Metal grinds on stone as the time machine settles to the ground.
Lucy dips her shoulder and somersaults across the gravel as gracefully as possible when she's ejected. Once her feet are beneath her again, she scrambles to the nearest hedge to take cover until she can figure out what time and place the damn contraption has deposited her.
Fwap fwap fwap
Lucy hopes this new noise is just another quirky sound associated with the machine's cooldown.
A choked sob permeates through the tightly woven foliage. Lucy closes her eyes and massages her brow. "I don't have time for a tearjerker..."
The sobbing and fwapping suddenly cease. "I heard that." A pause. "Who's there?"
"Oh no! I've fallen for that answer too many times!" The hedge shakes wildly as the owner of the voice seeks a way to the other side. "Four times outta ten there is someone there!"
Which means the other six times he's just hearing voices. Lovely. Scanning the area, Lucy sees no structure that she can quickly hide behind. Gold's machine pings at her. No. Nope. I'm never going near you again! Resigning herself to the inevitability of their meeting, Lucy begins mind-shuffling through a list of the man's potential psychological disorders. The branches become still.
"Gosh, what am I doing?"
Is he giving up?
"I have a sword!"
Lucy flattens herself to the ground moments before a meter of steel splices a diagonal line through the hedge. She crawls what she deems to be a safe distance away, then stands, determined to meet her adversary on equal ground. With a grunt of effort, the swordsman's second slash creates a wedge in the greenery and he kicks his way through the weakened barrier. Lucy's eyebrows raise in surprise as her former son emerges, red-rimmed eyes still glistening with tears, a broadsword in one hand and a brightly colored firearm in the other.
The man sheathes his sword and rubs at his eyes. "Do I know you?" He brings the gun across his chest and starts pumping it. Fwap fwap fwap. "I know everyone here, but your voice is not familiar." He blinks rapidly, still trying to clear his vision, and aims the fully pressurized weapon in Lucy's general direction. "That bitch put dish soap in the water supply and it burns...so you better tell me real quick who the hell you are!"
I wonder who 'that bitch' is? Angel? Yuki Rin? Iris? Someone who never previously introduced themselves? Lucy clears her throat. "Estoma."
"Estoma," Cooper repeats to himself. "Estoma, how did you come to be this far inside the perimeter of Caesar's Palace without being taken into custody?"
'Taken into custody'? Oh dear. A couple of lies quickly pop into her head, but Lucy discards them straightaway. Keep it simple. "My time machine brought me here."
"Your-" The nozzle of Cooper's squirt gun droops toward the ground. "-time machine?"
"Yes. It's quite a long story and I-"
"That's bad, Estoma. Very, very bad." He tosses his weapon onto the gravel and stumbles in her direction. "Where is it? Show me."
Lucy takes Cooper's arm and leads him a few meters to where the machine is still pinging softly. "Here."
Cooper stretches his arms wide, as if to give the hunk of metal a bear hug, but instead walks all around it taking dimensions. When finished, he reaches into the satchel slung across his chest and removes a shimmery ball of fabric. He flings the material at and over the machine, then...
"It's gone!" Estoma takes a few steps to her right, then a few to her left, peering all around the spot. "Was that an invisibility cloak?"
Cooper nods. "I'm pretty sure Drea forgot she borrowed it to me."
Drea? Lucy's pulse quickens. April wouldn't go by that name, would she? It took a year before she told me her real name! "Tell me about this 'Drea' person?"
"Well-" A shadow passes over the ground between them. Cooper turns his attention to the sky and watches the shadow's owner complete a lazy circle, then tuck its wings and dive. "-she doesn't like time travel. So don't mention it. Ever." He abruptly bends to retrieve his squirt gun, then stands at attention facing the hedge.
Lucy laughs a bit nervously. "Oh, I don't ever intend on meeting her!"
Cooper cocks an eyebrow in her direction and offers a sympathetic smile.
Sara drops her luggage just inside the door and crosses in panic - or as close to it as her perpetually calm state will allow - to the terrace that overlooks FanFictionNet. Clawing the wispy barrier of draperies from her face, she steps to the rail and stares down the mountainside in dismay. "I left for a short while to see the world and-"
"A lot can happen in a short while when time travel is involved."
Unwilling to shift her gaze from the ruins below, but unable to be rude, Sara acknowledges the voice. "Rowan."
Rowan remains silent, waiting for Sara to speak again. Though she wants to, she is not allowed to approach the Wisdom. A mountain breeze carries her scent across the span of their separation.
"You've bloomed," Sara says, inhaling the sweetness and turning her gaze - finally! - towards the tree. She walks forward and draws a particularly full branch of flowers down to her face. Rowan, whose roots have intertwined with the terrace's stonework over her many years at FanFictionNet, brushes thin leaves through Sara's hair. They hold each other, the two overseers of Caesar's Palace, and seek a solution.
Rowan jerks suddenly. "I've been hit." She withdraws from Sara's affections. "You must take cover."
"Hit?" Sara runs her hands over the bark of Rowan's trunk. "Where-" The tree shakes again, more violently. A hair above where her head was moments ago, Sara spots a curl of smoke and a blackened patch...she starts to reach for it, but recoils when another hole appears, a foot lower than the first."Who...?"
"Sara," Rowan shudders. "Go. Fix time!"
The speed of the attack seems to double, but the aim becomes more erratic. "I need an expert." Rowan's bark is riddled with burn marks and Sara is forced to take shelter behind her longtime friend. "I need to find Ella."
"My turn!" Zoey yells, grabbing the control arms of the laser and swinging them out of Iris' reach. She squeezes both triggers at the same time and watches on the monitor as a red beam pierces Rowan's canopy.
Iris flips the back of Zoey's long black cloak over her head and shoves the younger woman aside. "You do not possess the statistical knowledge or capacity to take into account all of the factors affecting proper aim!"
"Oh, so I'm smart enough to build a laser cannon, but not to use it? Is that what you're saying?"
"Fuck that." Finally having disentangled herself from her own dark and angsty clothes, Zoey charges at her co-empress, but before a collision can take place, Iris collapses to the floor, clawing at her head. Zoey kneels beside her frenemy. "Doppelganger pains?"
Iris grimaces and nods. "Imprisoning Chipeerio in their Moonfort was a great idea at first..." She pauses to massage her temples. "But-"
"Then our plan for universal enslavement brought us too close to them again, I know." Zoey sighs. "What's she beaming into your brain today?"
"That goddamn song again!"
"I wish! Rickrolling would be a welcome reprieve from 'The Moon Song'."
"Want me to destroy her uke? The laser's powerful enough for that."
"It is...if your aim were decent."
Green leaves curl up black then vanish completely as flames engulf the branches that previously held them aloft. The 'V' that Cooper created in the hedge a short while ago has now become a passage large enough for twenty-three pomeranians to walk through abreast. Or one typical Australian spider. Or a winged wolf smoking from its mouth, a black sheep, a demon snake lady, a unicorn, and a polar bear carrying a smiling woman.
"Cooper!" The woman slides down from the great white bear's back. "Put down your weapon, babe! The game finished ages ago when I had all of your teammates tossed over Ginger Cliff!"
Throwing down his squirt gun once again, Cooper sputters, "Why would you do such a thing?!"
The woman's face takes on an exaggerated expression of hurt as she slows her approach to a saunter. "Because they were going to turn on you, sugar..."
Cooper steps back. "I don't believe you!"
The woman reaches out and wraps her fingers around the nape of his neck, drawing his face close to hers, and snarls, "You. Have. No. Choice." Cooper tries to pull away, but she tightens her grip. "Unless you fancy joining your friends?" Cooper shakes his head sadly. The woman nods, a satisfied smile on her face. "Mmm, I love it when you mope..."
Not sure what their relationship is in this time and place, but well aware of what it was previously, Lucy cannot stand by and watch her former wife and their son do what she thinks they are about to do. She steps forward and extends her right hand to Drea. "Sorry to interrupt, but I got lost on my way to the Introduction Hall, and I feel really awkward not knowing anyone's name! I'm Estoma!" She smiles the biggest smile that she can muster. "The floral pattern on your shirt is really lovely! Is it custom or is there any chance that I could purchase my own?" Drea narrows her eyes. Lucy's smile falters. "Not that it could ever look as good on me! You're really rockin' it! Very, very nice. Or sexy. Or whatever you want it to be..."
Drea pinches Estoma's lips together and turns back to Cooper. "Who's the funny-talking chick?"
Cooper is taken aback by the question. "She...kinda just told you who she is?"
Drea slaps Cooper across the face. "You know damn well I can't concentrate on words when I'm lost in a pair of pretty eyes!" She slaps him from the opposite direction. "Give me a name!"
Cooper cowers from the open palm hovering near his cheek. "Estoma!" he yelps.
"Thank you." Drea's hand falls to his shoulder and administers a light pat instead. "Why must you always make things so difficult?" She whistles for Cooper's mount; everyone ignores that the 'whistle' is more of squeaky-toy wheeze.
Lucy snickers to herself. She still can't whistle. Lamia shoots her a look of warning, hisses softly, then uses the tip of her tail to make the unicorn trot forward.
"Cooper! Saddle up! Take Zero with you-"
"Why a sheep?" Lucy interrupts. "There's a fire-breathing wolf right there!"
"Zero is the most capable member of my Guard; never underestimate a sheep," Drea snaps at Estoma before continuing her instructions to Cooper. "-and check the Castle grounds for any more intruders." Dragon lowers herself to the ground beside the polar bear so Drea can return to its back. As an afterthought, she adds to Cooper, "And grab a T-Rex from the paddock for supper."
Lucy's eyes widen in horror and delight. "You have dinosaurs?!"
Drea rolls her eyes, sighs, and beckons for Estoma to come closer. They clasp forearms, giving the appearance of one helping the other to climb onto the bear, but no such courtesy occurs. Drea holds Estoma in place, awkwardly balanced on the wolf's back. "The 'floral pattern' on my shirt is blood splatter from the flamingo training center, Cooper is raising chickens - very distant cousins of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, granted - but don't you dare say they're not dinosaurs, and your sudden presence in my kingdom is a mystery that I will solve very soon." Drea sneers and releases the other woman with enough force to send her toppling over the wolfdragon's folded wings. Gravel digs into Lucy's palms. Dragon growls. Drea digs her heels into the polar bear's sides and lumbers off towards the Castle, abandoning the scene.
"Cooper!" Lucy calls before horse and sheep can trot out of earshot. Cooper twists in his saddle to see what she wants. Instead of shouting, she mouths her request: Move the time machine! Hide it better! Please! He grins, gives her a thumbs-up, and returns to conversation with Zero. Lamia appears by Lucy's side.
"The bear is ssslow, but not that slow," she chides. "Move your assss or snekbite is free!"
Dragon chuckles from Lucy's other side. "Oh, Lamia! You crack me up!"
"We're lying on the moon
It's a perfect afternoon
Your shadow follo-"
Lils offers an apologetic shrug when Johanna holds up her ukulele, the strings - what's left of them - jutting off in all different directions. "I'm sorry you can't play anymore."
"Mmm." Jo narrows her eyes at the magic mirror resting in Lils' hands; she often wonders if it is capable of more than one-way communication. "Acapella will have to do! I'd hate for Iris to have a moments rest!"
What about me? Lils' brain screams. Being trapped here seemed like a dream come true at first...
"Hey, who are you spying on?" Jo asks.
"The Castle." Lils zooms out from the newly installed Spam facade. "There's something going on over by the dried up brook..."
Jo leans over her dwark's shoulder and navigates closer to the action - or lack thereof. "Doesn't look like much of anything to me." She squints and spins the scene to a different angle. "Oh!"
Lils rolls her eyes. "Be serious, Hanna." She untucks her legs and stretches them, preparing to take a solo stroll through the moonrock garden. "You know that ever since Ella's disappearance, all travel in or out of the grounds is punishable by whatever means Apri-"
"Drea sees fit. Yes, I know." She zooms in further on the mirror's surface. "But I swear, I've never seen this woman before! Look!"
Lils expects Jo's discovery to be a ploy of some sort, and knows that she should carry-through with her plan to leave the area, but the girl is just so damn pretty. "Where?"
Lils squeaks in surprise when the face is magnified enough to fill the mirror's entire surface. "You definitely know that face!"
"I'm pretty sure I don't..."
"Darling, you're not making any sense," Jo says, worriedly placing the back of her hand against Lils' forehead.
"The mysterious locked room! In the south corridor!" Lils jumps up excitedly. "Hanna, it's the lady in Apri-"
The polar bear is slow, which gives Lucy plenty of time to take in all of the changes Caesar's Palace has undergone.
A massive pile of colored glass and white piping impresses her - the ambiance reminiscent of some truly unique works displayed at a Melbourne art gallery - until she realizes that its location is where the Lollipop Woods once stood. A lone gummy bear is all that remains of the vibrant foliage that once filled the forest floor. Lucy is reminded of lazy mornings the Littles spent collecting baskets of gummy worms, bears, coins, and the extremely rare octopus - whose spider-like appendages never failed to send April into a jig of heebie-jeebies.
The Gumdrop Mountains, with their bright slopes of red, green, and orange that would draw Head away for weeks of exploration, were now muted by layers of coal dust dispersed by the power plant placed prominently at their base.
"Hydroelectric power would be more environmentally friendly, wouldn't you say?"
After a few long moments that have Lucy convinced she is being thoroughly ignored, Dragon says quietly, "Of course it would. As a lover of nature, I was saddened by Drea's decision to divert and repurpose the babbling Brooke, but she convinced us that the need was greater elsewhere..."
Lamia snorts softly. "Yeah, the Castle definitely needed a narwhale and a mermaid in its moat."
"Wait, whoa-" Lucy halts and says much louder than her two guards would prefer her to, "Narwhal and Chelle are imprisoned in the moat?"
"Shhh!" Lamia keeps an eye on Drea's back, hoping that she's lost in a daydream. "It's not as bad as it sounds..."
Dragon dips her head to snatch something off the dusty ground. "Yeah, we sneak them lots of pizza rolls," she says around the walnut-sized item in her mouth.
The whiteness and odd shape of Dragon's find are bothering Lucy; she walks nearer to the wolf, trying to determine what the beast deemed interesting enough to carry so delicately back to the Castle. It appears to have teeth. A skull? But it's so tiny...except for the massive incisors. What kind of small animal would-
"I am not throwing away my-
A grey tuft of fur drops to the ground with a squeak, mere meters to Lucy's right. As she stares at the dying critter, it comes to her. Ohmygod. She turns back to Dragon, "Is that the skull of a squirrel?"
"No, it's too small for a squirrel..."
Don't say it, don't say it, don't say it...
"I'm guessing chipmunk."
Lucy looks up in time to avoid being trampled by the polar bear as April brings it to a halt beside her. "C'mon! The Hamiltons are wandering through the area and-" She proffers an arm. "-we don't get along so great. Time to put some speed on."
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Lucy stands frozen, weighing her options; she looks from April to the group of funny-dressed folks with guns who just killed a squirrel in front of her. I'm not yet certain who the enemy is. With April's help, she scrambles onto the giant bear's back and holds on tightly as the great beast begins to run.
"Bea, check what we got! If my sight hasn't failed me, it should be a grey marmot." Hazmat tosses her muzzleloader into the waiting hands of Clover, who then tosses it over her head to Poke.
Poke grabs the firearm mid-air and tucks it away before falling into step with her musical friends. "On point choreography for such challenging geography." She clambers over a small boulder as the other two girls move to either side, then jogs until they're once again in sync. A few strides further, Hazmat and Clover halt. Poke stumbles past them, then backtracks hastily. All three women stare at the cloud of dust marking their neighbors' retreat, and Poke voices their thoughts, as is expected in a musical: "If she thinks to escape a duel, that Little is a fool!"