeded in knocking her out. As though her strings had been cut, she collapsed to the ground with a groan. Gall hurriedly looped a slipknot around her hind legs and scrambled back out of the dell, leaped on Fellrazer's back, and gave him a very welcome signal to get the hell out of there. The other end of the rope was fastened to his saddle, and he towed were!Vanya away.

Meanwhile, Aragorn waved fiery branches at the Black Riders, and Derik reached into Minuial's hiding place and hauled her out by the scruff of her neck. She bit and scratched for all she was worth, but he was busy high-tailing it out of the dell, and was not about to be deterred by something no bigger than a fire-lizard. Black Riders were scarier.

Behind him, canon proceeded as normal.

The agents rendezvoused up the fortress path to the north. It had taken all of Gall's determination and a convenient tree to stop Fellrazer from running until he dropped and leaving Derik behind. The man came panting up the path some time later, a thoroughly dejected Minuial tucked under his arm.

Gall had hog-tied Vanya with all four paws together. She had also looped the rope around the werewolf's neck and jaws, muzzling her and pulling her head down.

At the sight of her mistress, Minuial revived and began struggling again, but that was all she could do in her current position. She couldn't bite or scratch through the mail of Derik's disguise.

Vanya, too, roused at the frantic mental communications of her CAF. Her attempts to move brought pain, so she stopped, but she growled and glared at the agents with golden eyes.

"This won't do," Derik said. "She needs to hear her charges so she can understand them."

"What do you want me to do, tell her we're friends and everything's peachy? Maybe offer her a nice cup of tea?" Gall scoffed at the ridiculous idea. "She understands well enough. Get on with it."

"Fine. Take her." He transferred Minuial to Gall's gloved hands and pulled his notebook from his pack.

"Vanya," he began, "also known as 'the Huntress', also known as 'Shadow', you stand—or rather lie—formally accused of being a Mary Sue. On my authority as an Agent of the PPC, I charge you thus: with numerous temporal-spatial distortions, to wit, not knowing your own age; sewing three perfectly tailored outfits in one hour; riding halfway from Rivendell to Isengard in one morning; riding the rest of the way to Rohan between sunset and moonrise; and falling directly from a ledge in the Misty Mountains into the Anduin. I charge you with employing horrible script-format pre-chapter author's notes—"

"Don't forget the brackets that knocked you out," Gall interjected.

"Yes, that hurt." He touched the spot where the flying "{three years later}" tag had struck him. He still had a small, tender lump. "Oh, and that in-text note about your eyes back there, too. To continue . . . I charge you with being the uncanonical relation of canon characters, particularly Aragorn and Galadriel, and with creating an uncanonical dead sister of Arwen, distorting the canonical timelines of all parties. You get some points for not making Aragorn sleep with Arwen out of wedlock, but not many. You're also charged with giving Aragorn a stupid and uncanonical code name—he was actually called Thorongil in Rohan—and with exhibiting fighting skills that defy physics."

He turned the page over and went on. "Here's a big one: you're charged with being a werewolf that isn't an evil servant of Sauron, and for no reason except to angst about it on the one hand and become unstoppable in a fight on the other. You've thrown everyone who knows about it out of character for not being properly terrified of you, in addition to however out of character they may have been to begin with. Also, you forced Galadriel to make a prophecy about how special you are, and—this is quite serious—it was really awful. Really. First-year apprentices can write better verses than that."

"Hey, one-eye! Focus! I'm not having a picnic here." Gall scowled at him, forcibly detaching Minuial from her shoulder and preventing her escape down her back.

"It bothered me." The Opera Ghost clone and former Harper glared intensely back before going on. "Ahem. You gain some points for sensible treatment of your arrow-wound and not having a sickeningly sappy romance with Haldir—the personal taste of my partner notwithstanding—or a sticky-sweet reunion with Aragorn. However, you lose them for your depiction of a host of expert Lothlórien archers taking 'several hours' to pick off a measly company of three hundred orcs, even with your help.

"That's it for the prequel. You have but few charges for the sequel, but they are particularly damning." He lowered the notebook to level his gaze at Vanya. "I would kill you simply for taking an innocent dragon for your ornament, but you had to go and get it so wrong for this continuum, too. Werewolves, dragons—you can't make misunderstood, fluffy little versions of these creatures just because you feel like it. You seem to have a problem understanding that certain things are just evil here. It isn't the norm for me, either, but I have more brains than the average teaspoon, so I learn and adapt. You, though . . . ." He shook his head. "You are such a pitiful little parasite that you decided to plagiarize J. R. R. Tolkien and literally attached yourself to Aragorn instead of trying to be an original character in an original story. For that crime, and all the others preceding it, the punishment is death. You are entitled to last words, if you can speak."

Vanya seemed to realize that her über-powerful yet tragically mistrusted werewolf form was not doing her any good. She slid back into human shape. The ropes loosened around her limbs and fell away from her face, but she didn't move.

"You are a Rider of Rohan," she said accusingly. "Why would you slay a Dunedain of the North, a friend to your people?"

Derik shared a look with Gall. "She wasn't listening, was she?"

"Nope! Not a word!"

He turned back to the Sue. "That reminds me: the singular of 'Dúnedain' is 'Dúnadan', and you either are one or you're not; it's not a fraternity you can join. The Rangers, that's something else. But you know, you're right, I shouldn't smash your head in. I have a much better idea." He knelt down and re-secured Vanya's bonds, then hoisted her across Fellrazer's back and opened a portal.

"Ah, good, it's still here," he said on the other side.

He had brought them back to the place where Vanya had been pulled from the Great River. It remained stuck wildly off-course with the broken mountain ledge jutting out overhead to the north.

"Gall, do you think you could string her up between, say, there and there?" He pointed out two trees, one a young mallorn and the other a twisted pine sprouting from a rocky islet in the river, near the west bank.

Her face lit up with comprehension and approval. "You one-eyed bastard," she complimented. "Tricky with one rope, but doable!"

Minuial changed hands again, and Gall got to work. Vanya, with no idea what the agents intended, sat still and gave them superior looks.

"What do you think this will accomplish?" she demanded. "Even if you leave me to die here and take Minuial from me, this border is watched. My love will find me and rescue me, and we shall hunt you down!"

"Oh, I don't think so," Derik said, scratching the dragonet along the jaw. With her mistress so confident, she was complacent in his arms now. "You know, you made her quite biddable. That was stupid."

"She would claw your eyes out if I commanded her!"

"But you won't, because I might hurt the little beast." He smiled. "Really. You are stupid."

Vanya didn't know what to make of that.

Gall tied the final knot around the river-tree and waded back to shore. "All set! Can I do it? Please?"

"Just a moment." He opened a small portal and tossed Minuial through. She squawked indignantly and flapped for balance, but the portal snapped shut behind her. "There. I've sent her to an unnamed fantasy-land to live out her days. She won't have to witness this." He nodded to Gall.

"You what? Witness what?" Vanya shrieked, no longer so sure of her position. She struggled against the rope, but her wrists were cinched tightly together behind her. She couldn't break the tension between the lines tethering her to the trees.

The Viking grinned. "You get good with knots when you grow up around ships. Can't spend all your time riding dragons and terrorizing the freaks." She raised her mace.

Vanya tried to transform at the last second; too late. She screamed and was cut off, dead before she knew it and torn limb from limb when the Anduin snapped back into its rightful place. The trees sighed in a rush of wind, sounding relieved. The mountains rumbled, and the ledge from which Vanya had fallen slowly returned to the embrace of its mother-rock.

The agents and Fellrazer rocked on their feet, but all in all, the effect of things being put right was far more gentle than the perversions inflicted on them by a Sue.

"You've got a real twisted streak, you know that?" Gall said, happily thumping Derik on the back. "I wouldn't have thought of that!"

Unaccountably, he didn't seem to appreciate the praise.

She rolled a shoulder, letting it go. "So, do we have to clean up?"

"Yes. I had a thought about that, too, if I can get the coordinates right."

They gathered up the bits, rope and all, and portaled. After a few tries, they got to the right place: a certain island in a river all but forgotten by the Third Age. Observing the fate of Vanya's remains, they learned more about Middle-earth werewolves than they had known before and posthumously charged her with being able to transform when that was not an ability exhibited by the canon models. Then they got the hell out of there before they became the main course.

Back in Derik's response center, Fellrazer stretched luxuriously and rubbed up against everything: legs, cots, console, and even Arasgorn the mini-Balrog, returned from wherever he'd gone off to before the mission. The mini was startled at first, but didn't seem too put off by the affection.

Gall patted the dragon as he slid past her legs on another circuit. "Yes, I know, I know. I'll take you somewhere for some flying later, I promise." She turned to Derik. "Well, what do you say? Did I pass?"

He stood still, having deposited his gear in its corner and run a hand through his hair, black and shaggy again. His face was haggard as he looked over the room, still littered with empty two-ounce liquor bottles, but changed when he looked up to answer. "Oh." He took a deep breath; his nose wrinkled slightly. "Yes. Yes, I suppose so. You were competent with the equipment and showed promising insight with regard to the problems in the fic. I shall say as much to the Marquis de Sod."

She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head. "That's it?"

"What do you want me to say?"

"I dunno, maybe something about how I totally saved your ass and you couldn't have done it without me and Fellrazer?"

Derik opened his mouth, but couldn't get a word in.

"Yes, Fellrazer, too! You can report me for violating Regulation Whatever, but he's my dragon and anyone who tries to make me leave him behind can take a long walk off a short cliff, so there."

Derik stared stonily at her.

Gall glared back.

"It's Regulation Five-C, actually."


"And I won't report you."

"You are so—wait, what?"

"I won't report you." He folded his arms. "Your partner can do that, when you get one. I happen to know how lucky you are to have him, and he you. Whatever your flaws, you've shown me loyalty and integrity, after a fashion, and I am grateful. Thank you."

There was a silence.

Finally, Gall chuckled. "Jeez, old man, you're making me blush. Tell you what, when we're done with the Daisy, why don't we go somewhere and I'll buy you a drink for your deeply messed-up emotional issues. How's that?"

He smiled. "It's a deal."

Neshomeh's Notes

Despite its flaws, "The Adventure Begins" had some promise: the romance stuff was handled pretty well, Vanya was at least smart enough not to go around telling people she was a werewolf at first, and I really sympathize with wanting to hang out with Aragorn and be a Ranger. However, everything good about the first story—heck, even most of what was bad about it—was abandoned in "With one Step." At that point, there was no hope of salvaging Vanya. She all but wrote herself out of existence. The agents just finished the job.

Thanks, as always, to my beta-readers. You guys are awesome! The scene where Gall destroys the puppet booth is dedicated to Irish Samurai, who hates the kind of author's notes seen in the mission and was very sad the agents couldn't take the time to set it on fire as well.