Chapter Thirty-One I Say Goodbye, You Say Hello...
"Where's Florestan?" Eloise asked, even though, she realized, with a twinge of shame, that she really didn't want to see him.
"He went to get changed into something 'more appropriate,' he said," Ruthie informed her. "Said he felt a bit ana ana-chromatic or something like that in those robes."
"Anachronistic," Walter corrected her. "Means 'in the wrong time'."
Eloise flinched inside. Here she'd been spending all this time and energy feeling lonely and sorry for herself, and she wasn't losing one tenth of what Florestan had lost. "Oh..." she said, quietly. "Well, I'm going to see what there is to pack. If I hurry, we three can have time to talk before we get home."
"Okay," Ruthie said, in a cheerful, distracted manner (She'd already returned her attention to the stars above her).
"Eloise?" Walter called after her. "I'm not sure "
But Eloise was already gone down a corridor on the way to her room. She caught a glimpse of Florestan, out of the corner of her eye, as he passed by one of his TARDIS's many doorways. Luckily, he did not see her.
Once in her room, Eloise looped the end of High Five's leash around a bed post. The dog looked at her a little funny, but did not complain. She simply lay down, rested her chin on her paws, with only her eyes moving, and watched Eloise as she went around the room.
Nearly everything here, Eloise realized, wasn't hers at all, but things Florestan's TARDIS had generated for her, and were therefore all part of the TARDIS herself even the fiddle ... and the book on the nightstand.
She sighed when she looked at that. The story was getting to a really exciting part, and she'd never learn how it turned out. Now that she knew that the pages of a TARDIS's book can be used as a transdimensional door into the ship from which it came, she doubted Florestan would let her take it with her... It was a silly thought, since the pages were all much too small to make a door from, and of course she'd hand over the TARDIS key, but she kicked herself for even contemplating the possibility.
A more serious concern was whether holding on to something from the TARDIS would harm her, in some way. She'd taken things outside occasionally, before. But never while the ship was in the vortex. Would holding on to something, even a little thing, tie them together somehow literally?
Really, the only thing that was truly hers was the fishing vest that was a gift outright from the Doctor and the things in its pockets, which she herself had collected. There was one more thing that might count. Eloise opened the bottom drawer of the dresser and got it out: the shoebox of photos of places she had seen, and things she had done. She stood, cleared a space on the top of the dresser, and laid them out.
Here was the Seventh Doctor posing beside a young apple tree he'd just planted ... according to him, it would later be the one that Isaac Newton sat under when the "idea of gravity hit him" (The Doctor always laughed at that groaner of his)... But Eloise had learned to take all of the Doctor's name-dropping with a grain of salt.
Here was a photo of the Eagle Nebula, just as a new star was emerging.
Here were two from just this last year. The first was of Ruthie, Spethan and herself, posing before the Big Top of the Jubilganzian Circus. Mags and Kingpin had invited them back for the grand re-opening. It was Mags who took that one. The other, Eloise took a little bit later, when they all went to help the Valeyard with the grand opening of his "Big Mythological Game Park and Nature Reserve". The Valeyard was holding a baby gryphon in his arms, and grinning ear-to-ear. Eloise grinned back at him, through the photo. Things were going so well for him, lately. It seemed his hermit days were over.
She was about to slip the photos into a vest pocket when she hesitated. The camera and film had also been generated by the TARDIS. So they had to stay behind, too.
(No doubt greatly to Ned's sorrow, Amanda was now decently if not very tastefully covered up with her husband's cricketing jersey and jacket.)
Sixth's brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "Your point being?"
"My point," said Amanda with considerable spirit, "is that you're just going to have to elect someone else to fill the vacancy pro tem, until your turn comes around! The case," and she linked Albert's arm possessively as she said it, "is rather definitely altered! Right, Albert?"
"I er "
"Don't be a stick," she advised succinctly. "Your vows to His Maj., and any others you may remember taking here and there, were made in your present senses and none other. What you may have been up to before some villainous type at the Talbots' coshed your memories out of you, will just have to wait on that. Besides, if you can travel about in time, I don't see how any of this is a problem. Can't you just wait until the war's over, and then pop up wherever the record puts you from time to time, and get home for tea or at least a late supper?"
Eighth coughed. "It isn't quite as accurate as that." The other
Doctors turned to glare at him. "Well, it isn't! The Plot
"A particularly late supper, then." Amanda cut him off ruthlessly. "I shall imbibe coffee if necessary. Well? What about it?"
"Amanda." He shook his head in pained frustration. "This sounds it feels horribly familiar. And... well, not at all as a blessed figure of speech, either. I..."
Her laughter was cold and fresh enough to have given Number One some serious aquatransexual problems, had that Cigarette-Smoking Bastard been anywhere in the vicinity. "Oh, do think a bit! If I'd been a minute later with Ferdie Paul and his amazing gas oven, you'd have risen again as that? Because if it's not that, it is a figure of speech, you know..."
"But it is that!" Second broke in agitatedly. "Oh, my dear girl, old chap: don't you see what's happening here?"
"It's Nyarlathotep's last throw," Sixth said. "The paradox behind the paradox!"
Albert looked ghastly. "We'll put a hold on that bit for a moment," he said bleakly. "I'm very sorry to say that that these... gentlemen..." He regarded Sixth less than lovingly. "... are right; or at least there's a loud bee in my bonnet that's buzzing to that effect."
First nodded. "The Imprimatur of Rassilon, my boy. Indeed!"
"Who sounds to have flunked Latin rather seriously," Albert cracked. "Personally, I think the plumage is a judgement on me for the Bounder Jacket. My dear old Lieut., you'll just have to take my word that this really would appear to have been my deep horrible secret." He shuddered. "Even from myself, to date. I expect it comes with the extra heart and the time-travel. I could have done without it, if you want to know." There was an excess of flippancy in his tone that suggested that he was either distressed nearly beyond bearing, or else very carefully not digesting the revelation for the duration. He blinked at her gravely. "How about you?"
The question she answered was not precisely the one he'd put into words. "I can't be doing without you before you 'die', Albert. Even supposing you transmogrify, about which you'll please to let me keep a sceptical reservation. In the meantime it shan't make the slightest difference to me, so I recommend we fall back on Plan A and dodge these paradoxes as they come up. What about that?"
"Can't," he said, blinking like a rabbit. "There's a girl in lilac." Amanda blanched. "And a girl in brown velvet, and a boy in bilious pyjamas... Oh, dash it all, it's about them, isn't it?"
Seventh nodded. "You took them to the Talbots' party. You left afterwards with them, and they never knew anything else had happened. After that, you were travelling with them and... others... to the last." He compressed his thin lips. "Nothing to dive in and out of!"
"So?" said Amanda practically. They all stared at her. "I mean, this theory's all very well; but when all's said and done, we're all here whether it makes sense or not, aren't we? It obviously turns out all right, so we can save worrying about it and get on with our lives. Have I left anything out?"
"Paradox," said Albert remotely. He stood still a long moment, then shivered. "It's not quite the Gilbert and Sullivan bill, is it? It's..." He trailed off, fumbling for a word. "Wicked. Wicked and dangerous. I've got that right, haven't I?"
"Oh, yes." Eighth seemed to shrink a little into himself. "Entirely too right. We're outside continuity at the moment but if you take a paradox back into real time, it starts to unravel. Time, I mean. Believe me, you don't want to be there when that happens..."
"It's more than that," Sixth menaced them. "Paradox has always been a gateway into the sane world from Outside. From the Metaverse. For the likes of the Crawling Chaos!"
Albert sighed. "Look here, old bird, we've got a paradox any way you cut it. If this sort of thing is going to follow us back home we'll need a nice isolated spot, and some of the left-over zaqqum fruit; but it's going to have to be faced somewhere, and the sooner we give the slower learners the message the better. That's assuming they'll try after what happened to their great big panjandrum with the horror on top, which between you and me I don't think all that likely."
"No good," said Seventh acerbically. "There won't be any zaqqum fruit, if your timeline gets established. There won't have ever been."
"No Zaqqum," Eighth elaborated. "No Celia."
"No Nyssa," whispered Fourth, sepulchrally. "No our Nyssa!"
"Only her apparently gratuitous doppelganger Ann Talbot," Sixth completed, with unhappy satisfaction. "And two quaint colonial cousins, no doubt. There's a resonance here I don't understand, reaching back into our own past..."
"...which we're most unlikely to understand this side of the Star Age, at the rate the Trader & Co. are working on that ficton." The First Doctor glared up at the others sharply. "To more pressing matters, h'mmm? Our Secret History is quite entirely beside the point."
The old Time Lord drew himself up. "What is critical, and what I certainly hope you were stumbling towards, is that your being hit on the head and spending twenty years playing the Terran tomfool... ah, is not the same for those children as your travelling along with them to the places they need to go. And one deviation one significant alteration to any of their timelines and Zaqqum will never exist! Nyssa will never create her!"
Third paled as though a goose was walking over his grave, then thrust out his jaw aggressively. "And since there will never have been zaqqum fruit "
"Oh, my," said Second, getting it belatedly. "Then we won't have just used it on Nyarlathotep "
" or have defeated him." Sixth's grin was a horrid, tight rictus. "If we let our Campion timeline take, Nyarlathotep wins! We already know that he set the Spamtrap in it which could only have caught me when stressed, amnesiac, and practically down to human levels." Amanda gave him the look this deserved. "Somehow, I didn't create an acute paradox, or he'd have possessed me via the so-called "Bounder Jacket", and taken over local reality through my shell. But that wasn't his only card.
"He left us in a double bind. We beat the acute paradox but it can all come undone, and he can win in the end through this chronic one. Which brings us back to the question we should never have forgotten. Who hit me over the head in the first place???"
"One of his agents, plainly," said Amanda uneasily. "But I don't see how that makes any difference now; unless it means one of his spies is still at large."
"Exactly," Sixth bulled on. "His agent call him "Chi", for Chaos stopped me travelling on with Adric and the girls, and shifted me onto your aberrant timeline. At least, that was the plan, and it looks to have worked. If it has worked, everything will come apart on us. Chaos will come again. Darkness and despair and inappropriate use of tentacles will hold illimitable dominion over OWWW!"
Fourth flashed tombstone teeth ingratiatingly. "Don't mention it. Always glad to be of service."
"I see," said Albert with distaste. "I take it there's some little loophole we haven't tried slipping through yet?"
"There's only one escape, I'm afraid." Sixth puffed himself up portentously. "We'll just have to make it didn't happen that way...!"
"Just say no no no no no to paradox!" Eighth glared fiercely at his former self and then slowly broke out into a most unsettling, merry grin. "Oh, wait. Co-option?"
"Very good," added Third patronisingly. "That should eliminate the paradox quite handily. Well? What are we waiting for?"
"My say-so, for one thing," Albert returned, in his most dangerously insipid drone. "Which, however this 'co-option' lark works, I very much doubt you'll get."
"WHAT?" Sixth and Fourth were but the loudest voices in the chorus. Albert laid a hand lightly on Amanda's shoulder.
"Come on, old thing. I'm sure the Older Heads will be able to come up with something more suitable, once we leave them to it. As long as editing our scenes away is the best they can do, we want to be getting along home..."
"Albert," said Amanda dubiously, not budging, "I don't know about that. God knows about 'for better or worse', and how much I want our lives to have happened; but we can't make a bridge for that thing, you know. I mean, we'd both have packed it all in for a real chance at old Adolf; and he's scarcely a tick besides that Typhon, is he?" She turned a drawn, wheyish face to the Doctors. "If there's even the chance of another way, now's the time to tell us!"
"You little imbecile!" Albert yelped. He scowled down at her savagely. "Remember the muck you'd got yourself into before we met? The only question, my dear young squirt, is whether without me you'd have escaped being sacrificed to Ashtoreth in time for the brute Savernake to bump you off for the regalia! If I don't get whacked on the head and turned into the specimen we both so admire, you're nine years dead!"
"Well," said Amanda, with splendid steadiness, "it'll set a new record in 'at least it was quick', won't it?" His fingers dug viciously into her shoulders. "Which is a good deal more than one can say for that or for being around when Typhon gets up to tricks. If you wouldn't mind?"
He spun back to his other selves disgustedly. "You heard her. Use Your Ninety-Percent Untapped Brain-Force!! Find another way. Think of His Unpleasantness as your incentive." His grey eyes gleamed with a killer's light, and there was a savage undertow to his voice that Sixth at his looniest would have been hard-pressed to rival. Perhaps only Amanda, of all present, knew him well enough to recognise these as signs of imminent, unbearable buckling.
"Oh dear," said Fourth, into the embarrassing silence. "Some of us have got hold of the wrong end of the yard of ale, and no mistake! I didn't ask you to do that. Did I?" he appealed to Sixth anxiously. "I wouldn't have been that chuckle-headed, would I? Was I thinking what I was thinking?"
The colour was flooding back into Amanda's cheeks. From the set of her narrow jaw, no little anger of her own was riding the tide.
"Yes," squelched Sixth. "This has all been completely beside the point. Of course you still both exist, and meet each other, and so forth. Both stories have to have happened in the same timeline, if we're to escape the fatal paradox."
Albert shook his head. "I don't follow this at all. I have to fly off with your Nyssa & Co., and never meet Amanda at all and I have to live my own life, just as I really have? If that isn't a paradox, my old convention, I've got a jolly nice property in Unter den Linden that I can let you have at very reasonable rates..."
"Wait a minute," said Amanda apprehensively. "I've a nasty idea that I'm getting an inkling. Just what, exactly, do we have to do to make this scheme work out right?"
"Well," said Eighth, "I don't know about you, Lady Amanda. But your husband " He paused in an agony of delicacy.
"Oh," breezed Sixth impatiently, "he just needs to be coshed from behind. Very hard, of course."
"We can practically guarantee," said Third, in that slightly guarded tone that always meant he was perpetrating something shifty for the general good, "that you'll both find the results delightful!"
"It sounds," said Amanda fretfully, "remarkably like another paradox to me, not to mention practically ungodly. I don't think you're allowed to tie people's lives in circles like that. For one thing, where did they come from; and more to the point, wouldn't that mean they didn't go anywhere Afterwards?"
This caused a brief, embarrassed silence, which Albert of all people was unable to resist breaking into. "You really need to speak to your clerical relative about this, my good enfant terrible. You simply can't go mauling eternal mysteries around into a bunch of engineer's rules-of-thumb, you know; or you'll end up like this, finding the only problem I don't have with this whole ugly mess." His face hardened. "Nevertheless, I certainly don't propose to jilt you in favour of your less mature self, to mention but the least appealing feature of this stinker..."
"You're a Christian??" blurted Sixth, with the tact for which that lad is so justly famous across ten thousand worlds and times.
"I don't think I've ever been accused of being over-pi, but look here, you're not telling me that the rest of you just aren't?" Albert Campion looked really rocked.
Amanda laid a calming hand on his arm. "He's true-blue Tory, too," she added maliciously; and then, to him, "You've really got to stop trying to make sense of them. I daresay all the important things happened differently wherever they come from. Now, I'm a paid-up citizen of the cosmos, and I'm sure it's various for the very best of reasons; but the mechanics and logic have to work out the same, and they'll guide us right every time. For example, this trick they want to use to make you not-them, is wrong; and I'm not just saying that because Dowager Girl here doesn't want to lose you forever to her callow and regrettable junior!"
"It's not going to happen," he averred, but uneasily; and the conversation froze again, until Eighth winced mightily, and then with one bound set him/themselves free:
"Albert, Albert, Albert: this isn't working because you're not yourself. I've been there, you know. I don't know whether it was a thump on the head in my case; but I've lost my past too, and it wasn't me until I got it fixed. You've got yourself into a Time Lordly position, and you're trying to apply a human mindset to it. Might I respectfully recommend my own solution to that? Nothing is going to make any sense otherwise, you know..."
Albert scowled. "I have a personality already," he said, a hint of panic in his tone, "and, deplorable and dubious as my dear family have so correctly characterised it, you know, it is mine and no other's, even if you could fibble it about. Transcendent Personality Techniques not wanted here, and ubermenschheit firmly passed on. Have I made myself sufficiently clear?"
Amanda, too evidently increasingly disturbed, intervened at this point. "One question, and it's rather important so please everyone do pay attention," she said loudly, "but, sensible as all this may be, is it going to take away from what the dear duffer is already? Is this replacement, or augmentation?"
"Oh," cried Albert in a passion, "will you just for once in your rotten little life stop treating people as if they came in neat little bits you order from the parts stores? How does it matter?"
"Augmentation, young lady," First defined, with the complacent air of a good teacher who's just discovered a questioning student. "It's purely a question of recovering knowledge that's been temporarily mislaid. And we have, h'mmm, a thoroughly reliable way of so doing!"
"Go on," urged Eighth. "Back into the TARDIS, the blue police box. It's not a trick: it's just well, it's our missing half; that's how I found it. If it doesn't give you all your memories, at least it'll remind you of everything behind them, if you follow me!"
"I'm not sure I "
"You're blurbling, Albert," said Amanda flatly. "Is that so-wonderful hunch of yours telling you not to believe this part? Because if it's right, as you've come all too close to persuading me, you need to do this. Hobbling you was not on my Things To Do list, and it's not about to be. Given the stakes, don't you see, you almost have to bring your whole self to the game? Added to which," she added, almost as an afterthought, "if there is still more to you than meets the mind's eye, I'd rather like to run into it."
"But dash it !"
"If it's really you, we've got to. If it's possession or that sort of devilry, I'll back your naysaying up all the way, and take the eldritchness as an occupational risk. But if you don't think you're all here if you think you're less, not different " Amanda did her I-have-drunk-bad-lemonade impression. " I'm not having that. Anything like that, Albert, we've got to scotch right away. It's ugly when the debs do it for their reasons; and if you think I'm going to let you stake the Cosm. on doing it for yours, you can't have recovered from that thumping yet, and are asking for another. Well?"
He coughed dryly, and allowed his other selves to point him in the direction of Fifth's TARDIS. "If you say so," he remarked vacantly. Amanda promptly slipped her small hand into his, and led him on.
"I am," she explained to the world at large, "coming with. I'm not so fond of this idea that I'm going to court losing you to it. Let's do our dentist's trick and get it over with!"
And, with a mutual air of walking in a dream, they entered the old blue police box, ladies first. A short interval of gasping later, the doors closed behind them.
"I wonder," said Fourth gloomily.
"What?" said Third testily.
"Oh my goodness!" blurbled Second stereotypically. "You don't think they'd just thump his other self on the head, and suppose he was cutting out the Crawling Chaos by accounting for it himself?"
"We explained about paradox," blustered Sixth. "I'm bright enough to generalise a principle when I explain it perfectly clearly to me!"
"You don't have his mindset," pointed out Seventh, broodingly since the general descriptive tide seemed hardly to be resisted. "Even as Fifth, he's..." Deciding he might as well go the whole hog, he trailed off in a sinister manner.
Within the motionless TARDIS, a whole truckload of Recovered Memory Angst went on. Presumably.
Eighth looked worried. "Perhaps I'd better just "
First clucked. "My boy, let's not be hasty. If they do take off straight away, the last thing we want is another of us straining the fabric of a damaged continuity with First Law of Time abuse, h'mmm?"
"Well, someone ought to be there," Eighth complained, "if only to keep his two instances from bumping into each other accidentally! That's something we seem to have forgotten to stress and," he added meaningfully, "we seem to have also forgotten that someone is going to have to pilot the TARDIS to the Forties with Lady Amanda; and that has to be one of us!"
"Precisely," said First with insufferable complacency, "and since he knows that, is it likely that he will take off precipitately?"
"This is an unusually unstable variant of Fifth," Sixth pointed out. "I'd better "
"Yes, hadn't I?" Eighth interrupted, and hastened towards the door.
Trader Grey and Carrie sprinted back across the car-park, with that particular gait that suggests the fate of Universes if not yet more important matters to be in balance.
"They're still here!" cried Carrie joyfully. "Quick!"
"We might puff just be able puff to make it!" the Trader exclaimed; and it was now clear that the former Dialectical Duo were making for the Fifth Doctor's plotpointly TARDIS like Ferenghi for a dropped penny!
"What goes?" bawled Fourth, as all the Doctors started nervously, excepting First and Seventh who were too busy looking knowing and inscrutable.
"Can't lose it now!" cried the Trader, barrelling through the door before it had quite closed after Eighth.
"It's all right," Carrie threw over her shoulder, following him. "We seem to be in the nick of " The blue door shut behind her.
Outside, the seconds stretched by in agonising cliffhanginess. As the seconds settled blithely down into even more disturbing minutes, Sixth started forward determinedly.
The TARDIS did its wheezy Eeyore impression, committed blue disco light, and buggered off in the now classical manner.
Ninth blinked. "I wonder what they wanted?"
"We'll soon know," said Seventh, regarding his watch darkly. "If the Universe splits open like a rotten puffball in the next hundred-and-seven minutes, and I am forced to play Time's Champion in the Last Battle against Cthulhoid horrors from mouldering abysms of pulp, then they "
"Eeyore, Eeyore! Wheezy Anna, down where the watermelons grow! Strobe, flash, hummm, eerie silence!" went the big blue box that does such things.
"Upstaged a little bit, are we?" cut in Ninth, sarkily.
" are going to get a quite severe talking to." Seventh brandished his umbrella in a manner which evoked a few starkly unspeakable and blasphemous mental horrors of its own.
The door creaked open.
The Eighth Doctor stepped out, but no-one asked him. Because he was following close on the heels of Fifth.
"Oops," Fourth stage-whispered.
A short, painful silence reigned. Carrie and the Trader emerged, but neither they nor Eighth seemed apt to break it.
Lady Amanda Campion was conspicuous by her absence. All of the returnees bore expressions attesting to strong and distinctly mixed emotions. Fifth, who most definitely ought not to have been back, radiated a kind of bleak satisfaction. The others looked more like recent victims of a three-hanky romantic movie.
And then Eighth raised his eyes to the sky and gave a great, free, joyous laugh, so that the walls of the little cul-de-sac rang with it.
"I make it a hundred and six minutes to go before the end of history, present, and all here present," said Seventh politely, with a meaningful look at the delinquent Fifth, "assuming this timeline is going to stand. Which, at least, should give us plenty of time for a cuppa..."
"Or possibly a bottla," Fifth returned, with one of those quick, pained, edged smiles, so characteristic of him and so unlike his quondam persona of Albert Campion. "That's an excellent idea. TTR, anyone? I do believe it's your round," he added innocently to Trader Grey, and strode briskly back into the TARDIS whence he came.
"By George," Eighth exclaimed, eyeing the Profitic Partnership significantly. "I do believe he's right!"
The lightning reflexes of Fair Trade's dauntless champion had his manly jaw already moving and his trusty tongue already primed for some devastatingly accurate objection, when he and Carrie shared an unreadable look that stopped the clash of titans in its tracks. Guilt or embarrassment alike being inherently strangers to the unswervingly righteous soul of the Man of Ethically Sustainable Gold-Pressed Latinum, surely the electric gaze of his sweet and newly-embodied Muse must have kindled the sacred fire of mercy that was ever wont to flare up in that stern but inwardly gentle breast!
"I do believe," the Trader returned, with a becomingly gruff and impeccably-counterfeited show of reluctance, "that, after all, it is!" Wherewith he, Carrie, and Eighth hastened into that Doctor's TARDIS with positively methytropic alacrity.
With cries of, "Sounds good to me!" "Splendid idea, Trader!" "Splendid idea of the Cricketer's!" and so forth, the whole practice of Doctors swarmed for their respective TARDISes. With the sole exception of Seventh, whose brow was darkening with suspicious chronostatic calculation.
"Wait!" Seventh snapped, looking up. "I'm not finished! What have you done to me ?!"
But of Doctors and TARDISes, the cul-de-sac was already suffering an acute haemorrhage. In a trice, there was only one.
Who, perforce, hurried to his own TARDIS to catch up with them at the Boozer Beyond Continuity.
And then there were none.
Oh, yes it did!
This account has been compiled, by popular demand with menaces ;-), into a separate spinoff yarn entitled Time and the Campions, whose first two episodes comprise the purely Hoedowny bits with which your readerly palate has just now been delectated.
FOLLOW THIS LINK, my friends, to discover the world-shaking, mind-shattering SECRET TRUTH!!!!!
She sighed, and slowly put the photos back in the box, imprinting each image on her memory. She had just returned the box to its place, and closed the drawer, when she heard a footfall behind her.
Eloise froze, clenched her fists in spite of herself, until her knuckles whitened, and she could feel her pulse flutter in her fingers.
"There you are," Florestan said. "I've been wanting to talk with you."
"I know," Eloise said. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing her pulse to slow, and almost succeeding. "There are things that need to be said. But it's only right that I be the one to say them."
"All right, then," he said. She heard him enter, and sit on her on the bed. She also couldn't help notice, out of the corner of her eye, that he picked up the book from the nightstand, and put it on his lap. "Go on," he prompted.
She'd been planning to stand and face him when she gave this speech, but her body conspired against her. Her legs felt like rubber, and wouldn't lift her up. She swallowed, and went on, anyway.
"I know this is a stupid thing to say," she said, "since nothing that's happened has been by your choice. But I don't know any other way to put it. ... Thank you. It's been a real honor to get to know this TARDIS, and "
She pressed on, forcing herself to utter the speech as she'd been practising it in her head, so that she wouldn't have the chance to go back on her decision to leave. "And even though I understand, now, that I could never have been a true pilot to her "
"I know I can't perceive time and space in the way she needs me to, to keep her safe."
She heard him rise from the bed and walk up behind her.
She kept going. "But I never meant," she said, "for her to come to harm never. I'll always be grateful "
She felt his fingers brush her shoulder, lightly. "Eloise stop," he said.
She jumped, a little, startled not so much by the touch itself, but by the memory it stirred, from somewhere deep in her childhood bone deep. And yet, no family member she'd known had ever touched her like that. So where had the memory come from? Where had she come from? Why, she chided herself, hadn't she thought to ask that question before?
Florestan dropped to his heels beside her, still holding the book. "You really think I came here to tell you to leave?" he asked.
The words collided, in her head, with the ones she expected to hear, and she couldn't quite make sense of them. All she managed to say as an answer was a nearly wordless stutter: "I ah wh..."
"Do you really hold Beloved in such low regard," he asked, his voice edged with pain, "that you think she's only been using you as a poor substitute for a pilot after all you've been through together, after all you've accomplished? Do you really think she is so faithless?"
"Well, no... not that I ... I just ..."
"Eloise, I came to thank you."
It took a moment for his words to sink in, and even then, they didn't make sense as if he were telling her that the moon really was made from green cheese, after all. She shook her head slightly.
"I admit," he continued, his tone softer, "that wasn't my first reaction. You see, a Time Lord is closest to his ship during regeneration the connection reaches down to the subcellular level it's like we share one body, briefly. And the first thing I felt was how Beloved's consciousness had been dissected, and that her dimensional barriers were being breached by hostile entities "
" and then, to see her overrun by a mob of strangers, well... to say 'I had serious doubts' would be a gross understatement."
"I'm sorry. I'm "
"Then I saw what you had done with the secondary console," he went on, cutting her off. "Eloise, I don't think you realize how extraordinary that is.
"From the moment we emerged from our Looms until we graduated from University, it was drummed into our heads that only Time Lords could ever understand the workings of a TARDIS. Even the ordinary citizens of Gallifrey were considered not only unfit for such learning, but incapable of it. And yet, somehow, you managed it. And you managed to get it right."
He stopped, and opened the book, flipping through the pages, reading brief passages to himself here and there.
For a moment, Eloise thought he'd forgotten about her.
But then he spoke again: "I was testing you," he admitted, "when I asked for your help, to see if you really could do what you claimed to have done." He sighed. "I still don't understand it," he said. "Perhaps I never will.
"But in the meantime, Beloved and all your friends have been telling me what you've been doing, in my absence: defeating the Black Guardian, defeating the Gods of Ragnarok and saving the Glory, and now, banishing Typhon himself." He shook his head.
"And yet, in spite of all you've accomplished, you still believe you mean nothing to her that she'd be willing to leave you behind."
He turned the book over in his hands, and stared at some point in the middle distance. "When I contemplate what might have happened... if she had been alone when Xaos and Electra converged upon her, or if she had first emerged from the vortex only to be found by someone looking for scrap metal, instead of companionship..." He swallowed hard. "So thank you. You've taken good care of her."
Eloise shook her head again. "No. She's the one who's taken care of me."
He chuckled. "Ah yes. I've often wondered if she was my ship, or my nursemaid." Then, he turned serious. "You're right," he said. "There are some qualities of space-time that I can sense, and you can't. And there will be moments when such differences between us are crucial. But even if you will never be a true pilot to Beloved, it's clear to me that you've always been a true friend.
"I know you saw that bridge in the Wild Garden," he continued. "I found your footprints by the stream when I went looking for you."
"I'm sorry I "
"Listen, Eloise. ...You recognized it, didn't you?"
She nodded, biting her lip.
"That bridge wasn't there when I was here last. Beloved put it there for you. And this room the furniture is all much too small for my comfort." He hefted the book in his hand. "She could have returned this to the library," he said, "But she didn't. She even kept your bookmark in place. Why didn't you see? Why couldn't you understand?"
"I don't know," she said, after a while, in a very small voice. "I guess... I guess when I woke up this morning, I thought I knew what my place was where I belonged, in the scheme of things ..."
She couldn't help but notice the tone of amusement in his voice, and realized how silly that must sound, considering what he'd just been through.
"I thought I knew. But then . . . everything changed, all at once, and " she drew a long, shuddering breath, "and I didn't know anything, anymore."
"Well, whatever your place is, 'in the scheme of things,'" he said, "it's clear you belong with us."
The words startled her, just as his touch had done. Many people had said many kind things to her, since this adventure began: "Eloise, come play with us," "Come dance with us," "Work with us," "Sing with us," "Sail with us," but never, simply: "You belong with us."
She had meant to laugh at her surprise. But it came out a sob as sudden and uncontrollable as a hiccough and then another, and another, until she was weeping openly. And this, after she had thought that all her tears were spent.
Florestan made no move to put his arms around her, nor did he try to soothe her with words. But he didn't turn away, either. He just stayed with her, patiently, and waited. When the squall had passed, and her breathing came easier, he handed her a tissue from the top of her dresser.
"Thanks," she said, sniffling.
"No need," he answered. He stood, and quietly unhooked High Five's leash from her collar. Then reached out a hand to help Eloise to her feet, and held on until she was steady.
High Five wriggled between them, and licked Eloise's face from ear to ear. Then she licked Florestan's hands, then Eloise's face again. A memory popped into her mind, then, of Danik greeting Osman after the spell had been broken. And the thought occurred to her that maybe she'd been under some kind of spell, herself, all this time.
Eventually, Eloise managed to push herself clear from the dog, and come up for air. She looked at Florestan full on for the first time.
His hair was freshly washed, and pulled back into a single, short braid down the middle of his neck; his beard was trimmed.
But that's not what brought the lopsided grin to her face.
"What?" Florestan asked.
She noted the beige tweed jacket, with leather elbow patches, the navy turtleneck, and chino trousers.
"Oh, nothing," Eloise said. "Did Sweetheart steer you toward those clothes?" she asked.
"Yes. ... Why?"
"She's gotten you out of your Gallifreyan robes," Eloise informed him, "but she still has you dressed in the costume of the eccentric literature professor." She glanced down. "The red sneakers are a nice touch," she added.
He chuckled. "Come on, Walter assured me he managed to secure a mug of that kahlua parfait for each of us, before Gordon left." He paused to return the book to the nightstand before he went through the door. "I think I remember that story," he said. "I'm pretty sure you'll like the ending."