Wesley Wyndam-Pryce stood doubled over in the fetid darkness, coughing out the dregs of ancient sediment from his harassed lungs. Adrenalin screamed through his veins urging him onward but he’d come to an aerobic brick wall. It had been a while since he’d maneuvered his way through such a labyrinth and he was feeling it. The tiny flashlight in his hands gave off a dim illumination that proved more frustrating than helpful. Thick clouds of dust choked both the narrow passageways and Wesley’s throat. When Charles Gunn appeared from around a corner Wesley jumped at the start. Maybe it was time to start delegating this kind of hands-on activity. Wesley’s lungs, not to mention his knees, would certainly appreciate the consideration. The friends gave each other a relieved nod and then settled down to catch their breath.
“I see you’re having as much luck as I am, Charles. I wonder if Fred and Angel are having any better time of it.”
“Just the like the old days, huh, Wes?” Undeterred by the lack of progress in this latest endeavor, Gunn looked eager to continue the hunt.
“Yes, quite.” Wesley tentatively stretched his back to assess the muscle twinge that was making itself known.
“Jumping into the fray, fur flying. Thinking on your feet.” Gunn bounced on his feet to punctuate his statement. Clearly, fieldwork brought out the best in him. “I miss it.”
“Yes, Charles, there’s nothing quite like leaping into the unknown with only one’s wits and a battle-axe for company.”
“Boy, I hear that.”
“But these blasted flashlights leave a lot to be desired.” As if on cue Wesley’s flashlight winked off and then sputtered back on as he spanked the bottom of it.
“Wesley! Charles!” Fred ran toward them, holding a flashing and beeping electronic device.
“Is the scanner still working?” Wesley inquired.
“Yes, they seem to be contained.” Fred stared intently at the tiny screen of her device. “Perhaps in one of the inner chambers. I bet Angel’s got them corralled and anesthetized already.”
“All we need now is to ascertain his location and properly contain the beasts.”
“Radioactive demon ferrets.” Charles Gunn blew out a breath. “That’s a new one for me.” It wasn’t end-of-the-world stuff, but serious enough to send Angel and the team back into the field.
“It’s a good thing Angel’s condition allows him to follow even the smallest of foes,” Wesley added.
“Yeah, uh, any timetable on when that puppet thing is going to wear off?” Gunn looked at Fred.
“How am I supposed to know?” That was one area in which Fred was as much in the dark as any of them. She conducted a series of tests on Angel in his transformed state but came up against an intractable barrier. Angel ran out of patience long before Fred ran out of ideas; consequently, the poking and prodding abruptly came to a halt. “I can’t even figure out how the transformation happened in the first place. We’re lucky he’s able to soak up blood and stay in the game.”
“We ought to stay together from this point,” Wesley suggested, “since the creatures appear to be corralled.” He had no interest in further stumbling through the dark with an unreliable flashlight. Fred and Gunn both nodded in agreement. “So? Where to now?” After that brief respite, Wesley felt ready for more. Fred swept the scanner in front of them.
“This way,” she announced and walked in the direction the signal indicated. Wesley and Gunn followed close at hand. Eventually, a faint sound became audible through the maze of dark passageways.
“I think I hear something.” Fred held up her hand for silence and then turned her ear in the direction of the sound. A muffled voice could just be detected coming from the opening of a low tunnel. “That’s Angel’s voice.” She dropped to her knees, cupped a palm to her mouth and called out into the darkness. “Angel!” They received a strained response.
“Hey Fred…is Wes or Gunn with you?”
“We’re all here Angel,” Wesley spoke up. “Do you have the ferrets contained?”
“Yeah, they’re here.” Angel sounded hesitant.
“Do you require assistance?”
“Um, no. They seem a pretty reasonable bunch.”
“Have they attacked you?”
“No. They all appear the be sleeping. The anesthetic worked.”
“Excellent. Do you have the containment case?”
“Yes. It’s at my feet.” That was a relief for all concerned. Angel seemed to have things well in hand.
“I’d advise transferring them into the container as soon as possible,” Wesley continued. “Once they’re in quarantine they won’t prove a further threat to anyone.”
“I was thinking the same thing myself,” Angel added.
“All right. It sounds like everything is under control.”
“What’s that, Angel? Did you say something?” Wesley strained to hear. An indecipherable mumble met three anxious faces.
“Angel?” Gunn’s booming voice echoed through the silent caverns. At last a message broke through.
“I think I’m stuck.”
“Has the tunnel collapsed?” Gunn looked at Wesley. Their puzzled expressions mirrored each other.
“Angel, are you caught on a stalactite?” Fred thought his thick fleecy skin or fuzzy hair might have become caught up on some protrusion in the rock wall.
“No Fred, but it’s okay. You head back to the office and prepare the pen for these little guys and I’ll be along directly.”
“He sounds odd, Wesley. I think something has effected him.” Fred wasn’t about to leave Angel without seeing for herself that he was okay.
“It can’t be the radiation,” Wesley reasoned. “He’s a vampire.”
“I’m small enough to wriggle down that tunnel,” Fred suggested. “I can help him.”
“Angel,” Wesley called out. “Fred is prepared to enter the tunnel should you–“
“NO! Fred needs to stay out.” There was no mistaking that strident reply.
“Angel, what is it?” Gunn sounded a note of worry in his voice.
“I’ve run into a little problem.”
“We’re here for you Angel, just tell us what to do.”
“That does it,” Fred declared. It was time for action. “Angel! I’m coming in!” Fred got on her hands and knees at the mouth of the tunnel.
“I’m not a puppet anymore!” No one was expecting that revelation. Fred stopped in her tracks.
“Really?” Wesley replied. “When did this happen?” He felt disappointment that he had not witnessed the transformation in person. It would, no doubt, have been a fascinating observation.
“Um, I’d say about fifteen minutes ago.” Strangely enough, Angel didn’t seem that enthused.
“That’s great, man. I’m really glad to hear that!” Gunn burst into a smile, relief evident on his face. The puppet vibe that permeated their office atmosphere would now disappear. Gilbert and Sullivan he could deal with, but those chirpy-goofy “Smile Time” songs were starting to play havoc with Charles Gunn’s concept of masculinity.
“It’s not so great, Gunn.”
“What’s happening?” The smile fled Gunn’s face as quickly as it appeared.
“For one thing I’m stuck, and I think I ripped my, uh, pants.”
“My puppet pants,” Angel clarified begrudgingly.
Wesley nodded, confirming Angel’s distress. “Understood.”
“So that means…” Gunn looked confused. It didn’t sound like such a dire scenario to him.
“Angel is tightly wedged in a tunnel wearing the remnants of a shredded puppet costume with a nest of anesthetized radioactive ferrets in close proximity.” He spoke in a clipped delivery that inadvertently emphasized the farcical nature of their dilemma. Wesley took a deep breath and met Gunn’s questing gaze. That was his undoing. An unwelcome smirk began to tug at the corner of Gunn’s mouth. Wesley valiantly fought his own amused reaction.
“We have to pull him out!” It always amazed Fred how easy it was for the boys to get sidetracked. Angel’s predicament was not going to be fodder for their amusement.
“Is Fred still there?” Angel’s frustrated voice echoed down the tunnel.
“I’m here for you Angel, just like the Mouseketeers.” Fred expressed her support and turned a stern eye on Wesley and Gunn. “Stop it! We have to do something. This is serious. He could get squished.” That warning forced Wesley’s attention back to the problem. They might require back up.
“We could notify Special Ops,” Wesley suggested. “We wouldn’t want a sudden tunnel collapse to–“
“NO! NO SPECIAL OPS! Do you hear me?” Angel’s distress rose in volume. The last thing Angel wanted was to inspire any more inter-office memos regarding spontaneous executive involvement in field operations.
“Hey! I’ve got an idea.” The solution instantly appeared in Fred’s head and with it an exuberance that was uniquely hers. “I know a story with this exact problem, it’s called “The Enormous Turnip”. All the little old farmer and his wife had to do was to get everyone to grab hold and pull.” Fred looked at her friends with anxious resolve. A moment of silence gripped the heroic trio followed by the sober voice of Charles Gunn.
“I ain’t grabbing Angel’s turnip.”
Angel detected garbled sounds from down the tunnel. It wasn’t voices, exactly.
“You guys better not be laughing,” he protested bitterly. “This is not funny. Not one damn bit.”
Wesley attempted to control himself. “No, Angel, we’re not laughing… oh, damn.” It was no use, he was gripped by the giggles. Gunn was in similar shape. They’d extricate Angel as soon as the wave of juvenile jocularity subsided. This was the one part of being in a boys club that bothered Fred. The locker room humor was predictable, plentiful, and in her way of thinking, not very funny at all.
“I’m going in!” Fred spoke up and shoved her electrical scanner at Wesley. She disappeared down the tunnel in a flash. Years of spelunking in Pylea came back in a heartbeat as Fred crawled down the cramped passageway toward Angel. A friend in peril was worth a few claustrophobic moments; and besides, there was no way Gunn or Wesley could have negotiated the narrow tunnel as easily and quickly as she could. Angel heard the scratching sounds of a body moving behind him.
“Gunn, is that you?”
“It’s me, Angel,” Fred announced. She crawled over the metal containment case and collided face first with Angel’s feet. “Umpf!”
“Ahh!” Angel’s legs spasmed uncontrollably. It was a miserable situation. He couldn’t see Fred and he couldn’t stop Fred from possibly seeing his current state of undress.
“Stop wiggling, Angel. I’ve got to get a good hand hold.”
“I appreciate your effort Fred, but really, it’s not necessary. I can–“
“Angel, you’re stuck and I’m here to help you. This is no time to be embarrassed.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” Angel’s voice wavered unconvincingly.
“Then what is it?”
“I…I’m ticklish.” Angel had no choice but to share that information in hopes that there would be no sudden and ticklish contact. Fred’s only thought was to solve the current crisis as efficiently as possible.
“I promise not to tickle you, now stop wiggling!” she scolded. “I’ve got you.” Fred tugged hard and dislodged a shoe.
“Ahh! Stop pulling!”
“Stop being such a baby!” Fred spoke through clenched teeth.
“Angel, can you brace against anything and press backwards?”
“Just a sec…let me…”
“You push and I’ll pull. Another good yank ought to do it.”
“No yanking! Don’t yank! Fred, FRED!” A loud grunt of dismay filled the tunnel.
“I think I’ve got it.” Fred called back to Wesley and Gunn.
“OW! Would you stop pulling already?” Angel growled his annoyance and then all of a sudden his body shifted and he knew he was unstuck. “Oh, I can move now. Good work, Fred.”
“It’s going to be a tight squeeze, Angel, but if you keep pushing back while I pull, we should be able to get out of this tunnel with no problem.”
“That sounds like a plan, Fred.”
“He’s free!” Fred’s excited voice sailed down the passageway. Wesley and Gunn waited at the entrance to the narrow tunnel, relieved to hear that information.
“As soon as you see a bit of turnip, Wes, grab hold.”
“Charles, please.” Wesley chewed on his thumb in an effort not to giggle again. It didn’t work.
“Okay, we’re backing out!” Fred’s voice chimed again. “WAIT! Angel, don’t forget the radioactive ferrets!”
“Now there’s a phrase you don’t hear every day.” Gunn crouched down to await Fred and Angel’s arrival at the mouth of the cramped tunnel.
“Charles, I think we had better lend Angel our coats for modesty’s sake.” A nod of understanding passed between the two friends.