The madness ebbs. Like a storm-spent sea reluctantly grumbling back into its trenches. The Doctor’s mind is the wrecked shoreline of a holiday resort, one of those island places that will blend bananas and coconuts into anything and serve it to you with one of those clever little umbrellas floating on top. No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent--
The Doctor grinds his forehead into his drawn up knees until red pain blossoms behind his eyes. It’s nice, if only to have a little noise in there. It’s so terribly, terribly quiet, now that the storm is passing.
The cloister bell has fallen silent at last -- it tolls for — it tolls for-- and the TARDIS has stopped screaming. She’s quiet now, too, but definitely still alive. Her pulse, his third heart, drums uneven but strong at the base of his skull. He thought she might die of this, but he was wrong; he was sure he would die of this, but he was wrong.
”Think of something, Theta. This cannot go on.”
The universe is still trembling on its foundations, but it’s nothing to the drunken swaying. He’d been pretty sure that it would survive; only thing he’s been right about so far. A risk, of course can’t come along and yank half the supporting pillars out from under a temple and not expect things to get rattled around a bit. But it’s stronger than all that. You know what they say about Gallifreyan workmanship.
The architects are gone now. Them and the priests and the high, holy worshippers. Only him left, tiny, impious church mouse. And what’s the point in leaving droppings under the altar when there are no more acolytes to outrage?
The inside of his head is all uprooted beach umbrellas, broken sun loungers, heaps of sodden towels washed up against collapsed party awnings. It will take a lot of work to set things to rights again, and the Doctor knows it won’t be the same — can’t ever get the smell of the sea truly out, and there’s always just that little bit more sand snuck into your unmentionables. Just as well leave it all for the birds, he thinks, and then things will mildew. The Doctor giggles into his knees. All right. Perhaps the madness isn’t so much ebbing as pausing for a breather. But even that thought is an artifact of sanity — the desire to mark the difference.
The Doctor comes back into his skin uneasily. He hasn’t regenerated, but he feels as if he has; it’s as if he’s trying to stuff new feet into an old pair of boots. He uncurls slowly, pulls himself up on the edge of the console. He’s left teeth marks in an uneven line of half-moons up his right arm. Healing up all right, though.
He peers over the console into the column. The old girl’s at a bit of a low watermark, but she’s fundamentally all right. Half her systems are shorted right out, though, some of the controls clean melted away. There’s an enormous dent halfway around the console, sort of circular with a spray of dried blood that looks like a lopsided star map of the Denduri Nexus. That explains the headache — he can remember seizing there, head slamming uncontrollably as he choked on breath and then his own tongue, screaming and screaming and screaming inside his head as all the lights in the universe winked out all at once, and then guttered uncertainly back on. Except for the ones that stayed dark.
”Think of something, Theta.”
It makes no sense — why wasn’t he snuffed out, too? He’s quenched the universe’s own furnace bonfire, of which he is but one tiny spark. Surely being the trigger in the mechanism is not enough to save him?
Not nearly enough to save him, no, but more than sufficient to damn him, it seems. Sufficient unto the day is--
He falls back on reflex, drags himself to the kitchen, makes tea. Bizarrely, beautifully, obscenely, it makes him feel better. Get some things dead to rights, do humans. Less than their share, maybe, but more than he might expect for a lot of apes that’ve just tumbled from the trees a few brief, cosmic blinks ago. Tea, and banana daiquiris with little umbrellas in, and Christmas really isn’t bad either. Not too shabby for a race which has only recently figured out what its thumbs are for.
He has the kinsman’s fondness for them, for their helter-skelter fling up evolution’s curve. His people had stopped changing much for the past few billion years, right down to the DNA. It was one of the perennial favorite parlor conversations, forever dissecting the nature and logic of their minute, asymptotic progression. Maximization they called it, or sometimes actualization. The Doctor didn’t disagree with either assessment, but he thought stagnation was just as good a synonym.
Not as if his judgments had mattered at all. Not that he’d much cared. He’d been a scientific curiosity first, a social irritant as he grew up, and he liked to think, once he’d spread his wings a bit, he’d been a right pain in the arse. They’d had lots of words for him, too -- genetic throwback was one of his favorites, though accidental relic was pretty good too. But here he is, the product of the very best genetic looms, and by some freak twist of recombinant DNA, some moment of short-circuited probabilities and odds so long they make even him a bit dizzy, someone hit rewind on the last few hundred million years of minute genetic drift. He could just as easily be a child of Time Lords long ago, back in the younger, wilder days when his people had read the laws of the universe out of the great rule book, then gamboled casually through its pages to add their little addendums and strike out a few inconveniences. Back when the temple’s halls had rung with voices raised in bacchanalian celebration, rather than echoing sedately with the staid devotions of complacent senators. The Doctor has always preferred a nice sing-along, himself. And it’s not as if he goes flipping through the book all the time, red pen poised. He just has a fascination for ambiguous syntax, is all.
They’d had lots of names for him, right enough; he’d always been rather smug about that, to tell the truth. And they’d never really understood him; he’d been even smugger about that. Right until the very end, when they’d come to him. No humility, because that had been bred out long ago. But fear hadn’t. Not fear of the end, no, but fear that there would not be one, that this great grinding war was beginning to slide into the same eternal, asymptotic progression, the Time Lords and the Daleks forever in disharmonized balance, grinding the universe to powder and chaff between their two turning stones. ”Think of something, Theta.”
Maybe the first time he’s ever done as he was told.
He wanders the halls of the TARDIS, deliberately muffling even the unconscious stirrings of volition so that the corridors shift randomly around him and he never knows what will be behind each door. He pokes his nose into dusty storage cupboards, wanders like a museum patron through the private spaces of old friends long gone.
He thinks about regeneration. It would be easy — most conventional weapons won’t work in here, but there are any number of options available to him. He can regenerate, remake himself from the molecules out, grow a new brain whose synapses aren’t blasted out with trauma. He could lay this time under glass along side his other eight lives, walk by it to visit sometimes, only open up the display cases and handle things when he feels the need.
No. He doesn’t deserve that.
He does a bit of repair work here and there, where he can. He restarts and recalibrates basic systems, cobbles up makeshift controls with whatever comes to hand. No new parts — shops are closed now, and permanently.
He thinks about ending it all together, bypassing regeneration and arranging something more final. Easy as walking out the door into the swirling vortex. Except it’s not easy, and that makes him laugh — why so difficult, taking that last tiny step from genocide to extinction? He is tiny, he is no one’s legacy, he’s an unfitting biological monument if there ever was one, and yet he hasn’t the stomach for one last, small crime. He doesn’t deserve that either, anyway.
The TARDIS drifts through the vortex, and the Doctor exists. The universe is remade out there. History is redrawing itself, and even the old and familiar will be new and strange. The Doctor has no desire to see it. Was it worth it?
He and the TARDIS leave each other be, for the most part. Until she flares up sudden and bright in his awareness as he’s making breakfast — down to thirtieth century ‘just add water!’ powdered sausage. He doesn’t like that, having the time marked out by something external, by anything at all.
He spills his sausage in a half-hydrated sludge when the TARDIS startles him, and takes off for the control room. It’s a proximity alarm, he knows before he gets there. Something’s out here in the vortex with them, something that’s making the old girl’s timbers shake. He pats the column as he circles the console, pulls up the viewscreen, stares. It’s falling through time and space, no propulsion, no control, tumbling and streaming fire. He watches it go, hands planted on the edge of the console. The TARDIS rises up in her column, frothing with a question, and a headache begins to mount behind his eyes. He didn’t know she could do that, argue with him, push at him like that.
And the Doctor feels it, despite himself, watching that gutted shape disappear into the vortex. It’s only a faint quiver of the old reflex, wounded dog lifting its head at the first scent of hare. It startles him that he’s still capable of it. But perhaps it shouldn’t; he’s always been a survivor.
The survivor. He thinks perhaps he’s finally found the proper word for him, in all its obscenity. They would be proud — his people knew the power of naming things.
He looks at the monitor again. Someone had tried to outrun the fire. Had almost made it, too.
So he chases it down through the vortex, barely controlled plunge. The TARDIS leaps to his commands, flinging herself down the centuries with abandon, just managing to keep hold of that one vanishing fragment. It shivers and spins on the gusts of time, before buffeting itself out all together and plunging directly into the cupped hand of a hungry gravity well. The Doctor has no idea where they are, but he follows it down, so close he’s only minutes behind it when the TARDIS thumps to a rough halt on a planetary surface, engines ticking with exertion.
The Doctor switches to an external scan, has a look around, then rolls his eyes. Earth. Early twenty-first century, to judge by the cars. Figures. Really inconvenient place to go and put the center of the universe, stuck way out on this backwater spiral arm.
The Doctor sighs, shakes his head, and goes out for a look. The TARDIS has tucked herself nice and neat up against an ATM. The man getting money boggles at the Doctor when he emerges. The Doctor waves, then turns in a slow circle to orient himself. Britain, definitely — there’s a dodgy cart selling chips and mushy peas parked in front of a Starbucks across the road. Wales, if he doesn’t miss his guess, and he rarely does.
He must have been a bit farther behind than he thought — no one is pointing at the sky and gasping dramatically, or even hurrying to go see. Still, the Doctor knows where to go. He can smell it, like ash on the wind. Close by, maybe just a few blocks.
It’s early evening, and the sidewalks are crowded. The Doctor moves slowly, nose to the wind. There’s a grocery at the corner, swarming with mothers pushing children around in rattley trolleys, piling up colorful mountains of bread and marmalade and ice cream and grapefruit. They have never looked so alien to him. Because I am involved in mankind, the Doctor thinks, and laughs unpleasantly. A smartly dressed businesswoman loaded down with groceries looks at him askance and circles wide; she has a bunch of bananas poking out the top of one of her bags, and the Doctor tries his widest smile on her. She starts walking a little faster.
He knew it would be this way, but it’s still stunning. He wants to shout at them, to grab them and shake them until their little ape brains open wide enough to begin to comprehend. The closest thing they could ever hope to find to gods are dead, and it doesn’t matter a pint of milk here. They’ll just scurry on about their business, cups of tea and mushy peas and late-night cinema, carry on reaching out into the dark with little candles of belief help me love me save me, are you there? and suffice themselves on the echoes alone. He hates their blindness, loves their beautiful, instinctive self-sufficiency. Was it worth it?
He turns the corner and keeps walking. Very close now. He ducks down the alley behind the grocery, past the bins, then stops. Someone’s gotten here first; there’s a big black car half blocking the way, and the Doctor knows official when he sees it by now. ‘Torchwood,’ whatever that is.
He thinks about it for an entire half second, then shrugs and slips round the back of the car and into a small employee parking lot. The fragment has dug a smoking furrow in the asphalt and come to rest at the far end, where a small group is clustered. The Doctor ducks behind the short row of parked cars, crouches down, has a good squint. Five of them, and definitely official — he sees guns, a laptop computer, and, most intriguingly, what looks for all the world like a modified Saroyite energy collector. Being used correctly, strangest of all.
He’s just about to stand, go sauntering out into the open and see what he can see, when the man crouched down by the fragment stands up, long coat billowing, and turns around. The streetlamps have come on, spotlighting him full in the face, and the Doctor thinks, I know you. He starts, squints, shakes his head. Doesn’t forget faces, him, but . . . and then he has it.
“Hullo. Do I know you?”
“Um no. Sorry. Apparently not.”
1957, that was, in London. Four lives ago. He can’t stop staring. That’s impossible. 1957, 1969, 1984, and now here. And the obvious answer isn’t it — the man hasn’t aged a day. The man turns back to kneel by the fragment, and the Doctor skitters sideways to crouch behind the next car over — little pink thing with a license plate that says BD WLF. It’s completely impossible — no human, no anything can follow him through time like that.
There’s one scuffed footstep, which is all the warning he gets before he’s seized under both arms and heaved to his feet. “Got him!” the man on his right calls. The Doctor glances from him to the other one and shrugs as they start hauling him out from behind the cars. Would have headed this way himself soon, anyway. “Might have to toss him in the SUV and take him back to base,” the man is saying as they frog march him across the parking lot towards the fragment. “Unless we’ve restocked the retcon stash since the weevils yesterday. You got any, Jack?”
“No,” says Jack in the long coat, turning around and standing. “But we can just–“ he reels back as if he’s been slapped, sentence snapped off between his teeth.
“Hullo,” says the Doctor, and waves abortively through the arm locks. “Who’re you supposed to be, then?” His voice is hoarse and rusty — he hasn’t spoken in . . . a long time.
“Oh,” says Jack, shoulders dropping. “Shit. I can’t talk to you,” he adds, taking a step back.
“Oh, I dunno. Seemed to do all right just there,” says the Doctor encouragingly.
“No, I mean I really can’t talk to you,” Jack says. “I think we’re crossing timelines.”
The Doctor blinks. “But I know you. You were waiting outside the TARDIS for me in Trafalgar square in 1957. And then in Bristol in 1969. Why are you following me? And how?” He’s dimly aware of a lot of rustling and muttering between his two jailers; Jack casts them a harassed look, visibly grinding his teeth.
Then he tilts his head back, bites his lip, and blows out a long breath before meeting the Doctor’s eyes straight on. “Rose,” he says, and then waits expectantly.
The Doctor blinks. “Beg pardon?”
“Right.” Jack shakes his head, disgusted. “Definitely crossing timelines.”
“But I do recognize you,” says the Doctor persistently. “Why are you following me?”
“Never mind,” Jack says irritably. He starts to turn away, then catches himself and turns back. “Not surprising you’d show up, though. Is that what I think it is?” He jerks a thumb down at the fragment, still smoldering faintly in its little crater.
The Doctor leans forward for a closer look, nods. “A piece of a dying TARDIS, yes,” he says. It’s the curve of the central pillar, sheared through on the vertical axis and about two-thirds of it clean gone.
“Not yours.” Jack sounds certain, but there’s a flicker of alarm hiding back there somewhere.
“No, no.” The Doctor shakes his head, edges forward.
“Let him go,” says Jack to his enforcers. “He’s–“ his lip curls ironically “–harmless. Is it dangerous?” he asks the Doctor.
The Doctor crouches down, let’s his hands hover over it. The material itself is mostly intact, except for where the fires of atmospheric entry have smoothed the jagged edges of fracture. And inside is mostly dead, too, save for the rising steam as it cools. Mostly, but not entirely.
“It’s safe,” he says softly. “There’s just a speck of energy left, barely a flicker of life.”
He’s aware of Jack coming to stand behind him, a tall shadow that smells of gunpowder and fine wool. “Is there anything we can do for it?” Jack asks softly. “To make its . . . passing easier?”
The Doctor casts a sharp look up and thinks, you know a lot. Then he looks back to the fragment, leans far over, reaches. The spark leaps to his hand, magnetically attracted by his geysers of complimentary radiation. It sparks there in his cupped palm, little firefly fallen star, and the Doctor lifts it to his face. Compassion hurts, and empathy is a muscle frozen up with disuse. The Doctor doesn’t want to do this — mourn the entire tumbled castle, yes, but the prick of one little splinter from the ruin just might undo him.
But then the TARDIS is there, surging up in his mind warm and alive, and the Doctor bends his head to the spark, reaches out. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Goodbye.
“There,” he says, and shows his empty hand. “Gone now.” He creaks slowly to his feet, waves vaguely at the remains of the column. “That should be entirely inert now.”
“We’ll take care of it,” Jack says softly. “You look like shit, by the way.” He turns, begins barking out orders. The two men and two women who’d been waiting around and gawking snap to with heavy-duty gloves and tongs and start bundling up the column fragment to be taken away. Jack watches them silently, arms tight across his chest, and the Doctor can’t stop staring. No sluggish interest, this — he’s at full, quivering point, scenting something . . . fascinating. How can this strange man possibly . . .?
He’s still primed, mind pried open like a reluctant oyster by the effort of brief communion. It’s the easiest thing in the world to reach out. He does it before thought, leaning forward on his toes and pushing gently behind those distant blue eyes where he finds–
A hall of funhouse mirrors, and his own face in every one. Many years — far too many for this mere human. Memory packed deep and thick and bitter, far too much scorched earth. And that’s him there, too, clawing his way up and out like a vampire. And all of it echoing with the singing, like the TARDIS, only--
Jack’s head snaps around, and the Doctor doesn’t miss the way he clenches at the grip of his pistol. “When I said I can’t talk to you,” Jack grits out, “it was sort of implicit that you should stay out of my head.”
The Doctor is ejected, forcibly. He blinks, staggers, goggles. “But that’s impossible,” he says. “I can’t do that. I don’t even know you — I’d need to be touching you at the very least to be able to . . . unless I’ve already . . . unless you invited . . .” he stops talking, sifts through the jumble of impressions he’s been left with. It hits him, electric jolt up the spine -- you know every inch of my skin.
“Turn around,” Jack says flatly. He’s not moving, hands white knuckled at his sides. “Turn around and walk away. I know you know how.”
The Doctor inhales, reconsiders, eases back. The hall monitors are gone, but the rule is older even than them, and it’s not ambiguous and it’s there for a good reason. And he’s meddled more than enough lately with the fabric of reality.
“All right,” he says quietly. “I’m going.”
Jack nods silently, lips pressed tight. The Doctor gets the impression of great, towering restraint, and then a flash of sudden insight -- I’m hurting you, just standing here. “Until later,” the Doctor says, and turns away.
He gets halfway across the parking lot, head down, eyes resolutely forward. He can hear Jack snapping irritable answers to his people’s questions, but he doesn’t look back.
And then, “Doctor?”
He turns around. Jack has taken a few steps after him, then stopped.
“Just,” Jack says, and he looks like the words are being dredged up against that hard, inflexible will. “In case I never get the chance to — I just wanted you to know.” His chin comes up. “It was worth it,” he says. “Every second, I’d do it all again.”
The Doctor blinks, nods, walks away. Jack watches him go, he can feel it though he doesn’t look.
The streets have emptied out a bit with oncoming night. The Doctor strolls slowly, hands in pockets, back to the TARDIS. But he doesn’t go in right away; he leans up against the door, watches humanity fizzing to and fro.
Dangerous thing, knowing the future. Even he has made a lifelong habit of tamping down the inevitable curiosity, purposely avoiding even the smallest glimpses of his future life. And it’s not easy sometimes, with the way he lives. Dangerous to learn much of anything, even the smallest detail, because the very act of observation can change things. And even more dangerous still to go chasing some fragment through the years, just hoping to catch up.
The Doctor can’t help thinking it’s a bit different this time. He learned things he oughtn’t about his future, sure enough. Not the least of which being that he has a future at all.
The Doctor tilts his head back, stares up at the stars. It’s hard to imagine, but there it is. Someday he will meet that man again. Someday there’ll be new friends for the TARDIS and him.
The Doctor thinks of something. It’s daring, entirely unexpected, rather mad. Horrendous and beautiful, and he can hardly get his head round it properly. But that’s what he’s good at, after all — that’s what they used him for. He can’t really stomach it now, but there it is all the same — someday he’s going to look up, and he’ll be living on. Companions and adventures, popping in for tea and out for disaster, on the trail of a grand lark and the next new thing.
The Doctor looks back down to the street. A homeless man is staggering along the sidewalk, battered cap held out, rattling pathetically. The Doctor pats his pockets reflexively, shakes his head, squeezes his eyes tight shut. Because I am involved in mankind. He just can’t quite fathom it. He’s taken a pair of bloody gardening shears and punched a jagged hole through the tapestry, and all he can see are the ragged edges. He can’t imagine anything else anymore.
Knowing the future is a dicey business, but maybe it’s all right, just this once. He learned more than he ought from Jack in the long coat, but he’s going to forget as much of it as he can, until its time comes. Except for one little word, just a single flicker, ambiguous enough not to be disastrous, but solid like a keystone. It’s not safe, tethering himself to something that isn’t yet, but there’s a great gaping hole in the universe, and a great gaping hole in him to match, and the Doctor doesn’t know when or how or what it means, but he’s going to hitch his wagon to this star, just this once.
Rose, he thinks, and smiles. Rose, Rose, Rose.
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