Of Mice and Meetings IV:

Ask me no more questions, and I'll tell you no more lies.

        The cast slowly assembles in the conference hall, milling about and chatting amiably amongst themselves. Much of the talk revolves around the room itself, which has undergone major changes following the plush velvet and pink cushions of Bobetta's redecorating spree some months ago. Indeed, the hall now more closely resembles an underground bunker. Its sturdy concrete walls are painted a functional grayish-white, with rich oak chair rails, crown- and floor- molding, and a thickly padded, Scotchguard-basted, silver-blue industrial-grade carpet stretching from wall to wall. The wooden conference table that dominates the room has been extensively restored; gone are the dozens of watermarks, scratches, gouges, laser-burns, knife-marks, bloodstains, and beak indentations that once covered its battered surface, and the plush leather swivel chairs are so remarkably pristine that all but the richest or most brazen of the characters are hesitant to sit in them. This has left most of the cast clustered in groups around the snacks table, admiring the sugary confections while debating the finer points of chocolate bunnies. (Since it had been so long since their last meeting, no one had remembered who was to be responsible for this meeting's snacks, leaving Jennies no choice but to raid her creativity demons' stores of leftover Easter candy. This, in turn, had led to a great deal of drunken rioting outside the conference room for a grand total of five minutes, after which the fickle creatures lost interest, discovered a hidden cache of Baileys Irish Crème, and wandered off to work on other things –greatly disappointing those in the Villains' section, who had really been looking forward to a good brawl.)
        Growing tired of all this exposition, Jennies picks up her trusty gavel and attempts to bring the meeting to order – only to find her miniature sledgehammer has been replaced with an amazingly realistic-looking squeaky hammer. Blinking in disbelief, she nonetheless brought the dummy gavel down on its pedestal, in hopes the rubber toy might possibly be capable of making a convincing bang!
        Squeak, squeak, went the gavel.
        Jennies rolled her eyes and sighed. Very well then; there were plenty of other ways to call a meeting to order. She pulled out a megaphone and began shouting into it.

Jennies: Okay, people! To your seats! We have a meeting to call to order!
Ferdie: (muttering) Like that'll ever happen…

        Silenced by an anonymously-flung squeaky hammer, the bluebird grudgingly headed over to his usual seat. Most of San Viano's finest and several of the more civilized members of the cast slowly followed suit, filtering towards their seats while stirring their coffee with Pocky sticks and quickly tying up their conversations. (Or in Ferdie's case, scrambling to finish the last few paragraphs of an article in Conspiracy Weekly.) Following a sharp look from Jennies, Newt abandons his impromptu experiment on Cadbury eggs and takes up his post at the typewriter; Gracie, who inexplicably still attends these meetings despite her habit of never paying attention to anything said in them, takes up her customary perch by the snacks table and begins manicuring her nails while eyeing a white chocolate bunny hungrily. A few more moments of Jennies' glowering convinces Ivan and most of the villains to take their seats, though not before a white marshmallow Peep is prominently knifed to the table at Drake's customary seat.

Jennies: (eyeing the slain marshmallow chick and the knife pinning it) So much for that restoration job…
Ferdia: If you wanted them to stop, you should've gone with a marble tabletop.
Jennies: Nah, marble's too expensive. Besides - (smirks) Who said I wanted them to stop? I was just hoping we'd actually get to start the meeting before the damage toll started.
Iiwi: (smug) You owe me a fiver.
Jennies: I'll give you a map. You like those.
Iiwi: (shrugs) Works for me.

        Jennies returns her attention to hauling people to their seats, giving Ferdia and Squeaks enough time to briefly summarize the concept of these meetings to Newton. This lecture might perhaps have been more effective if the lizard wizard and ever-present miniaturized temple dragon were not currently in the midst of discovering the wonders of chocolate, jelly beans, marshmallows, and crème filling. But at least the pair were doing so while seated at (or, in the dragon's case, perched upon) the table.
        Jennies, growing tired of employing friendly requests, cajoles, and threats of gross bodily harm in her quest to get people seated, opts to try her luck at bribery instead, and once again snatches up her megaphone.

Jennies: (in her best Sweepstakes voice) Attention, everybody! To celebrate the long-awaited completion of Scythe in Time, I've managed to weasel funding for a full week's vacation out of the Accounting Department!
All: *cheers*
Jennies: But only for two of you. (loudly) Check under your chairs to see if you've won!

        There is a mad dash for the table as those not yet seated rush to find empty chairs before their neighbors have a chance to switch seats. As this is happening while most of the seated cast leans over to inspect the underside of their own chairs (and scramble to search those nearby as well), chaos ensues. Quite a bit of booting and/or harsh words erupt in this impromptu game of Musical Chairs, and not a few people get sat on in the process. So it comes as a complete surprise when, in the midst of all this shouting, shoving, and confusion, a completely unscathed Drake stands up and proudly proclaims to have located the winning ticket on his chair.
        In fact, it comes as so much of a surprise that it never occurs to any of the villains to lunge at the beaming Duck and 'reallocate' his winnings. It is not until after the sound of several brains rebooting breaks the stunned silence that the cast recovers enough to react to the news.

All: WHAT?!? (glare at Jennies)
Lita: No way! How did that happen?
Jennies: (shrugs) Luck of the draw. I taped it up before the meetings, then had the creativity demons set up the rooms just to insure it was placed randomly. Think of it as cosmic karma.
Lita: For Drake?!?
Drake: Why not? I've never won anything before in my life!
Lita: Yeah, but cosmic karma for you generally runs more along the lines of lightning strikes and meteorites!
Ferdie: (now across the room, and sounding rather uncomfortable) Um, no offense, but could you get off my lap?
Galaxia: No.
Ferdie: Please?
Galaxia: (drapes arm over his shoulder and uses him as cushion)
Ferdie: (quietly) help…
Iiwi: (ignoring Ferdie) Well, I suppose everyone's entitled to a break sometimes.
Ferdia: (grumbling) Just figures it'd go to a guy who's been on shore leave for the past few months…
Squeaks: Most of which was spent in traction.
Ferdia: (frowns) Hmm. Good point.
Bob: Wait. Weren't there supposed to be two of those things?
Jennies: No.
Bob: But you said –
Jennies: I said two people could go, not that two people would win. Since randomly selecting two of you lot to be roommates for a week could have potentially lethal side effects, I thought it best to give the winner – and whoever said winner then asked along – some choice in the matter. Otherwise, mortal enemies might've been forced to share close quarters – or perhaps one half of a pair forced to send their love off with their rival. Can you imagine the damage if Ivan and Bobetta had won? There'll be fewer homicides all around this way.
Ferdia: (grudgingly) Oh, fine. (pause) So, what'd he win, anyway?
Drake: Yes, what did I win? And when can I pick my traveling companion?
Jennies: Ask, not pick. They have a choice.
All: *But what did he WIN?!?*
Jennies: Geez! Can't stand the suspense, much? (ignores glares and grumbling) Anyways… (switches back into Sweepstakes Mode and points to Drake) You've won a fabulous trip for two to the breathtakingly beautiful islands of New Zealand, adventure capital of the world! (throws confetti into the air amidst a timely burst of fanfare as posters touting the tours, beaches, and local attractions roll down behind her)
Drake: (grinning) Huzzah! (pumps fist into the air)
Jennies: Hiking, snorkeling, sky-diving – all this and more can be found in fabulous New Zealand!!!! (pause; quietly) …Where sheep outnumber people five to one.
Drake: (pauses, blinking) What was that?
Jennies: (innocently) Hm? Oh, nothing. Just talking about the sheep.
Drake: eep.
Jennies: New Zealand's a major exporter of wool, after all. The farms there raise all kinds of sheep, with wool so fine it – (Drake has gone into catatonic shock) – What?
Drake: (snaps out of terror-struck daze, looking crestfallen. Holds tickets out to Jennies with a sign) Never mind.
Jennies: (looking hurt) You don't want it? (Drake shakes head miserably)
Ferdia: (excitedly, just as Lita opens her mouth) Can I have it?
Lita: (grumbles) Oh, foo.
Drake: Hm?
Ferdia: The prize! Can I have it, since you don't want it?
Drake: Well…I guess, but –
Ferdia: (accepts tickets from Jennies with a cheer) Woo-hoo! Adventure capital of the world, here I come!
D'Gal: (smirking, eyes glittering with amusement) Whom with?
Ferdia: (pauses) Hmm. (turns to Squeaks) You'll go with me, right?
Drake: *chokes on coffee*
Jennies: (glances at D'Gal) Just gotta twist that knife, eh?
D'Gal: (grins) Of course.
Ferdia: (defensively) What? We deserve a vacation! A real one, not just some case that takes us out of the city, and Bobetta's birthday doesn't count because we were all attacked by pirates. Besides, (ticks off list on fingers) Casey's got a girlfriend –
Casey: (startled) Who told you th-
Ferdia: - Trevor I wouldn't trust –
Trevor: (huffs)
Ferdia: Ferdie wouldn't survive the flight over, and – (catches sight of Ferdie, who has been frozen in mortal terror for some time now) Hey! Get offa my brother! He's turning blue!
Galaxia: (glances nonchalantly at her captive) He's always been blue.
Ferdia: That's not the – What I meant was - (fumes) Look, just go sit somewhere else!
Galaxia: I can't. There aren't any chairs left.
Ferdia: Then go sit on someone else!
Galaxia: (pouts) I'm comfortable here.
Ferdia: (balling hands into fists) You're about to get very un-comfortable –
Jennies: (abandons banging the squeaky gavel and blasts a hole in the ceiling with a firearm borrowed from the villains' section, sending bits of concrete and plaster powder showering down onto the table)
All: *Silence*
Jennies: (calmly) Now that I have your attention… (motions with weapon) Gracie, go over into the next room and bring Galaxia a chair, would you?
Gracie: (pausing with a fine-bristled brush halfway to her bottle of nail polish) But my nails, zey are –
Jennies: DO IT.

        Gracie hurriedly skitters to the door, holding her manicured fingers stiffly horizontal to avoid unsightly uneven runs drying on her nails. She manages to turn the brushed metal doorknob with three very reluctant fingertips, and disappears into the storage room. After a moment, she emerges with another leather swivel chair, gingerly pushing it across the room with the heels of her palms.

Jennies: (points to far corner of room) Over there.

        Gracie reluctantly complies, wheeling the chair into place before turning to Jennies.

Jennies: (nods) Thank you.

Gracie half-curtsies, hurriedly returning to her own chair to inspect her nails for paint smears.

Jennies: Now, then. Galaxia – (points to the open chair. Galaxia frowns.) MOVE.
Galaxia: (scowls) You dare presume to tell me what to –
Jennies: (testily) D'Gal…
Galaxia: (huffs, hurriedly disentangling herself from her latest victim and moving to the exiled chair with an evil glare at Jennies) There. (sourly) Happy now?
Jennies: I'm getting there.
Ferdia: (still standing on her own chair) Thanks.
Jennies: You're welcome. Sit down. (Ferdia complies.) Can we get on with our meeting now?
Ferdia: If my brother's okay.
Jennies: (glances at Ferdie) Are you okay?
Ferdie: (rapidly coming to) Oh, yes. Thank you for – (blinks) No, wait, that was actually kind of -
Ivan: (impatiently) Can we just continue already, and let the coward sort out his issues on his own time?
Iiwi: Second!
Jennies: (shrugs) Sure, why not? Where were we?
D'Gal: Calling the meeting to order.
Jennies: Geez, that didn't work out well at all, did it?
D'Gal: (smirks) An exercise in futility if ever there was one. Still, it worked fine once you used the firearm.
Jennies: (ponders) Hm. Maybe I'll just start with that next time, and forgo contests and bribes.
D'Gal: It could work.
Jennies: (inspecting dent in concrete overhead) Be hell on the ceiling, though.
Ivan: (waves) Hello? Meeting? There was an agenda, one would hope?
Jennies: Oh, yeah. Right. Agenda…
Ivan: (groans)
Jennies: I guess we should start with old business…whatever it was…
Beak: What did we talk about at the last meeting, anyway?
Jennies: (blinks) I have no idea. (frowns) Okay, forget old business. It was probably too long ago to be important, anyway. Let's move right to new business…
Ivan: (impatiently) Which would be?
Jennies: (scowls) Testy, aren't we?
Ivan: As previously stated, these meetings cut into my private scheming time. The least you could do might be to come prepared.
Jennies: (warning tone) Maybe I do come prepared, but it takes so long to get you people on track that I lose sight of what I wanted to talk about.
Ivan: This is why most managers type up an agenda.
Jennies: Do I look like I have time for that sort of thing? I'm far enough behind as it is!
Newton: (to Ferdia as Jennies rants) Goodness. Are all your gatherings like this, milady?
Ferdia: (shrugs) Mostly. Though we usually get further along before the madness breaks ou-

        A mad squealing erupts from the tabletop in front of the lizard. The diminutive temple dragon, attempting to devour the sweets scavenged from nearby characters' unguarded snack plates, has managed to get its jaw and both front paws stuck fast in a Cadbury egg's caramel, and its flames and panicked struggles have done naught but get it caught up in a mess of half-melted Peeps. The sticky strands of marshmallow hold its wings and hind legs anchored to the tabletop by a web of muck, but before anyone can move to help the poor tangled creature, its determined struggles and frantic wingbeats break the goo's hold, sending the cat-sized dragon tumbling across the table's polished surface in a whirl of fire-puffs and sticky appendages. It skids straight into an inattentive Bobetta, and between her terrified shrieks and the dragon's pint-sized roars, the bickering at the head of the table abruptly ceases.

Ferdie: (peering at the scrabbling dragon and reaching to ease its forelegs free) You know, it's kind of cute now that it's-

        The dragon snaps at his finger.

Ferdie: (jerks hand back) Yikes! I take it back!
Lita: (frowning as Newton retrieves the struggling dragon and carries it back to his seat for a quick Cleaning spell) Hey, I didn't know pets were allowed! I could've brought PyKL!
Ferdie: (blinks) “Pickle”?
Sign Holder: She means the sheep.
Ferdie: You named the sheep “Pickle”?
Lita: (rolls eyes) Yes and no. It's an acronym - “Psychotic Killer Lamb” – though I'm tempted to change it to “PyKS”. After all, it's not gonna be a lamb forever. It's already almost on solid foods…
Beak: Almost?
Sign Holder: It's getting better at chasing birds around the duck pond, but still can't do much after it's caught them. It can gum meat if you boil it right, though.
Bob: Can we stop with the sheep talk? Drake's started twitching.
D'Gal: Then why stop? That's a good sign!
Jennies: All the same, it's distracting us from the meeting.
Bob: What meeting?
Jennies: All right, fine, smart-kiwi. You want a meeting? I'll give ya a meeting, distractions or no!
Iiwi: (muttering) That'll be the day.
Jennies: (ignoring Iiwi) First up: Midnight in the Garden of Cute and Evil! Plot's going well! Comic's going slow! I hate backgrounds!
Ivan: And yet you seem determined to weave them into the story as important elements.
Jennies: (shrugs) A little masochism is good for the soul. And it'd be easier if I had help. Or culture. Or event the ability to draw inanimate objects decently. But, really, I'm learning, and I need to learn. And I think things'll pick up once the tour's over.
Iiwi: Which, at this rate, will be sometime next year.
Jennies: I've had lots of Real Life distractions lately! Floods, family emergencies, plagues of locusts, that sort of thing!
Sign Holder: Really?
Jennies: Well, except for the locusts. But I am trying to get a better grip on comic layout style, and that's gotta count for something. I even tried computer-rendering the rooms on the ground floor, but I don't have the right kind of software for architecture and furniture.
Lita: Yeah, that'd be easier with a copy of The Sims than with Bryce.
Jennies: And therein lies my problem. *Sigh* Maybe I'll track down a freeware architectural design software suite soon… until then, I really ought to just do a bunch of standard backgrounds and use them whenever I need them. But then, that's almost as time-consuming as tracking down proper software.
Bobetta: Well, whatever you do, I suggest you hurry. So far, you've come nowhere near capturing the luxury and elegance of the Kingston Manor!
Jennies: (warning tone) Careful, now, or I'll shrink it to cottage size and make it simple and under-furnished.
Bobetta: (gasps in horror)
Jennies: (smiling) That's better. Story-wise, I'd like to tentatively say work on Buccaneers has restarted.
Bob: (mutters) About time…
Jennies: (glares at him a moment, then resumes smiling) Anyway, I'd like to give it priority status right now, so I can get the most work done before the Jackal & Hyde or Shades of Gray creativity demons resurface.
Iiwi: What happened to them, anyway?
Jennies: (shrugs) Some bailed at the flood; others at the cold; and a lot of those left over either went out looking for those MIA, or are still recovering from the frenzy of finishing up Scythe in Time. (pause) And then of course there are those on strike until they get a chance to work on – or at least see – more of a couple collaborations I'm involved in…
Iiwi: (nods) Ah…
Jennies: I'll get back on track eventually.
Ivan: Not if our meetings continue to be like this one.
Beak: (frowns) Aren't all our meetings like this one?
Jennies: (ticking off list on fingers) Overworked. Underpaid. Recovering from a matched set of mini-disasters. Job hunting. And NOT being financially compensated for time-consuming hobbies that vie for attention against other hobbies like sleep, exercise, and a social life, and really ought to know better than to give me lip about it.
Beak: Hobbies don't have lips.
Bob: She was speaking metaphorically.
Beak: (frowns) But metaphors don't have lips, either.
Bob: (losing patience) She was talking about us, ding-dong.
Beak: But we've got beaks, not – (Bob clamps his beak shut)
Jennies: Right, then. I've tarried –
Beak: mmph-mmd?
Jennies: - rambled – long enough. Meeting adjourned. (glances at assembled cast) Think you can get out of here without causing undue panic and disorder?
D'Gal: (smirks, leaning back in chair) Not bloody likely.
Jesmynne: And when is it ever undue?
Lita: Besides, where's the fun in peaceful dispersion? (pulls Sceptre of Light out from under the table)
Ferdia: (gawks) Where did you get that?!?
Lita: (grins) The Prop room.
Jennies: (groans) That's on loan, Farlane.
Lita: All the more reason to play with it now, while I've got the chance! (levels Sceptre at Drake)
Drake: eep!
Jennies: (resigned sigh) Just try not to break it…
Drake: Try not to break IT?!? What about me?!?
Jennies: Hm? Oh, right. (to Lita) Don't blast him in here. I just replaced the carpet; I'd like to avoid bloodstains on it until the 'new carpet' smell has worn off…
Lita: Oh, he shouldn't bleed if I hit him with this. Burn, maybe, but not ble – (notices Drake sneaking towards door) – Hey!

        Drake bolts for the door as Lita springs after him, alternately firing the borrowed Sceptre and swinging it like a great gilded club. One of the firebolts hits the ground just before Drake, sending the Duck scrambling back the way he came – just in time to slam full-force into a casual clothesline courtesy of D'Gal. Minus Ivan, the other villains take this as an open invitation to melee, and lunge at the Platyrian's prone form as Lita charges forward.
        The heroes (and Ivan) watch the resulting fracas with detached interest, munching on snacks while Jennies shakes her head in exasperation. After a moment, the temple dragon, unable to bear sitting on the sidelines any longer, struggles free of Newton's grasp and hurtles into the fight with teeth and talons bared, a puff of fire and yowling roar in its throat. This, predictably, is not well received by the villains, who quickly snatch the tiny creature and douse it with water – an act which brings a worried Newton wading into the fray before the fire-lizard gets badly hurt (or, more likely, dangerously pissed). The wizard's charge is flanked by Ferdia and Squeaks, both determined to retrieve him before a stray energy burst finds him – and one simply cannot heroically stride to another's aid in Bob's presence without convincing the yellow kiwi – and, by extension, a very confused Beak – to do the same.

Jennies: (observing brouhaha raging three feet from the exit) Well, they almost made it out without starting a fight. Maybe if I started making you villains videoconference from another room?
Ivan: Where's the fun in that?
Jennies: (pauses) Hmm. Good point.