After a week of drifting lazily around in the Vortex, Ace gets fed up with waiting for her broken leg to heal and winning at solitaire. She levers herself out of bed, cast and crutches and nightgown and all, and gets her jacket on. Then she goes looking for the Doctor.
She finds him in the Duck Room, one of the funnier places in the TARDIS. It's a big round room with a muddy, rocky little pond in, and all the colors are off. The high ceiling is painted orange, the grass that grows around the pond is red and purple and silver, and the ducks are black with glittering ruby eyes. They won't eat a thing you throw at them, which makes them fairly rubbish, as ducks go.
The Doctor is kneeling in the mud by the edge of the duck pond, his sleeves rolled up, his hair sticking up every which way, and he looks like nothing so much as a little boy with a train set on Christmas morning.
"There you are, Ace," he says, as if he'd been expecting her. "Do you have a penny?"
Ace blinks at him, then leans on one crutch and rummages in her jacket pockets with the other hand. She turns up a pack of cards, two packs of banana bubblegum, a lighter, a lipstick-tube of nitro-nine, a set of jacks, a spare sonic screwdriver, a wind-up tin police car, a chunk of lint, a jumprope tangled up with an ipod charging cord, half of a cassette tape, a 1,000 yen piece, two gold doubloons, three silver farthings, and, yes, there: a shiny pink-orange 2010 U.S.A penny with the Captain America shield on the back and Lincoln staring sternly forward on the front. Good man with a pack of explosives, Lincoln.
And bloody hell, she's turning into the Doctor. She’ll start wearing horrible jumpers any day now… She tosses the penny at the man, who catches it out of the air without looking.
"Penny for my thoughts?" she asks.
The Doctor grunts distractedly-- not in a listening mood today, apparently. He flips the coin high into the warm air, catches it, slaps it on the back of his hand. Heads: he frowns. He flips the coin again: heads a second time.
"Penny for your thoughts," Ace offers.
The Doctor flips the coin again, and it comes up tails. He flips again: heads. And again: tails. Again: tails. An even split.
"This duck is malfunctioning," he says.
The Doctor gestures at the little body between his knees and the water. It is a damp, motionless duck, the stomach ripped open to expose dark, complicated circuitry.
"Robot ducks," Ace says, leaning forward with interest. "That's pretty weird, Professor."
"Well, you couldn't have rubber ducks in a duck pond," he says defensively, "that would be ridiculous."
"But-- robot ducks? Robot ducks, Professor."
"Well, those come standard. It was all the rage back home, when I was growing up." The Doctor traces the circuitry with gentle fingers, and gazes at the orange ceiling. "Now: heads I fix this duck; tails, I fix the TARDIS."
He flips the coin a seventh time: heads.
He sighs and rubs his forehead, smearing mud into his hair. "That's another day off for us, Ace," he says, reaching for the duck. With a few quick adjustments he has the thing splayed open and is inserting the penny into the depths of the gears and wires. It twitches in his grasp and begins, clumsily, to flap.
"Hold on," he says sternly, trying to zip it back up. "Hold still, you-- you bird! Ace, make it hold still!"
Ace grabs at it as it pecks at his face, black feathers going everywhere. The Doctor sputters and tips over backwards, losing hold of the bird. It makes a bid for freedom, takes two lumbering steps, and Ace swats it flat with the tip of a crutch. She holds it down for long enough for the Doctor to pull the zip all the way closed, and then it is nothing but a perfectly normal-- if somewhat hysterical-- duck. It pecks her toes, hisses evilly, and flaps off into the pond.
"Yeah!" Ace shouts after it. "You'd better run!"
She awkwardly levers herself down to sit in the mud by the Doctor. Her cast is filthy, now: maybe it’ll encourage him to take it off sooner.
"What's wrong with the TARDIS, then?" she asks.
The Doctor shrugs. "She blew a stabilising ominiconductor. We need a small, round, flat piece of conductive zink-copper alloy, or we're not going to be able to dematerialize anywhere, ever again."
"And you gave it to the duck."
"I did indeed."
Ace laughs. "Then I guess we'll just drift around until we go mad-- hey, what's this, then?"
"What?" The Doctor goes very still as her fingers brush along his soft cheek, the delicate shell of his ear. "Ace..."
"There's something behind your... ah ha!" Ace shows him a coin, bright pink copper shining like a little sun, and grins. "Got you, didn't I?"
The Doctor looks at her for a long moment. In the funny orange light his eyes are as red and as alien as the mechanical ducks'. Then he leans forward and taps her on the nose and he’s her funny, silly, mad little Professor once again.
"You certainly do," he says. He takes the coin from her fingers, clasps in his palm. It vanishes from one hand and pops up in the other.
"Where shall we go, then?" he asks her.
"Somewhere with no ducks," Ace says. “Now help me up.”
He grins, vanishes the coin entirely, and does so.
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