INSERT UNPREPARED CAMPERS HERE
A/N: The fandom is "Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys" and it is in the public domain. If you don't follow ACMSES, this will probably not make sense.
Louise, Tom and Dave were up to their elbows in dirty water, processing a bucket full of finds that the eldest agent had found whilst rummaging in the back of the Archaeology section of the Library. All three archaeologists had wondered why Adrian had never sorted them out; but then, they had mused, there was only one of him.
The finds had ranged in date from Palaeolithic Britain to Colonial America, and contained something from near enough every Western era in between. All three of them had cursed the fact that the finds were all dumped in a bucket.
"Whoever dug these up had no concept of context or stratigraphy!" Louise snarled, plunging her hand into the bucket to collect another find. She removed a piece of broken dark-red pottery.
"Samian ware," Dave commented as he carefully removed the dirt from the jaw of some long-dead creature. All its teeth were still in place.
"How long do you think this will take?" Tom asked. His hands were beginning to look like old prunes.
"Too long for today," Louise sighed. Her hands looked no different that Tom's. "Maybe we should rope some of the others into help us."
"Maybe..." Dave finally finished the bone, and placed it carefully on the drying rack.
"But now..." Louise stuck her piece of Samian pottery alongside Dave's bone, "I think it's time for a break."
The others agreed, and soon they were clean and on their way out of the depths of the Archaeology section.
"I need a flop..." Louise automatically headed for the Mod Sofa lounge. Dave and Tom both silently agreed that a 'flop' was exactly what they needed.
In the lounge, Jess was listening to Nightwish, with her laptop in front of her, feet up on the next module along. As the archaeologists entered, she turned the volume down to where it was background noise.
"So... how's the digging?" Jess asked, without looking up from her laptop.
"We've been washing finds." Tom crashed into the sofa.
"Fun!" Jess commented sarcastically.
Louise slumped into a corner module, and rested her head against the one of the backs.
"You know," she said, without lifting her head to look at the others. "You know what we all need."
"What?" Jess looked up finally from her laptop.
"We need a holiday!"
Dave, now perched on the edge of one of the ottoman style sections, sat up, his interest in the conversation piqued.
"Did you have somewhere in mind?" he asked.
Louise looked up. "How about something for the junior agents?"
"Great idea!" Jess cheered. "Do I count?"
Tom and Dave both sighed as they watched the over-excited pair start planning the excursion.
How long the two girls chatted for, neither of the boys really knew, but before they realised it, a head stuck around the corner.
"DUMPLINGS!" Alice shrieked, with Robert following dutifully behind her, his hands firmly clasped over his ears.
"Hello Alice!" Louise greeted, getting to her feet to glomp her best friend.
"So... what you guys chatting about?" she demanded as Robert went to join Dave on the edge of the ottoman.
"We're planning a holiday," Jess explained, watching Alice's face light up. "Not sure where yet though."
"Can I come?" she asked, almost before Jess had finished. Robert also looked interested, the idea of a break definitely a good one.
"So long as we can get approval from the leaders that Robert can come too," Tom explained.
"He'll be with me," Alice cried. "They were fine with him coming to Sea Monsters!"
"But he still needs permission to leave the Library at the moment, Allie, and a holiday is not the same as an actual mission," Louise explained, although both agents knew it would break the elder's heart to leave her friend behind just because of some stupid rule.
"Alice, it will be all right. Really," said Robert gently, although a note of sadness was in his voice.
"I'm sure we can prod Harriet again," said Alice. "Who else is coming?"
"Um..." Jess looked at Louise. "We were thinking of making it a holiday for the junior agents – you know, people like you, Lou and Tom."
"How about Inara?" Tom suggested.
"Hey, that's not a bad idea." Louise patted Tom on the back.
Jess winked at her, but Louise only scowled back.
"I've got the perfect car for a holiday!" Alice declared, and she seized Robert by the hand, dragging the poor unfortunate former Stu from the room before he could protest.
"I guess I better go find Inara then..." Louise murmured, and she too left the room.
Louise had no idea where Inara might be in the vast caverns of the Library, but she decided that Rhia's kitchen might be the best place to try first. Lots of the agents of the Anti-Cliché and Mary-Sue Elimination Society hung out in Rhia's kitchen, if only for the chance of a brilliantly cooked meal by the Society's resident chef.
Rhia's kitchen was, however, on the opposite side of the main hub of Library rooms to the Mod Sofa lounge. Louise passed several familiar rooms on her way including the Monitor Room, the Hospital Wing, and the door to the basement. The agent paused as she passed the basement entrance, and sighed. She had not quite forgiven herself for the events that had occurred down there, and she wasn't sure that all the other agents involved had totally forgiven her or not yet either.
Smiling wryly to herself, she plodded on, always in the direction of Rhia's kitchen. As she approached, she could hear voices coming from within.
"Thanks for this, Rhia..." Inara was saying.
"No problem, kiddo." Rhia laughed as she spoke.
"You know..." a third voice join in the conversation. Louise easily identified it as belonging to her distant cousin, and the Society founder, Harriet, "...I may turn veggie just for this kinda food."
Inara and Rhia both laughed, and were still laughing when Louise turned into the room.
"Hey Lou!" Inara greeted her warmly.
"Hi Louise!" Rhia turned back to the stove. "Do you want something cooked?"
"Nah, I'm okay," Louise reassured the harassed chef. "We're planning on going on holiday with the junior agents, and were wondering whether Inara wanted to join us?"
"Hell yeah!" Inara grinned between mouthfuls of what looked to Louise like a mixture of leaves and oil.
"Don't we get to come?" Harriet asked with a pronounced fake pout.
"I don't see why not..." Louise smiled back.
There was a clatter of pots and pans as Rhia placed her utensils away. "So," she asked, "where are we going?"
Louise, Inara, Rhia and Harriet headed back to the Mod Sofa lounge. The other agents didn't miss that Louise looked solemn as they walked past the basement. Before long they returned to the lounge, where Dave and Tom were now discussing the differences between archaeology in America and archaeology in England.
Tom looked up as the four female agents entered the room.
"She goes out for one, and comes back with two..." Tom smiled at Inara, "and a half."
"I am not a half!" Inara chastised, although from the grin on her face, all agents could see that she wasn't really insulted by Tom's jibe.
This caused the entire room to break into spontaneous laughter, and they were still laughing when Alice and Robert reappeared, dragging something behind them.
"Alice, what have you got there?" Dave asked; the first to stop his laughter.
"Our transport for the holiday!" Alice declared triumphantly.
As she made room for whatever she and Robert were towing, the others could finally see that it was a miniature car. It was a pale baby blue, and its small compartment was covered with a clear plexiglass hemispherical bubble.
"Alice..." Louise sighed. "There is NO way we would all fit in there... not with all the luggage."
"But... but...it's for the luggage."
"Is that even a car?" Tom asked, curiosity getting the better of him as he leaned forward. "It looks like a toy!"
"Yes... it's a Peel Trident." Alice patted the lid of the pale-blue micro-car. As the agents stared at it, Alice began her explanation. "It was made on the Isle of Man in the 1960s. Only eighty-odd of these beauties were ever made."
"And where did you get it from?" Dave asked.
"Oh, remember? We went into that 70s sci-fi fandom a coupla weeks ago and came across that little car-boot sale."
"And where have you been storing it?" Louise was very confused.
Alice merely smiled knowingly at her. "In the cupboard under the stairs... where else?"
"It can't have been cheap," Tom commented, looking at the Trident which was so small that only two people could sit inside. How Alice intended to get all their luggage into it was anyone's guess.
"Oh I think the guy I bought it from just wanted rid of it," Alice said dismissively. "He'd been tinkering with it, but life had kinda gotten on top of him. Or something like that, I was drooling too much over the car. I offered him two months' wages, he accepted, and voila!" She wrapped herself around the see-through top of her Trident. "My... precious..."
Louise rolled her eyes.
Tom looked at the car in more detail. "Who did you say you bought this from?" he asked, staring at the inside of the car through the roof.
"Oh, I don't know. Some curly-haired dude with a long scarf."
Tom's head hit the roof of the Trident as he did the only facepalm-esque thing he could.
"Alice..." Harriet joined the conversation from the mod-sofa. "You do know who that was, don't you?"
"No..." replied Alice.
"Alice..." Harriet sighed, like a mother trying to explain a simple concept to an ignorant child. She gave up before she had even begun.
Alice didn't notice, as she lifted the clamshell lid of the car and eased herself inside. "She's so nifty and quick! The guy put in a new gearbox, so this thing has reverse gear now." She spun the white steering wheel a little and twiddled a few of the knobs on the blue dashboard, though as she hit the large Trident symbol in the centre, there was a clank of machinery and the wheels vanished, dropping the car down several inches to the floor.
Louise hid behind a cushion as she burst into laughter.
"Aww sucketh. That happens when I push that button. I think it's some mod the curly-haired dude installed."
"If I think I know where you got that from, or more to the point who…" mused Dave, doing a great job of hiding his mirth, "then I would show that car to Jared."
Alice got out of the Trident and pressed the icon again, and the wheels reappeared with a pop, making the entire car bounce.
There was a long pause as the other agents all looked at each other. Louise peered from behind her cushion, her eyes red with laughter tears.
"Oh well..." Alice broke the silence.
"We still can't use it for the holiday though," Rhia, who until now had stayed quiet because she had been quietly dying of laughter against the wall, commented. "Do you expect the rest of us to walk?"
"Where are we going on holiday anyway?" Inara asked.
Everyone looked at Louise, still clutching her cushion. "Um... I'm not sure yet."
"How about camping?" Harriet suggested. This idea was greeted with many comments from the others in agreement.
"Where?" Inara queried.
"Um... Real Life?" Rhia added.
"What about Robert?" Alice asked instantly.
"How about going to a fandom similar to Real Life?" Tom suggested.
"But which one?"
"That's useful," commented Alice.
"Well, we still haven't answered the question of how on earth we are going to transport all our camping gear," Louise pointed out.
"Well..." Dave spoke up for the first time in quite a while. "We could always use Martha."
"That's a brilliant idea!" chirped Alice nonchalantly, giving rise to the concept that she had just wanted to show off her car. She got in the Trident again, produced a key and turned the engine, giggling as she closed the bubble top and drove around. It fitted neatly down the Library corridors, wing mirrors and all, and they watched with amusement as her high-pitched horn BEEP-BEEPed at the closest T-junction, amid the yelp of surprise and then the cat's yowl of the Librarian as she nearly ploughed into his shins.
While a garage was not the normal thing to find in a common library, the Library Arcanium was not your common library. It had many rooms that one would not normally find in a library, and the garage was not the strangest by far.
It didn't take the holidaying agents long to collect together all the items they needed for their little camping trip. And before long, all the equipment was gathered at the back end of Martha. Her back door was already open.
"So..." Alice was sat on the edge of Martha's boot. "What's going where in this giant jigsaw?"
"How many people do we have to fit in?" Dave did a quick head count.
There were a grand total of nine agents, plenty of space to fit them all in the main seats of Martha. She was a long-base Land Rover Defender after all. But the luggage would be an issue.
"I think all the tents can go on the roof." Dave pointed to the black roof rack that was securely attached to Martha's roof. Alice hopped down from the back of Martha, before climbing back up and scrambling onto the roof to assist with the tent relocation.
Tom lifted the three neatly packed tents up to Alice, who tied them tightly down. The last thing they wanted was their sleeping arrangements falling off the roof when they were driving along.
"How much space is left, Allie?" Louise asked.
Alice looked over the edge to the collection of personal belongings and other camping gear that was scattered around the floor. "I suggest we stick the gas canisters inside. How about bunging the stoves up here?"
The two camping stoves were swiftly passed up, and tied down.
"I think that's it for up here," Alice declared, slowly climbing back down.
"I guess the rest of it gets shoved in here with us then?" Rhia asked, peering inside the Land Rover.
"Yep..." Alice and Jess chorused in unison. This was then followed by a bout of laughter.
"Come on then guys..." Harriet herded her sheep towards the vehicle.
As Robert climbed into the back seats beside Tom, a voice called from the entrance to the garage.
"Hold on a second!"
Michael strode across the garage towards Martha.
Dave stuck his head out of the driver's window.
"He can't go with you lot." Michael pointed to Robert, then gestured at Inara, Rhia and Jess, all of whom had yet to get into Land Rover.
"Why not?" Jess demanded.
"Because he has to be with his parole supervisor or a leader."
"He is with me!" Alice and Harriet both called. Both girls giggled briefly.
Michael bent down to see in the windows, spotting said parole supervisor, and the Society's founder on the far side of the vehicle. The latter was bent over a very large map.
"Michael..." Harriet, map still in hand, marched around Martha as the others quickly piled into the remaining seats, leaving Harriet the second passenger seat in the front with Dave and Louise. "Robert is coming with not only his parole supervisor, but also with me, and I declare that he is permitted on this trip."
Michael sagged. "Very well... where are you lot going?" He looked questioningly at Martha and the rack full of camping gear.
"CAMPING!" came the chorus of voices from within.
"Okay..." Michael looked a little uneasy. "Where?"
"Uh-eh-uh," Inara shrugged from the near side window.
"It's a surprise known to only a few..." Harriet winked conspiratorially to Michael, who sighed.
"Well... bring me back lots of photos will ya?"
"Will do..." Harriet had folded her map up quickly, thrown it to Louise who was clearly acting as navigator, and waved to Michael as she jumped in beside her.
Alice wandered around from the back of the Land Rover, plothole generator in hand. Raising it to eye level, she pulled the trigger, opening the giant rainbow-hued portal in front of the vehicle. She then jumped in the back, pulling the door shut behind her.
Dave started the engine, and soon Michael was standing alone in the Library's garage.
The plothole opened up on a windy country road. Hedges lined each side, although it barely looked wide enough to permit two vehicles to pass.
"Blimey," Jess commented. "And I thought Guernsey roads were small."
"Where the hell are we?" Alice asked.
"I don't know," Dave commented from the driver's seat. "You pulled the trigger."
Louise and Harriet looked out of the front window. "Well..." Harriet started, "looks like you got the right end of the country Alice..."
"Louise..." Dave's voice from the driver's seat sounded a little hesitant. "Where shall we..."
"Just keep driving Dave. I'll work out where we are eventually."
Dave drove Martha and the Society agents along the windy road until they appeared in a small village.
"I know where we are!" Louise called out suddenly, "This is Exbury! That way, Dave." She pointed down the left side of a T-junction that Martha had come to. As the agents drove through the village, they passed cream-stone buildings.
"There's..." Inara was mumbling from the back seat. "Where's the shops?"
"There are no shops here... unless you count the Post Office back there..." Louise waved her hand behind them.
"By driving," Harriet chimed in. "We are in England, and we have tiny little villages called hamlets here. And not all houses are ten minutes from the nearest superstore."
"Hear, hear..." Dave echoed Harriet's comments. "In Cumbria, you can be sixty miles from the nearest centre of civilisation."
"If you call up north civilised..." Harriet gave Dave a playful poke in the ribs, but not enough to distract his driving.
Dave grumbled, but kept on going.
"So we're in England? What's the fandom?" asked Rhia.
"Mmm…that's a secret," grinned Harriet.
"It's not like it's going to matter much!" said Alice. "Don't worry dumplings!"
Louise had been right about the size of the village, and soon the Society agents were heading out the other side. The road was a little wider now. This was a good thing, since they were passed by several tractors; some towing trailers piled high with hay bales.
"Argh..." Dave cried as a bird ran across the road.
"What?" Rhia looked around as the long-tailed bird wandered back into the wooded edge of the road.
"Stupid pheasant!" Dave hissed.
"Dave... sod the pheasant... focus on the road," Louise nudged her friend. Martha was approaching a narrowing in the road, either side marked by a wooden fence. As Martha headed for it, the American agents looked on in horror. In the centre of the road, metal poles were laid, half sunken into the ground. There appeared to be a substantial drop beneath them.
"What is that?" Inara asked.
"A cattle grid," Louise explained.
"A what?" queried Tom.
"It stops the animals getting into the village," Alice clarified.
"Are we going into a farm then?" Rhia asked.
Louise smiled to herself in the front seat. The Americans had no concept of something as wonderful as the New Forest, but with all their ignorance of the wonders of the south of England, they were a great source of amusement.
"You'll see..." she chuckled.
As Martha passed over the cattle grid, there was a loud BUUURRRMM sound, and the Land Rover vibrated violently.
Louise pulled her feet up as they passed over, Alice laughed, and all the American agents either shrieked or giggled as the vibrations rippled through their bodies.
"You know..." Louise commented, as she placed her feet back on the floor of the Land Rover. "It's a good thing we didn't bring Red, Allie... hey?"
Both British agents giggled again as they remembered a trip around the New Forest with their WARG friends. Red had enjoyed the sensation of the cattle grids a little too much. And Tash had been nigh-on terrified of them.
Dave kept driving, and soon Martha and her occupants appeared from the trees.
"Wow!" Inara gasped as she looked over the carpet of tiny purple heather flowers stretching over gently rolling hills, with yellow-flowered bushes and the odd tree dotted here and there.
"Welcome to heathland," Alice chimed. "It's a very rare biome, and apparently the only heathland you find in the US is in northern California."
"It's beautiful..." Rhia sighed, as Dave brought Martha to a halt at the side of the road. "It's all dotted with purple and pink."
Alice looked at her surroundings. "Oh, I know where we are."
"Yes Alice..." Louise chastised, "...we are on completely the wrong side of the river."
"Well... we're close... aren't we?" Alice whimpered, hiding her face in her t-shirt.
"We're a good ten minutes drive away... at least!" Louise sighed.
"Just point the way, Louise..." Dave started the engine again, and Martha began to purr.
"Straight ahead, Dave..." Louise gestured at the road, and the Land Rover moved off.
Before long, the group were entering a second village, this one a little large than the first.
"'Bee-oh-lee-ou'," Tom mouthed aloud as they passed the sign, and all the British agents burst out laughing. "What?"
"It's 'Byoo-lee'..." Harriet laughed from the front seat.
"It's French," Alice explained. "But the British have warped the pronunciation."
Dave drove a little further, and Martha passed a painted sign highlighting the beginning of the actual village centre. The sign read: BEAULIEU.
"What's with the little red diamonds?" Rhia asked as they passed it. The symbol was everywhere; on street signs, shop banners, the wooden boundary posts.
"It's the symbol of the family who own Beaulieu," Louise explained.
"Someone owns the entire village?" Inara gasped.
"Well... technically yes." Louise turned in her seat to look at her friends in the back of the Land Rover. "But the majority of the houses are now privately owned. In the past..."
"Lou..." Harriet nudged her friend, "...we don't need the history of Beaulieu."
"Oh wow!" Rhia gaped as they turned the corner. A wide river stood on their left, and the ruins of some ancient building on their right.
Tom was gazing at the ruins. "What was that?" he asked with professional curiosity.
"That," Louise pointed to the crumbling wall, "was the boundary of the old monastery. The church over there," she pointed at a church some distance from the road, "that was once the monastery's refectory."
Alice leaned forward, cutting Louise off.
"Is his Lordship home?"
The American agents all looked confused, but Louise picked up the thread of Alice's thoughts. She looked out of the front window towards the looming stately home. A large white flag flew from the roof; a black border with three large red diamonds.
"How do you..." Jess asked.
"Flag!" Louise pointed, as they turned the corner, crossed the bridge and drove through the village.
"It's like your perfect little chocolate box village," Jess murmured.
"Yeah..." Tom agreed, "almost like something out of a Christmas card."
"Apart from the lack of snow," Rhia pointed out.
"Well... apart from that," Tom acknowledged.
The occupants of the Land Rover all burst out laughing, although they were also looking through the window at the Victorian style buildings.
"Which way Lou?" Dave called over the giggling.
Louise looked up.
"The roads aren't any better this side of the village," Inara sighed.
"WHOA!" Dave yelped suddenly, slamming his foot on the brakes hard. All the occupants, taken unaware of the abrupt change of speed, were caught by their locking seat-belts.
In front of the car, no less than two metres away from Martha's bumper, was a herd of cows.
In the road.
"What the...!" Inara gasped.
"Bloody cows!" Louise cursed.
"What should we do?" Dave asked.
"Be patient," Louise said. "The stupid things will move on eventually."
Slowly the cows moved down the road, allowing the traffic on the opposite side a clear path.
"Why does it feel like we are herding these cows?" Tom quipped, as the group of about half a dozen bovines moved laboriously forward in front of Martha. Dave kept up with them, but also managed to keep a distance so as not to startle the animals. Tom's comment elicited a collection of muffled giggles.
"You know..." Louise started up, "this reminds me of..."
"Not now, Lou," Alice's voice was harder than usual.
"Are these cows going to get out of our way soon, or are we going to be putting the tents up in the pitch dark?" Rhia asked.
Before long, however, the cows found a patch of verdant grass and slowly ambled onto the verge.
"Finally!" Dave sighed, putting his foot on Martha's accelerator.
The riverside village thinned as Dave drove Martha into a beautiful woodland. The roads were twisting first left and then right, as the agents navigated their way to their campsite.
"This is like a green tunnel..." Inara commented.
"Fortunately, the light up ahead isn't the 12:16 from Waterloo," Harriet smiled from the front seat.
The forest road wound on, but slowly the light that Harriet had joked about came, revealing more rolling plains of heathland.
"Wow!" Inara and Rhia gasped in unison. Louise and Alice smiled to themselves.
"Um..." Dave broke the awed silence. "Where does the road go?"
Everyone stared at the road which appeared to disappear over the crest of a hill. The road looked as though it was going to fall into nothingness and that Martha, complete with agents, would merely tumble down the hill. Everyone looked on in horror – everyone that is except Alice and Louise.
"What the..." Tom started, but Martha's nose dipped and followed the, now-visible, road over the crest and down the steep embankment.
"It's like a giant rollercoaster!" Jess giggled.
"Urgh..." Inara groaned. "My stomach!"
Robert nodded in agreement, not risking speech.
"Watch the horses!" Louise yelped as Dave, and gravity, took Martha over the 40mph speed limit.
"Horses?" Rhia queried. "Where?"
"Well, there's some there," Alice pointed through the side window to where three dark brown horses stood grazing. "And there's some over there..." Alice paused. "Oooooo, foals!"
"Foals?" Inara, Jess and Tom looked where Alice was pointing. True enough, standing amongst the tangles of heather and gorse was a mare and her foal.
"Awww..." Inara cooed, "it's so adorable."
"Just don't touch them," Louise warned.
"Why not?" Rhia queried.
"Well," Alice answered before Louise could ever open her mouth, "if you were a mother, how would you react to a stranger coming up and poking your baby?"
"Good point," Rhia agreed.
Dave just kept driving. "Hold onto ya stomachs," he called, as the Land Rover headed for a humped-back bridge over the railway.
"Mind the other side, Dave," Louise warned, "there's sometimes horses over there."
"Or idiots star-gazing!" Alice quipped.
"Hey, I was off the road!" Louise argued.
Dave took Martha over the bridge. Flora-wise nothing much changed. It was still heather and gorse, although the gorse was scarcer this side of the railway. There were no horses in the road, despite Louise's warnings, and so Dave kept driving.
The road stretched out before them towards a cluster of trees and a small hill to one side.
"How much further?" Robert asked, speaking for the first time in quite a while. It was his first real time in a vehicle like Martha, and he was beginning to feel a little sick. The scenery, however, was taking his mind off the queasy feeling in his stomach.
"Not long now," Louise commented as Dave turned Martha round a sharp right-hand bend, and down a steep incline. "Dave," Louise rested a hand on her friend's arm, "it should be up here on the right."
Dave nodded, his eyes fixed on the road in front of him.
"There..." Alice pointed, spotting the sign for the campsite. Martha and her occupants swung onto the gravel path that led to the campsite.
A green-painted wooden sign with white letters proclaimed it to be 'Matley Wood Campsite'.
"Excuse the bouncing," Dave apologises as the agents were thrown about in the back of the Land Rover from the rough, unpaved road.
The gravel track led them into the woodland surrounding the campsite, and slowly into the site itself.
A number of other cars and vans were already there, tents up.
As Dave brought Martha to a dignified halt, Harriet and Louise leapt from the passenger seats.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Baden Powell's Scouting for Boys," said Louise.
Several glanced at each other in confusion, others in slow realisation. Dave nodded slowly.
"But that's a guide book! How is that a fandom?" asked Rhia.
"Beats me," said Alice. "I had a nose through it, the whole thing is full of little stories and anecdotes on Scouty-ness and stinks of idealism…" Alice had never been a part of either the Scout or the Guide movement. "It's not like it's the SAS Survival Handbook…ooh, that would be crazy."
Louise shrugged. "It probably shouldn't be here, but it is, so here we are. Some decades past the book's first existence, though, we're in the modern day."
"Right..." Harriet exclaimed, changing the subject with a clap of her hands, "who knows how to put a tent up?"
"Now," Alice called from atop Martha, "who's got the instructions?"
She rummaged amongst the chaos that was three huge tents, not to mention the collection of leaves, twigs and other debris that had gathered during their forest drive. The others began removing all the luggage from the back of the Land Rover.
"Alice," Robert called up, "can you please pass the tents down?" He stood at the side of Martha waiting for his parole supervisor to hand the monstrosities down to him. He had put up tents before, but nothing that matched the bright blues and greens of these tents.
On top of Martha, Alice was beginning to get highly agitated.
"Allie?" Louise called, watching her friend getting increasingly stressed and frantic in her searching. "Allie, what's wrong?"
"There's no instructions in here!" she called down. Dave and Harriet, who were both hauling the stove from the back of Martha, paused, carefully putting down the extremely heavy cooking machine on the grass.
"Just pass then down, Alice," Harriet gestured for the junior agent to have her one of the tent packs. "At least all the poles are together with the tarps."
Inara helped Harriet as Alice passed Tent #1 down off the roof. Robert, Tom and Dave took Tent #2 with Louise, Rhia and Jess taking Tent #3.
Putting all three tents on the grass, the eight agents gazed in horror at the task before them.
"Right..." Alice clambered down from Martha's roof. "One tent at a time."
She began unpacking Tent #1, and soon she was a tangle of pole and guy-ropes.
Louise and Robert sighed, collecting the mess of poles and ropes from Alice, and taking charge of the situation. Dave joined them and before long Tent #1 was up. Soon Harriet, Jess and Rhia had claimed the multi-domed tent, and loaded their luggage inside. The Society founder and the Society chef picked up the stove and, picking their way across the viper's nest of ropes and poles that were now being tugged from Tent #2, planted it in the middle of their camp circle.
It didn't take long for Dave, Robert and Louise to have the other two tents up, especially now that Alice had stopped trying to be in charge.
All agents claimed their area of each tent, and so before long the tents were arranged so that Rhia, Harriet and Jess were in one; Louise, Alice and Inara were in a second; and Dave, Robert and Tom, as the male agents on the trip, were in the third. The stove remained in the middle of the circle of tents, right where Harriet and Rhia had dumped it, several hours earlier.
"So, what's for dinner?" asked Tom.
"Unhealthy and quick camping food by the looks of it," said Harriet, watching several coolers of food being dragged off Martha, opened and rifled through by Alice, Dave and Rhia. The latter was licking her lips in anticipation, imagining several pleasing dishes that could be made with the supplies they had, and making a face when she found that such-and-such an ingredient was missing.
Inara was edging around the group, getting somewhat more and more concerned, especially when she saw the large bag of sausages be chuckled over by a gleeful Alice. At least there were several equally large bags of fresh-baked bread rolls…
Some of the others were watching Robert's skill in building a fire. They were intending to cook on a large gas-powered camping stove, but they wanted a real campfire too, and thankfully Matley Wood allowed them, trusting their campers to be careful. Robert had collected kindling from the forest and tinder from a spare notebook, and had borrowed some string and a Swiss Army Knife to actually make one of those fire saws that nobody thought would work – until the paper was smoking and beginning to glow. He transferred it to the pile of kindling and it caught, starting to blaze gently, and all within three minutes.
Harriet applauded. "Well done boy. Couldn't have done it better myself."
"You couldn't have done it anyway, Hati!" quipped Alice from half within the cooler.
Harriet scowled. "Meeeh."
Robert smiled as he and Tom made a ring of stones around the campfire. He picked up the red multi-tool and started separating sticks for their pile of firewood, choosing a couple and gauging their length before cutting some notches in one.
"I'd prefer a proper penknife than this…gimmick," he said, looking critically at the screwdriver-magnifying glass-bottle opener-et cetera tools that were also part of the Swiss Army Knife. "But it suffices."
"But it's a Swiss Army Knife!" said Inara, who had secreted away a large bag of marshmallows. "It's awesome!"
"It's a bit silly," he replied, not wanting to argue with the fiery young woman. The blade of the Swiss Army Knife was already dusty and showing wear; the other attachments were pristine and unused.
"We can't have you running around with weapons until your probation's over!" jibed Harriet gently.
"Hmm," Robert grimaced. Harriet's grin let him know that she didn't care at that moment. "Who uses their penknife as a weapon?" he said, setting up his notched stick and making a hook over the fire. Louise brought a couple of tins of water, and he set them to boil.
"Allrighty!" said Rhia, clapping her hands together. "We've got food enough out for tonight and a bit then some! I'll do the potatoes!"
"I'll fry the sausages," said Dave, sorting out what he needed.
"I'll look after the water," said Robert, smiling.
"I'll grab some plates," said Tom, heading back to Martha.
"I'll butter the rolls!" chirped Inara, twirling a butter knife.
"I'll get in the way and make a big mess," giggled Alice.
"Oh God," said Rhia. "Someone get her out of my kitchen! Tie her to a tree or something!"
"Righto, boss," grinned Jess, giving Harriet and Louise sidelong conspiratorial glances and advancing on the excitable Alice. Louise picked up a spare guy rope, and the trio began to back her into the trees that surrounded their berths.
"Hey, hey guys, I was only joking…" said Alice, noticing the three identical grins.
"Aww, that's a shame," giggled Harriet. "We're not!"
The five cooks watched the yelps and the laughter as they tied Alice's wrists around a tree and tickled her, but she kept slipping her hands out and tickling back. With the boisterous ones out of the way, they could focus on dinner.
Two large frying pans had been set up over the camping stove, and both were hissing away cooking a large pile of potato fritters and browning sausages respectively. There was plenty of choice though, as Inara had been furiously buttering almost all the bread rolls in the bags, found a covered basket of fruit and started sorting through some cheese pasta that she intended to commandeer the boiling water for.
"Shouldn't we help Alice?" said Dave after several minutes, watching the three giggle.
"Naah. This is great entertainment," quipped Rhia.
Dave and Robert glanced at each other and gave a smile that said 'oh dear, these girls…' whilst continuing to keep their watchful eyes on the food. Tom shook his head, completing what he considered to be a fine table service by spacing out enough plates, cups and metal dealies on mats for everyone.
Rhia was soon poking her second round of fritters, and grinned. "How's the pastas 'Nara?" she asked, and at Inara's happy nods, called "Okay! It's dinner time!"
"Yay!" cheered the three conspirators, scurrying back to the main campsite centre and leaving Alice tied to a tree.
"Heeey!" Alice whined, before rolling her eyes and slipping easily from the thick guy rope knots. She picked up the rope and headed to the campfire herself, dropping it onto Harriet's head as she did so, plopping down in between Dave and Robert and picking up her plate to get her share of the delicious dinner. Harriet, initially indignantly open-mouthed with Alice's blasé insubordination, smiled and arranged the rope into the form of a pigtailed wig.
The nine munched merrily, sharing the occasional joke and quip. There was enough food around for all to have what they wanted; they let Inara have the lion's share of the pasta.
"Well it may be unhealthy and quick, but it ain't half nice."
"There's no bears around, is there?"
"Naaah, not in England."
"It's so nice here."
"There's a walk round here with a lovely patch of old woodland and then onto the heath. Let's go find it tomorrow!"
Not half an hour later, every platter was empty and every plate was licked and then washed clean. They couldn't believe they had polished off all that food…and yet after the camp chores were done, the bag of marshmallows was persuaded from Inara, and with some of Robert's sticks, they sat there toasting the white and pink flumps to warm gooey deliciousness. The young woman, having stolen Robert's Swiss Army Knife, giggled as she watch Louise spear two, three, four marshmallows on her stick like a kebab, and stab one end into the ground to roast.
"Bored now!" declared Harriet, flopping back completely stuffed.
"I've got a ghost story!" chirped Alice, amid a few politely-stifled groans.
"Your leader demands ghostage," said Harriet, her arm in the air before it flopped back down as she relaxed.
Alice chuckled faux-malevolently as she scurried away and returned with a torch, flicked it on and held it under her chin. Several people rolled their eyes. Alice fumbled with the switch and found a setting that slowly changed the torch's light colour.
"Gather round my dumplings for a tale of spookiness and suchlike," she began. Several wondered how they could escape, but others noted Alice's enthusiasm and wanted to know the punchline.
"Okay…it was a dark night, the sky a midnight blue, the soft navy clouds lining the horizon, and the stars like sprinkled glitter above you. You walk down the wide dirt ride, the tall oak trees lining it and blocking out most of your view of the sky…there's a light far up ahead, and you're heading towards it."
Alice's rather failed set-up elicited a couple of giggles.
"So you follow the ride up further, over the bumps and rises of the long path…and you reach the house. It's a large three storey timber-framed house…a dark slate roof and black and white walls…and only the light on the front door is on. It's flickering intermittently…so you go up to the front door and push it. Slowly it swings open…"
Her pregnant pauses were doing rather a good job of stringing her listeners along.
"…and inside lies…darkness, and cobwebs, and furniture stacked to the sides and covered in dust sheets…that which is exposed is old and weathered. There is the smell of mothballs…and old wood…and something else you can't quite put your finger on…"
Several didn't know what mothballs were, but they were listening intently now.
"You look around…there's a soft tinkling coming from up the stairs…"
Alice's voice was getting softer and softer."
"You find the stairs…and keeping to the side with the balustrade…you ascend. The stairs are long, and tall, and they creak gently with each footsetep…you reach the second floor, and follow the sound of jewellery box music around the corridors…and you turn the corner…"
There was an expectant gasp, and Alice grinned.
"You walk down the last passageway…and reach a door right at the end…where the music's coming from…you see a bathroom, with dust and a dripping tap…and the jewellery box sat on the vanity…you open the box, and inside a wisp of mist looks at you, and you look at him…"
Everyone was holding their breath…
"…and he said BOO!"
There were several yelps, and everyone rocked backwards at the sudden increase of volume. Even the next berth over had jumped at the culmination of the story. Alice was howling with laughter, and she was pelted with marshmallows by Tom and Inara briefly before they fell into a heap laughing.
"Oh the looks on your faces! I gotcha!"
"Ahhh madness…" grinned Harriet, to Jess' head shakes and Louise's facepalm. "Are there any marshmallows left? I think I remember some toffee being around before I head to bed…"
Louise rolled over in her sleep. She was having a mildly disturbed night. The numerous owls and the occasional other nocturnal creatures of the Forest were filtering into her unsettling dreams. However, it was another agent who broke the stillness of the dawn.
Inara's high pitched scream jolted everyone from their sleep. Louise, who was sharing a tent with Inara, quickly unzipped her pod to see what was wrong. Inside the other pod, Alice stirred.
"Inara!" Louise, who was always more awake than her housemate, reached the young agent first. "What happened?"
Inara was sat in the entrance to their tent, staring at the most unusual blockage she had ever seen.
Suddenly, the blockage moo'ed at her.
"It's... a cow!" Inara gabbled, pointing at the hind leg of the giant bovine.
"This could be a problem," came Dave's dry sarcasm from outside the tent.
"What's going on out there?" Alice yawned, finally surfacing from her pod and spotting the cow.
"It appears," Harriet was the next to speak, "that campsite grass tastes wonderful, as a herd of cows have decided to wander through."
"Bloody things!" Louise cursed under her breath. She didn't really like cows, too unpredictable for her liking.
"How are we going to get out?" Inara asked.
"We'll just have to wait until they have moved on. The last thing we need is to cause a bovine stampede through a campsite full of bleary-eyed tourists."
Everyone knew he was right. Dave usually was.
And so it was a lot later than planned that Alice, Louise and Inara tucked into breakfast.
"So, what are we going to do today?" Alice asked between mouthfuls of French toast.
"I dunno." Harriet muttered as she finished off the final sausage.
"There's a cricket field up the road, Hati," Louise pointed out. "Fancy going to watch grass-roots cricket?"
"Hell yeah!" Harriet agreed.
Before long the group divided into those who fancied an afternoon watching the local cricket team, and those that didn't. Unsurprisingly, the cricket group consisted purely of Louise and Harriet.
"You don't know what you're missing!" Harriet teased.
"Oh yes we do," Alice mumbled under her breath as the two cricket-crazy agents disappeared from the campsite.
"Who's up for a walk?" Tom asked some time later as he pulled on his hiking boots. Dave swiftly joined him.
"As a rule you should have some object in your expedition: that is to say, if you are a Patrol of town boys, you would go off with the idea of scouting some special spot…"
"…Huuuh?" Alice gabbled at hearing the loud voice-over that teemed through the forest.
"What was that?" Inara asked nervously.
"I'm not sure..." Rhia replied, picking up a frying pan automatically.
"It's probably some idiot in the Forest with a megaphone." Jess was brash with her assessment, although everyone could see the concern in the agent's eyes. She pulled her walking boots on without another word.
"You should notice everything as you travel the roads and remember as much of your journey as possible."
"Okay, this is getting creepy," Tom commented, voicing the thought that had gone through all their heads.
"Well, this is 'Scouting for Boys'..." Dave reminded them all.
Alice sighed. "So, where are we going?" she asked. No one seemed to have come to the same conclusion that Dave had, but, as the Northern agent looked around his group of friends, he realised that none of them had been a member of either the Scout or Guide movement. Louise had been, but with her off watching the cricket with Harriet, there was no one for Dave to share his suspicion with.
Robert picked up the map that the boys had kept in their tent. He had no idea where on the map he was, but he was however, an accomplished navigator. He remembered the route Martha had taken the day previously, and soon he was tracing his fingers along the roads of the New Forest.
"There's a lovely walk around here," Alice interrupted Robert's thoughts. "Lou and I came here in real life once."
"That could be fun," Inara chimed in. "Louise and Harriet will be gone a while, I'm guessing?"
"Unless it starts to rain," Alice pointed out. This caused the others to stare at the sky. It wasn't too overcast; patches of blue sky were casting the sun's rays over the Forest.
"Shall we head off then?" Rhia, who had been quietly loading her rucksack with nibbles, spoke up. The others lifted their packs into their backs, and with Tom and Robert in the lead with the map, they headed into the Forest.
While the majority of the agents were getting hot and sweaty walking around the forest and heathland, Harriet and Louise were relaxing at the cricket. Both girls knew enough about the game to follow it without commentary. They didn't know who was playing, and it was significantly less professional than watching the national, or even county team, but they were having fun nonetheless.
It turned out to be a very short game, and both agents decided to head into the nearby town of Lyndhurst for some lunch.
"I think that has to be the shortest game I have ever seen," Louise commented as she slid herself through the kissing gate.
"One that wasn't rained off..." Harriet reminded her.
"Oh yeah," Louise giggled. She and Harriet had both been to enough cricket matches that had been rained off for either of their liking. As it turned out, the cricket game had been between the league leaders and the guaranteed last-placers, and it was over within three hours.
"I really felt sorry that opener," Harriet commented as the pair entered the High Street and passed the numerous tourist and camping shops.
"Yeah, wasn't he the only one in double figures?" Louise asked.
"Yeah, the rest of the team collapsed."
"Poor bugger," Louise sighed.
"So..." Harriet asked as they entered the closest thing to a supermarket that Lyndhurst has. "What shall we have for lunch?"
"Nothing too heavy," Louise by-passed the sausages and bacon, "I'm still stuffed from breakfast."
In the end, the girls came out carrying two giant bags of crisps, and a selection of chocolate bars. Munching on the crisps as they walked, the two agents wandered back to the giant hill overlooking the cricket field.
With Louise huffing and panting by the time they reached the top, they both crashed onto the benches under the oversized tree.
"Well," Harriet smiled as she selected a chocolate bar from her bag. "It's not exactly the Rose Bowl, is it?"
"Or Lords..." Louise coughed. The walk had taken a lot out of her, and she was fishing for her inhaler in her handbag.
"You know," Harriet watched her friend. "It's amazing you manage on missions, what with your asthma."
"It's not as bad as it used to be, and when I get into fantasy-based fandoms, it's like it's not there at all."
"I guess so..." Harriet leaned back on the bench, letting the warm sun play across her face.
"You know..." Louise brought Harriet from her meditative state, "...it's weird coming to fandoms that are almost the same as home."
"As Alice would tell you, if she were here, it's the theory of the uncanny. If something is close to what you know, but not quite, you are ever more spooked by it," Harriet said without even opening her eyes.
"Yeah, I suppose..." Louise sighed, looking around her at the familiar.
Harriet picked up on Louise's slightly melancholy mood.
"Lou, what's wrong? How can you be down on such a wonderful sunny day?"
"I don't know," Louise automatically gave her standard response, but for once, she didn't stop there. Harriet was beyond friend, she was family, and she felt as comfortable with the Society founder as she did with Alice or her own family in real life. "I guess I'm worried about Merle," she voiced aloud for the first time the thoughts that had been bothering her ever since the Basement Incident. "I know she was wanting something from me when I was..." she paused, "well, you know."
Harriet sat up. She, as a leader, was one of the five individuals who knew what Merle had forced Louise to do during her month under her thrall, but until or unless they figured out Merle's purpose in all that research they were not going to tell anyone else. "Louise, don't worry about her. She's no longer just your problem. We will defend you against her. She is the Society's problems now."
Louise sighed. Alice kept telling her the exact same thing.
"No buts..." Harriet held up an authoritative finger. "Ah..." she gestured again as Louise made to protest. "I'm going to head back to the campsite," Harriet got to her feet. "You coming?"
Louise pondered. "I think I'm going to go for a quick walk over there," she pointed off to the far side of a gravel carpark, to where a small church stood. Harriet followed her gesture, nodded and said nothing.
"Thanks for understanding, Hati," Louise gave her friend and long distance cousin a hug. "I'll see you back at the campsite."
Louise picked up her bag and silently selected a number of daisies and dandelions for the grass of the hill before heading off towards the church.
Harriet watched her leave knowing that Louise needed this time to herself. She had been through a lot since joining the Society and while she may no longer have been the nervous rabbit she had been, but some things, Harriet mused, were indelible; things that neither time not place could get rid of.
As clouds drifted over the sun, Harriet wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the sudden chill. Getting to her feet, she made her way down the hill and back to the campsite, wondering what chaos the others would have gotten into in her absence.
The others were shattered. The nice walk that Alice had highlighted to Robert on the map turned into a five-hour trek across heathland and through forests. By the time they had returned, hot and sweaty, to the campsite, Harriet was happily nursing a cup of tea.
"I'm going to the showers," Jess declared, disappearing into her tent. She was swiftly followed by Rhia, and soon both girls had collected their bathroom things, a change of clothes and had vanished across the campsite.
Alice collapsed in the entrance to her tent, and was quickly joined by Inara, who began unlacing her hiking boots.
"Ahhhh..." Inara sighed, pulling boot number one off and launching it into the tent behind her.
"Eurgh..." Alice turned her nose up at the sweaty-feet smell.
"Thanks Allie," Inara looked mildly offended.
"Sorry hon..." Alice glomped the unsuspecting youngest agent. "You know I don't mean it really."
"Harriet?" Robert asked as Tom and Dave joined the others on the grass, "where's Louise?"
Alice looked up at the sound of her housemate's name.
"She'll be back soon," Harriet was clearly not going to discuss it further.
"Where's she gone?" Alice demanded.
"If you must know, Alice, she went to look at the church by the cricket field."
A look of understanding passed between the two female agents and Alice merely nodded.
"So..." Tom asked, having vanished so briefly into his tent that no one noticed he had gone, "what's for dinner?"
"I don't think I can cope with camp food again," Inara complained, finally having pulled boot number two off.
Harriet drained the last of her tea. "Well, there are some lovely pubs in the local town."
"I suppose you'll be wanting me to drive..." Dave sighed, making to get to his feet.
"Lyndhurst's not a million miles away, Dave," Alice interrupted. "We can easily walk there."
"Lou and I certainly did," Harriet agreed. At the look on Inara's face at the prospect of walking again, she added, "I promise it's not too far."
"Very well," Inara sighed, although the way she slunk into her portion of the tent indicated to all that she was not happy.
"Yay!" Alice's cheer was totally at odds with the mood in the campsite, and made everyone jump. "Steak!"
Louise didn't linger long at the cemetery, and soon she left, having placed the wildflowers delicately on the grave.
Softly, she sang to herself as she walked.
"You were once my one companion..." The words of the song drifted away on the gentle breeze. Singing, Louise had discovered some time ago, cheered her up, and despite the melancholy nature of the words, by the time she arrived back at the campsite, she was feeling quite cheerful. So it was strange to find the campsite in such a sombre mood.
Harriet and Alice both sat reading, although the subject matter could hardly be more different. The Society founder pored over the latest copy of Wisden's Cricketers Almanac that she had brought with her. Alice, on the other hand, was reading the newest story in the Horus Heresy saga.
The male agents and Robert were approaching, towels wrapped around some of them, or dressed in fresh clothes. Robert smiled weakly as he spotted Louise.
"Why all the glum faces?" she asked.
"We're walking to the town for dinner," Inara's voice called from one of the domed tents.
"Cool!" Louise ducked into her tent. "I'll just change."
Inside the tent, Inara's pod door was rolled open, and a pair of feet stuck over the threshold.
"Inara," Louise whispered, "what's wrong?" Everything about Inara's demeanour told Louise that something was up.
"My feet hurt from the five-hour hike," Inara sighed. The earlier venom had drained from her.
"Ouch," Louise perched outside Inara's pod. "Did Alice take you out into the Forest?"
The younger agent propped herself up on her elbows and nodded.
"Least you didn't get too lost, unlike we did," Louise giggled.
"No, Robert is an excellent navigator, and he stayed at a pace that we all could manage."
"I bet Alice liked that," Louise commented, knowing her voice would carry to those outside.
"HEY!" Alice cried, in mock indignation.
Louise ignored her, focusing on the young agent in front of her.
"Don't worry," she wrapped a comforting arm around Inara. "It'll take half an hour at most."
Inara smiled, and the pair continued chatting, mainly about the New Forest and its interesting wildlife, until Alice stuck her head into the tent.
"Guys, we're heading off!" she called.
Louise blinked. "What time is it?" she asked.
"Twenty to six," Alice said cheerfully. "Come on!" And she vanished into her own pod, starting to rummage around for something.
"I'd best go freshen up," Louise dipped into her own pod and retrieved her bathroom things.
"Me too," Inara followed suit and both girls vanished from the tent.
Ten minutes later, all bar one of the agents were ready. Louise sighed as she banged on her tent.
"Are you coming?"
"Yes, yes... I'm just..." Alice had yet to emerge from the tent.
"Faffing," Louise finished.
The Society founder moved to her distant cousin's side. "Alice Victoria Wood," she spoke in the most important voice. "If you are not out here in ten seconds, we're leaving without you."
Alice's silhouette within the tent stopped moving.
"You wouldn't do that... would you?"
Louise gave Harriet a scathing look before replying.
"No, Alice... but there won't be any steak left at this rate."
Alice was out of the tent like a bullet from a gun, and half way down the path that led to the road.
"Well," she called over her shoulder, "are you coming?"
"Steak please... Medium rare... No, only the chips."
"Hunter's chicken please!"
"Scampi, chips and peas please... no tartare sauce."
"Can I please have the penne pasta with tomato and mascarpone sauce please?"
The group's food selection was certainly diverse, but as it arrived they all tucked in with gusto. Many of them stared at the sheer amount of salt Alice poured upon her steak.
"Who's paying for all this?" Rhia asked, tucking into her tasty-looking lasagne.
Harriet waved a shiny purple card.
"That's not..." Jess spoke between mouthfuls. "Is it?"
"Oh he's going to be mad at you, Hati," Tom pointed out.
Back in the Library, Adrian was cursing the fact that he had let the Society founder know where he kept his credit card stash. As he cursed, he slowly realised that it hadn't been Harriet he had told...
"How...How big is that?"
Louise gasped at the dish that was now being placed in front of Harriet. It was the biggest dessert that one could imagine. It was a huge glass bowl full of chocolate sponge, plain cake, chocolate fudge sauce, vanilla ice cream, fudge pieces, Flake fingers and chocolate chunks. Not to mention the face that it was topped with lashings of whipped cream, chocolate sauce and shavings and a dusting of cocoa powder.
The majority of the agents gathered around the table in the pub gawped at it.
"You're gonna be sick," Inara groaned. The pudding was not her idea of a good dessert. It had far too much chocolate for her liking.
"No I'm not," Harriet grinned, as she, Jess and Rhia picked up a spoon each and began tucking in.
Louise sighed, and slowly ate her way through the profiteroles that she had ordered.
"You know," Jess said as she swallowed a chocolate chunk whole, "having Adrian's card is a wonderful thing .We should really do it more often."
"Surely the Librarian would be angry when he finds out?" Robert, the voice of reason, pointed out.
"Oh," Rhia giggled. She had chocolate sauce around her face that she hadn't noticed. "He won't mind..." she paused. "Much."
Dave and Tom had sensibly stayed out of the girls' plotting, while finishing off their respective apple pies. Adrian, whilst being a very nice person, was in essence the Society's landlord, and while they didn't need to pay him rent, they knew not to anger him too much.
"You know what he needs..." Alice said whimsically, twirling her spoon, "a big basket of sweets and goodies to replace all that we stole while he was dead."
"Soften the old guy up a little," Harriet concurred.
"And just where are we going to get all these sweets?" Louise asked.
"Um..." Alice paused, spoon of ice cream and sticky toffee pudding halfway to her mouth.
"To replace even half of what we took, we would need a hamper about the size of a small car, and that won't fit in Martha," Louise pointed out, as the ice cream slipped from Alice's spoon and landed with a splash on the tablecloth.
"Bollocks!" Alice cursed.
This caused the entire table to burst into laughter, and all thoughts of bribing Adrian slipped as neatly from their minds as Alice's ice cream had slipped from her spoon.
"So," Dave started now that the topic of finances and the Librarian had ended. "How long are we staying here again?"
"Camping?" Harriet asked.
"Yeah. Much as the New Forest is beautiful and all..."
"Did anyone get any further with that strange voice?" Alice swiftly adjusted the subject.
"What voice?" Louise looked at her housemate as though she had gone mad.
"Sadly not..." Robert reported.
"We searched the area around the campsite," Tom joined in, "but there's nothing to be seen except green and cows."
Alice scowled. She was determined to discuss the identity of their elusive narrator.
"Well," Rhia joined the conversation. "We know it's male..."
"And a mature voice as well," Dave commented.
Harriet and Louise looked at each other in confusion, and then back at the friends. Only Inara spotted that the two agents weren't in the loop.
"Is anyone going to explain to us what is going on?" Louise suddenly demanded in exasperation.
"You didn't hear anything this morning?" Alice asked.
"Aside from Inara's scream and the herd of cows in the campsite, there was nothing out of the ordinary."
Inara sighed. Despite being the youngest agent of the Society, she was surprisingly mature for her age, and proceeded to explain the events of the late morning to Louise and Harriet.
"So," Inara concluded, "Alice here is determined to discover the identity of this person, right?" She checked, and Alice nodded furiously.
"I'll admit to being a little curious myself," Jess admitted, to general murmurs of agreement from the others around the table.
"He can't be too far away. I haven't heard him since we've been in Lyndhurst," pointed out Rhia.
"Maybe we can go look for him later?" suggested Harriet.
"Hati..." Louise, always the more sensible of the two, pointed to the darkening sky outside. "...I'm not going on a wild goose hike in the forest in the dark."
"Very well..." Harriet conceded. "But tomorrow..."
"Tomorrow will be fine," Dave, always the peacekeeper, broke in smoothly.
"On that concerning note," Robert pitched in, "maybe we should think about heading back to Matley before it is fully dark?" Unlike the majority of the others, he knew well the perils of the wilderness at night, even though the New Forest was decidedly safer than the woods of Faerûn.
They finished their desserts, most chipping in to help Jess, Rhia and Harriet finish their giant pudding. The bill, when it came, came to over two hundred pounds...not bad for nine people. Harriet handed over her ill-gotten card with surprisingly little ceremony, and soon they were beginning their trek through the twilight back to the campsite.
"You know..." Alice murmured as she lay on the soft grass of a small hillock just outside the campsite.
"What?" asked Robert, who lay beside her, staring at the clear sky above them.
"Sometimes...with all the chaos of the Society, it's so easy to forget how beautiful some of these fandoms really are."
"Alice," Robert turned his head to look at her. "Isn't this fandom near enough identical to your home world?"
"Well, yeah," Alice sighed. "But real life sucks! It's full of rain, and mortgages, and morons who work at JobCentres..."
Robert didn't pursue the questions he had about these apparently annoying things. As far as he knew she shared a small flat with Louise. The pair must have a lot in common, more than just the Society, though he knew that Louise wasn't too difficult to live with.
"It seems strange..." Robert spoke after several minutes of silence, having looked away.
"What does?" asked Alice, ever curious.
"All the stars here are so different from those in Faerûn..."
"But surely you were taken to other fandoms based on Earth? There's no shortage of them." Alice propped herself onto her elbow and looked at him.
"Yes, but I never had the opportunity to do nothing else but gaze at them," he said softly. "In Faerûn, we had pictures of mythical beings..."
"Same here," Alice interrupted. "You see that one there..." She pointed to one particular distinctive constellation.
"The one that looks like one of Rhiannon's cooking pans?"
"I suppose it does..." Alice laughed gently. Robert looked up at her at the noise. For one second, their eyes met; Alice smiled widely, and Robert felt his heart skip a beat. She missed everything.
"Well that..." she returned her gaze to the heavens, "is called Ursa Major." Seeing Robert's confused expression, Alice explained: "Meaning the 'Great Bear'. It's also called the Plough, but that's just the asterism..."
"Okay..." Robert was still reeling from Alice's smile. He couldn't see where her comments were going, but her company was all he wanted at that moment.
"Well, follow those two stars on the edge up about five times, and head to the left of Cassiopeia..."
"Which?" Robert looked at Alice bewildered.
"The giant 'W'," she pointed out. "See that little star there, above the Plough?"
"Well, that's called the Pole Star. It points directly north."
Robert followed Alice's instructions, tracing the stars and spaces across the sky, and sure enough there was a solo star, devoid of neighbours.
"Is there one for south, or do you simply walk away from this one?" Robert queried.
"There's the Southern Cross," Alice explained, "but that's only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, just as the Pole star can only be seen from the Northern Hemisphere."
"We have nothing as amazing on Faerûn."
"You wait," Alice enthused, "I'll show you loads more. Wait until Orion appears in the winter."
Robert smiled. He had worked so hard to establish a rapport with Alice, and it was finally working. He knew that he had a lot to thank Louise for as well. She had been there as the third wheel, steadying the somewhat out-of-control nature that Alice possessed.
Alice yawned and looked back towards the huddle of tents. A torch light gleamed from within Harriet, Jess and Rhia's tent. No doubt the three girls were deep in conversation. No lights issued from inside the other two tents. As she watched the darkness, Alice realised that it must have been quite late.
"I'm going to head to bed," Alice said, stretching her arms above her head and then sitting up. "I want to have some energy for tomorrow."
Robert watched Alice's silhouette get up and make its way carefully back towards the tents. He sighed. Alice had grown up in a much more technological world than him, and as such her night-vision had been seriously damaged by the artificial lights. He watched her safely back to the tent before sitting up himself.
It wasn't as dark as it could have been. The light from the almost-full moon filtered through the trees, casting patches of dim greenish-white across the campsite. Finding no problems in getting back to the tent, Robert lay in his sleeping bag thinking. He had a lot of thinking to do and he wasn't sure which outcome he would prefer.
I think... I think I'm falling in love with Alice...
Louise woke the following morning to the sound of falling water on to stretched plastic.
"ARGH!" came a cry from the neighbouring tent. It sounded like Jess. Louise clambered groggily out of her sleeping bag, careful not to touch the tent walls. Slipping her feet into her boots, she went to see what the fuss was about, though she had a good idea.
Harriet and Rhia had also been roused by Jess' yelp, and were already helping the sopping wet agent from her pod.
"What happened?" asked Louise, although by now she was sure.
"I rolled over, and into the wall," Jess confessed, sheepishly.
Louise nodded. She had known just from the sound that it had rained in the night, and she also knew that the last thing one does with a wet tent is touch the inside wall, lest the water be drawn through the layers.
Once they had managed to get Jess out of her wet pyjamas and into nice dry clothes, and the others had all gotten washed and dressed themselves, and eaten something to fill their empty stomachs, Alice clambered atop Martha's rear loader.
"Hey guys…" she called to her friends. "I wanna find out who this idiot with the megaphone is."
Those who had experienced the disembodied voice the previous day nodded in agreement.
"Hear hear!" Jess encouraged.
Louise watched her friends whip themselves up into a fervour. Silently she laced her boots, and prayed that whoever this apparent loud mouth was, that he had gotten bored and gone home.
"The life of a Frontiersman is a grand life, but to live it, you must prepare yourself in advance for difficulties that may arise."
Or not. This voice had already nagged them near-incessantly about the importance of good preparation.
As the group readied to move off, Robert spotted his friend still sat on the floor.
"Louise?" he asked.
"I'm coming… I'm coming." Louise got to her feet with a sigh.
"What's wrong?" he lingered back, as the majority of the group moved into the forest.
"I'm just concerned that Alice is a little manic about finding this guy."
"The walk should calm her down a bit," Robert reassured.
"I certainly hope so," Louise muttered as she joined the rest of the agents.
The walk was just as Louise remembered it, full of giant flying insects. As they passed from the normal forest into a patch of Ancient Woodland, populated with ferns, haphazardly-planted trees and plenty of fallen ones, and a desire-path track, she caused the whole group to turn as a huge yellow and black dragonfly flew close past her.
"Lou," Harriet said as their ears stopped ringing from the high-pitched scream. Louise was stood, frozen to the spot, shaking with fear. The Society founder walked up to her, and wrapped a gentle, comforting arm around her. "Here, I'll walk with you."
"I'm sorry..." Louise's eyes were brimming with tears. She wrapped her arm around Harriet, and the two cousins joined the rest of the group.
"Poor Lou..." Jess gave her friend's hair a quick ruffle before rejoining Alice and Rhia at the front of the group. "That's a dragonfly, not a bee…though I've not seen such a huge bugger!"
"I hope Alice can remember where to go," Louise commented to Harriet as they walked.
"I think Robert still has the map should we need it," Harriet reassured her.
And so the walk continued, and the group eventually emerged onto open heathland.
"Here you go, Rhia," said Alice, who had spent the previous ten minutes explaining heathland to the group, all of whom had heard her explanation in Martha on the way over, but were all too polite to point this out to Alice... all that is except Louise.
"Alice, you told them all about heathland on the drive over here," Louise bluntly pointed out.
"So..." her friend rounded on her, and childishly stuck out her tongue.
Louise smiled and rolled her eyes.
The heathland was a beautiful patchwork of purples and red, of browns and greens. The heather, after which the heathland got its name, was spread out like a blanket before them, with narrow creamy-white paths criss-crossing it in several directions.
"Now which way do we go?" Tom asked.
"You must notice and remember every by-road and foot-path."
Everyone listened to the voice, but no-one could discern from which direction it was coming.
"WHERE ARE YOU, YOU CONNIVING LITTLE..."
"Alice..." Dave interrupted her, then stopped at the look of mild insanity on Alice's face.
"Hon..." Louise walked up to her best friend. "Which way do you think we should go?"
"FOALS!" Rhia and Inara shrieked at once, and Alice's train of thought was yet again derailed. The two girls had spotted a couple of mares with their foals some distance away. All four animals were contentedly grazing.
"It looks like we are going that way," Alice murmured as the two girls whipped out their cameras from their rucksacks and began taking photos of the creatures.
"You know..." Louise whispered to Alice, Dave and Harriet, "it's a good thing they have gotten used to walkers across here, else I don't know what they would have made of a hoard load of Society agents descending on their grazing area." She smiled as she looked up at Inara and Rhia, who now had been joined by Jess.
There were plenty of horses across the heathland to keep Rhia, Jess and Inara very snap-happy, all three of them remembering the local agents advice about not touching the animals.
"Hey..." Harriet called, as their course came around a private area of woodland and turned in the direction of a nearby bridge. Its wide arched gape and two circular supportive struts made the shape of a face. "Happy chair is happy!"
"Or in this case," Alice joined in, "unhappy bridge is unhappy."
A rumble cut into the stillness of the walk.
"What the hell..." Rhia asked.
Alice pointed at the bridge they were approaching. Across the top of it was travelling a red and silver train.
"Hold on..." Louise stopped in her tracks, staring at the bridge before her, and then looking at Alice. "Allie, I think we've gone the wrong way."
"Oh well..." Alice simply smiled at her friend, "we can do the walk in reverse. I, for one, am happy approaching this bridge from this way."
Robert simply stared at the locomotive until it was out of sight.
"Don't worry Robert." Louise saw the look of horror on his face. "They aren't dangerous."
"If you say so…" He didn't look convinced.
"That the train to London?" Jess asked.
"Um..." Alice answered, and she and Louise looked at each other, then at the train line. "It's either going to London or Weymouth."
"Not sure which way is north at the moment."
Quietly, Robert withdrew the map from his bag, and studied it intensely. He briefly glanced up at the sun a couple of times.
"North is that way," he pointed in the rough direction that the train had been heading.
Everyone looked round at him.
"He's good," Tom murmured.
"He's very good," Alice grinned, causing Robert to blush scarlet and hurriedly put the map back into his bag to hide his embarrassment.
"Of course he's good," Louise interjected. "Robert is military trained."
Robert re-emerged from the bag, and nodded in confirmation of Louise's statement.
Tom sidled over to Robert as the group made their way under the bridge, and began a barrage of questions about his military experience, until Louise surreptitiously joined the pair of them. Tom slinked away, a sly grin on his face.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the group arrived on the edge of a fenced wooded area.
"More private land?" Tom asked.
"No, this is an enclosure," Louise explained. "Sometimes parcels of land are fenced off, usually to keep the horses and other animals out. This is normally because there are young saplings inside that would be eaten by the grazing animals of the New Forest."
"Ah okay..." Tom sighed. "We allowed in?"
"Of course," Alice interrupted. "We're not exactly going to eat the saplings, are we?"
Alice ignored Tom's attempt at a reply, and let herself into the enclosure. She was convinced that the idiot with the megaphone was hiding somewhere in the trees.
"He had to be able to run long distances, to climb trees, and to swim rivers in order to escape from his pursuers."
"ARGH!" Alice yelped.
Louise, who had taken a more unorthodox entry into the enclosure by vaulting over the large gate, landed on her feet on the other side, to the surprise of her friends, who all used the kissing gate.
"Show off!" Alice mumbled, giving Louise a giant hug.
Tom looked at Robert, who was smiling at his friend's antics. The others all commented to Louise on some aspect of her death-defying leap.
"Shall we keep looking for this git?" Alice suggested, as she watched her friend's face go red with all the attention.
The path in the enclosure had gone from the rough chalk of the heathland to a sandy surface covered with the occasional dropped leaf. Beneath the shelter and shade of the trees, the temperature dropped. Inara wrapped her top about her to ward off the chill.
"When are we going to know when we are near him?" Dave asked sensibly.
"Oh, I don't know..." Louise responded sarcastically before Alice could open her mouth. "Look for a guy sitting in a tent with a giant PA system?"
"What? Like that tent over there?" Alice pointed into the trees to where a patch of white cloth stood out from the sea of green leaves.
Louise sighed as the others looked shocked to find a tent in the middle of the woodland.
"Should we?" Harriet asked, but the majority of the others had already started towards the mysterious tent. As they approached, they saw that it was a tepee style construction, and was held down by greyish rope and wooden pegs. It was very different from the plastic monstrosities back on their campsite, which were held down by synthetic fibres and metal pegs.
"He knows how to make himself comfortable in a thousand small ways, and then, when he does come back to civilisation, he enjoys it all the more for having seen the contrast."
From this distance the eulogising of Scout advice was ear-splitting.
"Right! That does it!" snapped Alice. There was a note of apprehension around them now, not entirely sure who was doing this or what their motive was. Or, importantly as Alice marched to the archaic tent, the level of any danger…
It was slowly dawning on Louise who their mysterious speaker actually was, and she followed Alice.
The tent entrance was pulled open, but the agents stopped out of sight of any occupant. There was tinkle of china inside, and the movement of some of the fabric as someone moved around. An elderly man stuck his head out from the entrance of the tent.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Why don't you all come inside out of the chill wind?" the old man beckoned. "I've just put the pot onto boil."
The group peered around the edge of the tent, a little bemused. It was a lot more spacious than one might have imagined. There were a number of chairs scattered around, not to mention the blankets strewn across the floor.
Louise smiled to herself as she spotted the kettle sat on a gas stove, and a plate full of finger sandwiches delicately placed on the edge of a small table. It looked like the stereotypical tent, complete with rack and bedding roll at the far side.
In the old man's hand was a large megaphone.
"Hey!" Alice cried out before Louise could stop her. "You're the person who was providing the running narration of…"
Louise gave her friend an elbow in the ribs to shut her up.
"What?" Alice snapped at her.
Louise ignored her and turned to the old man. "Forgive my friend, sir. The fresh air has made her forget herself."
The others looked at each other in confusion. Did Louise know this gentleman?
"Louise…" Dave spoke up. "Perhaps you should introduce the rest of our group?"
The old man's piercing eyes fell on Dave, who gave a courteous nod but said nothing more.
"Yes of course. Guys, this is Lord Robert Baden-Powell. Lieutenant-General of the British Army, and founder of the Scouting movement." Louise spoke the old man's name with awe.
Alice's jaw dropped. She had heard about Baden-Powell from Louise's tales of her exploits within the Guiding movement. Robert looked impressed that his friend had known his identity, and began to slip back into military mode at such a high rank. What he didn't know, and Louise was not presently at liberty to tell him, that in Real Life, Baden-Powell had been dead for over sixty years. Or at least, meant to be…
"Sir, my name is Louise, and I request your forgiveness for invading your privacy. We had no idea…"
Baden-Powell cut her off. "Young lady," there was a snigger from Inara, Jess and Rhia. Louise was the oldest active agent in the Society, and the second oldest person on the mission. "The glorious New Forest is land common to all. You and your friends are more than welcome to come visit me in my tent. Why not join me for a simple luncheon?"
Grins spread across the faces of the gathered agents, for, in their haste to find the then anonymous narrator, no-one had thought to pack a real lunch for the hike.
"That would be lovely, sir."
The group and Baden-Powell gathered just outside his tent, and were soon happily tucking into sandwiches and cake. Louise, despite the protest of Baden-Powell, made a passable cup of tea for the old man, and then handed the tea to those of her friends who wanted some.
As the chill in the air increased, Baden-Powell went to collect a blanket for each of the guests from inside the tent, but Harriet held up a hand to stop him.
"Sir," she had picked up on Louise's term of address, "I fear we must be on our way. Our tents are a steady walk away, and I do not wish to be out after nightfall."
"Very well." He turned to face the group as they got to their feet. "I wish you all a safe journey, and thank you for some wonderful campfire stories." Alice giggled and hid her face.
The agents made their farewells, and were soon following their tracks back towards their own campsite.
"He's such a nice old man," Inara was saying.
"I think Lou had something for him," Jess teased.
"I must certainly do not!" Louise protested.
"You certainly admire him," Robert found the truth.
"Oh definitely. It's not everyday that you get to meet one of your heroes."
"How can you not see him in your world?" Robert asked.
"Because…" Louise said with a heavy heart, "he died in 1941, over forty years before I was born."
Harriet turned to look back towards the enclosure. "Then what is he doing in a modern fandom?"
No-one had the answer, except...
"Well this is Baden-Powell 's Scouting For Boys…he kinda runs this fandom."
The group entered the clearing of the campsite. Their tents were just as they had left them; all gathered neatly around the remnants of a campfire, and the now cool camping stove.
"We have to be off this site at sunset," Harriet explained to the worn-out agents.
"Well, I'm jumping in the shower," Inara declared, diving headlong into the tent she had been sharing with Alice and Louise, and emerging moments later, wash kit in hand.
"You know," Jess commented, "that's not a bad idea."
Jess, Rhia and Harriet all followed Inara's example, and headed for the shower block on the edge of the campsite.
Tom looked around at the remaining people. Alice and Louise were the only remaining female agents.
"Aren't you going to jump in the showers too?" he asked pointedly at the two best-friends.
"Are you kidding?" Louise gasped. "I wouldn't shower in a campsite shower if you paid me! I'll have a nice bath when we get back to the Library."
Alice nodded in agreement with Louise's statement.
"Well…" Dave tried delicately to break the awkward silence. "Maybe we should start packing?"
"Good idea…" Tom picked up on his tent-mate's suggestion, and clambered into his tent.
It didn't take long for Louise to pack. She basically lived out of her suitcase when she went away, and therefore the majority of her stuff was already packed. She debated remaining in her hiking boots for the journey home, but decided that she needed to tend to the blisters on her feet, and slowly unlaced them, placing the cheese-smelling footwear in the base of her suitcase.
"URGH," Alice gasped from the other side of the tent. "Your feet stink, Lou!"
"Thanks hon," Louise called back. "Love you too…"
None of the guys, who naturally heard every word, weren't bothered by this exchange. Alice and Louise were best friends, and housemates in Real Life, and these comments of affection were not uncommon between them.
Louise's feet weren't as bad as she had expected. A plaster on each ankle was all that was needed, and she pulled her trainers on. The lack of ankle support given by the trainers felt strange following several hours in her walking boots.
Soon, Louise was zipping her suitcase shut, and hauling it out to stand by Martha. The boys, she saw, were already there.
"Blimey, you guys don't hang about, do you?" she commented, as she added her navy suitcase to the collection before her. "The others back from the showers…"
"We're back!" came a chorus of voices from the other tents.
Louise giggled before turning to face Tom, Dave and Robert. "Do you need a hand with the tents?"
"Please…" Dave and Robert headed for their tent, and slowly began removing the pegs from the ground. "Can you unclip the inside, Lou?" Dave asked.
"Sure." Louise dove beneath the outer layer of the tent, and unclipped the inner sleeping compartments. "Shall I fold them up too?" she asked, still under the tent.
"I'll give you a hand with that, Lou." Tom appeared in the entrance way, and before long the inner layer was neatly folded, making sure that the section that had been in contact with the floor never touched the inside.
Dave and Robert carefully pulled the outer layer off the tent to reveal Tom and Louise underneath. It took all four of them to fold the last bit of the tent, and roll it tight enough to fit back into the tent bag.
"Louise…" Robert asked, as he held the bag open for Tom and Dave, "would you mind grabbing the pegs and the guy-ropes, please?"
Louise handed them over, and soon the first tent was neatly packed away. Robert climbed atop Martha to secure it in place.
Once the noise of the dismantling tent has stopped, they could hear the sound of their friends trying to pack all their belongings back into their bags and cases.
"Hey Hati…" Rhia was calling, "have you seen my toothbrush?"
"No… but have you seen by Hampshire County Cricket Club cap?"
"That's over here, Harriet!" Inara called from the other tent. "You loaned it to me on the walk, remember?"
Underneath all the debates as to where their various items of clothing and belongings had gone, Louise and Robert could hear Alice, muttering under her breath.
"Get in there you stupid bastard."
"You okay, hon?" Louise asked her friend.
"Yeah… I swear I didn't pack this much when we were in the Library."
"You must have," Robert explained calmly.
"I definitely don't remember packing five T-shirts…"
"Hey…" Inara's voice called from another portion of the same tent, as Jess clambered out of her tent lugging a giant green holdall. "Is one of them black with the Society logo on it?"
"Yeah… I thought it was mine that had shrunk in the wash."
"No, Alice…" there was the sound of Inara clambering through the tent, "… that's mine."
There was a sigh as Alice handed it over. Inara zipped up her bag and crawled from the tent. It didn't take long for Rhia and Harriet to finish their packing too, and yet again, the Society agents were waiting for Alice.
"Alice, we need to collapse the final tent," Dave reminded her.
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" Alice hauled her bag from the tent, and the others immediately began work removing the pegs and guy-ropes.
"Alice," Dave called from beneath the tent. "Can you please put your bag in the back of Martha with the rest?"
"Sure…" Alice wasn't entirely sure how she was going to fit it in. There appeared to be no space in the rear of the Land Rover. "Dave…" Alice shouted back to the slowly collapsing tent. "I'm going to have to block your rear mirror view, is that okay?"
"I couldn't see anything on the way over," Dave climbed out from beneath the tent. Alice took her friend's comment as permission, and wedged the bag in the back of Martha.
Tom clambered up onto the roof of the Land Rover, and pulled the last tent into place, securing it tightly.
"We can't exactly open a plothole here," Rhia pointed out in hushed tones.
"Yeah… all the other campers would ask questions," Jess agreed.
"There's a secluded car park not far away," Louise waved her hand in the direction of Lyndhurst. "We could drive there, and no one would see us leave."
"That's not a bad idea," Harriet opened the door and claimed the shotgun position. Louise climbed into the back. She was a better backseat driver anyway, she told herself. The others clambered into Martha, and soon Dave was on the road again.
It didn't take them long to reach the car park. Like Louise had told them, it was very secluded. Rhia and Jess looked around as they approached. A small church stood nestled in amongst a clump of trees, surrounded by a low stone wall. As they drew nearer, the figure of a kneeling woman in black was visible by one of the gravestones.
"Poor woman," Harriet commented as she reached for her plothole generator. "I wonder who she lost."
The others all looked around at the woman as Dave brought Martha to a halt. The figure was on the opposite side of the graveyard to the carpark with her back to them, but as she knelt, Inara could have sworn she saw the poor woman's shoulders shuddering with grief.
"Maybe we should…" Jess began to suggest.
"No." Louise's firm was firm. "That's the last thing she will want. Let's just go home."
A murmur of assent rippled around the Land Rover, as Harriet opened her door, raising the plothole generator and firing. She slipped back into her seat, and Dave drove them all back to the Library.
"So," Tom asked as the group settled in the Mod Sofa lounge, "when are we going camping again?"
There was a large groan, mostly from the direction of Louise and Inara. Neither woman had had a particularly brilliant time out camping.
"Oh well," quipped Harriet. "It was fun splurging with Adrian's credit card."
The nine laughed.
"It's not as if he's short of cash," Alice giggled, reading the battered manual for her Trident.
"I suppose that's true..." Rhia pulled her knees up and curled up on her module.
"Well," came the voice from the doorway. All heads spun to face the Librarian. "I'm glad you all had a wonderful time..."
Harriet grinned, but went scarlet.
"Yes Harriet, I know you took my card."
"And I know it was Tash who told you where they were."
"And the PIN number!" chirped Alice.
"You don't mind, do you?" asked Dave.
Adrian looked rather thunderous for a moment...and then he grinned.
"Naaah! Now why would you think that?"
Back in Scouting For Boys, the half-fandom that only existed through idealism, the figure now loomed in the gateway of the cemetery.
The figure was small; petite and tidy and was dressed all in black. A long cloak billowed out behind her – the silhouette was decidedly female – in the wind.
She had been the only one to watch the Land Rover vanish, and she smiled quietly to herself. The fools had known or sensed nothing whatsoever of her presence in the fandom. She had been, at times, less than five metres from where they slept. That, she pondered, was a serious flaw on their part; a flaw that could be exploited.
The door of the church opened and a large, brawny figure emerged. The second individual, dressed also in black but with muted blues, was definitely male, and he walked up to join the first figure, stopping two paces behind her.
"They have gone." She looked up. "Have you finished the meeting?"
"Yes, Sire." He held up a small wrapped scroll and a tied bag.
"You are an excellent negotiator, my son." The tall man nodded at the compliment, almost a bow. The woman turned, musing at the place the Land Rover had been. "Let's continue letting them think they are safe. This will lower their guard, and that is when they will be most vulnerable. By the time they learn anything they should have known long ago, it will be too late. And that..." she pulled her cloak tightly around herself, "...will be when we strike."
"As you order."
"Come. We have...preparations."
The pair stepped from the shelter of the cemetery gateway. Stretching out a hand, she opened a plothole in the exact same place as the first not three minutes ago, and the two figures disappeared into the rainbow swirls.