It was beautiful here once. But that was before.
There were cities with spires and roads like blown glass and spun sugar; a network of canals that spanned the continents, flowing with water that was the clearest azure in the glittering sun. Before. The people called the planet Calrhensylla. Remember that name. There is no one else left to remember it.
It was beautiful here, before the TARDIS fell from the sky like a burning angel.
It hadn't been a direct hit. That was the only reason its passengers survived as long as they did. The time destructor wave caught the TARDIS in a glancing blow, sending it spinning uncontrollably through spacetime, leaving a blazing trail in its wake.
The people below had only moments to look up and wonder, children caught frozen in their games, singers pausing mid-note, tower-smiths putting down their fine tools to stare. They were unafraid, since they'd never known anything to fear. They just watched --
And the TARDIS struck the ground, its impact throwing rocks and dust into the sky and blackening it to night. It burned bright with timefire, spreading out of the impact crater in a shockwave. Moments later, and the impact had already burned itself into history -- the crater had always been there and always would be.
The timefire spread and kept spreading, burning its way outward. The ground around the crater was poison and barren, and always had been, now. The impact scarred itself into legend, into creation myth. The people whispered about the demons who struck the ground with a hammer when the world was made.
And still it burned outward, and now the people had never had fine cities and sweet music -- they eked out their rough existence on the light side of a planet whose blind eye stared ever outward into night. Their lives were short and fierce and now they knew war, as they fought and died for scraps of fertile land. A much greater War had come to their world and changed it, and they never knew, in the brief moments this history existed.
By the time the colorless ring of flame had spread all the way across the globe and spent itself on the other side, even these savage Calrhensyllans had gone. This planet held no life. It suddenly never had.
As for the TARDIS itself, settling in dust and smoke at the bottom of its crater -- there were no survivors. All of its occupants had died instantly in the crash.
For a few heartbeats, nothing stirred on the face of Calrhensylla.
Then one of the crash victims revived.
Days later, he stopped screaming.
* * * *
"You'll forgive me for staring," the Fehr Varlik said. "I still can't quite get used to the idea of regeneration."
The Time Lord's face tightened into something like a smile. "No?" he asked. "Neither can I, sometimes."
"We're doing everything we can for your TARDIS," he said. "My work crews are doing the best we can with the console room, but the damage there was, ahhh, quite extensive."
"I know that."
"We've had to pull out most of the ironwork support struts -- we're replacing them with organic nanocrete. Not the most elegant solution, perhaps, but -- "
The Doctor cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Go on."
"The console is nearly, ahhh, a complete loss. All that fine wood and brasswork, the glass instruments, it's such a shame, really. And the walls, the wooden panelling, the fire was -- "
"I don't care," the Doctor said. "Tear it all down. Strip it out to the bare metal. It doesn't matter."
"Ahhh. Yes." The Fehr Varlik pushed the magnifying screen away from the paperwork. "Not the sentimentalist you used to be, I take it."
This time the Doctor smiled widely. There was something unpleasant about it. "People change," he said. "Get to the point. How much?"
"Well, ahhh, as I said, the damage was -- "
The Fehr Varlik paused, then slid a piece of paper across the desk.
The Doctor glanced down at it, then shook his head. "You know I can't afford that. I told you what I had to offer you."
"Yes, the, ahhh, Vogan gold. And the matrix crystals. That would just barely cover my labor expenses -- but I can't get you the zeiton-seven you need, not at that price."
The Doctor nodded slowly. "So that leaves me with a working TARDIS, but no power, is that it?"
"You must understand, Doctor, our zeiton-seven is very valuable to the Empire. The price is -- "
"Look, let's cut to the chase here, all right?" The Doctor clasped his hands together on the desk and leaned forward. "The only reason you get away with charging your frankly ridiculous price for zeiton-seven is because the Empire allows you the mineral rights here because you're the natives, right?"
"Yes, of course -- "
"Right. So if they knew you weren't the native lifeform on Xeva Nova, no more mineral rights, yeah? I'd say, if you don't want me telling them the location of a certain colony ship you've had buried under the ice cap for the last couple centuries, then maybe you might want to accept my entirely reasonable offer for the repairs, the zeiton-seven, the whole lot. What do you think?"
The Fehr Varlik just stared. "How, ahhh -- How did you know . . . ?"
He sighed. "Hello! Which one of us is the Time Lord, here?"
The Fehr Varlik reached for the paperwork with shaking hands. He crossed out the price at the bottom, wrote a new one, and clumsily stamped it with his nameblock.
"A pleasure doing business with you, as always, Fehr Varlik," the Doctor said.
The Fehr Varlik hesitated. "I think the War has changed you, Doctor," he said finally.
"You have no idea."
"Will there be anything -- ? Oh, yes, your messages."
" -- My what?"
"We've still been a neutral mail-drop for you, Doctor, although things have been mostly silent since the War's end. You do have a message here from a human Captain, a Time Agent, who's looking for you -- "
"Must be thinking of someone else."
The Fehr Varlik pulled the magnifier closer again, squinted at the stack of papers on his desk. "Ahhh, no, it's addressed to you quite specifically -- "
"I said, it's a mistake, all right?" The Doctor stood up. "I don't know any Time Agents. Especially any stupid apes. All my friends are dead." The Doctor seemed to notice his voice had been getting louder, and he quieted it a little. "All my enemies are dead. It's just me, now."
"I'll -- delete this, then."
"Do what you like. When will my ship be ready?"
"Three days time."
"Good. The sooner I get off this miserable rock, the better." He turned to leave.
"Doctor -- "
The Fehr Varlik hesitated again. "Everyone on this -- ahhh, miserable rock -- knows we'd all be dead if not for the Time Lords. You saved us. Xeva Nova wouldn't even be here if not for you."
The Doctor looked at him strangely for a moment. "That's true," the Doctor agreed, nearly whispering.
"You're still a hero to us, Doctor. You and your companions."
The Time Lord said nothing.
"I, ahhh -- have not seen your companions on this visit, Doctor. If it's not too personal a question, may I ask where -- ?"
The Doctor's eyes blazed. The Fehr Varlik was sorry he'd said anything at all.
"Actually," the Doctor said, his voice tightly controlled, "that is too personal a question."
He spun on his heel and left.
* * * *
He'd spent a stupidly long time trying to wake them up.
It was a moment of shock and madness. That was all. He tried to let go of it, to forgive himself for it, but he had done it -- knelt down by their sides and shaken them, shaken their broken and blackened bodies, screaming names into unseeing faces. It may have been days before he was willing to admit they were dead.
He wandered the halls blindly, bumping into walls and feeling his way along at times, calling out names. He was exhausted all the time, his clothes were torn and bloody, and his feet hurt, bound tight inside shoes that no longer fit perfectly.
He thought the silence might kill him. Millions of Time Lord voices murmuring in the back of his head, psychic white noise -- he'd barely been aware of it, no more than a fish was aware of water. And now the only voice left in his head was his.
He found a strand of wool, and followed it -- remembered following it years ago, a path he'd left for himself another time he'd regenerated. Regenerated. That was what had happened this time. That was why he wasn't dead. He followed the unravelled wool, feeling like he'd come loose himself, hoping it would lead somewhere safe. It didn't. It ended nowhere in particular. He curled up on the floor, wrapped himself into a ball, arms tight around his legs.
After a while, he felt like he was being watched.
He looked up. Saw an empty shape in the doorway where someone wasn't standing.
"Go away, Duncan," he said. "You're dead. And I don't believe in ghosts."
You can't keep on like this, Doctor. He could hear Duncan's voice, just as real as if he were standing there, carrying on a normal conversation with him. It didn't matter that he wasn't. This is what he would say, if he were here. You've got to get up. You've got to keep moving.
"Why? Who says? It's over, Duncan. Everything's over. Just let me -- let me rest. I don't want to do anything."
You can't keep on like this.
"Go away," the Doctor said. I don't believe in ghosts, he thought to himself.
But it didn't matter, did it? Not if the ghosts believed in him.
There's still so much to do, Duncan wasn't saying.
"It's not fair," the Doctor said. "I should be dead. I should be dead with the rest of you."
Duncan didn't shrug. Whoever said life would be fair? he would have said.
"I should be dead." The Doctor tightened his arms around himself. Started to rock back and forth, just a little. "I should be dead," he said again, and he kept saying it.
* * * * *
One last stand. He always knew it was going to come to this. One last desperate improvised plan. Every surviving TARDIS staring down the remaining Dalek battlefleet, a hundred thousand cold metal disks spinning toward them.
One last weapon. Everything else, every other skirmish, every master-plan -- the De-Mat gun, the validium, the Hand of Omega -- had failed, or won them only this much ground and nothing more. Now, the whole TARDIS fleet was a weapon, ready to time-ram the Daleks, put an end to it all, shove the whole power of the Eye of Harmony down their throats. Waiting for one perfect moment -- waiting on his signal.
His control device was almost ready, something he'd lashed together to coordinate it all, channel it all effectively -- vacuum tubes and sparking coils, an improvised switch, just waiting for him to touch two bare ends of wire together. He froze for a second, remembering, the last time it had come to this, to him deciding whether or not to wipe out the Daleks with the touch of two wires. He should have done it then, spared everyone all this death and grief, and to hell with whether he had the right. Oh, to have that moment back again -- !
But that was that moment, and this was this moment, and this time he would do it. This time he had no choice.
There's always a choice, a small voice inside insisted, there's always another way -- But he shoved it down into silence.
Amaryllis stood at the console, eyes fixed on the scanners. "Wait for it," she said, her voice calm. He marveled at her, even now -- so beautiful, fine and lithe like a colt, but so dangerous, so driven. One of the first to graduate from the new Academy on Gallifrey, one of the first of the War Lords.
"Not 'til we see the whites of their eyes, right, Doc?" Duncan, brave Duncan, was smiling. He stood in the doorway, leaning casually against it, like he so often did. Looking all tough and dangerous in his black leather jacket and his black cap, incongruously holding Molly tenderly close. Little Molly, just nine years old, an orphan of another smaller war, light years away and long ago, now.
His companions. His fine companions. He had told them the risks, told them that they all faced death here on the line, and they had pleaded, they had insisted on staying here, with him. We few, we happy few --
"Doctor!" Amaryllis brought him out of his reverie. "Dalek lead ship is locking weapons on us -- Taking evasive -- "
A point of light on the monitor blossomed into fire.
"Now!" Amaryllis screamed. "Do it now!"
Molly was crying and slipped from Duncan's grasp to run for the Doctor.
"Brave heart," the Doctor whispered, and touched wire to wire.
The power of the fleet flowed through his control circuit. Through him. It held him frozen in place, locked in a state of temporal grace, as everything came apart around him --
The wave hitting the TARDIS, the TARDIS spinning out of control --
Molly thrown across the room, hitting a bookcase like a broken doll, the bookshelf falling over onto her, books bursting and combusting in mid-air --
Duncan frantically trying to reach her in time, as ironwork beams convulsed and snapped and fell on his head, his legs --
Amaryllis screaming as the time rotor shattered outward, timefire spilling up and out and filling the room as she regenerated again and again and again and --
It was all too much --
And he could not close his eyes and he could not scream and worst of all, worst of everything, he could not even die with them.
* * * *
Three days after he'd talked to the Fehr Varlik, the Doctor was walking down darkening streets on Xeva Nova. He was turning over everything he'd learned in his mind. A thousand refugees from the ripples of the Time War came through Xeva Nova -- it was a good place to pick up rumors and leads, places he needed to go next. The Movellans were getting out of hand, without the Daleks to counter them; he'd have to do something about that. The Rutans and Sontarans were still at each other's throats, of course, nothing new there. And someone said the Autons were planning another invasion of Earth. He'd certainly have to look into that.
This was a good place to come for information, but he didn't think he'd come back, after this. Too many memories here.
It was a pleasant night, though, he had to admit. The cooked-meat smells of the street vendors were still wafting on warm breezes; scratchy recordings of old music drifted with them, and he found himself humming along with it.
In almost perfect counterpoint to the playback, there were notes of live music from somewhere up ahead. He found their source soon enough. A young boy -- or a girl, maybe, it was hard to tell with the Xeva Novans -- was sitting and playing along, a begging basket next to him.
The Doctor smiled. "I had a flute like that," he said conversationally. "A recorder."
The youngster frowned curiously. "A recording?"
"No, it was -- never mind. It was a long time ago." The Doctor patted his pockets. He had precious little money left after his repairs, but it didn't make a difference. He pulled a couple coins out and dropped them in the basket.
"Thank you," the boy said -- it was a boy, the Doctor decided. He just waved and kept walking.
He had almost forgotten him just a few yards later, but then he heard him cry out, "No, don't -- !"
The Doctor turned. Someone -- human, by the look of it -- had grabbed the boy's basket and taken off running.
"Typical." The Doctor took off after him.
He was just a kid himself, the Doctor saw, as the thief stole glances over his shoulder at his pursuer. Probably the son of some Imperial officer, bored to death here, acting up. The Doctor followed him down a narrow alleyway.
The alley soon dead-ended. The thief turned to look at him. Smiling.
The Doctor stopped short.
The other thieves stepped out from behind crates and barrels, from out of shadows. Circled around behind him, trapping him in the dead-end.
"Oh, I get it," the Doctor said, smiling. "That boy wasn't your target, was he? I was. You think I'm some rich tourist, is that it?"
They didn't answer. Some of them had knives. One just had a board with some nails driven through it.
The Doctor could think of at least five safe ways to get back through the alley without incident.
He didn't take any of them. He stared them all down, his eyes glittering. "Well, come on and have a go, then, if you think you're hard enough."
They all rushed him at once. He stood his ground, swung a fist into the nearest jaw, thrust outstretched fingers into a nerve cluster on someone's knife hand. Grabbed and punched and kicked. Lost himself for a minute.
The ones still standing turned and ran. The Doctor grabbed the nearest. "No, you don't," he said, shoving the youth against a wall. He held him there with one strong arm. "Why?" the Doctor asked. "Why?"
When the boy didn't answer, the Doctor punched him in the face. "Why?" he repeated, punctuating his words with more blows. "Why -- are there always -- so many -- of you? Everywhere? Why?"
The voice came from the mouth of the alley. He turned to look.
It was the flute-player, his eyes wide. "Please stop! You've beaten him! You won!"
The Doctor looked back at the thief, looked at the boy's blood on his bruised hand. He let go of him, and the boy slid to the ground.
The Doctor kept staring at his hand. "I won," he agreed.
* * * *
Duncan's ghost, Duncan's memory, whatever you wanted to call it, had left him alone. The nights when he swore he could still hear Molly crying had passed. Now it was Amaryllis who wouldn't leave him alone.
This is no way for a soldier to act, he heard her say.
He was curled up on his side in a room that used to be a library. "I never wanted to be a soldier," he said. "I never liked soldiers. Well, old Alistair was all right, but as for the rest of them -- "
You have to get up. You have to keep going. There's still too much to do.
"I'm done. Let someone else clean up."
Who else is there?
"I don't know . . . . "
Who else is there?
"It doesn't matter, all right? It's not my responsibility any more. I did my part. And look what it got me. Look what it got you."
Who else is there?
"Stop saying that!" the Doctor shouted, sitting up.
But of course no one was saying anything.
He sat, staring at no one for a long moment.
" . . . Who else is there?" he said, finally.
He had to get up. She was right, even if she was dead. Too much to do. If nothing else, he had to bury them properly. They deserved that much, at least. Then after that -- well, he'd see.
He pulled himself upright, took a few steps -- winced in pain, and bent down to unlace the shoes and pull them off.
I need to sort myself out, he thought distantly.
Someone was talking. It was him. He stopped to listen.
"From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remember'd," he said. How did it go . . . ? "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother . . . and -- And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think -- shall think themselves accursed -- "
His eyes were filling with tears.
Stop it. Just stop it. All this romantic nonsense -- the Shakespeare, the poetry, the Puccini. That's not you any more. You've got to pull yourself together.
He reached up angrily and pulled the cravat off. Shrugged out of what was left of his frock coat, his silk vest. Dropped them on the floor and kept walking.
Why did you have to do it? Why did you have to stay with me? I would have taken you anywhere. I would have kept you all safe. Stupid, stupid --
He found a washroom. Stared at himself in the mirror. Not at his new face -- he still couldn't bring himself to care about that -- but at the state he was in. Long locks of flowing hair, left too long unwashed. Several weeks' worth of beard. He pulled off the shirt, ran hot water in the sink, pulled out a straight razor and shaving foam --
He stared at the straight razor for a long, long moment.
I couldn't do it, he thought. Besides, I'd have to do it, what, four more times after that?
For a moment, he couldn't shake the idea.
Amaryllis still echoed in his head. Who else is there? she asked.
"There's no one else," he said, and picked up the razor and shaved his face clean.
He stared into the mirror for a long time. Then finally took the razor to his long, beautiful hair, as well.
He towelled himself dry afterward, ran his fingers experimentally over his tingling scalp. Considered his reflection.
Good soldier, Amaryllis would have said.
"Shut up," the Doctor said quietly.
* * * *
"Sorry," the Doctor said to the flute player. "Lost me head there for a minute. You all right?"
The boy nodded, eyes wide. He blinked at the Doctor with complicated, four-part eyelids. "Thank you."
" -- Here's your money. Looks like they dropped your basket."
"You're not one of them?"
"What, a thief?"
"Are you . . . " The boy held his breath. "A Time Lord?"
"That's right. Take a good look. You don't see one every day. In fact, you're probably never going to see one again. And you won't see this one much longer. 'Bye, now." The Doctor walked off down the alley.
"Wait -- ! Are you going to your -- to your TARDIS?"
"Take me with you."
The Doctor glared at him. "No, thanks."
"I don't take passengers. Not any more."
"But why? I can -- I can cook, I can clean for you, I could -- "
"Why? You want to know why, honestly?"
There it was -- they'd almost reached it now. The warm glow of the windows looked like home. It was as much home as he had now.
"Yes, please. Why?"
The Doctor looked around. "All right, listen. These people think I'm a hero, but I'm not. You know why?"
"No -- "
"This planet didn't used to be called Xeva Nova. You didn't know that, did you? It used to be called Calrhensylla. Can you pronounce that?"
The boy nodded. "Calrhensylla."
"Remember that name. There's nobody else left to remember it. There were people here, once, too, real natives, not you lot. And they were good people, they really were."
"What happened to them?"
The Doctor leaned in close. "I happened. It's not even something I did. Just something that happened to them because I happened to get too close. That's all. You know the crater, the big one, on the dark side of this planet?"
The boy nodded. "We call it Death's Eye."
"Good name. I did that. That was me. That was where I fell down. Understand? So run along home. Forget me."
The boy looked trouble. "Wait here," he said, after a moment.
"Wait here? For what?"
"I want to get you something. Something to take with you. Please? It'll only take a moment."
"You don't have to -- "
"I want to. Please."
The Doctor sighed. "All right, fine. But if you're not back in five minutes, I'm leaving, all right?" He made a show of looking at his watch.
The boy's face split in a brilliant wide smile and he took off running. The Doctor shook his head. Kids.
* * * *
He took a long, hot shower, and stepped into the wardrobe room. Picked out something simple -- black trousers, black jumper, Doc Marten's.
It took forever to lift the bookshelf all by himself. Longer still to get Duncan out from under the fallen beam. He thought his hearts were going to burst.
He laid them out side by side, and went to get a shovel before taking them outside.
He turned on the scanner -- it flickered and rolled, but still worked, after a fashion -- and saw the walls of crater outside, the darkened sky, the snow that had started to fall. Cold outside, and getting colder.
Better get on with it, then, Duncan would have said.
The Doctor turned and stared at Duncan's body for a while.
Then he pulled off the leather jacket the body still wore. He slipped into it like another skin. Like armor. Something to keep the world out.
You ready? came Duncan's voice.
The Doctor nodded. "Let's do this," he said softly, no longer worried that he was going mad.
* * * *
"What -- where did you get this?"
The Doctor took the gift gingerly, carefully. The flute player was beaming. The Doctor smiled, despite himself. "My grandmama."
"But -- where did she get it? This is an Earth flower -- it doesn't grow here, so how -- did one of the Imperial -- " The Doctor shook his head, grinning. "Never mind. What I mean to say is -- thank you."
"You're welcome. Thank you. You didn't have to get my basket back. You could have just kept walking."
The Doctor smiled. He spread his arms wide. "Well, you know. Who else is there?"
The boy thought about it, nodding. Deciding, right then, what he'd do the next time he saw someone getting robbed, or hurt, or worse.
The Doctor waved, and then stepped into his TARDIS.
He looked around. He barely recognized it. But it still felt like the TARDIS, that was the important thing. Those telepathic undercurrents, that sense of solidity and security the TARDIS had. Home.
He went to the rebuilt console. The controls lit up at his touch. He could go anywhere, anywhen.
But first, he thought, he needed to find a vase and some water, for his rose.
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