Steven walked into his room, and closed the door with a sigh. Here he was, back aboard the TARDIS.
It was as if he’d never left at all.
And considering he’d only got a few yards away before he was compelled to dash back in, he really hadn’t, anyway.
He’d meant it, when he said he was through- he’d meant to leave all this madness behind and stay in whatever era on Earth they’d landed in- the scanner had indicated it was mid-20th century London, so he would have been all right- they’d had electricity and antibiotics and things by then. It would have been pretty basic, but not too barbaric. They had planes, too- even space ships - he could have started over again as a pilot there. He’d have been vastly overqualified for the primitive flying machines of those days, but he could’ve played dumb and pretended, and they’d probably have thought him a very clever chap.
It had been an exciting prospect, in those few minutes, as he walked out into that brisk autumn air, to imagine being someone else, creating that new life- he’d have still been Steven Taylor, but with no past, no ties, only whatever he could make for himself. It had also been rather terrifying, but he knew London, and it hadn’t changed so much. He knew he could have managed it.
But then those policemen came barreling down Wimbledon Common toward the TARDIS, not knowing what it was, or what they would be sticking their noses into, and he knew he had to go back. He wasn’t quite sure if he was going back to warn the Doctor, or those unsuspecting 20th century people, but he knew he had to stop them from colliding right then and there.
And still, despite his best intentions, the 20th century had collided with the TARDIS in the person of young Miss Dodo Chaplet, and now he and the Doctor would have to deal with that.
He’d been shocked, at first, when the Doctor took off with Dodo still aboard. But then he remembered it was something of a habit of the Doctor’s. Vicki had told him that was how Ian and Barbara had come aboard- they’d followed the old man’s granddaughter home one night, and he’d taken off with them- just like that- no questions, no explanations. And from what the Doctor said, they’d been very cross about it at first, and that Steven could certainly believe. He’d encountered terrible things in his travels with the Doctor- watched terrible things happen to good people. It wasn’t the sort of life a person would choose lightly, and it wasn’t the sort of life most people would choose at all.
For himself, he didn’t particularly care. He’d find somewhere else when he wanted to leave, he could take care of himself. He always had done. But Dodo- she was just a kid. She still didn’t believe they were actually flying through the time-space vortex; she laughed at everything the Doctor said as if it were a jolly joke, and didn’t fuss about any of it. Steven hoped to God she’d meant what she’d said about not caring if she went home, about no one being likely to miss her. The Doctor hadn’t even considered any of that, but the thought horrified Steven, and he couldn’t believe the Doctor’s luck in finding the world’s most convenient kidnap victim.
“How does he do it, Hi-fi?” Steven mused aloud, asking the rhetorical question of the little toy panda he spotted sitting on his bedside table. “How does the Doctor always land on his feet like some kind of cat with nine more lives up his sleeve?”
He picked the little bear up. “I almost left without you,” he observed. “I hope you don’t mind, but dramatic exits lose their impact if you go back for stuffed toys.”
He smiled ruefully at his own joke. “I suppose you’d have done more good round here, anyway. The Doctor is always picking up some new kid along his way- maybe a welcoming little mascot would cheer them up.”
Steven looked down at the little toy. It had been his only companion for two years; he’d actually gone back into a burning building to rescue it. He realized now how crazy that had been, but he also understood why he’d done it. He’d needed something, anything, to stand in for what he’d lost, for what he hoped he’d find again. He’d found that here, he’d felt, at last, with the Doctor and Vicki. He had a kid sister and a strange sort of grandfather in the two of them, and finally he’d started to feel normal again.
But then Vicki left- and she was happy, from what the Doctor showed him with the time-space visualizer, and he’d seen enough of her and that Troilus together to know their affection was genuine. He’d wished he could have said goodbye properly, afterward, but once they’d landed on Kembel, it was all any of them could do to keep one step ahead of those Daleks. No time for any other thoughts or needs but that. And then he’d been glad Vicki had found someplace to call home, and someone to keep her safe. That she was well out of that madness and he wouldn’t have to worry about her.
Except he’d come to care about the others he met too, and he’d seen them all die- Katarina, Bret, Sara.
Those images burned in his memory. He dreamed about it. Sometimes he dreamed about them all crashing together on Mechanus- and he always crawled out of the wreckage alone.
And then those poor people in France- and the Doctor, the only constant friend he had left, didn’t seem to care. Maybe the Doctor was too old, too hardened- maybe the Doctor had learned how to forget, but Steven couldn’t. He used to like to think he could take anything, but he’d found his limit. To be alone was one thing- even then, he could still imagine better days, still hope- but to have someone else there finally, and then hear them telling him not to care, that it was useless to feel- no. How could he stay with someone who didn’t understand?
Steven had lost any desire to keep traveling with the Doctor, but now he couldn’t just leave some poor kid like Dodo to deal with him, and all the perils of the great wide universe, all by herself. The least he could do was show her the ropes and help make the transition to her new life easier. And maybe they’d be able to help her find someplace safe to call home, eventually. And then he and the Doctor could go their separate ways.
Steven didn’t know how long he’d stay. This was home for now, but only for now.
He heard a knock at the door, and a familiar clearing of the throat, before the Doctor’s voice enquired, “Steven, my boy, might I come in and have a word with you?”
Steven set Hi-Fi back on the table, and replied indifferently, “The door isn’t locked.”
The door slid open, and the Doctor entered, fingering the eyeglass he always wore tied round his neck with a ribbon. “Well, well,” he tutted, looking through the glass and scrutinizing the room, “you’d have left a mess for me clean up if you had left! You’re worse than Chatterton!”
Steven glanced at the stack of books, discarded jacket, and little wrappers from the food machine scattered about the floor, and realized he had rather let things go. He shrugged.
“Glad I didn’t inconvenience you, then.” He hadn’t intended to sound so bitter, but it came out that way all the same.
The Doctor obviously noticed, and changed the subject. “Young Dodo is having a marvelous time running round the ship!” he said merrily. “She says it’s the best joke she’s ever seen! Can you imagine? She’s quite taking it all in her stride!”
“Well that’s alright for now,” Steven said. “But what about later? When she realizes? Then what? Do you even worry about us at all, Doctor?”
The Doctor seemed taken aback. “Of course I do! Of course I do! Do you suppose I’m unconcerned with the people whom I travel with every day? Who live aboard my ship? Whose safety I am responsible for? No, no, my boy, if you think I don’t worry, you’re quite mistaken.”
“It’s nice to know you care about something,” Steven muttered darkly in response, “Even if you have a funny way of showing it.”
He flopped down onto the deck-chair-ish contraption that passed for a bed, and picked up a book from his bedside table. He had to stay now, so no sense getting into another fight with the Doctor. He opened the book to the bookmarked page, and stared at the words without really seeing them. He wasn’t at all interested in reading, but needed to distract himself from the anger he couldn’t shake, which felt like it would burst out of him any minute.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the Doctor open his mouth to protest, only to swiftly shut it again, as if a sudden realization had dawned on him. He began stroking his chin thoughtfully. His brow furrowed in concern, he slowly crossed the room, and gingerly sat down in the chair next to Steven.
“We couldn’t have prevented it, you know, even if we’d tried,” he said, quietly. “The situation in France had been building long before we landed there. People would have died no matter what we would have done. Sometimes, though it is hard, we must accept the fact that we are very small leaves floating upon the great river of time, which has currents much more powerful than ourselves.”
Steven clenched his jaw to keep from spitting out some kind of spiteful remark. He knew the Doctor thought he was helping, but any attempt at consolation felt like patronizing platitudes for a child to Steven. He put down the book.
“Look, Doctor,” he began, looking directly at him and trying to keep the bitterness out of his words, “that may make you feel better, but it certainly doesn’t do anything for me. We’re never going to see eye to eye on this, but we’ve got to live with each other now, so we’d better just drop the subject for good if we expect to make a go of this situation.”
The Doctor’s face registered mild surprise at this statement. He sat back, and considered his young companion’s words.
“I’m glad you’ve decided to make your stay more permanent,” he said after a few moments, “I thought perhaps you might be planning to get off next stop- I’m certainly gratified you’ve changed your mind.”
“I don’t know that I won’t leave sometime soon,” Steven countered. “I only know I’ll stick around for a while for Dodo’s sake. She’s only a kid after all, and she’ll need looking after. Two heads are better than one for that sort of thing. Not that-”
Steven’s voice lowered as he uttered the perturbing thought that had occurred to him: “…not that it did Sara or Katarina much good.”
The Doctor caught all the pain and doubt and guilt in that statement. And more than that, he understood it perfectly. Suddenly, he knew what the real root of his friend’s discontent was.
“Sara and Katarina lost their lives in the cause of defeating the Daleks,” the Doctor said quietly. “And because of them, billions of people are alive and free.”
“In the year 4000,” Steven scoffed. But he instantly felt awful for saying it; in all the times and places they’d traveled, it had never mattered how far removed from his own time they were- people were people, and they were all worth trying to save. Whether or not the Doctor cared. Steven quickly amended his statement. “But I don’t mean it like that, really. It’s just… it was Sara’s own time, she should have been alive to see Chen and the Daleks defeated! She should have been there to help rebuild her world! We should have been able to do more for her. We should’ve been able to do more for all of them, but we didn’t. I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty useless. What good are we, really? Even if we defeat a monster here or there, we still can’t even help our own friends. What’s the point of it all? Look at us: two lonely cosmic drifters! We’re a rather pathetic pair.”
“I think not,” the Doctor replied seriously. “If we have done some good in this universe, and I believe we have, then we are certainly not useless.”
The Doctor stared at Steven through narrowed eyes for a long moment, as if deciding something. Then, at last, he seemed to make up his mind: “And as for you, I believe it’s high time you did something about this ennui.”
The Doctor looked Steven in the eye seriously. “I may not have mentioned it before, but my ship, believe it or not- is meant to have a larger crew than just myself.”
The Doctor drummed his fingers against the side of his chair, as if he felt a little nervous or embarrassed to tell anyone that.
Steven was intrigued. “What do you mean? You always said you’re the only one who could work it properly.”
The Doctor squirmed in his seat a little uncomfortably. “Yes, well, that’s usually the case. It’s very advanced, and the technology of my people is quite unknown to nearly everyone but ourselves. Still… it is not impossible… and I think, perhaps, seeing as you are a pilot, and not from an entirely primitive time…”
Steven sat up now, all ears. He wasn’t quite sure if he was understanding correctly just what the Doctor was getting at.
“Doctor,” Steven asked skeptically, “Are you saying… you’re going to let me fly the TARDIS?”
“I am saying,” the Doctor replied with the utmost seriousness, “that if you are interested in learning, and willing to apply yourself to the most careful study, and have patience, and take great care… I would be willing to teach you.”
Steven stared at the Doctor in amazement. He was practically dumbstruck, and even though Steven could scarcely believe it, he knew the Doctor was entirely in earnest.
“Well, I… I don’t know what to say!” Steven stammered. “I never thought you’d ever let anyone so much as touch the controls-”
“I don’t offer it lightly, you must understand that,” the Doctor assured him, “the TARDIS is not just any ship, it is alive- you must work with it as much as with me. You must learn that it’s not like your old space rockets from Earth- it won’t do what you tell it to just because you want it to. You will have to commit to understanding the TARDIS before you can fly it!”
The Doctor’s words were full of emotion, and Steven knew how intensely the Doctor loved his ship, and how connected he was to it. It was quite plain to see how much of a strain it was to him to contemplate someone else flying it. Steven felt somewhat overwhelmed at the honor, but he couldn’t shake the question from his mind.
“Of course Doctor,” Steven replied solemnly, “I’d do my best with the TARDIS and take it as seriously as I would any other flight training, and more still. I know you love your ship. I like her too, come to that. But I really have to ask: if you worry about it so much, why are you offering it to me?”
The Doctor’s eyes softened unexpectedly.
“Because my boy,” he said plainly, “I want you to know that I do care. Very much. About you, about all of you. I know you don’t believe it, entirely. Oh yes, I know. I see how you think I’m callous or unfeeling, and you’re angry with me for it. And so you should be, if I did see you in the way you think I do. But the truth is, in fact, that you, and all the friends I’ve made since I ventured out into the stars in this ship, have taught me more about the universe and how to live in it than the all great ancient knowledge of my people ever did. But I lived a whole lifetime before I ever met a human being, and lost much more than you can imagine. I cannot tell you about it, so perhaps you think I don’t feel- but in fact, I sometimes feel it too much, and I fear, when I attempt to cut myself off from those feelings, I close you out as well, and I am sorry for it.
“So this is what I offer to you- my trust. The TARDIS is the most precious thing I possess, but I will share it with you, because I do not wish you to feel hopeless or alone. You are a pilot- the TARDIS will help you fly.”
Steven sat stunned for several minutes. A speech like that from the Doctor was the last thing he’d ever expected to hear. He’d been so busy trying to hide how hurt he was, that the thought hadn’t occurred to him that the Doctor might be doing the very same thing. The Doctor liked to play gruff, play the know-it-all, but underneath, perhaps they were more alike than they cared to admit. Steven almost didn’t know what to say. But he found the words at last.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever understand you completely,” he said, "Nor that I’ll be able to live this sort of life indefinitely. But I do believe you, and I hope I’m a big enough person to forgive someone when they hand me such a heartfelt apology, and offer something that means so much to them.”
Steven stood up, and earnestly held a hand out to the Doctor. “I accept the offer- I’d be honored to learn to fly the TARDIS.” And then a little grin crept across his face: “Pending the approval of the old girl herself, of course.”
A smile came to the Doctor’s face at this. He too stood up, and shook Steven’s hand heartily.
“I’m glad to hear it, my boy!” He beamed. “Very glad to hear it.”
The Doctor chuckled in his customary sprightly way, and patted Steven on the back.
“I suppose this means we’re friends again, hmm?” The Doctor queried.
“Of course we are,” Steven replied. “I hope we always were. Every friendship goes through a rough patch here and there. Maybe some clouds will always hang over our heads…” He thought of Sara and Katarina with a pang, “but we’ve got to try to muddle through, anyway.”
“A wise attitude, young man,” the Doctor’s eyes were sympathetic. “And now you have something to look forward to, hmm? We can start your first lesson as soon as Dodo is settled, if you like.”
“Dodo!” Steven said, suddenly remembering. “Where is she? You didn’t just let her wander off on her own, did you? I once got lost in those corridors for hours!”
The Doctor chuckled again. “I left her in the library, I’m sure she’s quite all right, there’s very little trouble she could get into there. Or was it the Wardrobe Room? Hmm… oh dear…”
The Doctor put his hand to his chin, and muttered distractedly as he drifted out of Steven’s room, and began looking up and down the corridors calling out for ‘Miss Chaplet’.
Steven rolled his eyes. Well, things certainly were back to normal… or at least, what passed for normal aboard the TARDIS. He didn’t know if he could be really happy here again. He didn’t know how long it would last if he ever did manage it. But now, at least, he knew he still had friends. And maybe, for a while, that would be all right.
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