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Creme Melee

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September 4, 2016

Liberty Park, Freedom City

Lunchtime

 

The Labor Day cookout was in full gear this year in Liberty Park, the city's largest green spot being covered in colorful tents and packed shoulder-to-jowl with cheerful citizens. Children and parents were celebrating the first long weekend after the start of school, salarimen were relishing the extra day of repose, and just about everyone was enjoying the last burst of summery weather before the inevitable decline into gray, snow, and cold. Tents had been organized along the road-side edge of the park, offering BBQ and face painting and fried food and local art and cold drinks and local radio personalities.

 

In particular, grills and smoke and savory flavors were enveloping the northern corner. A raised platform had been put together and a long table laid down there, with a bright banner above it and speakers affixed at the highest point. The speakers crackled to life as a man in a blue tee-shirt with "WBAL" emblazoned on it tapped on a microphone. "Freedom City, welcome to the annual Labor Day Liberty Cookout!" He paused for cheers and applause from the audience. "This is our biggest year yet, and this year our panel of celebrity judges have fifteen different mouth-watering barbecue plates to sample and rate!"

Edited by Raveled

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Live the cliché, Cross. Live the cliché.

 

A day off from classes. A day off from the opening week of classes, and a young man in a pair of blue jeans, worn out old sleeveless t-shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, and a denim jacket hiding a metal vest, was spending it chaining up a bike at the entrance to Liberty Park. A place where he intended to, for the next few foreseeable hours, stuff himself absolutely silly with barbequed goodness and fried foods.

 

He hadn't quite gone so far as to wear a bib, admittedly, but he'd already resolved that if there weren't spare ribs somewhere around here? Ruing would occur.

 

Jake wasn't entirely sure how he would cause ruing, but there would be some!

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Maybelle McQueen liked food. This was a true fact. She liked to cook it. She liked to eat it. She liked to look at it. She liked to smell it. The senses of hearing and touch were also well represented. So that was part of why she was in Liberty Park. And being a Carolina girl, barbeque as about as sacred as it got. So when she was asked to be one of the celebrity judges, her only reply was a hell, yes. She was a local superhero and a local restaurateur. A double threat.  And of course the Southern Queen had a food tent. At reasonable prices, even. All in all, it was a lovely day for some fun in the sun and chowin’ down.

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The camera angle shifted from her smiling face, to a photograph of her on a placard with the other celebrity judges. Jake chewed on a hickory-smoked jerky stick as he curiously examined the names.

 

A superheroine and famous chef as one of the culinary judges? AND who ran her own restaurant in town? Jake chewed thoughtfully, then shrugged. The odds of him not being chucked out for being a scruffy T-baby, was likely slim to none. Chew chew chew.

 

Still, that was a powerful pretty picture right there. He wondered to himself if she was seeing anyone, as he moved towards another barbeque tent. Well, if he couldn't visit her restaurant, he'd hit up the food tent and take a plateful. Respect the hero work, and fill his belly. Win-win!

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Each of the celebrity judges got their chance to handle the microphone and introduce themselves, to throw out a little patter with the presenter. Just before Maybelle was a short woman with aggressively styled hair who had designed a number of the best penthouses in the city. Yvette Rothschilde combined a dry wit and upper-class disdain with a talent for making interior design comprehensible, and as such had done the usual talk show circuit before trying to open her own design studio. What she was doing putting her own personal stamp on barbecue was anyone's guess. "Yes," she was saying, drawing out the long word, "working with what nature gives you is an important detail in all walks of life. Whether it's finding the right spices to bring out a meat's true taste or opening your windows to your amazing yard or even just picking the proper drapes to accent the colors just outside!"

 

The presenter forcibly separated Yvette from the microphone and, just a touch miffed, she walked on back to her place at the judging table. Gratefully he moved on to Maybelle. "Next up here is Maybelle McQueen, owner and head chef of the Southern Queen, one of Freedom City's finest restaurants. Got your eye on any competitors this years, Ms. McQueen?"

 

Down in the grass, there were several tents and booths set up and hawking their wares. One in particular drew Jake's eye, a both that proclaimed itself the home of HOT AS HELL RIBS. There was a big-bellied man behind it with a much-stained apron who sized up Jake. "Come and try a sample," he said, waving a hand to a small plate of cut meat. "Gonna warn you, though, I cook 'em hot-hot-hot! Don't come whining if you can't handle the heat, boy-o."

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...now, see, normally Jake would have ignored a blatant challenge like that. But, sometimes? A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

 

Slowly, with malice aforethought, he walked towards that there plate of mega-hot ribs. He looked at that plate, with a quirked eyebrow. Examined it. Took a scent - feeling the scorch on the inside of his nose. Closed his eyes, and smiled. Picked up a single rib - and then dipped it into the bubbling pot of HOT AS HELL barbeque sauce beside the table. Brought it out - absolutely soaked, and dripping. You could see the heat waves rolling off of it; the almost incandescent glow of pepper mix.

 

And with a nice, smooth gesture - bit down, tore the succulent meat right off that bone (well, it more fell off than tore off - damn that stuff was nice and tender!), and chewed thoughtfully. A sage nod, followed by another chew of another mouthful. Chomp chew chomp. Consideration.

 

"...not bad!" Grin. "What is that, ghost pepper?"

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Maybelle smiled. “Spoilers, sunshine. You know if I tell somebody could get a swelled head and not do their best. Though of course, I’m a Carolina girl. So if your style comes from anywhere but the Blue Ridge Mountains I’m takin’ points off before I put fork to plate.” Her grin indicated she was very much joking. “As for what Yvette said, well, she’s not wrong. Improvisation is important in the kitchen and in life. Just don’t y’all forget to remember that some things work well together and other things don’t. Improvise too much and you’ll end up with something a dog would turn his nose up at.” She chuckled. “All right, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Let somebody else ramble for a bit.” She handed the mike back to the presenter and walked back to the judging table.

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The chef watched Jake carefully as the boy bit into the savory cut of meat. "Grandma's old recipe for iron-clad stomachs," he said. "You watch yourself with that sort of spice, boy. There's some paramedics standing at the edge of the park, but they aren't gonna do much once you've already burned a hole in your guts." He reached out with a ladle and pushed a small bowl towards the teen; it was filled with a browned sort of loaf. "Creme loaf," he said. "Milk's good for burns, try a bit."

 

Up on the stage, the first of the plates was being delivered to the judges. It was fish, expertly filleted and arranged with leeks and tomatoes. The first judge stood up and was handed a sharp steak knife, and he began divving up slices of fish to the different judges. Each place was set with a stack of small plates, another, larger, stack of napkins, and a tall glass of milk.

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Maybelle prodded at the fist with her fork, testing its consistency. So far, so good. She poked it with her folk, picked it up, and popped into her mouth. Instantly she knew the problem. It wasn’t that it tasted bad. It was quite delicious. A surefire crowd pleaser, as long as the entire crowd liked fish. No, the problem was that precisely zero creativity was employed. It was like eating a recipe instead of a handcrafted masterpiece. The technical excellence was all there. Spices applied in the exact correct amounts. It was like a robot made this fish. Sure, it was delicious, but where was the love? If there was one thing Maybelle McQueen knew about cooking, it was that love made a meal taste better. Even the poorly cooked and borderline inedible were made more palatable if the cook made it with love. And the kind of love didn’t matter, either. Love of cooking, love of the person to eat it, or heck, love of the food itself. This fish was good (she didn’t waste a bite, no sir) but no way would she rate it more than just good.

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He didn't sweat a jot, but judging by the wry smile when he took the cream bun and started snacking, he wasn't entirely unaffected.

 

"I grew up on my mom's chili." Jake explained with a dry tone, before chuckling. "She didn't think it was just right until the pot was glowing red and the fumes could knock a buzzard dead at twenty paces." Om nom nom.

 

"Still, that's a good sauce. You use molasses in that, or nah?"

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"Sure, and some ginger in the rub. I tried using, uh, some soy sauce a few years back as a base instead -- turned out watery, thin." The man used a huge pair of tongs to turn a slab of ribs over to cook the other side, and sauce and fat dripped from it, making the charcoal fires flare dramatically. "More like a dip than a spread, you know? The real secret is to cook it with wood, not gas. Wood has a flavor all its own -- I can cook over hickory and get a whole different tang than over pine."

 

There was a sudden knocking from the rear of the tent and the big man turned to regard the machines piled up there. It didn't seem like there was any place to hide back there, but even as the two men watched there was another strong knock. "What in the Sam Hill," the man grumbled, hanging the tongs off the side of the grill and wandering towards the big ice box.

 

 

Up on stage the first dish was rated and removed, and glasses of milk were provided to cleanse the palate and douse any fires. Next up were ribs with a sweet, Southern sauce that a couple of the judges ate with their bare hands. After that was a bed of chicken wings with so much spice and tang that it completely overrode the flavor of the meat. Then back to the fish, and it was Yvette's turn to carve. She did so and the presenters each had their bites. The sauce exploded on Maybelle's tongue, hints of ginger and vinegar and soy sauce. She was considering the exact composition when she noticed that Yvette was having some problem with the spice; she was coughing hard and tapping her breastbone.

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Maybelle would be having dreams about those ribs. They were as good at anything she could make, and gave her a non-bitter reminder of home. In fact, she was one of the couple of judges who ate it with their fingers. Anything less just seemed like an insult to ribs of that quality. After that, the wings came and ruined her good mood. This chef would never get near her kitchen, not with that level of skill. Then came some more fish. She considered it. Ginger. Vinegar. Soy sauce. Not bad at all. Really good, in fact. She could even detect some love worked into the sauce, if not the fish itself. And then Yvette was coughing. Did something go down the wrong…no, she was having a problem. Maybelle stood up and stepped quickly to her side, picking up Yvette’s milk glass. “Here, drink this. It’ll help.” It was weird. The fish wasn’t that spicy, really. But sometimes it took a bit for the spice to catch up to someone. Milk didn’t always help. Sometimes you needed…”Can we get some bread over here, please? Or a hamburger roll?” Use it like a napkin with your tongue, and it could wipe away most of the spice from your mouth.

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Yvette took the glass of milk in unsteady hands and brought it to her lips. She took some into her mouth, but after a moment she just spluttered and spat it back up. "Can't... breathe," she croaked, and coughed hard. She was bent over the plate of fish now, and her skin was turning red with the strain of trying to unstick whatever was in her throat; Maybelle was close enough to see tears in her eyes.

 

Another of the judges stood up to get a closer look. "Oh my god, she's choking!" He looked out at the crowd; they could see the drama unfolding on stage and many of them were dumbstruck, merely watching Yvette struggle to breathe. "Does anyone know the Heimlich maneuver? Is there a doctor around!"

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Maybelle knew exactly what to do. She didn’t know the Heimlich, at least not to the degree she was certain she’d do it right. But what she did know is that she had a ring that could move things much, much heavier than whatever was stuck in Yvette’s throat. “Keep your mouth open. I’ll get it out.” A borrowed penlight later (someone always has some kind of flashlight at these affairs), and translucent silver energy was extracting a fish bone from the poor choking woman’s throat. “Got it. Huh. This ain’t small, sunshine. How did you not notice this when you were chewing? You should be more careful. Next time, there might not be anybody who can help around.”

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A basket of cream bread and a bottle of the hot sauce under his arm, Jake - for once - had been feeling as if things were very much alright with the world. Enough that sipping a squeezed-in-front-of-you lemonade was actually making him come close to smiling!

 

Truly, a sign of the apocalypse.

 

Still, when he passed by the judgement tent, the sight of someone choking did not lend a piquant note of joy to the atmosphere he was moving through. The pyrokinetic stopped briefly, chewing on one of those cream loafs - cocking his head as he saw...wait, was that Maybelle? Huh. Well, stood to reason a chef would know how to deal with choking hazards, right?

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The crowd gathered and watched with macabre interest as Maybelle's silvery aura snaked down Yvette's throat. The designer kept her mouth as far open as she could as the superhero's energy arm invaded her body, seeking out the obstruction. Everyone held their breath, and suddenly a half-chewed morsel of fish flopped out of Yvette's mouth and onto the table. Yvette fairly collapsed, coughing heavily, trying to catch her breath as the crowd cheered for the impromptu heroics. "I didn't... didn't realize that I..." Yvette broke off suddenly and stared at the bit of fish that had almost killed her. Even as it laid on the table, it wasn't laying still; the meat was flopping slowly, rolling towards the edge of the table.

 

A scream from one side tore Jake's attention away from the stage and towards one of the vendors. As he watched a griller slammed down the cover of his grill, only to have the metal lid dented from the inside again and again. More yells and bangs sounded from all around the park as the food began to rise against the eaters.

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"...ah, crap."

 

Okay, take stock. Be calm. Don't light up immediately - that would be bad. Take advantage of your other assets. Case in point, your extremely intimidating vo-

 

...he was carrying a bag of bread, wasn't he. And a bottle of hot sauce.

 

One wonders what it said about his priorities, when he slowly looked down at the bag, that he was more concerned about the hot sauce than himself?

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The fish didn’t make it off the table. A translucent silver steak knife pinned it down. Maybelle was kind of befuddled now. “That don’t make any sen-” This was when someone screamed. The ring slinging heroine flicked her gaze over the festival. “W, what?” Food was rebelling against being cooked, let alone eaten? “What?” She was going to have to protect teeth from barbecue attack? “What?” The piece of fish was still flopping while impaled? “What?” Okay, this was no time to be acting like David (her sous-chef) when a customer ordered a particularly nonsensical meal. “Uh…I guess y’all should run? This is gonna get messy.” With half a thought, her gleaming transparent silver force field flicked on. “Everybody out of the park! I’ll handle this!” How, you ask? She’d, uh, figure it out in a minute. Yeah.

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The crowd rushed around the stage, trying to flee the park. The animate food seemed to be concentrated at one end, which at least meant that the civilians could stream out the southern and eastern sides, but Queenie's work was just beginning. Even as she watched slabs of ribs, strings of sausages, filet o' fish, and a whole stuffed pig's head jumped, slithered, and rolled up the stage and across the table. They quickly assembled in the middle of the table, forming a vaguely humanoid shape dripping barbecue sauce and malice. The meat-man pointed one arm at Maybelle, an arm that terminated in the pig head, and it squealed defiance at the chef.

 

Jake was on the grass, in the middle of the crushing crowds. The Brownian motion of so many people pushed him to the side, where he saw a rolling crowd of fluffy pastries was keeping pace with the mob. As the teen hero stood there and watched, the dumplings rolled together and formed a trio of short, squat, pale-white creatures that came up to his waist. The doughy pygmies made disturbing, belching sounds as they began to circle him.

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...sometimes, Jake really did hate his luck. Any other hero with his abilities - hey, they could probably have toasted these marshmallows in a few shots and not had to worry about a single thing; even with the rolling crowd pushing past him. Any other hero. Not him. Not Mister Collateral Damage, not Sir Entropic Screaming Hellfire, not Lord Doom Fire Oh God Why.

 

He let out a rush of air and tugged down his hat brim, letting the crowd push by him. Could just run with 'em. But nah. That wasn't his style. Coulda been. Woulda made his life a whole lot easier. But it wasn't. And since he couldn't - wouldn't - try to toast 'em from range...

 

"...man, this is gonna suck." Outlaw grimaced, looking up at the Cream Meanies. Sparks of fire engulfed his eyes, and he cracked his knuckles - pointing at one of the larger ones up front. "You. You're my huckleberry."

 

One step, fire shot from his feet. Two steps, over the crowd's heads. Three steps - a corona of black fire just engulfed the young man as he shot forward; one foot flying forward to try and boot the huckleberry in the face!

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Outlaw's boot soared directly at the cream puff, who didn't step out of the way so much as opened its torso and let the flaming vigilante soar through. The pufballs chattered and chittered as Jake landed, the grass sizzling under his boots.

 

Across th park, up on the stage, the meat man kept its pig-head-fist aimed at the chef. There was a disquieting gurgling from deep within it and then sauce, spicy and thick began spurting out of every hole in the cooked head. Unfortunately that meant there was very little pressure behind it, and the sauce mostly went dripping disgustingly onto the table.

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All right then. So this was a simple problem with a simple solution. Food gone evil, attacking the people. In the words of copyright infringement, it was clobbering time. Her feet lifted gently off the ground. “That’s right, meathead. I’m the one you want. And I’ve got something you’ll like, too.” Her hand glowed and energy shot towards meat creature. “Fresh from the oven, it’s a butt whooping.” She flashed a grin. “Bon appétit!”

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Queenie's energy whip sang out and cut off the meat man's non-pig arm, the one made of curved, interlocking cutlets. The meat dropped heavily to the table; apparently as soon as it was separated from the golem's body, it became dead flesh again. It didn't seem to help, though, as a coil of sausages unfurled from its shoulder and hung down to its knee.

 

Outlaw found himself being boxed in by three of the cream puffs. They crowded him in, and attacked in quick succession. One, two, three pale, gloopy fists were swung at Outlaw, but the burning hero managed to dodge all the blows.

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"Son! Of! A!-" He cut himself off before finishing the swear, jumping back, ducking, tumbling sideways - there were children running away, and his mom would have boxed his ears if he'd cussed in front of them.

 

The fact that she wasn't here and there was a bunch of gloopy walking pastries trying to cream him with their fists notwithstanding.

 

With a backwards somersault, he came up with his legs coiled under him; kicking in the jets and going high, feet coming down in a flaming goomba-stomp!

 

 

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Outlaw landed square on one of the gelatinous beasties. His fire scorched it and tore into it, and the creature forth a howl of pain. Flaming boots tore two shoe-shaped holes in its body, even as the rest of it slid away slickly. It regrouped with its... brothers? Siblings? Other-parts-of-itself? With the other creatures, but now Outlaw could pick out one with scorched boot-marks on its body.

 

On the stage, the meat man whipped its new appendage in a wide arc, the sausages uncoiling from its elbow in an endless line. They struck forward suddenly and wrapped around Queenie, and before long the greatest chef in Freedom found herself entirely entangled. The meat golem made a rumbling sound with the pig head and began stalking forward; if she didn't do something soon, Maybelle was going to be on the menu!

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