Title: Where's Max?
Author/pseudonym: Drovar
Email: drovar@mediaone.net
Website: The Ferret Cage
URL: http://www.ferret-cage.com/
Rating: PG-13 for some bad words and implied m/m sexy stuff
Date: 1/1/99
Summary: Max Fenig misses a slash assignment
Category: Parody/Humor, sort of.
Warnings: Lots of character death, sort of.
Disclaimers: All things recognizable as TXF belong to CC, 1013 & FOX, all else belongs to me or one of my co-conspirators.
Feedback: Appreciated, and fondly archived for enjoyment in my dotage.
Attributions: Thanks to all the authors who let me use and abuse their characters and names for the sake of this story, and all the folks I've forgotten to mention, as well.
Thanks to:
Shael: For beta, cheerleading, and thwaping, also Jessica Leahs. Jess is featured in Shael's wonderful 'Loup Garou' stories which you can find here. http://home.earthlink.net/~wolfcatxf/loupgarou.html
Pellinor: For the delightful Cyril, who I simply cannot do justice to. Be sure to check out Cyril's stories at [Archivist's note: Website address given by author no longer valid.]
Viridian: For general aiding and abetting, and for Pooky, -- The Mouse O' Love -- You can find Viridian's fiction page at http://members.tripod.com/~drovar/viridian/
Halrloprillalar: For inspiration, advice, beta, immoral support, And more great stuff than I can mention. Hal's fanfic can be found at http://come.to/prillalar
CiCi Lean and D.B. Kate: For giving permission for my insane personality abuse. Don't miss the real Acid Desk or the great fanfic at http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Workshop/3293/
Te: For being Evillll! Thanks for not putting your foot down about this silliness. And really she's nothing like I portray her here, really, well mostly not. You can find Te's incredible fanfic at http://strangeplaces.net/te/
A certain unnamed Cabal of Bitter Old Fanfic Queens: Thanks for You know what.
Westerville Douglas and Crow are mine.
To everyone else I mention, skewer, or poke fun at, I sincerely apologize, mostly.

Where's Max?
By Drovar

Max Fenig was late. Check that, he was very late.

/Damn, damn, damn, damn/

Max shifted nervously in his seat. Melissa had insisted that he let her do *something* with his hair before he left the vault and it had cost him far too much time. After lots of painful fussing on her part he'd ended up looking the same *and* smelling like strawberries and henna. Then of course there was the whole abduction thing . . . again. It was not the best of times.

This was his big chance to get out of the vault, and he was screwing it up. Not that the "Chris Carter Dead and Underused Character Vault" was such a bad place. However, you could only play canasta for so long, and listen to just so many of Bill Mulder's conspiracy stories, before you went stark raving mad.

You only got so many chances to get out. If you got popular, or found a patron, you could get out of the vault forever. If you didn't, well there was always canasta. Pendrell had made it to the big time; Max wanted that too. He wanted a place to call home, maybe even an archive of his own.

Max checked his assignment notification again, fingering the small index card fondly. His first card, from his assignment to "Big Spender," By Halrloprillalar, was framed and hanging on his wall back at the vault. That had been a great time, and he really thought .. . well he thought *maybe*, oh hell, he thought it was going to be his ticket to freedom. It hadn't worked out that way, and now he was screwing this one up.

His ancient green VW bug rattled to a stop at a traffic light. "'Doing it For Mulder' by Viridian5," Max read aloud, as he tapped his free hand on his knee in an unconscious rhythm. "SUMMARY: Save Mulder!" Max sighed and tucked the card carefully into a pocket. It sounded like one hell of a get together, with a heck of a cast. Slash might not always be pretty but it sure was fun.

When Max passed the Slash Cafe he knew he was getting close, the sign above the door proclaimed that tonight was 'Ladies Night.' He slowed his ancient rattletrap, checked his card again, just in case, and pulled into the Slashland Denny's. The banner above the main window read "Denny's Welcomes the Slash Consortium." He could see the waiters and servers moving around as he hustled toward the door.

As he pulled the door open, he stopped. There were two mice sitting on a trashcan, next the entrance. That in itself was unusual enough, the fact that one was green, and the other wore horns and carried a pitchfork was entirely too weird.

The mice stared at him for a moment, their eyes bright and cunning, as if they were evaluating him, sizing him up in some obscure mousish way. Then the mouse on the left, the green one, seemed to come to a decision, and with a shrug of its mousy shoulders it scampered away. The other mouse, the debbil er . .. devilmouse, regarded him for another cold instant then it too was gone. Max shook his head and strode into the restaurant. Had he imagined it, or had the second mouse actually given him the little mousy finger? Some mice just weren't nice.

The restaurant was in a shambles. The waiters, in various stages of redressing, were setting scattered chairs and tables upright. Food clung to the walls, the ceiling, and most of the waiters.

Max looked up just in time too side step a grad-slam breakfast that gaped, stretched and fell with a moist plop. One lone patron, in a dark suit, with thick black hair, sat in a back booth, apparently unperturbed, enjoying a piece of cherry pie and coffee. Max blushed when the man gave him a wink and returned to his pie.

Max ran a hand through his red hair, damn, it *still* smelled like strawberries, and sighed. Well, they *had* been here, that much was pretty clear. The chalkboard next to the greeter's podium had been erased and rewritten.

Thank you, gentlemen. Until next year -- WS More cheese sauce on the buffet! -- AK Please serve the cheese sauce at a less scorching temperature --FM Ahh Mulder, we licked it all off didn't we? -- SP

Yep, that was them. He glanced back at the man in the booth; he looked oddly familiar. He was FBI all the way, but Max couldn't quite place the handsome face. Maybe he could sneak another peek as he left, maybe even two.

A satisfied groan from nearby caught his attention. A quick search revealed the greeter stretched out behind his podium. Max dismissed any further thought of the pie-eating stranger; he was on a mission.

"How long?" he asked.

"Is what?" the befuddled server responded.

"No, I mean how long have they been gone? I was supposed to meet them here."

"Oh, twenty, thirty minutes or so, I suppose." The young man stretched, and sat up. "Hey, if you catch up to them, tell the little guy, Jeff something to call me."

Max hit the door running.

"And that other guy, Muldune. Tell him to stop by anytime." The guy followed him out the door, still holding his trousers up by one hand.

Max jumped into his car, slammed it into reverse, and swore as it backed, wheezing and shaking, away from the restaurant.

"Tell the big bald guy and the red head that I had a great time," the man yelled as he trotted along side Max's car. "Oh, and tell the guy with the green eyes and lashes that I'll have extra cheese sauce ready anytime he wants it."

The rest of the man's requests were lost as Max put the car into drive and urged it down the road. He was late, oh so very late.

* * *

The Slash Consortium lobby was dark by the time he charged through the doors, not a good sign. There was a visitor's desk, a sign in book, consortium applications, a slashfic night depository, and one solitary door, with a key-card box. He gave the door an experimental tug; locked.

A quick rummage through the visitor's desk turned up two paperclips and a letter opener. Within moments he had the box open, and wired. A second later he touched a paper clip between two connections and was rewarded by a metallic 'snick' as the door unlatched.

The opulence inside was astonishing. Once past the nondescript lobby, this place could rival the Taj Mahal, even the palace at Versailles. Everywhere he looked he could see massive columns of rose and gold marble, jet balustrades leading up silver trimmed, mahogany stairways. The place was decadent to the point of obscenity; damn, he loved it already. He always knew the slash crowd lived pretty well but this was amazing.

He checked the directions on the assignment card as he walked through the vast halls, and realized that he was already lost in the enormous ornate complex.

/Lost slasher found starving amidst plenty/

He wandered for what seemed like hours through the echoing halls, past countless doors and archways that either were locked, led to rooms filled with books, computer equipment, and manuscripts, or led off into yet more vast chambers. Finally foot-sore, and tired, he stopped to rest on an onyx and gold gilded bench. Popping his shoes off he stretched his aching feet, and tried to think about his next course of action.

Deep in thought, he didn't at first hear the door down the hall opening. Finally the ominous squeal of old hinges broke him out of his reverie. Max leaped up, stuffed his feet into his sneakers, and trotted down the hallway.

As he approached the half-open door he could immediately see that it was unlike the others in the complex. Heavy, dark wood and archaic iron bands reminded him of nothing other than a dungeon door. The flickering of what could only be torchlight, the smell of burning pitch and a man screaming somewhere inside pretty much confirmed that. Words were chiseled above the door in florid script. M.T.A. Slash Division.

"Please not that, please not the whip, I'm begging you," the man wailed. As Max reached the door he could hear grunting and the energetic snap of leather on flesh. He thought for a moment that he could also hear a muffled "Oh baby! Beat me Daddy."

A young woman was standing in the doorway with her back to the hall. They had been hidden from view of each other by the large door until now. "Okay, have fun, see you Sunday," she called down the rough stone stairway.

"Excuse me," Max began hopefully, as he tapped the woman on the shoulder. Maybe he'd get some help, finally.

* * *

Max shook his head trying to clear the fog. Okay, where was he? Oh, yes, the Slash Consortium, he remembered that, okay, good. Funny though, he could have sworn he'd been standing over on the other side of the wide hall just a second ago, and why did it feel like someone had dropped a bowling ball on his chest, from ten feet up?

"Oh, I'm sorry," a soft voice said. Max looked up. The woman, the one from the doorway, was looking down at him, concerned. She was a striking woman, maybe mid 30's, pale skinned and deeply brunette.

"Are you all right?" she asked. "I didn't mean to do that. I was distracted, and you startled me."

"You hit me?" Max asked incredulously, visually measuring off the considerable distance between the wall and the door.


"You hit me?" The woman couldn't be much more than five maybe five foot three, five four, perhaps one hundred and twenty pounds.

"Yep, sorry about that." She helped him to his feet.

Max winced at the pain in his chest. It didn't feel like anything was broken but he'd be sore for a good long time. "But how?" he wheezed.

"Don't know my own strength I suppose." She smiled. Max grinned back despite the slowly ebbing pain. If he'd been gen!Max rather than slash!Max he'd have been entranced. Hell, he was pretty well entranced anyway.

"I'm Max Fenig," he said holding out his hand.

"Jess Leahs," she said shaking his hand.

Her grip was powerful. He could feel the corded muscle resonating in her hand though he could see no sign of such gross power beneath the delicately featured skin.

"I'm here, or was here, rather," Max said holding up his assignment card, "for a slash story. Doesn't look like that going to happen."

"Wait, I know you," Jess said, looking up from the card. "You're that other dead red-head guy, you're right out of the vault aren't you?"

Max nodded, "Looks like I'm headed right back too."

Jess stood looking at him for a moment; her dark eyes sharp and appraising, and then seemed to reach a decision. "Come on Max," she said. "This is the BDSM wing, not much fun unless you're into that sort of thing."

"And you were here . . . ?" Max asked hesitantly, rubbing the sore spot in the middle of his chest, and eyeing her speculatively.

"Visiting an old boyfriend."

Max smiled thinly remembering the man's scream of pain and lust from the depths of the dungeon. Strange place, stranger people; he rather liked it.

"Let's go," Jess said, taking his arm, and nearly pulling him off his feet as she broke into a rapid trot. "I'll take you to meet the others and see if we can't get you a new assignment."

* * *

After some very convoluted meandering through seemingly endless marble halls, festooned with gossamer thin tapestries, and all manner of sculpture, weasels or maybe ferrets, moose, innumerable rats, mice (a few wearing what looked like little tiny lab-coats) and a few squirrels, they arrived at a large gallery of more *modest* design.

The alabaster and marble columns supporting ceilings that soared high overhead gave way to a more functional area. Regular stone, even some cement here and there, carpet instead of marble floors, and artwork of less than erotic intent.

A quick stop at the performance room revealed that he was indeed far too late. A tangled mass of arms, legs, and all manner of body parts protruded from a great mass of humanity in the center of the room. Somewhere within the teeming mound Max thought he could hear a faint "Ooooh . . . ouch . . . Medic . . ."

He spotted Mulder propped up in a large comfortable chair, wrapped up in a big granny afghan, naked and asleep. Poor guy, he must have been really tired, he'd dropped his teacup, turning it over in his lap, hopefully he hadn't burned anything important . . . poor guy. Max closed the door quietly and returned to the end of the hall where Jess waited.

"Any luck?" she asked.

"Nope, show's over."

"Damn, well come on, we'll meet the others and head down to the author's wing."

They quickly passed into an area laden with computer equipment. Flat-panel large-screen monitors lined the walls; bundles of fiber optics snaked everywhere. The entire hall hummed with electronic life.

Jess had just explained that this was the beginning of the writer's hall when they rounded a corner and Max suddenly found himself face-to-navel with an enormous fur-covered belly. His gaze traveled up the enormous abdomen over a comically broad chest and up to a fearful cartoon caricature of a face. Heavy jowled, huge pallid green eyes, between bulging bony ridges, topped off by two enormous tusks that jutted upward from the jaw.

With a badly startled squawk, Max tumbled to the side as the hairy behemoth lumbered past. Only belatedly did Max see that the creature carried an enormous stack of computer printouts.

"Good Lord and butter," Max exclaimed as he scrambled to his feet. "What the hell was that?"

"Usenet Troll," Jess replied, with just a hint of mirth at the edges of her voice.

"I thought that was a euphemism." Max looked down the hall, his mouth falling half-agape. There were Trolls everywhere, some working on equipment, others totting those enormous printouts, others hauling all type of computer electronics.


As they watched one particularly stupid looking troll stride up carry a large box of blue crystal figures.

"Mistress Jeshh," the big troll slurred through his tusks. "The new figu . . . figger . . . figurines . . . are here."

"Why thank you Ravord," Jess said as she pulled one of the figurines out of the box, examined it carefully, handed it to Max, and turned back to the big troll. "Take this box to Sean, all right?" The troll shook its enormous head in agreement and lumbered off.

"Interesting," Max said as he held the beautiful crystal up to the light It showed two familiar looking men locked in an embrace, their lips touching. It made him feel kind of warm, fuzzy and a little domestic just to look at it.

"What kind of crystal is this?"

"Baccarat," Jess replied.

Max pocketed the figurine as they moved quickly down the giant hall. To the right a line of Trolls, pushing costume racks, rumbled past. Max could see several racks of Nazi style uniforms, pristine white lab coats, a giant rubber monster get-up, countless Armani suits, a frilly red dress, and one cheerleader outfit.

Jess led him down another long hall marked 'Original Character Pavilion.' There was less activity here, compared to the frantic hustle in the writer's area. This place was almost sedate.

A lone troll approached them, carrying another stack of printouts. The troll held an oversized pencil in its giant paw and was making slow, deliberate marks on the printout. Intent on its task it failed to notice as they got close.

"Not right," the troll muttered heavily. "Mulder wuvs Scully, shouldn't change their sexual orientation, not right, not right, get everybody in trouble."

Jess stopped as the troll drew near. "Oh Fester, aren't you ever gonna learn?" she asked, adding an irritated sigh. "Excuse me Max." Jess turned to face the troll.

Max watched with interest. Suddenly he caught a movement at the corner of his eye. A short, blond-haired man in black military garb stepped out of a nearby hallway, and raised his hand as if to call out a greeting.

Max found himself caught in one of those weird time-slip moments, when things seemed to slow, and reality leapt out in startling detail. His attention was split between Jess and the blond guy. Jess was moving rapidly toward the troll, gaining speed, her legs suddenly growing muscular and rippling with tightly corded muscle as, incredibly, her form began to shift, growing taller, broader and coarser.

In the instant it took her to cross the hall Jess Leahs had vanished. In her place was a creature from some psychotic dream, a terrifying hellion that should not simply could not, exist in any sane world. Gone were the thin delicate arms replaced by long powerful limbs that ended in enormous hands, graced by cruel four-inch talons. Pointed ears were pinned back to a skull covered with jet-black fur. Enormous ivory fangs extended from a dripping muzzle. The graceful woman was completely gone, replaced in all ways by a powerful, muscular beast, a dark, slavering night-spawn of horror-haunted dreams. Jessica Leahs was one bad-ass werewolf; there was simply no other way to say it.

In two more long strides she stood next to the oblivious troll, her chin towering several inches above its head. Slowly, perhaps finally sensing her presence, the troll stopped writing, and looked up into the teeth-filled gaping maw. Max shuddered and darted a glance over at the blond man. He'd turned several degrees paler and was working his way toward an unpleasant shade of green.

A loud roar snapped Max's attention back to the Jess and the Troll. The beast dropped its printouts and shrunk before the full force of the werewolf's fury. Jess the werewolf bellowed again. The dull creature apparently knew what was good for it, whimpered, dropped to the floor, and began erasing madly. In moments it had finished, grabbed its printouts, and fled.

By the time Max recovered his faculties Jess had morphed back into her human form and was helping the blond para-military guy to his feet.

"Breath Cyril, come on, open those lungs and swallow some air. Pellinor'd never forgive me if I scared you to death." Jess patted the man, Cyril apparently, on the back.

"Max," Jess said as she turned the red-face man to face him. "I'd like you to meet Cyril. Cyril is a trainee 'Them'."

"Well post-trainee actually," Cyril said brightly, as his face regained something close to a normal color, "I got quite good scores on my exams . . . eventually."

"Cyril this is Max Fenig. Max is well...looking for alternate employment." She looked over at Max, and winked. "Now where are West and Crow?" Jess asked as she straightened the small man's collar and brushed lint from his shoulders. "And yes, we were all terribly proud of you," she added.

"Back at the pavilion, still playing mah-jongg, I'd imagine."

"That dog," Jess sighed.

"Jess, you know you're only put out because Crow has beaten you six games running," Cyril said, with a wide grin. Jess only grunted in reply.

Max retrieved the man's black baseball cap, noting the embroidered 'Fluffy Man' across the front.

"Dog? Mah-jongg?" he asked.

"Oh yes," Cyril said, putting his cap back on and glaring menacingly at a nearby mirror. "He's an absolute fiend for the game, kept me up for hours and hours one night last week. I was so drowsy the next day; I put three sugars in the head Them's coffee. He hates sweet coffee, nearly had me fed to one of those little alien fellows."

"Cyril, we're headed down to the writer's wing to see if we can get Max a new assignment. Do you think Pellinor might have something for him?"

"Oh my no, I don't think so. She's so wrapped up in her 'Deep Background' website she hasn't written anything for a month. Plus she writes Mulder centered angst, not a lot of room in there for extra characters."

Jess sighed "You're right, and Shael pitches a fit if I even mention new fics, she's still all in a knot over Uncertain Allies 5. How about Drovar?"

"Well maybe," Cyril answered. "West could probably talk to him about it. But he's been so preoccupied with those Pen & Jay stories . .." Cyril paused.

"Well it's worth a try, anyway," Jess said. Max jumped inwardly as the young woman shifted to some intermediate lycanthropic form, half-human and half-wolf. She was beautiful in an eerie, unearthly way, like a fallen angel, newly risen. Max jumped, outwardly this time, when she let loose a long, high-pitched howl that echoed and reverberated through the huge hall.

"What the hell?" he asked.

"You'll see," Cyril responded.

Moments later a shimmer appeared in the air. It looked almost like the heat ripple from some dark asphalt Texas road baking in the afternoon sun.

Max blinked. "What the fu. . . ."

The shimmer expanded to form a large puddle of rippling air.

". . . ck is that."

A dark shape streaked out of the portal. There was a blur of black fur, Cyril's startled squawk, a tumble, and joyous barking. Max spun to see Cyril sprawled on the floor, a large black dog, a shorthaired Labrador, standing on his chest.

"Crow, come on Crow, get off. We don't want to send Cyril to the hospital . . . again." Jess, back in her human form, said as she dragged the large dog away.

As Cyril staggered slowly to his feet and rearranged his black military garb, again, another man stepped through the portal, which glimmered, then faded. The man was tall, really tall, Max realized as he raised his eyes. He was a big man, not fat, just tall, dark-haired with a tanned, sharply lined face. He was wearing combat fatigues, but with an emblem Max didn't immediately recognize.

"Max," Jess said, finally pulling the large dog off the blond man, "this is Crow and he," Jess nodded her head toward the man in fatigues, "is Westerville Douglas, we just call him West."

The man started to speak when Max felt a sudden tingle rush up his spine all the way from his butt to his brain. The small hairs on the back of his head stood up as he felt an electric tingle scramble across his scalp. The dog whimpered, Jess whimpered, Cyril flinched.

"Oh Jesus, lord and hallelujah," the tall man said as he and everyone else turned to look across the hall "It's her." Max turned warily. A small woman struggled toward them carrying a large book and several bottles of Pippin's Pub beer. Max felt the others shrink back as the woman drew nearer. He could see why, she radiated some sort of 'power'. He could feel it from the bottoms of his feet to the tips of his shaggy red hair. It took all the will he could muster not run screaming down the hall.

"Ah good, there you are," she said. "Take this would you? It's just been beta-read and it's ready to go out." The woman held out the large book. Max could see the book was bound in smooth black leather and had the title 'The Acid Desk' marked on the cover in some archaic script. None of the group moved to take it.

"Well come on," the woman demanded. "I haven't got all day."

West reached out tentatively. His fingers brushed the book, reluctant, skittish, and unsteady. Max looked at him closely. His breathing had gone shallow, quick. Max thought he could see a small glint of sweat on the big man's face as he finally placed his hands firmly on the book.

Max took a small step back as West finally took the awful thing. The guy was scared shitless, they all were. Max glanced around. Jess was staring fixedly at the ground; she seemed to be controlling herself, but only barely. Max could see the cording, banded muscles in her arms rippling, her claws unsheathed. Cyril stood still, rigid, practically at attention, eyes straight ahead, not blinking. The dog had crept up behind its master and lay with its head down, silent and still. For a brief moment Max thought he was going to lose control of his legs, and a couple other things. He gritted his teeth and stood his ground.

The woman looked him over, her eyes vaguely luminous, supremely aware. For a moment their eyes locked and Max could almost feel himself being weighed, judged, and cataloged. He could swear he felt his entire character, all his memories, thoughts, feelings, and proclivities being brought up and thoroughly examined. He was being tested. Max squared his shoulders and resisted the urge to break eye contact. For a pulse pounding moment he felt as if his head would simply explode.

Just as it seemed he couldn't take another moment of eye contact, the woman's gaze softened. A small grin crossed her face. "You're okay kid, you got some spunk, I like spunk." Max felt the pressure lift. His heart was still threatening to leap out of his chest, but he didn't think he was going to die, probably.

"Who was that?" Max said weakly as the woman marched off. He could still feel the power of her presence resonating through the group.

"CiCi Lean," Jess said.

"Or maybe DB Kate," Cyril added.

"Either one," West added. "I can never tell those two apart."

"But I mean *who* was she? And why did I almost wet my pants?"

"Ah. . . .CiCi is one of the writers here at the Slash Consortium," West said holding the book out at arm's length.

There was a quick round of introductions and explanations. West smiled as they carefully avoided shaking hands. He had a long easy going face, a slight drawl, and large hands. Looking closer Max could see the emblem on his fatigues was for 'The Republic of Texas,' odd, curious and totally in keeping with this weird place.

"Come on Crow, let's get this thing delivered," West said as he started to walk away. There was a skittering, clawing noise as Crow leapt to his feet and shot off in the opposite direction

"You coward," West yelled after the disappearing canine. "Okay, guess I'll have to hand-deliver it. You guys head down to the writer's wing and I'll meet you there."

Max watched with a bit of reluctance as the big man walked away. Interesting, damn interesting. He moved awfully smoothly for such a large guy. He had none of the awkwardness that came so often with size; he had long smooth strides, and a certain grace even holding the book away from him by one corner like rancid road kill. Max stroked the short red hairs on his chin as he contemplated the possibilities, damn, the man could move.

"Max . . . Max . . . Max . . . MAX!"

Max pulled himself out of his reverie and turned back to Jess and Cyril. They stood together looking inordinately amused.

"Oh, uh sorry," Max stammered, a sudden flush rising high in his face. "I was a little distracted."

"That's okay," Jess said. "He does that to just about everyone. Let's get down to the writer's area before anything else happens."

Another long trek through vast marble halls and enormous granite colonnades finally brought the trio to the legendary Writer's Hall. Max stared in open astonishment at the opulence around him. Giant marble columns soared up to nearly vanishing heights, supporting a ceiling of deeply veined marble, so high Max thought he could see little clouds skittering along just below it.

To his right were massive double doors set in the walls, the nearest were enormous and made of bronze, next to them were towering jade green doors, just past those were doors of oak and ash, with gold and silver inlays. Looking down the hall he could see door after door as far down the hall as he could see. Two trolls stood guard at the first door.

To his left the wall was mostly blank, save for numerous computer terminals and a few regular office-type doors. The nearest office door had photos plastered all over and around it. Max stepped closer; the figure in the photos seemed increasingly familiar as the got close. Suddenly he recognized the narrow face, the thin lips, tight curly hair, and the hooded eyes. Of course, it was *him*. Max's thought flashed back to his first, and only, story. They'd done some really *intense* filing, Big Spender indeed.

"Whose office is that?" Max asked as he turned back to his companions.

Jess shook her head and answered a little sadly. "That's Drovar's office. I'm afraid he's a bit obsessed, as you can see."

"Yes," added Cyril. "It's a sad case. So much promise, so little result, depressing really."

"And he's supposed to help . . . "

Max's next words were cut off by a sudden shift in air pressure as a sudden "woof" of air rattled the great bronze doors. He turned toward the doors as an ominous rumble rattled the building.

"Oh Dear," he heard Cyril gasp from behind.

"Oh Dear? How about Oh Shit?" Jess countered.

Max turned back to see that the other two were scrambling for computer stations.

Jess was typing rapidly; her hands flying over the keyboard. "Cyril check the newsgroups, I'll hit the mailing lists."

The giant bronze doors across the hall rattled as more tremors shook the building. The trolls turned pale and pelted down the hallway. The doors bucked and rattled on their hinges.

"Cowards!" Jess snarled after them.

Max spotted West and Crow appearing in a ripple of air not far off. The big man leaped to a computer station, threw Max a wink, and went to work.

"Let's get this settled before it gets out of hand," he yelled.

The floor bucked, lurching upward several inches and falling back. Max fought down the sick moment of vertigo as he stumbled, trying to remain standing. This was really not what he had in mind for today. A little slash, maybe some good times, seeing Pendy again. Staring death in its gaping maw? Definitely not on his to-do list for today.

A deep red glow appeared behind the doors, growing slowly brighter. The air temperature was beginning to climb, a warm breeze suddenly swept over the group. Max started to fidget and sweat.

"I think we're way past 'Out of Hand'," Max said.

"Got it," Jess called. "Some newbie snapped at her on the nick-fixx list." The wind was picking up speed; Max's hair began to trail behind him as he turned into the wind.

"Cyril, backtrack the ISP and mask the address," Max heard West yell. The air in the great hall abruptly jumped from warm to hot. Max looked over, Cyril was sweating; the bright beads of sweat dripping from beneath his 'Fluffy Man' hat.

"Forwarding the address, now," Cyril yelled over the rushing wind.

West's answer rose just above the swelling wind, distorted, and fading. Max could barely hear it, though the man was no more than twenty feet distant.

"Attaching apology . . . sending," West called.

"Adding corresponding support and anti-snapper flames," Jess yelled.

Max could hear a loud hiss beneath the sound of the wind. A fresh wave of heat nearly sizzled the tips of his hair. He turned slowly back to the door. The cool bronze had turned a bright glowing amber as sparks and small molten globs cascaded to the floor.

It was beautiful and terrifying.

"Oh . . . my . . . god." It was the best and most accurate expression Max's short-circuiting brain could come up with.

"We are all going to die," Cyril added redundantly, his voice rising to a surprisingly loud squeak.

"Cyril," Jess yelled through the hot rushing air, "This isn't working. We'd better send her something stronger. We need some slash, something good."

"Well Pellinor doesn't do slash, what about Drovar?" Cyril yelled.

"Nothing good," West answered.

"Well you better do something right now 'cause whatever the hell it is, it's coming through," Max yelled as he backed up to the wall. They had only moments before the door were breached. Then things would really hit the fan.

"I've got something," Cyril yelled. "Sending it...now." The wind suddenly died and the bronze doors eased back into place as the internal pressure subsided.

Max quickly joined West and Cyril at Jess's station. There was time for a quick round of congratulations and backslapping, when Jess interrupted them.

"Cyril," she said, not taking her eyes away from the screen. "Did you actually read what you forwarded to Te?"

"Well no, not really," Cyril said as he straightened his Fluffy Man cap. "I grabbed the first NC-17 story with slash in the title. Why?"

"Was it this one?" she asked pointing to the screen.

"A Slasher's Nightmare. Yes that's it."

"Cyril, look at the summary . . . "

"Summary," Cyril read aloud. "Slash sucks, M/S forever, MSR Rules. By Fester the Troll . . . " Max heard the little man gulp, "Oh dear," he said in a very small voice.

"Cyril, this is a Babyfic, you sent Te a Babyfic."

Max heard a deep rumble from behind the great bronze doors.

"Oh . . . shit," was all he had time to say.

The bronze doors exploded, filling the hall with a shower of sparks and hot metal. Max dodged and rolled as an enormous hinge screamed past. He heard West yell in pain. He looked over to see the big man rolling and batting at his clothes.

Cyril was huddled against the back wall beneath a terminal using it for what little cover it offered. A second load crack preceded a second hinge breaking. Max watched in horror as one great bronze door crashed to the floor with an ear-ringing crash and slid across the floor. It was coming, fast.

Max had a sudden realization as the door, still glowing from residual heat, crossed the halfway point off the hall. He had nowhere to run. Max tensed, feeling the sweat puddling at the small of his back. If he could leap and land on the door, a few jumps would have him clear, badly burned, but better than dead. The sliding mass of hot bronze was almost upon him.

Max leaped, jumping up and over the edge of the door, and with a sad realization understood that there was no was way he was going to make it. His leap would land him too far from the edge; he'd never survive the intense heat.

A fast moving shape flashed from his left striking him in the side. He heard a howl of agony, smelled burnt flesh and felt something inside crunch. There was a sickening wave of pain, and then the blessed coolness of the marble floor and receding heat. Jess was on top of him, her fur still smoking, her eyes bright with pain. Through the miasma of heat, pain and fear, Max watched the door continue ponderously, sliding, trailing a vast shower of sparks.

The mass of super-heated bronze struck the wall and rebounded, banking to the right with a shrieking drag of metal against hard stone. Ponderously the door swiveled on its axis and began a slowly spinning tumble in Cyril's direction.

The small man, his clothing seared, his face blackened from soot, and streaked with sweat, kneeled frozen beneath the shattered terminal. He was trapped, it was too late to run, he couldn't jump, he couldn't move. He was doomed. Max felt a cry rise up in his heat ravaged throat, but there was nothing anyone could do. He could see that in Cyril's eyes. The man knew exactly what was happening, and exactly what sort of death was sliding toward him.

Max could see the reflected heat lighting up Cyril's face. He was about to close his eyes when a dark shape flashed beneath the leading edge of the rotating door. There was a loud, sickening crunch as the door buried itself into the wall. There was no way they got out in time, no way, no how.

"Crow? Crow?" Max sat up; trying to clear his sweat soaked eyes. West staggered past, a gaping wound in his right shoulder, a spike of still smoldering bronze protruding from one heavy thigh.

"West, no they're gone, it's over."

"No Crow, he can't be, I'd know it."

The big man staggered closer. In sudden horror Max knew he was going to try to move the enormous slag of hot metal.

"Jess, stop him," Max yelled. The werewolf stared for a moment, the light of human awareness replacing the feral glare in her eyes. "Please, you have to."

Max heard West scream as Jess leapt off him, screaming her own pain, as she forced her charred limbs to propel her forward. Max caught only a glimpse of blurred blackness and they were back at his side. The three of them huddled in pain.

As Max watched Jess's course features melted and dissolved back into the fair skinned woman he had met earlier that day. The same cocky directness still there in her eyes, but tempered by something close to regret, and not that far from anger. She was in pain, a lot of it.

Jess turned and looked back toward the shattered remains of the bronze doorway, her hair whipped and flung by the hot wind. Max saw her back stiffen.

"Guys," she said, measured steel in her voice. "This isn't anywhere near over."

West rolled onto his side and looked. "Oh God, she's coming."

"The hell with that!" Jess replied as she struggled to her feet. "She's here."

A large black cloud billowed out of the room filling half the hall; thankfully obscuring whatever lurked inside.

"Jess, no," Max yelled as the young woman began sprinting across the hall, her form shifting and growing larger as she closed on the ominous darkness.

"She's a *writer* for God's sake," West yelled. "She'll kill you!" It was far to late, the werewolf disappeared into the blackness howling a challenge that sent Max's blood running cold, it was the voice of death, and nothing less. He suddenly felt West's arms around him, comforting, stilling his shivers of terror.

There was brief moment of near silence as the wind suddenly died. Max could hear Jess's feet pounding across the marble floor, her claws clicking and scraping on the stone as she charged. He pulled West closer, taking care to avoid the injured hands.

An ear splitting bellow filled the hall. It was a roar beyond anything Max could have ever imagined. He was very certain that he was suddenly deaf.

There was a sudden surge in the billowing darkness and a sound of hard flesh meeting something indescribable, followed by a high pitched whimper, like a puppy that had just been smacked across the butt with a rolled up newspaper.

A large black and brown blur sailed up and out of the cloud. Max tracked it as it peaked and began to fall. It was Jess, unconscious, maybe dead. He turned away and buried his face into West's fatigues an instant before the body struck the floor.

"It's just you and me buddy," West said. "They're all gone but us. Hell of a way to end your first day out, huh?" West laughed bitterly. Max felt the injured hands draw him closer. For a faint second he could almost accept the impending death if he could join the others wrapped in comforting arms.

This was all so wrong. Sudden disaster striking out of almost nowhere. Like a bad story plot rising from consequences of some bad smut. If it hadn't been for their current situation he'd almost have found a weird sort of symmetry in it. A bad ending for a bad story.

"West, c'mon help me up. I think Jess broke my leg when she landed on it." The man stared at him with a dull lack of comprehension.

"Come on man, she isn't done yet," Max yelled, pointing at the cloud moving across the hall. "It's now or never, we live or die, right here, right now."

West struggled to his feet, pulled the shank of bronze from his thigh, cast it aside, shot a look toward the approaching cloud, and helped Max to his feet.

"Lean on me," he said. Wincing as he used his injured hands to help Max up. "What's the plan?" he asked as he staggered under Max's weight but remained on his feet.

"Just get me to a terminal, I've got an idea."

The cloud was nearly on them by the time they reached the nearest functional computer station. Max could feel the cloud's heat, could smell the sulphurous burn inside. He could nearly sense the ponderous evil that lurked deep in the cloud's heart. West suddenly stiffened. Max felt the cloud enveloping them as he began typing frantically into the terminal.

"Oh shit, oh fuck," West whispered like a mantra. Max concentrated. He had to get this right. He typed rapidly even as he lost sight of the keyboard and his hands, in the darkness. Suddenly all he could see where the bright green letters in the monitor screen. All the world was gone, all his new friends, all gone, there was nothing but the darkness, the screen and the feel of the keyboard under his hands.

Max shuddered but kept typing as he felt a powerful tendril wrap around his waist. His skin seemed to writhe under the touch; it was like being caressed by the devil. He screamed in frustration as he felt himself being lifted off his feet. He was so close a few more moments, that was all he needed.

"No, you bitch." He heard West yell. The big man charged into the darkness. Suddenly Max was loose, the tendril withdrawn. He twisted in the darkness trying to orient himself to the monitor screen. He landed as he heard a wet snap behind him. He heard, but couldn't see, West's broken body slam into the wall next to the terminal and slide wetly to the ground.

Max scrambled to his knees and typed, his eyes closed, just trying to marshal his thoughts into some coherency. With a final slap he finished, and slumped to the floor. He felt the ominous figure loom over him. Max was thankful that the inky blackness had taken his sight. He didn't want to see what lay at the heart of darkness. He didn't want to know what lay ahead, he felt an instant of relief as a wave of unconsciousness crested and drove him under.

* * *

Max felt *alive*?

He hurt like hell, enormous aching pain, but he was pretty sure he was alive. Unless being dead hurt an awful lot too. Tentatively he opened his eyes. Light, there was light, and lots of it. He was in what looked like a hospital ward. The white sheets, white nurses' uniforms, and white walls were a bit of a give away.

He tried to sit up, but stopped when everything started to spin, and the world threatened to slip away. Okay probably a concussion, he could deal with that. He felt the rest of his body. There was some hot pain, duller now than it was though, in this side. His leg was set in a heavy cast, but wasn't numb, thankfully. His hands and arms seemed okay, except for the total lack of body hair.

His movements caught one of the nurse's attentions.

"Doctor, he's awake."

A familiar figure, clad in a white lab coat, orderly scrubs, and a stethoscope, stepped up to his bedside.

"Hey I know you," Max said. "Are you really a doctor?"

"Well I don't just play one on TV." The woman brushed aside her red hair, put on the stethoscope, and listened to his heart.

She put off his questions, and proceeded to do a thorough examination. Apparently satisfied that Max wasn't going to keel over, she stepped to the side, pulling the curtain away, a very small smile on her lips.

Suddenly Max was looking into the smiling, if somewhat bruised and burnt, faces of his friends.

"Hey you're alive, all of you!"

"You bet though some of us are in considerably better shape, baldy," Jess said, her eyes bright with mirth.

"Baldy? What do you mean...baldy?" Max reached up slowly feeling his scalp. It was true, it was all gone, every last, solitary red hair was gone.

"Ack . . . "

"Don't worry Max it'll grow back," Cyril said grinning. His omnipresent cap was a little singed but intact. Jess looked no worse for wear, aside from profuse bandaging, West seemed okay as well.

"What happened to Crow?" Max asked, suddenly realizing the friendly canine was nowhere around.

"He's in the Veterinary ward across the hall," West said. "He took a pretty bad hit saving Cyril but he'll be fine, thanks to you."

"It worked?" Max asked.

Jess grinned down at him. "Yep, she loved the snippet you wrote. Once she saw it, she calmed right down."

"That's great," Max said running a hand over his bare scalp. "Wouldn't have minded keeping the hair though."

Jess leaned down bringing her nose to nose with Max. "Life's a bitch, Max. But then technically, so am I." Jess paused. "Besides, someone I know thinks it's sexy as hell. But do *try* to get some rest." She winked. "You're gonna need it."

Before Max could protest the three were gone, pulling the curtain closed behind them as they left.

After a few moments the curtains parted and a familiar figure stepped through.

"It's you," Max said brightly.

The crumpled fedora, the slow casual gait, the slightly hooded eyes. It could only be one person.

"Hey kiddo, heard you got into some rough and tumble with one of the big girls," he said with a smirk.

"Didn't have much choice, really. Why are you here?"

"Gotta check on my secretary. Never know when you might need a letter typed, or maybe some filing.

"Filing uh-huh," Max said with a smirk. He reached out and grabbed the man's belt pulling him close to the bed, bringing them face-to-face. "And maybe," Max said with a leer, "Once I get out of here you can remind me why they call you Big Spender."