In which we finally learn what happened to Kid Curry...

The avocado troll leaned against the doorway leading into the barn, and watched the two of them -- each simply taking comfort from the company of the other, the two-legged and the four-legged leaning into each other as if they were the same species, communicating in a language they had taught each other on the trail. The horse mouthed the hair at the nape of Kid's neck as Kid ran the brush down the horse's side, almost as though Kid were a younger, skittish member of his herd that needed comforting. She wondered how much the horse understood of what was going on.

She couldn't help but notice the discarded mug in the corner, the now cooled cocoa spilled into the hay. It was unfair, perhaps, to expect Kid to take the same pleasure from these things that the others did. It was also unfair, she thought with a pang, to use Kid in their upcoming battle. If she had had a choice, she would have sent him on his way with a round of whiskey and a purse full of gold for his trouble. But she didn't have a choice.

Taking a deep breath, she straightened, and braced herself for what she had to do next. "Kid," she said, quietly.

He straightened suddenly, tense, and on guard. His hand went to the place where his gun wasn't before dropping to his side.

"It's only me," she said, walking toward him, hoping that her voice sounded unforced. "We got separated after leaving the Valeyard's cave, and I wondered if you saw anything back there I should know about." She sat down on the tack box and patted the space beside her.

Cautiously, Kid left the stall and joined her. "Yeah," he said, after a while. "Yeah, I s'pose there is..." But he fell silent again.

She studied his face. There was something different about it, something a little more -- what? Self-assured? No, not exactly... But there was something... "So," she said, as much to herself as to him, "you did remember something, didn't you?"

"You're not being straight with me, are you?" Kid asked, but without malice ... almost as if that's what he expected.

"Well," she admitted, "Imran did tell me a little of what you told him. But it was pretty spotty. I want to hear your version."

Kid leaned back against the wall. His shoulders relaxed. A faraway look came into his eyes. "She's called 'the Contessa'...." he began. And told her everything: about the way the light crept 'round the heavy velvet curtains, and the way her hands moved, the lamplight, and the crystal ball, and her laugh. And the way he was free from nightmares after, and the charm she gave him, the last time he went to see her. "She was the one I was going to see, to report to," he concluded, "when -- when I got sidetracked. I'm sorry.... I don't remember any more."

"Of course!" the avocado troll said. "The Storyteller! Who else would be so interested if trouble started, and the stories themselves started to unravel? I wonder..." she mused. "Did the Contessa know what you were looking for, even if you didn't? Or did she just sense that something was 'off'? If she did know, then maybe that charm she gave you is some sort of clue.

"...Kid, may I see that charm, please? I'd like to take a closer look. I'll give it back, I promise."

Kid hesitated, and for a moment, the troll thought he was going to refuse. But then, slowly, carefully, he lifted the thong from around his neck and handed it to her.

She cradled the bead in her palm. It was so small, so finely carved, a shade somewhere between turquoise and lapis lazuli. There seemed to be something carved on it, besides the eye design -- some sygil, or glyph. She tilted her palm, hoping the light pouring in from the dance floor beyond would help her see better. It didn't. Patting down her vest pockets with her free hand, she found the pocket-sized flashlight, and turned it on.

Kid leapt up and away from her so quickly that the tack box rocked underneath her. His horse, startled, half reared in his stall, banging one hoof against the door at her back.

Suddenly, she realized what she had done. "I'm sorry, Kid," she said, with an embarrassed chuckle. "I keep forgetting what technology you're familiar with... You're so comfortable with the TARDIS. This is called a 'flashlight', it's --"

"I-I don't care what it's called," he said. "Just get it away from me!"

She turned it off, and put it down, where he could see it. "It's okay, Kid," she said. "It's perfectly harmless. Take it. See for --"


She had never seen him like this. His lips had lost all color. Even from eight feet away, she could see that his whole body was shaking. Beads of sweat rolled down his face, staining his collar. He was pacing now, turning in circles, but all the while, he kept his eyes fixed on hers.

"I never should have trusted you!" he spat out.

"Kid --"

"Admit it! You're one of Them!"

"Who, Kid?"

But Kid didn't seem to hear her. He crumpled in on himself, whimpering, into a fetal position, his eyes wild and staring at something in the distance, something that wasn't there -- except in his memory.

Slowly, quietly, the avocado troll went over to him, and draped a horse blanket across his shoulders. "Deputy!" she called. "Bring a shot of whiskey. Kid's had a shock." All she could do now was sit with him and wait -- wait until the shell around his memory cracked. She only hoped that his whole self didn't crack with it.

The little deputy came trotting up with the glass, her eyes wide with curiosity, and stopped short as she caught sight of the huddled, rocking form of their guest. Her mouth formed itself into a silent 'o' and she glanced up in alarm at the hostess, who gave her a reassuring smile.

"It's going to be all right," she promised them both, hoping that she could make it so. "It's going to be all right..."

Kid Curry's mouth was moving almost silently under the heavy mustache. "...spinning..." she caught. Then, half-broken, "...nightmares... like a ghost... sucking dry..."

The avocado troll's own heart twisted. Cautiously, she reached out again and opened the clenched fingers as he tried to pull away, pushing the familiar smooth curve of the glass into his hand.

It seemed to work. He stared at the liquor blankly for a moment, then she could almost see his eyes begin to focus as he came back from whatever private horror he'd been reliving. The outlaw let out a long breath and tossed back the drink in one movement.

Finally, dark gaze still wary and flickering, he reached across slowly and replaced the empty glass in the hand she held out for it. Their eyes met, and she caught a glimpse there of the returning ghost of trust. The avocado troll let out a breath of her own she didn't remember holding.

"Now," she said softly, indicating the flashlight, "do you think you can remember and tell me where you've seen one of these before?"

Slowly, phrase by reluctant phrase, she pieced together the details of his encounter with the future Master.

"Guess he must have put that whole business about the lynch mob into my head right about then." Kid Curry's habitual scowl was strained and tense. "I can still see that liquor store twice... one time going past, and then on top of that another time with me going in..."

He slammed a fist down suddenly on the tack box, hard enough to hurt. "What kind of trick is that to play on a man? Drive him out of his mind, and then watch him run -- even a bounty hunter at least tries to kill clean --"

The hostess had her own ideas about that one... but she wasn't sure it would help.

"Kid," she said instead, "when you first came to that town you wanted to push on. You were in a hurry, you said, to get back to the city. You'd found something out, hadn't you? You were going to see the Contessa..." She took a deep breath. "Do you remember -- now -- what it was you saw... or heard? What did she send you to find out?"

For a moment, at the memory, blind panic woke again in his eyes. He nodded, mouth tightening. "Yeah, I remember... and I reckon now I'll never manage to forget..."

He stood up again, abruptly, without looking at her, and took a few restless paces across the barn that brought him up against the side of the stall. The brown reached out a curious nose to greet him and he shoved it away automatically, his fingers twisting and unplaiting in the coarse hairs along its mane.

"The Contessa wouldn't say what she meant," he said at last. "Said something was wrong, that was all - said there was a stifling in the air so as she could hardly breathe. Maybe she had an idea or two -- I reckon she did. But she wasn't saying. Told her I was aiming to head down South, and she said that'd do just fine...

"I was out maybe three, four weeks before I started to get a feel of what she'd had in mind. There were places -- places all over -- where things had gotten kind of..." he hesitated... "dull, thin, dead -- no, not dead, but sick, I guess. The folks didn't trouble to look up when a stranger went by, the dogs didn't bark, even the schoolhouse was quiet. No singing, no card games running -- I got to thinking maybe there was some kind of hell-fire preacher in the neighborhood, but when a town gets religion you can sure feel the buzz. These towns... there was nothing there.

"It wasn't just the people -- or even the livestock. Often as not, I'd hit on the edge of one of these grey places way out in the open country, nothing but lizards and rattlers for miles... and it got so as the hair on the back of my neck'd raise right up just from looking round. Nothing growing, nothing changing. Just -- just --" He stumbled over the word. "Just existing, I guess."

His fingers must have tightened in the brown's mane. The horse threw his head up with a snort.

"I tried asking round, every place I found that seemed half-way normal. They were pretty scared. Scared of their neighbors -- scared it was coming to them. Got myself run out of town a couple of times for asking into what they accounted wasn't none of my business. All I got was their name for it -- 'tornado blight'."

The avocado troll frowned. "But a tornado wouldn't have anything like the effects you were describing, Kid," she pointed out, puzzled. "And there'd be damage -- a lot of damage. There wouldn't have been much left of your 'dead towns' bar the storm cellars..."

"Yeah, well... it was talking that way got me turned out of a couple more places," he told her, scowling at the memory. "By that time I reckoned I'd paid back the Contessa whatever favors I owed her, and then some. I planned on heading someplace else, where the pickings were better, and the land wasn't thin in patches. I was clean out of cash, and mighty tired of sleeping rough -- so I found me a trail heading in to one of them little towns that were so uncommon kind to strangers, and laid up behind some rocks." His eyes shifted, slipping away from hers. "I figured sooner or later there'd be someone along..."

Oh, Kid. The troll sighed, and, as if he had caught her thought, Kid Curry's head came up defiantly.

"No matter why I was there. No-one came, anyhow... and it was kind of hot, with nothing moving... I hadn't been sleeping too well, the last few nights. Guess I must have dropped off."

He shivered suddenly. "And when I woke it was cold, like a winter's night. Cold enough to ache to the bone, and the light was grey... I got myself up and on my feet pretty quick; and then way over to the right, on the far side of the trail, I saw it."

His jaw was clenched. "It was like the air was bulging in on itself... heavy colours moving, like oil or thunder-clouds, all rolling over... No, not the air. Something else. Something, pushing through... twisting... sucking everything in...

"Like a twister stretching way up... but not clouds. Like it wasn't there at all. Like a ghost, like threads spun up out of nightmare... and it was cold. It was aching and it was hungry, and it was pulling everything in -- all the light, and the colour, and the life --" He broke off, sweating. "And I knew then what they'd meant. I knew what had happened, again and again, all over this country... and I could see it coming for me..."

"But you got away?" the hostess prompted gently as the silence between them lengthened.

Kid Curry blinked, slowly, as if he had almost forgotten where he was, and finally nodded. "Yeah. And that was the queerest thing..." He dragged one sleeve across his forehead, breath still coming in shudders. "He saw me."

The avocado troll stared at him. "Who saw you?"

"One of Them... like that preacher man, I guess, like those things back in that place... with Sailor Gallifrey --"

"One of the Monitors?!"

An impatient jerk of his head. "I don't know what it was. All I know is, it was kind of like a man... only all hooded up. I never got a clear view. He was down below me, on the trail, all stooped over -- and then he looked up... and pointed. Just a dark hood, but I tell you he saw me.

"And that twister swung round and started in to move. Like it was a part of him. Or maybe like he was a part of it -- like he was its eyes...

"I wasn't thinking too well back then. I was maybe three parts scared and one part mad, and I came tumbling down onto that trail and loosed off at him with everything I had. Never touched him. Guess I was aiming kind of wild -- leastways, unless all them bullets went right through... And there I was, with an empty gun and that tornado-ghost swinging up into the sky behind like damnation itself, and he was stood there in the dark just looking at me, like I was some ant running round in the dirt under his feet.

"I kind of cracked, I guess. He'd backed off a bit when he saw me, and there was some rocks in the path right down where he'd been standing. I went to grab one of them up, like I was a kid scaring crows, and it wasn't a rock. It was some sort of box made out of stone -- real heavy, I couldn't get a grip -- and when I looked up, there he was rushing towards me of a sudden, and the twister right above."

Hmm, the troll thought, sounds like the Monitors, alright -- their sort of technology.

"Looked like I'd stumbled on something that mattered to him, for a change... and then my hand slipped, and something moved. And everything -- everything... sang out."

Ah, she thought again, a smile bubbling up inside her (even if it didn't make it to her face) so the effect can be reversed. Good. Good.

He flushed, his dark face almost lit up for a moment as he groped for words to describe what he'd experienced. Finally he shook his head. "I don't know what happened. The twister untwisted all at once, that's the best way I can put it... like someone set off a charge of dynamite, only it blew everything back together. And it blew out past me, and past him, and I heard the horse give a sort of call from back up the hill, like he'd caught the scent of an old friend... and I found myself lying there on the dirt of the trail in the sun, and the crickets singing, and a cool breeze. There was a big old bull-snake curled up across the way under a tuft of thorns, and I just lay there looking at that snake, every scaly inch of him gleaming with life like a colt in springtime, and the thorns springing up clean and sharp with the sap flowing..."

The first grin she'd ever seen out of him, sidelong and somewhat rueful. "I must have been plumb crazy for a while -- but I tell you, right then that pass was the most beautiful thing I ever did see."

He sighed, one hand stroking absently along the line of the horse's jaw. "But the box was gone... along with everything else. Can't say as I was sorry, though I guess the Contessa would've liked a look at it. Anyhow, I figured the trouble was over. I set off nice and slow, jogging along back north, feeling pretty good. When I hit the first dead spot, I wasn't too worried. I reckoned it'd be bound to take a while for things to even out...

"Then I saw another tornado, up ahead. And another. And another. Like living things, working their way up -- and all headed for one place. All aiming for Vortex City." His face was masked again, behind the hard, protective shield. "I tightened my belt and pushed on as hard as I could. Paced them for a while... then started to draw ahead. Reckoned I had about a day in hand, come that last morning, and I'd be in the city by nightfall -- took a few minutes to get cleaned up, and began to relax." His free hand clenched on the side of the stall.

"And rode right into a trap. They must have been watching me all the way..."

And something just collapsed inside her. Oh, no. Oh, no. She could feel his desperation, his despair. All this time, she thought, he's been trying to get back there, trying to race ahead of the ghost tornadoes, trying to get back to the woman he loved (for she was sure he did love the Contessa, in his own way, even if it wasn't the sort of love they write ballads about). And he's been trapped, here, with her motley crew, whose only worry, it must have seemed to him, was whether there was enough chocolate on the dessert table.

"Don't worry, Kid," she said, with conviction. "We'll set everything right again. We will. I promise."

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Story by members of rec.arts.drwho / HTML layout by Igenlode Wordsmith, modified by Imran Inayat
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