Back in the barn...


Sandra's eyes widened. 'The Contessa! What about the Contessa?!'

The others fell silent.

'The Doctor said something about returning... about returning his stuff,' Allie said eventually. 'I think he'll talk to her.'

'And since the conduits are gone, that problem's over...' Sandra murmured. 'Vortex City's back... but she, most of all, she needs to know what happened.'

'Yeah.'

'Something's really been bugging me, though.'

'Oh?'

'Why did Cameron turn into a cat?'

Just then, Eloise came in from the stables, and she paused to join them. "Or why," she added, "Nyctolops turned into a monkey." She pursed her lips, remembering. "Turned into an owl, last year, if I remember correctly, toward the end. She dropped a rotten egg on the Valeyard's head. He really was a good sport about that, considering. I wonder if they'll regain their human forms by the time the party's over. You don't suppose," she asked, after a moment, "they have the Protean gift, too, do you?"

The five exchanged glances. "Naaaah!!!" they chorused.

"No, no, I suppose not. That would be too twisted and far-fetched even for the stories I get tangled up in." Her laugh ended abruptly as it hit her just how close they had come to losing all stories, and she shuddered a little.

At this point Nyctolops came wandering in. "If I remember this right, Cameron turned into a cat after sampling one of Imran's magic milkshakes. I don't know why it had that effect on him, though. As for myself, being nyctolopic, the owl and big-eyed monkey are my two aspects. I am always one or the other at the Hoedowns. Being human is just for the mundane world."

Eloise nodded... "I see..." she said. "Before the final good-byes, we may have to get Imran to make up an antidote..."

Cameron prowls past and speaks.

"Don't be too long, it's getting tiring going around on all fours, and I'm gonna have to do some serious flossing. I'll be in a corner cleaning myself for the moment, if you need me."


Before Eloise could wade too far into the swamp of what-might-have been, she noticed two thin trails of black smoke curling around the entrance way to the dance floor. "What the --??--" she said, and darted down the corridor, through ever thickening smoke, to the kitchen.

Somewhere in the acrid, billowing clouds, she recognized the familiar shape of a troll a little bit taller than she was, and a lot more elbow-and-kneeish. He was standing in front of a cauldron in the middle of the room, and appeared to be trying to roast lumps of coal.

"Walter Duncun!" she exclaimed, in the tone of an exasperated mother. "What are you doing?!"

"Well," he said, "That Imran fellow said, right before he left, that he wanted smoke and a kipper. I checked through all your cupboards, and you didn't have any smoke, so I thought I make some up, fresh."

"Walter, dear," Eloise said, explaining, "humans don't bottle smoke, like trolls do, and eat it.[*] They just use it to preserve their food."

[*] Just one excuse some trolls use for starting flame wars... what they don't realize is that smoke from a flame war just doesn't have the rich, full-bodied taste and sweet bouquet you get from a pro-fun thread when it gets smokin'!

"And they don't store any up for the winter? How wasteful!"

"They don't have the right kind of magic for that, I'm afraid."

Walter looked a little sheepish (as far as she could tell). "I'm sorry. I don't know as much about Earth customs as you do."

"That's okay. Just gather up the others, and tell them to bring their bottles -- looks like you've made enough smoke to feed several armies... but if we all pitch in, we should be able to put it all away. Then you can have something to take back to your families, to remember this year's hoedown by."

"Like I'd ever forget this party!" Walter said, and he trotted off to get the others.

Eloise turned and was surprised by Allie and the others (Not just TYA, anymore -- The Muse Coterie, more like it).

"Need any help?" Allie asked. "You ran out of there pretty quick."

"No, Walter's a good soul -- just gets... enthusiastic," she said. "He misheard Imran's 'Smoke me a kipper!', and..."

"Things got out of hand?"

Eloise nodded. "So -- Imran did say he'd be back, but he didn't say how..."

Allie shrugged. "He'll probably be waiting for us at the cul-de-sac," she said. "After all, Gordon is here, and Alryssa... and you know the rule."

"Where two are, the third will be -- or something like that. Anyway, that's good. After all we've been through, I'd hate it if we never got a chance to say a proper 'good-bye' -- even if it is just a temporary one."

"It's Alryssa I'm worried about," Tessa said. "And all three of them, really. No saying what effect ...this... will have on the Odd Trio."

"You don't think a nice jar of home-cooked smoke would help her feel better, do you?" Eloise asked.

"No."

"Didn't think so... still, no harm in asking."


Later, after the smoke and trolls had all been cleared from the kitchen, Eloise was in the pantry, putting up her own jars of smoke. Walter was right. There were some staples that no pantry should be without.

She sighed. Soon, Sweetheart and she would be back in the Cul-de-sac, the real-world interface back in its form of a small suburban ranch house, with vinyl siding. And her human neighbors would never even know it had gone anywhere. Her guests would gather up their coats and other belongings, trundle out to their own cars and TARDISes and head home. And then the party would be over.

She turned to go back out to the dance floor, to pick up where the smoke fiasco had interrupted her, and let out a surprised yelp.

"Has Alryssa ever told you," she asked the Eighth, "just how disconcerting that can be?"

He smiled, and sat down on one of her three-legged stools -- all elbows and knees. "You wanted to ask me something," he said.

"Yes. Yes, I did. When you asked me to give up the Charm --"

"Did I know what would happen?" he finished for her. He shrugged. "Call it an educated guess," he said. And then he smiled broadly. "The Master was right. My mind does jump from one idea to the next like a cricket, always has, but it's a trait that's particularly strong in my current regeneration. The Master's fatal flaw is just the opposite -- in the extreme. Anything that doesn't relate directly to his A-to-Z plans, he considers irrelevant, and doesn't pay it any attention. There he was, at the Center -- in a perfect vantage point to see everything -- everywhere, everywhen -- and he completely ignored the events that happened during the Circus."

"That the Charm had changed."

The Doctor nodded. "And what had changed it -- the power of dream. That was the key. For what is a dream except the most personal, the most magical of stories? Dreams are the first stories we tell ourselves, even before we have a language to tell them in -- infants in the womb dream."

"So the Charm had been distilled down to the power of story itself -- exactly what the Master had been trying to drain away."

He nodded again. "And the Master was standing at the precise Center -- just where that power needed to be."

"Did you know that Curry would -- would --"

"Sacrifice himself like that?" He shook his head. "Not until he pulled his hand away. I just knew that he needed to be there. For most of us, stories are a diversion, an entertainment. For Curry, they were salvation. The Charm had been distilled down to the power of Story, but Curry had been the living embodiment of why that power is so important.... I didn't foresee what would become of him, but it didn't surprise me when it happened."

"He never did sing," Eloise said, a little sadly. "Or if he sang, during the final battle at the Circus, I didn't hear him. For a while there, that was the only thing that mattered to me: to get him to open his mouth and sing -- even just one note."

"Why?" the Doctor asked, genuinely curious.

Eloise cocked her head to one side. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "There's just something about song that's different from speech -- even for the deaf, who sing in sign language -- the way the energy of song flows through the body. It's our connection to the Omniverse, maybe -- to the core of our joy, deep down, even with sad and weepy songs. In ancient times, the storytellers sang their tales."

"In that case, I guess you could say that Curry has become the song."

At that, a belly laugh began to build inside her, and soon erupted. "Y-you know," she said, wiping the tears from her eyes when she finally caught her breath, "If Curry were here right now, he would deny that all the way from Hell to High Heaven."

The Doctor winked. "Just one of the many sublime ironies of life," he said.


With a sound like a rusty gate squeaking on its hinges, a circus cart led by thirteen android horses materialised in a cul-de-sac.

It rippled.

And morphed into a suburban ranch house.

Moments after that, a motorbike came trundling into the cul-de-sac, and pulled to a halt outside the ranch house.

The driver patted it on the handlebars.

The bike trundled off, without a driver-

-and disappeared as it reached the cul-de-sac's entrance.

Oddly enough, no-one noticed any of this.

People are like that.


The door swung open.

'Imran, welcome back!' Eloise said. She looked behind him. 'Who's that with you?'

Imran ahemmed. 'Um, it okay if I bring him in?'

Eloise pointed to the thread title: (2nd Annual!) PRO-FUN TROLL HOEDOWN HERE. All Welcome!

'Oops.'

Imran turned and gestured to the figure behind him to come in.

Then he turned back, and blinked.

'What happened to the stuff?'

'Oh, we put it back where it belonged,' Eloise explained. 'Which did take a bit longer than expected... Did you do what you set out for?'

Imran nodded. 'I think you could say that... why can I see two Xeffys? Is Kamelion doing his impersonation thing?'

'No, that's Allie.'

'That's... Protean gift. Oy...' Imran covered his eyes.

The other man had come to stand next to Imran. He was short, with a close-cut beard. Blue eyes were set in an oval face, and his short brown hair was balding at the top.

'Oh dear...'

The two Xeffys inside caught sight of him. So did Sandra.

'...Dad?' one Xeffy whispered.

'Dad?!' Sandra echoed.

The other Xeffy hesitated for a moment, and then morphed back into Allie.

'Um... Hi, Dad.' Allie said, nervousness colouring her voice. 'Um... this is Sandra, our sister...'

He didn't say anything. Nodded, as if hearing a piece of news.

And then hugged her.

'Dad...?' Allie began.

'You're back. You're all back.' he said. 'That's what matters... You're back.'

She hugged him back, tighter than before.

Then he let go, hands on her shoulders.

He raised an eyebrow. 'New look for you.'

Allie blushed. 'Um, well...'

'It looks good.'

'Well, that was why I chose it, I like it, it sorta works for me, seemed appropriate, you know how it goes...' She trailed off. 'Um, I like it. Um, biker, you?'

He grinned, and let her shoulders go. 'Go with what works.'

Allie grinned back. 'If it works...'

Xeffy grabbed on to him, and hugged him tight.

'Missed you...' she whispered. 'Missed you so much...'

'Shh...' he said. 'Shh... Who's the teen queen, mn? Who's the queen?'

'Me,' she whispered. 'I'm the queen...'

He held her for a few moments more. Then he let her go.

'Sandra...?' he said.

Sandra's head was bowed.

'Welcome back.'

Sandra looked up in shock.

'What? What's wrong with me welcoming my daughter home?'

'But-' Sandra began.

'What's the problem?'

'Nothing... no, I thought, I thought that...'

'Look at me,' he said quietly. 'You're my daughter. You're their sister. You're as much my family as your sisters are. You always will be.

'Welcome back.'

'Good to be back. And that's saying something...' Sandra added.

He chuckled. 'I know.'

From outside, the sound of a motorbike could be heard, coming up the cul-de-sac.

'I thought I sent it back!' Imran said.

Eloise tore her eyes away from the scene, and looked outside. 'You did.'

'Then who-' Imran began.

The motorbike came to a halt outside the ranch house.

The driver parked it, and walked up to the house.

Then she took her helmet off.

'Calliope...?' Alryssa whispered. 'Calliope?!'

The Queen of the Muses looked around the barn, taking in everything and everyone there, her face remaining impassive, unreadable.

Then her gaze returned to Eloise.

'Eloise.'

'Lady,' Eloise said.

'Thank you.'

Allie gasped.

'Without you, the stories would have been lost. Without you, the universes would have fallen. And without you, those under my guardianship would have died.'

Eloise bowed her head. "Lady," was all she said, quietly. :::Might as well thank me for trying to swim when I'm drowning,::: she thought. :::Might as well thank me for breathing:::. Still the words of the demi-goddess held a weight that made her tremble.

Her gaze swept the room again. 'All of you played a part in this, brought this outcome to pass.

'Thank you.'

The Doctors acknowledged the thanks with nods of the head.

'Xephanya.'

Xeffy looked up.

'Your sister requested that you be protected. I chose to take that on. That is now discharged.'

Xeffy looked as if she couldn't quite take it in.

'However, you are still under my protectorate, as a native of Subreality. That, I will not discharge.'

She turned to Sandra.

'Sandra, please accept my apologies. You did not know the full consequences of Alisandra's reunion, and what that would mean for you. For that, I bear some responsibility. However-'

'I'm not a Muse any more,' Sandra said.

Calliope nodded. 'You are one of the phantasms - a living idea, a living identity.

'And you are welcome, with my blessing.'

Sandra looked stunned.

'Alisandra?'

Allie didn't look up. 'Yes, ma'am?'

Calliope handed her a card. 'I believe this is yours. It was on my desk.'

Allie still didn't look up. 'Thank you, ma'am.'

She took it, her grip tentative.

'Yokoi?'

'Yeah?'

'Remind me to talk to you about that request for a submarine you put in.'

Yokoi blushed. 'Umm...'

'Alryssa? Tessa? I would like to speak to you in private, if I may.' Calliope indicated Sweetheart's interior.

Senshi and Muse nodded, and headed for the door.

Calliope followed them.

Before she left, she turned.

'Imran?'

'Hn?'

'The motorbike is yours. Take good care of it.'

Imran gawped.

'You are the Mirror Knight?'

'Well...'

'Then this bike is yours. The bike you arrived on has been returned safely to the "other" Mirror Knight. I have made other arrangements for my return. No one should feel they need to worry about that.'

With that, she left.

Imran slumped on the floor. 'Say wha...?'

Allie finally looked at the card Calliope had given her.

And started giggling.

'Allie? What is it?'

'My licence,' Allie said, through her giggles. 'It's my licence. My licence! I'm a full Muse! I've got my licence!'

Yokoi grinned. 'This calls for a party. Oh, wait a minute - that's what this is! PARRRRTTTTYYYYY!!!

As the party began again, Eloise looked between the stunned Imran and the hysterically giggling Allie.

And sighed.

'I knew I should have asked him to do something about Cameron first...'

'You'rrrre telling me,' Cameron said.

'Actually,' Gordon said, grinning, 'it wasn't Imran's milkshake anyway. It was the Chocolate Creme Cheesecake - or was it the Creme Chocolate Cheesecake...?'

Eloise considered this for a moment. 'Hmmm... Imran, did you bring the cake that was thrown at Cameron? And if so, what did you put in the frosting?'

'Didn't bring the cake. Who brought the cake?'

'It might have been "donated" anonymously by one of the gremlins -- perhaps a "t" was snuck in to turn "Cam" into "Cat". Or if they weren't involved, they might know who was... I think I need to have a rather stern talk with Spethan, later (in private).'

Imran blinked. 'Heh. The gremlins still causing problems, even now...'

Cameron continued to lick clean his right foreleg.

"You know, I may start to enjoy this, if I didn't get so dirty..."

Nyctolops had been listening to this conversation with interest. "Well, Cameron, if you really want a bath, I am sure that Eloise could find me a nice bucket of warm, soapy water and a scrub brush. Then after I lathered you up and scrubbed you down, I could take you out back and turn the garden hose on you."

Cameron looks shocked and a little amused.

"Have a bath like a a dog? How primative..."

Eloise paused a moment, considering. "There should be another way to get you back to normal," she said. Then she snapped her fingers. "I've got it! EXCUSE ME!" she called through the chatter, and when she'd gotten their attention, asked: "Has anyone seen that Authorial Persona Field Projection thingie (or whatever it's called)? We could use a little help returning Cameron to his human persona..."

"I think it was left back in the lab," someone volunteered. "I'll go check."

Eloise nodded. "Thank you."

Then she slipped away to her favorite red napping chair, leaving her guests to take care of themselves. After what they had all been through, she had no doubts that they could take care of themselves.

Meanwhile, in the inner room...

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