a walk's still progress made by JustMcShane

Summary: It's one of those nights.
Rating: Teen
Categories: Seventh Doctor
Characters: Ace McShane, The Doctor (7th)
Genres: Alternate Universe, Character Study, Fluff, General, Hurt/Comfort, Introspection, Vignette
Warnings: Swearing
Challenges: None
Series: hard to find & lucky to have
Published: 2021.03.27
Updated: 2021.03.27

a walk's still progress made by JustMcShane
Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Author's Notes: Title from 'On The Borderline' by Thomas Sanders. Part of the 'hard to find and luck to have' series, so if you're lost, you might want to go and read the other fics first.

It’s one of those nights.

The door to the Professor’s room is just like any other door lining these endless timeless corridors. It’s plain wood, no fancy handle, no hint of pretentious or cunning design in the least, and the only reason that she does, in fact, know it’s his is that she’s at least 90% sure the TARDIS actually listened to her when she asked to be directed towards his room. She hesitates at the end of the corridor – considers yelling for him or just going straight in (she doesn’t think he’ll mind), but eventually just settles on rapping her knuckles gently at it.

No response.

She knocks again after a suitable ten-second pause, and then, when there’s no audible response from inside, tentatively turns the handle – as slowly and smoothly as she can, and peeks around the doorframe.

Inside, it’s dark and it’s raining.

She nearly exclaims aloud in surprise and instinctively goes to shield her head from the downpour – but then realizes that none of it is actually hitting her. The glimmer of something smooth and faintly reflective right above her catches her eye, and after a moment it becomes apparent what’s going on. The ‘room’ is not so much a room as a completely enclosed glass box sitting in the middle of a stormy midnight field. Huh.

The Professor’s bed takes up most of the space in here. It’s large and simple and neatly made-up – covered with a soft-looking rich blue blanket. The unmoving lump under the covers on the far side of the bed – shadowy and indistinct in the dim light – isn’t facing her, so it’s hard to tell for sure, but it really does look like he’s asleep. Which is almost unsettling, because he hardly ever sleeps. Or at least, if he does, he never does it anytime she’s awake to know about it. He prides himself so much on his airs and graces, even if he’d never admit it. He loves being the mysterious trickster figure, hates showing any weakness.

She feels like she should probably just step back out of the room and close the door and pretend like she’d never been here. She doesn’t do that. Instead, she just asks, “Professor?”

No response, which settles it. He is asleep, and ridiculously so. She feels an emotion welling up in her that she can’t describe, and pushes it away because she really doesn’t want to deal with it. She quietly shuts the door behind her, and when it closes it seals off the glass box completely. There’s only the faintest outline of the handle to indicate where you should open it. Clever ridiculous TARDIS room design.

Ace sits down on the edge of the bed, and then wriggles around so she can lie on her back without disturbing him. She ends up kind of angled over the end of the bed, looking up through the roof of the glass ceiling.

Even though the comparison is – well, it’s wrong and it doesn’t make much sense at all – she can’t help thinking of sneaking into her mother’s room in the early hours of the morning, back when she was ten and she hadn’t realized how bad things were. Of lying at the foot of the bed with her tiny little skinny limbs all bundled up close in so she wouldn’t be touching her mother but also wouldn’t fall off the edge, quiet as she could manage. The vastness of the big adult bed just about swallowing her in the best possible sense, but don’t wake Mum up or there’ll be hell to pay. Just lie there, close but not too close, take it all in while you can.

The rain comes down against the glass ceiling relentlessly. Irregular tap-tap-tapping, collecting on the surface in pools and sliding neatly off to cascade down the sides in distorted watery sheets. It’s lovely and just a tiny bit frightening in a ‘I’ve just realized how small I am in comparison to nature and the universe and all that jazz’ sort of way.

And from that, another distant memory: lying awake in her bedroom during a rainstorm, bundled up in her warmest bedclothes with a flickering torch in one hand and a filched copy of the Beano in the other. Warm and safe but ever so lonely in a way that she’d pretended to ignore at the time, but oh had it eaten at her like a rot.

None of that now, though. The Professor’s here, close enough to touch. He barely breathes like this, and if she wasn’t paying attention she could easily forget he’s there. But he is, and she’s content to just lie here listening to the rain and mapping the sound of him breathing slowly, oh so slowly, in-and-out-and-in. In a few minutes she’ll get up and she’ll leave him alone and go swimming or exploring or something. And if this horrible dread is still lingering with her by the time the Professor wakes up, she’ll bring it up with him then.

Or maybe she’ll just find Narvin and squish her face into his furry little black-and-white side and mutter angrily at him about all her stupid, stupid problems. He’ll probably just meow at her and go along with it. It seems a lot more tolerable and reasonable than having to deal with any shape or form of serious conversation. It seems infinitely preferable.

At some point, Ace dozes off a bit, but only very lightly. Which means that when there’s a soft shuffling of movement from her right and a soft, sleepy hum, she startles back to full consciousness with a muffled curse on her lips and her heart pounding. It takes her a moment to remember where she is – the Doctor’s room, the strange glass box. Her, lurking around like a weird stalker. God, this was a mistake.

She hears a light intake of breath and then, very gently, “...Ace?”

She considers, briefly, the one very good option at her disposal – not responding and just leaving as fast as she can without another word. The absolute awkwardness of that will probably mean that the Professor will never bring it up again for as long as they both live.

Instead, she sits up slowly and says, “Yeah. Yeah, it’s me.”

The blankets rustle and then the Doctor’s face, cast in wild shadows that flicker in time with the falling of the rain, is squinting at her, worry playing all over it. “Ace. Is everything all right? How long have you been here – you should have woken me up – ”

“Couldn’t sleep. Sorry.” She fiddles with the sheets under her fingers, and tries to work out what exactly is setting her on edge right now. “...You don’t need to worry about me all the time, you know.”

“Mm. Perhaps not,” he allows, and sits up. It’s a slow, languid sort of sitting-up movement. Almost sleepy, but at the same time very deliberate. He’s fully conscious but very calm. “It doesn’t change the fact that I do, though.”

She feels a scowl twist her face, and tries to rearrange it into something more neutral – even though he probably can’t see it. “I’m not a little kid – ”

“I’m very aware of that, Ace.” Another flurry of fabric, and he’s sitting with his legs crossed neatly beneath the covers, leaning on one propped-up elbow. “I never believed you were. I don’t think you need to be a child for me to care about you, though, and I also think you know that already.”

And now there’s a lump in her throat. It’s not that she doesn’t want the concern, she realizes; the sympathy. It’s that she has absolutely no idea what to do with it, even after all these years. It’s still strange, somehow, to have anyone caring for her.

He just keeps looking at her. Not staring, just looking. “What’s keeping you awake?”

She swallows the lump. “Just... stuff.”

“Define ‘stuff’.”

“Not ‘me panicking and doubting reality’ stuff,” she clarifies. “Not ‘vivid hallucinations and rampant paranoia’ stuff, either.”

“Excellent.” A moment passes. “The TARDIS helped you find my room?”

“I guess so.” She shifts, his scrutiny making her suddenly uncomfortable. “It’s fine. Don’t want to talk about it.” She doesn’t, she really doesn’t. “Just... wanted to see if you were awake.” Alive is more like it, but that’s also something she doesn’t want to think or talk about. “Sorry for waking you up.”

“Mm,” he says, and then is silent.

She almost laughs. Her mouth curves up sideways and amusement bubbles fondly in her chest.  “...Are you going back to sleep?”

“Well, you did interrupt me,” he replies, and he doesn’t sound like someone who’s making an attempt at restfulness in the least, but it’s still dark and his head is turned away from her, so she can’t really tell. “And you’ve already expressed your wish not to discuss... well, that, further.”

The amusement dies as she remembers that she’d literally snuck into his bedroom, which is not a thing that well-adjusted adults tend to do to their best friends. “Right.” She uncurls her legs from beneath her, and swings them over the edge of the bed. The carpet is soft and cool under her feet. “Um. Sorry. I’ll just... sorry.”

“Ace?” There’s another rustling of blankets and sheets, and after a moment he’s regarding her properly again, brow slightly furrowed. “You don’t need to leave,” he says, like it should be obvious.

“Um,” she says again, and hesitates. The carpet is soft under her bare feet. It’s strange, because she would have expected the ground to be actual grass, but on second thoughts, living grass is probably pretty hard to vacuum. “If you’re...?”

“I’m sure.” A moment passes, and then he reaches out to flip over the far edge of the covers over, so they neatly dog-ear the corner of the bed. An open invitation.

Is this weird? she wonders to herself, and then takes stock of literally everything that she’s been through with him. It’s a long, ridiculous list. They’ve tag-teamed beating up a man made entirely of candy. They have set an extensive number of things on fire, both individually and together – toppled dictatorships, faced down gods. She’s singlehandedly warped reality to bring him back from the dead, and knows he’d do the same without a second thought.

It’s probably only as weird as I make it, she decides, and pulls back the covers fully to slide herself into the warm darkness.

Oh, his bed is so good, though. Like, her bed’s nice enough and she isn’t at all complaining, not to the TARDIS and not to him and not to anyone else, but – this is something else. It can’t be the sheets. The sheets feel the same as hers. It’s not that the bed’s softer or the pillows are plumper. She wriggles into place and lets the blankets fall over her and wriggles her toes in that way that you do when the softness and warmth and weight are just right,

“I think,” she says softly into the darkness. “I think I want to go back.”

There’s a long moment of hesitation. It’s audible hesitation.

“To Earth?” he asks.

Her eyes shoot open, and she turns sideways to look at him, incredulous. The blankets rustle as she moves. “What? No! – well, for visits is fine, obviously, but – no! I don’t want to go back permanently. Staying here, it’s – I want to stay here. For the long term. With you. I meant... I meant Gallifrey.”

Ah,” he says, although it comes out more like a sharp exhale of breath. “I suppose that makes sense.”

“I don’t know if I want to stay there for very long, either,” she adds hastily. “I don’t even know if I want to fight.” She thinks about this for a second, and then tentatively rephrases it, thoughts rattling around the inside of her head like shattered glass in a can. “I... do want to fight. I just, I’m not sure how, I – ” Her voice cracks. “ – god, I’m useless. I don’t even know what I’m saying.”

“Take your time,” is his suggestion.

She shakes her head. “That’s not even what I was trying to say. What I meant was – Leela, and Romana, and Narvin, they... need to know. About, you know. Him.”

“Him,” the Professor agrees.

There’s a strange, nebulous dark spot in the reality that they exist in where Irving Braxiatel’s presence resides. They skirt around it, and do their best to ignore it, but it’s always there. Waiting to sink its teeth into the soft, exposed parts of Ace’s still-fragile brain. Waiting to ambush the Doctor from behind with fervent, overwhelming moments of manic melancholy.

“It has occurred to you that he may still be there,” the Professor says after a second, cautious in that particular tone of voice of his that’s always struck her as being almost uncharacteristic, even though it’s clearly not because here he is, using it.

“Good,” she mutters, and presses her face into her pillow to squish out any distant growing feelings of panic. “I’ve got my baseball bat somewhere, I know I do. Perfect opportunity.”

Half-laugh, half-sigh. “I see.”

“Trying to stop me from whaling on your brother is pointless, Professor. And probably hypocritical. Maybe. I’m too tired to figure out how.”

“No need to worry about that,” comes the response. “I shall join you.”

This makes her laugh borderline hysterically, because the mental image of the two of them standing over Braxiatel’s prone body, taking it in turns to smash at him with their umbrellas and baseball bats (respectively) is just darkly funny enough to appeal to the grim mindset she’s found herself in tonight. And then it fades. “Um. Please don’t.”

“Oh, very well,” comes the response, light enough in itself, but she can hear the edge to it.

Ace can distantly remember liking Brax before... before everything. She’d thought he was nice – a little jagged and angry around the edges, but they were in the midst of a war so really who could blame him – nice, a sharp quick wit that’d reminded her of the Professor’s, an even measured voice that had been so pleasant to listen to until it hadn’t. She’d liked him, and the betrayal still stings. She can’t imagine how it must be for the Professor, being his brother.

“Thanks for taking my side,” she says, soft and sleepy. She doesn’t mean to say it, not really; it just slips out because she’s warm and comfortable and he’s right there and – and she knows he hasn’t got a lot of family, not really, and the fact that he has a brother who’s alive and well and – she doesn’t know where she’s going with that line of thought.

He doesn’t speak for a moment, and then he reaches out to touch her shoulder. Just a brush of the fingertips at first, and then a firmer pressure, and then he says, “Always,” and somehow makes it sound like it isn’t a lie.

She swallows a lump in her throat. It’s been a running theme for most of her life that she will always eventually be left behind. It doesn’t matter how or when or why or if it’s on purpose or not, it’s always, always going to happen. Her dad had fucked off before she’d even been old enough to remember his face. Manisha had... well, that wasn’t her fault, but she’d still left. None of her high-school friends had really stuck around when she’d needed them. The Professor had dumped her on Gallifrey, or – well – she can’t remember the sequence of events as clearly as she’d like. Maybe she’d left him. She’ll ask. Later. That’s not the point. The point is...

It’s really nice to be wanted, that’s all.

“Gallifrey, then,” she says. A weight settles in her stomach, and it’s something like dread except she actually does feel quite a lot better now that there’s a definite plan. A direction.  

“Tomorrow,” he tells her, quite firmly. “You need your rest, and so do I.”

“I seem to remember a certain someone throwing around ‘sleep is for tortoises’ at every opportunity,” she says, although she doesn’t really have any objection to it and honestly sleep seems like a pretty great option.

“Then I suppose I shall have to resign myself to my new testudinate existence,” he replies. “And so will you. Tortoises, the both of us.”

His hand rests ever-so-lightly on her back, arm crooked over her shoulder. She curls her legs up to her chest and turns inwards to him. There’s space between them, but right now she doesn’t need to ferocity of a full, proper embrace. The weight of the blankets is enough, the fact that they’re both here and alive and well is enough. This is enough.

The rain is lovely.

Ace doesn’t think she’s meant to be here. Not in this room, not in this TARDIS, not in this timeline, none of it. She should be wandering around on Earth somewhere right now, barely even able to remember her own name. She should be dead in a pit somewhere, blown to shreds by reckless heroics and flat-out stupidity.

She shouldn’t be here, but she is, and it’s a soft moment, and the moment stretches on and on forever until the space between one blink and the next blur and all that’s left is soft darkness.

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