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A sigh arose. Campble gestured to the roof. "You see, my Ones, there is danger in relying on gods. Gods disappoint or change. It is why we have never had gods on Siblu."
The Doctor was surprised. "Never?"
"Not that we have any record of. We have been dedicated to fact, to knowledge only." Suddenly Campble's breath stopped and his eyes opened wide. The Doctor froze and nearly dropped his teacup. After a long five seconds, Campble started to breathe again and continued speaking as if nothing had happened. "I do wonder why we have no gods. It seems every species has some spirits they believe in, at least early in their civilization's development. Aylen, why don't you have your staff examine this issue? It might make an interesting report for the next Congress of the Library."
"Yes, Progenitor. We will undertake it."
"May I suggest that you take advantage of the Doctor's presence to consult him. I am sure you would have some intriguing thoughts, my friend."
"Ah, gods and spiritual beliefs are not something I know well enough to be any sort of expert."
"You are being modest, not one of your usual character traits." A quiet rumble of affectionate amusement. "In any case, your approach to issues would be interesting for my Ones to learn. I would take it as a favour if you would speak with them."
"Of course I will. As long as my sceptical perspective is understood and will not too much colour their study."
"Not at all. Now, you have drunk little of your tea. Panmure, kindly exchange the Doctor's cold tea for a fresh hot cup."
The middle-aged Siblui complied, giving the Doctor a new cup brimming with hot liquid.
"I have a request, my Ones. Something out of the ordinary. That we allow the Doctor to stay while I end. It is my last request of you all. You here and those connected to you."
"No." The Doctor's voice was low but angry. All the Siblui in the room stared at him. "No. It is too soon. You can not."
"My dear friend, I have been unfair to you in these weeks. Expressing my anger at dying toward you. Not just you but definitely you. And then those terrible demands on you to save me through your ability to travel in time. My last request of you is to accept my deep apology for that. I do not ask for your forgiveness. That is yours to give if you wish. But here I am now, ready. Knowing that this end comes to us all. Each in its own way. Now I see that. My Ones are here with me. Some here and, through mental connections, all the others. I feel their strength around and through me. I am ready now."
"No! Fight it! Don't give in to it."
"Why? It is upon me. To deny it is to suffer to no purpose. I do not suffer now. It will be gentle. I will not be alone."
"But you are not ... you have your strength, your lucidity. You could continue for quite some time yet."
A slow shake of his head, wobbling a bit.
"But you are such a value to us all. A treasure, Melosin called you. How can you ... don't leave us! There are so many who could benefit from your wisdom, your knowledge. Why are you giving up? It is not right. It's not right." The Doctor's voice got more intense as he tried to convince.
"It is never right to die, I know that. There is always someone who will suffer your loss. There are always reasons to keep going. But, it comes to us all. Regardless of our value or our love or however many bargains we try to make, it will come. It is here now for me. I am not giving up. I am accepting. I am calm. I choose now."
Campble grasped the hand of the young Siblui siting on his right side. Two other hands took the hands of others sitting or standing near. The remaining Siblui in the room took the hands of those clutching Campble's hands.
Campble's fourth hand extended toward the Doctor. The Time Lord's body moved back slightly from where he sat on the edge of the bed but then was he entirely still.
"Please, my friend, I want to share this with you. Especially with you who does not know death, true death. It is my last gift to you."
"Yes, I know it seems terrifying. But, trust me."
"I don't have the courage."
"Yes you do…or none of us does and we will all sit here supporting the others through these last steps. Either way, it does not matter which, we share this."
The Doctor looked around at the other Siblui, all offspring of Campble. Their faces were encouraging him. He felt such a fear that he wanted to run and that was not a sensation that he liked. Not a fear of something that was no physical danger to him.
This is childish. You are stronger than this ... you are ... aren't you?
Four of Campble's digits touched his knee and the Doctor's eyes snapped to the Master Librarian's face. There was such gentleness and warmth there that it filled the Doctor's throat. His hand reached down and grasped the overhot blue hand firmly.
"Now, my Ones, it is the time."
The Doctor wanted to cry out but clamped his mouth tightly shut.
"Reach into my mind now." Campble sat forward, tightening his grip and staring intently at those around him. For several moments there was nothing but gradually building through, a sense of energy flow. The flow from neural pathways. Initially rough, intermittent and then stronger. The Doctor realised that the direction of the flow began to reverse. At first toward the Master Librarian but now coming from him in steady waves.
The Doctor's mental protections had slammed into operation at the start but as he became curious, and with some care, he allowed the flow to come in. It was gentle, quieter than he sensed of the full power toward the Master Librarian's offspring. It was clear Campble was deliberately introducing him in easy stages, allowing him to become accustomed to the sensation.
As he opened to it, the Doctor felt as if he was being embraced. There was almost the physical pressure of arms about him. It made him relax, smile, lean into it. Comforted. He drifted into the comfort. Then a sigh and a shiver and the flow faltered, surged and faltered once more and began to slip away. He reached out with his own mind, trying to sustain what he was receiving but he could not. Around him, the Master Librarian's offspring were rocking back and forth slowly.
When the Doctor glanced at Campble, he saw the old Siblui sink back into the bed, eyes wide open but not seeing. The expression on his face was calm, no fear or pain. A long inhalation and the presence that was his mind faded away entirely. The Time Lord sought for it but was pulled back by the combined mental strength of the younger Siblui. They restrained his headlong rush when he would have gone farther in his search.
A short battle and the Doctor gave in and retreated mentally. A wobbly, "Oh, no," and he sank back onto the firmness that was behind him. Only some moments later did he know it was Aylen's chest. "I am sorry, " as he moved away.
"The taboos against touching do not apply now, Doctor. Now, we do touch to increase the connection with each other and with the Progenitor. To take on his perceptions."
The Doctor's throat hurt with suppressed pain. A groan was forcing its way out, trying to escape his lips. When he could hold no longer the groan that filled his mouth, he let it go and held onto the warm hands that had unnoticed grasped his. A blue hand and then another began to caress his back in slow circles. The Siblui were still rocking, now moving with the rhythm of the caresses. They all rocked together, touching, caressing, patting, gripping.
At some point the Doctor had not seen, Melosin had joined them. The First Underlibrarian was running the digits of two of his hands over the Master Librarian's slack face, a ragged cooing falling from his mouth. The Doctor watched Melosin and his own pain eased. Melosin's eyes rose and met his. They stared at each other until Melosin inclined his head a little and spoke.
"It was not as terrible as you feared."
The Doctor blinked, startled by the remark. "You knew? I never have ... never been with someone I cared for as they ... as they died. Not other than a sudden and unexpected death."
A small nod. "The Master Librarian knew. He wanted to give you release from that fear. To face what terrified you the most and know your imagination had painted it worse than it is."
"No, but as he worked toward accepting his death, he sought for some value to it. Some outcome that would be to someone's benefit. Then he glimpsed the fear in you and he knew. There was always the chance you would refuse but it was worth his effort. You felt his peace at the end. A part because you were there sharing his end with him. He also asked that I give this back to you." Melosin held out a cloth-wrapped parcel.
"The copy of A House of Pomegranates? But it was for him."
"He wanted you to have it back. To think of him as you held it. Read it."
The Doctor's hands were shaking and he clutched the book to his chest to keep from dropping it.
"He could not read the book but he did have the contents produced in a form he could understand. I related the stories to him since as his powers weakened. He especially liked The Star Child. Would you read it to us all now from the original? Please?"
The Doctor was not sure he could trust his voice but he was willing to try. He opened the book and finding the story, began to read to the young Siblui.
"Once upon a time, two poor woodcutters were making their way home through a great pine-forest. It was winter, and a night of bitter cold. The snow lay thick upon the ground, and upon the branches of the trees: the frost kept snapping the little twigs on either side of them, as they passed: and when they came to the Mountain-Torrent she was hanging motionless in air, for the Ice-King had kissed her.
So cold was it that even the animals and the birds did not know what to make of it.
'Ugh!' snarled the Wolf as he limped through the brushwood with his tail between his legs, 'this is perfectly monstrous weather. Why doesn't the Government look to it?'
As his voice filled the room, the Siblui settled about him, focused only on him. It was peace.
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