Mafia: Hanna-Barbera Edition

The Premise: Thirty contestants representing various Hanna-Barbera cartoons compete in the popular party game-turned reality TV show for $500,000! Between the innocent townies, the deceitful mafia, and several other independent parties, only one may rule this secluded old Western resort town.

Day 1: 30 Contestants Remaining

Thunderous hoof beats and uncomfortable jostling had been his world for the past few hours, and he was officially sick of it. If he'd been allowed to openly voice his grievances, the trip would've been at least somewhat bearable in an abstract way, but the gag and blindfold to prevent pre-game communication effectively kept all his unspoken complaints bottled up and tumbling, multiplying exponentially in his pounding head. That loud racket from this covered wagon travel should've warranted complimentary earplugs, but production withheld for reasons unknown, reasons that probably didn't matter.

It felt like someone had kidnapped him and stuffed him amongst the hot cargo, the stolen loot, rather than given him classy transit to join a competition out in the desert.

Ugh. He hated this show already.

Crammed tightly into this prairie schooner with several other people, Fred Flintstone (The Flintstones series) felt the full effects of every imperfection in the uneven road. His rear ached so much right now. Too many times to count had particularly large bumps or deep pits unexpectedly caused the vehicle to tilt wildly, either causing him to nearly fall from the bench and kiss the floor or slide into his neighbors like hapless Dominos.

Judging from the body odors and occasional deep guttural grunts, he correctly guessed all his fellow passengers were men. He didn't know what kind of man the person to his immediate left was, though. The weirdo had repeatedly taken advantage of his free hands to trace out a message on his leg, but Fred would have none of it, especially when the guy's finger got…too close for comfort. Each time, Fred had simply slapped away the invading appendage, but on the most recent attempt, he delivered a message of his own with a sound punch that homed to the male's thin stomach region. He was left alone to brew in his constantly expanding discontent after that. At least out of bound, gagged, and blindfolded it's only two out of three, and I can protect myself.

When he applied for this game, Fred didn't leave his wife, newly adopted son, best friends, and job behind to put up with such senseless nonsense. Mr. Invasion of Personal Space, this awful ride to the game site, his splitting headache and sore rump – all would be overlooked once he was crowned the winner of Mafia several days from now. He came here with one goal, and one goal only: to win.

The prize money would fit oh so nicely in his pocket…moneymoneymoney

Guided off the transport still handicapped, Sarah Cavanaugh (Wildfire) was slightly sore and definitely glad they had finally arrived. Her extensive experience with riding horses had probably allowed her to handle the ride better than others, so she considered herself fortunate. If given the choice, though, she would've preferred driving a horse instead of being pulled by one.

After a couple of minutes of just standing there awkwardly where she'd been led, shuffling her feet and rubbing her hands together, further instructions finally came.

"Attention everyone, attention ev-eh-ree one! You may now remove both your hanker-chiffs!" spoke a distinctly Southern male voice.

Reaching behind the two blonde ponytails that flared away from her head, Sarah first undid the knot responsible for her lack of speech, then the one for her lack of sight. She instantly regretted how fast she tore off her blindfold. It was BRIGHT! Instinctively she blinked her eyes rapidly and shielded them from the harsh sun with the handkerchiefs, also testily licking her lips. Once her vision cleared itself of the brilliant whiteness, she began focusing on her surroundings.

Around her were twenty-nine other people – many still battling momentary blindness – and the four covered wagons they had traveled in. Before them all stood a white horse on his own two rear legs (here Sarah raised an eyebrow, but accepted it less than a second later, seeing as she already knew some other special stallions). He wore a red cowboy hat and a matching occupied gun holster, as well as a light blue neckerchief and spurs. A cursory review of everyone else present told her that she and the biped were the only two currently dressed Western-style, or rather, dressed for the occasion.

What really caught her attention most was the authentic-looking Western town starting not but a short distance behind the anthropomorphic creature with a few residential buildings. She faced straight down what was appropriately "Main Street," a wide avenue that perpendicularly met another road in a T-shape. The grandiose open-air train station presided over that section of town, clearly visible even at this distance. (So why'd we come out here by horse-drawn wagon, she wondered with some bewilderment.) Delightedly her eyes darted around the rest of the sights, taking in what history had contributed and Hollywood had excluded. She'd lived in a quaint country town most of her life, but this novel scenery, being entirely different, fascinated her so.

"I, um, really like your cowgirl hat," came the articulate yet hesitant intonation of a brunette named Holly (Pound Puppies series).

"Oh, thank you." Sarah turned and replied earnestly, touching a hand to the black headwear she always donned for adventures. The two girls smiled pleasantly at each other, already sensing they'd get along. Neither was completely sure interpersonal communication was permitted yet, but many of the others had already engaged in pleasantries. They got as far as exchanging names and handshakes before the accented individual from before interrupted the introductions with one of his own.

"Now ho-o-o-o-old on thar, everyone, ti-i-ime to get started!" yelled the horse above the conversations. Many contestants were genuinely stunned he could talk, but both Sarah and, to an extent, Holly were among those unfazed, even expecting it. "Welcome to the new hit re-al-i-tee TV show, Mafia! The name's Quick Draw McGraw, and humble little ol' I will be your grace-ee-us host! Now then, to review the rules!"

Clearing his throat and lifting a hoof like he would jump straight into it, Quick Draw paused for a few seconds with his mouth hanging open.

"Er…well…ya seeeee…" he drawled out slowly, twisting his wrist about. "First of alllll…uh…gawrsh…"

Several of the crueler contestants, having gotten over the shock of seeing him speak, snickered at his expense. What an incompetent host they had, huh? Sensing the embarrassing situation, Quick Draw's ever-faithful deputy, Baba Looey, chose that moment to enter the scene from out of nowhere.

"Here you go, Queeks Draw." The brown burro handed his friend a rolled-up set of stapled papers.

"Why thank you, random messeng—er, Baba boy, my lovely a-sees-tent!" Quick Draw thumbed through the pages, devoting only enough time to run his eyes from top to bottom of each one before casually tossing the packet off to the side. Baba Looey gave chase, shouting something in garbled Spanish as a sudden zephyr strengthened and blew it away. "Fer those of ya who're wonderin', this here newfangled resort town behind me is the settin' of our game. Ya'll can name it later if ya like. Okie-dokie…"

He shifted his body sideways so he could address the players while pointing towards a broad two-story building near the middle of Main. "That thar is our one and only saloon, Last Chance. The replica of the gal-lows is somewhere else, but the saloon's where we'll hold our town meetin' to 'lynch' someone, or e-leem-i-nate 'em from the game. You'll vote and unvote verbally, and once a maj-or-i-tee agrees, their vote imm-ed-ee-it-ly gets a one-way express ticket outta here. Alternatively, the maj-or-i-tee could vote for a 'no-lynch,' and the town don't see someone off for the day. This ain't always an option, and sometimes I'll impose special conditions on meetin's, but I'll explain when they happen to happen."

At this point, he turned and faced them directly. "Whenever a player leaves, in remembrance, thar letter assignment will be posted all around town, revealin' thar true identity and any abilities. The game is essentially the townies versus the mafia versus third-parties. The townies are the good guys, like me, and like me, them'll face plenty o' ad-verse-i-tee. They'll never get full confirmation who's who 'til after the fact, and to win, innocent townspeople can be the only ones left standin'. Western law says the good ol' good guys always win, so I'm-a pullin' for ya!

"Nine people'll be mafia members, the baddies who blend in with the crowd. Lucky I'm not against ya, you baddies, or you'd be done fer already. Pretend townies by day, mafia by night, they'll know each other's identities startin' tonight. They automatically win when they outnumber the remainin' townies and the third-parties are all gone.

"And lastly, the miscellany of independents. Third-parties and certain other roles have individual winnin' conditions detailed in thar letters. I can't tell ya how many of 'em will be lurkin' among the ranks, though.

"Then, we've gotta discuss abilities. Many players on all sides will get fun powers they can use to help their party win and spice up the game. The mafia shares the big one. Every night, they'll meet dis-creet-ly and pick a player to 'keel.' I can also tell ya'll now 'bout the Serial Killer role, an independent who also 'keels' at night, though with limits." Though reactions to the mafia's ability were favorable, more than a few participants expressed visible enthusiasm in that fun-sounding individual character. "Players eliminated under the moon also leave town imm-ed-ee-it-ly, and the town finds out, mournin' in the mornin'.

"Mmm… I think that's it," Quick Draw rubbed his chin, then suddenly had an 'aha!' moment. "Oh yeah! Do-o-on't you forget this: the grand prize is a healthy 500 grand!" Everyone naturally applauded and went wild hearing that, screams and shrill whistles emitting from the fervent. "If applica-plica-bable, survivors get the biggest share o' the cut, with their eliminated team members gettin' small pieces for affiliation.

"And now, for the moment ya'll been waitin' for! Time to choose your destiny!" Quick Draw announced. The players noticed Baba Looey had reappeared and now sported a full mailbag at his side. "Draw an envelope at random, open it, and follow the instructions!"

At Quick Draw's go-ahead, Baba Looey ventured to the edge of the contestant pool and began allocating letters. Sarah and Holly exchanged excited, yet anxious, glances. Would they be townies? Mafia? Independents? Would they be allies? Enemies? It all came down to luck of the draw. Random chance. When the sombrero-wearing burro drifted to them and proffered the canvas courier bag, the girls regarded each other again.

"Good luck," Sarah breathed.

"You too," Holly returned.

Plunging one petite hand into the remaining choices and crossing her fingers with the other, Holly hoped she received something she could handle. She was here with something to prove to that stonehearted aunt-cousin pair back home, and maybe, just maybe, if she earned the prize money, she could repossess the dog pound and a position to better assist her friends…

An old, crinkled envelope bearing only a cancelled stamp of a silenced .22-pistol surfaced in her light clutch. She pivoted and shielded it from anyone else's view before carefully opening the rear flap. Inside were three pages. One sheet contained stickers of all thirty contestant names. Another, headed with "READ THIS FIRST," detailed the procedures she was to follow in clandestinely learning her role and returning everything to production's possession. Like everyone else, she glanced first at the game-determining message instead. The one stationery displayed her new identity in light text amidst a faded background of assorted weapons. It began as follows: "Welcome, (please insert your name sticker here), to Mafia!"

As she read the letter in its entirety, Holly smiled.

Once all the players had concealed their resealed envelopes somewhere on their person, host Quick Draw McGraw continued disclosing information. For starters, the resort town had been designed and constructed strictly with them in mind. They were free to tread virtually anywhere within its boundaries and enter and utilize all facilities, barring explicitly marked areas for the use of production only. Venturing outside the allotted borders was strictly forbidden due to serious safety concerns. Quick Draw unambiguously stated that dangerous wildlife and even more dangerous outlaws roamed the desert around the clock. However, there would be occasions where protected activities occurred outside of town that contestants could enjoy.

Living quarters were designated by age group and gender; the players' belongings were already in their assigned rooms. Unless otherwise noted, everyone was to be in his or her own bedchamber by midnight so that the game's nighttime phase could begin. Participants were keeping their letters for the meantime so that they could set their alarms to awaken at the appropriate time, if applicable.

So…how about lunch?

"Well, alrighty then! We're currently a lil' past high noon, and the meetin's at four, so 'til then, ya know where to find me!" With that dismissal, Quick Draw trotted off for the sheriff's office, Baba Looey close at his heels.

Buzz Conroy (Frankenstein, Jr.) jogged ahead of the dispersing crowd. He couldn't recall the last instance his daily routine didn't involve extreme mental strain towards complex algorithms, intense scientific studies, or updating the tech of his father's laboratory. If not any of that, there was always that inherent state of perpetual readiness to drop everything and activate his giant robot to combat villainy. This competition, guaranteed to become a fierce struggle of persuasion and logic over the next few days, provided some degree of solace from his often stressful schedule. It was a vacation, and he was determined to make the most of it.

For the moment, however, he chose to shy away from the social aspect of his vacation, or in other words, the social game. Aside from with those he was exceptionally close to, authority figures, or evildoers, he found it difficult to hold casual conversation. Not growing up regularly around other kids just does that to ya, he mused. To survive here and gain people's trust, he would have to think fast and deliberate carefully over every word out his mouth. Both, he could do. He somewhat doubted his ability to do them correctly in this context, however. Considering his assigned role...slow adjusting or one miscalculation could spell his downfall.

The auburn-haired boy found himself randomly gravitating to the mahogany railroad water tower on the edge of town. He marveled, analyzing the structure from its base of reinforced legs to the peaked polygonal prism they supported. Also he discerned the supplementary wooden cab attached to the side nearest Main. As the highest vantage point in the settlement by a matter of several feet, the tank housed the fire lookout station. Though it hardly resembled an intricate lab atop a mountain, Buzz inwardly noted to make the location his sanctuary for when he needed to get away. Well, at least if this game includes an abhorrent arsonist actively attempting afflictions, I'll be the first to know, huh?

"Beaut, isn't it? Course, it's nothing compared to the architectural wonders mankind is capable of creating today, but I suppose for the time, it was quite an accomplishment."

Suppressing a groan, Buzz realized he hadn't quite shaken the contestant tailing him. Placing a receptive expression on his countenance, he turned and greeted Susan "Mandark" Astronomonov (Dexter's Laboratory), a bigheaded boy with a black bowl cut and thick-rimmed glasses. Some eerie sense had attracted Mandark to him at debarkation, allowing the skinny specs-wearer to correctly identify the two of them as the game's lone child geniuses. He didn't know why Mandark continued to follow despite his obvious nonverbal indications of desire for solitude, but he supposed he'd humor him.

For as long as he could stand, anyway.

Teenagers and young adults comprised nearly half the players in the game. Most of them made an immediate bee line for the nearest restaurant after Quick Draw's concluding words, effectively crowding out the hungry fat guys, Fred and Hollywood (2 Stupid Dogs), from Victuals 'n' Vittles; neither man was too keen on spending his first lunch amongst a bunch of chatty conversationalists. The motley crew included many diverse personalities spanning the spectrum, yet they all hit it off great, freely sharing basic personal information and stories like friends reconnecting after a few years' separation. Often individuals table-hopped with their plates to further acquaint with relative strangers, more or less giving everyone equal time to chat. Today no major cliques would emerge besides the one.

Their afternoon eatery choice was one of two country Western-themed restaurants in town; but, in case contestants disagreed with the traditional food, they had several other options. Victuals 'n' Vittles aimed for a relatively authentic feel all around. The wooden building featured a main floor and interior wraparound balcony. Most tables were two-seaters, though a couple of large round ones as well as a billiards setup occupied the first story's space nearest the entryway. Some ornate snakeskins decorated the wall above the bar area, which was adjacent to the substantial buffet line. Back in true cowboy times, patrons generally weren't blessed with such freedom for their appetites, neither in such establishments nor out on the frontier. The contestants, who were essentially spending this game in the lap of luxury, were reminded of their comparative fortune by the various paintings depicting Western life strewn sparsely about the walls.

The thirty contestants and production crew were not the lone inhabitants of the town—most enterprises such as this one were fully operational, courtesy of outside folk. For Judy Jetson (The Jetsons), this was an astronomical relief. She was accustomed to things happening at the push of a button. Primitive self-sufficiency, especially in cooking, was totally lost on her. So, she lovingly showered the cowboy chefs with praise and thanks every chance she got—especially the young, cute ones.

Had the town's non-game population been devoid of hot males, Judy would've died a little inside – no, actually, make that a lot. But, thank goodness that Mafia came stocked with many good-looking guys, both workers and contestants; words failed to express her elation! She was on rebound again back home, which meant finding another boyfriend ASAP before she outright expired from distress. Having zero eye candy would've made her time here exceptionally miserable, so hurrah that that wasn't the case. These handsome boys could've all been mafia and killed her first for all she cared (okay, maybe I'm not that desperate); she just needed heartthrobs to pine over and maybe even hook up with!

Topping her candidate list was Peter Perfect (Wacky Races), whose perfect name perfectly suited him so…perfectly. Perfectly handsome, perfect gentleman, perfect accent…he's perfectly divine, oooh! Close behind in score was Lincoln "Link" Simmons (Danger Island), the slightly older dirty blond with the model-quality body. Ah, but he said he already has a girl… Can't keep this one from looking though, right? He's just begging to be looked at! While not of the same distinctive caliber as those two, a few others had some good traits worthy of real consideration. Though he dressed questionably, the blond bespectacled Gilly (Goober and the Ghost Chasers) styled his glasses well, and though he wore so much green, the redheaded goggles-guy Tinker (Speed Buggy) had the most endearing country accent. There was also Henry Chan (The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan), who seemed a bit plain and uptight, but he had that exotic Asian flair going for him, the hunk…

Judy, of course, had had her share of girl talk, too, but when she was single, boys tended to command all her attention. Peter, Link, Gilly and Tinker, Henry… Oh, they're outta this galaxy, triple the speed of light! Too bad she was speaking with none of them at the moment, and none of the cool females she'd recently met, neither.

Currently, Carl Chryniszzwics (Johnny Bravo) had her trapped.

"So Judy, what's it like on Mars, huh, huh? Have you been there? Are there Martians, and what color are they? Green or black? You'll tell me, right Judy? Right? Oh, oooh! Have you met the Martian leader?" Carl asked in rapid-fire machine gun, his stereotypically geeky voice grating on her nerves.

"Uh…sure, Carl," Judy lied, though she had no idea what she was lying about. Her appetite had mysteriously vanished, and she was chasing the black beans and corn around her plate. They blended nicely with the pieces of smoked ham, she observed.

"Do humans fly? Do we end up with wings or with tiny model airplanes or jet packs? Ooh, or are we all born with superpowers?" Carl continued, stuffing a rectangular cut of buttered cornbread in his mouth. "Mr, mnetter yem, do mmpfigs fwy?" Fluffy flecks of yellow and golden brown flew out, landing on the table. She glanced at the raindrops disgustedly for two seconds before averting her eyes and pretending not to notice.

"Well, I, uh, wouldn't say we…fly. We sort of, like, defy gravity."

"Reafwy?" Gulp. "Do you use potions, or do you do it in your sleep, or is it an automatic process that happens when you walk? Or, or is it your clothes?" This time, he maintained subject as three slices of tender roast beef went down the hatch, followed by two chunks of seasoned potatoes.

Judy watched him eat, somewhat taken aback. She didn't quite understand how the scrawny guy was eating so much so quickly. Maybe he has a fast metabolism with all this…talking he does? Nor did she quite understand why he seemed so overtly excited to discuss her background (albeit without much informational dialogue). Sure, her roots in the distant future granted her incredibly unique conversation topics and a distinct persona that people desired to learn about, but her other companions had taken it in stride reasonably well, still reserving time to tell her about themselves. But here he was, changing trains of thought constantly and overloading her with questions without waiting for answers; his only self-description had been about abnormal gut pain, of all things. If she had a way to compare this behavior against his everyday guise, Judy would've utilized it immediately, because something here felt peculiar.


Was he…smitten with her?

Shaking her head rapidly, she disposed of the thought. No way.

It kept returning like a boomerang, and she threw it away faster each time. She was just your average high school teenager, obsessed with interstellar boy bands and fun nights with her best friends, certainly nothing special. In this crowd, Judy only stood out appearance-wise due to her platinum blonde hairdo and feminine cerise earth fashion. Several other ladies graced this game with criminally beautiful bodies and appropriately stylish wardrobes. For him to choose her over—

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Carl laughed. He had this phony-sounding guffaw, but one could tell by the way his eyes crinkled, he was genuine. One of his friends back home (though that "friend" would completely deny any sort of association altogether) despised that annoying cachinnation, but for some reason, girls found it appealing.

Goofy, yet…cute?

"You want me to get you some more vegetables?" Carl offered, standing with his empty plate.

Judy couldn't help but giggle.

Attempts for historical accuracy shouldn't have held precedence over aesthetic quality in the honest opinion of one Olive Oyl (Popeye). Much to her disappointment, the Last Chance Saloon featured a completely normal exterior raw wooden door. Dark green swinging doors separated the drink preparation counters from the main hall, but it just wasn't the same. Aside from that and some other minor quibbles, she thought the bona fide Western atmosphere positively charming. Some Southern belle filled the building with lively tunes on a varnished upright piano. Olive recognized the current song as a slow jazz accompaniment for "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser; it made her want to sing and dance on the stage, which was framed nicely by ruby curtains. With its overhead lights active, the presently empty raised platform was the focal point of the saloon, and seemed waiting for an act to occupy it. Shades marked with the show's logo covered the windows, limiting the entering sunlight to a dull glow barely extending a step into the room. Dim lighting was cast onto the sea of square tables from the rafters.

Entering the saloon ten minutes early, Olive remembered to deposit her resealed envelope into the bin located to her right. She took a seat at a table near the drinks station, joined by Agent Honeydew (Dial M for Monkey segment). To their amusement, several players had already mistaken the two women for sisters because of their black hairstyles' vague similarities, but the resemblance, or whatever it was they saw, was pure happenstance. A waitress came and jotted their requests into a notebook, and they were sipping cactus nectar a few moments later.

"To think, one person could be leaving so soon after our arrival in this quaint country town," remarked Honeydew. Her voice carried a naturally melodramatic British air. "We've only had, what, a few hours to explore and enjoy?"

"Mm-hmm." Olive smacked her lips testily at the stinging flavor. A pensive crinkle of the nose. She decided she liked it. "I hope no one targets me today, because I'm not mafia. I'd hate to leave this early."

"That makes the two of us, then, on both counts." Honeydew smiled sweetly at her counterpart, raising her glass. "But to whomever that vile scum is, they better watch out."

"Oh, you got that right, sister," Olive giggled mischievously.

They daintily clinked their thick mugs together.

The slow trickle of incoming contestants became something of a flood when the Victuals 'n' Vittles crew entered. Others followed, including Fred and Hollywood, who both still brought takeout of typical American fare. At a couple of minutes past four o'clock, all players but one were present, and Quick Draw and Baba Looey were nowhere to be found. While the host party ran late due to unforeseen problems preparing the live vote tracker, the absentee's tardiness was definitely planned. Her intended introduction – the one she obviously deserved – was spoiled when that incompetent fool horse didn't do the standard reality show run-through of all the participants. So, she had to improvise with this opportunity. Everyone except Sheriff Stupid and Deputy Dumb were inside, but it'd have to do.

"Arise and kneel down, all you peasants, for your Pr-r-r-r-r-incess, a.k.a. this game's soon-to-be winner, is in the house!" trilled Princess Morbucks (The Powerpuff Girls), slamming the door wide open for effect. The entire saloon immediately went quiet and stared at her, the piano hitting a disharmonious sour chord to mark the awkward silence. She stood in the entryway a moment, coyly preening her curly reddish-brown hair with a gloved hand, before strutting through the tables.

Those who remembered the short, oddly untalkative little girl from this morning recognized her costume change and demeanor turnaround. After a quick bite to eat at Buffalo Bill's, Princess had spent her afternoon augmenting her wardrobe with first dibs on the clothing departments and sprucing up for the cameras following the icky, smelly, sweat-inducing covered wagon ride. She'd exchanged her classy sunflower yellow suit jacket, purple pleated miniskirt, and designer heels for a faded saffron Western Victorian skirt and matching parasol, a citrine silk shawl, and a set of leather walking boots studded with assorted gemstones. Her face was slathered in expensive cosmetics, and her hair was done up in a fancy upper-class bun. In real life, she always depended on her daddy's money for makeovers (not that she honestly needed them, oh puh-lease), but here she was an aristocrat on her own fashionable merit.

"Okay, well, just so ya'll know," she told her captive audience while parading towards the stage, "I'm not in the mafia. If I were, I'd totally be the mastermind pulling all the strings and you'd all be dead meat, so dead that you slabs hanging in those stinky walk-in freezers wouldn't even rise with the zombies! But…I'm not. I'm a townie, and a good and important one at that!" Here she paused at the table of Sarah and Holly and looked the natural cowgirl up and down, unimpressed. "Eww, get with the program! That country look is so yesterday!" Sarah glared at her disbelievingly.

"But isn't she wearing it today?" Melody Jones (Josie and the Pussycats series) asked her table innocently, giggling.

Princess, not hearing the joke among all the whispers, hopped up the steps and pranced to center stage, where she bowed majestically and began striking poses. Several contestants, especially the mafia, ignored her modeling and further self-praise, and instead analyzed her confession, the first wholly public claim of affiliation in the game. Depending on her alliance, it could've been a great cover carrying her for several days or the fatal error perpetuating her premature departure.

This arguably rash, perhaps even foolish, move wasn't exactly unexpected from the contest's youngest participant. She attended kindergarten, but only when she wasn't incarcerated and only when she really felt like it. (Frequenting Pokey Oaks meant inevitably engaging three freaky-eyed girls she absolutely hated. She almost preferred the stupid home tutor daddy had hired than interacting with those wretched brats who'd imprisoned her and refused her valid desire to become a Powerpuff Girl.) Yes, at her age, Princess had already been jailed more than once for criminal offenses. She, a fully capable villainess, was not to be underestimated in Mafia.

Suddenly, Quick Draw arrived from a rear entrance, towing an electronic contraption with a pronounced LCD widescreen visible to even those in the back. Odds said it wasn't native to the town.

"Off the stage, lil' darlin'! Time to get started!" He shooed her off the stage.

"Ugh, hey!" Princess flinched away from his hoof. "No touching the clothes, you foul foal!" Her nose pointed high in the air, she begrudgingly complied and found a mostly empty table with only Rava (Galtar and the Golden Lance), who was not so sure what to make of her fizzling soda, as company.

"Ooh, that smarts," Quick Draw frowned, placing the screen front and center. "Er… Welcome to the first town meetin', where all players may vote to lynch someone and remove 'em from the game. Anybody have any quest-ee-uns 'fore we get started?"

"Just one," answered Shelly (Jabberjaw) after no one else reacted. "Where's the 'Next to Last Chance Saloon?' I swear that's supposedly a staple joke of places like these." Some amused chuckles emitted from the crowd.

Quick Draw grinned at the humor, snorting slightly, then proceeded, "This meetin' must be over by six so's we don't waste the evenin's catered chow, yummy-yum." Using a remote with an impossibly high number of buttons, he turned the tracker on. The show's logo faded into existence, superimposed upon a grayscale slideshow of various town edifices. Two hours were already counting down at the top in imposing digital digits. "All contestants are eligible for votin', and there're thirty of ya'll, so the majority is…uh, fourteen? No…um…"

"Sixteen," several crowd members chimed, with one "Idiot" thrown in for good measure.

"Oh yeah, idiiii—uh, sixteen!" Quick Draw laughed nervously and pressed another button.

"Eligible: 30" and "Majority: 16" appeared as reminding indicators below the countdown.

"And…have at it!"



Even with the clock already ticking down, everyone had still been expecting a longer preparatory speech. No – ground rules were laid out, and the ball was now in their court. Already. Now the game was on.

Some wanted to blurt out Princess's name due to her untrustworthy declaration; some had other individuals in mind from suspicious behavior throughout the afternoon. But…it was still so early. All they had were hunches and insubstantial evidence. Furthermore, many recognized that careless accusations could turn the entire town against them with mob mentality. Wouldn't want that unlucky fate. Thusly, nobody spoke up. They all just sat there, looking uneasily at each other, sipping their drinks, and listening to the pianist play them her rendition of "William Tell Overture" in pianissimo compared to her previous background dynamic before Princess's grand entrance. She had performed the recognizable finale's fanfare and cycled through the orchestral leitmotif twice before someone spoke up. Or rather, stood up.

"I say we lynch the piano player!" proposed Fred, pointing at her accusingly. After that one marriage anniversary gone wrong, he had a grudge against anything remotely resembling that infernal song, especially played on piano.

"I agree!" his eating partner Hollywood yelled, shaking his fist. "Her music is pretty, but it's also pretty WROOOOONG!"

"Well, I nevuh!" The Southern belle gasped, appalled. "Darlin', it's called a rearrangement!"

"Doesn't change the fact that it's still WRONG!" Hollywood retorted loudly.

"And that it SUCKS!" Princess added smarmily. "Use the blender's tornado setting next time!" Seated opposite the loudmouthed child, Rava discreetly rolled her eyes.

Most looked on either puzzled or annoyed at this strange turn of events, Quick Draw included. He didn't have settings to put hired help on the vote tracker, so he was rather perplexed on how to handle this. Luckily, his savior meandered onstage, carting the bin of player letters.

"Hey, uh… They can't vote out the pee-un-ist, can they?"

"Uh…no, methinks," Baba Looey replied, confused.

"Uh…no, this ain't allowed," Quick Draw relayed to the meeting. "The pee-un-ist is off-limits! …Besides," he muttered inaudibly, "if we ran her outta town, I'd actually have to sheriff against baddies."

On that note, the innocent woman huffed and began playing an angry-sounding piece, albeit quietly. The wordless monotony returned.

Intellectual types in the crowd deduced day one was a special case deserving thorough consideration. They acknowledged that any reasoning they contributed could be advantageous to the town, but kept quiet, fearing their advice's intent could also be mistakenly misconstrued. However, finally tiring of the silent game and knowing that action was necessary before the opportunity disappeared, Henry decided to speak up. He finished his mango-flavored tea and requested a refill from a server before standing.

"Here's the deal, people," he began firmly. All eyes darted to him. "Ending the day without a lynch is certainly an option, but this is the time the mafia are at their weakest. They don't know who each other are yet, and they won't until tonight. This is arguably the best time to vote, because we can force them to unintentionally vote out one of their own. The ones wanting to avoid risking a vote on their fellow mafia this early wouldn't be active in today's meeting. Those hesitant to drive the nail into anyone's coffin at all will end up looking awfully suspicious, right?"

"In theory that could work," started another voice after a moment of reflection. "But… I think most all of us would be hesitant because we're trying not to lynch an innocent townie," countered Charlie Dibble (Top Cat) in a rough New York accent. "Every townie counts, y'know?"

"Plus, the odds are against us," asserted his eloquent tablemate, Benton Quest (Jonny Quest series). "There are nine mafia. At most, there are twenty townies plus the Serial Killer, who may or may not be an asset depending on who he or she eliminates. However many 'neutral' players exist, which shouldn't be too many, we're around twice as likely to choose a townie over a mafia, based purely on random chance."

"…Both are reasonable counterarguments." Henry nodded approvingly at the two men. "As for me, I'm not proposing we vote, one way or another, I'm proposing we collaborate to think about this. This is a one-time opportunity in the game."

"By the sounds of it, though, you do have an opinion," Shelly pressed, smirking.

"My opinion is that the town should consider this opportunity carefully." Henry dodged the trap with a thin smile.

People did consider this carefully; Henry had a legitimate point. As he said, the mafia would arguably never be this vulnerable in the entire game, even when the numbers were dwindling. At the moment, individual members were almost just as in the dark about who was in the mafia as everyone else. Since, for them, every person would count in outnumbering the town later on, they wouldn't want to take an unnecessary risk in being one down so early. Nine was more than eight. It mattered. Therefore, this was the best time to check people's hesitance in voting at all.

Charlie and Benton brought the other side of the coin to light. It was an undeniably risky move on the town's part. Without any dependable leads, they were more likely to eliminate one of their own than a mafia. Late in the game, townie numbers would still count, too. They had to maintain their lead over the mafia at all times just to keep the game going, while their win condition involved eliminating all anti-townie parties. A "mislynch" now could potentially have disastrous consequences later.

"I've considered all points," announced the person who would cast the game's first legitimate vote, "and I vote Princess."

"WHAT?" Princess yelled, shocked. As Quick Draw entered her name on the scoreboard, she glared furiously across the room at Sylvester Sneekly (The Perils of Penelope Pitstop). "What're you doing, you idiot? I already told you, I'm a townie, and an important one too!"

"Your earlier claim sounds like something a desperate mafia would say to plant the seeds of innocence early," Sylvester explained calmly. "In the event that you are indeed a townie, I think we can stand to lose one today without major repercussions."

He may have composed a viable justification to feed the listeners, but in reality, he just thought her an insufferable, snobby little annoyance that should take the first train out of town. Just from first impressions.

"W-Well, y-you know what?" Princess sputtered in an undignified manner. "I vote Mr. Big Nose over there!"

"The name's Mr. Sneekly to you," Sylvester hinted, a venomous tinge lingering in his regal voice.

"Tch. Your surname fits you completely," Princess spat.

"Likewise to your given one," Sylvester responded, infuriating her all the more.

"You must admit, sir, this seems like a mafia-like move," remarked Henry, intervening and intrigued.

"That I do, but I can guarantee I won't be the only suspicious-looking townie as we try to weed out the mafia," Sylvester replied smoothly. "Not all of us can be painted with golden halos and white feathery wings when this is all over."

"Well, you sure won't," Princess quipped.

He sneered at her.

Crossfire between Sylvester and Princess enlivened the discussion momentarily, but things fell into a lull again soon after. Curiously enough, neither voter bothered with further campaigning or slander, preferring instead to leer at each other over the rims of their mugs. And perhaps even more curiously, no one else pointed fingers afterwards. Despite intentional casting of some impulsive and boisterous personalities, the cast was playing it cautious – maybe even too cautious – on the first day. As far as they were concerned, there was no good reason to vote someone out yet, and no one seemed too willing to take chances. Since he was a loose moderator and more of a spectator to the proceedings, Quick Draw looked bored onstage with all the dead time.

"It's obvious we're getting nowhere fast just sitting here," Benton commented wryly.

"Yeah. We might as well not drag this out and go no-lynch if this keeps up," Shelly concurred.

"Sounds like a plan," agreed Peter among other voices of approval. Warily he glanced at a nearby Henry, but he seemed content with the direction the group was traveling.

"And besides, now no one'll be left out of the welcoming dinner!" Hollywood pointed out. "I would've said 'more for me!' but that'd be no fair, would it?"

"So… In that case, I vote no-lynch," Shelly declared.

"I vote no-lynch," Benton repeated.

"Vote no-lynch," Hollywood echoed.

One by one, various people consented to ending the town meeting without an elimination, parroting that phrase or slight variants thereof.

Vote Tally (Eligible: 30, Majority:16)
No-lynch (15): Shelly, Benton, Hollywood, Fred, Charlie, Peter, Judy, Carl, Mammy, Nida, Gilly, Melody, Rosemary, Buzz, Mandark
Princess (1): Sylvester
Sylvester (1): Princess
Yet to Vote (13): Daphne, Dee Dee, Henry, Holly, Honeydew, Jenny, Johan, Link, Olive, Rava, Sarah, Tinker, Zilly

"Is it alright if I seal and stamp it," Henry asked aloud, unintentionally cutting off Honeydew and Olive. Both women allowed him the privilege, unperturbed. "I vote no-lynch, too."

"There's majority," Quick Draw finally spoke at last, halting the countdown. He had nearly said it at fourteen, but managed to catch himself in time (and hopefully, nobody noticed). "Took ya'll a while, huh? Well, you've voted for no-lynch, so no lynch there will be. So…meeting ad-journey-eed and whatnot. See all thirty o' ya at Buffalo Bill's for din-din, then."

He powered down the electronic visual display and exited stage right, humming cheerfully under his breath. Baba Looey, who'd somehow remained awake merely by appreciating the soft background music, followed with the bin, presumably for storage in the sheriff's office for safekeeping. There was a feeling of unfulfilled expectation, wasted anticipation, as the players emptied their refreshments and sauntered out of the saloon.

Amidst the sea of tables belonged the one seating Daphne Blake (Scooby-Doo series), who was among the last to leave. Preferring not to get deeply involved until a reliable lead presented itself, she had simply sat and listened intently to the debate while quietly enjoying her root beer float. Suspicious activity was already plainly afoot, and she had some ideas to pore over. Meanwhile, her companions – Dee Dee Skyes (Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels), an accomplished detective, and Jenny Trent (Around the World in 79 Days), an amateur reporter for the World News – finished scribbling their last notes in fresh new journals, which they'd retrieved from their luggage.

"Got some interesting information jotted down?" Dee Dee inquired casually, finishing her lemonade.

"Of course." Jenny closed her notepad and pocketed her special pen. "Though, I wish I'd thought about bringing my camera to capture the expressions on some people's faces. It was really…telling."

What could've ended up for the town as a high-risk, high-return venture or even an unlucky throwaway vote ultimately amounted to nothing.

Or did it?

Several contestants had lunched at Buffalo Bill's, but the town's second Western-themed restaurant was hosting a special occasion tonight that necessitated a change in menu. A welcoming luncheon just didn't transmit the same impact as a welcoming dinner. At least on American soil, dinner traditionally involved the most food and implied the day's main meal. So, a non-Western five-star seven-course feast wouldn't appear out of place as the evening regale celebrating the thirty's induction to Mafia. Thanks to the town meeting's consensus, as conveniently mentioned by Hollywood, no one would miss out on this luxurious honor.

However, the town lacked any sort of formal establishment; Buffalo Bill's was chosen only because of its seating capacity. Secretly this detail annoyed Sylvester, a wealthy charity benefactor outside the game, to no end. They were eating a fancy regalement practically befitting of royalty in something reminiscent of a barely formatted American café! How cheap! He would spend much of dinner inwardly protesting this insult against high society, trying to explain to the ditzy blondes Melody and Rosemary (Hong Kong Phooey) what "table d'hôte" connoted, and criticizing Hollywood's over-eager eating methods, but no one else let the unfitting atmosphere (or him) affect enjoyment of their meal.

Unlike Victuals 'n' Vittles, which aimed to replicate a Western dining center in most respects, Buffalo Bill's normally combined old Western food (plus other elements) with a recognizably modern American layout borrowed from many a successful sit-down. For many, it was like a slice of home. Past the reception area, which featured a lifelike wood-carved homage to the restaurant's namesake, wooden booths with upholstered seats lined all walls but the rear, with one interior layer of regular tables and chairs. Extending from the back wall, between the two sets of commercial kitchen swinging doors, was a modest stage, smaller than that of the Last Chance Saloon. The rest of the floor in the room's center featured a hardwood parquet design, obviously for dancing on. Completing the theme was the fact that any wall space not occupied by windows, doors, or pertinent restaurant information contained historical writings about and pictures of the restaurant's eponymous hero, as well as various prominent American Old West figures and the era in general.

While most everyone, Sylvester included, genuinely enjoyed the festivities, a single person was feeling absolutely miserable. Zilly (Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines) attributed it to his exceptionally bad fortune, just like everything else. Only two plates in – a colorful cold appetizer and a flavorful soup – and his digestive system was whining in protest and sharply rebuking his attempts to ignore it. Thankfully, Benton and Charlie, both mature adults, shared his table tonight and were more than understanding to his plight.

Earlier today he'd skipped lunch (no wonder your stomach's not cooperating), but with good reason. He'd been reduced to a quivering mess in his bedroom after the excruciating covered wagon ride, only emerging for the town meeting and this obligatory dinner. Incidentally, several other contestants had felt similarly unwell, but speedily recovered once sustenance entered their bodies. Though not a particularly big fan of irony, he perceived it in this situation. How was it that a cowardly pilot like him could manage numerous flights in a rickety old World War I-era aviation vehicle under a blundering leader's ridiculous plans (though not at the expense of more time shaved off his lifespan), yet one bumpy ride across the prairie shattered him to millions of tiny pieces? Pathetic.

To make matters worse, this gathering constituted his first major social interaction time in the game. Back at disembarkation, only Olive had bothered exchanging some lines, and he'd robbed himself of afternoon conversation with his solitary confinement. During the meeting, he wasn't quite all there, huddled alone in an unnoticed corner and trying desperately to keep from vomiting up the ginger ale. Somewhere he must've missed the part about dressing up, because everyone had donned at least semiformal wear. Everyone but him. He'd shown up to the restaurant per usual, in his light brown leather aviator's helmet and body-length yellow flight coat (which might as well have been an ugly, functionless poncho). Yeah, he heard the snickering and snide remarks passed behind his back, but…there wasn't much he could do about it now, now that they'd formed their first impressions, because…they were probably right. They were probably calling him stupid, and… He felt so, so stupid.

"I know you don't feel like it, but please continue drinking water," requested Benton, consciously placing his goblet of fine aged wine back down. "We wouldn't want to add dehydration to your list of…discomforts."

"Yeah. You can pull through this, Zilly, but you've gotta put some work into it to get results." Desiring to busy himself, Charlie wiped clean the tines of his appetizer fork, which had been somehow missed at the first pickup, and deposited it near the soupspoon on his near-spotless bowl. "I can't think of much work easier than drinking water."

Shakily Zilly obliged, sipping the liquid tentatively. It burned coolly against his throat.

"If you don't feel like talking, you don't have to, 'kay?" Charlie assured.

"N-No, it, it wouldn't be fair…" Zilly protested feebly. "You g-guys've shared stuff with me, b-but I, I haven't r-reciprocated yet." He flushed slightly, self-consciously glancing at the monitoring camera again.

"From your attire, I surmise you're a pilot?" Benton asked. Zilly had visibly flinched, half-expecting a question about why he senselessly wore it out here, in the desert.

"I g-guess you could say…" Zilly paused, noting the arrival of the warm appetizer platters. He frowned ashamedly at his barely-touched soup. Hopefully the chefs wouldn't take it the wrong way. "I, uh, I was a member of a group called the Vulture Squadron. W-We were involved with…m-message interception, and, uh, we've…since…been d-decommissioned." Way to end it on a flat note… Couldn't you have spiced it up a bit?

"My apologies if it was a touchy subject for you," began Benton.

"Oh, no, no, it's not, er, it's, it's okay, it…yeah," Zilly stammered nervously. "I-I just…um… I guess… I l-like…holding onto the past."

"Ah, I know the feeling. Know it quite well," Charlie nodded, staring off at something distant, an unreadable emotion in his dark eyes. He almost reopened his oral crevice too late to receive the incoming fork's contents.

Having revealed something, Zilly then clammed up. It opened the path to casual chitchat regarding Charlie's wife and some further details about his police career, and then surface information on Benton's children and current research projects, for both of which he seemed rather guarded. Zilly never offered much to the conversation and couldn't bring himself to do more than nibble idly on the pasta and salad dishes. If Klunk were here, I would've gladly passed this to him. No meat. He'd have enjoyed it, the pilot fondly mused, eyeing the mini-garden, its colorful toppings, and the tart vinaigrette. Soon his thoughts wandered further, and something unexpected escaped forth from his mouth when the entrée appeared on the table, casting steam in their faces.

"Do… Do y-you guys think I-I'm on the…ch-chopping b-b-block?"

Within three seconds of thought, Benton composed an outline for his answer. "I wouldn't think so, and I don't say this simply to appease you, either. As we saw in the meeting, suspicions have been aroused, but no one has enough solid evidence to make serious accusations yet. The game truly starts tomorrow, when the mafia have learned who they're defending and we learn who they targeted."

He paused thoughtfully and placed more weight on his next few sentences.

"If anything, people would consider your behavior antisocial if unaware of your condition, but likely not worthy of mafia. I'd imagine that Charlie and I are currently higher on the list than you, since you stayed quiet at the meeting. There were too many wallflowers to just point and click. We, on the other hand, argued with Henry's argument, which some certainly thought suspicious. I've seen more than one odd look tossed my direction."

"Uh…everything that he said," Charlie agreed, sounding a combination of impressed and more than just a little disturbed.

Still, Zilly remained privately unconvinced. Benton's rationalization comforted him slightly, planting a microscopic bead of hope in his heart, but the inborn paranoia bred from countless missions under that unyielding Chief was taking over again. Words were words. Verbal reassurances were meaningless in essence. People could go back on their word, take back what they said, mean something different altogether, rewrite the past. People could lie. People could betray. All with words.

Spoken words were powerful and weak.

At times like these, times of insecurity, times of worry, times where he didn't know what to think… Zilly sought strength. This time, unlike all the others, however, there wasn't that bond with someone he could trust and rely on, his indomitable rock when things were falling apart. For all he knew, Benton and Charlie were both mafia, just waiting to confirm each other's identities tonight so they could convince their cohorts to eliminate him because he knew too much. Why the word "lynch?" Why "kill?" They're both unnecessarily cruel…

Zilly sought strength. He hoped to find his here.

Just when the contestants felt all happy and complacent with their full bellies, Quick Draw McGraw sprang a surprise on them that none had expected.

"Da-a-a-a-ance par-tee!" he proclaimed, much to their excitement. Several of the girls squealed.

During dinner, the pleasant atmospheric melodies had been almost completely drowned out by ambient chatter. Now, cheers, shouts, and laughs drowned out the conversations, accompanied by live music, courtesy of a group of multitalented musicians. They played everything from jazz to swing, funk to disco, techno to hip hop, any conceivable genre one could dance to. Whenever the band played an unusual number (such as the polka purposely thrown in), Mammy Two Shoes (Tom and Jerry) kept the hype alive. She threw all inhibitions to the wind, swiftly improvising daring moves and making them work spectacularly. Dancers on the floor loved her creativeness because just watching her liberty and fun-lovin' style helped them disregard their own reservations and enjoy themselves. Somehow, she even drew Benton and Sylvester under her spell, both of whom would've never – not even at gunpoint, not in a million years – imagined themselves dancing to pop music.

Others shared the spotlight, too. Pulling from the far reaches of time, the troupe incorporated songs where Fred redefined what it meant to rock 'n' roll and Judy teased with glimpses of futuristic techniques. Cultural specialties showcased Middle Ages ditties befitting of Johan (The Smurfs), who appreciated the lyre, for once, being in skilled hands; Middle Eastern strains allowing Nida (Arabian Knights) to perform a heart-stirring raqs sharqi; and Asian hits Henry, though normally not the type to get down, seemed a natural at grooving to. At one point, when the ensemble relinquished the stage for a short break, Melody, the drummer of "Josie and the Pussycats," and Shelly, the tambourinist of "The Neptunes," invaded and joined forces to bring down the house with a mad spontaneous percussion jam. Henry, also a drummer for the family-based "The Chan Clan," enhanced it further by jumping in on various idiophones and membranophones. It was awesome, and they procured tremendous applause.

The party truly succeeded in its design as a wide scale icebreaker.

Somewhere, a transition shifted the focus to partner dancing. Newfound amity among the cast members prevented what could've been an awkward shift from becoming so. Since they'd practically boogied off all the food from dinner, many contestants sat down and enjoyed some light desserts and refreshments, trading turns on and off the floor. Notably, Charlie and Rosemary, both affiliated with police departments, remained together. After discovering each other's profession, they maintained an enjoyable conversation while constantly adjusting to the style on deck. ("Oh, officer, you're so good at shaking your hips!" Rosemary exclaimed randomly.)

Everyone was totally distracted by the fun, fellowship, and free food of the evening.

Everyone but Rava.

She reclined into the corner booth's firm padding, pondering the strong flavor of her latte macchiato. These people have the most interesting drinks. While her mouth remained curled into that ever-present, ever-pleasant smile which the men couldn't get enough of, her eyes were a different story.

Dark olive drab, like tainted emeralds.

Rava was in constant surveillance of the other contestants. Like heat-seeking cameras relaying separate scenes to a master room of innumerable monitors, her eyes saw one person, one group, multiple groups, all at once. She observed their personalities, their habits, their tendencies, their dynamics. Vigilant scrutiny compensated for her inability to hear all their conversations to a certain extent. Never had she forgotten – not even for the most minuscule measurement of time one could comprehend – that she was in a competition. Not at disembarkation, not at lunch, not at the town meeting, not at dinner, not at the dance, and not at any moments in-between. Even when it seemed her mind was otherwise occupied. At all instants, she was examining, analyzing, memorizing. To win Mafia required the skill to read other people. To this end, she had begun creating mental portfolios that would surely assist her to victory. And victory will be mine and only mine.

During the letter handout, Rava had barely contained her giddiness, because this game was made for her, in all senses of the term. Master creator of Mafia, whoever you are, I just might give you a sliver of my prize money…but then again, I just might not. She was, hands down, the best liar and actress she'd ever encountered, though that went without saying. Any possible role, she could play to perfection, and then some. So, when she laid optics on that stationery, Quick Draw may as well have congratulated her right then and there. Her role in the game was almost too painfully easy! Unless a party (powers-that-be forbid) picked her off with a lucky (tremendously lucky!) guess, she would skirt to the end effortlessly and win the whole shebang. Guaranteed.

What sounded somewhat challenging, however, would be systematically eliminating everyone else so she would be the lone competitor fulfilling her win condition, thusly winning her cash prize in its entirety. Why share the glory when she could rightfully maximize her earnings? Too bad she wasn't the Serial Killer, though – she would've been unstoppable.

"Just between you and me, girl, all these peasants are so annoying."

An infinitesimal wrinkle of annoyance entered Rava's expression, but Princess was none the wiser as she plopped down uninvited, nursing her slice of Black Forest cake and a tall glass of hand-blended chocolate milkshake. After a frighteningly long two minutes treating the much taller Mandark to an awkward tango, the redhead felt quite ravenous.

"Apparently the fat guys are tearing up the kitchen back there. I didn't know just jiggling their bellies could make them hungry again," Princess jeered.

Ignoring the snide remarks, Rava eyed the table's other new occupants with interest. "Are…those any good?"

"Hm? Oh yeah, I forgot, you're not from around here." Princess described the names and basic flavors of her tasty escorts with something partway resembling an authentic smile. "I like rich food, and let's face it, chocolate can be pretty rich if made right. These chefs know how to do it properly, so they're on my good side…for now." She studied her tablemate's mug and eventually placed the contents. "You should get a cake or a custard or something with that, if they still have some back there."

"Could I try a piece of—"

"No way, alien girl, go get your own!"

Despite the obnoxiously loud rejection, Rava kept that million-dollar – nay, invaluable – smile drawn taut. As Princess voraciously entered the layers of her Black Forest cherry torte, dark green enveloped her.

Less than half a day's inspection led Rava to deem Princess Morbucks as the contestant cast solely to be who viewers would love to hate. The little girl was abrasive, annoying, and had an aggravatingly screechy voice that contained several unpleasant qualities one couldn't place because it was just that bad. People would gladly rejoice her exodus, the only uncertainty being how long it would take until she got the boot. Although Rava's home world lacked anything along the lines of television, these deductions were straightforward enough to gleam from simple common sense. Princess was a joke participant, really.

Rava was also tickled by the adolescent's silly attempts to beautify herself. In her honest opinion, the horrid clothing choices were too ostentatious to be of any esthetic value on a real woman. So, on Princess, they looked plain repulsive. Dolly dress-up turned into the creation of Frankenstein's monster, an innocent costume become the ghastly representation of all Halloween's ugly and malevolent creatures. Had Rava known the appropriate cultural references, she would've thought along those lines. Ridiculously enough, Princess's freckles also shined beneath all the powder she'd applied to mimic a porcelain doll, and locks of curly hair escaping the bun defiantly waved like frazzled cowlicks. Thinks herself more beautiful than anyone else does…hate to see what she'll be like all grown up. But then again, I won't be around for that.

She, on the other hand, was a bombshell. Rava's exceptional draw from the gene pool blessed her with a natural beauty no one depending on cosmetics or wardrobes could ever hope to achieve. Her long, black, waist-length hair shined lusciously under any amount of light and framed a heart-shaped face so picturesque, its mesmerizing splendor seemed something only attainable in idealist paintings. Years of living in the wild had awarded her a lithe frame with feminine curves in just all the right places. Yet, this same body was capable of lifting and throwing heavy boulders, swinging precariously along vines, battling raging rivers, and controlling rampaging wild animals. (Though, of course she didn't divulge any of this to anyone.) According to many contestants, she was like a darker-skinned Wonder Woman…only better.

Beautiful, that's what she was, bewitchingly beautiful.

Beautiful. And to think, HE turned me down for the likes of HER.

But deadly.

"Hey! Just because I got a little on my face doesn't give you the right to stare, y'know!" Princess spluttered in irritation.

Eyes glinting with amusement, Rava watched as the child desperately made to wipe away her milky brown moustache without needlessly disturbing her makeup. Dark crumbs of chocolate cake, sticky smears from squashed maraschino cherries, and smidges of whipped cream still sullied her glossy red lips. The harmless non-threat looked so laughable, she couldn't help but laugh.

"Ugh, stop laughing!" Princess commanded, lower lip jutting out in a spoiled pout between phrases. "Geez, I'm gonna leave you alone now! You sure weren't this annoying at the town meeting!"

"No, no, it's okay, it's nothing. I was just planning on following your advice and getting up to pick out a desert to try, anyway."

"Pardon me, ladies, but would this raven-haired beauty like to dance?"

Rava and Princess glanced up with unconcealed surprise, both their faces momentarily going blank. Peter Perfect poised above their table, a debonair smile on his own. Seeing him, Rava's breath hitched. Her eyes widened slightly.

How'd she miss that he'd removed his racing headwear for the evening's affairs? The Briton was…blond?

He looks so much like HIM!

"I do believe that a slow song is coming up soon, and it is only appropriate to extend an offer to the ladies I have not yet danced with." He turned to the other female, sheepishly rubbing the nape of his neck. "My sincerest apologies, Miss Princess. I'd greatly appreciate the opportunity to share one with you also, but our height difference…"

"Oh, please. Like I'd wanna dance with you." Princess snorted dismissively, as if the very notion was ridiculous. A wide age gap separated her from the majority's range, so she was fairly immune to any encumbering emotions and related actions that could arise in this game. Her number one love was money, after all!

Though…she did have to admit some of the boys were pretty dang attractive.

…Like Peter.

"I'd be honored to, Peter, but I'm afraid I don't know how to, uh," Rava faltered, looking very uncomfortable grasping for a suitable word, "…waltz?"

"No worries. You needn't any formal ballroom or social dance training to share a slow dance," Peter reassured genteelly. "If one's body and mind are not accustomed to a set of steps the experts define as a dance, who are they to deny her the naturalistic movements which she and her partner may still call dancing?"

Rava's full red lips were parted slightly in a speechless stupor. Quickly she noted this and pursed them together, unsure why she'd been taken so off-guard.

Her normal life outside of the game was an eternal struggle for power amongst powerful opposing forces. There was never any time for frivolities like this, so the dance party was a welcome, even enjoyable intrusion on what she felt should've been an intense and cutthroat competition all the way. Rhythmically cavorting to all the foreign yet fantastic music was so exhilarating, she'd gladly arrange or attend another shindig like this if given the opportunity, unlikely as either was.

Couple dancing, however, was a different story.

It looked fun enough, and the concept intrigued her, but Rava was now quite wary of men. She could handle them easily, no problem, but her most magnificently sculpted plans had been shattered before due to a man's handiwork and influence. In no way did she desire to repeat her mistakes. Winning Mafia and the attached moolah would undoubtedly advance her agenda to usurp one or more thrones back home. That's what mattered most. Winning. Getting close to any male in any way could endanger her mission.

So, no go, this was a bad idea.

"Okay," Rava responded at last. A shy smile upturned the edges of her mouth. "You'll have to show me how, though."

"Of course."

Taking her by her slender right hand, Peter led the way to the woodwork. Rava was filled with wonder at the smoothness of his skin, the warmth of his gentle clutch, the elegance of his shapely fingers, how exquisitely their hold melded together. They reached center floor as the first slow beats emanated from hi-hat, snare rim, and bass guitar. Peter tenderly draped her hands over his broad shoulders before placing his at her waist. And they slowly swayed, swayed as the other instruments and main theme leisurely entered, swayed as the euphony enveloped them and all else disappeared.

"…Wow. This isn't so hard," Rava remarked, some clarity and confidence returning to her naturally authoritative voice.

"You're a natural, my dear." He smiled that charmingly urbane smile at her as their tête-à-tête floated freely.

Before she knew it, the song's final chord resonated, and the magic gradually faded away. It fleetingly suspended its exit as Peter bowed to one knee and gifted her with a gentlemanly hand-kiss in honest appreciation.

As Rava gazed down at her blond dancing partner, traces of pink faintly dusting her bronze cheeks, reality setting in around them, only one thought lingered on her mind.

This guy has got to go.

Johan gladly embraced the convivial softness of his bed, the plushy likes of which he had never felt in his life. Apart from the rather painful covered wagon ride into town, the recent high-spirited dance social was undoubtedly the most exhausting event of the day. His body ached, perhaps almost as much as during his knight training sessions, but it was an accomplished ache, a sort of happy ache, one he didn't mind because he'd thoroughly enjoyed himself. Having spent much of today's available time with those around his age – Buzz, Mandark, Holly, and Sarah – he was glad dinner and dancing had afforded him opportunities to interact with other contestants as well.

According to some players from around this time period, whatever it was, their living quarters bore some resemblance to a cross between a college dormitory and an above average hotel. Johan resided in a two-storey "youth-only" building – amusingly named after Harry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid – containing himself, the four kids aforementioned, and Princess (who was disgruntled she didn't have a house all to herself). Everyone's second-floor chambers were spread apart to reduce risk of the already muffled noise of the alarm systems (which employed both sound and light) alerting if and when other participants held active night roles. Specifically, boys inhabited one hall and girls the other. A lobby-like commons on the first storey held furnishings including armchairs and sofas, recreational tables, a widescreen television, some potted plants, and an unused continental breakfast division of counters.

Considering that the resort town would open for public use after the game concluded, the room layouts weren't too surprising. Player accommodations consisted of typical inclusions, such as a single platform double bed; a bedside table supporting a covered lamp and digital clock; a swivel chair and a desk containing various area advertisements; a six-shelve dresser already occupied by a plasma screen; a closet providing several hangers, bathrobes, extra towels, and a combination safe; a fully-functional bathroom with complimentary scented toiletries; and a mini-fridge and modern microwave with a few sets of plates and silverware. Thick drapery framed the windows and was to be closed at all nocturnal hours. Given the right supplies and entertainment, people could actually live in their rooms for several days, but that was out of the question in the resort.

After exploring his lodging thoroughly and becoming rather befuddled by its many oddities (such as the terrazzo vessel sink's free plastic toothbrush), Johan had changed into some nightclothes and plopped onto the comforter. Despite his occupation as a squire, he hadn't many changes of attire, so his baggage was unusually small.

I wonder what his highness would say about these arrangements. They're quite unlike his sleeping quarters, Johan mused, his thoughts instinctively reaching for home, so far away. This foreign land bewildered him greatly, but the experience living in it, even if for only a few days, would doubtlessly make him stronger. Peewit better not be causing the royal family too much trouble in my absence…

Suddenly, by random impulse, his dark eyes flicked to the daunting red digits of the digital clock.

11:59 PM

12:00 AM