A Man At Intervals
by Erin Noteboom
(originally published in Myth Makers 6 -- for more information on how to obtain these and other stories, click to the Myth Makers website.
(Original Biography, written September 1995): Erin Noteboom is a published poet, author and particle physicist and, yes, she does write a lot of poetry that is inspired by physics; thus living proof that physics can become philosophy. This native of Omaha, Nebraska, is currently studying physics at the University of Minnesota. She has been a fan of Doctor Who for 11 years, but this is her first foray into fan fiction; it is with great delight that I welcome her aboard. (Since September 1995): Erin is currently living in Kitchener, ON.
Dungeons! Why does it always have to be dungeons?" It was the sort of line the Doctor liked to enter on. That, as much as anything, accounted for the fact that Ace paused, as if waiting for a response. "For a Time Lord, Professor," she muttered, "you have really bad timing."
She could picture the crushed look. It was true, though. She didn't know what else you would call collapsing in front a startled local. Who had turned out to be armed. And empowered to lock people up.
It wasn't properly a dungeon, actually. From the glimpses she'd had on the way in, she guessed it was a stable. Her cell was perhaps an extra stall, or an empty storage area. It was clean, the floor strewn deeply with straw, and well ventilated. But the walls were solid and the door was barred on the outside, so it might as well be a dungeon. And though the young man who had captured her had brought her a blanket and a bowl of stew, he might as well be a torturer. The Doctor was ill and the man was keeping her from him. She shivered in her wet clothes, wrapped herself tighter in the scratchy wool blanket. "Don't worry, Doctor," she said. "I'm coming."
"Was nature kind? The heart's core tractable?
All waters waver, and all fires fail.
Leaves, leaves, lean forth and tell me what I am;
This single tree that turns to purest flame.
I am a man, a man at intervals.
Pacing a room, a room with dead white walls;
I feel the autumn fail - all that slow fire
denied in me, who has denied desire."
- from "The Sequel" by Theodore Roethke
part of "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical."
The universe jumped an inch to one side and snapped back. Ace started as if awakening from a dream of falling. She wrenched the valve on the chem bench's gas line shut and headed for the console room at a run.
She was about half way there when it happened again. She ran smack into a wall which, an instant before, she had been running beside. It was as if the TARDIS had rotated 90` between one step and the next. She hazarded a guess that something very improbable had happened - very probably something bad. She scrambled to her feet. The corridor in front of her swept away, an impossible perspective broadening it as it receded. Oh, yeah. Real bad.
The corridor sprang back to Euclidian, ringing like a plucked string. She pelted the rest of the way to the console room. "What's going on!" she shouted, bursting into the room. She fell against the interior door as the TARDIS went momentarily sideways.
"Not now, Ace!" The Doctor was hanging onto the console with one hand, working frantically at the controls with the other. He snatched the hand back as something turned the panel inside out. An instant later, the whole console knotted itself like a topology lesson. He lurched back from it, fetching up against the wall next to Ace.
"I don't know, Ace." He poked at the inconceivable thing the console had become with his umbrella. It unfolded itself, backward, so that the door control faced the interior door. The Doctor dashed around and cautiously took the scanner controls, ready to jump back at any moment. He retrieved information from them and dispensed it in the breathless fashion he reserved for bad news. "Moving sideways in time - Caught in causal turbulence - An eddy in the river of time - Natural? - Attuned to the ship? - But it shouldn't be able to penetrate the outer shell." The TARDIS spun. Ace couldn't say how she knew, but the ship was whirling like a dervish. The Doctor reeled. Ace grabbed him.
She held the Doctor's shoulder. The console was a tiny speck, the walls invisible with distance. Her feet were too far away to make out clearly.
"Hyperbolic perspective," said the Doctor. And abruptly, all was normal. "Ace? You haven't been into any little bottles marked `drink me', have you?"
Her laugh was sharpened by the electric sense that this was the calm before the storm. And then the TARDIS turned inside out.
In a whirl of voices that were colours, Ace remembered a time storm - flying through the walls of her bedroom, a glimpse of the Milky Way sweeping beneath her, the x-ray radiance of the black hole at the core, crashing her knees in on the cold metal floor of a space ship.
The Doctor was on his knees beside her, gasping. She was standing in the TARDIS. It was dim and silent. The central column was still.
They had landed.
"Doctor? Doctor! Hey, anybody home?" She crouched beside him in the near darkness. He was still on his knees, panting for breath, his eyes focused on something she was glad not to be able to see. His hands in hers were icy. "Doctor, we've landed. What's wrong?" He slumped forward into her. She held him upright, wondering what the hell she was going to do with a sick alien in a shipwrecked timeship. Then he rocked back on his heels and stood, looking shaken but lucid. "Are you okay? What happened?"
"More impossible than usual?"
"By orders of magnitude." The Doctor had found a flashlight somewhere and was inspecting the console. It had been folded like origami, transformed. Switches were scrambled, monitor screens gave the undefinable but disturbing impression of having been turned inside out. Lines of mad colour flowed out from the console, over the floor and up the drooping walls, between the melted roundels. The colours reminded Ace of heat on metal, oil on water. And, distantly, of the time winds beginning to swirl in from her bedroom walls.
The Doctor lay his hands gently against a damaged panel. "Poor old thing," he murmured. The lights came up a little, and he pocketed the flashlight. He flipped some of the more recognizable switches. The TARDIS gave a small, shuddering groan. The Doctor patted the console comfortingly. "Steady on, girl." He was coaxing a trickle of information onto the warped screen of a monitor.
"Major damage in almost every system. No navigation, no drive... The external scanner is..." a few lines of text flared on to the screen, then vanished "...correction, was minimally functional. Breathable atmosphere, no gravitational hazard." The screen displayed a few random pixels, then died. The TARDIS groaned again. "It's all right, old girl. You just rest and get better now."
"What's the prognosis, Professor?"
"Self-repair has started. It will take a while, maybe a week or so, but the TARDIS will soon be right as rain. Won't you, old thing?"
Ace could swear the lights flickered in response.
The Doctor turned from the console and picked his fedora up off the floor. "Ace," he said cheerfully, "I have no idea where we are. There could be anything on the other side of that door, and we are stuck until the TARDIS can repair itself." He dusted the hat down and flipped it onto his head. "Shall we very sensibly hole up and wait?"
"Nah," smiled Ace. She retrieved her jacket from the hat rack. "Bet it's Earth."
"Ace," the Doctor reproved her. He was leaning on his umbrella like a cane. The pose made him look like Charlie Chaplin, and it was hard for her to take the stern look seriously. "There are half a billion of stars in the galaxy. Thousands of galaxies in the Local Group alone. Not to mention that I don't know what universe we're in." He pushed his fedora into a rakish angle and grinned. "Of course it's Earth."
? ? ?
The main door was open just a crack - all they had been able to manage without power. Ace slipped out and stood beside the Doctor. He was bracing himself against the TARDIS with one hand, breathing deeply, as if he could tell the name of the planet from the smell in the air. Ace sniffed. Autumn: woodsmoke and rain. It was night, very dark, overcast and no lights in sight. The wind blew flurries of cold rain a few fallen leaves against the TARDIS door. She picked up a leaf, holding it close to see the detail. Oak. "See," she said, waving it under the Doctor's nose, "Earth." She hunched into her jacket as it began to rain in earnest. "I'll bet it's even England."
She stole the flashlight from the Doctor's jacket pocket. The beam danced wildly over the ground. The TARDIS was standing at the edge of a meadow. Behind them loomed a wood. The wind and rain in the half-bare trees was loud rattling, whispering sound. In front of them stretched a meadow of tall grass and furze, flashes of colour in the beam of light that might be late-blooming flowers. Ace let the flashlight track slowly away from them. There was a small river, a low rough wall of stones. And...
A castle. "Ace," she breathed. There was a crack of lightning, and the drizzle became a downpour. She pulled her jacket up awkwardly to cover her head.
The Doctor pulled himself away from the TARDIS and walked up to her, still using the umbrella like a cane, quite unconcerned about the rain. "That looks sufficiently foreboding, don't you think? Shall we go ask to borrow a glass of water?"
? ? ?
Actually, it wasn't much of a castle. As they walked across the meadow, she caught lightning glimpses of a low, blocky building of grey stone that probably had looked ancient the day it was put up. There were a few equally blocky outbuildings, and a single outlying round tower, dominating the scene. It was dark, and might be completely deserted, except for the faint smell of a stable somewhere, and a single flickering light in the lone high window of the tower. Still, it looked a bit... well, haunted. Some treacherous part of Ace was beginning to wonder about the merits waiting in the TARDIS for the duration.
The flashlight was doing little but lighting curtains of rain. She focused it on their feet. The furze seemed to grab at their ankles and clothing, making walking treacherous. They made slow progress, the Doctor picking his way carefully, leaning heavily on his umbrella.
It wasn't until he stumbled on the clear patch of ground on the verge of a track beside the river that Ace realized he was actually leaning on the umbrella, not making some joke by not using it just when it would come in handy. "Hey," she said, keeping her voice down out of an instinct she couldn't name. "You okay?"
"Direct exposure to the vortex has made me a bit giddy," he said, carefully watching his step. "And there's something peculiar about this place. Playing havoc with my time sense." They had crossed the track to the head of a low stone bridge. Ace grabbed the Doctor's elbow. He halted and leaned up against the bridge post, panting.
She turned the flashlight on his face. He squinted irritably, but could not cover his pallor, the strain around his mouth. "That was a straight answer; you must really be sick."
"Was it? Really? Well, I'll be all right presently."
"You don't look all right. Listen, what do you say we hole up sensibly for a bit?"
"I say," he began, and glanced up the track that wound along the river and disappeared into the woods, "that it's a bit late for that."
Ace followed his gaze. There was a man riding up the road. He was cloaked and hooded, and both he and the horse bent into the wind. He raised his head from beside the horse's neck, and she saw the pale flash of his face. He nudged his horse into a trot.
Ace looked back to the Doctor. He pulled himself away from the bridge post, adjusted his jacket and doffed his hat. He practised his most polite we-are-but-travellers smile at her. Then he collapsed.
The flashlight clattered on the stone bridge as Ace lunged to catch him and missed. It shone back at them, casting bizarre shadows against the rain behind them. She dropped to her knees beside the crumpled body, gently rolling him onto his back in the shadow of the small bridge. The rain dripped from her hair and fell into his face. His eyes were open and empty. "Doctor!" she cried, shaking his shoulder. "Doctor! Can you hear me?" He didn't stir.
Ace pushed her wet hair away from her face. Her mind supplied her with the sequence of first aid as if reading from a text book. Check for response. Right, next. Check breathing and heart. Her hands shook as she reached to take the pulse from the carotid. It was impossible that it wouldn't be there. There was nothing in the first aid book about your best friend not having a pulse.
There was nothing in the book about the alien movement of a double heartbeat beneath your fingers either. Erratic, but there. Ace came out of the text book world with a jolt. There was a man standing over them, with a sword.
"Rise," he said, "and move back from him. Slowly."
Ace froze at the Doctor's side. Suddenly, he shuddered beneath her hands. "Doctor!" Ace cried.
"Get away from him!" The man snagged her collar and pulled her to her feet. He pushed her up against the rail of the bridge. He was a few inches shorter than she was, and not much older. "Tom!" he bellowed.
Ace's eyes veered between the point of the sword he kept trained on her heart, and the Doctor, who lay shivering on the wet stone. A boy, ten or twelve, came dashing up to them with the breathless excitement that only children can manage in the middle of the night. Well, children and the Doctor. But the child pulled up short and shied away from the them - no, she realized, from the flashlight. The Doctor lay in the beam, his hair casting swirls of shadow over his face. A gust of wind blew his hat up to her feet. Automatically, she picked it up.
"Stay!" said the man with the sword. "Make no move."
"What is it?" the child asked, awe struck.
"Touch it not! The woman has set some spell on him with it."
"No!" said Ace. "No, it's not true, I didn't-" She stepped forward, but the man gestured her back with the sword. She twisted the Doctor's hat in her hands. "Look, he's my friend. He's sick. You've got to let me help him!"
The young man bit his lip uncertainly. He had a scruffy, pleasant, puppy-ish face. "I saw you shine the light into his face. I saw him fall." The flashlight, sitting in a puddle between two paving stones, abruptly sputtered and went out with a spark and a pop. The boy shouted with alarm and jumped back. The man startled like a hare, but caught himself.
The Doctor stirred and made a sound which could have been her name. Ace cried out and leapt forward.
The young man dropped his sword and caught her in a boardinghouse reach. "Stay! " he said sharply. Despite his size, he was stronger than she was. Her fingers bit into his arm, but she couldn't push past him. The fact of a long knife with a strange square blade in his left hand made her think twice about trying. "If you truly are his friend," he said, almost in her ear, "be assured that we will look after him. Are looking after him now, indeed - for I will not allow one person to attack another, though both be strangers, three steps from sanctuary."
He pushed her back towards the far end of the bridge. "Tom, stay with the man. I will see to the woman." He fumbled for the catch of his broach with one hand, unwilling to drop the knife, and then shrugged out of his sleeveless cloak. "Here," he said, handing the garment to the child. "Keep the rain off him, or he will take a chill and all this will be for no end. And get Rose's blanket for yourself, too."
"What would you have me to do?" asked the boy.
"A body cannot lie unattended in the road," said the man, ruffling the boy's fair hair. "It is not proper. And besides, Rose might stray. Don't worry. I'll come back quickly. Now, my lady, let us find you a place to stay until wiser men awaken." His tone was light, but his eyes were deadly serious.
Ace stared past him at the Doctor's body. "If he," she said, shivering, "if he dies, you will - I should be there. I should be there for him."
The young man looked at her solemnly. "If you are his enemy you might yet harm him. But if you are his friend, my lady, there is nothing you can do. Come with me."
Ace was awakened by the sound of voices outside her cell, and the small commotion of the door being unbarred. She shook her head muzzily - she hadn't meant to fall asleep - and scrambled up, determined to be on her feet when they came in. She scraped some of the straw from her hair.
The man in the doorway was tall, imposing in a huge dark cloak. The back lighting from the hall and the dancing shadows cast by the flaming torch he carried made it hard to see more than that. She had an impression of pale, almost eldricht face, all planes and angles in the odd light. He looked at her and stiffened with surprise. With his free hand he gathered his long black hair at the base of his neck, then absently let it fall free, still staring at her.
Finally he turned and said to the young man who had captured her, "Bring this lady to my chamber."
"My lord," the man began cautiously, "she is a witch, perhaps dangerous."
"You call her a witch and me a wizard," he returned mildly. "We are matched, I think. Bring her, and mind that you treat her well."
? ? ?
I can walk by myself," she snapped, yanking her arm from the young man's grip.
"That's what concerns me," he replied, but he let go of her arm and contented himself with walking beside her. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword.
Ace blinked in the grey dawn light. To her surprise, they were walking away from the castle or fortress or whatever it was, back toward the river. The tall wet grass soaked her still-damp jeans. "Where are you taking me? What did you do with the Doctor?"
"Your friend? He sleeps, and cannot be roused, though there is no wound on him, nor lump on his head. A spell, belike. Or only great need for sleep." He rubbed at his eyes with his left hand, and Ace noted how tired he looked. He most likely hadn't slept much more than she had. He was still wearing the dark padded jerkin he'd had on the previous night, and his red hair was snarled. "To your other question: I am taking you yonder." He pointed towards the round tower.
"Oh," she said, "great. I'm coming up in the world."
The young man snorted.
? ? ?
The room the young man brought her to was, to Ace's surprise, unoccupied. Also to her surprise, he merely shut the door behind her and left. Ace shrugged. There was a window opposite the door, and she stuck her head out, hoping for an alternative exit. The room was, predictably, at the top of the tower, taking up the whole floor. The roof might be in reach of a good jump, but the window didn't have a ledge. She turned back to the room.
The room was furnished haphazardly, the furniture looking awkward against the curved walls. A pallet which looked more like a cot than a bed sported a bright, motley collection blankets. There was a large wicker chair near the window. A large table and its single stool were both a clutter of loose papers, scrolls, and books lying open. A board with bread, cheese, and a couple of apples was almost buried. An ill-used but good sized knife had been pressed into service as a paper weight, nailing a pile of papers to the wooden table. Clucking her tongue at the carelessness, Ace yanked it free, disturbing a large red and grey tabby, who, along with a couple of fuzzy kittens, had made a home in one corner of the clutter. The knife was badly rusted, dirty, and not sharp, but heavy and well-balanced. <I>Give 'em tetanus, at least</I>, she thought, and turned to examine the room.
About half the circle was lined, floor to ceiling, with shelves, which were overflowing with books, loose paper, plants, oddments that might be scientific equipment, and more than one stray, half-full teacup. A small fire burned cheerfully in a grate. On the whole, the place looked more like an attic room than a wizard's chamber. Only a multicolored sphere of glass hanging in the window and a corner masked off by a tapestry of vaguely astrological design made her think twice about that assessment. She nudged the tapestry aside with her knife, checking for Polonius, or better still, a door.
There was a large armoire (locked), and a battered hat-stand. Nothing that looked worth masking off.
The kettle on the fire began to ping and whistle. Ace tensed, feeling cold anticipation creep up her spine. Someone had put the kettle on to boil, recently. And probably intended to be back. Soon. Ace ducked back behind the tapestry and pressed herself against the wall, as near to the door as she could.
It wasn't long before the door opened, sagging on its leather hinges and grinding noisily across the rough stone floor. The man she had meet in the dungeon entered, dropped his cloak onto the bed and crossed to the fire to retrieve the singing kettle. Without the voluminous cloak, and in the plain light of sunshine, he looked much less imposing. Tall, but slight - gangly, almost. He was dressed in a rumpled white tunic hung almost around his knees, dark leggings, and battered boots. His long black hair had been hastily braided, and was already escaping and falling in his face. His too-round, mild eyes made him look startled. In fact, he didn't look dangerous at all - more like a medieval scarecrow. He turned his back to her to put the kettle on the table.
She jumped him, pressing the knife against the back of his neck.
"Ace," he said, warmly. "It is good to see you."
She loosed the choke-holk and walked around to face him, dragging the knife until its point rested against his Adam's apple. Her hands were shaking from the effort of threatening another human being, but she hoped it didn't show. His eyes, she noticed, had shaded from grey to lavender, and they seemed to shine. She decided that he looked dangerous after all. "How do you know my name?"
"Long story." He seemed more abashed at the obvious evasion than by the being held at knife point.
"So start talking."
He raised his eyebrows at her. "I generally find that conversations are more productive when they don't involve cutlery, don't you?"
"Who are you?"
He froze, his eyes flaring violet. Then he smiled, a lopsided grin. "Merlin," he said, sketching a bow that was abbreviated by the knife at his throat.
"Merlin," she repeated sarcastically. Then her eyes widened.
<I>Are you Merlin? she remembered herself asking the Doctor.</I>
<I>No. The remembered Doctor smiled his hide-and-go-seek smile. But I could be. In the future. That is, my personal future.</I>
"I don't believe it," she said.
He shrugged, careless of the knife that was still at his Adam's apple. "Perhaps you'd like to take my pulse before you cut my throat?" He held out a bony wrist.
She ignored it, and reached with her left hand to take the pulse from the arteries in the neck. There it was, the peculiar syncopated rhythm - such a small difference. He smile he gave her was pulled askew with apology. He cocked his head like a bird as she yanked the knife back, just in time to keep him from gouging out his larynx. He didn't notice.
"I don't believe it," she lied.
? ? ?
The Doctor, as Ace was trying to think of him, was making tea and chattering amiably about herbalism. Slumped as far as possible into the wicker chair in the corner, Ace was trying to have a well-that's-cool-then reaction to the situation, and failing badly. She found the whole thing strange and troubling. "Real tea might grow in this climate, contrary to popular belief," he was saying "but introducing it to Britain could potentially complicate history a bit, so I do without. I grow some myself, in the TARDIS, but it doesn't do well. I think I may have the light wrong. The sun-simulator in the botanical gardens refuses to be budged from Gallifreyan norms. So this is a local concoction. Peppermint, chamomile, rose hips, that sort of thing. Gets mixed reviews, but it's a good mild valerian in humans, calm you down, set you to rights. How are you doing by the way?"
"Uhh," responded Ace, "fine. Shouldn't we go find the Doctor? I mean - my Doctor?"
"But - he could be in trouble."
"On the contrary, he almost certainly is in trouble. But I can hear your heart pounding from here. We are not going anywhere until you've had a nice quiet cup of tea." Ace glared at him, but could not quite muster the outrage she felt she ought to feel. Which was, on reflection, probably a good sign that he was right. The magician presented her with a suspiciously red tea, in a cup that, though a bit battered, seemed at least to be clean. He poured himself a cup, pressed the stool (the only other seat) into service as a tea tray, and folded himself into a half lotus on the bed facing her. "Now, what's wrong, Ace? Why so edgy?"
She shrugged, tensely. "This whole situation is wrong. It's just... impossible."
"Very," the magician concurred.
"And the Doctor's hurt, and I haven't-"
"Hurt!" he cut her off, rising abruptly. "Hurt?" he repeated. "My ears and whiskers! Gawyn might have said so! Come, we should find him immediately."
He stood, pulling the long blue cloak around his shoulders. It was made of small diamond-shaped scrapes of heavy cloth in various shades of dark blue. It had been a rich thing, once, but it worse for wear, ripped and patched with thread in all the colours of the rainbow.
"Your dress sense hasn't improved."
"No?" He sounded hurt. "You don't like it?"
"All you need is a pipe to play and you'd attract rats by the dozen."
The new Doctor and held out one hand, palm downward. He turned it over slowly, with a peculiar flourish, and Ace saw that there was a black recorder there. He played a few notes - the first bars of "If I Only Had a Brain," - then waved his other hand over little instrument. It vanished.
He smiled at her for a reaction, and got none but an open-mouthed gape.
He looked down at his costume morosely. "Well," he said, "At least it's period." He bowed her down the stairs, and fell into step beside her, humming.
They left the tower and walked towards the fortress. The magician moved with an odd mixture of clumsiness and grace, the sort of fluidity that suggested he hadn't quite figured out how his joints worked. Even his conjuring had a goodness-how-did-that-get-there look to it. Ace caught herself humming a little along with him, and stopped.
Inside the main door of the large building, hallways radiated out in all directions. "How are we going to find-" Ace asked. Names, she thought, were going to be a problem. The magician tapped his nose and held up a finger. <I>You'll see in a moment</I>.
He stopped at the corner and closed his eyes, concentrating visibly. He took three steps forward, blindly, then turned abruptly right and opened his eyes. "This way," he announced. Ace found herself hoping that he never repeated that little performance from the top of a stair.
"How do you do that?"
"Divination," he said brightly. "It's easier if you remember a forked stick." Ace glanced at him, unsure if he was serious. He gave her a little lop-sided grin. "Joke. A limited tele-emphatic sense - sort of a psychic game of hot-and-cold. And I'm cheating: I'm fairly sure he's in a cell somewhere."
"Do you remember, from when you were him?"
The glance he threw her was troubled. "No." He smiled again. "But he's the Doctor - where else would he be?" He came to another corner and again his eyes turned inward for a moment before he chose them a direction. "How is he hurt?" he asked.
"I don't know. He just keeled over. He said that being in the vortex had made him sick, and that there was something weird about this place. Do you think he's all right? I mean, he must be all right, because you're all right. Right?"
The magician frowned. "He's alive. I can feel it from here." Again, he stopped at a corner. He chose a passage, then rubbed his temples.
"But I mean, if you're him, later, then you must know-"
Another corner. "Getting warmer," he said. They were walking past the open doors of small cells, each with a narrow bed and very little else. They hadn't seen a soul. "How old are you, Ace?"
Ace frowned. "Eighteen. Why?"
He smiled disarmingly. "Just a point of reference." He had an easy face to read, though, and there was something else in that smile. She couldn't identify the expression, but she shivered. "Where is everyone?"
"Matins, I would think."
"Morning mass. It's an abbey, after all."
He chose another corridor. "What did you think it was?"
"I dunno - Camelot, I suppose."
"I'm afraid you're too late for that. Camelot is gone - burned to the ground. Everything else is propaganda."
He closed his eyes to chose yet another path, but he had taken only a few steps when he abruptly stopped and sagged into the wall.
"Hey!" Ace exclaimed. "What's wrong? Are you all right?"
"Umph," he replied, giving his head a little don't-worry-about-me shake and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Yes, more or less. But we're very close now, and I'm really not designed for this sort of thing. Care to take it from here?"
"Sure you're okay?" she asked.
"Approximately." He pulled himself away from the wall. "Some local strain on the metric. We Time Lords are vulnerable to that sort of thing." He made little shooing motions as she threatened to fuss. "Go on. You lead, I'll follow. We should find the Doctor - he will be much more badly off."
Ace looked at him, thought about `much more badly off,' and dashed up the corridor, sticking her head into every open door way. It didn't take her long to find the right one.
"Doctor!" Ace cried, dashing into the little cell. He was lying on his back, his eyes shut, tense and trembling just visibly.
"Ace," he sighed, turning his head toward her voice and struggling to sit up. "What-" His eyes were still closed.
"Gently, gently," the magician admonished. He reached out a hand to help Ace support the little man, but stopped just short of touching him. "You've had a rough time."
"Have I?" the Doctor asked, opening his eyes and blinking like an owl in sunlight. "Where am I?"
"Cell," said Ace succinctly. "Professor, what happened to you?"
The Doctor's eyes had finally focused, and he stared at the man in front of him. "I don't know," he answered, his gaze never wavering. "But I think I can begin to guess."
"You shouldn't be here," the magician said.
"You're a Time Lord," said the Doctor. "Who-" His hand snaked out to grab the magician's arm. The magician started almost comically at the touch, and the Doctor dropped his arm with something akin to awe.
"You're right," he said, after a space, "I shouldn't be here. But while I know that, and you know that-"
"-everyone else who knows that isn't here at the moment, and since nothing went 'boom' just now, you think it's probably all right. It's not. You should leave immediately."
The Doctor leaned heavily on Ace and climbed to his feet. His knees buckled and they both dived to catch him as he collapsed. The touch of his other self seemed to steady the Doctor. They reseated him on the little pallet. "You might have a point there," he said breathlessly. "But a little explanation would be appreciated."
"Not now," said the other gruffly.
Ace smiled at the familiar tone. "You haven't changed, Professor."
The magician started. "Call me Merlin."
"Why?" asked the Doctor, softly.
"It keeps the narrative line uncluttered."
The Doctor's eyes narrowed. "What happened?"
The magician shook his head almost angrily. "You do not belong to this reality," he didn't answer. "The strain on the local fabric of causality could be dangerous. Certainly it's part of what's making you ill. You must leave."
The Doctor pursed his lips. "I have some cause to distrust my future selves, you know."
"I'm not him," said Merlin, exasperated. "And if you have the psychic acuity of a tulip, you know it."
The Doctor smiled, then rose shakily, bracing himself lightly against Ace's shoulder.
"Are you well enough to travel?"
"I am, I think," the Doctor answered, "but the TARDIS isn't."
? ? ?
Merlin held out his hands, like a man feeling for a wall in the dark. Ace watched him, her eyes flicking forward to the Doctor as he marched across the meadow as if he found nights spent comatose wonderfully restorative. She still trying to get used to the idea that the two them were the same person. Seeing them together was weird. "There's a differential here," Merlin said. "Can you feel it?"
The Doctor looked back at him curiously. "A little. Not well enough to map it out."
Merlin shrugged, one-shouldered, keeping one hand in front of him. "I suppose I'm attuned to such things, because of all the fuss with Morgaine and company. The gate they use has a similar feel."
The Doctor stopped and turned around. "Something here is acting as a doorway into time and space," he said slowly.
"And between universes."
"We were caught in causal turbulence, before we crashed here."
"Crashed?" Merlin repeated. He continued to map out the edges of whatever he was feeling, looking like a bad mime.
"Definitely crashed," Ace assured him.
"It's possible that Morgaine's gate has created a-" Merlin fumbled for a metaphor-"a riptide in the Vortex. Shipwrecking timecraft here."
"Sounds like a good reason to shut it down," said the Doctor, walking again towards his ship under the eaves of the wood.
Merlin gave his counterpart an odd sidelong look. "That's somewhat precipitous, don't you think?"
The Doctor didn't answer, and Merlin took up his mime routine again. "This field seems to emanate from the TARDIS."
"Why would it come from the TARDIS?" asked Ace.
"Like you she doesn't belong to this reality. Unlike you she is capable of asserting it." Merlin seemed a little distracted.
"How do you feel?" Ace was remembering him falling against the wall as they searched for the Doctor.
Merlin blinked, visibly did a quick self-assessment. "Like a chameleon on plaid."
"A little overwhelmed. But essentially all right."
"Should you get closer?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine." Abruptly, he gave up on his mapping project. "Let's have a look, shall we?"
The Doctor was trying to wrench the door open by main force. "There's no power to the mechanism," he said. Merlin grabbed he door above the other's head and together they pulled. Slowly, the door creaked open. The magician held the door open for them, waving them through with a broad gesture like a carnival ticket seller. "Please," the Doctor demurred, "height before beauty."
The only light was the fitful sunshine streaming in from the door. Merlin surveyed the room in a slow arc. He whistled in awe.
In the daylight, the ship looked, if anything, even more damaged than it had the last time Ace had seen it. The console had folded in on itself, wrapped in an uncomfortably organic translucent cocoon. Underneath the white stuff, a few lights flickered. The lines of vortex colour still ran out over the floor. If you looked at them too long, they seemed to move. The walls drooped, and in one corner didn't seem to meet properly. The gap between them radiated cold and was absolutely dark.
"Crashed, you said?" asked Merlin.
"Definitely crashed," said Ace.
"Well," said Merlin brightly, "how would you two feel about a nice holiday here in the sunny Celtic twilight?" The sun slunk behind a cloud, and a gust of wind blew a few wet leaves through door. The Doctor looked at the wet oak leaf adhering to his shoe pointedly and raised his eyebrows at Merlin. "It's a figure of speech," the magician said. "Come, I'll see about rounding us up some breakfast, and two of Vortigen abbey's very finest guest cells."
He turned from the TARDIS door, regarding the sky glumly. "It's much prettier in the summer," he said. "We even get tourists. Ah, speaking of rounding up!" He hailed someone riding across the bridge. "Gawyn!" he called. The man - the young man who had locked them up, Ace realized - came galloping up to them and dismounted showily.
"Merlin!" he said, bowing. "My lord, my lady..."
"Hello!" said the Doctor brightly, doffing his hat and letting it roll down his arm into his hand. He shook the young man's hand, blithely ignoring the fact that he got not response. "I'm the Doctor, and this is my friend, Ace." He flipped the hat back onto his head, then frowned. "Or have we met?"
"You were a bit unconscious at the time," Ace told him.
"Ah, yes. Not my best side, my dear - who are you?"
"-my dear Gawyn, no matter what you may hear to the contrary. Still, they do say last impressions are lasting impressions..." The Doctor trailed off and scowled unhappily.
The young man was eying the Doctor warily. "I trust you are quite yourself this morning, my lord..."
"Yes, yes, isn't that what I just said? I'm only out cold a small fraction of the time."
"Good morrow, Gawyn," Merlin interrupted smoothly. "Might I have a word?"
Ace smirked at the haste with which the young man turned. "I am at your service, Merlin."
"A small point, for future reference. The next time you have occasion to bang down my door at the crack of dawn about a woman you think might be a sorceress, you might mention that the reason you think she might be a sorceress is that the man she was with has collapsed for mysterious reasons and is being cared for a few doors down. I sometimes find these little facts of interest, you know."
Gawyn ran a hand through his hair. "My lord, I had only thought-"
"I know what you were thinking Gawyn. But I don't need to be protected. Stop treating me as if I were fragile. And don't call me `my lord'."
"Merlin..." the young knight shot a glance at the Doctor and Ace, then continued carefully. "Merlin, I'm sorry. I had only thought that you should not exert yourself too soon, and while you alone can deal with magic, there are others to take up the tasks of healing. I was riding for Bleys, but it seems he is not needed." He looked like a scolded puppy, desperately young despite his dark, military clothes and a night's growth of beard.
Merlin looked at him, then smiled ruefully. "The knight with the woeful countenance!" he exclaimed, ruffling the unruly red hair. "Cheer up, Gawyn. I forgive you. Just keep it in mind, hmm?"
Gawyn smiled. "As you like, Merlin. But you - have a care for yourself. The rest of us are worn out with the burden."
"All right, Gawyn," said the magician. "I will, I promise. And-" he grinned suddenly "-the first thing on the agenda is breakfast! And since you are so concerned you my well-being, you may tell Isavel that we have extra mouths."
Gawyn cuffed him on the shoulder, laughing.
True to his word, Gawyn had fetched breakfast for them. Merlin made a half-hearted attempt to clear the table, stacking papers at the back and putting a small pile of electronic components and equipment on a handy shelf. It didn't help much, and he gave up when he discovered the kittens. There was hot bread and honey, and apples. They balanced their meals on their knees. Gawyn did a broad imitation of Isavel-the-Dragon's outrage at learning the abbey had two extra mouths who had, what is more, the bad grace to turn up unannounced in the middle of the night. Ace snickered into her tea.
The Doctor leaned out the high window. Low clouds were scudding across the sky, but the sun was shining and the morning wind had died to a breeze. He turned back to them. "I'm going to go start repairs to the TARDIS. Make haste while the sun shines."
"I thought you said it would repair itself," said Ace.
"Oh, she will, I'm sure. But if I don't stick my head under a few panels, she sulks." Ace was surprised to hear him admit it out loud.
"Oh, no, I shouldn't think so. Have yourself a holiday. Meet the locals, see the sights, try not to blow anything up." The Doctor spun his umbrella about and waggled a warning finger at her.
Ace smiled. "I'll do my best, Professor."
Merlin watched the Doctor leave, then sighed and sank into the wicker arm chair. "Was I really such a morning person, Ace? Just watching him makes me tired."
"My lord, you should take more care for yourself. You are but recently arisen from a sick bed."
"I'm fine, Gawyn. Thanks for asking. Don't call me `my lord'."
"My - Merlin," said the young knight, seriously, "whatever else you are, you are mortal. I know that. Do not feel it necessary to provide me with proof."
"What's he on about?" asked Ace.
"I recently returned from being enspelled and bound in an ice cave for all eternity. Or that was the idea, I gather. Gawyn is a friend-" the knight bowed modestly, Merlin grinned at him "-for all the bowing and scraping. It is his prerogative to worry. Needlessly."
"Enspelled..." Her eyebrows drew together.
"It's a matter of paradigm." He shrugged, loose-jointed, casual. "Call it `drugged and forced into cryogenic storage,' if you like."
"Drugged and..." Ace cut herself off and forced a lighter tone. "So how'd you get out of that?"
"Oh," he said brightly, "you know me. Weird physiology for all occasions." His little smile faded as he studied her face. "It was - unpleasant," he admitted, subdued by her expression. "But I'm all right. And it's over."
"But what happened?"
"I was mistaken in a friend," he said, and it cost him.
"You put too fine a point on it," said Gawyn angrily. Ace wondered who was the focus of that anger. She was glad it wasn't her. "You were most basely betrayed."
"But by whom, I wonder?"
"There is little question of that, Merlin."
"She was used against me, Gawyn. I don't know how, but I intend to find out."
Gawyn scowled. Ace stared at them, but didn't ask. "So," she said, scraping straw out of her hair. "Where does a girl get a bath around here?"
? ? ?
Ace was sitting on the rock wall next to the river, doing her hair. She felt immensely better. She had ducked into the TARDIS, which was still uncomfortably dark and damaged, long enough to grab a change of clothes. Merlin had introduced her to Isavel. The grandmotherly woman ran the kitchen and the day to day workings of the abbey with a brisk efficiency. Ace took an instant liking to her, and made a firm resolution not to cross her. She could see why Gawyn considered her a holy terror. The old woman had scolded Merlin for leaving her in wet clothes, and set him to work heating a bath. Like Gawyn, Isavel bullied Merlin about his health. And like Gawyn, she obviously adored the magician. Merlin had made a some what hasty exit.
Isavel had fussed over her like a lost lamb, but Ace didn't care. The water had been hot, and later there was warm bread with honey. And then a marvellous nap i the cell the abbey had lent her.
She felt, in fact, so much better that she wanted to celebrate it. The handiest thing had been a handful of red beads at the bottom of her duffel. She had briefly worried over whether cornrows were period, but decided she didn't care. Doing your hair in the sunshine had to be medieval. She stretched and yawned, drowsing in the sun.
"Lady Ace," said Gawyn, startling her. He bowed slightly, then seated himself neatly on wall beside her. She wondered if that counted as forward behaviour in the middle ages. "I would ask your pardon for the trouble I gave you on the bridge last night."
"S'alright," she replied. He looked at her blankly. "I mean, don't worry about it. You didn't know."
"You're kind, my lady, but I know I caused you pain - to take you away from your friend." He smiled at her, a little sheepishly. "It broke my heart to see such a lady in distress."
"Uh-huh," she said, as noncommittally as possible. "Look, Gawyn, I'm not really a lady. Just 'Ace' will do, all right?"
"I will never believe it. Surely you are high born. Is that your crest?"
Ace glanced down at the t-shirt she was wearing - white, with a stylized red fish, untucked over dark brown chinos and brown, authentically medieval boots she had dredged up from one of the wardrobe's endless hidden corners. "Uh, no. It's just that my other things were wet. So, tell me, Gawyn, are braids and beads period?"
"I do not understand."
"Never mind." She resumed her task. Gawyn watched curiously, and after a moment laughed. "What?" she asked.
"Your eyes are trying to see the back of your head," he explained. He crossed his eyes, demonstrating. He looked so ridiculous that she laughed aloud. "I do not look like that," she protested. His grin grew broader. "Well, not much. Help us with this, then?" She offered him the brush.
He blushed, his smile becoming almost shy. She wondered if asking a man do your hair counted as forward behaviour in the middle ages, then decided she didn't really care. Gawyn didn't seem too scandalized. He accepted the brush, taking it by the handle as if it were a dagger, and moved to stand behind her.
"Why did you not use Merlin's name?" he asked, starting on a braid. "Last night, I mean. It is a password here, you know. It would have saved you - and me - some worry."
"I didn't exactly know I knew him," she said. "I mean - when I knew him, he was - different. It's complicated."
"Bleys says that Merlin has had many faces and many names. Though how he knows I'm not sure. Ancelyn said the same, but he had the second sight. Hand me a bead, please." Ace obliged. "These are fair," he said, holding it in the sun. "Are they real glass?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"They catch the light so. My sister had two glass goblets for her dowry, but I have never seen the like of this." He fell briefly silent, struggling to affix the bead. "Perhaps you should show me? I have no hand for fine work." Ace pulled the end of the braid under her nose and expertly attached the bead. "Ah," he breathed, a little embarrassed by her skill. "I fear I shall never be a lady in waiting." Ace laughed.
Gawyn started another braid. "It is strange, Ace. I have known Merlin all my life. You are no older than me, surely, but I would stake my soul that I had never seen you before. How is it that you know him?"
"Yeah, well, that's complicated too."
"I would like to hear the tale."
Something in his tone made her turn. "Look, did you come out here to apologize or to interrogate me?"
"Both," he admitted, a little shame-faced, but firm. "And I would like to hear the tale."
"Look, Merlin says he knows me, doesn't he? You might take his word for it, then?"
"I would never doubt Merlin's word. But," he took a deep breath, "of late I have had cause to doubt his judgment."
"This is about what's-her-name, isn't it? It doesn't have anything to do with me."
"Her name is Vivien. May it be cursed." Ace drew back a little from his vehemence. Gawyn noticed, bit his lip.
"What'd she do to him, anyway?"
"It must have been poison," he said.
"What?" she exclaimed.
"Merlin has not told you?" Gawyn turned a bead over and over in his hands, and was silent a long moment "He was planting herbs, in his garden, just there. I was fishing under the bridge. She didn't notice me. She brought him something to drink - tea, I suppose - in that strange silver bottle he uses sometimes. She poured them both a cup, and he sat on the wall to drink his. They talked a moment, and then something seemed to alarm him. He brought up his head like a deer. He stood up. The air was sparkling like frost - it was Morgaine's gate. I ran towards them."
Gawyn was twisting the hem of his tunic at he spoke. He glanced down and the knotted fabric. "He put his hand on her arm. And then he put the other hand to his head, as if he had taken a blow. I thought he might fall. And then he put his hand to his breast. He fell to his knees. He said her name, just once."
The knight began to pace, just a few steps back and forth. "Until he spoke I didn't know what had happened. But when I heard him say her name, I knew she had betrayed him. The gate was open. She looked at me, wildly, and then she dragged him through it."
"Sit down," she said. "You're making me nervous."
He sat heavily. "They were gone. I couldn't follow. I didn't see him again for the whole of the summer. I thought - I didn't want to think him gone. I took care for his garden, though it is not in my mien. And so it was I that found him. The gate opened without warning, just where it had been before. I was here, tending the garden. I drew my sword, but it was Merlin that whirled out of it. He fell at my feet. He was covered with frost. Even his eyes were full of it. He didn't know me, but called me by her name, at first. I sent Tom running for Bleys." He was wringing the hem of his tunic again. He saw it, laughed harshly. "I'm not good at sitting still."
"It's okay. What did you do ?"
"There was little to do. We took him to his room, tried to keep him warm. Bleys filled him with broth, but I think it was more for nourishment than medicine. And we waited." Gawyn shrugged. "He was sick a fair time. He is but recently a risen. It is on my mind, and so I am suspicious. " He stood and bowed to her. "But you are right, it is not about you. I ask your pardon."
"Finish my hair and I'll forgive you."
"Pact," he said, taking up the brush. "And now can I ask the question without offense? How did you meet Merlin?"
"It really is complicated, Gawyn."
"This task will take time enough for even a long story, I think."
"How 'bout this: he was travelling, I was stranded. We defeated an evil menace and he offered me a lift."
"You spoke truly," he said, and Ace could hear the smile in his voice, "that is complicated." She laughed, relieved that he was willing to leave it at that. "You are foreign then?" he asked. "You seem - exotic."
She glanced over her shoulder at him, and caught him concentrating on another bead. His eyes were scrunched up and his tongue was sticking out the corner of his mouth. She laughed. "And who looks funny now?"
? ? ?
Merlin raised his eyebrows. Ace had changed into something vaguely period, then ruined the attempt by doing her hair in small braids with red beads. She had also acquired a cloak, honey brown with red piping around the wrists and red lining in the hood. Against all odds, the effect was striking. "Very nice," he said appreciatively.
"The cloak is Gawyn's," she said, unfastening the Soviet star that she was using as a broach and shrugging out of the cloak. "He said `a lady, even a foreign lady, deserved frame her fairness in Britain fine.' I decided it was a compliment. How do you wear this all the time? It's so hot."
"Is that Gawyn's as well?" he asked. She was armed, a short blade hanging from a baldric at her side.
"Err..." said Ace. "Yeah. Do you mind?"
"Gentlemen giving you swords? Who do I look like, Freud?"
Ace laughed. "Not even a little."
"May I?" She handed the weapon to him. He took it as if it were very heavy, holding it by the hilt and inspecting it with cool, scholarly interest. "It's actually more a poniard than a sword. It's meant to be held in the left hand when fighting with a short sword in the right. The blade is triangular, you see. It will parry even a heavy blow without shattering. But you can attack with it as well. The triangular blade leaves a wound which will not close, and these grooves, here, create suction, so that it causes more damage as you draw it out. You're likely to use in on a counter stroke, so it's best if you aim for the belly."
He handed it back to her.
She took it, not quite meeting his eyes.
There was a long moment of silence.
"It's a weapon, Ace. Wear it if you want, but remember what you're carrying."
"You don't like it, do you?"
"Arthur was stabbed with one of those things," he said. "It took him hours to die." He paused, then said with surprising mildness, "I hate them. And I hate the thought of you using one."
? ? ?
The Doctor's reaction was very disappointing. She found him in the abbey library, hidden from view by a stack of books. He was making long hand notes and squinting myopically at something he had concealed in his hand. She peered over his shoulder. The thing in his hand was a solar calculator. She didn't recognize the alphabet he was working in, but the sheets of paper had the universal look of math homework. "Boo," she said, laying a hand on his shoulder.
He jumped like a startled lizard. When he was concentrating on it, Ace reflected, he could be almost human. When he wasn't, though, there was a completeness to his focus that no human could match. A kitten after a ball of twine - or a cat after a bird. She wondered why the observation chilled her. "Hello Ace," he said, without turning around.
"What do you think, Professor?" she asked, twirling. She had put the cloak back on, but she'd left the sword with her old clothes under the bed in the cell the abbey had leant her.
"Doctor," he corrected her.
She sighed, then pulled up a chair and sat beside him. "What are you working on?"
"Course calculations. Reentering our own universe might be tricky. I've seen a similar calculation before, but that time we knew what the point of divergence was..." He trailed off and scribbled a note in the margin.
"I think Merlin might know," she said.
The Doctor sighed, straightening up and pocketing his spectacles. "Yes. I wish I would let me know what is going on."
He turned to her, blinking in a sudden beam of sun. "Did you do something to your hair?"
The Doctor leaned over the rock wall which separated a large, rambling herb garden from the main grounds of the abbey. "Gawyn is teaching Ace hawking. Should I worry?"
"About Gawyn, perhaps," said Merlin, looking up from his weeding. "But not over much. He's a grown lad, he can look after himself, even if Ace isn't quite what he's used to."
"I'm afraid she must be bored. It's been two days."
"If she teaches him to make explosives, I'm holding you responsible. How go the repairs?"
"Fair to middling. The TARDIS seems to think we're in an incompatible time-stream, and is diverting a lot of energy from the repair to protect us from it."
"Probably for the best. Without that cushioning, the landing might have been hard for you."
"As it was, it was not exactly three-points. The log is confused. It seems we did cross some sort of causal discontinuity."
Merlin looked a thistle that had taken root by the edge of his garden and frowned.
"You already knew that, though," the Doctor continued. "That's what you meant about other realities."
"Something like that. " the magician muttered. He wrapped one hand in his cloak and grabbed the stubborn plant. "Who ever said a weed was a flower growing in the wrong place should have added that it was an incredibly hardy flower with ambitions. Didn't we have this conversation yesterday?"
"You didn't answer any of my questions yesterday. How did you know we had crossed between universes?"
"Oh," said Merlin lightly, "I have the advantage of perspective."
"And if I have not seen far," said the Doctor, "it's because giants have stood on my shoulders. That's not really an answer."
"Improvisation on partial information is supposed to be a speciality of yours."
"Plotting courses on partial information is a bit tricker."
"I got your note. `P.S. Morgaine has seized control of a nuclear missile,' and all that. You cut it a bit fine."
"Bad habit," Merlin shrugged. "Don't know where I could have picked it up."
"I'm curious to know, though, why you sent it at all."
"You know what they say about curiosity, I trust." He got up from his weeding project and pulled his cloak around his shoulders.
"Ignorance killed the cat," the Doctor quoted. "Curiosity was framed. And don't dodge the question." Merlin gave him an unreadable look and moved to step around him. The Doctor blocked him. "Don't dodge me," he repeated. "You broke the first law of time. And not in some fussy, letter-of-the-law, Time Lord way, either. You reached back, deliberately, to - what?"
Merlin's gaze flicked to the meadow, where the bees from the apiary were busy. "To change history," he said, softly. He looked back at his other self, and said more sharply, "it was hardly the first time."
"I may stack the deck a little," the Doctor replied, his voice rising slightly, "but I don't throw it out the window."
"And I don't play games. I had a reason. Leave it at that." He stepped around the Doctor and began to walk away.
"Don't you know-" the Doctor began fiercely, and then abruptly stopped. When he continued, his voice was flat, almost a whisper. "Don't you know what it did - will do - to me? To know that it can be done?"
Merlin stopped walking. He turned back, his clear eyes darkening at the look on the Doctor's face. "No," he said, stricken. "I had never thought of it." He held the Doctor's gaze for a long moment. "I'm sorry. What do you want to know?"
? ? ?
The Doctor, Ace reflected, could never discuss serious matters while sitting still. She had stumbled across the two of them in serious, if incomprehensible, discussion. She didn't interrupt, but she followed them back to Merlin's tower room. To her surprise, neither of them asked her to leave.
"So when you say I don't belong to this reality..." prompted the Doctor, pacing.
"You and Ace belong to another universe." Merlin had a little less of the peripatetic in him, and was content to lean against the wall and watch the Doctor pace. Ace dropped onto the bed and settled in for a long haul.
"There are countless `other universes'," said the Doctor, the words almost tumbling over each other. "Nature is notoriously indecisive. She creates two new ones every time she has to give a yes-or-no answer, just so she can have it both ways. This one is not so different from ours. I should be able to slip into it without a twinge. Without even noticing."
"But your universe is different. Because I created it when I sent you that note."
The Doctor stopped pacing. "That is-"
"Against the law." The magician stooped to pick up the cat that wrapped herself round his ankles. "I know."
"More than the law," said the Doctor sharply. "More than the law."
With furious precision, he sat in the wicker armchair and glared at the floor. Merlin scratched the cat behind the ears, and said nothing. At length the Doctor leaned forward and steepled his hands before him, resting his chin on the handle of his umbrella. "There are those who would say," he said quietly, "that our universe should be destroyed. That its very existence is a crime."
"Hey," said Ace, "wait a minute!"
"Its existence is not a crime," said Merlin mildly, "merely evidence for a crime. Besides, who will destroy it? You cannot. And I," he looked at Ace, "will not."
"Well, that's good!" said Ace, sharply.
"But why?" said the Doctor. "Why would you do such a thing?"
"That," said Merlin, "you may work out for yourself." The Doctor glowered.
"Why did you change your name?" Ace asked. Changing history was past her, but she knew about changing names, about erasing your past, rewriting your identity. She had wished for that, and had even achieved it, but it was the easy way out. Cowardly. The Doctor was not a coward. She tried to imagine what cataclysm could so scar him that he would rather cut himself free from his own life than continue to live it.
Merlin stared at her a long moment, but when he replied, he addressed the Doctor. "We cannot both be real, you know. One of us is a fiction. I would rather it were me."
? ? ?
Ace came across Merlin cutting herbs on his hands and knees in the patch nearest the river. His cloak and a small pack were tossed across the little stone wall. He looked up at her, rocked back on his heels and brushed his hair from his face. He left a long streak of dirt across his forehead. "Ah, Ace! How go the TARDIS repairs?"
She shrugged and sat down on the wall. "The Doctor's had his head under the console all day. Not talking much, though."
"It's an improvement. If the TARDIS is right enough that I can tinker and hope to fix things, she's not too badly wrong. What have you been up to?"
"Oh, riding horses. Learning falconry. Avoiding embroidery. Meeting people, soaking up the local colour, getting rained on..."
"Not blowing things up?"
"This is a pretty dull place."
"We fought long and hard to make it so. You missed the fun. Alien invasions, great battles, myth in the making. It was awful. But I'm sorry you're bored. Stick around another decade or two and you can see it fall into civil war."
"It's only been four days. I think a decade would drive me crazy. Besides, I hate wars."
"So do I. I wonder how I get caught up in so many."
"So," said Ace, in her best rescue-me tone, "What are you doing?"
"At the moment, I'm at war with these thistles. Trying to get the harvest in before it freezes. But I'm off to visit a friend. Like to come?"
Ace shrugged her nothing-better-to-do shrug, but belied it with a delighted smile. Merlin beamed at her. He washed his hands in the little river, donned his cloak and put his pack across his shoulders. He glanced across the field, then vaunted over the wall onto the track. "Perhaps we'd better follow the road." He gave her a sweeping bow that ended in an off-we-go gesture, and set off at what was very nearly a skip, whistling something jaunty. Ace caught herself mentally filling in the words to "Follow the Yellow Brick Road." A bit optimistic, really. Follow the narrow mud track, was more like it.
"Are you going to do the whole sound track?" Merlin glanced sidelong at her, looking a little crestfallen. "So where are we going?" she asked, by way of apology.
"We're off to see the Wizard, of course."
"Well, off to see the Druid, at any rate. Doesn't have quite the same ring, though."
"Those are the guys with the trees, right?"
"Hmm," said Merlin. "Bleys is an apothecary, mostly. Also an historian - a keeper of knowledge. There is no right word for it. Priest, magician, doctor... and in my case, friend. Now then, we have a bit of a walk." He produced a penny whistle and a bright smile. "Do you have requests for travelling music?"
The track followed the river to the edge of the woods, then cut through them in a very straight line, as it the road makers hadn't wanted to linger there. Ace looked up at the looming, half-bare trees, trying to shake a sense of deja-vu. These were fairy tale woods, the woods in which Snow White and Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood had disappeared. "Should I be dropping bread crumbs?" she said, as lightly as she could.
Merlin raised his eyebrows. "Wrong folklore. Around here they say the trees come alive. And they don't take kindly to intruders."
Merlin laughed, a sound like running water, and Ace relaxed. There couldn't be anything too horrible in earshot of a sound like that. He saw her half smile, gave her a mischievous grin, and launched into "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My."
On the far side of the wood, Merlin choose a track that ran along the edge of the wood, which took them sideways and slightly back the way they had come. Finally, Ace spied a small stone house, roofed with thatch, backed up against the wood. Late blooming roses twined to the roof. A well-kept garden surrounded it, and an orchard of gnarled apple trees ran wild on the far side.
It took her another verse of "Greensleeves" to see the man who was tending to the herbs, cloaked in a grey-green that made him vanish into his garden. He straightened, pressing his hand against his back, and watched them approach. Ace gaped. He was more Merlin than Merlin could ever be. Everything about him, from his long white hair and beard to the staff he leaned on, said magic.
"Merlin!" he called, when they were in earshot. He walked out to meet them, grasping the magician by the shoulder. He was slightly stooped with age, but still came to Merlin's shoulder, which made him, by local standards, very tall. "Good to see you looking well. Quite the recovery."
Merlin bowed slightly. "I credit my physician. Bleys, this is my friend, Ace."
To Ace's surprise, the old man drew back. "Merlin," he said sharply, "it is improper to keep company with ghosts."
"Ghosts?" said Ace. Bleys turned his gaze on her, and she had to fight to meet it. His blue eyes were laser sharp. After a moment he shook his head, puzzled. "Perhaps not," he said.
"She's not a ghost, my friend," said Merlin. "Just a visitor from my past, who's had a strange, long trip."
"Yeah," said Ace, trying to shake a nameless apprehension that. Bleys' reaction had called up in her. "Lately I've come to realize what a long strange trip it's been."
Bleys regarded Merlin carefully for an instant before turning to Ace. "My lady, " he said, very polite, "forgive me for such a greeting. Sometimes, in truth, I can be a foolish old man. You honour my home. Please, come in, join me for tea."
? ? ?
The tea was strong and very bitter. Merlin grinned a little at the face she made and produced a honey pot from thin air, presenting it to her with a small flourish.
"What is this?" she asked.
"Honey," he said, slightly puzzled.
"Not that, this." Ace gestured with her cup.
"Oh! It's aspirin, after a fashion. Willow bark tea."
"Merlin," the old man chided. "No need to afflict my guests with my affliction. Make the lady some peppermint. It's above the window."
He pointed to one of dozens of small cloth sacks that nearly covered the walls of the tiny home. He gestured with his whole hand, and Ace saw that it was curled into an arthritic claw. "This is fine," she said hastily.
"Your manners do you credit," said Bleys, "but tell no lies. This," he said, gesturing towards his cup, "is terrible. It also works, and that to me is worth the bargain. But there is no earthly reason why you should drink it." He retrieved the honey pot, uncoiling his hand with a small grimace.
Merlin set his own mug down and turned to the fire pit to boil more water. There was no tea in it, Ace noticed - only hot water and a dollop of honey. "Our friend is something of a bane to the herbalist," said Bleys, indicating the brew in Merlin's cup. "I have, I hope, as much knowledge of the herbs and potions of this island - and some others - as any. But much of what I know simply doesn't apply to him. I give willow-bark tea as a remedy to pain to all other folk who have come to me for help with their illness or hurt. But it does him no good."
Merlin grimaced. "That's an understatement," he said. He presented Ace with a cup of lavender something. It smelled better than the analgesic, and familiar as Christmas. She sipped it cautiously. Yup, peppermint.
"I prescribed it to him once, when I first knew him. He was too ill to refuse it. For a time, I thought I would never have occasion to give him anything else."
"Mmmm," Merlin agreed, setting himself a the low table and stretching his long legs in front of him. He had drained his sweetened water and replaced it with his own cup of peppermint tea. "Neither did I, for I time."
"I would have taken him for lost, between the original hurt and the poison I'd given him, but for the merlin." Ace raised her eyebrows at him over the brim of her cup. "I was raising a merlin chick who had fallen from her nest. She was nearly grown, and still wild as a snake. But she decided this one was to be her chosen master. No animal would do that to a dying man. She would perch by the bed there," and he gestured toward a rough pallet in one corner, "and watch him for hours, watch him-"
"Like a hawk?" Merlin suggested.
"Like a child, watching for the first songbirds of spring. She knew he would be well. And so he was."
"What happened to her?" Ace asked.
"She followed me everywhere, perched on my shoulder, and brought me mice for my supper, like a cat," answered Merlin, fondly. "She was never put out when I didn't eat them."
"And she lent the use of her name," said Bleys, "which is a great gift. The knights called him 'Merlin' after the bird that always was with him, for he had no other name."
"`Fate would not be fated'," Merlin said, softly. "`And dreams desire to sleep.' Myth moves in mysterious ways."
"But what happened to her?" Ace asked again.
"She died of her age," said Merlin. "Flew away to die, as wild things do. She may have thought I was her mother-"
"She thought you her mate," Bleys corrected, and Merlin, to Ace's astonishment, blushed.
"-but she was still a wild thing," Merlin continued, as if he hadn't been interrupted. "It was years ago."
"I was a young man then," said Bleys. "Fifty winters it has been. They have not so much as touched you."
"Not fair, is it?" said Ace - lightly, she hoped.
"No," replied Bleys. "But I hope my friend does not begrudge me my good fortune."
It took Ace a half-second to work that one out. "Only a little," Merlin said, perfectly sincere. "But I will miss your company."
Bleys took one of Merlin's hands between both of his. Merlin's smile was melancholy. Bleys returned it for a moment, looking ancient, and then a child's smile lit his weathered face. "You have come at a good time to join me for my celebration. I have finished it!"
"The herbarium?" said Merlin, delighted. "Marvellous! May I see it?"
Bleys stood and fetched from a shelf a thick book. Merlin took it reverently, flipping through it as if it were the rarest book in the world. Ace, across the table, looked at it upside down. It was a collection exquisitely detailed drawings of plants and parts of plants, heavily annotated with calligraphy in a language she did not recognize. The handwriting, though - there was a section near the end where the handwriting was clearly the Doctor's. It was replaced with a strong, childishly careful hand, interspersed with a wavering script, for the last twenty pages or so. Merlin looked up at her. "This is a herbarium. A complete one. Every plant with medicinal qualities known in Britain in this time period, with notes on their use. Everything from willow-bark tea to poppies - lore come up the silk road from China to Imperial Rome, and kept alive for a five hundred years in the middle east. It is the work of a lifetime - a master's lifetime."
"And it is finished," said Bleys. "Gawyn gave me much help this summer - my hands do not hold a pen as they once did. And your friend, here, has been patiently serving as my hands for years. Not to mention my supplier. What have you brought me today?"
"Yarrow, pennyroyal, willow bark, celery root, foxglove, self-heal, some cooking spice, and more honey. The garden is almost bare for the season. And Isavel sends wine." Merlin spoke without looking up, still perusing the book.
"There is a section at the end that might interest you, Merlin - how to treat a Time Lord for 'hibernation sickness'."
Merlin looked up, alarmed.
Bleys's mouth quirked and Ace burst out laughing. "You're such an innocent," said Ace, reaching out to ruffle his already dishevelled hair. He ducked her and smiled. But his slightly silly, lopsided grin faded into one of the Doctor's smiles, as sad and old as the rain. She stared, arrested by the familiarity of the expression. "Once," he said. "Not anymore." Merlin grinned ruefully, stood, and gently replaced the book.
"Now," said Bleys, "Lady Ace, Merlin, it is time for you to go. I have preparations to make, and you have your own task to undertake." Merlin's eyebrows shot up. "I could ever read your face, child," the old magician chided. "Wipe the surprise from it now. You go to free her, of course. Go carefully." Ace looked from one to the other, bewildered.
Merlin shook his head, laughing at himself. "I used to be so good at plots and secrets," he said.
"You? Never! Now, be off with you." Merlin shrugged, rose and bowed elaborately. Bleys rose stiffly, wincing, and followed them out the door.
It had started to drizzle, turning the yellow wood gold and grey. Ace scowled. "You had to stop carrying that umbrella?" She pulled up the hood of her cloak.
Merlin did not seem the least put out by the weather. "`When shall we three met again,'" he quoted, "`In thunder, lightning, or in rain?'" He raised his eyebrows expectantly at Ace.
"Macbeth," she supplied. "Act one, scene one."
"Gold star! You get first honours in Anachronisms One-O-One." He laughed. "Bleys," he said, "much thanks for the excellent tea. And all else." He whistled a few bars of "Singing in the Rain," as they turned to go.
"Merlin," said Bleys softly from the doorway, "will you come back in a week's time?"
Merlin froze in mid step. "These preparations... Oh, Bleys, so soon?"
"Not soon," said the old man mildly, "though it always seems so to those left behind."
"Of course I will come," Merlin put a hand to his mouth. "Of course I will come," he repeated.
"Ace," said Bleys, "see that he doesn't get himself killed between now and then."
Merlin laughed. "She's good at that."
"It needs doing," the old man said.
"Too right," said Ace.
"Ace," Bleys took one of her hands and bowed over it. "I fear we will not meet again. It is a pity, for I would like to have had the friendship of such a remarkable lady. And you, Merlin. Thanks for the herbs. And all else. Fare well, both of you."
"Bleys," said Merlin, "take care."
? ? ?
Merlin walked in stricken silence. Ace trooped along beside him until they were out of sight of the little house. "He's going to die, isn't he?" she asked.
For a moment, she thought he hadn't heard her. Then, almost under his breath, he said, "`Rain sun and rain, and the free blossom blows: Sun, rain and sun! and where is he who knows? From the great deep to the great deep he goes'." He shook off his strange mood visibly, as if it were rain water. "Yes, Ace. He is. It's the way of his order. And it is what he wants." He shook his head wearily. "But I will miss him. It's the old same story, isn't it?"
"`Same old'," corrected Ace absently. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess for you it must be."
? ? ?
"You're planning something," Gawyn accused.
Merlin looked up from his tea innocently. A small clutter of electronic parts s at on the table in front of him. "What makes you think so?"
"You have a face like clear water, Merlin. It hides nothing. Every minnow of a thought shows clear on it."
"One of my best features, I've always thought," said the magician.
"You know it, and yet you lie to me in despite. 'Tis almost an insult, my lord." Gawyn smiled, but there was hurt under the smile. "It's Vivien, is it not?"
"Gawyn, I don't want you caught up in this."
"That is my decision. Not yours."
Merlin winced. "True," he admitted. "But it is my responsibility. If you would protect me, Gawyn, spare me that."
"That's a nice argument, Merlin," said Gawyn ruefully. He got up and began to pace. "I know you would go back, if you can, to learn who pulled Vivien's strings. But the danger is-" he stopped and looked at Merlin seriously "-too high a price."
"You don't understand what I'm buying."
"But this is academic. That `if you can' of yours is quite a hurdle. I would have to find a way to activate a time-space portal from the remote end. Not even Morgaine's people can do that - they have to send a space craft, initially, to start the link. With no access to the controls or drivers-" he cut himself off, shrugged. "It is nearly impossible."
"Nearly," repeated Gawyn, suspiciously. "So what is the little fish of a thought that is so still in your eyes? Yet it moves a little, and flashes. Le Fay's craft still sits under the lake. The sword Excalibur will still cut open the air, as it did at Baden. You could do it. What are you not telling me, if not this?" He leaned forward across the table, daring the other to lie to him.
Merlin blinked and looked away. And then he turned back and fixed Gawyn with a bright violet gaze. "Bleys is going to die."
Gawyn sat down. "Merlin... I'm sorry. He has asked you to attend-"
"I am suitably honoured." He shrugged, dropped his gaze. "I had only thought that someone should ride to Orkney, for his sister, who lives there yet, I think."
"Surely if he wanted that he would-"
"He is forbidden by his order. But there is nothing that says I can't go."
Gawyn raised his eyebrows. "And there I hook the fish. You, ride? Merlin, five days ago you could barely walk."
"Why Gawyn," Merlin said, "I almost think you volunteer."
Hey ho," said Merlin cheerfully. "Keeping busy are we?"
"I want to talk to you," said the Doctor.
Merlin put up his eyebrows.
"For most of a week, I've been doing course calculations. Ship repairs. Trying to work out what caused the crash. All of which is made difficult by you pussyfooting around my questions. I'm tired of playing cat and mouse with you!"
"Mind your metaphors," said Merlin.
"Never mind my metaphors! You broke the first law of time. You created your own pocket universe."
"We covered that in act one," said Merlin. "Let's keep the exposition to a minimum."
"It is a fiction to you, isn't it?" The Doctor spoke rapidly, biting the words off and spitting them out. "No - it is fiction. Your own little fiction."
"That's not true," said Merlin softly, but the Doctor wasn't listening.
"Me, Ace, all of it - fictional," he continued. "And now there is a rift in the wall between that fictional universe and this one that could pose unknown risks to both. The least you can do is answer my questions. How is this universe different? What is the point of divergence? Why did you send me that note?"
Merlin's drew himself up, towering over the Doctor, tense with anger. "You're being dense, you know that?" he snapped. "I sent you a note telling you that Morgaine had seized control of a missile. A nuclear missile! Why would I do that? Work it out for yourself! What do you suppose happened the first time around?"
The Doctor froze, drawing back from his other self, shocked. "The missile?" he said at last, his voice very gentle.
Merlin shrugged, not his loose-jointed shrug, but something else entirely, something tense and bitter. Then his whole body went limp. He sat down on the wall as if his knees had given way. One hand strayed up to cover his face as he stared across the river. "It exploded," he answered, "and sparked a war."
The Doctor seated himself beside the magician, watching the water slip by. <I>Never the same river twice</I>, he thought. <I>That the World is a Heraclitian Fire and on the Hope of the Resurrection</I>. Out loud he said, "and?"
"And - I was with Ace, when it happened, at the inn. Not very big, as nuclear blasts go. I felt it, I knew it was coming, and I tried to shield her. We were too close."
The Doctor's voice, too, had dropped almost to a whisper. "She was killed in the blast."
"No. I shielded her. There was flying debris, and fire. I was hurt. She got me back to the TARDIS." Merlin eyes were round and almost black. He blinked, and narrowed them to slits. He did not speak of the burns, the flying piece of wood that had nearly severed a hand. Nor did he mention the harrowing regeneration, the days or weeks of bewildered weakness that had followed. He kept his eyes lowered, so that the Doctor could not read them, but he knew the story was visible in the hunch of his shoulders. He pulled his cloak around himself and shivered.
Merlin did not take his eyes from the ground. "I lost," he said. "I lost time. I don't know how much. When I found her, she - her hair was falling out, lesions were forming. Radiation sickness. I couldn't repair all of the damage - there was too much genetic mutation, too much cell death."
"Eventually." Merlin closed his eyes and let his head fall forward. The Doctor sat silently. Finally, ignoring the impossibilities and paradoxes, he reached out to take the other man in his arms. The leaves drifted up at their feet like grief. "For a long time," Merlin said, "I didn't know what to - where to bury her. Earth was a cinder, she would not have wanted that. The TARDIS was already too haunted. And there was nowhere else, nowhere she belonged."
He opened his eyes and straightened up, gazing off into the field of wildflowers, loud with bees, across the little river. "I hadn't engaged a course - I never had the chance. I was - hurt. Weak. I let her drift. We washed up here."
"Camelot," said the Doctor, speculatively.
"She was such a valiant woman. A knight of the Round Table if there ever was one. The grave is by the edge of the woods there." He gave himself a visible shake and pulled himself upright. "I've seen a lot of people die. But I haven't dug many graves."
The Doctor stood as well, adjusting his hat and straightening his jacket: getting ready for something. He took a deep breath. "We have a lot to talk about," he said.
? ? ?
If both our TARDISes were thrown ashore here," the Doctor was saying, "then it's almost certain that Morgaine's gate is causing damage to the continuum. Otherwise the coincidence is simply too great to be believed."
"Why so? I have lots of practice believing in coincidence."
The Doctor shook his head impatiently. "The gate should be shut down. Permanently."
"Even if the gate should be destroyed, to call a spade a spade," said Merlin, "you can't do it. Its future is part of your past." The argument had carried the two of them back to Merlin's room, and now they had run out of space in which to walk away from it. Merlin had seated himself on the pallet in a casual half-lotus, but the Doctor still walked up and down, a measured step, tapping with his umbrella as if pacing off distances. Now he stopped and raised his eyebrows eloquently at Merlin. It was nearly an accusation.
"Don't tell me about the pot and the kettle," said the magician, "unless you would really like to claim that I made the wrong decision. Was it wrong?"
"To lead you to an overwhelming question..." the Doctor muttered. "How can I possibly judge that? I owe my life to that decision. I am Lazarus, come from the dead..." He resumed pacing.
"Morgaine's empire is an important political force in this part of the galaxy," said Merlin, almost gently. "The gate is the primary means of maintaining it. What gives you the right to decide that empires should fall?"
"Do I dare disturb the universe?" said the Doctor, ironically. "In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."
Merlin turned towards the window. "That is not it, that is not what I meant at all. There is a kind of Pax Romana-"
"The Pax Romana is the 'peace' of frightened conquered people. It's only peace because they don't dare fight back."
"But there is the occasional Virgil - and the occasional Camelot. The old myth is come alive here - because there really is a Morgan Le Fay."
"And a Merlin." Again, it was almost an accusation.
"And a Merlin," the magician admitted. "I did not plan it, but it seems only appropriate." He shrugged, smiled without rancour. "Doctor... this is a large thing. Be... mindful. Take your time with it. There will be time-"
"To murder and create?" asked the Doctor, bitterly.
"Time for all the works and days of hands," Merlin answered him. "Time for you and time for me, and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea." He pulled his tucked foot up, making the half-lotus full and straightening his spine. He put his hands, palm up, on his knees. He was quiet a moment. "Doctor, let this be. Let it be. You are not Prince Hamlet, nor were meant to be. If there is vengeance to take it isn't yours. This isn't your story. Arthur is dead, Lancelot is dead, Galahad and Tristram and all the rest. Guinevere sits in her cell all day and looks at the wall. The story is over. You need a better reason to destroy Morgaine's gate than the fact that the infernal contraption is an insult to relativity and a hazard to navigation. You need a better reason than a need to take some action."
"Tell me," said the Doctor, very soft, "do they call her `the Sun-Killer' yet?"
Merlin stiffened. "Not yet," he said.
"Could you get us there - to Morgaine's world?"
"Yes," said Merlin.
? ? ?
Merlin was making some fine adjustments to a delicate looking piece of electronics, singing softly under his breath. He looked up as she entered, startled and - Ace could swear - guilty and dropped a beat. He picked up the tune and his work with odd determination. "I could while away the hours, conversing with the flowers..." He was badly off-key.
"If you're the scarecrow," said Ace, "who does that make me?"
Merlin raised his eyebrows kept a tactful silence. "Well," she said at last, "I suppose it beats `Glenda.' Does the Doctor get to be the cowardly lion?"
"Don't you know?" he asked, tinkering busily. "He is Oz, the great and terrible." He looked up at her, his affected stern expression suddenly becoming serious. "Pay attention to the man behind the curtain." She gaped at him, but he had returned to his work. When he looked up again, there was an expression of triumph on his face. "Voila! One causal turbulence directional gauge."
"What does it do?"
"Oh," said Ace in her most scathing voice, but he didn't seem to notice.
Merlin reached across the table and retrieved a gold pocket watch from under a pile of papers. He flipped open the lid and, with equal ease, flipped up the face . There were no works inside at all, and he dropped the tiny device he'd been labouring over into the hollow. He flipped the face closed, did something arcane to the stem, and held it out for Ace to see. The minute hand spun like a compass needle placed near a magnet, and finally settled down, pointing at her. It emitted a tiny, querulous bleep. Merlin glanced at it, flipped it shut, and tossed it gently into the air. It vanished at the top of its arch with a little flash of light. Ace blinked. "Interdimensionality?"
"Prestidigitation." Merlin reached out and retrieved the watch from Ace's ear. "Slight of hand. Loose costume and flash powder."
"Whatever happened to `nothing up my sleeve'?"
Merlin conjured a bouquet of paper flowers and a fair bit of smoke and presented the flowers to Ace. She used them to wave the smoke away.
"Ace, Ace, Ace," he chided, grinning, "When was the last time I had nothing up my sleeve?"
"So what does this thing do?"
"Hmm? Oh, you were right the first time. It gives a bearing on sources of causal turbulence. Places of interdimensionality, if you like."
"Oh," she said, and this time he noted the tone. "Such as the gateway Morgaine has built," he explained. "It would be useful as a warning system."
"Why'd it point to me?"
"You're a source of causal turbulence. Occupational hazard for time travellers."
"And what's with the watch?"
"Well, if you're going to introduce a glaring anachronistic device, you may as well give it a chronistic casing." Ace opened her mouth to point out one of the many flaws with that argument, and Merlin shrugged his scarecrow shrug. "I was out of compass needles," he confessed.
"You're going, aren't you? To Morgaine's world."
"You've been talking to Gawyn." Merlin's half-smile was one-quarter apology. He held her eyes, but when she didn't soften her glare, he sighed. "Gawyn sees everything in white and black."
"Black and white."
Merlin frowned. "What difference does it make? The point is it may not be white and black. I need to talk to Vivien."
"Lemme get this straight. This woman poisoned you and had you put into cold storage, and you just want to knock on the door and say hello?"
"O.K. Just wanted to be clear on that."
"Ace, if Vivien acted against me, someone had a powerful hold over her. I need to know what it was."
"What, so you can come to the rescue?"
"And suppose you're wrong, and she double-crossed you. Then what are you going to say when she comes to the door? `Care to try again?'"
"That's why I'm going alone."
"Gawyn," she said suddenly. "You sent him away, didn't you? So that he wouldn't stop you from going."
"So he wouldn't come with me," he corrected her. He threw up his hands. "You know, for a moment I thought I could talk you out of coming."
"I don't know what I was thinking. A fool's expedition, with danger and little gain at the end of it, and I thought I was going to keep all my friends out of harm's way. Silly me."
"And who would keep you out of harm's way? It needs doing."
Merlin laughed good-naturedly. "Too right."
"So," said Ace, pulling up the chair and sitting down. "How are we going get there?"
"Ah, well, since the world's physical location is actually a rather well kept secret, I need to activate Morgaine's time-space portal from the remote end, with no access to the controls or drivers." He smiled at some private joke. "It is nearly impossible."
"Nearly impossible," said Ace, "is a piece of cake."
Merlin sketched a small bow. "It did take a bit of tinkering, but I have a tracker capable of locking on to the trace the gate left here, and a device which should allow me to use the energy stored in that trace to open the gate again, briefly."
"And how are we going to keep from getting killed once we get there?"
He held out his hands, empty and palm up. "Pick one," he said. She looked at him quizzically and tapped a hand. He closed it, turned it over with an odd flourish, and produced a fan of cards in his other hand.
"Hey!" she objected.
He shrugged. "Never lie if misdirection will serve." He squared the deck and cut it with one hand. "Pick a card," he said. "Any card. Or actually, this one -" and he flashed the top card at her for an instant, then tucked it back into the deck. "What is it?"
"Aren't you supposed to tell me?" she asked.
"Not this time," he replied.
"An ace," she said.
"What suit?" he asked, and she looked blank.
"Dunno," she said. "Spades? Maybe hearts?"
Merlin selected a card from the deck and handed it to her. It was the ace of spades, and it was red. Her eyebrows drew together for a minute, then she smiled. "You play cards the same way you play chess," she said.
"The chess problem where the pawns join forces. An illegal move."
"In moments where the stakes are high, one is allowed the occasional illegal move," he returned, sounding a little hurt. "But I think I'd rather not hear how you came to know about that particular violation."
"But-" began Ace.
"You were very good to guess hearts." he interrupted. "Most people just see spades. Even after several repetitions. People see what they expect to see. It's generally inconvenient and annoying. But this time..."
"We are going to be invisible. Like a red ace of spades. It is nearly impossible for the gate to be opened from the remote end. These people are not expecting invaders. And they certainly aren't expecting me - as far as anyone there knows, I'm still in suspended animation in some dusty storage closet somewhere."
"You don't know what happened with Fenric, do you?"
Merlin's eyes flared violet at the mention of the name, but he said only, "No, Ace. I don't."
"Why not?" she demanded.
He threw out his hands helplessly. "Please, Ace, don't... don't ask me to explain."
"I read once," she said, her voice softened by his distress, "about Merlin the magician, and how he remembered the future, and forgot the past, because he lived backwards in time."
"Not backwards. Not backwards. Sideways." Merlin cut himself off. "I keep secrets, Ace. I used to be good at it, but now I-" he stopped short again and ran long conjurer's fingers through his hair. "I owe you an explanation, don't I?" He paused. After a moment, he said, "This is not your future. This is... this is the double slit experiment."
"What?" She knew the phrase, gleaned from the back of a physics textbook, the part where the pictures of scientists who had discovered things replaced the pictures of things they had discovered. Mostly because the things they had discovered where completely unpicturable. Ace, who had known that the universe was a weird place long before a timestorm threw her half-way across the galactic disk, had liked that chapter. Remembering it didn't help her now.
"There was a moment of divergence. Two roads, and impossibly, quantum mechanically, I - we - took both. And now, the two possibilities are interfering with each other. As if you tossed two stones into still water - two ripples from that one moment, overlapping, adding together in places, cancelling out in others. This is neither my - the Doctor's - future nor our past, neither the cause nor the effect. This is - this is how the electron feels."
"The electron," said the Doctor, wryly, "does not have that much trouble with personal pronouns." He came into the room and perched on the side of the bed, leaning forward on his umbrella with the expression of an earnest child. "Serious conversation. Very metaphysical. I take it you're about to do something stupid. What?"
"I'm going to find Vivien-"
"Splendid! I'm going to close down that gate. That should dovetail nicely."
"I want my sword back," said Ace. They both turned to look at her.
The gate deposited the three travellers in a whirl of dust and light. Ace squinted, trying to get her bearings in the sudden dimness. They were in a dark, echoing building, like some great cathedral, but so absurdly gothic that it looked like a cheap set. The place made her nervous - the ranks of pillars and shadows could hide almost anything.
In front of them, against the wall, was flat table top covered with symbols carved of pieces of something that wasn't stone. One or two of them glowed greenly. Above it a dark blank section of the wall shimmered like liquid crystal. It was one of several, lining the walls of the temple. It could be almost anything - an alter, a votive shrine, the church organ, a -
"Computers aren't really my... idiom," said Merlin, regarding the table unhappily.
Ace's perception of the place shifted. It wasn't a temple at all. It was mission control. Her edginess redoubled.
The Doctor, on the other hand, looked pleased as punch. He tapped experimentally at the console with his umbrella, then sidled up to it and began pushing buttons, quite at random. "This is quite a staging area. Several thousand troops could easily be gathered here, complete with cavalry, and sent through these gates rapidly. I must admit I expected it to be smaller." The screen began to swirl with random data.
Merlin shrugged. "Often it isn't all in use. Morgaine sends only as many knights as needed for an even fight. And they prefer to fight hand to hand. Swords instead of blasters, et cetera."
"That's awfully civilized of them," said Ace.
"It isn't the Olympic games," said Merlin bitterly.
"But they think it is," said the Doctor. "Swords and glory. Honour and death." His lip curled in disgust. "Still, they play by the rules, as they understand them. And isn't it odd, how evil keeps such good records?" He had managed to call up something that looked like an index, and was making lots of notes in a little red book, deciphering the alphabet. "Lots of diagnostic routines, lots of annotated code. Empires aren't usually into decentralized processing. We should be able to access everything from this station."
"Including Vivien's street address?" asked Ace.
"And the gate control protocols." The Doctor smiled his hide-and-go-seek smile, the smile that spelt doom to monsters the universe over. "Easy. Piece of pie."
"Cake," said Ace. "Piece of cake."
? ? ?
They left the Doctor in communion with the computer. He had not only found Vivien's address, he had pulled up a map of the whole city. The machine almost purred with happiness at its ability to be of service. Ace had no doubt that if the Doctor asked for an itemized list of the city's weak points, he'd get it, with annotations.
She hoped he wouldn't ask.
They needed the map badly. They emerged from the temple and squinted up into the late afternoon sun. The city rose above them, black and white marble, like a single, majestic tower built into a mountain side. It took Ace a minute to place what it reminded her of. Minas Tirith. The city was built in concentric rings, each a little higher than the last. The temple was on the lowest, outermost circle, just inside the main gate. Vivien lived three rings up and a third of the way around. To a traveller, the place was a maze.
Merlin made no other effort at concealment as they climbed the long, twisting streets between rows of buildings. The streets were bustling with people. Windows looked down on them like eyes. Most people glanced at them, but no one said more than hello. <I>The red ace of spades</I>, thought Ace. <I>Maybe it's going to work</I>. She tried to walk casually and not jump out of her skin at every perfunctory "good day." Merlin seemed caught up in thought, but he would answer politely every greeting.
Finally, they ended up on the doorstep of what they hoped was the right house. All the windows were covered. Ace heard a child's laugh rise within the house, but no adult voice answered. Silence fell. She looked sidelong at Merlin. He meet her gaze and said nothing. Then he knocked on the door.
The silence within the house deepened. They stood, Merlin patiently at the door, Ace keeping an edgy eye alternately on the door and the road behind them. A woman, tall, dressed in black, cautiously opened the door. She saw Merlin and stopped short.
"Vivien," Merlin breathed. "Crowned in glory and limbed like the moon."
Ace sized up the stranger. She was wearing a trousers and top affair that Ace's instincts identified as someone's equivalent of a t-shirt and jeans, but which nevertheless looked funereal. Her hair, the colour of a new penny, had been cut - no, hacked off - short. A woman mourning some private loss might look like this, might stand lost in her own doorway, her thin arms frozen in mid-gesture.
"Merlin," she said, numbly. "Merlin."
"Surprised?" Ace's voice dripped sarcasm. She elbowed her way past the woman into the house, glad to be off the public street. Merlin took the woman's thin shoulder and drew her gently inside with them.
Ace closed the door behind them, careful that it didn't lock them in. The woman stood brittley still, hardly breathing. She was as pale and radiant and fragile as white glass. Merlin ran the back of his hand tenderly across her shorn head . "Viv, your hair..."
The woman started to shake. Merlin gathered her into his embrace. She stood stiff in his arms for a long moment. Then she melted into his shoulder. She was shuddering soundlessly, clinging to him like a lifeline. "Shh..." he said to the silent woman. "Shh, Vivien, it's all right. It's all right. Look at me, I'm all right." He stepped back from her, tilting up her face. "Look at me, Vivien ." She meet his eyes. "I'm all right."
"Merlin," she said again. Her voice cracked. Merlin gave her a penetrating look, then guided her through an open doorway and seated her and the kitchen table. He hovered as if restraining himself from taking a pulse. Ace trailed them.
"Merlin." She closed her eyes. "Mordred said - Mordred said that he would hold you forever. That you would be aware, but unable to see, unable to move..."
Ace stiffened at the thought, and at the tiny confirming pain that flickered across Merlin's face. "Mordred," he said fiercely, "has no idea what I can and can not do."
Vivien smiled slightly. "You make him look the fool. He so hates to be exposed."
Ace cleared her throat.
"I'm sorry," said Merlin with a start. "Ace, this is Vivien. Viv, this is my friend - and self-appointed body guard - Ace."
"Someone's got to watch his back," said Ace, not bothering to veil the implication.
Vivien looked up at Ace and nodded, meeting the accusation squarely. Oddly, Ace liked her for that. She said to Merlin. "I betrayed you. You know that, don't you?" Merlin merely meet her eyes. "I'm sorry - oh, I can't tell you how much - I did it for Ninane."
Merlin blinked, and his eyebrows disappeared into his errant hair.
"Sit down," Vivien said. "I would offer you tea, if you would take it from me."
"Thanks," said Ace, wiltingly, "we'll pass." Merlin looked stricken, but did not contradict her. He folded himself into a chair.
"You must understand," he began, awkwardly, "that I need to know -"
He cut himself off in astonishment. A little girl of about five burst into the kitchen chasing a ball. She stopped short at the much more interesting sight of two strangers in her house, and stood next to Vivien's chair with no fear at all.
"Merlin," Vivien said, suddenly shy, "this is my daughter."
Merlin's eyes closed and his face lit with a beautiful, sad smile. He crouched down and plucked a silver charm from the child's ear, presenting it to her almost shyly. "Hello, little sparrow," he said.
"Hello," she said brightly. "I'm Ninane."
"Of course you are," he said, irony and delight dancing in his voice. "Of course you are. I'm called Merlin. I'm a friend of your mother's." As he said it he looked up at Vivien, and she smiled like summer. "Her father -" Merlin began awkwardly.
"Dead," she said, "killed in the battle of the five armies. I am not a warrior, so Ninane is legally a ward of the Empire." She came to a sudden stop. "Mordred said he would have her-"
"Enough," he cut her off. "Enough."
"Merlin - I couldn't let them-"
"Enough, dear friend. That's enough."
"You must let me say it."
"No," he said. "I do not want to know the terms of the bargain."
He rubbed his eyes wearily and was silent for a moment. "To trade a life for a life... it's wrong, Vivien, always. But when the life traded is your own-" he cut himself off. "That I've done. And don't believe, Vivien - don't believe for an instant that I wouldn't willingly die for you. Or for this child. It would not even be hard."
Then he then smiled - a very self-aware, careful smile. "Next time, though - ask. You said something a moment ago about tea?"
? ? ?
Ace sat at one end of the kitchen table, on the edge of the conversation, nursing cups of black currant tea, playing naughts and crosses with Ninane. And trying not to feel as if she was eavesdropping.
Twice, Merlin skirted the subject of his imprisonment and escape, and finally even Vivien let it drop. The sun streamed in, diffused by the drawn shade into a gold glow. In it, the two friends sat, looking like a figures in a text, the image bright and the edges gilded. Vivien spoke with graceful, unaffected gestures, as if she were drawing curves of brightness in the air. Merlin leaned forward in the stiff chair, smiling easily and laughing frequently. He had the same ease with her that he had with Bleys, and she wondered how long they had known each other. It occurred to her that if Morgaine's people really lived twelve hundred years at least, then the two of them might be of an age. She wondered what difference it made to a man who was as old as the oldest trees, to be the same age as another soul.
However long they had lived, they talked now like any human couple who know they have only a very little time. She had seen it before - people parting over coffee in the cheesy cafe of the Ice World space port. They always amazed her, those generous moments. The sunlight grew slowly red. When the sun sank behind the buildings opposite and the light abruptly dimmed, Merlin fell silent, looking at the grey covered window. Vivien kept her eyes on his face, as if memorizing it. Finally he turned to her.
"Come with me," he said.
There was a hyphen of stillness. "Merlin... when I close my eyes, you are behind them. But I have a daughter. This is our home."
Merlin stiffened for an instant, as if at a sudden pain. Then he nodded, his eyes black.
"But Mordred-" Ace objected.
"It was Mordred who drove the bargain," said Vivien with surprising mildness. "But it was with Morgaine that I made it. And I kept it - for that let me be forgiven."
"But-" said Ace.
"She's right, Ace. Morgaine will honour her agreement."
"But she's a b-"
Merlin cut her off "-swaggering, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood. But honourable. Honourable to the last." He stood. "We intend to destroy the gate. I happen to know we won't succeed, but it may be down for centuries."
"We must go. It is dangerous - to you and to us - to stay."
"Your coming has eased a bitter pain," she said.
"Eased it?" he said. "Erase it, Vivien. I have no pain; erase yours!"
Vivien bowed her head. Merlin embraced her, holding her for a long, long moment. Finally he released her, taking a step back. "If you ever need me - just call. It doesn't matter how. Just call. I will hear you."
"Someday I will," she said.
"Hey," said Ace. "I'm sorry I was hard on you. I didn't know."
"You couldn't have known."
"He did, though," she said, gesturing at Merlin. "He knew all along. I just thought someone should tell you that."
"Thank you, Ace." She smiled, and for an instant, feeling the warmth of that smile directed towards her, Ace could see that she was breathtakingly lovely. Then she gave Ace grin that knocked a decade off her face. She rumpled Merlin's hair. "Look after him for me, will you?"
? ? ?
Ace felt better about making their way through the fairy-tale city under the cover of twilight. The people they meet were expected no invasion and saw no invaders, but the gathering dark was still a good disguise. Between the houses, lanterns sprang to life. Ace watched them, playing the old game of trying to will them to come on as they passed. Merlin kept an uncharacteristic silence - not even favouring them with a walking tune - but his step was easy.
In the courtyard outside the temple he stopped beneath a line of darkened lanterns that hung suspended from the colonnades. He stood looking up past them at the face on the alien moon. He glanced at her and smiled. "Fiat lux," he said, and the lanterns began to glow. "It is always a new world."
Ace took his offered hand and they walked towards the entrance.
"Merlin," a voice, sharp and mocking, drifted up to them. "Free! And come meddling again!" Ace recognized the dark figure stepping out from behind a carved pillar immediately. Mordred, sword in hand. She moved to stand beside the Merlin, her hand resting on the hilt of the borrowed sword. "Did you really think not to be noticed?"
"If you had noticed me before this instant, Mordred," said the magician, pleasantly, but with something dangerous underneath the tone, "you would not be alone right now."
"You are sure that I am alone?"
"You don't have that much style."
Mordred sneered. "You have been to visit my tool, I warrant. I hope you left her alive - she is very useful."
Merlin's willow wand frame stiffened. "Mordred," he said, his voice suddenly as dark and hard as ice on the summer seas, "you have all honour of a Gila monster. And significantly less personality." He shuddered and the tension drained visibly from him. "I'm tired of you. Go away."
"I will have your hearts first, meddler." Mordred stepped forward menacingly. Ace clenched the pommel of her sword. She could feel the graven hilt marking her palm. <I>You're likely to use it on a counter stroke</I>, said her own voice in her head. <I>It's best to aim for the belly</I>. She closed her eyes and took a step forward.
Merlin dropped an hand onto her shoulder.
The ground shook and Mordred froze. Merlin threw up his right hand as if calling down lightning. There was a blazing white light in it. Weird shadows spun around him. Sparks shot between his fingers. "I am not drugged and helpless this time," he said softly. "Think twice before you give me excuse to avenge my friend's pain."
"You cannot cozen me. You will not kill, Merlin." He jumped back as Merlin hurled something at his feet. The firecracker exploded with a bang and a small shower of sparks.
Merlin smiled grimly. "Try me," he said. The ground shook again, rattling Ace's teeth.
Mordred sheathed his sword and glared. "Your time will come, magician."
"Run away, Mordred," said Merlin wearily. "Run away."
Mordred spun on his heel and stalked off. Merlin turned his back and walked into the temple. Ace followed, watching the dark man over her shoulder. When she turned back, he saw Merlin blowing on his right palm. He noticed her scrutiny. " Sparkler," he said, waving the hand at her. The palm was covered in soot. "Palmed it. I think I'm a bit singed."
"You could have been a bit perforated. Nice trick with the earthquake."
"Yes," he agreed. "Very dramatic."
"It was the least I could do." Ace nearly jumped out of her skin. The Doctor was leaning against the pillar, looking casual and self-satisfied as a cat. "Magic is like drama, you know. It's all a matter of timing."
"For example... " Merlin prompted tolerantly.
"For example, the remote end of Morgaine's gate is going to form here in about five minutes. The preliminary effects include small ground tremors, minor spatial distortions, probability failures, that sort of thing. If timed just right, it looks like a very impressive display of sorcerous power."
"Or you can stick firecrackers up your sleeve," said Ace.
"Speaking of timing. . . when the entrance and the exit of the gate coincide, it would be a good time to be elsewhere." Merlin glanced at the Doctor. "I do hope you haven't removed the escape clause?"
The Doctor affected a crushed look. "Me, take out the escape clause? The remote will still manifest itself in Camelot."
Merlin looked up sharply at the looming grey pillars. The tops of them were impossibly far away, and the roof seemed to droop between them.
His eyebrows flew upward. "Let's get out of here," said Ace.
The Doctor looked a little alarmed. "Mind you, I may have underestimated the severity of the preliminary effects." He grabbed Ace's hand, and the three of them ran towards the gate entrance, on the other side of the great hall. The Doctor threw himself under the control panel, and Merlin braced himself lightly against a pillar as they waited for the shimmering portal to form. "I think I may be allergic to spatial distortions," he muttered. "How long?"
The Doctor consulted his watch, watching the minute hand spin. He jumped as a large chunk of masonry fell and shattered a few yards away. The device bleeped. "Two minutes." The roof abruptly returned to normal.
"Doctor," said Ace, "someday we're going to have a nice long talk about acceptable safety standards."
Merlin laughed. Then his laughter was cut off by a sharp, strangled cry.
Ace whirled in time to see Merlin fall to his knees. Mordred braced a hand against the magician's shoulder and wrenched his sword free from where it had caught between the other's ribs. Merlin crashed heavily on his side. He raised his hand to ward off the blow Mordred aimed at his head.
Ace cried out and sprang forward, drawing her sword, but the Doctor was quicker. He blocked the descending sword with his umbrella, and turned the parry into an elegant prise de fairethat had no business working against a long sword. It worked anyway. Mordred found himself with his sword hopelessly bound in the black oilskin, the tip of the little man's odd weapon at his Adam's apple, and the girl's short blade at his belly. "Drop it!" she snarled.
Mordred looked around wildly, and found his eyes caught as hopelessly as his blade. The Doctor fixed him with a stare. They stayed frozen like that for an instant, the tableaux broken only by Merlin's desperate thrashing. "She will kill you," the Doctor said, in a voice so cold it made even Ace shudder. She wondered he was telling the truth.
"Drop your sword." The sword fell from Mordred's senseless hands, and the Doctor leaned forward and tapped him sharply behind one ear. Mordred collapsed in a heap beside his fallen weapon. The Doctor was on his knees almost as quickly.
"What did you do to him?" Ace cried.
"Not now," the Doctor replied gruffly. "Help me." He was kneeling beside the magician, stilling his struggles with one hand on his right shoulder, trying with the other hand to pull back the white tunic to get a clear look at the wound. Ace fished a utility knife from her pocket and knelt beside him, pushing his hand out of the way. It was covered with orangish blood and trembling. The Doctor held the magician still as she ripped the ruined shirt open along the seam. She could see the wound clearly - and fervently wished she couldn't. There was not much blood, all things considered, but there was a deep puncture wound that frothed and hissed with escaping air. She felt ill.
"Punctured lung," said the Doctor grimly. He grabbed a paisley kerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the wound, then seized Ace's hands and pushed them against it. Ace held the makeshift bandage on tightly, but it didn't seem to do much good. The magician's breathing sounded shallow and laboured, and only the right side of his chest moved at all. His gaunt face had already taken on a bluish tinge, and his eyes looked unfocussed. He had stopped thrashing. His left hand lay still, but his right wandered, as if he were searching for something blindly, in the dark.
The Doctor slapped him lightly. "Listen to me," he said. "Listen to me. You're hurt. You can't breathe. You have to put yourself into a trance. You have to retreat."
The magician swallowed hard, as if he were trying to speak. The desperate struggle of his breathing was terrible to hear. His mutable eyes were black and round, and he stared fixedly at his other self. The Doctor took his searching hand, holding it gently. "I'll get you back," he said softly. "I promise. Only go now." Merlin nodded, just perceptibly, and his gaze strayed to the ceiling. He blinked once, twice, and then, to Ace's horror, his eyes lost all their life. The Doctor gasped as if from a sudden pain, and dropped the other's hand.
"Is he..." Ace whispered.
"No," replied the Doctor. "Only withdrawn. He can live longer like that. But we have to act fast."
There was a sudden deep rumbling, almost below Ace's edge of hearing. "We have to act somewhere else. This whole place is going to go up in smoke."
"More likely come down in flames, I think, but you're quite right." The Doctor scrambled to his feet and stood there, unsteadily, looking around with a desperate edge that unnerved Ace almost as much as the magician's unnatural stillness. He seemed completely at a loss. The temple shook, visibly this time.
Ace turned on Mordred, who was looking up at her as blankly as Merlin was looking at the ceiling. "Good news, you bastard," she said. "We're going to save your miserable life. Help us get him out of here."
Dazed, Mordred inched away from her like a crab, then clambered to his feet and ran.
"Never mind," said the Doctor, "the gate's open, help me with him." She took Merlin's shoulders, and the Doctor took his feet. <I>Dead weight</I>, Ace thought, then shivered. Somehow they managed to take the few shambling steps to the shimmering gate, and fell through it, whirling.
They landed in a heap on fresh rushes of the floor of Merlin's tower room. "What-" said Ace, sitting up.
"The TARDIS," gasped the Doctor, lurching to his feet. "The medical bay." He closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating as Merlin had when finding him in the dungeon, ages ago. "There," he said, shoving the tapestry aside. He lay his palm against the front of the armoire, scrambling through his pockets for his key. Then, astonishingly, the front of the wardrobe creaked open.
Ace jumped up from her place against the corridor wall when the Doctor came out of the medical bay. His expression was blank and his face almost grey. His cream jacket and his hands were speckled with blood.
"Come in," he said. Ace entered slowly, frightened at what she might find. "I think he'll live," said the Doctor quietly, and with no great conviction. The magician's colouring had lost its blue tinge, and his breathing was even, but the stillness with which he lay was deathly. Ace hesitated at the Doctor's side. He reached out and took her by the shoulder. "I need..." he began, and Ace felt him tremble, a bone-deep shudder. "His self has withdrawn," he continued. "I must bring him back. But I need to rest." He paused, closing his eyes for a moment.
"Stay with him. Just - be here," he finished. Ace nodded mutely, and the Doctor dropped his hand. "I'll be close. Call if... anything..."
"Are you all right?" she asked.
The Doctor shook his head - a small, weary gesture which could be either a yes or a no. "We are linked. I can feel..." He paused. "He's going to be all right, Ace. But I'm tired." Impulsively, Ace caught his sagging body up in a fierce hug. After a moment, he hugged her back and pulled away, managing a smile and a nod. "It will be all right," he said with more conviction. "Just give me a little time." She nodded, and he squeezed her shoulders before letting go and leaving the little room.
There was a wing chair with a couple of blankets thrown on the seat sitting at t he bed side. Ace remembered it, from the last time the Doctor had patched some scrape. It had been by the door. She wondered who had moved it, and whose bedside they had sat. She shied from the thought. Merlin's bare shoulders were nearly as white as the sheet around them, and long strands of black hair lay across his face like wounds.
Chilled, Ace wrapped the top blanket, a small blue afghan, irregularly stitched a bit ravelled at the edges, around her shoulders like a shawl. The other blanket was of brilliant red Angora wool, heavy and of fine workmanship. She hesitated a moment, then covered the magician as he lay still as death. The bright fabric brought an illusion of colour, a fever blush, to his skin. She reached to brush the hair from his face.
<B><I>No transition. No discontinuity. A dream change: Ace standing on a white stair, beneath a blinding white sky.</I></B>
Her outstretched hand touched a wall of grey mist, a few steps above her. Her fingers were numb. She snatched her hand away. Her skin was milk-white, her clothing the white of nothing there. She could barely see her own hands against the white ground. The stair was so long she couldn't see the bottom, and so broad she couldn't see the edge. It had no horizon, only dwindling to a vanishing point, like a theory of distance. Down and a little way to one side was a dark speck. Ace shrugged a nothing-better-to-try shrug, and started to walk towards it.
The directionless light from the sky cast few shadows on the white stair. Ace walked stiffly, unable to see where she set her feet, or judge the height of the next step. Three times she stumbled, catching herself hard on the invisible ground. Once she fell several steps before stopping her tumble. She got up. Her legs had begun to ache with the thought of a fall down those endless stairs. She rubbed at her eyes with her ghost hands, hoping she wouldn't go snow-blind. Wondering if she would be able to tell.
The grey wall behind her had vanished. The black figure was the only landmark. Her footfalls made no sound. Slowly the speck resolved itself into the figure of a man in a dark cloak, sitting with knees drawn up and head down. Ace tried to call to him, but her voice fell dead before it reached even her own ears. The distance was strange, as if she were getting closer faster than she was walking. A few more steps and she reached to touch him, hoping that she could, that her fingers wouldn't slid through him.
She lay a hand on the man's shoulder, and he raised his head to look at her. Hi s face was a glowing blur of many different faces, utterly alien. She yanked her hand back. Then, suddenly, it was Merlin looking up at her, his expression incurious and weary. Ace had seen that look, exactly once, on the face of a young soldier, wounded by Dalek fire, past pain or fear, dying. The horror of that moment came soaring up at her. "Doctor!" she cried.
He looked at her blankly for a long moment. Then a touch of puzzlement crossed his face. "Ace?"
The stair folded like a funhouse ride. Ace slipped, fell, and began to slide.
<B><I>A dream change: Ace sprawled on a flat plain, under a white sky which was slowly becoming grey and possible.</I></B>
Merlin reached down and helped her to her feet. Her hand in his looked as if it had been sketched in ink and hastily shaded. As she stared, a hint of black appeared at the cuff of the jacket she was suddenly wearing, a touch of peach pooled in the wrinkles were her thumb meet her hand. Out of some superstitious instinct, she tore her eyes away. "Where are we?" she asked. "What happened?"
"I was looking for something," he said, not really replying. "I couldn't find it. I don't know how to get back." Ace followed his gaze out to the horizon the plane had suddenly acquired. The horizon and the fading light made the place less unreal, but there was little to see.
Her hand, still held loosely in his, felt warm. She glanced at it. Her hand was now an oil painting rather than a sketch, still unreal. And covered with very real blood. "You're bleeding," she said.
Merlin looked down. His cloak vanished, and one sleeve of his oxford shirt was rolled up to the elbow. A paisley scarf was tied tightly around his arm. Just below the makeshift tourniquet, a bandage did not quite conceal a terrible wound.
He stared at it silently for a space of a dozen heartbeats. "This isn't right, " he murmured at last. "This is a different time." The button-down shirt was a medieval tunic again. Ace was starting to find the changes a little dizzying. The seam of the tunic was intact where she had ripped it open, and there was no blood stain. Merlin looked at Ace. "But why are you here? Are you real?"
Ace looked wryly down at her fictional hands. A choked cry of surprise cut of a ny reply she might have made. Her hands were flesh and blood again, but scarred with lesions like fresh burns. She touched her face, and her fingers finding burns where her skin had gone numb. There was pain, too, but it was far away, unreal as her body had been a moment ago. Her hair came out in her hands. "What's happening to me?" she asked, alarmed by the touch of hysteria in her own voice.
Merlin gently brushed her hair away from her forehead, tilting up her face, looking at her closely for the first time since she had found him in this chimerical place. His fingers came away wet and red. "It's the radiation," he said, with infinite sorrow. "Radiation burns can make the blood seep through undamaged skin."
"Radiation," Ace repeated numbly, looking down at her hands. Her palms were bleeding. Cold gathered in her stomach.
"I couldn't repair all the damage. There was too much genetic mutation. Too much cell death."
"Are you telling me that I'm dead?"
He shook his head as if denying it, but he said, "I couldn't save you. You saved me, but I couldn't save you." With sudden violence, his sorrow transformed itself. He whirled furiously away from her. "This isn't right," he said, his anger laced by confusion. "This was long ago. I don't want to see it again!" Ace felt the strange burns vanish as if they had never been. Merlin's back was to her, but she could see in the set of his shoulders that his anger had burned itself out. "She seems real," he whispered.
"Look," said Ace, grabbing his shoulder and turning him around. "I don't know where we are, or why I'm here, but I am real. I've never been dead in my life. And you're not hurt," she continued, talking fast. "I mean, you were hurt, but the Doctor healed you. He said that you were gone, and he had to bring you back."
"The Doctor," he repeated. "You and the Doctor came here?"
"Don't you remember?"
"And I was wounded," he said slowly. "Mordred stabbed me. Yes. Yes, I remember." He took her hand. She was startled to find herself back in the brown and red cloak. Her hand was real and whole, as if it had never been hurt, but her blood still stained his fingers. "I'm sorry, Ace. Did I hurt you?"
"No," she said gently. "Are you all right?"
"No," he replied. "I can't stay here. I can't find the way back."
He put a hand against his side. A bright red stain spread slowly where his wound had been. He pressed as if trying to work out why it didn't hurt him. The lively fluidity of his face had vanished, and in its place was something blank, ugly. She thought it might be despair.
"So where are we, anyway?" she said lightly.
"Inside my mind."
"Oh," said Ace. Surveying the vast, empty plain, she found herself caught between boredom and awe. "Bit dull, isn't it?"
? ? ?
They had been walking over the empty plane for a measureless time. They were not walking towards anything, or with any goal. It was only habit that kept them moving now, like a song that gets stuck in your head. Left foot, right foot, step, step. It just seemed better than standing. Merlin moved listlessly, not looking around. Not, granted, Ace thought, that there was much to see. She tried starting conversations, but he answered her, when he did, in a voice so colourless that it was barely his. Ace was used to talking to the Doctor when he had delegated some small part of himself to do mundane things like hold conversations while the rest of him worked on some life-or-death problem - like boiling water. This was different. He was not absent, he was diminished. Like the plane they walked on, he was blank, empty.
And the effect seemed progressive, as if he were walking away from himself. <I>He can't stay here</I>, Ace thought. She bit her lip helplessly and walked on beside him.
But now it was snowing. It was so incongruous, so improbable, that Ace laughed aloud. "Snow day!" she cried. Snow covered the ground, spilled in over the tops of her shoes. Huge white flakes, perfect uniform hexagons, danced down, catching in her eyelashes, in the magician's glossy black hair. She twirled, laughing. "What's this?"
Merlin stood there, silently smiling at her exuberance. For an instant, her heart leapt to see some - any - expression on his face. But he held his harlequin cloak close about his body, and his smile was harlequin sad. He shivered. Ace stopped twirling. "What is it?"
His mouth quirked grimly. "I was just thinking that I was cold," he replied.
"You're cold, so your mind gives us snow," she said. "What's wrong with that?"
He shrugged off the question and huddled deeper within his cloak. He was shivering violently.
"Hey!" Ace seized him by the shoulders. "What's the matter? Snap out of it!" Under her hands, she felt a shudder run through him.
"But you're not! I saw you, you're fine."
"I'm dying, Ace, " he said gently. His knees buckled and he sat down, heavily, on the snow-covered ground.
She crouched beside him. The snow came almost to her knees but, like white foam in a Christmas display, it was not cold. The loss of detail frightened her. She striped off her cloak, and made to wrap it around his shoulders. "What's this?" he said, taking it from her. In this hands was a blanket of brilliant red wool . She touched it - and remembered, with a vision so clear it shocked her, wrapping it around him once before, as he lay hurt in another world.
"It's real!" she exclaimed. "I got it from a chair in the medical bay."
"Real?" he said, and something dawned in his eyes, a hope as slim as a first volume of poems. He wrapped the blanket around his shoulders.
"It's warm," he said, so low she could hardly hear him. She touched the soft wool, and indeed, as if the colour were heat, it had a warmth of its own. The magician bowed his head, and seemed to draw colour and heat, and in a curious, undefinable way, solidity, from the blanket. Ace felt the snow grow suddenly cold, the air charge with static.
"Where this comes from," Merlin whispered, tweaking a fold of red wool, "the weather is brutal and the sea, by which the people live, claims many lives." The light of his features was rekindling, but with it came a touch of blue to his eyelids, and blood around his mouth and nose. "The woman who gave this to me had lost two sons. By luck I saved the last, the youngest. They make fair things, there. Bright, strong. And this," he ran blue-tinged fingers along the ragged edge of the afghan that was abruptly around Ace's shoulders, "a child made this for me, to cheer me up. I was lost, you see, and in a bit of trouble..."
His voice was weakening, becoming a small, feverish whisper. "It was her first try, but I told her I liked loose ends - oh -" With little sound of discovery, or of pain, Merlin slumped sideways. Ace lunged to catch him, and almost fell herself, tangled in a loose thread that ran from the shawl, through his fingers, and out towards the horizon. She wrapped both arms around him, keeping him sitting upright. If he falls, she thought, he'll never get up.
Merlin regarded the bit of yarn, and grinned suddenly, weakly. "The original clew. Now there's a nice, obvious symbol. How unlike me."
He coughed jaggedly, and couldn't stop coughing. He doubled over against it, and Ace held his shoulders, stroked his hair, trying to soothe him.
The snow fell on them, silent, each flake tiny and infinitely detailed.
When the fit was over and he lay back against her, exhausted. He wiped the blood away from his lips with a trembling hand. His breath was shallow and rapid she could feel only one side of his chest move at all.
"Obvious," he said again. "Must be slipping..." Ace sighted along the thread. It was an obvious symbol - a lifeline. She could almost feel it tremble urgently in her hand, as if someone at the other end tugged a signal. "Can you walk, if I help you?"
"Hmm..." Merlin whispered. "Let's find out, shall we?"
Ace stood, grabbed the tall man under the arms, and pulled him awkwardly to his feet. He leaned heavily into her. "Right," he panted, "off we go."
Ace started to pull his left arm over her shoulder, but he gave a truncated cry and crumpled around the strain in his wounded left side. "Sorry," she murmured, and taking his other arm as he shook his head in negation. "It's all right," he said, stifling another coughing spell. "The realism... is a good sign. Let's go."
Merlin had managed to get his feet under him, and leaning on Ace's shoulder, he began to walk, following the thread. His left arm hugged tight across his body, holding the red blanket on as if holding himself together. The thread disappeared into his fist like a conjurer's handkerchiefs. Ace walked beside him, shouldering as much of his weight as she could and trying not to jar him. She kept hold of the thread with her free hand. "How far is it?"
"The distance between - dream and waking." He was breathing oddly, taking deep breaths, holding them, and exhaling explosively, like a man trying to lift something heavy. His eyes were nearly closed. "I don't - know. It's sym-symbolic. I hope - not far." He stumbled, twisting as Ace's grip broke the fall with a jerk. She felt his body go rigid. Gently, she drew him upright.
Merlin raised his head and opened his slitted eyes a little. "There-" Perhaps fifty meters in front of them, up a sharp slope, there loomed a wall of grey fog. Ace sighed in relief. Merlin put his head down and kept walking. He stumbled twice in that small distance, the second time so suddenly that she couldn't entirely break his fall. He landed hard on one knee, a sharp gasp torn from his lips. He said nothing as she helped him up, but glanced up to check the length of the thread ahead, and began walking again. The distance closed, one dragging step at a time. When they drew to a stumbling halt with in arms' reach of the strange barrier, Merlin leaned gratefully on her shoulder, his eyes closed, not even looking at the grey wall. They stood like that a few moments, until she heard his rasping breath even out, felt the tremor in his thin body die down. "How do you feel?" she asked.
"Almost real," he replied, opening his eyes. "It's a mixed blessing." He reached out experimentally, touching the fog where the thread entered the wall. His hand vanished into it. "`Yet let us hence,'" he murmured, half chanting, "`and find or feel a way thro' this blind haze which hath folded in the passes of the world.' It's cold," he said in a stronger voice, "but I don't think it's wide." Gingerly, he straightened up, standing under his own power. He took a deep breath, smothered a cough, and half turned to face her. "Once more, dear friend, int-"
Without warning Merlin collapsed, falling against Ace like some classical pose of grief. For an instant it stayed real; she stood, staggered by the sudden weight, straining to hold him up. And then he vanished from her arms as if he had never been. She felt herself going, her new-found solidity dissolving like sugar, becoming liquid, air...
"Ace!" the Doctor roared. He had a fierce grip on her arm, was pulling her away from the magician, whirling her around into his embrace. She found herself clutching his shoulders with the strength of drowning. She still had the blue thread clenched in her fist. "Ace," said the Doctor, "What-"
She turned to the magician's still body. An alarm was sounding somewhere. He was not breathing. Wrapped in one limp hand was the other end of the thread. She took a hold of her end, and pulled with all her strength.
Merlin sat up sharply, one hand holding the thread, the other holding one of the Doctor's hands. Ace had not seen him reach out. "Oh!" the magician said, the surprise on his face was so comic that Ace grinned from ear to ear. "Pass on and on, and go from less to less and vanish into light!" He blinked, and came fully into the world with a start, like a cat that falls off its perch as it sleeps. He looked up at Ace, the Doctor. "Thank you," he said breathlessly. "Thank you both." He took Ace's hand, and squeezed, then held her, grinning, as she threw both arms around his neck. Then, abruptly serious, he reached past her, touching a spot of blood on the Doctor's sleeve, a question in his eyes.
"A bit shaken, perhaps," the Doctor answered him. "Not an experience I'd care to repeat."
Ace turned and looked at him, concerned. Merlin nodded fractionally. The magician clambered out of the hospital bed, took the red blanket, folded it into a fair imitation of a Gaelic cloak. He sagged against the wing chair. What little natural dignity he had was completely overwhelmed by his wild hair and impromptu costume. Toga party, thought Ace involuntarily, covering another grin. As if he had read her mind, Merlin blushed. "Excuse me a moment," he murmured.
The Doctor watched him leave, then spun on his heel, stripped off his jacket and dropped it on a corner work bench, and began scrubbing his blood-speckled hands and wrists at the sink. He took off his cufflinks, shoved them into a pocket, and rolled up his sleeves, hiding the places where blood had soaked through his jacket and stained his white shirt. Ace looked at him, human in shirtsleeves, his hands dripping, and could think of nothing to say.
Merlin returned in an improbably short time, wearing a white linen tunic with blue and gold embroidery at the cuffs and collar, but still barefoot, and a little unsteady on his feet. He was braiding his hair with his right hand, awkwardly, as he entered. He still held his left arm tightly across his body. He looked sharply at the Doctor, saw something there - and across his guileless face there flashed a little pain. "I'm sorry," he said awkwardly. "I know-" The Doctor gestured curtly.
Merlin sank into the chair, trying to catch his breath. "You saved my life," he said.
"Don't mention it," the Doctor said sharply.
"Where'd you learn the sword play?" Ace asked into the stiff silence.
"Cyrano," the Doctor replied, trying to take up the change of subject. "I made up his jokes, he taught me to fence."
"Isn't he fictional?"
The Doctor shrugged. "Aren't we all?"
It had taken both of them to get Merlin back into bed. He had protested that he was fine, but he held himself with an uncharacteristic carefulness. Finally Gawyn, who had storming in during the middle of the argument and demanded a full report, had threatened to brain him with the hilt of his sword. Merlin had refused to return to the TARDIS, and had laid down on the little pallet in his tower room. Once there, he had gone instantly to sleep. For hours, now.
Ace, who had never seen the Doctor in real, natural sleep, had commandeered the stool and was keeping vigil at his bedside, watching his eyes flicker behind his closed lids. She wondered what he dreamed about. Occasionally she looked over at the Doctor, who sat perfectly still in the big wicker chair, staring out the window.
Gawyn sat cross-legged on the floor near the foot of the bed, laying Merlin's hodgepodge cards on the floor in elaborate patterns. Ace saw the hanged man turn up, and the fool, and the page of cups. The ace of swords, a red ace of spades, an ordinary queen of spades, a white card with a black square in the centre, and one card that had the back pattern on both sides. She wondered if he was playing some rule-less solitaire or casting fortunes. Or just keeping his hands busy. Once in a while he would square the deck with furious precision, get up, and make a few aimless, tense circuits of the room, like a panther. On one of these, he stopped suddenly, leaning against the door, biting his lip. Ace realized she was staring at him. It was easy; he was the only thing in motion.
"What?" he said shortly. Then, "What is it, Ace?"
"Do you think we should get Bleys?"
"There's little enough he can do." He straighten up. "On the other hand, he would wish to be here. And I wish for something to do."
He retrieved his cloak from the hat rack. "I'll go. I'll bring back supper, while I'm at it." He turned in the doorway. "Ace - Thanks."
? ? ?
The Doctor sat in the wicker chair and looked at the blown glass ball hanging in the window. In the fitful light, it gleamed dully, like a soap bubble. The workmanship was more twentieth century Amish than twelfth century English, if indeed it was human. The swirl of colours was brightest in the ultraviolet, just beyond the human range. To his eyes, it blazed like a beacon in a sudden ray of sun. He wondered when he had acquired it, but couldn't recall. He tried to imagine buying it, wrapping it carefully, transporting it for years, centuries. "Strange," he breathed, "what one can't remember."
"Professor?" Ace had moved up beside him, and now put a hand on his shoulder. "You all right?"
"I shouldn't be here, Ace," he replied. "It should never have happened."
"You saved his life-"
"He saved mine. More than saved it - created it. I wouldn't exist if it weren't for him. Nor you." The Doctor set the glass spinning on its thread, the colours whirling like possibilities. "Oh, Ace - there are lives I could save. And now I know that it is possible." The glass spun more slowly, stopped, and slowly began to spin backwards. The Doctor stared at it without blinking. "But how should I presume? And how should I begin?
"The future shouldn't touch the past," the Doctor sighed. "Reality is fragile, Ace. Like a soap bubble. It doesn't bear much dissection. And life... life is the most fragile thing of all."
"Even mine. I had almost forgotten."
? ? ?
At sunset, Bleys had come. Merlin was still sleeping. The old man was heavily cloaked, leaning on a staff that would do credit to Gandalf. "Gawyn said Merlin was hurt," he said by way of greeting when the Doctor opened the door. Ace took his cloak from him, but he kept his staff.
"He was," said the Doctor, regarding the stranger cautiously. "He's only sleeping at the moment, I think."
"A wholesome sleep will cure much harm and horror," Bleys nodded. "Though usually one hasn't much hope of getting that one into bed."
The Doctor raised won't-you-introduce-us eyebrows at Ace, who started guiltily. "Doctor," she said, "this is Bleys. Bleys, this is the Doctor."
"Yes," said the old magician, regarding the Doctor with an intensity that even the Time Lord seemed to find uncomfortable. "Yes, I know who this is."
Merlin saved the moment by coming to with a jolt and sitting up sharply. He immediately sank back down. Ace dashed to his side. "Oh dear," he murmured. "This is what humans mean about getting up too fast, isn't it?"
"You have spent far too much time in that bed, child." Bleys hovered by Ace's shoulder. The Doctor hung back.
"Yes, yes, I'm getting up," Merlin answered, abstracted. Then he focused as if someone had flipped a switch. "Bleys!" he said, delighted, raising himself up on his elbows. "What have I done that my home merits the honour of the visit?"
Bleys gently pushed Merlin onto his back. "Nearly gotten yourself killed. Again. And you are not getting up." He seated himself on the edge of the bed, laying a palm flat against Merlin's forehead. "It is not normal for you to be so cold," he said. "But your colour looks good," he put both hands against the magician's chest, "and your hearts' beat is only a little fast. Your breathing - you have injured your lung? A bruised rib?"
"It was a little more serious than that," said the Doctor. "But I think I have repaired the worst of the damage."
Bleys turned and regarded him as if taking his measure. Slowly, he nodded, then turned back on Merlin. "Your eyes look strange," he said, after another moment of scrutiny. "The pupils are even, and see the light, but the colour is wrong, the focus too far away."
"I was some time lost away from my body," Merlin explained, as if there were nothing the least fantastic about it. And maybe, thought Ace, there wasn't, for Bleys took it in the same spirit. "Ace guided me back."
Bleys peered at Ace. "I don't know your eyes well," he said. "But you seem unhurt, though troubled. Is that so?"
"Just a little worried about... them," she answered.
"This one will be fine. He will stay abed for three days, to be sure."
"Will he now?" said Merlin, almost laughing.
"He will, for I will tell Gawyn that he should."
Merlin did laugh, and Gawyn, as if on cue, came in with a basket of food. "Then he will," said the knight. "At sword's point if necessary."
"He is a wise man," said Bleys, "to take wise advice."
"I have apples, bread, and cheese. Isavel near ran me through with a carving knife when I tried for meat. I told her you were hurt, though, so she will probably be by with a feast later."
Bleys rose, leaning into his staff. He hobbled up to the Doctor, who was gazing out the window again. "You will be leaving?" he asked gently.
The Doctor turned to him. "Soon," he said. "The craft by which we came has nearly healed itself."
Bleys raised his bushy eyebrows, but didn't press the point. He dropped his voice, pitching it for the Doctor's ears. "He is alive, where he would have been dead. What troubles you?"
"Is it? The responsibility for a life saved is a heavy one, and I well know it. The responsibility for a life lost is heavier."
The Doctor smiled, very slightly, old and sad as rain. "True," he said.
"You're leaving." Merlin had propped himself up in bed. He still looked a bit wan, and his hands shook. Ace realized, as she hadn't before, how very close he had come to death. He folded a paperback into his lap and gave her his full attention.
"Yeah. I guess the TARDIS is almost fixed. How'd you know?"
"Oh. Right." Ace fingered a fold of the black satin self-consciously. "I thought I'd better give Gawyn back his cloak."
"So this will all sort itself out, right?" Merlin looked up at her, puzzled by the tremble of fear in her voice. "No paradoxes or anything?"
"No new ones, at any rate. I doubt Mordred will remember his own name for a bit, much less meeting you, so that takes care of that. The ship is under the lake, the note is in the ship - it will all sort itself out. Time is very neat, you know."
"And you won't be able to save me. I'll save you, but you won't be able to save me."
"No!" Merlin said sharply. He took one of her hands. "No. I did save you, in the end. And you saved me. Again. I'm sorry, Ace - I should have realized that you'd wonder about that."
She bit her lip, looking at her hand in his. She remembered the last time he'd held it, with her blood on his fingers. "What - can you tell me? What happens to me?"
He smiled a delightful smile. "I haven't the faintest idea. Your future is your own, Ace. Great things, terrible things, high adventure and high comedy. Love and..." he gestured expansively, and Ace laughed with relief. "Isn't it great to be young and in danger?"
"Yeah," she laughed, half crying. "It is."
The magician smiled up at her, and in a gesture that was becoming as familiar as his smile, turned one hand over with a flourish. His weakened hands were clumsy, and Ace thought she could almost see the trick, the little jump that should not be there, like the universe moving an inch to one side and snapping back. "For you," he said. She took the little package from him, taking the wrapping paper off with relish.
Inside was an embroidered patch featuring a playing card - a red ace of spades. "It's not the best thing for the time line," he said, "but remember me, if you can."
He shook his head a little. "That's too long a word, even for me, Ace. For a little while, that's all I want."
"For a little while," she repeated, and threw her arms around him.
He embraced her. "I'm young, Ace," he said, in a voice filled with wonder. "Try not to let me forget it."
The Doctor popped his head around the door. "Ace, coming?" He caught Merlin's eyes. "We're off. But I suppose you know that."
Merlin gave a small laugh. "I used to be so bad at goodbyes. Farewell, Doctor. `And so the grand epic comes full circle, `rounded, bright and done'."
"All this could easily have gone another way," said the Doctor. "Doubtless there are universes where it did. I'm glad this isn't one of them. Goodbye, Merlin. Good luck."
"Ace," said Merlin, "keep him out of harm's way, hmm? It needs doing."
"Too right," the Doctor said.
? ? ?
The Doctor opened his umbrella and wrapped an arm around Ace's shoulder. She slipped an arm around his waist. Through the rain, they walked across the garden, stepped from stone to stone over the little river, and came at last to the TARDIS, setting on the edge of the wood.
Ace fished the key from her jacket pocket, opened the door, squeezed his hand, and slipped inside without a word.
Standing in the doorway of his ship, the Doctor spun the water from his umbrella . The black oilskin had been patched with thread in all the colours of the rainbow. He looked at the whorl of colour, and then past it to the little mound of earth covered with wildflowers and topped with a small carved stone that stood at the edge of the wood. He was too far away to see the device on the stone, but he didn't need to. Almost, he remembered carving it, working the stone with long conjurer's fingers, setting it atop the barrow of newly disturbed earth. He closed his eyes.
There was a fresh mound by the flower-shrouded one. He and Ace stood beside it, she wrapped in the pied blue cape, and he huddled under the hopelessly rent umbrella. He could smell the wet earth and the flowers, and feel an emptiness as if one of his hearts had stopped beating.
He stood at the window of his room and watched them walk away until rain and distance blurred them into possibilities: the woman who might have lived, the person he might have become. For a moment, he felt as if they were real, and he, only a shadow, a fiction. He smiled.
The Doctor opened his eyes, and stood one more moment in the doorway between universes. Then he furled his umbrella with a flourish, swept off his hat, and gave an elaborate fencer's salute to the window of the tower. A flash of colour, like a beacon, answered him. He smiled, a sad, secret smile, and stepped into the world he had created, for love.
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