Part 9 - Gifts & Endings

“Right,” Edna began, “There’s no real answer to that question, so I’m going to pretend you asked, ‘Why is it?’ To which I’d say: when we cross between parallel worlds, we weave a new thread in a complex tapestry of possible lives. But the tapestry is full to bursting, so to add such a thread we have to make room - we have to remove another. The Threshold Guardian is here to make sure we do that.”

She paused, to see if they understood. Highmond’s eyebrows were in danger of contorting off his face. Pythagoras had cocked its head practically upside down. They looked to each other, seeing their own confusion mirrored back, and did what any swash-buckling, foolhardy adventurer would: they pretended. “Yes,” they said, and, “sure” and “of course,” blustering in confident agreement.

Edna rolled her eyes at her Guardian, who smiled back. Eventually, Highmond said, “He’s stopped attacking us. Have we won?”

“She hasn’t stopped attacking, because she never was attacking,” Edna said, “The Guardian was only ever trying to get your attention. You’ve a toll to pay, you two, before we reach the end of the crossing.”

“Right…” trailed Pythagoras.

Highmond picked it up, “And that would be…” There was a moment as they stared at each other, at Edna, at the Guardian, at each other again. Highmond sniffed a great, big sniff.

“…A thread?” the turtoid finished.

Edna sighed, squeezing her watch for patience. “The toll is a life not lived, a choice not chosen.” When that changed nothing, she snapped, “It’s just anything that represents something you’d like to do but don’t, or can’t. I gave her a crossword puzzle, because I’ve always thought I would enjoy them but I never sit around long enough to do one.”

This did the trick, and soon they were rushing about the ship - well, Highmond was, Pythagoras was already everywhere - to find offerings. In short order, they’d come up with four a piece - one for each of the two crossings they’d taken on their way to Edna and the same return trip. Pythagoras went first, offering as tolls the chef’s hat, apron, and monocle Edna had seen various hims wearing, as well as a stethoscope she hadn’t seen. These were all graciously accepted.

Highmond went last, handing to his Guardian a baton and a menacing cowl first. Then, once these had been approved, a worn, old book. Edna couldn’t see it well enough to tell what its title might have been. Finally, Highmond pulled a locket from beneath his shirt. He unclasped the chain with one hand, rubbing the pendant with the thumb of the other. “I… don’t know — I mean, this isn’t quite the same…” He breathed a heavy, painful breath. He let it out, without making another move.

Edna had seen his age written on the lines of his face, but for the first time she saw it coming up from within. He was probably only fifty or so, but he seemed as old then as anyone she’d ever met. She thought she understood.

Without a word, she grabbed his shoulder, squeezing gently. He started to turn but stopped himself. She could hear him inhaling short, sharp breaths through his nose. “It’s okay,” she finally said, “this will do beautifully.” He wiped his face with his sleeve and she added, “But you can always find something else—“

“—No,” he cut in softly. “No, I — I think it should be this.” Without another word, Highmond handed the locket up to the Guardian, who took it silently and disappeared.

***

The journey through the Threshold was calm after that. Highmond was quieter for a while than Edna had ever seen him, but soon enough he was bouncing back around - laughing, babbling, making repairs.

Edna took the opportunity to change into some of the other clothes she’d brought - pants she had thought were brown (they proved green in this light) and a buttoned shirt she’d hoped was plain (but had faint pinstripes). She let Pythagoras rewrap the bandages beneath these. Her vest was a little stained, with a small hole through the front, but she put it back on anyway - it would only get worse on the adventure - no sense in ruining another.

Shortly, they could see clouds in front of them, light flashing through. The distance was impossible to judge, but with every bolt of lightning it seemed closer than they had realized before, until finally they were in it.

The Threshold was gone and the turbulence back. Highmond laughed a mighty - if insane - laugh from the wheel and said, as loudly as ever, “Welcome, Edna Star! to Earth the Second!”

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