In your narrowing dark hours
That more things move
Than blood in the heart.
- Louise Bogan, Night
There are ghosts in the TARDIS.
At first they are only flickers of light, of shadow. A whisper of presence where there should be none. A pale hand, the roundness of a shoulder. Shapes that slide past in corridors and empty rooms — just for a moment, before they fade again.
He doesn’t try to see their faces; it’s easier to walk past a ghost if you don’t know who she was.
“Are they ghosts, or premonitions, or what?”
Martha is real. The stubborn set of her chin is real, her denim-clad hip against the console is real. Her impatience is real. He is tempted to press his fingers to her pulse — at her wrist, at her throat — just to be sure. She is watching him, waiting for an answer. Ghosts, or premonitions, or what? she asks.
Yes, the Doctor thinks, or what?
“I think you must be imagining things again, Martha,” he says.
The skin around her eyes tightens. “Oh, come on. You must’ve seen them — all these different people, you can sort of see through them, just walking around the TARDIS.”
He has seen them. Echoes of the past, of those long lost. He cannot help but recognise them now, to match the shade to the memory — a mustard yellow tunic, ginger curls, the delicate heel of a fashionable shoe. Those who left, those who were taken. Those who died.
And he sees himself, of course. Tall, short, fair, dark. Joyful, mad. As always, he finds the sight of himselves just the slightest bit embarrassing. He is thankful that the ghosts are silent. That they do not see him.
Martha watches him, still waiting. There are worlds upon worlds to be seen, a (nearly) endless universe, and the woman watches him. He turns to the console and sets the coordinates for somewhere with plenty of sunlight.
The ghosts will fade in time.
“While I’m always the first to admit a mistake,” the Doctor says, “you can’t deny that, as dungeons go, this one is unusually sunny.”
Martha does not laugh. He is sure that this is only because she is still preoccupied with the manacles chaining her arms to the dungeon wall. Humans tend to fixate on the strangest things.
She looks away from the manacles to glare at him. “Dravidian’s lovely this time of year, you said. Do us good to get a bit of sun, you said. Friendly locals, you said.” She rattles her chains. “You know what you didn’t say?”
He smiles. “That we would be mistaken for insurgents, tried for treason, and sentenced to a slow, painful, toasty death courtesy of the amplified radiation of the Dravidian sun?” He shrugs, squinting as the deadly light from the window grows brighter. “Look at it this way — at least we managed to get a cell with a view.”
Now she laughs, a little breathlessly. “Oh, you’d better have a plan to get us out of here.”
He doesn’t, yet, though he’s sure one will come to him soon. At the moment he has other concerns. He closes his eyes against the sunlight and listens very, very carefully. “Martha,” he says, drawing out the sound of her name, “do you hear something?”
With his eyes still closed he cannot see her face, but he can imagine her expression and its sudden twist as she concentrates, listening fiercely. “You mean the guards talking out in the corridor?” she asks after a short silence. “Do you think–”
She pauses. “I’m not sure, but there might some sort of ventilation system overhead–”
He opens his eyes and looks to the ceiling. “Ooh, well spotted. But no, not that either. What else do you hear?”
“Something gone wrong with the radiation amplifier?” she guesses.
“The sonic screwdriver, cleverly hidden in your trouser pocket?”
She gives him a sharp smile with rather more than the usual number of teeth. “Me, beginning to sizzle?”
He tips his head back against the dungeon wall and frowns. “Maybe I should rephrase the question. Martha, do you hear something that sounds like nothing?”
She stares at him. “I have absolutely no idea what that means.”
He sighs. “Me either.” He wriggles in his bonds and tries to think of air vents, escape, and the cup of tea waiting in the TARDIS.
But the sound-that-is-not-a-sound persists, a fizzing and popping silence that hums, haunting the back of his mind like something not quite remembered. A sort of static or white noise, perhaps, but he has never not-heard something like it. He’d noticed it the moment they’d stepped out of the TARDIS, but he has not found its source.
He thinks of the ghosts, of the echoes in time rippling through his ship. Consequences, a long-buried memory whispers, and though the sunlight burns he feels cold.
“Doctor?” Martha says, her voice sharp with hesitation and worry. He wonders what she sees in his face.
He turns to her, and his grin is fiercer than the sun. “Well, I don’t know about you, Martha Jones, but I believe I’m just about cooked on this side. Time for us to turn over, don’t you think?” With a deft twist of his fingers he trips the locking mechanism on his manacles and slips from the chains. “After all,” he says, hands in his pockets and a twinkle in his eye, “we wouldn’t want to get burned, now would we?”
They escape through some rather remarkably convenient ventilation shafts, topple the corrupt dictatorship with a megaphone and a few roughly paraphrased U2 lyrics, and are back to the TARDIS in time for tea. The key is in the TARDIS lock when something occurs to him. He pauses.
She looks up to his face, a smile in her eyes. “That’s me.”
“When we were in that cell–”
“Oh, you mean that time we were about to be roasted alive and you kept rattling on about nothing, even though you knew how to free us all along?”
He opens the door. “I was not going to let us be roasted alive,” he says. He tries to frown at her and fails. “I was multitasking.”
She pats his shoulder and gives him an indulgent look. “‘Course you were. Never doubted you for a second.” She slips past him, into the cool dark of the TARDIS. He watches as she walks away.
“You weren’t afraid,” he says.
She stops, turns back to him. “What?”
He avoids her eyes, still squinting in the Dravidian sunlight. “We could’ve died. You could’ve died. But I could hear it in your voice — you weren’t afraid.”
She laughs. “Don’t be daft. I was scared out of my wits.” She shrugs, slipping her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. “But I knew it would be all right.”
“Well, because you were there.” She gives him a small half-smile, her face in shadow. “And you always make sure that everything turns out all right in the end.” She turns and leaves the console room, still smiling.
He steps into the TARDIS and closes the door behind him.
And the white noise, the silent hiss that pressed against his mind from the first moment he stepped onto the planet — the sound that eats sound — is gone.
He’s working beneath the TARDIS console when he hears the music.
He freezes, up to his elbows in delicate wiring, sonic screwdriver still between his teeth. It is a man’s voice — a soft, idle humming. He does not recognise the song, but he thinks it must be a lullaby, something low and quiet, meant to be sung by firelight. The man hums it carelessly, cheerily; it is just sound to fill the silence.
The Doctor does not recognise the song, but he knows the voice.
Jamie McCrimmon sits in a chair that hasn’t seen the inside of the console room for centuries, humming softly and mending a stocking.
He’s a little clumsy with the needle, but the Doctor remembers how fond he’d been of simple, practical tasks like these, of problems easily solved. If you wear a hole in your stocking, you sew it up. Running for their lives as often as they did, there were always holes to mend. Once the Doctor had reminded him that there were new, undarned stockings in the TARDIS wardrobe, but his young friend had simply smiled and said, “Now, why would I be needing new stockings when I’ve a perfectly good pair right here? Really, Doctor. Use your head.”
Jamie does not look like a ghost. He does not flicker or fade. His tongue creeps between his teeth as he stitches; he’s reached the difficult bit around the heel, and for a moment the humming stops. The Doctor watches from beneath the console, breathless.
It’s entirely impossible, of course. Jamie is gone, returned long ago to his home and his clan, and it would require an almost inconceivable strain on the TARDIS’s temporal fields to create an echo this substantial. This real.
The hole is mended. Jamie smiles, sitting back to admire his work. He begins to hum again, but more slowly now, as if savouring the melody. If there are words that belong to the tune, the Doctor cannot remember them. If Jamie could hear him, he would ask.
He stays hidden, listening to the rise and fall of Jamie’s voice. He listens until, suddenly, the song stops.
“They can talk now,” Martha says from the jump seat, her legs folded neatly beneath her. She seems to expect a reply.
The TARDIS feels strange under his hands — efficient and foreign, almost mechanical — and she eases into materialization without so much as a tremor. He has never had such a smooth landing; it makes him uneasy. “Really,” he murmurs (to himself, to his ship, to the woman behind him) and as his fingers dance over the controls they form a question:
What, old friend, do you know that I don’t?
“Fat lot of good you are,” Martha says, which is at once entirely unfair and fairly accurate. “I’d be as well asking the ghosts what’s going on.”
Ghosts, she calls them, and he cannot contradict her. His dead friends walk the corridors, and now that they speak he cannot escape them. He does not want to.
This morning he’d heard Jo laughing softly to herself in the library; she’d tripped over a stack of botany texts he’d left in the middle of the floor, long ago. She had been laughing at him, at his absent-minded carelessness, and the open affection in the sound had stung him, filled him with a pain so sweet he’d stood before her and begged her to see him, to know him again.
She’d passed through his hands like vapour, nothing more than an echo of what had been.
Martha is watching his face, her head tilted to one side. He grins at her.
“They’re probably just a glitch in the TARDIS’ temporal placement sensors,” he says, and decides that this is not a lie but a promise. Whatever is happening, he will not let it touch Martha. Not ever. He pulls his coat from the railing and slips his arms into the sleeves. “I’ll fix it when we come back from the tropical paradise of…”
A dramatic pause while he dashes down the steps to the doors, and he’s still drinking in her smile of anticipation when he throws open the door and nearly steps out into a silent, hissing nothingness.
Outside the TARDIS there is void, and though his ship protects them (and buckles and bends with the strain) he can feel its pull. It is the sound that is not a sound, the sound that eats sound — a hungry, consuming emptiness without colour or light or time.
It is the end.
“Oh,” he says, blinking into the darkness, and closes the door.
Martha can’t know.
It is his first thought (the first he can bear to think) and it follows him through the hours, keeping time with the sound of his footsteps as he paces the corridors of his magnificent, dying ship. When Martha had asked about the nothingness outside their door, he’d babbled some nonsense about a navigational fault, a miscalculation, and she’d let him lie to her. She probably won’t let him do it again.
She can’t know, and she won’t have to — not if he can find some place, some time still untouched by the void where he can leave her behind and keep her safe. She won’t know, not if he can learn what’s caused this. Not if he can stop it.
Even for him, that’s an awful lot of ifs.
He’s turning the corner to the music room for the third time in as many hours when he hears a soft, child-like gasp. He looks up to see a girl — a young woman — standing in the corridor, staring at him. A young woman with a delicate, heart-shaped face, with dark hair and wide eyes. A young woman who looks like her mother.
“Grandfather?” she asks, her voice high and clear and unsure. She takes a hesitant step toward him, and then another. The young woman reaches out to touch his arm (such small hands, her nails trim and neat) and her fingers pass through his sleeve. “Of course,” she says, almost whispering. “You’re one of the ghosts.” And then Susan smiles.
His Susan, who burned.
“You can see me,” he says, stupid with shock and horror and a fierce, scalding joy at the sight of her. She is beautiful and so terribly, terribly young. “You recognise me.”
“Well, I’d have to be pretty simple not to, wouldn’t I?” She stands back, looking him over from his too pretty, too young face down to his trainers. Then, unbelievably, she begins to laugh at him.
“Susan!” he snaps in a tone he has not used in a very long time. It has little effect on her giggles, and he sighs, shoving his hands in his pockets. “All right, what is it? The shoes?”
She covers her mouth with her hands and shakes her head, her eyes bright with laughter.
“The chiseled jaw?”
The giggles get louder, and she shakes her head again.
He frowns at her, his forehead creasing. “It’s not the suit, is it?”
She snatches her hands away from her face. “Oh no! I quite like the suit. It’s very sharp.”
He is extraordinarily pleased by this, though he tries not to show it. “Thank you, Susan.”
She folds her arms behind her and smiles. “You’re welcome, Grandfather.”
He is not a grandfather, not anymore. Susan died when Gallifrey burned, died while he lived. He is not a grandfather, and the smiling girl before him is not his granddaughter. She’s just an echo.
And it occurs to him for the first time that the real danger is not the void beyond the walls, but rather the memories within.
“Your hair,” the ghost says gently, drawing him back to the present, away from flames and scorched rock. Her smile has faded, and she watches his face with quiet eyes.
“My hair?” He raises a hand to his head.
She nods. “It’s practically standing on end. That’s why I was laughing.” She looks down at her feet. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have teased you.”
“Oh no, you should have,” he says, and she looks up, surprised. “Yes, you absolutely should have. I need a bit of teasing every now and again, Susan. I’m a very foolish old man.”
Her smile returns, and he wants so badly to wrap an arm about her shoulders, to pat her hand. To believe that she’s really there. She laughs, and it’s the most wonderful sound he’s heard. “Well, even if you are foolish, I wouldn’t have you any other way.”
He steps forward. “Susan, I–”
What can he say? Susan, I miss you. Susan, I’ll leave you behind. Susan, I killed you.
It hardly matters. Her ghost has faded before he can speak.
He strides into the console room, takes Martha firmly by the elbow, and leads her to the door.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she says, which is a reasonable question, all things considered. The TARDIS materialises on Earth with little more than a shudder, and he holds up a bag packed full with the clothes and books and trinkets she’s collected during their travels.
“A quick holiday from your holiday, Ms. Jones.” He very carefully does not look her in the eye. “I’ll be back before you even have a chance to miss me.”
“Hey,” she says, twisting in his grip to face him, “you can’t just chuck me off the TARDIS when things get rough.”
“It’s just for a while,” he says, hoping beyond hope that this isn’t a lie. He reaches for the door handle. “Just until I fix what’s happen–”
The door isn’t open a moment before he hears the howling quiet, the silence that eats and eats and will never be satisfied. The void has spread. He slams the door closed.
Earth is gone.
They search the timeline, moving backwards, looking earlier and earlier for a moment in which her planet, her home still exists. If they can get to a point in time before it disappears, he tells her, he can stop whatever has caused this and everything will be fine. They’ll save the world, again.
Martha isn’t stupid. She doesn’t believe a word of it.
He thinks he still might.
Sometime between the fifth and fourth centuries CE, Martha begins to doze on the jump seat, eventually drifting into a fitful sleep. She is exhausted, angry, and frightened, and he has no answers to give her.
He finds himself comforted by the slow sigh of her breath as she sleeps, by the hum of the TARDIS and the gentle sounds (the clicks and whirrs) of the console controls as he flips switches and turns dials, reaching further and further into the past. Small sounds, familiar sounds, the sounds of a life he has lived for a very, very long time. He has lost a great deal as the years have passed, but these things stay.
Outside, the silence grows.
He hadn’t liked Earth, at first. It had been convenient, a safe if somewhat backwards place to stop and make repairs. The first time he’d set foot on the planet, he’d stepped out of a blue wooden box onto a London street and thought, “Smells like rubbish.”
He’d parked next to a rubbish bin, of course. Not the best of first impressions.
He’ll get it back, all of it — the streets and the rubbish bins and the city skyline. The department store muzak and the Highland lullabies. It’s gone, but he can bring it back — he just needs to know how he lost it in the first place.
Martha makes a soft, pained noise in her sleep, and he flinches. Better not to wake her; they still have a few billion years of Earth history to search (another world in flames, only now they are birth pains) and she needs the rest. He opens the door, and where he should find molten stone and burning skies there is simply…nothing. He shuts the door, slowly, and leans back against the wood. After a moment, he closes his eyes.
There is a crackle of sound, and then he hears a voice — a familiar, female voice. Singing.
“And though I dream in vain,” the woman sings, “in my heart it will remain…” There is a pause, and he hears the faint accompaniment of a piano. The voice continues, low and sweet: “My stardust melody — the memory of love’s refrain. Re-frain. Re-frain. Re-frain. Re–”
“Fix that for me, would you, Leela?” a man calls from the other side of the console room. “It does tend to skip at the most inconvenient times.”
The Doctor opens his eyes to see Leela, warrior of the Sevateem and personal bodyguard to the Lady President of Gallifrey warily approach the gramophone sitting on a nearby table. A table that does not belong in this console room. Her hands settle on her hips. “What should I do? It repeats itself.” She frowns at the unfamiliar machinery. “It is very irritating.”
“Just move the needle.” The man — the other Doctor — is still hidden behind the time rotor. “You know, I can’t quite recall — how do you feel about biscuits?”
Leela lifts the needle and drops it into another groove. The gramophone stutters for a moment before a new song begins. Gershwin. Next will be Cole Porter, and then–
Leela looks up from the spinning record. “Do you have lemon for the tea?”
The other Doctor scoffs. “Of course.”
“Then I will eat that.” She pauses, somewhat awkwardly, and adds, “Thank you.”
Leela will always live in his memory as the odd little savage who had somehow got the idea that she was the one looking after him, rather than the other way round. He sees traces of that girl in the woman (the ghost) standing before him — the almost regal straightness of her spine, the certainty in her voice — but age has changed her. Her face has sharpened, the line of her jaw like a razor, and since Andred’s death she wears her hair shorn close to her skull. It was the only sign of mourning he ever saw from her. His Leela, the war widow.
She cannot see him. If she could, he would already have a knife at his throat.
His eighth self appears from the other side of the console, carrying a tea tray. He moves stiffly, still recovering from an injury to his side, and his skin is ashen. Leela steps forward to take the tray from him, but he waves her away and finishes the short walk to the over-stuffed armchairs he’d favoured in that incarnation. He sets the tray down on a low table and she perches on the arm of the other chair, watching his familiar ritual of teapot and mug, sugar and spoon.
“Lemon,” his other self says, and passes Leela the fruit in question. The yellow skin is almost too vivid in the dim light of the room, and it draws his eye as she shifts it absently from one hand to the other. The other Doctor drinks his tea and they sit, listening to the scratch of the spinning record and the soft music.
“There were chills up my spine,” the woman sings, “and some thrills I can’t define. Listen, sweet, I repeat: how long has this been goin’ on?”
Leela digs her thumbnail into the skin of the lemon. “What is this music?”
The other Doctor sits back in his chair, his mug in hand. “Her name is Ella Fitzgerald. She’s a favourite of mine.”
He nods. “Lovely woman, lovely voice. Beat the pants off me in a game of cribbage once.”
“She sings beautifully,” Leela agrees, coaxing a long strip of lemon peel from the fruit in her hand. “But that is not what I meant.”
“Oh?” his other self says with a small smile. “I’m sorry, Leela. Did you want the name of the song? Of the pianist, the genre, the composer? Or maybe the make of the gramophone?”
“I wanted,” she says, sounding a little stung, “to know its purpose.”
The other Doctor’s smile fades, and he seems somehow diminished, drained of good humour and no longer able to hide his weariness. The years of the war can be seen in his face, a history written in lines and shadow and a darkness behind the eyes, and he shakes his head, slowly. “It’s only music,” he says. “It doesn’t have a purpose.”
She stares at him as if she has only just now understood the full depths of his idiocy. “That is not true.”
The other Doctor bristles. “Oh no?”
“No. Music has many purposes.” Her eyes fix on his and the lemon lies forgotten in her lap. “It lends our voices strength when we prepare to fight and moves our feet to dance when we celebrate our victory. It steels our hearts against hardship.” Her face is like stone. “It fills our silences as we grieve.”
His other self closes his eyes, contrite and pained. “Leela, I–”
“It was an idle question, Doctor. I did not intend to start an argument.” She smiles, and it warms her thin features. “We enjoy enough of those as it is, I think.”
He chuckles, and the exhaustion in his eyes eases. “We do have something of a talent for friendly debate.”
Leela returns to peeling her lemon. “I do not believe that the Lady Romana finds it so amusing.”
The other Doctor shrugs, and it is almost a careless gesture. “The Lady Romana finds very few things amusing, these days.” He pauses. “Not that I blame her.”
“No. Nor do I.” Leela bites into the lemon, setting the yellow peel aside and chewing meditatively. If its bitterness troubles her, she does not show it. She swallows and wipes her mouth on the long sleeve of her tunic. There is a silence, and she watches his face with the look of someone bracing herself for something unpleasant. “It is a bad plan,” she says.
The other Doctor sighs. “Leela.”
“You know it is, and yet you said nothing. Are you afraid to challenge the President’s war chiefs?”
His other self snorts. “I hate to disillusion you, Leela, but you and I are the closest thing Romana has to ‘war chiefs’ just at the moment. Those goons may wear the fancy hats, but they’re nothing more than a gaggle of underfed logicians and overreaching politicos.”
Leela’s temper flares. “Then why did you not argue with them? Force them to see reason?”
“Because it isn’t their plan,” the other Doctor says evenly. “It’s Romana’s.” He leans forward (moving gingerly, and he remembers that the wound had been like a fire in his side) and sets his tea mug on the table. He rests his elbows on his knees and looks up at her. “You know, I’m a little surprised you’re so set against it. You’re always saying that we need to be more aggressive in our strategies. More decisive.” He gives her a grim smile. “You don’t get much more decisive than this.”
Her fingers curl into fists. “That is not funny.”
“I didn’t mean it to be.” He stares at the tabletop for a long time, saying nothing. The music from the gramophone is too loud in the silence. “If it ever comes to that,” he says finally, “if things are so dark, so hopeless that we…” his voice fades. “It won’t be a plan. It will be an act of desperation.”
She watches his face carefully. “You do not think that we will ever reach that point.”
He shakes his head. “I’m not much of a soldier–” She smirks, and he ignores her. “–but I’ve seen my fair share of wars. Wars over money, over love, over technology, over time. Wars across the cosmos, all of them petty, all of them brutal, and despite all that death and waste and pain, Leela, despite all that I’ve seen, I still hope.”
She gives him a moment before saying, “And if you are wrong?”
He pauses. “Then Gallifrey will die, and the Daleks will die with us.”
Leela nods slowly, the lines of her face sharp and shadowed. “The weapon they spoke of. It will require incredible power, will it not?”
The other Doctor waves a dismissive hand. “Well, technically, it’s not a weapon so much as–”
She stands, suddenly looming over him. “Doctor.”
“Oh yes,” he says quickly. “Lots of power. Oodles.”
“You are laughing again,” she says through her teeth. He tries to object, but she speaks over him. “You are laughing because you always laugh at the dark, and because you hate this world so much that you do not believe it could ever truly be lost. You are laughing because you will not see the truth.” She sits on the low table before him, her face close to his. “Doctor, we are losing.”
He looks away. “Romana is a pragmatist,” he says, his voice flat. “She is simply planning for the worst of all possible outcomes. It’s why she is so very annoying, and so very good at her job.”
“Yesterday you said she was the worst president Gallifrey has ever had.”
The other Doctor smiles wearily. “I meant it as a compliment.” He takes her hand and meets her stony gaze. “Leela, Gallifrey will survive this. Oh, you and I may not — which would be tragic, as we are each of us perfectly marvellous — but you will win your fight in the end, I promise you. Gallifrey will live on.”
“And if it does not, we will be the ones to set it aflame.” She slips her hand from his. “It is a bad plan, Doctor, and if you cannot see this for yourself, I will tell you why: you cannot wield a power of this kind without consequences. Every weapon recoils.”
His other self frowns. “I don’t–”
She cuts him off with a wave of her hand. “The weapons of your people, which fire beams of light that kill — even these must be made to deflect the energy the weapon would send back to the one who wields it. With a fist it is the same — the stronger your attack, the stronger your arm must be to bear the pain of it.” She pauses. “If we do this, I swear that there will be consequences beyond our deaths.”
He watches her face for a long moment, silent and considering, his eyes dark. Then his expression brightens. “You know, Leela, I’m fairly sure that you just gave me a lecture on one of the most basic tenets of physical science.”
She crosses her arms over her chest. “It is not science,” she says, her mouth a stubborn line. “It is fact.”
“An important distinction.” He lifts his tea mug from the table and sits back in his chair. “You will share your concerns with our Lady President, of course.”
Leela frowns. “I had hoped to have your support.”
The other Doctor smiles at her — a warm, real smile — and his face is transformed. “You have it, Leela. Always.” He takes a sip from his mug and grimaces. “My tea is cold.”
“Life is a very difficult thing,” she says, and if the other Doctor hears the gentle mockery in her voice he pretends not to notice. “I should go,” she says abruptly, and stands. “Thank you for the tea, Doctor.”
“Any time. Mi TARDIS es su TARDIS, and so on and so forth.” He tries to rise to his feet, but she puts a hand on his shoulder and gently pushes him back into the chair.
“No. You are still weak.”
He chuckles. “A chat with you does wonders for the ego.” He reaches up and touches the hand on his shoulder. His expression sobers. “It’s going to be all right, you know. In the end.”
A small, sad smile curves her lips. “When you say it, I almost believe you.” Her hand falls from his shoulder and she steps away. “Goodbye, Doctor. I will see you again soon.” She walks past the console and toward the doors. She pauses by the gramophone, where the record still turns and a long dead Earth woman sings about summertime. “Doctor–”
“It’s just a love song, Leela,” he says. “That’s all.”
She nods slowly, her face blank. “Yes,” she says. “I thought it might be.”
The music stops, and the ghosts are gone.
His eyes sting — not with tears, for the pain in his chest and his gut and his hearts is far beyond that, but because he has been afraid to blink, terrified that if he loses sight of the ghosts for even a moment they will fade away. He has watched the past acted out before him as if it were a play, a story, something that happened to someone else or to no one at all, and it is only when the story has reached its end that he finally understands.
The universe is fading into nothingness, and it is his fault.
Martha stands beside him as he opens the door to world after world (Daemos, Mondas, Woman Wept) and she stays silent as, world after world, they find only void.
A void grows inside him as well, an emptiness that eats, hidden just behind his ribcage. Air stops in his lungs (New Earth, Draconia, Vel Consadine, Kal-Tor) and he struggles to fill the hissing, hungry silence. He murmurs their names (names that never were) under his breath like an incantation, like a litany. Like a song.
And when the names of lost worlds are not enough, he finds others.
Melanie Bush, he says, remembering. Josephine Grant. Harry Sullivan, Sarah Jane Smith.
His Sarah Jane.
Ian Chesterton. Barbara Wright. Victoria and Zoe. Adric and Nyssa and Tegan. Ida Scott and Cathica Santini Khadeni. Harriet Jones and her oh-so-human betrayal.
Francine, Letitia, Leo, and Clive.
Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, he says, his fingers gripping the console, his ship slowly warping under the strain of a universe consumed. Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson. Perpugilliam Brown. Elizabeth Shaw. Dorothy McShane.
Martha Jones. Rose Tyler.
The door to her bedroom clicks shut behind him. He does not turn on the lights; he imagines that she is somehow more likely to appear to him in the dark.
He has not been in this room for a very long time, and there is a thin layer of dust on the surface of her armoire, on her bedside table. He draws a meaningless pattern with his fingertip, the wood grain cool against his skin, and then wipes it away. This was foolish. She’s not coming.
His hand is on the doorknob when he hears her voice.
“Unbelievable,” she groans, her consonants heavy with sleep. “You are un-bloody-believable. Five hours out of every twenty-four, that’s all I ask. Five hours. For you, that’s nothing. That’s one good ramble, a quick stop at the shop for milk. I’ve seen you spend more time on your hair and you still weren’t happy with your fringe, you complete and utter lunatic.”
He closes his eyes against the darkness, his breath and his blood a mad din in his ears. He does not turn from the door. “Rose?” he says, and his hands are shaking.
He hears the rustle of bedclothes and the soft fizz of her bedside lamp as it flickers on. It fills the room with a low, yellow light, and still he cannot bear to turn to her. “Doctor?” she asks, her voice changed, now quiet and unsure. “Are you all right?”
“I’m…” He bites down on the quaver in his voice. “I’m sorry I woke you. I should go.”
She laughs uneasily. “Well, I’m awake now, aren’t I? Can’t be helped.” He hears the slide of fabric against fabric and her feet hitting the floor and then she’s walking toward him, her footfalls muffled by carpet. She stands at his shoulder, watching him. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
He has a choice now. He can open the door and walk away, leave the ghost behind without ever seeing her face. He can open the door, or he can turn to her. He can stay.
His hand falls from the doorknob, and he knows that it was never really a choice at all. He turns.
Her hair is a disaster. It’s fallen free of her loose braid, matted with sleep and glowing gold in the low lamplight. Her face is pale, scrubbed clean, and she smells of toothpaste and face wash. She stares at him, her eyes luminous and wide. She raises a hand to her mouth. “Oh god,” she says, stumbling backward. “Oh god, I’m dead.”
“What? How do you–” He stops, steps toward her, begins again: “Rose, you’re not–”
“You should go.” She reaches behind her for the armoire and steadies herself against it. She looks at him as if he is something dangerous, as if he has somehow betrayed her. “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t be here. You have to go.”
He reaches for her. “Rose–”
“You can’t,” she says, tripping backwards over half-read books and dirty laundry. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but you can’t, and you know it.” She swallows thickly, her eyes fixed on his face. “You’re just a ghost.”
For a moment, he does not breathe. “How did you know?”
“I can tell.”
She shakes her head, looking away. “I told you to go.”
His stomach clenches. “Rose, I don’t understand how you could possibly–”
“You look so tired,” she says, and her eyes are too bright. He feels them like a wound.
And yet he almost laughs, because outside the walls of his ship time itself has died, and she seems to think he needs a nap. “Tired?”
“Old,” she says, and gives him a thin, unhappy smile. “You look old, and tired, and…you know. Blue.”
He blinks at her. “Blue?”
“Your suit, you daft…” She stops. “You’re wearing a different suit.” She drags her fingers over her lips, the pressure turning the skin of her mouth from pink to white to pink again. “Are you gonna repeat everything I say?”
“Maybe.” This time he does laugh, and it is an awful sound. “I’m just an echo, after all.”
Her expression sharpens. “Temporal echoes, that’s what you called them. The ghosts. You said they wouldn’t see me. You said they wouldn’t talk.”
In the back of his mind, the silence roars. He smiles. “I was wrong.”
Her gaze turns inward and she shakes her head. “An hour ago you were in here shouting about the toaster. Wouldn’t stop going on about it, saying that you’d…that you’d fixed it without once using the sonic screwdriver and weren’t you just brilliant and wouldn’t a trip to the Ice Fields of Noh be more fun than sleep?” She looks up, and her mouth trembles. “You were so happy.”
He rests his hand next to hers on the armoire, their fingers close yet not touching. She stares at their hands, and he takes a small step closer. “Rose, you are not dead.”
She meets his eyes, and it is a challenge, an accusation. “Then stop looking at me like I am.”
Another step closer; she watches him warily. “It’s complicated.”
“It’s a paradox,” she snaps. “And sorry if I’m being rude, but I didn’t much enjoy my last one.”
He shakes his head. “This isn’t the same.”
She backs away and sits on the edge of the bed, the rumpled duvet on the floor at her feet. “Tell me why.”
How can he say no? This is, after all, what he came here for.
He leans against the armoire and looks at her face, half-lit by the bedside lamp, half in shadow. He licks his lips and begins. “Normally,” he says, “normally you’d be right. Me being here, knowing what will happen to you, what will happen to us — it’s an awful idea. More than that, really — it’s the awful idea, the great temptation of travel through time. Normally, if I were to, for example, tell you to choose the lever on the left when we open the Void–”
Her fingers curl into fists, clutching the bed sheets. “Stop it.”
He steps forward and kneels at her feet, and if he could touch her he would. “It was the Daleks, Rose. The Daleks and Torchwood and the end of the world, and you fell. You will fall, and you’ll be lost.” He pauses, looks away. “No, wait. None of that happened. Not anymore.” He hears himself laughing, the sound high and mad, and he cannot stop. “Because there never was a Torchwood, you see. No London, no Earth. No Gallifrey, no Skaro, no Daleks.” He grins at her. “No you, no me. We never existed.”
She inhales a ragged breath. “What’s happened to you?”
“Oh, nothing much.” He shrugs. “I just sort of destroyed the universe the other day.”
She stares at him.
“It was an accident,” he adds, a touch defensively, and he’s sure he’s lost his mind now, because the slowly growing look of absolute horror on her face makes him want to giggle. “And obviously,” he continues, because if he doesn’t there will be silence and he can’t have that, oh no — “obviously when I say ‘the other day’ I’m understating things a bit, because it was about fifty or sixty years ago, really, and I certainly didn’t know I was destroying the universe at the time. And I was supposed to die with them.” He takes her hand, her fingers warm and human in his. “You have to believe me, Rose. I wanted to die with them.”
She looks at the edge of bed, at their hands entwined. “Doctor–”
“And I probably would have, eventually, if I hadn’t met you and had someone who asked me questions, someone to argue with and to steal the last biscuit from at tea. But all that time, Rose, all that time the wound in the flesh, in the body of existence was growing and eating and spreading from the hole where Gallifrey had been — had never been — to the rest of the universe. And I — like the fool I am, have always been, never was — I didn’t see it until it was much, much too late.” He laughs again. “Don’t you see? The paradox doesn’t matter, Rose, because there are no timelines to cross. There is no time.”
“I stopped time, Rose. I stopped everything.” He smiles, and it burns. “There’s nothing left but us. And soon,” he says, “so very soon–”
Her grip on his hand changes, tightening from a comforting squeeze into something fierce and sharp and crushing. Bone grinds against bone and she’s hurting him and for the first time in long minutes his eyes focus properly on her face. “Stop talking,” she says, her mouth a thin, frightened line. “Just shut up and look at me. Look at my face.”
“I said shut up.”
He does, and his vision clears. The void (the silence) in him is like an infection, a cancer, and he can feel it searing through veins and neurons and alveoli, seeping out through his pores. Like the TARDIS, he is tainted. Dying.
Her eyes are round, dark, resolute. He studies the slight downward curve of her mouth, the uneven shape of her eyebrows. She is solid and real and the quick in and out of her breath steadies him. She guides him off his knees and onto the bed beside her. They sit.
“Rose,” he says, and he likes the sound of it so he says it again. “Rose, you’re holding my hand.”
Her grip gentles. “I’d noticed.” She attempts a smile. “That’s bad, right?”
“Yeah, just a bit.” The joints of his fingers still sting, and he is grateful. “The temporal fields protecting the TARDIS from the void are collapsing. Not much time left.”
She pulls their joined hands into her lap and turns into him, meeting his gaze straight on. And then, because she is Rose and he is the Doctor, she asks: “How are we going to fix it?”
“We’re not,” he says.
She laughs stiffly, as if he has told a rude joke. “You don’t mean that.”
“I do.” He runs his fingertips along the lines of her palm — a miraculous, impossible caress. “I’m sorry, but it’s too late. There’s nothing left to fix.”
He had forgotten the stubborn jut of her chin. “I don’t believe you.”
“Since when?” he asks, and she has nothing to say to that. He entwines their fingers again, holding tightly. “You never lived, Rose. You’re only a memory. And once I’m gone, you won’t even be that.”
“But…" She falters. "Everything we’ve seen, all those places, all those people–”
“All gone. They never were.”
She swallows a sound like a sob. “And Mickey, my mum and dad–”
“I didn’t know this would happen,” he says, and it’s almost true. “I didn’t know.”
Rose closes her eyes and breathes (in through her nose, out through her mouth, and though she is an echo he could feel the swell and sink of her body under his hands, if he touched her) and he knows he has been cruel. But he needed this, needed her grief — just as he needed her to watch her planet burn. Just as he needed to hear her say forever.
She opens her eyes and wipes her face with her free hand, with the edge of her sleeve. “It wasn’t your fault,” she says, and her voice is so sure that he aches with the sound of it. “You were trying to save everyone, and you didn’t know.” She gives him a small, pained smile. “I’m sorry I’m not there with you. I’m sorry I’m just a ghost.”
He touches her face, his thumb moving over her cheek, stopping to rest at the corner of her mouth. “You should go back to sleep.”
She laughs, damply. “You’re joking, right?”
He isn’t, but he tries to smile anyway. “Five hours minimum, wasn’t it? I’d get cracking if I were you.”
“God,” she says, “you are such an idiot.” And then she leans forward and touches her lips to his.
The kiss is chaste and simple and soft, and it is over before he can react. She pulls away, but her hand lingers on his shoulder.
“It’s going to be all right,” she says, and it’s as if she knows these are the last words she will ever say. “I don’t know how, but it is. It’s going to be all right, in the end.”
And then she’s gone.
He sits alone on the bed for a long moment. Then he stands.
It’s nearly time. He has to find Martha.
When he returns to the console room, Romana is standing at the monitor, tapping at buttons with an agitated sort of precision. A long stand of blond hair falls into her face, and she pushes it behind her ear. He makes a small, choked noise of surprise, and she turns.
“Oh, honestly, Doctor,” she says with a sigh. “This is getting perfectly ridiculous.”
He slips his hands into his pockets and watches her. She is younger than he ever remembers her being. “Is it?” he asks.
“Yes, it is.” She turns back to the console. “What, exactly, have you done to your TARDIS? Your temporal barriers are an absolute travesty — obviously, or we wouldn’t be having this quite frankly impossible conversation — and your basic controls…” She turns a dial, and it comes off in her hand. “Well, they don’t control much of anything just at the moment, do they?”
He steps closer. “If I remember correctly, you found most conversations with me to be somewhat impossible.”
The corner of her mouth twitches into a grudging half-smile. “I had hoped you would’ve improved with age.”
“Ah.” He shakes his head. “Sadly, I think I’m going a bit senile.”
Her half-smile turns to a smirk. “Going?”
“Very funny,” he says, and offers her a smile in return.
Romana sets the loose dial down on the console. She doesn’t meet his eyes. After a silence, she says, “Something terrible has happened, hasn’t it?”
He lets his smile fade. “Yes.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not going to tell you.”
“Do you think that wise?”
He pauses. “Yes.”
“Well.” She taps a fingernail against the edge of the console. “I don’t like it.”
“I didn’t think you would.” He moves to stand in front of her and waits until her gaze rises to meet his. “I miss you very much, Romana.”
She opens her mouth, and then closes it again. “Good,” she says. “I think I must miss you too, if I’m not dead.” She holds up a hand. “Please don’t respond to that.”
He feigns insult. “I wouldn’t.”
“You would.” She thinks for a moment, watching his face. “You’re angry with me.”
His forehead creases. “I’m not.”
She shakes her head. “No, you are. I’ve done something, and you’re angry with me. I can see it in your face.”
He frowns. “You know absolutely nothing about this face.”
“I know it’s your face.” She turns back to the console. “I am dead, aren’t I?”
“Oh, don’t bother. You’re a miserable liar.” Her hair falls into a curtain around her face, and she does not push it away. “How?”
The crackling silence of the void fills his mind for an agonizing moment, and then recedes. He swallows, hard. “The Daleks. Just before the end of the war.”
She turns back to him, mystified. “A war?”
She scoffs. “That’s ridiculous. I’d never–”
“You did," he says, and something within him finally breaks. "You did, and that’s why all this is happening.” He whirls away from her, his hand digging into his hair. “All right, so apparently I am just a bit miffed at you, Romana. Just a smidge. Just a trifle. Because you–” He turns back to her, finger raised in accusation. “You started this.”
He’s shouting, but he has to shout over the noise (the white, hissing silence) that fills the console room, that rips through his mind. Romana doesn’t hear it, but how could she when she is nowhere and he is here and where is Martha and her steady hands and her horrible quiet grief? He’s shaking and shouting and dying and Martha, Martha should be here. If she can’t be safe, she should be here.
He sees Romana say his name, but he cannot hear her. The silence rises, and he rages on. “You were the one who had to go and poke the Daleks with a stick. You started the war, and I…” he chokes on the words. “And I ended it all. Because you made me promise, Romana, you made me swear. It was your plan and your design, but in the end my hand was alone on that lever." He stills, and the room is quiet. "I did this.”
Her lips move, form words, but they are soundless. He reaches for her, and she fades away.
He sags against the console and hardly notices when his knees hit the grate, when the rest of him follows. He sits on the floor and thinks, I’ll never stand again.
Martha appears in front of him and sits, her legs folded beneath her. “What’s happening?” she asks.
He tells her, and he lies only once.
They sit, hand in hand, and watch as the ghosts surround them, filling the room with living shadows. Barbara and Ian glance at each other across the console, their eyes warm. Peri mutters something rude under her breath while Jack and Rose try to shove each other off the jump seat, laughing like children. Tegan scowls but there is something soft in her eyes, and Charley whirls about the console with her arms raised, waltzing with an imaginary partner. They are all there, every one of them and every one of him, and strangely he doesn’t feel as if he is saying goodbye.
They fade one by one until only he and Martha are left. Then, slowly, she fades too.
And he thinks: It’s going to be all right, you know. In the end.