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As usual, Rudi’s Pub was abuzz with conversations, each one carving out a private place in the enveloping din of music, arcade games, and the two big flatscreens on either side of the bar.

Suicide and Diocletian sat at one table. The big Scythian was wearing, for possibly the first time in his life, a shirt with a collar. He didn’t seem too happy about it, either, and when Suicide wasn’t happy everyone in the vicinity heard about it.

“This was a stupid idea,” he was saying, tugging uncomfortably at the collar. “I take it all back. I don’t want to learn about this stuff.”

Diocletian lightly slapped his hand, trying to keep him from tearing the fabric. “Suck it up, you big whiner. You wanted to know how to impress a woman, and that involves acting civilized.” She took a sip of her drink, a concoction that can only be described as ‘bathtub Dorwinion.’

Kelok and Unger passed them by, carrying their food to the most dimly lit corner of Rudi’s. The low light didn’t bother either of them, and Kelok was still sometimes a bit jumpy when it came to people coming up behind him in a crowd. They each had Hunks ‘O Meat™ and large mugs of porter.

“Wish we could have found food in our last few missions,” Unger said with his mouth full, “but it gives me an excuse to drag you out for some fun.”

Kelok nodded, and then pointed to a new arrival. “Is that a relative, Unger?”

Gall Bonecrusher had been obliged to leave her mace, shield, and dragon behind in the RC in order to get in, but still looked every inch the Viking in her leather kit and horned helmet, all five foot four of her. She swaggered in with her partner in tow, clearing the way with her evident disregard for other people's personal space. Derik, far taller and more sedate, apologized to a slender, shady-looking man who'd had his toes trodden on. He knew his was not the most reassuring face in the world, what with half of it being a mess of old Threadburn scars, but he had a trained voice that carried confidently even in a crowd, and that helped.

Gall vaulted onto a stool and brought a fist down on the bar top, causing several people’s drinks to jump and earning herself some irritated glares. She ignored them. “Hey, Rudi! Two horns of mead for me and my new partner here, and make it the good stuff!” She turned to Derik, who had seated himself with more dignity to her right, and companionably backhanded his shoulder. “Trust me, this is the only way to drink.  I can’t believe you don’t have mead in your world.”

“We don’t have honey in my world,” Derik replied. “And I don’t trust you. You’re telling me fermented insect vomit drunk from the hollowed-out remains of dead bovine horn is going to be superior to a fine Benden red wine. In some circles, that would be considered a knifing offense.”

“Wine’s fine in its place, but you can’t quaff wine. You can’t have any kind of real fun without something good and quaffable to go with it.”

Derik let this pass without comment, and Rudi delivered the mead in a matched pair of drinking horns engraved with complicated knotwork and the words “Minnesota Renaissance Festival, 1985.” The two agents, neither one a stranger to basic drinking ritual, clacked the vessels together and quaffed heartily.

If Derik thought he was going to have a moment to stop and taste the brew, he was mistaken. Gall caught his gaze and her eyes narrowed with mischief. She tipped her horn higher, and his ego left him no option but to follow suit.

One of the lesser known guidelines of the Laws of Narrative Comedy concerns the phenomena of spit-takes. To go into the conditions under which spit-takes thrive in much depth would be take far more time and space than is practical; one must consider how seriously the participants take themselves, what they are drinking, and so on. To put it succinctly, everything was looking ideal for a classic double-spit in the case of Derik and Gall.

All they needed was a catalyst.

“So there I was, dressed like a nineteenth century soldier and covered in peach-flavored pudding—”

Derik and Gall both choked on their drinks. There was no wild eye take, no spray of mead hitting an innocent bystander in the face. Narrative Law observers and fans of classic comedy would have been very disappointed. Sometimes even the most ideal conditions do not add up to success.

The two of them looked up, almost in sync, towards the source of the odd anecdote. It was coming from a small cluster of agents a few feet further down the bar. They were all wearing DBS flash patches and holding various flavors of Bleepohol. A short woman with closely cut black hair and various tattoos was the currently the center of their attention. She was in the middle of expanding on her pudding-soldier tale.

“Somehow,” she went on to say, “Axel and Will Turner had gotten themselves tied to the main pillar. Neither were wearing pants. My partner was swinging from the chandelier—the one that appeared out of nowhere, remember?” She took a swig from her Bleepbeer. “And despite all that, the exorcism went off without a hitch.”

“Nice one, Gremlin,” one of her listeners said.

Gall wiped her mouth on her sleeve and gave Derik an irritated look.  "Our drink was interrupted for 'and it all went fine'? What's the point of boasting if you never even humiliated the other guy?"

Derik, deep in contemplation of the flavor of mead and phlegm, only shrugged and worked his tongue around his mouth some more.

The youngest-looking Bad Slasher cleared his throat in an ‘I don’t want to be a bother’ way. “So, uh, what’s all this stuff going on with the baseball bats and pads?” he asked. “A lot of the older agents seem to be very excited.”

“You mean AHAIRQL?” Gremlin replied. “Yeah, Luxury was telling me about that. Australian Quidditch. Some sort of crazy-violent team sport agents used to play. You run around in the dark beating the other team with bats until one side can’t stand up anymore. There’s been a push to bring it back.”

Gall turned toward the Bad Slasher with new interest. "That's more like it. Derik, I think I found you a hobby." The tall Assassin opened his mouth to protest, but she ignored him and called down the bar. "Hey, you! Yeah, you with the tattoos! How many on a team for this AHQ—AHair—hairball thing?"

Gremlin craned her neck to see who spoke. "Six," she replied upon catching sight of Gall.

The Viking grinned. "I got two here, me and my partner."

"No, I don't think—" Derik started, but again, Gall rode roughshod over his protest.

"You know anyone else who's got the stones, or are your friends all content with pudding and easy victories, too?"

Heads were beginning to turn. A red-haired woman who sat at the bar a few seats away looked up from her drink and raised her eyebrows at the commotion. The naked mole rat on her head mimicked her gesture. Suicide perked up a little at his table, apparently finding respite from the lecture that his short brunette companion was giving him.

There was a murmur from the Bad Slashers assembled around Gremlin, who was now giving both Gall and Derik a calculating glare. “Big talk. But can you back those words up, or is it all just for show and bluster? You know, like those stupid horns on your helmet?”

The Viking laughed and lifted the helmet with its spiraling black horns off her head to set it on the bar beside her. Her hair underneath was dark red and bound in a fat, messy braid. "I took these off a mad Monstrous Nightmare when I was fifteen. Come over here if you don't believe me, I'll show you how."

"Gall, we aren't here to start a fight," Derik warned.

More people were looking now, including the black-haired man whose toes Gall had assaulted on the way in. Even Kelok and Unger craned their heads from their far corner seat, trying to catch the source of the excited murmurs spreading around the room.

“Your partner’s a smart man. I’d listen to him if I were you.” Gremlin began strolling over towards Gall, a nasty grin on her face. “No sense in getting yourself beaten to a pulp before the games even get started.”

The redhead jumped down from her stool and struck a bantam-rooster pose, grinning right back. "He's smarter than me all right, but I'm bigger than you. By all means, see if sense will keep you in one piece for more than three minutes if you get in my face."

“Ooh, I’m shaking over here.” Gremlin’s pupils began to glow with electrical energy. The lights above her head began to flicker and sway. “Let’s see if what they say about the bigger ones falling harder is true.”

By this point, there was an empty ring around Gall and Gremlin; most PPC agents were savvy enough to know when to get out of the way of a possible brawl. The ones who weren't actually gravitated toward the inner edge, eager for a spectacle. The pub's bouncers were also closing in.

Rather than see his partner thrown out and the whole outing ruined, Derik pushed his way to the center of the ring and grabbed Gall roughly by the arm. She tried to wrench herself free, but he had a grip like a vice. "That's enough. Both of you," he added with a one-eyed glare for Gremlin. "Is this how you behave toward prospective teammates?"

"Yes!" Gall and Gremlin said in unison.

"No," said Derik. "Start acting like adults or I'll see you both confined to quarters, and they can help." He nodded toward Rudi's security staff.

Gall regarded them. "Can they be on our team?"

Gremlin made a dismissive sound. “I don’t think they can even spell the word ‘team’ without help.” She looked back at the frowning Derik and sighed. “Yeah, all right. I’ll be good.”

"Gall?"

"Yeah, yeah, fine." Not to be deterred, the Viking waved her free hand vaguely and went right back to sizing up the crowd. Finding the view on the ground unhelpful, she finally shook free of Derik and jumped up on her bar stool. "Hey! Anybody else in here think they're badass enough to be on my team?"

In the back corner, Unger turned excitedly to Kelok. "What do you think? Sounds pretty awesome to me!"

The Wraith shook his head. "I don't think so."

"Aw, come on!"

They argued for a few seconds, but Unger finally gave up trying to convince his partner. "Well, all right. I'm going to go volunteer, though!" He got up and began making his way across the room.

Seeing that there wasn't going to be a fight, the circle had broken up and people drifted back to the seats they'd vacated. Amidst the ebb and flow, Derik found himself suddenly standing beside the slender, dark-haired man whose toes Gall had assaulted on their way in, who now looked at him with sympathy in his gray eyes. A vertical scar crossed the right one.

Derik gave him a nod in return. "I'm not sure when I agreed to this, but I regret it already. "

"At least you stopped them from destroying the bar. I certainly appreciate that we can't always control our partners. I was here to have a little break from mine, actually."

The irony was not lost on Derik. He chuckled. "And mine ruined it for you, twice. How can I make amends?"

"Well..."

Meanwhile, Suicide bounced to his feet, drawing an audible groan from the short dark-haired woman sitting with him.

“Suicide!” Diocletian said. “Don’t even think about it!”

“I’m bored, Dio,” Suicide said. “I’m thinking about it. Hey, Northern girl! Right here!”

Gall swiveled her head around and grinned at the sight of the tall, broad-shouldered Scythian. Even if he was dressed up in a fussy shirt, he seemed exactly the sort she was looking for. "Yeah! You in?"

“Suicide!” Dio groaned. “We came here to talk about civilized behavior! You know, civilization, that thing the Greeks invented?”

“Yeah, but what they’re talking about sounds an awful lot like the pankration. You know, that other thing the Greeks invented.” Suicide put down his martini glass and dodged around the tables to push his way to the bar. The hand he offered Gall was rough with calluses and, despite the collared shirt, there was still dirt under his blunted nails. “Name’s Suicide. Who do I get to hit?”

The Viking pumped his huge arm in approval with both hands. "Gall Bonecrusher, and as far as I'm concerned you can hit anybody who's not me or my partner. Or her, I guess," she added with a nod at Gremlin. “Unless you really want to.”

“Har dee har har,” Gremlin replied. She scanned the growing crowd for a second before pointing at someone. “How about you? You, the redhead with the naked mole rat!”

The woman in question, still seated alone at the bar, looked back with a flat expression of perpetual annoyance. "You said hitting people with bats, right?"

“Yep!”

The mole rat had migrated from her head down her arm. She stroked it, giving a distinct impression of casual villainy. "Yes, I suppose I could join. My name’s Saline, by the way." The mole rat gave a ‘thumbs up,’ as far as this was possible for it.

At this time, Derik made his way back to the bar, new friend in tow. "Everyone, this is Noir. He's agreed to be on the team."

Gall squinted at him. "Bit skinny. Are we using him as a bat?"

"Be civil," Derik snapped. He quickly looked over the assembled agents, counting. "We have six now, so—"

He was interrupted by a shout from behind. "Hey! Me! Pick me!" Unger had finally made it through the milling crowd and tightly packed tables. He beamed up at Gall, waving his hand around in the air. "I'm a Barbarian! I'd be great!"

Six pairs of eyes swung around to look at him.

Gall dissolved in a fit of laughter. "You're even smaller than the skinny guy!"

"Gall!" Derik glared at his partner, then turned to Unger. "I'm sorry, son, we already filled the positions."  He briefly considered stepping aside, but that would leave Gall in charge with no one to check her. He couldn't do it. "Listen... we could easily need reserves if this game is as brutal as it sounds. If one of us can't play, then maybe you can fill in."

Unger deflated at the news that the team was full, but pulled himself together to nod at Derik. "Sure. I won't let you down!"

That settled, Derik exchanged a handful of Pernese marks for a round of drinks, and the group settled in for a discussion of what to call the team. And thus, from among increasingly drunken and boisterous suggestions, by virtue of being shouted loudest, the name Blast Hardcheese was chosen.