The customers at Nameless's local branch of KFC were keeping a wary eye on the four girls sitting near the window.
It wasn't that three of the girls were aliens - a bird girl, a squid-headed girl, and a teenage Gorgon, respectively; as has been previously noted, the inhabitants of Nameless wouldn't blink if a Dalek came up to them asking for directions.
It wasn't that they were teenage girls, a state many would consider infinitely more dangerous than any number of ravening aliens.
It was the freaking huge double-headed axe, complete with built-in energy beam and data monitor, propped next to the squid-headed girl's chair.
It seemed to draw the eye irresistably towards it, to the way the light glinted off the sharp blades, seeming to suggest that this was a weapon capable of splitting a skull in two without even slowing.
Weapons like that have a tendency to draw attention. Especially when their owner appears to be a teenage girl; the inhabitants of Nameless had long ago learned that a teenage girl with a deadly weapon was Number One on the list of People To Avoid.
Particularly if the girl happened to be cute.
_Especially_ if the girl happened to be cute.
None of the girls sitting at the table _appeared_ to be psychotic... but still, you couldn't be too careful.
There had been a significant increase in the number of takeout orders coming in since the girls had entered.
The staff and customers were praying to anyone who might be listening that there wouldn't be any sudden outbreaks of homicidal psychosis - or at the very least, that they'd get out of this without losing any limbs.
Fortunately, it appeared that Someone Up There was, for once, taking requests. The girls didn't appear to be paying much attention to any of this, instead apparently being more interested in chatting and eating.
They could only hope it lasted...
Molly frowned as she peered at a nutrition guide, then looked back at her bucket of chicken nuggets.
'Query,' she said. 'Why do they not say what the "eleven secret herbs and spices" are?'
'Don't want to get ripped off.' Xeffy explained.
'Oh.' Molly frowned. 'But surely running them through a simple bio-scanner would-'
'They know, Mol.' Xeffy said, a smile twitching at her face. 'Let's just say they've had to make some major innovations to keep the secret...'
'Oh.' Molly considered her chicken bucket, then wrapped two of the nuggets up in a napkin and slipped them into a pocket.
'Further analysis,' she explained, to the others' curious looks.
'You know, most people _don't_ want to know what's in this stuff...' Xeffy observed.
Molly's forehead furrowed. 'Why?'
Ayna broke off from slurping on her chocolate milkshake. 'Because they might find out.'
The furrow lines deepened. 'Again: why? Would it not help to know exactly what they are ingesting?'
Xeffy gave Molly a _look_. 'Remember the "meat patties" they serve at the school canteen?'
'..._Oh_...' Molly said, regarding her chicken bucket with newfound caution.
Kwen chuckled as a couple of her hair-snakes nibbled at a French fry. 'Exactly. I mean, you don't come to a fast-food joint to _eat_ - you come to discuss the boys, the shopping, or your insane plans for world domination.'
Xeffy paused. '...Just so I'm sure... when you say "insane plans for world domination", you _mean_ that, right?'
Kwen looked puzzled. '...Yes. Don't your bad guys do that?'
'They usually save it for the playground...' Ayna said.
'...Huh.' Kwen said, as she thought it over. 'Makes sense.'
Her snakes took advantage of the momentary pause to snaffle a few more fries.
Kwen rolled her eyes. 'Sorry about this. I can't do anything with them.'
'I know how _that_ goes.' Ayna said. 'Do you know how hard it is trying to brush your hair with _these_,' - she indicated her wings - 'in the way?'
'I can guess...' Kwen shifted uncomfortably in her chair. ''Scuse me. Got to visit the little alien's room...'
She shifted into a boy, stood up, and headed for the men's toilets.
Xeffy and Ayna's mouths fell open.
Molly's forehead furrowed. 'Query: is there something wrong?'
Xeffy and Ayna were too busy gawping to answer.
Number One tried to put a name on the strangely familiar feeling that had suddenly come over him. What was it again...?
Oh yeah, that was it.
It was the feeling he got whenever God decided to turn his life into a shithole.
Felt like the kind of shit that'd have him screaming at the sheer _injustice_ of it all, before holstering up and looking for a WANKER to kill, purely to make himself feel better.
He idly wondered what it was this time.
Knowing his life, he'd probably find out soon enough...
Kwen came out of the toilets, sat down, and shifted back into a girl.
She noticed the stunned expressions on Xeffy and Ayna's faces. 'Are you guys okay?'
'...Cute boy... Kwen...' Ayna managed to say.
'...I think you broke Ayna.' Xeffy said, managing to pull some shreds of composure together.
'Cute boy... Kwen... Cute boy... Kwen...' Ayna said, by way of confirmation.
'Query: how do you fix her?' Molly said.
Xeffy managed a grin. 'No problem. Watch and learn.'
She leaned in towards Ayna. 'Hey, Ayna. Don't look now, but Harry Potter just walked in.'
Ayna's head snapped round faster than a striking python. '_What?!_ Whe-'
She stopped short, as the absence of any Harry sank in.
'...I hate you, you know that?' she said finally.
'Sorry, Ay.' Xeffy said.
'This's just my luck.' Ayna went on. 'I meet another cute boy, and he happens to be a girl!' She looked up at the ceiling. 'Why? What did I do to deserve this?'
'Look at it this way,' Xeffy said. 'At least you found out before you made a complete idiot of yourself...'
Ayna sobered up. '... Yeah. Yeah, there's that. Didn't do that...'
She fell quiet.
Xeffy eyed her sister, making sure she was okay, before turning back to Kwen.
'Okay... how come you didn't mention _this?_'
'It didn't come up.' Kwen said. 'It's a neat trick, but I only really use it to go to the loo. I mean, please, have you _seen_ the female toilets here? No thank you. I'd rather be able to pee standing up.'
Ayna choked. 'You only use it... to go to the _loo?!_'
'...Standing /up?/' Xeffy squawked. 'You change sex so you can pee _standing up?!_'
'...Well, yeah.' Kwen looked back and forth between her friends. 'Why not?'
'...Um, Kwen, have you _seen_ your male form?' Ayna said.
'...Of course I do.' Kwen said. 'Every time I go in the toilet.'
'No... I mean, have you seen him as a girl?' Ayna said. 'I mean, seen him like a girl would see him?'
'...Yes.' Kwen said. 'Sorry, I'm still not getting it. Girl-me's seen boy-me, and boy-me's seen girl-me. Was there something I missed?'
'Hypothesis,' Molly said. 'This is because of your duplication power, correct? Each duplicate retains all the abilities of the original, losing only the duplication power and gaining the ability to re-merge. This would mean that, when you duplicate yourself, your copies retain the sex-changing ability.'
'...Pretty much,' Kwen said, after she'd figured that out. 'I still don't get what's so important about how boy-me looks.'
'Why don't we ask our recognised boy-expert?' Xeffy said. 'Ayna?'
'You're a cute boy, Kwen.' Ayna said firmly. 'And I _mean_ cute. With the cheeks and the eyes and those little fangs...'
Kwen fingered her fangs. 'Cute? Seriously?'
Ayna nodded. 'Uh-huh.'
'But I have all that in girl-form!' Kwen protested.
'Trust me, Kwen, it looks a lot cuter on a boy.' Ayna said firmly. 'If you weren't a girl, I'd _seriously_ think about chatting you up.'
'...Xeffy?' Kwen appealed.
Xeffy nodded. 'Uh-huh. Majorly cute boy.'
'Grel standards of beauty - or cuteness - do not match other species'.' Molly said. 'Nevertheless, judging by what I know of Terranglic standards, I would agree with Ayna and Xeffy. You make a cute boy.
'I would also observe that, again by Terranglic standards, you are a cute _girl_ - which may explain why you are a cute _boy_.'
'...Oh.' Kwen said.
'...It's not a curse, is it?' Ayna wondered.
'...No.' Kwen said, looking confused. 'No, it's just something I was born with. Varies from person to person; I mean, Kwallie can do the triplicate thing, but she can't do the sex-change thing - she gets to speak to anything, anywhere, instead.'
Xeffy stifled a laugh. '_Kwallie?!_'
'My big sister.' Kwen said. 'What's wrong with "Kwallie", anyway?'
Xeffy grinned. 'Our big sister's called Allie.'
Kwen looked politely blank. '...And?'
Xeffy shrugged. 'That's it.'
'...Right,' Kwen said, eyeing Xeffy.
'Any_thing_, you said?' Ayna said.
'Uh-huh. Anything. Birds, rocks, trees, anything... and if it has a phone number, she can talk to it without a phone.' Kwen snorted. 'While _some_ of us have to make do with a mobile hyper-phone.'
'...Rocks?' Xeffy echoed.
'Kwallie says rocks can be a lot more interesting than people sometimes.' Kwen said. 'Good fashion sense, too.'
Xeffy tried to imagine what a rock's idea of fashion would look like, and failed miserably.
'...Birds?' Ayna said. 'Hm... wonder what'd happen if she talked to Kari...?'
'Kari?' Kwen said.
'My parrot.' Ayna said.
'...And a parrot is...?' Kwen inquired.
Molly's eyes unfocused. 'A Terran bird, member of the order Psittacine, which includes budgerigars, cockatiels, lovebirds and 'true' parrots. Can typically be found in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Thick, hooked bill, usually with cutting edge on the lower bill; a short, fleshy tongue which is highly mobile; an area of soft bare or lightly feathered skin surrounding the nostrils, frequently coloured; short, thick neck, compact body; thick, lightly scaled skin; zygogactyl toes - two toes pointing forward, two backwards - on each foot; strongly monogamous-'
'Uh, Molly?' Ayna hinted.
Molly refocused on her friends. 'Yes, Ayna?'
'That's fine, thanks.'
Molly's tentacles flubbled. 'Apology: sorry, Ayna. Kwen's question appears to have accessed my second brain's memory storage.'
Kwen was the first to say what was on their minds. '...The Mask.'
Molly nodded, looking down. 'Yes. Working hypothesis: since wearing the Mask brings my second brain to the forefront, much, if not most, of the information I learn in that time is retained in my second brain's deep memory storage, unavailable to access by my first brain except when prompted.'
'In other words...' Xeffy said, 'that means your second brain retains everything it learns as the Mask, but normal you - the first brain - can't access it unless someone prompts it.'
'That is what I said.' Molly said. 'It is, however, only a working hypothesis at the moment.'
'And since the Mask ransacked the library...' Xeffy went on, 'that means you remember everything in it. You just can't access it directly.'
As this sank in, Molly found the other three giving her appraising looks.
'...Oh my _gods_, Molly...' Ayna whispered. 'You're a walking _library_.'
'It does not do _me_ much good,' Molly hmphed. 'I cannot access it directly, cannot _know_ it directly - and as such, it is worse than useless to me, unless someone asks me about it.'
Ayna's eyes widened. '...Uh-oh.'
'What?' Kwen asked.
'It just hit me. The Mask let Molly have what she wanted - access to everything in the library - but she can't use it unless someone prompts her. It let her have what she wanted... but with a catch. A monkey's paw.'
'Monkey's paw?' Kwen prompted.
'Reference to a short story in English written in 1902 by William Wyman Jacobs concerning a monkey's paw that had a spell put on it by an old fakir who wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and those who interfere with it do so to their sorrow, as the last family to come into possession of it discover.' Molly recited. 'It has come to mean anything that fulfills the wisher's desire in a twisted fashion.'
'Which is something the Mask has a tendency to do...' Ayna observed. 'Hate to think what would've happened if it'd been the comic Mask.'
'How could it have been worse?' Molly wailed. 'I have an entire library of facts in my mind, and I do not know what they _are!_'
'Welcome to our world...' Xeffy said.
She backed down as Molly turned to glare at her. 'Sorry, sorry... Why not try going through the library again, as yourself?'
'I did!' Molly wailed. 'But it does not work - I _know_ I know everything in the books, but if I read them again, they are not stored in memory, because I already know them! I will only remember that I have read them _again!_'
She sank down, tentacles hanging limply from her face.
'Um...' Xeffy said.
'Wait...' Ayna said, frowning. 'If the Mask brings your second brain to the front... what if you put it on again? Would you remember everything you'd learned the last time you'd put it on?'
Molly looked up. 'Assuming the hypothesis is correct... yes, I would. But the information would return to deep memory storage once I took the Mask off.'
'But you'd still _know_ it, right? Know what you know deep down.' Xeffy said.
'...Yes.' Molly admitted.
'So you've got _some_ direct access to it, right?'
'Yes,' Molly said, more firmly. 'Yes! I would still be capable of access to the information my second brain retains.'
'See?' Xeffy said. 'And we can maybe see if there's a way to get your first brain to know what you know, too.'
She suddenly found Molly wrapped around her, giving her a massive hug.
'Expression of joy and appreciation: thank you, thank you, thank you!' the squid-girl bubbled.
'...Um, Molly...?' Ayna said.
'Query: yes, Ayna?'
'I think you might want to let go now.'
Molly looked at Xeffy's face, which had turned an interesting shade of pink, and let go.
'Apology: sorry, Xeffy.'
Xeffy waved it off as she got her breath back. 'No... no trouble, Mol... Molly. You get... used to it, with our family.'
'Very physical?' Kwen wondered.
Xeffy shook her head, grinning. 'Nah, just given to _serious_ PDAs.'
'Molly?' Kwen said, raising an eyebrow.
'In this context, most likely Public Displays of Affection.' Molly supplied.
'Expression of gratitude: you are welcome.'
'A-hem...' Xeffy said. 'We done?'
Kwen looked over at the debris on the table. 'Looks like it...'
'Want to go over to our place?' Ayna suggested.
'Sure,' Kwen said, pulling her hyper-phone out of her jeans. 'Where do you guys live?'
'Other side of the hill across from the school.' Ayna said. 'Beside the river.'
'...Other side?' Kwen echoed. 'But there's only that door... oh, I get it. Pocket dimension?'
'You lucky...' Kwen said, shaking her head, her snakes hissing in agreement. 'Okay. I'll just phone Dad, let him know what's going on. Molly? Anyone you need to phone?'
'Affirmation: yes, I should contact my parents.' Molly said.
'You know, it just occurred to me.' Ayna said, as Kwen got on the phone. 'Think about what would've happened if any of the teachers had asked you...' She trailed off, and put her hand across her eyes. 'They did, didn't they?'
Molly nodded. 'Yes. However, after the first few times, they are putting it down to "Grel rote learning", and one or two have had a gentle talk with me along the lines that rote learning is well and good, but application and understanding of what you know is also important.
'I informed them that I fully agreed with and understood their position, and indeed sought to move beyond it just as much as they did.
'They seemed satisfied with that.'
Xeffy grinned. 'Why not? It's true, after all...'
'Here you go,' Kwen said, handing Molly the phone.
'Thank you.' Molly said.
'Parrot, huh?' Kwen said.
Ayna nodded. 'Got him last year. He's an African Grey.'
'You do realise you're talking to a girl who couldn't tell a parrot from a quenit.' Kwen said.
'Sorry, Kwen.' Ayna said. 'You'll meet him when we get there.'
'And don't be surprised if he starts making dirty comments,' Xeffy added. 'He only does it to get a rise out of people.'
Kwen raised her eyebrows. 'My sister goes to school with a guy who can't keep his suckers off the girls. After seeing _him_ in action, a dirty-talking bird doesn't sound so bad...'
'...You might regret that, Kwen.' Ayna said.
'Here you are,' Molly said, handing the phone back to her.
'Right,' Xeffy said, clapping her hands together. 'Let's get going, shall we?'
'All right,' Molly said, picking up her dataxe.
As one, the entire establishment held its breath.
Molly blinked, and looked around at the restaurant.
Then she whispered to Ayna 'Query: should I have asked someone before I took the nuggets?'
As one, the entire establishment facefaulted.
Molly blinked again in confusion.
'Query: what did I say?'
Disclaimer: 'Doctor Who' was created by the BBC.
The Grel were created by Paul Cornell.
This Time Round was created by Tyler Dion.
Number One is B. K. Willis's.
The Mask is Dark Horse's.
Ayna, Kwen, Molly and Xeffy are mine.
Summary: School, boys, and food. Just another girl-talk session in Nameless.
Copyright 2003 Imran Inayat