"Good news everybody!" Professor Giles proclaimed, emerging from the workshop elevator into the conference room/hanger of the Planet Express company. "Willow, Tara, please fetch everyone else, I have an important announcement to make."
"I'm Buffy," Buffy pointed out, not moving from her feet-on-conference-table rest position. "And there's no-one else in the room. Are you sure your eyes don't need checking?"
"Oh bother," the ancient Englishman scowled, "and this pair's warranty just ran out. No matter, at least age hasn't affected my hearing. When do you expect the others will be back from their mission?" he added, over the din of the Planet Express ship Planet Express Ship landing in the adjoining hanger.
"It's possible that's them now," Buffy sighed, pointing. Giles turned and let fly an exclamation of alarm, which brought the company medic and resident accountant running from their offices.
"What, a heart attack now is it?" Dr. Clemberg frowned, poking Professor Giles in the ear with a stethoscope. "That's your third one this week, this is too many. How many times have I told you 'moderation is the key', hmm?"
"Quit yer yappin yah floppy-eared layabaht," Kendra Conrad barked, whacking Clemberg with a rolled-up newspaper.
"That," a loud and annoyed voice came from the staircase to the hanger floor, "is the last time I go on a delivery with both of them at once!" A clearly disgruntled robot came up the stairs and glared at everyone while lighting a cigarette.
"Whatever sod installed the soundproofing in the bulkhead between my cabin and theirs has got a kicking coming to him!" the robot continued. "Not one bleedin' wink of sleep did I get! Every off-duty moment it's 'Oh Tara,' 'Oh Willow,' 'Baby, do that thing where you-'"
"And, end of story, Spike," Willow Rosenberg finished, coming up behind the robot and turning a volume dial on the back of his head down to zero. Spike continued silently complaining, evidently unable to tell the difference between no-one being able to hear him and no-one paying him any attention.
"What happens in our bedroom stays in our bedroom," the redhead grumbled.
"Except when it happens in the Captain's chair," the ship's captain, a blonde cyclops, murmured from behind her, quiet enough so that no-one else overheard. Willow turned as red as her hair, at which the blonde grinned.
"Tara, good," Professor Giles said. "Now that you're all here, would you all please come up to my laboratory for an important announcement-"
"Why can't you just tell us whatever it is down here?" Buffy wondered.
"Because it's not as dramatic- oh very well," the Professor muttered. "I've finished my latest invention, the What-If Machine!"
"You invented that last year," Tara pointed out, with a slight worried frown.
"Really?" Giles looked genuinely surprised. "In that case, good news everybody! I've finished repairing my latest invention! Why was it in small pieces?"
"Because someone," Buffy said pointedly, "smashed it to bits half-way through the result of me aksing it what if I were a cheerleader who fought demons on the side."
"Well thee infahnal ting was mahkin' a mockarry o' mi accent, mon!" Kendra retorted hotly.
"Oh come on," Tara sighed, stepping between the two before they could get a good fight going. "Let's go see what the Professor's machine has for us this time."
One short trip upstairs later, the employees of Planet Express gathered around the What-If Machine, which in the absence of a question was displaying its usual lava-lamp-inspired neutral screen.
"How does it work, again?" Buffy aksed, as the Professor tipped a cup of warm tea into the machine's intake funnel.
"Oh it's quite simple, yes," he doddered. "Simply as a question beginning with the words 'What if', and the machine will locate and display the appropriate parallel quantum reality.
"Like 'what if you werr on some remote ay-land som-wear?'" Kendra aksed.
"Instead of here, annoying us," Spike added, having turned his volume back up.
"Yes, exactly like that," Giles beamed, as Willow smacked Spike in the back of the head with a spanner. Meanwhile the What-If screen swirled, and began to reveal an image...
Willow clutched her bag as the plane came in for a landing on the island. It was a ridiculously small plane, and she would much rather have come by boat. But if the tour operator was to be believed, the resort was in a valley surrounded by impassable mountains, so flying in was the only way to get to the Fantasy Island estate. Faced with losing her deposit if she turned back, she had nervously climbed into the small prop plane with the other passengers. The ride had been as smooth as it could be, but her stomach was a little queasy - probably as much from the prospect of her week on the island and what it would offer her as from the transportation method.
On the ground, Xander heard the approaching whine of the Cessna Skyhawk's propeller and bounced up and down, ringing a bell he held in his hand.
"Hey boss, the plane, the plane!"
"You don't have to shout, Xander. I'm right next to you, and I can hear the plane perfectly well. I hate it when you shout."
"Sorry, boss. Would you mind calling me 'Tattoo,' by the way?"
"I most certainly would mind. And don't call me 'boss,' it's provincial. Call me Giles."
"Sorry, Giles - it's just more authentic."
"You're not even a native here, so it's the most egregious form of cultural appropriation."
"I'm just trying to get into my job, flex that creative muscle."
"If you spent as much time on your duties as you spend on flexing your - er - creative muscle, this resort would be a lot more successful. And stand up. You look ridiculous down there on your knees."
"I just thought it would be unique if the island host's second-in-command was a midget."
Giles looked up just long enough to see that the plane's passengers had disembarked and were now standing around watching him bicker with his assistant. He sighed, making a mental note not to let this go with Xander. Sometimes the reality of finally realizing his life dream of retiring to a tropical Pacific island where he could use his magics to help make people's dreams come true was a little...off from how he had imagined it. He thought, and not for the first time: the resort needs something...spicing up, maybe? New energy? I wish it was that easy.
"Well, it's not unique," he hissed out of the side of his mouth. "Get up. Welcome to Fantasy Island!" he addressed the group of three passengers who stood at the base of the plane's ladder.
The group looked dubiously at him and Xander, who was still on his knees - except for the redhead. She looked a little green around the gills and seemed to be concentrating on not losing her lunch.
"You all are the last group of guests to arrive this week. Ms. Jenkins, Mr. Osbourne - my assistant Xander will take you and your luggage to the veranda, where I will join you shortly. Ms. Rosenberg, if I may offer you a glass of ginger ale?"
He led Willow to a small table flanked by two chairs and covered by an umbrella. Droplets of water ran down the side of an icy cool pitcher of ginger ale that sat on top of the table. As they seated themselves, he heard Xander speaking to the other two guests as he led them to the main house.
"Welcome, welcome! My name is Xander, but most of the people at Fantasy Island call me Tattoo. If you need anything - anything at all, don't hesitate to call me. Especially you, Ms. Jenkins."
Giles sighed and removed his glasses, polishing them on the lapel of his blinding white suit. Ms. Rosenberg, seated across from him, was rummaging in her purse. She removed a pair of sunglasses, which she donned.
He poured her a glass of ginger ale. "Is the sun too bright for you, Ms. Rosenberg?" She accepted the drink gratefully. "Not exactly. It's...your suit," she said, apologetic. "It reflects the light a little too much."
Giles frowned. Not content to trust the resort's laundry to get his trademark white clothing bright enough, he often applied a little extra whitening magic to his suits. Perhaps he had gone overboard in this last batch. Oh well, it was a testament to his skills with magic, if that was the case - which made him all the more confident that could help this woman.
"Now, Ms. Rosenberg - in your letter, you wrote that you were coming to Fantasy Island because you are unlucky in love?"
Willow nodded, sipping her beverage. "I just can never seem to meet the right person. And I read your brochure, and I thought - I'm doing so badly on my own, that it certainly can't hurt to give this a try. Do you think you'll be able to help me?"
Giles cleared his throat. "Definitely. Here on Fantasy Island, we specialize in making dreams come true. I can guarantee that you'll fall in love while you're here - or your money back. Just relax, and be open to the experience."
She smiled, seeming a bit nervous. "I'll try. And thank you for the ginger ale - it was just what I wanted."
I know it was; I divined that from my afternoon tea leaves before your arrival.
Giles stood up and picked up Willow's bag. "I'll walk you to the main house."
They made their way across the lush green lawn toward the white mansion that was surrounded by a richly deep tropical forest. As they walked, Giles muttered some barely audible words under his breath. A bright cloud of sparkly white ethereal mist formed behind Willow's head and settled onto her shoulders. She didn't notice, but Giles did.
That's a fail-safe love spell. I wouldn't be surprised if you fell in love before the night was over, Ms. Rosenberg.
Giles stood in front of his staff, Xander at his side, as he addressed them. Each week when a new crop of guests arrived, he felt obliged to remind the staff of the importance of professional behavior, especially since so many of the guests were there looking for love.
"And remember - no fraternization with the guests. Understood?"
The staff gave slightly bored nods. Most of them had worked at Fantasy Island for several months, and had long before grown tired of Giles' little pep talks. They knew the rules. But one didn't argue with the owner-operator, no matter how stuffy and repetitive his speeches were.
"Smiles, everyone - smiles!" Giles concluded his speech with the same phrase each week. The servers scattered into the dining room to take drink and dinner orders. Tara Maclay, the head chef, herded her team of cooks back into the kitchen to work on that night's specials and appetizers. She had been working at the resort since the beginning and took her job seriously. For some reason, tonight she felt compelled to make extra sure that all the dishes were cooked to perfection. As she bustled around the kitchen checking oven temperatures, adding a dash of rosemary to the soup, and testing the consistency of the puddings, neither she nor her staff noticed a sparkly white ethereal mist that drifted into the kitchen and settled about her neck and shoulders.
Willow sat across the table from Daniel Osbourne. Could this be the man she would fall in love with? She wasn't sure, but she couldn't deny feeling flattered when he had approached her in the bar and asked her to dinner.
The feelings had rapidly diminished, however, when he ordered his dinner. "Steak. Extra rare."
Willow, a vegetarian, had been slightly grossed out at the sight of his steak, bright red and seeming to ooze blood from the middle. She could have handled it, but for the voracious way he tore into it, chewing with gusto as the steak juice ran out of the corners of his mouth pushed her over the edge.
"Excuse me - I'm the head chef, and just wanted to say hello and see if your food is all right?"
Willow looked up to see a blonde woman in a white chef's coat and hat standing by their table. She felt an unaccountable warmth spread through her body to match the smile that spread across her face.
"It's great," she said, gazing up into the biggest blue eyes she had ever seen.
"And your steak, sir?" the chef said, reluctantly breaking eye contact with Willow.
"It's great!" Daniel said, flashing the chef a winning smile. Shreds of meat were stuck between his teeth and a smear of grease clung to his chin.
"I'm very pleased that you agreed to dine with me this afternoon," said Wesley Wyndam-Price to Willow as he pulled out her seat in the dining room. "After last night when I saw you with that other young man, I thought I might have...missed my chance?"
Willow shifted in the chair and murmured something noncommittal. Truth be told, she had never been very into being on the receiving end of chivalrous gestures, and Wesley was overflowing with them. He had insisted on opening the outside door for her, and then scurried past her in the anteroom to open the inside door. When she had tried to protest that she was capable of opening a door, he had fallen all over himself to apologize while clinging stubbornly to the door handle. Finally she had given up and just walked into the dining room.
The server approached their table. "Take your order?"
Wesley glanced at the menu. "Yes, indeed! I'll have a Tom Collins, and an iced tea for the lady. I'll start with the barley soup, and she'll have the vegetarian vegetable soup. For the main course, poached salmon for me and a tofu club for Ms. Rosenberg here."
Willow spoke up. "Hold on, I don't like tofu."
Wesley looked astonished. "But you're a vegetarian!"
"That's right. It's possible to be a vegetarian and not eat tofu, you know. Anyway, I'd prefer to order for myself."
"Ex-excuse me?" interrupted the blonde chef, who had noticed the disagreement from the kitchen and had crept out to see if she could lend a hand. "If I could suggest something, we have an excellent portabella mushroom quesadilla today that you might like."
Willow looked up, her annoyance at Wesley dissipating as she took in the sight of the blonde's flushed face that was capped by a slightly askew chef's hat. Tendrils of hair had escaped the hat and clung to her face and neck in a way that almost begged for someone to reach up and tuck them back behind an ear...
"The portabella mushroom quesadilla it is, then," Wesley declared.
Willow snapped out of her reverie in time to give him a decidedly annoyed glance.
"So I jacked up my truck an extra six inches and put on some brand new shocks. And what do you know, the chassis never scraped a curb again. Of course, my buddy Angel said that it probably wasn't the chassis scraping anyway, that it was the exhaust pipe. But better safe than sorry, is my motto, and anyway it's okay either way because with the truck jacked up it calls more attention to the new rims I put on. They spin backward, and they're chrome so they look retro but also shiny, and..."
Willow slumped back in her chair, increasingly unhappy as she stifled a yawn. Her dinner date with Gunn, a man she had met while walking along the beach this afternoon after her disastrous lunch with Wesley, was turning out to be a bust.
"And then I said go ahead and put the 10W-30 oil in, because my truck can use either. The only reason anyone would put 5W-30 in the kind of truck I have is if they live in a cold climate, but I live in L.A. It hasn't snowed there since, well, ever. But if it did, I'd still be okay since I installed the new radials last spring. Talk about traction!"
"Coffee?" said a voice behind Willow's left ear.
She turned. It was the blonde chef again, holding a coffee pot. They really go all out with the service here.
"Yeah!" said Gunn. "I think Red here could use some."
Willow couldn't bear the thought of spending even five more minutes hearing about Gunn's truck.
"Actually, I think I need to call it a night," she said, standing up. "Any more coffee and I definitely won't sleep at all tonight."
She didn't miss the look of disappointment that crossed the blonde's face as she nodded, then turned and walked away.
"Hey, she didn't refill my coffee! That reminds me of a time when I ran out of gas on the highway, but shifted into neutral and coasted all the way into a gas station because I had lubricated the axle that morning..."
With a hurried word of thanks for the dinner, Willow beat a hasty retreat back to her room.
"Hello, room service? I'd like to order a pot of coffee."
The voice coming from the other end of the phone was slightly surprised, but pleasant.
"One pot of coffee, a-anything else?"
Willow twirled the phone cord around her finger. "No, thank you."
"Which room should this go to?"
"Willow Rosenberg, room 245."
A pause on the line. The reply, when it finally came, sounded slightly...sultry?
"I'll deliver it personally."
Giles wrung his hands together as he stood out on the lawn. In the three years he had owned Fantasy Island, he had never sent a customer away unsatisfied. But today, he thought, that enviable record would be broken. Despite his best efforts, he had failed Willow Rosenberg. She had not fallen in love with any of the men he'd seen her with over the last week - his divinations confirmed it.
"Don't worry, boss," Xander said at his elbow. "At least you know Ms. Jenkins is going away satisfied."
"Spare me the sophomoric locker-room comments, Xander," Giles said morosely, but his heart wasn't in it. Trading barbs with his irascible assistant just didn't have the same luster it used to, when he knew he was a failure.
How could he have failed? He had gone over his spells again and again, trying the first love spell he had cast on Willow two more times, and then finally resorted to more desperate measures. He had tried several other spells - Aprodite's Last Kiss, Horatio's Hot 'n Heavy Hoodoo, and even Love Potion Number 9 - but none of them had had any effect. Indeed, he had seen less and less of Ms. Rosenberg as the week went on. The only thing that had prevented him from seeking her out apply a divination on her was a crisis in the resort's kitchen - the head chef, Tara Maclay, had gone AWOL and was nowhere to be found.
The aforementioned Ms. Jenkins sashayed out of the mansion and planted a kiss on Xander's lips. It lasted slightly longer than was socially acceptable, meaning Giles had harrumphed, shifted from one foot to the other, and removed his glasses for a thorough polishing before the kiss broke.
"See you, Tattoo," Ms. Jenkins said, and strutted across the lawn toward the waiting Cessna.
Willow emerged from the front doors, then, and immediately walked over the few steps toward Giles. He steeled himself, and spoke.
"Ms. Rosenberg, I'm terribly sorry. Terribly, terribly sorry. It seems...that Fantasy Island has failed you, for the first time in its existence. I can assure you, you'll receive a full refund."
Willow blinked, nonplused. "What?"
"And reimbursement for travel expenses, of course," Giles hastily added.
"What do you mean, Fantasy Island has failed me?"
Giles wrung his hands. Willow was a tougher customer than he had expected. Flustered, he blurted out, "You didn't fall in love, and it was your wish that you would!"
Willow's brow furrowed. "But I did fall in love! I was coming outside to thank you. I've had a...GREAT week."
Giles was floored. How could his magics have been so off? They had assured him that Willow had not fallen in love with any man during her stay on the island.
Tara peeked her head out of the front door, and then walked over to stand by Willow. "Told you he wouldn't get it, sweetheart."
Giles looked from Willow to Tara, and back to Willow. Slowly, comprehension dawned on his face at the same rate that fluster spread throughout his demeanor.
"So that's where the head chef has been all weekend," Xander interjected helpfully. "Must have been the Love Potion Number 9 that did it, boss. That stuff is killer."
"Anyway," Willow said, "I was coming outside to tell you that I'm not going home today."
"Oh?" Giles said weakly.
"No," she said. "I've found my one true love, and she's your head chef. So I'll be staying here with her, of course. And consulting for you."
"Consulting?" Giles was kerflummoxed.
"Yes," she replied. "Fantasy Island is wonderful, don't get me wrong! But with you two in charge, it's not like it's exactly clued in about lesbians. And there's no greater growth market than the lesbian community, trust me. Talk about a bunch of sappy romantics who need a little help finding each other. With just a few modifications and the right advertising, the sky is the limit!"
"It could help to spice up the resort, too, Giles," Tara interjected. "I mean, no offense, but you've been doing things the same way for all the years that I've been working for you."
He considered this, and began to laugh as his thoughts from the beginning of the week came back to him. The resort needs something...spicing up, maybe? New energy? I wish it was that easy.
"Normally, I tell my guests to be careful what you wish for - but it seems that this week, my fantasy has also come true! Ms. Rosenberg, you're hired."
Willow shook his hand as Tara beamed.
On Fantasy Island, your troubles were truly all erased!
"Oi, could this not be about you two being in love all the time?" Spike protested as the image faded from the What-If Machine's screen. Willow and Tara exchanged a glance, and proceeded to ignore the cantankerous robot.
"What's wrong with them being in love?" Buffy aksed.
"It's bleedin' annoying, that's what," Spike huffed. "'Ere, machine: what if Red and One-Eye here weren't in love?"
A shower of sparks erupted from the What-If Machine, and Giles hurriedly poured more tea into it.
"Oh dear, I think it may be having some difficulty there," he worried.
"Quantum state matching parameters not found," the machine stated flatly, causing Willow and Tara to smirk at Spike. "Switching to random quantum what-if state."
The crew peered at the screen, curious to see which alternate reality the machine would come up with...
by Chris Cook
All was peaceful in Tokyo Bay, as a nondescript cargo vessel steamed towards its port, carrying a full hold of fireworks, gunpowder, and surplus military explosives. The ship's captain was looking forward to a long, relaxing stay in Tokyo, and no longer having to worry about what would happen if any of his crew casually tossed away a cigarette without looking where it was going, when he felt an unpleasant lurch in the vessel's progress. He quickly marched onto the main deck and glared down at his confused crew.
"What the heck was that?!" he barked, in poorly-dubbed English. The crew produced various indications of ignorance, for which the captain was about to shout at them some more, when a second lurch landed him on his backside on the deck. He scrambled to the railing and looked astern in horror, as the calm waters of the bay rose up behind his comparatively tiny ship.
"Oh no!" he squealed, as a huge form broke the surface and towered into the sky. "It's-"
Whatever he was about to say was interrupted as the gargantuan form took a deep breath. Energy crackled along the crimson scales running down the creatures back, and it and exhaled a massive blast of radioactive fire, obliterating the ship in the most pyrotechnic explosion in history. Windows were shattered for miles around, and stunned dockworkers took one look and fled as the massive creature kicked the flaming wreck out of the way and headed towards the shore.
"Run for your lives! It's Willzilla!"
In the headquarters of the Willzilla Combat Task Force, scenes of the giant monster's current rampage were played out on giant video screens. The Task Force commander, a dyed-blonde with the misfortune to be called Buffy-san, turned to her American sidekick Xander, who was wincing in sympathy as the Tokyo City baseball team, along with their entire stadium, had their worst day ever.
"Willzilla must be stopped!" Buffy-san exclaimed. "Deploy the ZX-81 Ice Laser Strike Aircraft!"
"Uh, it's at the workshop," Xander said sheepishly. "Something to do with the clutch seizing up, they said it'll be ready Thursday. Next week, at the latest."
On the main screen, Willzilla picked up a bus and used it to scratch her back, much to the alarm of its passengers.
"We don't have until Thursday!" Buffy-san pointed out. "What about the oxygen-destroyer molecules?" Xander flinched.
"Not a good idea," he advised warily. Buffy-san conceded the point, and watched in dismay as Willzilla wrenched a geodesic dome from its foundations and lined up to bowl it at a group of office blocks.
"I don't suppose there's any super-powerful aliens around who'd like to lend us a hand?" she suggested.
"Historically, that hasn't proved to be a great option in the long run."
"I have an idea," said a dreamy, not to say unhinged, voice from behind the pair. They turned to see the newest member of the Task Force, and self-proclaimed psychic.
"What is it Drusilla-san?" Xander asked, as if worried that the answer might bite him.
"What we should do," Drusilla-san wafted, "is set a monster to catch a monster." Buffy-san and Xander looked at her sceptically, then glanced back at the video screens, where Willzilla had discovered a collection of ancient pagodas, and was using her tail to bat them into lower earth orbit.
"It's worth a shot," Buffy-san gave in.
A short time later, the trio were gathered in the Task Force Experimental Plot Device Lab, staring at three small animals sitting on the desk in front of them.
"This is Missy," Drusilla-san introduced the first, a bored-looking lizard which flicked its tongue at her. "This is Kitty," she continued for the next animal, a kitten which took a playful swipe at her hand. "And this is Fantastico," she concluded pointing to a fruit bat which was hanging upside down from her desk lamp, asleep.
"That's... great, Dru," Buffy-san said levelly. "How does this help us, any?"
"What we do," Drusilla-san explained patiently, "is put these three adorable little muffins in this," she pointed to a complicated-looking device which seemed to be a combination of an espresso machine and a Star Trek prop, "and turn it on."
"And what will that do?" Xander asked.
"Wait a moment," Buffy-san said, peering at the improbable device, "isn't that an atomic nanite DNA rescrambler? Where did you get that?"
"I bought it with Task Force funds," Drusilla-san said calmly. "I filed it under 'miscellaneous expenses'."
"I wondered why we couldn't afford real uniforms," Xander complained.
"It'll combine the three critters," Drusilla-san went on, "and turn them into Queen Tarah, a giant, winged, three-headed monster, which will engage Willzilla in single combat and drive her back into the ocean!"
"Why three-headed?" Buffy-san asked. Drusilla-san looked at her as if she'd failed to grow enough extra heads.
"It has to have three heads," she said severely, in the manner of one lecturing a schoolchild who wasn't making an effort.
"But... okay, whatever," Buffy-san admitted defeat. "Do whatever it is you want to do. How far back do we need to stand when you switch that thing on?"
"It's perfectly safe," Drusilla-san sang cheerfully, carefully lifting her pets into the DNA rescrambler.
"I'll get the car keys," Xander said quietly to Buffy-san, as they both backed quietly out of the lab.
Some minutes later the headquarters of the Willzilla Combat Task Force exploded enthusiastically. Xander and Buffy-san, who were in a jeep several miles away, pulled over to the side of the road and watched as their former base of operations returned to earth in small pieces.
"If Dru survived, that's coming out of her paycheck," Buffy-san muttered darkly.
"Look!" Xander shouted, pointing. "She did it!"
Rising out of the plume of smoke that marked the former location of their headquarters, a giant winged three-headed golden-scaled monster stretched her various limbs. Her heads looked around, appeared surprised at seeing each other, then the creature as a whole gave a kind of shrug and, with a beat of her enormous wings, took to the skies.
"Queen Tarah," Buffy-san whispered in awe.
"Let's hope she's a match for Willzilla," Xander added. "This is the second time the city's been flattened this year, and it's only May - I don't think insurance is going to keep covering it."
Willzilla herself was at that moment occupying herself with studying the effects of picking up one end of a highway overpass and whipping it, sending cars and trucks flying in all directions. An enraged screech boomed over the remains of the city, and the colossal radioactive reptile looked up just in time to see Queen Tarah diving straight towards her, claws outstretched. The two behemoths collided with a titanic thud, and as Queen Tarah beat her wings and soared away, Willzilla toppled backwards into and through a large shopping mall.
The pedestrian monster righted herself, and glared at her airborne opponent, who was circling around for another pass. Assuming her resolve face - a determined scowl, accompanied by radioactive steam fuming from her ears - Willzilla ducked Queen Tarah's attempt to knock her down again, caught hold of one of her two tails, and swung her around and into the central business district, redefining the term 'stock market crash'.
The golden gargantuan staggered upright from the ruins of the stock exchange, fixed Willzilla with three sets of glaring blue eyes, and mimed pushing her sleeves up. Her scarlet-scaled opponent faced her from the other end of the former city centre, in the manner of a Wild West gunslinger waiting for the clock to strike high noon.
Queen Tarah attacked first, letting fly three bolts of golden lightning from her eyes that tore up half a mile of city before finding their target and exploding all over Willzilla's armoured hide. The titanic neo-dinosaur seemed unperturbed, striding through the smoke and blasting Queen Tarah with a wave of atomic breath that left her standing in a glassed-over crater. The two faced each other again, and paused.
"What's happening?" Buffy-san asked, making a grab for the only pair of binoculars the jeep had provided.
"Uh, looks like they're hesitating," Xander said. "Queen Tarah's sort of... grinning, and wiggling her tail... Willzilla's looking at her... I, uh... I think she's checking her out..."
With a speculative air, Willzilla unleashed a radioactive inferno centred on Queen Tarah's chest. Queen Tarah responded with a flurry of lightning that travelled up Willzilla's thigh and lingered on her hip. The two colossal mutant reptiles regarded each other shyly for a moment, then Queen Tarah waggled her eyebrows, Willzilla bit her lip bashfully, and as one they leapt towards each other, colliding with an ear-splitting crash and tumbling through a row of warehouses.
"Are they fighting again?" Buffy-san demanded. "They'd better be fighting!"
"They're... not exactly fighting," Xander said, offering her the binoculars. Buffy-san snatched them from his hand and looked.
"What? They're wrestling," she said. "Willzilla's trying to bite one of Queen Tarah's necks-"
"I think you'll find that's more 'nuzzling' than biting," Xander commented wearily.
"-and Queen Tarah's got her claw between Willzilla's... holy crap!" She tore the binoculars away from her eyes, paused, then looked again and again tore her gaze away in shock.
"The hell?" she asked. Flashes of lightning and atomic fire flared into the sky, while a pair of deafening giggles echoed through the remains of the city. Now and then the forms of the two monsters, tightly wrapped in each others arms, could be seen rolling around, heedless of the various buildings they were flattening.
"Um, how are we going to report this to the UN?" Xander asked hesitantly.
"Hey, what's she..." Buffy wondered, as one of Queen Tarah's heads emerged from the debris, looking around speculatively. She reached out a clawed hand, yanked the streamlined lead car of a bullet train off its rails, and proceeded to put it to a use for which it was most certainly not intended. Willzilla's surprised squeal, followed by a throaty purr, boomed over the landscape.Hey
"Oh my god!" Buffy-san yelled. "She's... that's... you know what, I quit! I am not being payed enough to see that!"
Ignorant of the comparatively miniscule humans watching them, Willzilla let out a roar that atomised a factory, then flipped Queen Tarah onto her back and set to work repaying the favour.
"That's ridiculous!" Giles exclaimed.
"It was a bit... fanciful," Willow mumbled, grateful to be away from the topic of what the mega-versions of herself and Tara were getting up to in full view of everyone.
"What kind of fool would build a clutch into an ice laser aircraft?" the Professor went on. "Bad What-If Machine!" He gave the machine a hearty thump with his walking stick.
"Um," Tara interjected, having gotten control of her blush so that, at least, it wasn't quite bright enough to cast shadows, "could we see something more... normal?"
"Fine," Buffy shrugged. "What if we were just normal people with no magic powers and/or radiation breath?"
Giles Bundy let the front door slam behind him. It had been a tough day at the shoe store, and his feet were hurting. He slumped down on the couch and picked up the remote control with one hand. The other, he shoved into the waistband of his pants.
"Joyce!" he called. "Bring me a beer!"
Joyce Bundy poked her head out from the kitchen, her enormous red beehive hairdo narrowly missing the door jamb.
"We're out of beer, Giles," she retorted. "Besides, I only bring beers to men who have sex with me."
Giles snorted. "Then our fridge ought to be overflowing. How can we be out of beer?"
Just then, their oldest daughter Tara came down the stairs clutching a suspiciously large and heavy backpack. She was clad in skintight leather short-shorts and a fuchsia tube top. Her peroxide-blonde hair was caught up in a side ponytail that bobbed up and down in time with her chest.
"I don't know, Daddy, but I'll bet that Buff does."
"Hi pumpkin. Where is Buff?"
"Here I am!" announced the young girl, tripping down the stairs behind Tara.
"Did you steal Daddy's beer?"
"No!" Buff hotly denied the question. "It was Tara." At this, Tara kicked Buff in the shins. Buff's outraged squeal was drowned out by Joyce's voice.
"Children, quit that fighting - you're giving me a headache."
The doorbell rang, interrupting the developing argument.
"I'll get it!" trilled Tara, running the rest of the way down the stairs to the front door. Her chest bounced alarmingly, almost escaping the confines of her tube top. She opened the door to reveal their next-door-neighbor, Willow D'Arcy.
"Hi Tara!" Willow said with a lingering glance into Tara's cleavage. "I was just coming over to see if you could help me with a little...problem I'm having."
"Sure!" said Tara, picking up her backpack. "See you later, Daddy!"
"Bye, pumpkin!" said Giles. He looked over at Buff. "Why can't you be more like your sister, anyway?"
"Wait, wait a minute," Tara protested, hitting the 'abort' button on the What-If control pad. "Since when do I wear anything like that? In public," she amended, giving Willow a wink.
"That was normal people?" Buffy frowned sceptically.
"I liked the one from last year, with the cats, can we see the cat one again?" Dr. Clemberg spoke up.
"Oh, right, the one where I'm a bleedin' rat, and I get clobbered by a daft kitten," Spike grumbled.
"Oh very well, what if Willow and Tara were cats?" Professor Giles aksed the machine.
"Wasn't it 'housecats'?" Willow aksed.
"Pfft!" Giles exclaimed, as the screen swirled, "cats, housecats, what difference could that make?"
by Chris Cook
We are strangers on this earth.
Many years ago the Master forged the Sword of Plun-Darr, and its evil power shattered our home of Thundera. Millions died. We few survivors took to the void, searching, fleeing, hoping.
This earth is wild, untamed, but for all our ways of art, we are wild at heart. We will make this earth ours, as it makes us its own.
The Master has followed us, crippled by the power he himself drew on to destroy Thundera, but the evil in him remains strong. The Eye of Thundera could make him the dark god he once was, and he will stop at nothing to wrest the Eye from us.
Though we were born far from here, this Third Earth is our home. And we will not be driven into the void again.
"Come on, kitten."
There was a circle of white sand, a stark contrast to the rich brown earth of the forest clearing. A fighting ring. Panthro approached his opponent warily. He knew he had the upper hand in this contest of strength, but he was far too wise a fighter to be over-confident. His would-be leader was small, but smart, and that made the old wrestler cautious.
He won't use his full strength - that wouldn't be fair. But he'll test her, that's for sure. She won't walk away until - unless - Panthro is sure that she's good enough.
His opponent was a slim, lithe creature, and small enough that his calling her 'kitten' still stuck her pride. Will-O was Lord, daughter of Lion-O the Great, daughter of the line of Claudus. But she would not be leader until she had passed the trials.
This may be the most difficult. She's capable, and she trained hard for this, but she's no giant. The trials of Cunning and Mind were nothing to her, those were her strengths. This isn't. She'll have to be light on her paws, and surprise the veteran combat master.
Will-O let herself creep within range, ducked Panthro's first attempt to grapple, and then engaged him on the second. The two remained locked for a moment, testing each other's strength, assessing each other's mood.
She's so young. It should have been five years yet before she faced the trials. If Lion-O had lived... But he had no choice, he died fighting in the void, so that we could reach Third Earth. And now his daughter will be leader. If she succeeds.
"Push hard, kitten," the old grey wrestler taunts Will-O. His muscles bunch, and he begins pressing her back, towards the edge of the circle. She grits her teeth, fangs showing, but she can't fight him like this.
'Kitten' always gets to her. She should be more calm. But the fire inside her... That made her father great. Perhaps it will make her great, too, if she can control it.
Will-O's hind foot touched the edge of the circle. She suddenly yielded, pulling at Panthro, trying to make his own strength push him out of the ring. He anticipated the move, but with little room to spare, drawing up short an inch from the line.
Will-O dove beneath his guard, and his stance shifted, expecting a low push from her. But instead she ducked upwards and blew out a breath - a small cloud of glitter sprayed into his face, distracting him for a fraction of a second. Eyes closed he fends with his forelegs, and falls when Will-O drops to the ground and twines her hind legs around his, tripping him and felling him, half-over the circle's edge.
Good girl. He won't call you 'kitten' any more.
Panthro opened his eyes, and seeing the sand line beneath his body gave a brief scowl that became into a proud grin as he turned his attention to his young opponent. She had scrambled to her feet, and offered him a hand up, which he refused with a chuckle.
"You felled me fair," he acknowledged, getting to his feet. "Don't push your luck, though, okay? I won't have the others laughing at the old wrestler needing help to get back on his feet."
Will-O nodded seriously, and the old grey cat regarded her for a moment.
"You did well, cat," he smiled. "Now be off with you. One more trial for you today, and time waits for no-one."
Far enough away to be unseen, an athletic form dropped silently from a tree branch and sprinted away through the undergrowth.
Yes, one more: me. And afterwards... I wish... But that's her choice.
Cheetara sprinted through the forest, leaving whirlwinds of air in her wake that whipped at leaves and branches. She shouldn't have stayed so long to watch Will-O at the other trials, but... it was Will-O, how could she not?
The familiar sensation of her soul dividing lurked in her stomach. She wanted Will-O to be leader, to complete the trials, to take her late father's place. But at the same time, what that entailed... The first act she would make as leader would be to choose her mate. Cheetara's face darkened into an anguished frown. It was right that she should choose now - she was of age, and if it hadn't been for the trials consuming her attention, perhaps she would have chosen before now. But as leader, there would be no putting it off any further.
And what ate at Cheetara's soul was that Will-O would never choose her.
Not that you've ever told her, she berated herself, unsure if she was upset at remaining silent, or simply that she had no chance to begin with. Okay, she's not a kitten anymore, but she's still young - she can do better than a tough old veteran. She'll choose Pumyra, certainly. An image of the exotic healer crossed Cheetara's mind. She'd be a fool not to... Then again, I keep forgetting the twins are of age now too. And she spends so much time with Wilykit, playing their logic games and puzzles.
She crested a ridge and left dust-clouds in her wake as she sprinted to the starting line of Will-O's final trial, her thoughts still on the young cat. It was not long after she had been selected as Will-O's mentor that these... feelings had begun to manifest. She loved Will-O, but then again they all did, even cantankerous old Panthro. But as time went on, and she spent her days with Will-O teaching her strength and agility and confidence, Cheetara began realising that she loved her. It had been so long since Thundera's destruction, and the grief, that she'd been caught absolutely by surprise by her own feelings - she'd been sure she would never love again. And yet, here she was.
Can't be helped. Train her, do your best, then let her go. She deserves that.
Cheetara knew Will-O choosing another as a mate would be a terrible burden on her heart. But she had been born and bred to duty and honour, and both demanded that she put the good of her people, and her leader, above her own desires. Will-O had to be leader - only then would she be able to call on the Lion's Claw in her blood, and wield the Sword of Omens. Only then would all of them be safe from the Master.
She would always cherish the time they had spent together. Months, all told, sometimes away from the others for weeks, and it would have been ridiculous to train all the time. There had been mornings and evenings spent talking, laughing, singing, playing... even cold nights that found them huddled together, and then Cheetara never felt the cold. She'd never have allowed herself the indulgence if it hadn't been part of Will-O's training to learn to endure the outdoor conditions... but it was, and as much as she felt guilty about taking advantage of it, Cheetara nevertheless kept those memories in a special place in her heart, to keep her warm for the rest of her life.
She heard a distant approach, and looked up. She caught a glimpse of Will-O's red hair and golden fur on the rise before she moved down into the forest. The trial was about to begin.
Will-O found Cheetara waiting for her, reclining against a tree trunk next to a line in the forest marked by red stones. The older cat seemed utterly at ease, as always - Will-O could never recall seeing her in anything but complete control of herself, which was simply one of the many things she admired. And, when she admitted it to herself, when she was sure no-one was around to see her emotions play over her face, desired as well.
"Hey 'tara," she smiled. Cheetara looked up and returned her smile, neatly tucking a strand of honey-gold and sienna patterned hair behind her pointed ear.
"Are you ready?" she asked quietly.
"Yup, ready as I'll ever be!" Will-O replied, bouncing on the spot. "Well, okay, I could technically take a break, what with having just run here and there and everywhere, and wrestled Panthro and gone through the twins' logic maze and duelled minds with Tygra, but the whole point of the trials is to test me, right? And it's not like everything in the world is necessarily going to pause and let me catch my breath every time I'm needed, so... I guess, let's go."
"Catching your breath is fine," Cheetara said, walking over to the line and standing next to Will-O. "But catching your runaway tongue, that's another matter - even I'd have trouble." Will-O's whiskers turned up as she grinned, then Cheetara turned serious.
"This is the trial of speed," she said. "We both start at the same time. Our objective is the broken boulder in the next valley - you remember I've shown you there before?"
"Uh-huh," Will-O nodded promptly.
"This isn't a race of who can move the fastest in a straight line," Cheetara went on.
"Just as well, because you, a hundred and twenty miles an hour..." Will-O quipped.
"It's not about moving fast," Cheetara continued, allowing herself a brief grin at Will-O's exuberance. "It's about getting there fast. Find shortcuts, navigate the terrain, use all your senses. Finding the shortest route won't be easy - but it'll be fair, Tygra and Wilykat have been through here to see that it's safe, and make sure it's a suitable challenge, but I've never run this course either, so it's the first time for both of us."
"I'm ready," Will-O said promptly. Cheetara smiled at her, and quite unexpectedly, reached out a claw and stroked her hair gently.
"I'm so proud of you," she murmured. Then the moment was over, and she was kneeling down on the starting line. Willow quickly knelt beside her, daring a quick glance at Cheetara's firm thigh right beside her.
"Even breathing," Cheetara said quietly. Will-O nodded.
"Tethera, tan, yan, go!"
Both cats took off into the forest as fast as they could. The way ahead was blocked by dense trees - Cheetara veered right, accelerating across the fairly even forest floor. Willow, already a step behind her as she turned, chose the left path instead, hoping to find some advantage there to make up for her opponent's incredible straight-line speed.
Cheetara's agility training served her well as she vaulted over fallen branches and drifts of autumn leaves without slowing. She spotted a sloping boulder rising out of the greenery not far ahead, and sprinted up its side to get a look at the terrain ahead. The race was over a fair distance - far enough that a moment's thought could repay the time it took. She stared ahead, studying the lie of the land. A narrow ravine ran diagonally across her path some way ahead - possibly reaching far enough to cause Cheetara a diversion, unless she'd already veered further right. It looked narrow enough to cross nearby, but the forest on the other side was dense and full of bracken, which would slow her down. Further on it became more sparse, but the ravine was wider...
There were trees on the very edge up ahead, and Will-O spotted a branch that would bear her weight. She guessed she would be able to get far enough out that a good jump would see her safely to the other side. She made up her mind barely a second after stopping, and leapt back to the ground.
Not far away, a dark, withered figure watched her go. From beneath a tattered cloak a blackened claw wrapped in blood-stained bandages emerged, gesturing to the hulking forms lurking in the shadows nearby.
"The leader-child is alone," a rasping voice announced. "Spike, take her alive."
A misshapen beast, something like a humanoid bull, but with massive bone-spikes in place of hands, lumbered into the forest, picking up speed deceptively fast for its size as it crashed through anything in its path.
"Angel," the shrouded figure went on, "fly. We will take care of the veteran."
A second creature, this one with the features a bat, spread its leathery wings and leapt into the sky. Its robed master hunched further in on itself, and muttered an incantation.
"Ancient spirits of evil, transform this decayed form to the ever-living Master!"
Shadows coiled around the ghoul, wrapping tighter and tighter, then in a flash of darkness they vanished, leaving a powerful, malevolent creature in their wake. He flexed his muscles, half-concealed beneath golden armour, then he raised a vicious claw and took to the skies, leaving a trail of black smoke in his wake.
Will-O was almost at the trees by the ravine when she heard something crashing through the forest in pursuit of her. A moment's listening ruled out any chance of it being a native animal, and on the heels of that realisation, she caught a foul scent in the air.
"Mutants," she whispered nervously. She had faced them before, but never alone - though they were so few in number that even the young cats like Will-O and the twins had to help fight the Master's minions, the veterans had always been there to lead them and guide them, and protect them when needed.
They're not here now. And I'm meant to be the leader, after today anyway.
Will-O extended her claws and scrambled up a tree, making sure it was close to others. Sure enough, no sooner had she reached the long branches than Spike crashed into view, and with one look up at her charged the tree trunk. Will-O sprinted along the branch and leapt to the safety of the neighbouring tree, as the mutant smashed into her first choice in a shower of splinters.
Come on, think! Assets: agility... and brainpower, Spike's dumb as a hairball.
Will-O realised her leap had brought her close to the ravine's edge, and with a quick glance around she leapt again to a third tree, this one perilously close to the narrow chasm.
"Come get me!" she yelled at the scowling mutant below. Spike grunted and tore his hand-spikes from the remains of the tree he had struck, which swayed heavily, its branches caught in those of its neighbours, straining to break free and fall. Spike took a few steps towards Will-O's new tree, building momentum, but then he slowed.
"Urr, crafty cat," he grunted. "Think I rush and fall? Stupid cat."
"Oh," Will-O said, her face falling. "Well in that case... would you mind if I just, y'know, ran away a bit?" She dropped from her perch and looked around for an avenue of escape.
"Yes, would mind!" the mutant roared, advancing on her. Will-O's eyes widened as he drew back one of his massive spike-fists, and as he swung she seemed paralysed with fright. But at the last moment she ducked - and Spike's fist thudded solidly into the tree trunk behind her, and stuck fast.
"Who's stupid now?" Will-O grinned as she ducked under Spike's arm and raced away.
"Come back!" Spike roared. "I get free, and-"
"And nothing!" Will-O shouted over her shoulder, before leaping up and grabbing hold of a trailing vine. She soared around, and putting all her effort into her swing, landed on the teetering half-felled tree. Her impact was the last straw - the tree tore free of the branches holding it up, and toppled ponderously down, striking in turn the tree that Spike had jammed his limb into, which cracked at its base and fell into the ravine.
"You b-" the mutant roared, as he was dragged over the edge and out of sight.
Will-O listened to the crashing of the tree and its unwilling passenger as they ricocheted off the ravine's walls, then turned her attention back to her original goal.
Spike wouldn't be out of his cage alone, she mused as she took off at a run. That means the Master... and if he's around, but not after me, he must be going after 'tara!
Will-O reached the broken boulder without having seen any trace of Cheetara, or the Master and any of his other mutants. She had hoped, secretly, to find her mentor waiting for her, but the bare ground around the lightning-struck rock dashed her hopes.
"Ah, there you are, child..."
Will-O spun around, to see the Master emerging from the midst of a cloaking spell atop the boulder. Behind him was Angel, holding the ends of a rope tied tightly around Cheetara's arms and body. The mutant looked considerably the worse for wear - his wings were torn, and he walked with a limp.
"Your feline friend put up quite a struggle," the Master cackled. "But who could hope to stand against the magic of the Master? Not her. And certainly not you, little one."
"Let her go!" Will-O demanded, drawing the knife from her belt - the Sword of Omens, small and dormant.
"Or what?" the dark sorcerer mocked her. "You'll stick your little blade in me? Pathetic - you can't even wake its power. I faced your father, child - he had the Lion's Claw, and the Sword was a true marvel in his grip! But you've never been able to master it, have you? I suppose," he sighed theatrically, "heredity isn't everything."
"You'll find out!" Will-O boasted, trying her best to keep up a brave front. She knew the Master's words were true - the Sword's power, like its true form, had never revealed itself to her. She had hoped once she had passed the trials, once she was leader... but now she realised those hopes were in vain. She could never have needed the power more than now...
"Child... give me the Sword," the Master said, his voice feigning reasonableness. "I have no need of your blood, or that of your friend. And once I have the Eye of Thundera in the Sword's hilt, you and your kind will be no threat to me - there shall be no reason for me to concern myself with any of you. You will live out your days in peace... if only you'd give the Sword to me."
Will-O looked up, over the Master's shoulder, at Cheetara. The golden cat was staring at her imploringly - Will-O's nerve almost broke, but then she saw the slightest motion of Cheetara's head, moving from side to side. No.
"Go to hell," she spat at the Master.
"I see," the ghoul nodded. "Very well, if I have no other options..."
Calmly he extended a claw, and dark blue lightning leapt from his fingertips, rippling agonisingly over Will-O's skin. She dropped to the ground and curled up, anything to escape the fearsome pain.
"Give me the Sword," the Master said patiently. "No-one will help you. Your friend is helpless, and the other don't even know you're in danger. How many hours before they search for you? The pain will no stop..."
Give him the Sword, Will-O thought for an instant.
Then she heard Cheetara's voice - not raised in anger, but a cry of pain, of anguish at seeing Will-O hurt. The young cat's blood boiled at the sound.
She felt power rising up inside of her - not anger, or fear-born bravado, but true power, the steady will to defy what stood against her.
No-one hurts 'tara!
Unbidden, she felt it grow - the Lion's Claw, for generations in her family's birthright, the link back to Claudus himself, carried in their very blood. Her right claw pulsed with strength, her fur grew into the likeness of a gauntlet, and through her palm she felt for the first time the Sword, a living thing - the Eye of Thundera.
"Thunder!" she yelled, rising to her knees and aiming the blade at the Master. The hilt and guard of the dagger grew in an instant, now large enough for a full-sized sword. Her eyes were fixed on her enemy's, but some other sense let her feel Cheetara's gaze on her - flowering hope, and awe.
"Thunder!" she repeated. The Sword of Omens grew to its full length, gleaming in the sunlight. The Master raised a hand hesitantly, as if unsure whether he needed to defend himself.
"THUNDERCATS! HO!" Will-O roared. The scarlet jewel in the Sword's hilt, the Eye itself, blazed with power, which ran up the blade and blasted the Master off his perch on the boulder. The beam soared into the air, carrying the malformed sorcerer with it until, in a flurry of darkness, he transformed into a black mist and fled into the clouds.
Angel stared up at the crimson beam, projecting the ThunderCats' emblem high into the sky. Cheetara needed no more than the slightest slackening of his grip - her leg whipped straight up against her body, kicking him in the face over her shoulder, then she heaved against her bonds with all her strength, throwing the mutant over herself and onto the ground. He took one look at her, free and bearing down on him, and took flight, scrambling away and lurching into the air on his damaged wings.
"Will-O!" Cheetara called, rushing to her side. Will-O was staring at her hand - in the space of a heartbeat the Sword of Omens had withdrawn back into itself, nothing more than a dagger, and her claw had returned to normal.
"Will-O? Are you alright?" Cheetara asked, supporting her shoulders as she stood.
"I-I... I did it!" the young cat exclaimed.
"You did it," Cheetara smiled. "I always knew you would, one day. You're our leader."
"I did it," Will-O said to herself, in a daze. She looked at Cheetara, and a smile spread across her face.
"What?" the older cat asked.
Will-O sheathed her blade, then gently took Cheetara's claw from her shoulder, and holding it in both of hers, placed a kiss on her palm. She looked up again, hopeful.
"Will-O?" Cheetara asked, stunned. "What...?"
"Well, at this point, you say 'yes' or 'no'," Will-O replied, grinning in a poor attempt to hide her nervous yearning. Cheetara took a startled breath.
"Really?" she whispered.
"Well yeah," Will-O nodded. "That's how it goes, I kiss your palm, which basically means 'I want you to be my mate', and then you say 'yes' or 'no', and... do you...?"
Cheetara hugged Will-O and kissed her firmly on the lips, savouring the experience as if it was the first one she had ever had. When she had finished, the younger cat was left breathless in her arms.
"Oh, wow," she murmured. "Uh... that's a 'yes', right?"
"That's a 'yes'," Cheetara nodded. "I just can't believe..."
"It's always been you," Will-O said simply.
"Oh, gimme a soddin' break!" Spike protested. "What's the deal? Every time this bleedin' machine does you two as cats, I get the stuffing beat out of me! What kind of bollucksed-up logic is that? Does that make any sense? Anyone?" He glared at Willow and Tara, who shook their heads and left the Professor's laboratory, followed by the others, leaving the irascible robot alone.
"Well, sod. I need a drink."