An Experiment, of Sorts by stunt_muppet [Reviews - 8] |
Written for Agapi42 during the Cliche-Swap Ficathon on LJ, wherein fic cliches for one pairing were applied to a different pairing and, hopefully, Hilarity Ensued. The cliche being misapplied here is Ten/Sarah Jane Smith, "he wishes he was the sort of man to settle down with her".
Takes place after Inferno but before Liz leaves UNIT. Much love to kayliemalinza, gorengal, and sterling_sky on LJ for being betas par excellence.
She found him a few miles outside UNIT HQ that evening, parked along an old, ill-maintained country road just outside the reach of the city’s ambient lights, watching the night sky from the drivers’ seat. He didn’t seem to notice when Liz pulled in behind him.
Indeed, it wasn’t until after she’d parked, gotten out of the car, walked up beside him, and said his name that he paid her any attention at all, and even that was only a “Hello, Liz”.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked, pulling her pea-coat shut to stave off the chill. He shook his head, but still didn’t look her way.
“Just needed a bit of fresh air, is all.”
After the past few days, she didn’t blame him for that, but, she thought, it would have been nice for some word of where he was going. He’d said nothing about going anywhere. Indeed, for most of the day, he’d said nothing at all.
It took five men and a set of rollers to drag the TARDIS console back into the labs that afternoon, dented and crumpled and trailing cables and machinery like the spinal cord from a severed head. If it hadn’t been beyond repair before — and she was inclined to believe it was, and had been so from the beginning — it certainly was now.
The strange thing, this time, was that even the Doctor seemed to realize it. He’d emerged from the main chassis of the TARDIS with smudged clothes and dishevelled hair, muttered something about structural collapse and rebuilding from the ground up, and quietly went back to work on the meteor that had landed in Leeds that morning.
He was cheerful enough when he did speak, of course. No particular hint that anything was wrong. But he talked to her only when their job required it — no anecdotes, no possibly-rhetorical questions, no singing. No corrections, which was what really threw her.
He seemed, to her, a bit depressed. ‘Drained’ was probably a better word. Which puzzled her, when through all those disastrous trial runs and missing pieces he couldn’t remember how to replace he’d still insisted that he could fix up the TARDIS good as new.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, quite all right, thank you,” he replied, apparently without irony. “How about you?”
“Oh — fine. Thank you.” She hesitated, unsure of what to say. He’d never driven out at night on a whim like this before, so given the circumstances his claim of being ‘quite all right’ was somewhat dubious. But attending to his moods was quite definitively not her job.
Of course, strictly speaking, she got off work twenty minutes ago. What she did on her own time was entirely up to her. “I was just heading home for the night. I thought I should say goodbye.”
He smiled, and glanced her way long enough to speak. “Have a good evening, then.”
“And you.” And yet he seemed to be cutting off all conversational opportunities where he could find them, which implied that he would rather be left alone. She decided for one more try before leaving him to his own devices. “I’m sorry.”
That, at last, got his attention; he turned to her, looking puzzled. “What for?”
“Well, about the TARDIS. You said you’d have to rebuild the console from stage one.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s what it looks like, at the moment. The rotor’s completely disconnected; I’d have to take it apart just to fix that.”
He didn’t elaborate, and for a moment they stood in silence, watching stars wink out in turn as the clouds masked them. Just another few moments, Liz thought, and then she’d leave.
“Gamma Cephei alpha beta,” he said suddenly, as she was about to head back to her car.
“Up there.” He pointed up, almost straight up; presumably he was pointing out a star, somewhere, but she couldn’t tell from here which one it might be. “Beautiful planet, you know. Two suns. Dusky yellow clouds, churning up storms all day and all night. You can see the lightning at night from its moon.”
“What about it?”
“I’ve been to that moon once,” he continued, ignoring her, “not so long ago. One of the great metropolises of the galaxy. The central plazas were covered in mosaics — miles of them, chips of stone no bigger than a thumbnail forming these exquisite patterns.” He laughed. “Called their planet ‘Rathesei’. ‘Golden’. But here? No. Gamma Cephei alpha beta. That’s not even a name, it’s a — it’s a designation, is what it is. It’s a serial number. A whole civilization, nothing but a serial number.”
She peered up in the direction he’d pointed. Cephei, he’d said; a star in Cepheus, perhaps? It would be high in the sky at this time of night. No planets had been found out there yet; from here even the most advanced telescopes could see only empty space and those faraway points of light. It occurred to her, as if for the first time, that there could very well be dozens of planets, orbiting every star in every constellation (statistically improbable but nicely poetic in service of a point), just out of sight, just out of reach of their instruments.
She was tempted, as she sometimes was, to ask him for more, to sit down and listen while he named faraway planets, telling probably half-true stories of his own adventures, just to hear their names and where they were. To know that the sky was rich with them, like some grand inverted sea.
She suspected this wasn’t a good time, though.
“Seven planets in Achenar’s system, too,” he went on. “Haven’t even seen three of them. Half as much wider than it is tall, that star. Made for an interesting sunrise.”
“Bright blue, too, so even the air —”
“Doctor.” She put a hand on the car door, and he reluctantly looked her way. Even in the dim light he looked very tired; perhaps it’d be better if she stayed a while. “Here. May I?” She motioned for the passenger’s seat.
“Of course,” he nodded as she climbed in. Settling back into the seat, Liz pulled her jacket tighter around her as wind pinched at her neck and face. She looked back up at him.
“What will you do?”
“Well, if you haven’t got the TARDIS to work on every spare moment —”
He regarded her curiously. “Why wouldn’t I work on it?”
“You just said you’d have to rebuild it completely!”
“I intend to. I can set right back at it in the morning.”
“Doctor...” she shook her head. “Have you ever considered taking a break?”
“From the TARDIS?”
“Yes!” Clouds fell briefly over the moon; shadows made his face unreadable. “You’ve been tinkering with it for near of a year; you live inside it; so far as I can tell you sleep in it.” He didn’t answer right away, so she pressed on. “Fixation is no better than carelessness, Doctor. Concentrate on one thing for too long and one begins to make mistakes.”
Surprisingly, he didn’t argue the point. Not as much as she expected him to. He only protested, “I can rebuild it, Liz. It’ll just take longer, that’s all.”
“I never said I doubted that. But...a week, Doctor. Just a week where you don’t even touch it. Take on new projects. Do something different.”
He laughed once, derisive. “Oh? Like what? File paperwork? Run more mindless errands for Lethbridge-Stewart? Watch children play with their chemistry sets and try not to completely fracture the timeline of scientific —”
“Doctor.” She was disappointed in spite of herself; they’d almost had a conversation, there.
“Well? What would you have me do?”
“I don’t know. There’s a thriving scientific community out here, Doctor, surely you’ll find something to interest you. We’re not all children with chemistry sets.” She looked back up at the stars, wondering if she should bother to tap into any additional reserves of patience. “At the very least find somewhere else to sleep for the week. I know I’d never get any rest if I kept all my work in my bedroom.”
He laughed again, but he seemed more amused this time. “And where would I go, Miss Shaw?”
She shrugged. “I have a perfectly adequate two-seater, Doctor,” she sighed, sardonic. “Feel free to avail yourself of it.”
It was a moment before she realized precisely what she’d just said. From his expression, it took him a moment too.
It took her a few more moments to realize that neither of them had laughed it off and driven their separate ways which, by all accounts, they should have done after such a comment.
It was a terrible idea, of course. She’d tried living with co-workers before; seeing that much of one person, much like spending that much time on any one problem, inevitably bred contempt at the very sight of them. Still, she’d proposed a week. Contempt beyond the level of annoyance usually took at least three. Besides, she somehow doubted the Doctor came with the usual host of flatmate problems.
His own host of unique and intriguing problems, certainly. But at least he could be relied on not to leave wet umbrellas in inopportune places.
She looked at him.
He looked back at her. He seemed to be considering her offhand comment as well; he was carefully considering something, anyway.
“You know —”
She couldn’t help but smile as she continued talking, despite certain knowledge that she would regret doing so at some later point. “I really do think it would help if you took a week off, Doctor. I’m sure you can find something else to occupy your attentions.”
“Perhaps,” he said, a grin belying his formal tone. “And if I may take you up on your generous offer of the two-seater?”
“Why yes, yes you may. Let’s see how you manage Euclidean interiors for a change. One condition.” She held up one finger by way of illustration. “The screwdriver stays at the lab.”
“Now, Liz —”
“You, Doctor, are very easily preoccupied, and I do not want to wake up at three in the morning to find you disassembling my television set. Do we have a deal?”
She extended her hand; he shook it. “I believe we do.”
She climbed out of the passenger’s seat and got back in her car, still smiling to herself and puzzling over her decision. Well, it would do him good not to tinker futilely at the thing for a week or so. It might even put him in a better mood. Not to mention she could use a break from it herself.
And she had, she admitted, wondered precisely what the Doctor did with himself when he wasn’t engaged in endless repairs. Now was her chance to find out.
Call it an experiment, of sorts.