by Daibhid Ceannaideach & Imran Inayat
It was a quiet afternoon in This Time Round, with only a light scattering of patrons following the lunchtime rush.
Which made it perfect for Allie and Imran, who were sat by the bar, lost in thought, (or 'busy doing nothing', as other, more cynical, onlookers would have it), looking at nothing much in particular, with the assistance of strawberry and vanilla milkshakes, respectively.
As has been often noted, the omniverse _loves_ breaking in on quiet moments like this whenever it gets the chance.
And, unbeknownst to the oblivious Muse and Author, the perfect opportunity for just such an interruption had just come up...
There was a sudden blur of motion, followed by a 'boing-oing-oing-oing' noise that quickly faded into silence.
And standing by the startled Author and Muse was a uniformed delivery man, clipboard and envelope in hand.
Polly bustled over, her clipboard and pen in hand, ready to demand who exactly this was.
The delivery man lifted a hand. "Sorry, ma'am. Won't be a moment."
He turned to Imran and Allie. "SubEx delivery. Registered mail for Mr Imran Inayat."
Imran blinked. "...That's me."
"Sign here, please."
Imran signed on the clipboard.
The delivery man handed him the letter, and disappeared in a 'thwip'.
Polly 'hmph'ed at the vanishing delivery man, and stomped back to her position by the door.
Imran frowned, his forehead furrowing, and opened the envelope.
"What's it say?" Allie asked.
"...It's blank." Imran said.
There was a polite cough, as of someone clearing their throat.
"That would be because I'm voicemail," a rich, fruity voice said.
Allie and Imran stared at the letter.
"Yes, that was me," the letter continued. "That's rather the point of voicemail, you see."
"...You talk." Imran said redundantly.
"Yes." the letter said. "I also sing, dance, and do a fine chicken teriyaki. Of _course_ I talk.
"But that's beside the point. I have a message for a Mr Imran Inayat. Would either of you be willing to take it?"
"That's me," Imran said.
"Really? You do surprise me." The letter cleared its throat again. "Ahem. Message begins.
"'To Mr Imran Inayat:
"'You, and three others of your choosing, are herewith invited to the grand opening of This Toon Round, the animated public house outside continuity, at 6 o'clock this evening.
"'Present this letter at the door, and you will be permitted one free round of drinks.
"'I look forward to seeing you thencewith.
"'Until then, sir, I have the honour to remain your most humble servant,
"...Tardis Tails?" Imran echoed.
The letter cleared its throat. "In the event that you do not recall Master Tails, he begs your pardon, and asks if, perhaps, you might recall him from his appearance in the comic strip 'The Glorious Dead', and his subsequent cameo in your short fiction 'Infinite Eights'?"
"...Yes..." Imran said slowly. "I remember him. But..."
"This _Toon_ Round?" Allie echoed. "Oh my Gods...
"It's gone cartoon."
"Was that a talking letter?" asked Daibhid, who had been at a nearby table with Bob the Muse. "Something from Harry Potter's world, or something?"
"Weirder than that." said Imran, and explained. By the time he'd finished, Daibhid was wearing an expression Bob was all too familar with, and categorised as "deranged enthusiasm".
"Wow! A *cartoon* TTR? And you can take three people with you?"
"Yeah. Allie, obviously, and..." Imran paused.
Bob sighed. "You may notice Daibh now has the expression of a six-year-old who's not sure if he's invited on the trip to the zoo. If you *don't* take him, it's very possible he might explode from frustrated geekery."
"*Do* you want to come, Daibhid?" Allie asked.
Daibhid pulled a Dis-Organiser out of his pocket. "I've nothing else happening 'till next week, so I might as well." he said, casually. Bob rolled his eyes.
"How about you, Bob?" asked Imran. "You interested?"
"A bit. It sounds like something worth seeing once, at least."
"OK. Let's go."
"Yay!" said Daibhid, forgetting his casual pose. Bob sighed again.
Allie raised her eyebrows. "So how do we get there?"
Imran lifted a finger, and then lowered it again. "...You don't know?"
Allie shook her head. "Never been. I know where the Plot HOLEs around here _are_ - but I don't know where they lead."
"...Ah." Imran said. "Um..."
"Ahem." the letter said. "That should be quite simple.
"Do any of you have a can of spray-paint?"
The quartet's mutual gaze tracked on over to Francois, looming behind the bar, then to Luna Inverse, who was leaning by the side of the bar, eyes hidden behind her bangs, and simultaneously reached the conclusion that using a can of spray-paint inside would find them on the list of '101 Ways To Commit Suicide In The Round' very, _very_ quickly.
"Er..." Imran said, clearing his throat. "Maybe we should take this outside."
"...Sounds good to me." Daibhid said.
The four of them beat a hasty retreat to the 'Round's car park.
"All right," the letter said. "This should do."
"...Okay," Daibhid said, rummaging through the Rucksack. "Let's see... spray-paint, spray-paint... ah, gotcha."
He frowned at the Rucksack. "Do I want to know /why/ you've got several cans of spray-paint in here?"
The Rucksack contrived to look innocent - or at least, as innocent as it could with Daibhid's hand inside.
Bob raised his eyebrows.
Daibhid sighed, and pulled out a can of black spray-paint. "Okay. What do we do now?"
"Spray it on the ground." the letter said.
Daibhid grinned. "...Oh, _I_ get it..."
"Oh my Gods..." Allie murmured. "Imran?"
"Could we take the many 'Oh my Gods' I'm probably going to find myself saying in the very near future as read?"
Imran winced. "...No problem."
Daibhid uncapped the spray-paint, shook the canister, and sprayed a large circle on the ground, big enough to accommodate the four of them, before returning the canister to the Rucksack and picking it up.
"I /know/ I'm going to regret this..." Allie murmured.
Bob's mouth twitched.
"Okay," Daibhid said. "Here goes..."
The four of them stepped into the circle.
The momentary feeling of solidity beneath their feet gave way to the equally momentary feeling of having /nothing/ beneath their feet-
-before that, in turn, gave way to the _not_-so-momentary feeling of falling.
Allie, Bob, Daibhid and Imran picked themselves up off the ground, and looked around.
"...Okay, _now_ they're just taking the piss," Allie said finally.
They'd ended up somewhere that looked very much like the 'Round's car park, (albeit minus the vehicles, craters, and scorch marks), outside somewhere that looked very much like the 'Round - but for one major difference.
It was animated.
Everything but for the quartet was, well... _painted_ - three-dimensional pictures, with height and width and _depth_.
Imran experimentally tapped the ground with his foot. It felt as solid as it did in the 'normal' world (inasmuch as the 'Round could be said to be 'normal').
Remember Bob Hoskins in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?'? Or Michael Jordan in 'Space Jam'? That's the sort of thing we're trying to get across here.
Bob caught sight of the sign hanging outside the animated 'Round's door, and tapped Daibhid on the shoulder.
"Look," he said.
The other three looked.
The sign read 'This Toon Round'.
"...Imran?" Allie said finally.
"Take it as read."
"Gotcha." Imran said.
Daibhid ventured over to the 'Toon and tried the door.
"...It's locked," he said disappointedly.
"Grand opening at six." Allie reminded him. "We've still got a couple of hours."
"...So what're we gonna do?" Daibhid said.
"Presumably, there's an animated Nameless outside the car park." Bob suggested. "We could have a look round."
"Might as well." Daibhid agreed.
Sadly, the town beyond This Toon Round proved rather sketchily defined. Most of the buildings were identical, and lightly sketched. The effect was somewhat like walking through a council estate in light fog, only completely different.
A voice came from behind them. "Good day, Master Inayat. It would appear that your arrival has been somewhat precipitous."
They turned to see an overweight, Garfield-like cat, with Eighth Doctor's hair and outfit. Tardis Tails.
"Hi, Tardis," said Imran. "This is my muse, Allie, and this is Daibhid Ceannaideach and his muse, Bob the Muse."
"A delight to meet you all. However, as you have doubtless discovered, yonder hostelry is, as yet, unopened, and even my own vaunted powers of persuasion have failed to elicit an early entry, still less a sampling of the scampi."
"Yeah," said Imran. "We were just wondering what to do until then."
Before Tardis could reply, the quartet were distracted by the sight of a figure in a leather trenchcoat and broad-brimmed black hat, walking down the street in a manner that suggested he expected trouble. He had a crossbow larger than he was slung over his shoulder and a complex array of spikes attatched to one wing. If it hadn't been for the minor detail of his being a three-foot cartoon gander, he might even have looked menacing.
Imran and Daibhid exchanged glances.
"That almost looks like..." they said together.
"Only..." they both continued.
"That," Tardis Tails informed them, "was the noted vampire-duck-hunter (by which I mean a hunter of vampire ducks, and not a vampire who hunts ducks) Dr von Goosewing. He has, apparently, been reimagined for this new millennium."
"Imran..." said Allie.
"I know. Taken as read."
"...Then _that_ means..." Daibhid breathed. "_Yes!_ This is gonna be _fun!_"
Tardis raised his eyebrows. "I take it that it is Doctor von Goosewing's appearance which has brought on this sudden burst of enthusiasm?"
"Yep." Bob said. "There wouldn't happen to actually _be_ a vampire duck around, would there? Vegetarian, for preference?"
Tardis's eyebrows drew even higher. "As a matter of fact, there is indeed such a personage around. Count Duckula, I believe he calls himself."
The light of deranged enthusiasm shone once more in Daibhid's eyes. "Yay!"
Bob sighed. "Sorry about this, Mr Tails. Daibhid's gone fanboy on us again. He usually calms down after a while."
"Understandable," Tardis allowed. "I myself have much the same problem with Lizzy..."
"Hey!" Daibhid objected.
Tardis eyed Bob. "Might I take it you are familiar with the good Count's televisual exploits, then?"
"You _might_ say that..." Bob said dryly. "He wouldn't happen to be the only one, would he?"
"A perspicacious observation, Master Bob." Tardis said. "He is, indeed, not the only one. This town," - he gestured expansively at the sketchily defined town around him - "which as yet, I fear, lacks a name - was inspired by that great conurbation our colonial cousins call Toontown; to whit, it is a place where we, the animated characters of this fair isle, this united kingdom, may dwell, and may work, rest and play, as freely as any other."
"...A British Toontown." Allie said. "A place for the _British_ animated characters..."
"I believe I just said that, did I not?" Tardis said.
"Toonside?" Imran said, almost instantly regretting it.
"Toonside?" Tardis mused. "Toonside, Toonside... the name has possibilities."
"...Oh boy," Allie murmured.
"...But why's it like _this?_" Daibhid said. "I thought... y'know... it'd have a bit more colour to it."
"I think I know." Allie said. "It's only just been created."
Daibhid blinked. "Huh?"
"What I said." Allie explained. "Geography and history tend to be malleable, Outside - they adjust to fit the story. Here, we've got the _idea_ of a realm - the framework - but it's still conceptual. It's not a place yet - it's the _idea_ of a place."
"It's still under construction," Bob translated.
Imran grinned. "Oh, _I_ get it..."
"Get what?" Daibhid asked.
"The grand opening," Imran explained. "Once This Toon Round opens, _this_ place finally becomes a place. Until it does, it's still an outline."
"...Should I be worried I think I actually _understood_ all that?" Daibhid asked no-one in particular.
"Indeed," Tardis said. "You show a fine understanding of the cosmological principles at work here, albeit without my own masterful grasp of the theory involved. Indeed, 'Toonside' is still a work in progress, and it is to be hoped that its conclusion now approaches - but I fear we must wait until yon fine hostelry deigns to opens its doors to learn the answer.
"In the meantime, I believe you were inquiring as to how your time might be put to good use. Might I suggest, then, that I introduce you to those who I count my most trusted and valued companions?"
"...Companions?" Allie, Bob, Daibhid and Imran echoed.
Given the vaguely defined nature of 'Toonside' as it stood, most of its denizens had fallen back on the old standby of social interaction to pass the time, hence why Tardis Tails's companions had clustered together on one of the streets.
The visiting quartet had had at least _some_ inkling that Tardis's companions would be counterparts to the Eighth's, so that didn't come entirely as a surprise.
It did, however, take a good deal of effort to keep from laughing their heads off.
Stacy and Ssard had remained relatively the same - the incongruity of a human and an Ice Warrior getting married seemed to satisfy Toonside's sense of the appropriate.
Destrii's counterpart, Desiree, was still pretty much the same, bar the name-change - a fish-girl seemed to fit in perfectly around here, after all.
And Lizzy, Izzy's counterpart, was at least familiar from her appearance in the strip - a humanoid lizard with Izzy's hairstyle and dress sense, a truly atrocious cod-Italian accent, and a tail, to boot.
The others, however...
Fitz - or 'Fitz Fortune', as he'd introduced himself - was a fox, with shaggy brown hair and a cigarette jutting out from between his jaws. Compassion was a chipmunk, with long red hair pulled into a tight ponytail - and, apparently, 'dimensionally transcendental cheeks'. Charley had ended up as a chipmunk, too, albeit one with a bob of blonde hair (and minus the dimensionally transcendental cheeks). C'rizz was a chameleon - an anthropomorphic chameleon, rather than the reptilian humanoid they knew from Outside, complete with orbiting eyes and a very, _very_ long tongue, which whipped out to catch a fly as they watched. Anji was an antelope, with a bob of black hair and a perpetual look of exasperation on her face, and Chloe was a tabby kitten, with long blonde hair and wonky blue eyes (her pet, Jamais, however, had remained the same).
Fey... well, Fey's counterpart had introduced herself as Fley Mingot-Shade, art detective. In keeping with the name, she was, indeed, a flamingo.
Trix's analogue had introduced herself as Trixie Trouble, Mistress of Disguise, and asked them to turn away, before popping on a pair of glasses with fake nose and moustache. For some reason, this had been less than convincing, although none of the quartet had had the heart to tell her, especially given her obvious enthusiasm.
And as for Sam...
...well, actually, there were _two_ Sams. Twins, as a matter of fact.
One twin, who called herself Samantha, was blonde, with white blouse, white leggings, and white cape, all trimmed in pink, and had started declaiming about the lack of a proper waiting place. After about a couple of minutes of this, the quartet had tuned her out in self-defence.
The other, who called herself Angelina, had dark hair, wore a figure-hugging black Lycra outfit that left little to the imagination, and had settled for a simple 'Hi'.
"Sam... and Dark Sam." Daibhid realised. "Of course." He turned to the Toonsiders. "Is, um, Samantha always so... um...?"
"Yeah, but you get used to it eventually." Fitz Fortune assured him.
"Really?" replied Bob. "How long is 'eventually'?"
"Dunno," Fitz admitted. "I'm hoping it's soon, though."
"Well," said Daibhid, cheerfully. "At least things can't get any weirder."
The other three visitors stared at him. "You said that deliberately, didn't you?" accused Allie.
Bob sighed. "Of course he did. He thinks it's clever."
"I don't understand." admitted Anji the Antelope. The other Toonsiders looked similarly bemused.
Allie blinked. "You guys really *are* new at this," she said, "When someone says something like 'Things can't get any weirder', or 'it could be worse', or 'at least it's not going to rain' in a world of Story..."
"...Especially one based on jokes," Bob put in.
"Right, it guarantees that something weirder, worse or, er, wetter is going to happen."
"Really?" said Fley Mingot-Shade.
From above them a young woman descended on a silken cord. She had a light brown ponytail, and was wearing a silvery flying jacket and Ray Bans.
"Heard there was a party, thought I'd see if I was invited," she announced. "Ace is the name. Smoke me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast!"
"Really." Bob confirmed to Fley.
"Allie?" Imran said.
"Take it as read."
"Got you." Allie said.
"Ace Rimmer, I presume?" Bob inquired.
"Give that man a cigar," Ace said. "Ace's the name, adventure's my game. You folks aren't from round here, I'm betting."
"We're from Outside way," Bob said.
"Here for the party?" Ace said. "Good man, good man. Shaping up to be a real shindig, this one."
"Oh cruk..." Imran murmured. "She really _is_ Ace Rimmer..."
Ace brushed her hand through her hair. "You were expecting someone else?"
"Ahem," Tardis began. "You are correct, Miss Rimmer-"
"No need to be a stick-in-the-mud, old man!" Ace said, clapping Tardis on the back. "'Ace' will do just fine!"
"Miss Ace, then." Tardis said, harrumphing. "Master Inayat" - he jabbed a finger at Imran - "and his guests are here at my invitation for the grand opening of This Toon Round."
"...Wait a minute," Charley said slowly. "What's so weird about this? Seems perfecly normal to me."
"Call it an Outside thing..." Bob said dryly.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Daibhid said, snapping his fingers. "If there's an Ace here, then _that_ means-"
"...Uh-oh..." Bob murmured.
"-there's got to be a Benny around! And a Chris and Roz!"
Bob sighed. "Knew it. Just knew it."
Tardis's head turned. "...Excuse me, but did you say 'Chris and Roz'? As in 'Christopher and Roslyn'?"
Daibhid blinked. "...Yeah?"
Tardis's companions snickered.
"Ahem." Tardis glared at them, before turning back to the quartet. "Suffice it to say that certain individuals going by those names may be under certain misapprehensions regarding certain alleged links between myself and certain alleged disappearances of fishmongers' deliveries..."
Lizzy scratched her head. "What disappearances? I thought we the ones that took them..."
Anji rolled her eyes.
"Lizzy, do you remember when I explained to you the concept of 'need to know'?" Tardis said.
"Sure, Tardis!" Lizzy said enthusiastically. "I no forget that!"
"This is one of those times."
Lizzy's eyes sidled over to the quartet and then back again. "Oops. Sorry, Tardis."
Imran attempted to get back to the point. "So you *do* know a Roz and a Chris?" he pressed.
"Indubitably," replied Tardis, "In fact, I think I detect their approach at this precise moment. If you will excuse me, I believe a rapid egress is the most apposite course of action." And, with that, he disappeared, leaving only a cloud of dust, a few speed-lines hanging in the air and a "zip!" noise.
"A rapid egress?" repeated Daibhid, "Isn't that...?"
"Daibh," Bob interrupted firmly, "I *know* you know what an egress is, so don't even *think* about mentioning female eagles."
Daibhid's response to this went unsaid, as he was distracted by the approach of Roslyn and Christopher.
Roslyn was an Alsatian, in full Ajudicator gear that was ever so slightly too big for her. She was the least frenetic Toon they'd seen since the "reimagined" von Goosewing, moving in the same careful, measured and extremely menacing way. Her face managed to convey an expression of equal parts suspicion and exasperation. The suspicion was general, and not directed at anyone in particular. The exasperation was aimed squarely at the massive Great Dane, in a decidedly too small Adjuducator breastplate, who was bounding around her with his toungue hanging out. "Do ya think we'll catch Tardis, Roslyn?" he panted. "Huh? Do ya, Roslyn? Do ya?"
"Christopher," barked (there was no other word for it) Roslyn, "Be quiet." She turned to the assemblage. "Anyone here seen a cat by the name of Tardis Tails?"
The quartet decided that, for the moment, it was probably best not to get involved. Tardis' companions meanwhile loyally answered in the negative, with various degrees of enthusiasm.
The least enthusiastic were Compassion and Anji, who didn't even *try* to sound believable. The most so was Lizzy, who continued "I no see him in ages. He certainly not disappeared thataway about ten seconds ago."
Roslyn's eyes narrowed further. "I see. Thank you. Christopher, we're going thataway."
Christopher stopped bouncing, and looked puzzled. "But Lizzy said he *didn't* go thataway."
"I'll explain later," sighed Roslyn. "Come on!" and she disappeared thataway. The Great Dane paused only to howl "Rrristopher Rodante Re-e-e-e-ej!" before following.
"Things like this are going to keep happening every ten minutes, aren't they?" asked Bob.
Tardis appeared over the top of a fence. "It is certainly the most probable of eventitudes," he replied, somewhat out of breath.
"You can't keep doing this, Tardis," Samantha pointed out. "I'm supposed to be a champion of truth and justice, and I can hardly live up to _that_ if I keep having to lie to the police."
"Never fear, my dear Samantha," Tardis declared. "On the occasion that our local constabulary should ever catch up with my good self, I will most certainly assure them that your status as a champion of truth and justice is second only to your undoubted loyalty."
"Thank-" Samantha's brain caught up with what Tardis had actually said. "Hey, wait a moment..."
"Ahem," Tardis said. "That said, I believe it would be prudent if we were in any location besides our present one before the constabulary realise they have been misled...."
Tardis's companions looked at each other, and promptly disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Allie, Bob, Daibhid and Imran, however, _not_ being toons, remained where they were.
There was a screeching sound from the end of the road.
Lizzy stuck her head back where the quartet stood, the fact the rest of her body was nowhere in sight inconveniencing her not a bit.
"You no coming?"
"We're not cartoons," Allie pointed out.
"Oh." Lizzy considered this. "No problem! I give you a hand!"
A gloved hand appeared, again minus her body.
Imran lifted a finger. "Um..."
"Hold hands." Lizzy said. "I take you with me."
"I know where _this_ is going..." Allie murmured, taking Imran's hand.
Bob took a hold of Allie's other hand, and grabbed hold of Daibhid.
Lizzy beamed, grabbed hold of Imran's hand, and /pulled/.
A moment later they found themselves back in the car park. "Makes sense," said Bob, "This Toon Round's the most realised part of... Toonside, if that's what we're calling it, so events'll tend to gravitate here."
"Quite so," confirmed Tardis. "But, moreover, it is now the period at which the hostelry should be opening its doors to patronage. I believe the tortoise over yonder has been entrusted with the key."
They turned and saw the tortoise. Imran and Allie doubletaked. Bob nodded, as though he'd been expecting this all along. Daibhid just gawped. "It *can't* be..." he muttered, "I mean, come *on*!"
The tortoise wore oversized cartoon glasses, a "Duck Dodgers In The 25th And A Half Century" baseball cap with a ponytail sticking out the back, and his shell was covered, front and back, with stickers representing various SF&F toons. "Um, hi," he said, nervously, "I'm, um, Daibhid Chelonidae. You must be the guests. Um. The key's here somewhere."
And with that, he pulled a drawer out of his plastron, and began rummaging around inside it.
"His equivalent of the Rucksack," surmised Bob, grinning openly, "And a cheap 'Spellsinger' rip-off, but that's fair enough, seeing as the Rucksack is..."
"Daibhid!" a familiar voice called, "You haven't *got* the key!" Bob's grin faded slightly.
Into the carpark came a tall (by toon standards) figure in a waterproof overcoat. A huge brown muzzle stuck out of his pulled up collar, and two antlers stuck out of his not-quite-matching hat. He handed the young chelonian the key and nodded to the quartet. "Bob the Moose." he muttered curtly.
As the door was opened, Bob said, in a rather strained voice, "Daibhid?"
"Take it as read..."
The quartet stepped back a way as the assembled Toonsiders clustered round the door.
Allie's expression was nothing short of horrorstruck realisation.
"You're telling me..." Imran said, his voice equally strained.
"Hey. You're Tardis's guests, right?"
Both Imran and Allie paused. The voice had been Allie's, but Allie hadn't opened her mouth. The experience wasn't entirely unfamiliar to them, with Allie's twin Sandra around, but hearing it in _this_ situation...
Author and Muse turned.
The speaker was a girl about Allie's age, a humanoid silver dragon with long brown hair, in a Edwardian velvet dress of the type Allie usually wore, and two large wings jutting out of her back.
Her partner was a yak in a rugby shirt and a pair of chinos of the sort /Imran/ normally wore.
"...A /yak?/" Imran said faintly.
"...Imran Inayak." Allie murmured. "Have I mentioned just how much I /hate/ the Omniverse's sense of humour?"
The dragongirl blinked. "...Why?"
"Imran /Inayat/," Allie said, jerking a finger at Imran.
"Well... yes," the dragongirl said. "So?"
"...Never mind." Allie sighed.
"Ellie," the dragongirl said.
Allie winced. "Allie."
"We're the owners." Ellie said, indicating the 'Toon. "Or rather, we /part/-own this place."
"...You _what?!_" Allie, Imran, Bob and Daibhid gawked.
"We're in a consortium with Bob and Daibhid," Ellie explained. "Each of us has a quarter-share in the 'Toon."
"...Oh my _Gods_..." Allie murmured. "No /wonder/ Tardis sent us an invitation..."
Ellie looked embarrassed. "Well, actually... that simply didn't occur to us."
Allie frowned. "Then why...?"
"I know." Imran said. "Because I was the only one to write Tardis in a fic."
He frowned. "Hold on a moment. Something's wrong here.
"Bob and Daibhid - _our_ Bob and Daibh - only ended up here because they were sitting near us when the invitation turned up. It could've been /anyone/.
"But we end up _this_ side, and our counterparts're the ones who own the Toon.
"But Tardis /didn't/ invite Bob and Daibh. He invited me and three other guests. _We_ were the ones who invited them along... and then we get here, and..." Imran trailed off.
Allie smiled ruefully. "We had a choice, every step of the way. Nothing /pushed/ us to come - and believe me, I'm a Muse, I /know/ narrative causality when I sense it."
"Would it've been different if someone else'd come rather than Bob and Dave?" Imran wondered.
Allie glanced at Ellie, not a little uncertainly. "Um..."
Ellie raised her eyeridges. "Perhaps. Things like that have a way of working themselves out - particularly in the Outside realms. Whatever would have happened, it would have been fitting - at least in some sense."
"...Wait a minute," Allie said slowly. "You wouldn't happen to have a phantasmal twin, would you? And she wouldn't happen to work here as a bartender...?"
Ellie's eyeridges raised even further. "...Yes. Sandie."
"Sandie-" Allie put her hand over her face. "Imran...?"
"Taken as read."
"You too?" Ellie said.
Allie nodded. "Sandra."
"_Ah,_" Ellie said.
"Ahem," Imran the yak said.
Both Allie and Ellie had the decency to look embarrassed.
"Sorry," the two of them said in chorus.
Then they double-took, and facefaulted.
"...Why don't we just go in?" Bob the Muse said.