It is a quarter past six, and Doc Scratch is in his house alone. It is a large house, and a very beautiful one, for all it's entirely green. Green armchairs and chaises sit on thick green Persian rugs spread over green hardwood floors. Green sideboards and green wallpaper lead up to green ceilings hanging green chandeliers. The entire house is green. It is also very old, though it is not as old as Doc Scratch.
Doc Scratch is, himself, not quite as old as the universe, and this will always be the case. The universe is quite a good one, though it is doomed, and since Doc Scratch has had a very long time to become acquainted with it, he somewhat regrets the necessity of its death. He does not feel the same way towards his own, which will happen before that of the universe, guaranteeing his previous claim of comparative perpetual youth to be valid.
He does not know when his death will come, and it is extremely discomforting, even as it remains desirable and curious to him. The only things that Doc Scratch knows about his death are that it will come before that of the universe, and that it can't come soon enough.
He has, after all, lived in this house for a very long time, and even the shortest-lived caterpillars feel the desire to explore another branch from time to time. Since Doc Scratch is effectively omniscient, it is very difficult to find a branch he has not already explored (or, rather, that he instantly knows the breadth and history of as soon as he cares to regard it).
His omniscience is a thing of some trouble to him. It is his nature, so it is not a trouble he can be rid of easily. It is his suspicion that his upcoming death will be the end of it for him, but he is by no means certain, which is a very troubling thing to be when you are omniscient.
At the moment, Doc Scratch is making himself a coffee. He takes the cup in his gloved hands, two of the few things to be white in his uncompromisingly green house. He sips it, slowly, and considers what he will do with his night. His plots are reaching completion; he will look in on them, though he will not interfere. He realizes then with some confusion that he doesn't know what else he will do.
The confusion is temporary; he is in one of his dark spots, he realizes, and soon he will emerge and know the world again. He assumes this. It has always been the case.
To his shock, just as he finishes his coffee, there is a knock on his door. The surprise doesn't come from the fact that someone is there to knock on it; for being located on the barren moon of a harsh planet of a dead civilization, his mansion gets a surprising amount of traffic. The surprise comes from the fact that he did not know the knock was coming. He has a visitor, and for the first time, he knows nothing at all about it.
He puts the coffee cup down, hand nearly shaking (for this is not merely a rare occurrence but an impossible and unprecedented one). He straightens his tie, his suspenders and jacket, and he opens the door.
"Good evening," he says, and then he stops. His visitor nods quickly. Once, as if to check, and then twice more, assuring.
"I beg your pardon," Scratch continues, feeling very awkward indeed. "I was not expecting you."
His guest gave him a shrug, as if to say, I GET THAT A LOT.
"But please," says Doc Scratch, flustered, "come in. What kind of a host would I be if I didn't offer my guest a seat?"
The man smiled ruefully, the kind of smile that says, A PRETTY POOR EXCUSE FOR ONE INDEED. Doc Scratch takes the man's strange hat and hangs it for him.
Doc Scratch shows him to the sitting room. "Coffee?" he asks. "I have more exciting refreshments, of course. Brandy? Whiskey?" He finds himself guessing, something he never does. He is at a loss. His guest is a mystery; his tastes, obscured.
His guest respectfully requests tea, one milk, no sugar. Doc Scratch fetches his tea set- greened silver pot and green china on an antique green mahogany tray. The sugar, in its small bowl, is nearly neon. He makes the perfect cup of tea; if his guest is an enigma, Scratch can at least retain his flawless timing, as important in tea-brewing as it is in comedy. He pours a cup for his guest, and one for himself, and sits in his chair across from his guest, who perches on the sofa.
He looks nervous, thinks Doc Scratch. His guest has sharp motions and slim hands- they quiver as he sips his tea. Doc Scratch feels obligated to ignore it, and equally obligated to distract his guest from his nerves. He has not yet asked him his name; he feels, despite the lingering dark spot, that he should know it. Soon, he thinks, the spot will brighten and reveal the name of this man. He is patient, and though he is also extremely curious, the correct time to ask has already passed. Doc Scratch is a gentleman first, and the omniscient Guardian servant of Lord English second. He is several things after that, but those are the really important ones.
"Would you care for a game?" he asks. "I have many." He does. It is a vital tool for an excellent host, reconciling guests and putting them at their ease. He has played a different game with every guest he has ever had, and is an avid collector. When former royalty-turned-mob queen graced his doorstep, he had the chess set ready. (Naturally, he played white, which suited his guest just fine.) When the game's traitor found his doorstep, horse hitcher in hand and intent on revenge, Doc Scratch reviewed the rules for blackjack. (They didn't play, but he was glad he did, just in case.) He even recalled an enjoyable turn at cards with one of the young ladies he was so fond of. It was a child's game, which was suitable since, compared to him, she was a child indeed. They passed an agreeable afternoon playing Crazy Eights, as she determinedly tried to cheat him and he repeatedly and smilingly refused to permit it. A few generations later, he had anticipated a second game with her descendant. He rather regretted they hadn't had the chance; the girl reminded him so much of her several-times-removed parent.
"Backgammon?" he suggests now. "Billiards? My table is rather oracular, but it is a satisfying game nonetheless." Doc Scratch's billiards room was one of the prizes of his manse, and he played often. Unsurprisingly, Doc Scratch liked to break.
His guest is drawn, in the end, not to a parlor game, though, but a board game. Of his collection, which is extensive, it was rather a new one. Nonetheless, Doc Scratch pulled out the game of LIFE and set up the board. His guest watched, a tiny smile on his pale face.
Then they played. It required several cups of tea, and at one point, scones. Doc Scratch lived a long, if unexciting, life, in which he took a few chances and gained only a little. His guest won, though Doc Scratch found he could not recall what kind of life his opponent had led. It was, nonetheless, the most involved game of LIFE Doc Scratch had ever played.
It is approaching nine o'clock, and Doc Scratch excuses himself for a moment to make a quick check on his protégé. He is forced into a manual check, asking her a few simple questions by means of his typewriter, because for some reason, he is still stuck in his dark spot. They don't usually last this long, and he is struck with residual unease as he types to his little friend. She is very busy ending the world, and Doc Scratch is a little surprised at how much progress she has made.
As he stands over the typewriter, his guest peers in, and creeps to look over his shoulder. From another, Doc Scratch would have found this rude. However, he felt inexplicably comfortable in the company of his current guest. The dark spot, infuriatingly, held, and Doc Scratch could not think of how he knew him, though he had a faint suspicion that he always had.
"It's almost over," he remarks to his guest. "The world is almost gone. I do not say this often," and the humour makes itself evident in his voice, "but perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I will outlive the universe yet."
His guest looks at him regretfully. It is obvious he disagrees, but doesn't wish to contradict his host in his own home.
Surely, thinks Doc Scratch, this was not the Master.
The enormous eyes, like holes with no light reaching the bottom, meet his, and his guest shakes his head. He looks as if emotion is welling up inside him, as if in a moment he will shiver and overflow into tears or a dance. He does not, but the impression remains.
Doc Scratch says, "Pardon me. I will just finish this up quickly. I know it is very rude of me to absent myself from you while you sit in my parlour." He turns to the typewriter.
His guest places one hand, very slim and very pale, on Doc Scratch's shoulder. It is a simple gesture, one full of gentlemanly regret, of the wish not to make someone realize something uncomfortable and obvious, but the obligation to point it out. Doc Scratch covers his typewriter, vaguely aware that he will not speak to his little Seer of Light again. No more pink text and too-grown-up talk from little Rose Lalonde. But he cannot think how he knows that.
"Another game?" asks Doc Scratch again. He is a little desperate. He must have the game. He needs something to focus himself around. He is becoming very tired (he has been tired for a very long time) and he finds himself wishing to distract himself, wishing for something more to pass the time. Another game would stretch it out, perhaps end the dark spot, or perhaps merely let the hours before the end skip by.
But his guest smiles his miniscule smile, like he can hardly bear to, and shakes his head. His huge dark eyes look even darker than usual, and they seem to say, NOW IS NOT THE TIME, I'M AFRAID.
"But what, then, should I do?" asks Doc Scratch to his guest.
His guest shakes his head again, a birdlike nervous quirk. NOTHING, it implies. He walks toward the entrance, taking his hat from the floor, where it had scythed through the hook it had been hung on. It is much larger now, and not hat-shaped at all, Doc Scratch realizes. His guest puts a hand on the doorknob.
"Are you my master?" asks Doc Scratch desperately. He knows it is terribly rude, to admit he has not known his guest's name this entire time, but on the verge of leaving, he finds he must know.
His guest gives him a sort of pitying look, one which reads IN A WAY. He cracks the door open, and Doc Scratch is suddenly aware that it is not his front door. His guest extends a hand.
"But then, who?" asks Doc Scratch.
The door opens. Doc Scratch is, for a moment, surprised. Then, for a single instant, the dark spot is gone. Intense, personal, universal knowledge floods in, or perhaps he floods the world. He sees little Rose. The Scratch- his namesake, and yet, he is its, in the reacharound logic of Skaia- is nearly complete. Doc Scratch is once again all things. He is all things except his guest, and what lies beyond that door, and that, in itself, is an answer.
"Oh," he says. He takes his guest's hand, and allows himself to be pulled through the door. The space he finds himself in is very large and very bright. There is no distinct source of light, though there is a table and chairs, a cupboard, a hat rack. He is without ties to the world in the instant that his guest- or rather, his host, now- closes the door.
His host opens a cabinet, and places a tea set down on the table. There is an enormous stack of games in the cupboard. It rivals even Doc Scratch's collection. His host makes tea, as carefully and skilfully as Doc Scratch himself. In the suffusing light, his friend's eyes do not look so empty.
Doc Scratch takes a seat (for what kind of guest would he be if he refused one?) and his cup of tea. It is a perfect brew- even, he might say, better than his own. He considers the games, and for once, he is very happy not to play billiards. He lets his host choose, aware that he is responsible, now, for so very little. All he needs to do now is be a good guest.
He can see, in a way familiar to him, the way of seeing that sees beyond time, that soon, as such things are reckoned here, another guest will arrive, or perhaps come in from another room, and that they will play Crazy Eights. He suspects that his host may find his guests' flagrant violation of rules a little frustrating. But that will be later. For now, he sips his tea and sits back in his chair.
"I am sorry I didn't recognize you," he tells his host, who pulls out the backgammon board. "I wasn't expecting you."
NO-ONE EVER DOES, says his host, and they begin to set up the draughts.