Written for Glinda in Hetswap 2017. Thanks to Persiflage for the beta!
With a bonus guest appearance at the end.
Charley was in the TARDIS library, looking for anything odd, which she felt was an overly vague category, given that it would have covered pretty much everything in the TARDIS, including the Doctor. She was probably the only ordinary thing in the whole ship (and goodness knew how big it was). However, the library did at least seem pretty much as usual so far. She liked the library; its book-lined mahogany warmth felt deceptively familiar, even if it was a good deal more welcoming than her father’s library had ever been.
However, just as she was about to leave and see if the Doctor had found the source of the problem, she almost fell over a table that had suddenly appeared in front of her, bearing a large chocolate cake. It looked like a particularly fine one, too.
“Gosh,” said Charley. That, she decided, definitely counted as odd.
“Did you find anything?” the Doctor asked, entering the library at speed. “I narrowly avoided my yesterday self in the corridor, but nothing worse so far. I’m still picking up several sharp linear fluctuations in various places, though.” He paused. “Charley?”
Charley hastily wiped the tell-tale chocolate smudge from her mouth. “Well, I found some chocolate cake that shouldn’t be here.”
“And so you had to check that it wasn’t dangerous by tasting it?” His gaze travelled to the triangular shaped gap in the large cake, and then back to Charley again.
Charley gave a sheepish shrug. It hadn’t been the most sensible action, but she’d only meant to investigate it at first. But then it had seemed exactly right in texture and smell and she wasn’t at all sure when she’d last eaten — one of the perennial problems of time travel, as she was learning — and it was, it had turned out, an exceptionally good chocolate cake. It had seemed worth the risk. “How else is a girl to tell? And I mean, look, it came with its own plates and knives and everything. And I was famished. I still am.”
“Yes, well, it seems to have done you no harm, thankfully,” said the Doctor, trying to remain stern. “However, since it’s no doubt out of its proper time, whoever baked it might not be so impressed with you stealing some. We’ll have to hope you’ve done nothing too irrevocable to time.” Then he gave a smile. “I wouldn’t take up cake-stealing as a profession, mind. You’d never get away with it — the evidence is all over you!”
Charley laughed, but as she turned to reply, the cake vanished. “Oh, dear! It’s gone. Now you can’t have any.”
“Just as well,” said the Doctor. “That would create an even greater potential disturbance to the timeline. Minute, I grant you, but you can never be too careful with these things.”
Charley nodded, keeping her face solemn, while the sarcasm leaked into her tone. “Oh, yes. And that’s why you’re always so careful about everything, isn’t it?”
“Charley,” said the Doctor, but he barely looked at her; instead pulling out the improbable-looking metal rectangle with lights and buttons he claimed was a multi-purpose chronometer and dissonant time-wave detector. “I detect a less than respectful note in your tone. Shocking. Still,” he added, giving the mechanical device a shake, “it all seems to have quietened down again now. Perhaps that’s settled things.”
“Oh, no, no, no, don’t say that,” said Charley, but it was too late: fate and the TARDIS had already been too badly tempted by the words. The library wavered around them and for one moment, she thought they were surrounded by roses, and then next, they seemed to be standing on the ceiling, before everything returned to normal, except for the fact that the Doctor was wearing a large sun hat with a flower on it. Charley put up a hand to her own head, but she seemed to have been spared any such random accessories.
She bit back a laugh, and said, “Very fetching.”
“I beg your pardon?” said the Doctor, and then on her nodding towards his head, he removed the hat and glanced at it in mild surprise. “Hmm. This isn’t right at all.”
“No,” agreed Charley. “Not really your colour.”
He threw her a reproachful look. “Not the hat. The TARDIS! Come on, old girl — whatever is the matter? It’s almost as if she’s trying to fold in on herself.”
“Doctor, the ship isn’t going to explode, is it?”
The Doctor shook his head. “Of course not. Or at least, I shouldn’t think it’s very likely. But she does seem to be getting rather agitated about something.”
“Perhaps it’s Ramsay,” offered Charley. “Maybe time machines don’t take kindly to pet Vortisaurs. Poor old Ramsay.”
The Doctor gave a frown, and tapped the now-silent chronometer once more. “Yes, perhaps that is it.”
They exchanged a glance and Charley had an uncomfortable feeling that they were both thinking the same thing: that Ramsay wasn’t the only newcomer around here. But, she thought, she was only an ordinary human being — there was nothing special about her. Living on borrowed time, perhaps, thanks to the Doctor, but that was merely a phrase, wasn’t it? Nothing for the TARDIS to get annoyed about. It was a silly idea. But she would have been happier if she hadn’t felt so sure that the Doctor was considering it. It gave her a slightly sick, unwanted feeling in the pit of her stomach, so she swiftly pushed away the unwelcome possibility.
“Charley!” said the Doctor, suddenly grabbing hold of her, only an instant before the library whirled about them in a blur of colours that then seemed to fracture; the fragments first circling and then diving at them. Charley stifled a cry and buried her head in the Doctor’s velvet jacket as he held onto her. In that position, she couldn’t feel anything like as scared as she ought to be. She risked lifting her head and for one moment — or more accurately several hundred thousand moments — of past, present and future in the same patch of time and space, she could see everything, all of their time together, even if not in a way that she could comprehend. Everything was too fleeting, and too much out of order. She tightened her grip on his jacket, feeling the fabric brushing against her fingers, and was hardly able to breathe. She could glimpse tiny splinters of adventures, the sense of something breaking, and even for one instant as if she was almost inside the Doctor, impossible as that was, and then there was darkness, and then —
Everything fell still and only the Doctor and Charley were left, standing together in the centre of the library, hanging onto each other against a storm that had vanished.
“Doctor,” Charley said, and found her voice was shaking. When she reluctantly released him, she realised that she was too. The Doctor reached out for her hand and squeezed it briefly, before kissing her forehead and stepping back. Charley swallowed, her head still swimming with oddments of memories that hadn’t happened yet, although they were fading fast, even such as they were.
The Doctor examined his chronometer intently, pressing its buttons and muttering to himself, before he looked up again and gave her a smile. “Ah, now that does seem to have done it! A storm in a teacup and now it’s worn itself out. I’ll have to find out what the cause was — can’t have that happening again. And you’re all right, Charley? No bones broken, eh?”
“No,” she said stoutly, but thought: Only very possibly my heart. She found it difficult to breathe again. The sensation had gone; the memories impossible to retain even as mere impressions, except that she had a muddled thought left behind them about borrowed time and stolen cake, and that it was worth the risk. Oh, yes, she thought, before that slipped away with the rest. It was worth it for every moment, even if this one was the last.
The Doctor seemed oblivious to her contemplation. He brushed down his jacket and said, “Charley, you’ve got crumbs all over me.”
“I see I shall have to feed you more often.”
Charley laughed. “Well, that would be nice — thank you.”
He smiled again, and put out a hand to brush a last couple of cake crumbs from her cheek. Charley felt her heart do quite nonsensical fluttery things that she resolutely ignored.
“How about I rustle you up something special? Provided the TARDIS hasn’t mislaid the kitchen in all the excitement, of course. She does have a tendency to be careless with it. I once lost it for nearly a century before it turned up behind the swimming pool.”
Charley considered that proposition and found it wanting. She wrinkled her nose. “I think we’ve already had more than enough disasters for one day. Why don’t you find some nice little restaurant somewhere about in time and space, and see if we can get through at least the first course before the hordes of ravening aliens arrive and invade?”
“Oh ye of little faith!” said the Doctor. “Leaving aside your insinuations about my cooking, and the fact that more than half the time it’s your species that does the invading, I’ll have you know I’m more than capable of getting through a meal without any unwanted adventures. And I know a nice little place halfway up the Khyber Pass that should be perfect. How does that sound?”
She hung back, remaining sceptical.
“Come along, Miss Pollard,” said the Doctor, offering her his arm. “Allow me to prove it to you.”
She laughed and took his arm, and they promenaded back along the corridor to the console room side by side. “I’d say the odds are stacked against you, but it sounds jolly nice anyway.”
They looked at each other.
“So,” said the Doctor, “dinner or an adventure, it is!”
And Charley thought that, after all, she didn’t mind terribly which one it was, as long as they were together.
Some considerable time earlier (if time can truly be said to pass in the normal fashion inside a time and space machine):
“Honestly, Doctor,” said Evelyn. “If you’d wanted a piece of cake, you could just have asked. There’s no need to invent ridiculous tarradiddles about things vanishing into the vortex and coming back with one slice missing. I think that’s the most unconvincing excuse I’ve ever heard. And I’ve dealt with students.”
The Doctor felt that the universe could be very unfair at times.
“Although,” said Evelyn, breaking into a smile, “with you, that probably only means that it’s true. Perhaps that’s what happened to my sun hat — maybe it vanished into the vortex too!”
The Doctor put out a hand and in it, suddenly, was her hat. He winked at her. “Nothing, my dear Evelyn, is more likely. And now,” he said, “how about we have some of that cake before the vortex claims it again, eh?”
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