"Ladies und gentlemen " Osman, violin in hand, appeared to have joined the orchestra "please to take your partners for the last dance!"
Much tuning-up, and a few bars of 'Auld Lang Syne'. There seemed to be a great deal of consultation going on amongst the players.
Eloise bustled round, her own troubles almost totally banished by the sight of so many people enjoying themselves.
"Let's have everyone on the floor for this one," she called, her trollish grin splitting wide at the sight of High Five and Oscar bounding across the floor as the remaining party-goers came back from the end of the scavenger hunt, their arms piled high with the missing presents. Some of the latter were strewn with cobwebs from most unlikely hiding-places, but none of them had been harmed. Even the address-labels were intact.
"To Gordon, with mahoosive hugs on your birthday."
"For Gordon, all the best."
"Fond regards and armadillos from the Mexican Border Patrol..."
Eloise boggled at that one; and discovered that Danik had arrived quietly at her side, certain traces of mischief still lurking in his eyes. She promptly forgot the armadillos.
"That was not the kind of dance I had in mind!" she informed the tall Ruritanian, mock-severely. Danik laughed.
"Forgive me; the temptation was overwhelming, with such an opponent to hand. And I confess that since boyhood I have longed to overset a court dance in just such a manner..." He made his bow, extending one hand to raise hers to his lips, as if to a queen.
"But if you will do me the honour of this last dance, I'll warrant there'll be no such affray between us two." A smile, practised and charming. "Will you?"
Eloise knew perfectly well that the captain of the 'Avalanche' was trying shamelessly to butter her up; but the little troll couldn't keep her own smile from peeping out in response. After all, she hadn't really been angry with him. Given that she barely came up to his belt-buckle, though, she did wonder, a little, just how he thought he was going to manage to waltz her elegantly around the room, as he seemed to intend...
But the rest of the Hoedowners were streaming onto the dance-floor in happily-forming couples (and threes, and fours, and whole groups sometimes), and even Florestan was leading out Amber, settling his arm round her waist in a somewhat unpractised manner that suggested it had been many a hundred years since either of them had last danced.
The six visitors from Space Camelot were having as much trouble pairing off with each other as if they were the cast of 'Friends'. In the end Guenevere danced with Merlin, Nimue with Arthur, and Morgan with Lancelot.
They were almost all out there now, and the orchestra was waiting...and for all the mischief in his gaze, Danik of Ruritania was undoubtedly a most practised and elegant cavalier.
Eloise took his hand; and Danik, being Danik, promptly led her out to claim the very centre of the ballroom with such assurance that those who were there before them made way. There was a little space directly under the chandelier. Her partner positioned himself neatly under the hanging lustres, set his arm around her shoulders (her waist being too far down even for that gentleman's long reach), offered her a dazzling and decidedly wicked smile, and caught the eye of the leader of the orchestra.
The first sweet, slow strains filled the room, and Danik swung her round...
..straight into a fiery czardas, as the violins suddenly swept into a gypsy frenzy, with Osman's fiddle soaring in the lead. The rest of the orchestra (all of whom she realised, in giddy intervals when she could catch her breath must have been in on the plot) followed suit, as did at least half the guests. Most of the others were jitterbugging wildly, although Igor seemed to have descended to floor-level in some kind of enthusiastic breakdance.
Eloise laughed. She couldn't help it, even though she was terribly out of breath and dancing faster than she'd ever thought she knew how. The joyous rhythms of the dance were coming in at her toes and fizzing all the way from her tail like happy shivers up the back of her neck. She looked up at Danik, who happened to be swinging them both round and round like a whirligig so that the crystals of the chandelier sparkled above her in a rainbow halo. "And I suppose you've been hatching this scheme ever since Florestan got back?"
"Not quite that long..." It would be unfair to say that Danik grinned, precisely, as he hadn't stopped grinning since before the music started, but the seafarer's crinkles around his eyes deepened for a moment until she could see little but a twinkle between sandy lashes. The his expression sobered a little.
"Partings should be merry ones, my lady. If there is one thing I have learned in a roving life, it is that..."
And then the dance whirled her out to arms'-length, and there was only laughter to be read on his face as he led her straight into the most frenzied and furious section of the czardas.
"Wow, that was really something."
"I didn't know you could dance like that, Eloise..."
"Millennium hand and shrimp... oh, sorry?.."
Out of breath, laughing, and totally exhausted (she thought she had done very well to keep up with Count Danik in that last part of the dance, especially since his legs were at least twice as long as hers were), the avocado-green troll sank down on a nearby banquette and let the buzz of happy chatter sweep over her.
She caught sight of Florestan, with Cassie on his arm, talking animatedly to Cameron and looking cheerful and almost avuncular. There was nothing like Walter Duncan's cooking to get your feet back on the ground, after all and nothing like a little Ruritanian dancing, she thought a little ruefully, to get them off it again!
Sweetheart Beloved she told herself with a little pang would be in good hands. And she, Eloise, could be glad and proud that she had been the one to rescue the TARDIS and reunite her with her own true Pilot...
And then (she didn't know exactly how, without their telepathic link; perhaps by the way that all the Doctors stopped talking and turned round at once) she sensed, somehow, that the grip of the Vortex was lessening. The TARDIS was coming in to her destination.
And with a final whump, she landed.
Eloise braced herself, ready for Florestan to shoo them all toward getting their coats and hitting the road. She wasn't afraid he would steer her toward the curb, exactly she trusted he would take her home, at least. But still. ...
But the "Thank you, and Good-Bye" didn't come. She scanned the crowd. Florestan was easy to spot. Even though his scholars' robes were modest by the standards of Old High Gallifrey, and were now looking a bit threadbare, they still stood out like a beacon.
And and he was mingling (?!?). He stood with a handful of others, easily a head taller than the tallest of them, hands clasped loosely behind his back, bent slightly at the waist, listening to the speaker with an expression that suggested he had just caught the sound of a rare birdcall.
:::Well,::: she thought. :::Well. Didn't he say something back at the myth tree about wanting to explore the universe? This was probably about as good a place to start as any.::: Eloise allowed a slight smile. :::And he had as much reason to celebrate as any.:::
The confused partygoers stared at each other.
The knocking came again, louder than before.
Eloise blinked and mentally shrugged. Probably some outraged neighbour. Perhaps she could invite them in, calm them down no-one should leave angry, after all, and she didn't want to end it on a downbeat note.
She glanced at Florestan, who motioned for her to go ahead.
Feeling oddly proud at that, she trotted over and opened the outer door. "Hello?"
The delivery man at the door tipped his hat. "SubEx, Ma'am. Delivery for a... well, it's a mass delivery. Are there an..." He looked down at his clipboard. "Allie, Amber, Ana, Carrie, Cassie, Dominic, Embericles, Nyssaias, Tessa, Verity and Yokoi here?"
Eloise blinked. "Well... well, yes, but "
"I'll sign." Dominic said, making his way to the door.
"Here you go, sir."
Dominic signed the clipboard in neat copperplate writing, and handed it back to the SubEx man.
The SubEx man nodded, and handed Dominic a pile of letters.
"Er... Thank you." Dominic said.
"Thanks." the man said. "Have a good day, y'all."
The other muses clustered around Dominic, as the door closed.
"Who's sending us mail?" Nyssaias wondered.
Dominic frowned, but handed out all the letters, holding onto his own and a larger brown envelope.
Allie noticed the envelope. "What's that?"
"I'm saving it until last." Dominic answered. "Let's see what these are, first. If you would do the honours?"
Amber nodded and opened the rich white envelope, removing an embossed silver card.
"You are cordially invited to the formal announcement of..." she read, eyes widening. "Of the new Goddess-Muse Amber, at the Collegium Imaginarium..."
The others looked at each other, and started tearing open their own envelopes.
"You are..." Allie read. "You mean..."
"They all say the same thing." Carrie completed.
"I thought this would happen." Dominic said, his eyes twinkling. "You didn't think the Nine were going to keep this quiet, did you?"
"But..." Tessa began.
"She's been instated by Gaia." Dominic said. "This is the formal recognition... but somehow, I doubt any of the other muses know what they're being invited to..."
"You mean..." Yokoi said, a small grin twitching at her mouth.
Dominic nodded. "Light the fuse, and watch the fireworks start."
Carrie raised a perfect eyebrow. "The Nine in the same room together. That should be... interesting."
"That should be dangerous." Allie said.
"Same thing, surely?"
Amber stared at her card. "I... I..."
She pulled herself together. "What's RSVP?"
"They expect a reply." Dominic said.
"I can't..." Amber started.
"You're a part of the world again." Dominic said. "They'll be expecting a meeting sooner or later."
Amber looked down, away. "Would... would you please excuse me?"
Then she was gone.
"What was that about?"
"One last piece of unfinished business." Cassie said.
Xeffy didn't look up from her conversation with Ayna.
Ayna nudged Xeffy. Xeffy ignored it.
Ayna's eyes narrowed.
Xeffy jerked at Ayna's atonal screech. "Hey!"
Ayna simply glared at her.
"Xeffy?" Amber repeated, hunkering down.
"Look at me."
Xeffy shook her head.
"Look at me." Amber said again.
"Look at me." Not a command, not a demand, a request. "Look at me, then I'll go."
Reluctantly, Xeffy turned.
What the gods truly see in us is made manifest.
Numbness. Cold, numb...
Anger, slow burning...
Chilled, icy pain.
Amber raised a hand to Xeffy's temple.
"I can't take it back." she said softly. "I can't make it right between us.
"I hurt you, because I wanted to hurt Dominic. You were a means to that end.
"You were... you were so... so like the woman I'd been, the form I'd taken to be... be with him. And I thought to use that form to break his usurper, to break the one who wore his form, his face, and yet defied everything I stood for.
"A simple glamor. A simple glamor, adding the power of your own gift to mine to make it real.
"I hurt you. I hurt him." Her gaze flicked to Ayna. "And I hurt your family.
"In the name of a world and a man long gone in time.
"He would have wept to see what I did for him. Wept to see what I did to reclaim his world.
"Wept to see what I did to you.
"And walked away forever, never looking back.
"I can't make it right between us.
"But we can make it quits.
"If you'll allow it."
Xeffy turned her head away, her eyes wet. "I... I..."
She took a deep breath, turned back.
"I can try."
"That's all I can ask." Amber said. "Thank you."
And then Xeffy was sobbing and sniffling into Amber's shoulder.
Amber held her then, until the sobbing faded.
Xeffy pulled away, looked up at Amber.
Amber reached into a pocket and handed her a tissue. "Here you go."
"Th-thanks." Xeffy said, dabbing at her tears.
She looked between Amber and Ayna. "And if any of you ever talk about this..."
"Gotcha." Ayna said.
"Understood." Amber said, a small smile tugging at her lips. "And... Xeffy?"
And with that, she stood, and headed back for the front door.
Xeffy and Ayna looked at each other, and followed her.
Embericles stuck her head out the door, taking in the complete absence of any Brother Delta. "Damn. He got away."
"Hey, there's a note stuck to our car!" Nyssaias said, bounding over to it. She extracted the note, and headed back.
"What's it say?" Embericles said as she returned.
"'Dear Musecops, blahblahblah...'" Nyssaias skimmed the note. "Oh, so that's it, huh?"
"Apparently, the good Brother's in New York, currently enjoying himself by..." Nyssaias blinked. "Buying up adult videos? What's that..."
She and Embericles shared one of those looks.
Embericles sighed. "No rest for the wicked, hon."
"Oh, come on!" Nyssaias protested. "Can't we at least hold out till it ends?"
"You know I can't resist that adorable little pout..." Embericles said. "Aw, what the hell. It's not like he's going anywhere. It say who it's from?"
"'A Friend'," Nyssaias read. "'PS: Thank you for aiding in the SKoLD's return. Don't expect a reward.'."
Magnus rolled his eyes. "The Nine and Ninety are not known for their gratitude."
Amber returned, a quiet expression on her face, Xeffy and Ayna close behind.
She nodded to Dominic.
Dominic inclined his head.
"Go on, then!" Yokoi said.
Dominic opened the envelope, and pulled out a brochure. "Hm. Covering note. 'This might prove useful. C.'"
"C?" Magnus inquired.
"Calliope." Carrie supplied.
"What is it?"
Dominic flicked through the brochure. "It's a brochure for... 'H.G. Wells Memorial High School'." He raised an eyebrow. "Adjacent to This Time Round. Hmm..."
"British or American high school?" Tessa said.
"British." Dominic said. "11-plus."
"11-plus?" Allie echoed.
This sank in.
Ayna and Xeffy suddenly found themselves the subject of attention from all sides.
The two Sirens looked at each other, then:
Dominic's expression was serious. "We'll talk about this afterwards, shall we?"
Eloise caught the twinkle in his eye, and stifled a grin. She'd hate to be the teacher who had to deal with those two...
She scanned the room, again. Small celebrations were going on in all quarters.
Danel was beaming, dancing with Ana, albeit a little awkwardy, a little shyly.
Trader Gray was less shy in his dance with newly incarnate Carrie. Danik and Osman were standing with their arms about one another's shoulders, trying to teach the chorus of a Ruritanian drinking song to like-minded hoedowners.
Ayna was talking talking a mile a minute, as she and Xeffy tried to fend off congratulations from her older sisters and their friends.
Joe and Verity were talking with Amber, and the three of them seemed to be hatching plans.
The Fifth Doctor (or was it still "Albert"?) was dancing a quiet waltz with Amanda. Eloise wasn't so sure that happiness lay ahead on that road. But she hoped so. She had faith in the power of love reunited. Recent events had proved that miracles happen.
And in the center of the room, Gordon was opening his presents.
Eloise trotted over to him. "I have two more for you," she informed him. She reached into one inner pocket, and pulled out the Seventh Doctor's gift. "You should open this one first, I think," she said.
Gordon read the warning label, and his eyebrows shot nearly to his hairline. "Oooh..." He opened the gift card, and read the message inside aloud: "Dear Gordon. This is for when things get dicey in the Shop. For emergency use only! Fondest Regards, The Doctor."
"Do you think it's safe?" Yokoi asked, at his shoulder.
"Probably not, knowing him," Gordon said. He unwrapped it gingerly, and revealed a standard-sized Rubik's Cube or that's what it looked like, except that every face was a uniform jet black, and polished to a mirror shine.
"Um...," Yokoi asked, "how do you know when you've solved it? ... And how are you supposed to solve it without turning it upside down?"
"Dunno ... and ... dunno," Gordon answered. "I suppose we'll find out when the next emergency comes up in the shop."
"You're not thinking of using it, are you?"
Gordon grinned a mahoosively gleeful and evil grin, handed it to her and said nothing.
Eloise reached into the other pocket. "And this one," she said, simply, "is from me."
Gordon unwrapped this with a good bit less care, and opened the box inside. His eyes popped. "Ooooh! It's a It's a ... What is it?"
Eloise shook her head, grinning herself. "I have no idea, frankly," she said, "except that it's a toy that seemed to suit you."
Gordon and his muse examined it.
"Well, it is brightly colored," Yokoi observed.
"And it has buttons big, shiny ones!" Gordon added.
They continued, trading observations, as they passed the marvellous toy back and forth between them:
"And twisty, wind up bits."
"And boingy, springy bits."
"And noise-making bits."
"And we have no idea what it does, exactly..."
"Which means it can do anything!" Gordon finished. "Thanks, Eloise!"
"My pleasure!" she replied. "I knew you'd like it."
She backed away, quietly, leaving the two of them to examine their latest gifts. The last of her duties were now discharged... and it was time to think about packing...
"Um," said Paul, suddenly, in the corner where he'd been reliving favourite episodes of 'Bony' with a group of typo gremlins. "A present for Gordon! I knew I'd forg left it in the car. Yes, left it in the car, that's the ticket..."
He hurried out to the carpark. A few of the typo gremlins followed him, one still insisting that Cameron Daddo had made a better Bony than James Laurenson.
Paul returned a moment later with a salt cellar, a hatbox, and a fresh suntan. "Regard this simple silver salt cellar," he said. "Regard this simple hat."
"What about them?" asked Gordon suspiciously.
Paul frowned at the salt cellar. "Can't remember," he said, and tossed it negligently over one shoulder (where it was adroitly fielded by Walter Duncan). "But the hat is a present for you from me, Donald, and the Austrian contingent of the typo gremlins."
Gordon cautiously opened the hatbox, which proved to contain a broad-brimmed hat made from brown felt.
"It's an Akobra," said Paul. "Made from snake fur."
Gordon, after a brief consideration, decided that a hat made from impossible materials was far from the weirdest thing he'd ever encountered, and tried the hat on. It fit perfectly.
"So what did you two grinning lunatics get us?" Yokoi inquired of Imran and Allie.
"Those." Allie said, indicating a small group of boxes shoved together near the edge of the pile.
Gordon and Yokoi looked at each other, and started tearing them open.
When the paper settled...
"A complete DJ setup!" Gordon breathed. "Mixing decks, turntables... waow..."
"And a Magic Science Play Kit!" Yokoi let out a delighted little whistle. "'Who said science and magic were irreconcilable? With this kit, you too can mix and match for a dazzling array of weird and impossible effects in your own home!' Aw, Al..."
Allie blushed and looked away. "We were thinking of something to get Jones, but, well..."
"Hey, it's okay, guys. Daft little bugger would have loved these he'd have curled up on the turntables..." Gordon said.
"Or walked right into an experiment," Yokoi added. "and walked out again with bright blue fur. He was like that."
"Thanks, guys." Gordon said.
"Hey. Once together, always together." Imran said. "We're the Odd Trio."
Gordon grinned. "And don't we know it. We kicked some serious Outer God arse okay, whatever the buggers have instead of arses we helped a goddess reconnect to the world, and we got 'Ryss's heart back into the bargain."
Imran returned the grin. "Which means... we're back, and it's time to get odd."
"I also would seem to be odd," the Trader noted, gesturing over his shoulder at the dance floor, "for as long as Sixth is monopolising Carrie, at least. But I plan to get even shortly... Gordon, old chap! Onnea syntymapaivasankarille, ffelis cympleanghos, h'Ghuk-spr@n hoi''k-t-uRanin, and of course that never-failing old favourite, happy birthday! Ahem." With a flourish, he handed Gordon and Yokoi a cylindrical present about the size and shape of a big modern electric kettle. "Behold le cadeau parfait!"
 Finnish. " " " Herewith please find the elided umlauts, for the use of anyone who missed them.
 When subsequently cornered, the Trader asserted that this was a birthday greeting in Patagonian Esbanghol, look you!
 Plooran, apparently. Let's not even go there.
The Sixth Doctor's dancing proved surprisingly skilled, marred only by an imperious tendency to over-lead. Carrie, whether because of her inexperience with physical form or for some quite different reason, appeared content enough with that. Sixth, though, did not stop at dancing for very long.
"Splendid, thank you," said Carrie, a little breathlessly. The Doctor awarded her the old eye-rolling look.
"You know perfectly well what I mean! Whatever were you and I and this poor Amanda child getting up to back then? And do you have any helpful thoughts about how to undo it?"
"Certainly," said the Doctor, with fervent conviction. "This isn't over yet, and you and our ex-Steward are in this right up to your eyeballs. What was my timeline, when you got here?"
"You landed unexpectedly at Ann Talbot's party," Carrie reported crisply. "They were expecting another 'Doctor', and the girl just happened to be Nyssa's double."
"Yes," he muttered, "I've always wondered about those particular contrivances, but they never led anywhere. Or did they?!"
"Softly... During all the masked balling, someone caught you alone and thumped you over the head. You woke up again with howling amnesia, and ended up bluffing yourself and everyone else into thinking you were a certain eccentric black-sheep aristocrat who'd gone missing in action in the Great War...."
"...and taken up this silly 'Campion' identity," Sixth returned plaintively. "An even more annoying affectation than Cricket Lad. But I didn't!"
"Oh, but you did. And Nyssa, Adric, and Tegan vanish from that timeline as completely as they did in your canonical history. Either you picked them up later, or... well, I don't like what the doppelganger implies, either. She could be an early diffract of a resorption, couldn't she?"
"You have no idea what you're talking about!"
"Gray's stories in your milieu," Carrie pointed out, "almost invariably involve ridiculously over-complicated temporal paradoxes. Who do you think gets stuck with working out the theory?"
"Ah. You're still missing the main point, of course, though I quite understand why. You might call it resorption; and you might call the President's Pogo-Stick Scandal slightly tasteless, too. This is very serious! You were saying?"
"Please, don't stop moving!"
"Thank you," said the Doctor complacently, resuming his briefly-neglected steps.
"Not at all. You were standing on my foot anyway. Being who you are, you spent the whole inter-war period falling over dead bodies and ridiculously elaborate plots, and seeing justice more or less done against all odds.
"In a particularly silly and dangerous episode," Carrie continued lightly, "you met Amanda, who was then seventeen, and as far as I can tell is the only sensible person you have ever voluntarily associated with in your lives. You seem to have fallen hard, fast, and mutually; being the compleat gentleman, you of course told her to look you up when she'd finished her education." She clicked her tongue. "For purposes of running around with you getting shot at and plotted against, you understand, as your sidekick and faithful lieutenant: not, Mnemosyne help us, for anything that might seem like taking advantage of her!" The Doctor appeared to be dancing with a lemon in his mouth. "And if that peculiar nicety doesn't feel familiar, you haven't been paying attention."
The Doctor sniffed haughtily. "Continue!"
"But we think we've talked Camilla round into taking matters into her own hands. With Eddore permanently out of commission, Amanda passed fundamentally unchanged through Swiss 'finishing school' to dive straight back into electrical engineering, and "
"Excuse me? You do know that none of that made the slightest sense?"
Carrie's mouth twitched. "The happy couple were just passing behind you. Anyway, she did snag you rather quickly. You then stretched out the engagement to breaking point, got yourself concussed silly again, and got both your Campion memory and your inamorata back in some way which has to do with that 'Begone, she stormed!' tag I jogged your memory with. Apparently it's some joke between the two of you that's too private to explain." She cocked her head curiously. "No bells?"
"A great loud cloister one, if any." The Doctor was looking increasingly disturbed. "And then?"
"Then a dirty great Spamplot comes along..." The cyber-Muse's brilliant eyes flickered with could it have been embarrassment? After all those years of associating with the Grey Steward, yet? Oh, come off it!
"Oh dear," said Carrie quickly. "This dance will be over any minute now: I'd better telescope things. Something deadly was about to happen, and we... you didn't have time to stop it once you'd... worked it out. But your memory seems to have carried on coming back after the second concussion. There's... circumstantial proof that you found your TARDIS, and started to remember how to use it, in what state of mind I can't guess." She swallowed. "You had what turns out to have been Nyarlathotep's jacket on you for a lot of the last part. I'm sure, in hindsight, that you were being set up to run into yourself, while wearing a talisman of the Crawling Chaos. That would really have been the end of everything, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," said the Doctor faintly. "Is that your foot?"
"Yes. Only you didn't end up colliding with yourself, in the jacket or out of it. But somehow the Spamverse seems to have been created or accessed by whatever happened instead, and I can't help suspecting it has something to do with the huge cargo of tainted luncheon-meat you backtimed to hijack. I tried to recall the details to Fifth's mind via Gray, and we know what happened after that..."
"Carrie," said the Doctor testily, "you're not nearly old enough in the body to hide anything from me, you know. What was your part in all this, really?"
"Funny foreign lady in a black farce," she evaded. "I never caught up with you after you'd thwarted the Spamplot, and nor it seems did anyone else. You seem to have reverted totally, and taken off in the TARDIS. I suppose the phase change must have been complete, and you must have inserted yourself back into the party without really knowing why you'd been gone. Paradox over, Nyssa's resorption arrested, and timeline preserved by your own timely closure. Don't you think?"
The music wound down to an agreeable conclusion. Sixth looked into Carrie's shining eyes, saw the smile lurking on her lips as she prepared to claim a dance with her Author. And he read, in her elided account and the general cock-up-proneness of the erstwhile Dialectical Duo, just how deeply her own carryings-on must have been implicated in the Genesis of the Spam.
If he was right... which of course, as stood to reason, he was...
"Yes," he lied, smiling over-broadly for her sake and the Trader's. It wouldn't do to have them blame themselves for the larger plot not here, not tonight. It would wrack them to know what they'd been a part of; and none but Time Lords could have perceived and side-stepped that horribly elegant temporal trap. Let them go home and do whatever Authors and Muses did together, in whatever time they had. In whatever time, unless the Doctor put the fix in quickly and firmly, anyone had!
He had to stop Nyarlathotep playing his horrible posthumous joker. And, healthily rhinocerine as his hide was in most matters, he really didn't look forward to what he was about to have to do. Especially to Amanda! Why, he could almost see how, taken in a certain way, and allowing for the wetness and derangement of his former incarnation, the latter might easily have...
The Doctor coughed heavily and truculently as he and Carrie made their way back to the edge of the dance-floor. Habituated by long custom, no-one took a blind bit of notice.
Yokoi blinked. "The perfect present?"
"Far be it from me to brag," asserted the Trader, "but one does one's best, and I think you'll find the label apt in its way..."
Gordon assessed the combined size, shape, and running-jokey language of this gift with what could almost have been mistaken for a certain suspicion. "Er, before I open this, it wouldn't by any chance be green and red and prone to going round and round, would it?"
"Huh?" said Yokoi blankly. "What's green and red and goes round and round?"
"A frog in a Cuisinarpthhhhhhh," began Imran reflexively, by unlucky chance at the very moment at which Allie noticed the invisible expenses-fiddling earwig on his upper lip and was obliged to brush it sharply off ere much and grievous harm ensued. So we'll never know what he meant, now!
"It is in no way one of those," the Trader assured him, his thusly-revealed divinatory powers wowing one and all beyond words. Precognition or mere telepathic virtuosity who would dare venture a guess? "Although funny you should mention that, it does have one or two aspects in common with that very item..."
"Boggle boggle," went everyone.
"Oh, this I've got to see!" added Gordon, and set to it, from which one may probably deduce that he envisaged rather minor likenesses between le cadeau parfait and a frog in a Cuisinarpthhhhhhh. Whatever one of those might be.
Le cadeau parfait proved to be a seamless white... object... with a heavy base and an apical plunger. It had a yellow smiley face on the side.
"Freshly fallen off the back of a ^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^ acquired from no less good a source than a General Systems Vehicle of the People "
"I thought you were off the Marxism these days?" hinted Imran urgently, feeling the time singularly inapt for one of the former Steward's legendary and hopefully long-lost Instant Insomnia Cures.
"My devotion to Groucho and the public weal has merely taken a new shape," the Trader explained, "but in this case I speak not of the heroic proletariat in its infinite exploitability, rather of that mighty Whovian culture whose puissance compares favourably with Gallifrey itself, and whose social enlightenment and happy hedonic capacity exceeds that ossified quasi-theocracy's by positive parsecs of "
FWAP! went everybody, in the best possible party spirit.
"Duh... ermm... anyway, that 'People'. And this is one of their fabulous food replicators, which with proper programming can produce any meal the lucky owner specifies, to supra-gourmet standards which make 'cordon bleu' sound like 'winner of the most mediocre cafeteria food in the whole world award, three years running'!" The Trader coughed. "Although a slight idiosyncrasy in this particular model restricts its range somewhat, I think you'll both have a lot of fun with it."
"Idiosyncrasy?" Yokoi wondered.
"Er, the programming nanites seem to have got stuck in the active sites, so it only has one setting besides factory default." He indicated the smiley face. "This toggles between the default program and the, ah, programmed one. Press down the plunger, and grub's up..."
"Oh, cool!" said Gordon, doing so. "A bowl of suspicious yellow dip! Er, anyone want some?"
No answer, came the loud reply all round.
"That was the default," the Trader stated. "The device is white-hole powered, so you need never fear running out of, how shall one say, yellow dip of a mysterious nature, however big the party you may be throwing. This, however, is the good bit..." He tapped the smiley face, and pointed grandly at the plunger. Yokoi did the honours on this occasion.
A bowl of cold, runny white-and-brown stuff phased into existence before them.
A big bowl.
Of cold, runny white-and-brown stuff.
With a rather attractive smell.
Enhanced by a subtle, alright a not-so-very-subtle-as-all-that, tincture of... could it be... that locally-endemic chemical additive known to science as C2H5OH?
"The good news being," grinned Trader Grey, "that what it got stuck on turns out to be kahlua parfait..."
It was, of course, necessary for everyone to test the much-bragged-up quality of said ice-cream-and-liqueur treat a worthy experiment, for which the Seventh Doctor was easily prevailed upon to lend various spoons he happened to have handy, and even to lend his active participation. Although a literature search has not revealed the precise conclusions arrived at, it may be noted that the experiment was repeated time and again, until the initial sample had entirely disappeared. So they obviously deemed the results fairly significant. Gordon's face during this process showed signs of morphogenetic resonance with the smiley on the side, though Bogart-Fetherstonehaugh contends that the experiment was complete bollocks, and why doesn't he get grants to do stuff like that, and he doesn't like kahlua parfait anyway, so nyergh!
Somewhere in the ensuing melee, Allie managed to pull Gray aside for a bit.
"I've been thinking about that zaqqum fruit," she told him. "And the transformations it produced."
"Ah." The Trader looked wise. "That."
"I do know what zaqqum is supposed to be, you know..."
"...And making anything nicer has never been part of its description."
"It hasn't, has it?" Behind the Trader's back, Imran gave Allie a discreet thumbs-up, which was nice of him. Particularly since the spectre of a lost bet was now hanging over his head like some humorous whitewash bucket of Damocles.
"It wasn't really zaqqum at all, was it??"
The Trader sighed. "You can't fool a Protean when it comes to shapechanging. Er, perhaps not exactly."
Imran, according to the ancient rite of forfeit, was now committed to a certain course of action at some time of Allie's choosing. What was it, you ask? Alas, it would appear that you can go right on asking!
"Not exactly. She isn't exactly 'Zaqqum' herself, you know." The Trader grimaced with remote sympathy. "It's more a self-accusation than a description. Although you'll notice its effects on Nyarlathotep were moderately classical!"
Allie caught her breath, as she began to see. "Whereas on the demon that turned into Ayna's parrot "
"KRA-AHHHK! Flap, flap, flap! Zoe put the catsuit on!"
"Oh, Gawd." Imran and Gray gave vent to an involuntary chorus.
"It's Polly put the "
"Polyp up the metal one???"
"And Gawddess, while we are at it."
" they were very different," Allie finished doggedly, with really admirable restraint. "So it must depend "
" what you bring to the table yourself, yes. She remembers being accused of being Idunn of the Apples of Youth too, you know. I don't really think she's changed all that much." Trader Grey coughed. "But I suspect one does have to taste all of the ashes before coming out the other side. For her, of all people, that involves... places Carrie and I can't follow her. Maybe none of us here but the Light-and-Dark Live Bed Show over there could have; and I doubt even Emby would want to go so far out, or so long. Like a jackass, I noticed the problem a bit too late for myself or damned nearly. But she will come to know that her fruit is something deeper than just plain old zaqqum and when it begins tasting like phoenix fruit to her too, she will learn how to be Celia all the way." His smile was a little knotted. "I just wish I could have seen it; made it; helped her..." The music stopped. "I must get back to Carrie now," he finished, turning quickly towards the dance floor.
"Phoenix fruit," Allie breathed. "Out of the ashes, something brighter..."
"Also," said Carrie cheerfully, gliding over to take her Author's arm as the first notes of a bandoneon introduced Delroy Kivi's justly-renowned Refangled Tango, "botanically known as a date... Do excuse us, everyone!" And it was onto the dance-floor with them, where they immediately proceeded to tango not wisely but too... oh, all right, not too well either. But what the blazes, they certainly seemed to be enjoying it!
"Well?" Seventh inquired.
Sixth wrinkled his nose loftily. "Not as well as all that, actually. I think she's still getting used to physical form: she can't quite match the lightness and grace I've spent all these centuries acquiring, though I suppose she can hardly be blamed for that..."
"The Spampllllot!" prompted Seventh, trying desperately to roll some menacing rrs and being forced instead to take his liquids where he could find them. (And which of us is not all too familiar with that particular predicament, h'mmmm?) "What was it all about?"
"It was about to make me start banging my head against the wall," Sixth returned irritably. He brightened rather suddenly. "Kahlua parfait, Gordon? My goodness, that's quite a lot, isn't it? Well, if you're sure... No, I don't mind if I do! SLURP!"
 And who the hell is he, when he's at home?