Peri was dreaming again. The Doctor could feel it, in the undertones of the Tardis’s presence in his mind. He shook his head, recentered his attention on the data streaming across the console screen, and let the psychic static fade into his perceptual background.
An hour later, a sharp stab of pain and fear lanced through his mind. He leaned against the console and gritted his teeth as he waited for Peri’s nightmare to pass. She’d been having them regularly since he’d regenerated. One or two a night, in fact.
He’d been meaning to ask her about them, but she hadn’t seemed terribly receptive these last few days. She resented it whenever he tried to share what little knowledge her small brain might be able to encompass. She had been argumentative, uncooperative, and downright stubborn.
But, after all, she was only human.
A few seconds of discomfort, then the psychic twinge of Peri’s dream dissipated. The Doctor drew a deep breath and went back to his analysis of the timestream fluctuations they’d passed through the previous day.
Definitely not intelligent interference, so his initial concerns were put to rest. But anything that could cause that sort of turbulence in the Vortex was something he’d be much happier avoiding. He asked the Tardis to attempt to locate the source of the disturbance and extrapolate a probable effect pattern. She informed him that it would take several hours to do this and that she would alert him when she had finished.
“Good girl.” He patted the console affectionately. “And in the meanwhile, perhaps some tea and a good book.”
* * *
He was halfway through both his second cup of Darjeeling and his seventh Agatha Christie novel when his mind was pierced by a stab of terror so strong it was almost his own. His eyes clouded over and the book dropped, forgotten, from his trembling hands.
It felt like an attack. The Tardis thought so, too. When a second wave of psychic alarm followed closely on the first, she relayed to him that she was shutting down all nonessential functions and securing core systems. Seconds later, the library lights dimmed to the emergency minimum of ten percent.
The Doctor staggered up out of his chair. He reeled toward the door and was hit with a third blast as he reached it. Leaning against the wall, he caught his breath and forced himself to think. He had to get to the console room. But first, he had to wake Peri and–
It was the most obvious explanation. How had he not known instantly?
He tried to run, but the irregular spikes of Peri’s pain and fear upset his balance too much. Instead, he staggered along with one hand on the wall to steady himself. Down the corridor, and left. Third door on the right. Yes, there it was. Thank goodness for the Tardis’s ability to rearrange her layout at need.
He turned the knob, but the door was locked. Beyond, he could hear Peri moaning and thrashing.
“Peri!” He pounded on the door. “Peri, wake up!” But the noise failed to wake her. With the Tardis in secure mode, all locks would be under system control. But the last thing he wanted to do was retreat to the console room. Not with his companion suffering just beyond his reach. Not with the storm of her nightmares raging in his own head as well.
He backed across the corridor to give himself a running start.
The hinges gave under the impact and the door went down. Hitting the floor with it knocked the air from his lungs.
Peri cried out, a long wail of despair, and the psychic reverberations of whatever she was dreaming crashed over him again. He trembled for a long moment where he lay, watching her struggle against some unseen assailant, helplessly sharing her terror. Then he gritted his teeth and forced himself to his hands and knees.
Getting to his feet was tricky, but with a little determination he did that, too. He reached the bed in a few shaky steps. His legs faltered with the next wave of her fear, and he sat down beside her rather than risk falling on top of her. She whimpered.
Her arms and legs flailed at him, the latter tangled quite hopelessly in turn after turn of the bedsheet. The back of one hand bashed his cheek before he could get hold of her wrists and push them down against the mattress beside her head. Her pillow was nowhere to be seen.
She showed no sign of hearing him, so he tried a bit more loudly: “Peri!”
Her eyes flew open, but they were blind with fear. She moaned pitiably at him, struggling against his grip.
“Peri, wake up! It’s me. It’s the Doctor.”
She blinked. Her brown eyes came into focus on his face, lit with sudden recognition. And that’s when she screamed, thrashing with all her strength to break his hold.
She continued screaming even after he’d let go of her wrists. Looking straight into his eyes, now wide awake, she shrieked as though she were confronted by some creature of soulless evil. And shoved him away so hard that he fell right off the bed.
His right ankle had twisted under him as he’d fallen. But that was the least of his concerns just now. When he looked up, Peri was no longer in the bed. At least she wasn’t screaming anymore. And the psychic backlash of her nightmares had ceased.
It seemed too quiet somehow.
“Peri?” A rustling of cloth behind the bed told him where she was. He ducked his head and looked under it. Yes, there was the tangle of legs and linen, pushing into the corner on the other side of the nightstand.
“Peri, it’s me,” he said as calmly as he could while levering himself up. “It’s alright. You’re safe.” He limped round the foot of the bed. “I’m here.”
She shrank from him as he approached, shielding her head with her arms as though she expected him to attack her.
“Peri, what’s wrong?”
The words were out of his mouth already when he realised: she’d been dreaming about him. About that incident, that terrible incident, just after he’d regenerated, when he had attacked her. The primitive human adrenal response being what it was, he should have known. He silently cursed himself.
“Peri, please.” He sank down onto the floor by her feet. His ankle was grateful for the respite, but his hearts were shriveling in his chest. “I won’t hurt you. You know that.”
She sat very still for a long while before she lowered her arms. “Doctor?”
He fought down the impulse to push closer to her, to reach out for her. Instead he crossed his arms in a manner that he hoped looked casual, nonthreatening. “Yes, Peri?”
“What are you doing in my room?”
“Your nightmares were creating feedback in the Tardis’s telepathic systems.”
She craned her neck, looking over the bed at the gaping doorway. “You couldn’t have knocked?”
“I did. You couldn’t hear me.”
Her eyes drifted to the floor. She was twisting the corner of the bedsheet as though trying to wring something out of it.
“I might be able to help you banish the nightmares.”
Her eyes met his, a spark of hope in them.
“But you’d have to share them with me.”
She shook her head. “I can’t talk about it.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
He waited for the implication of what he was saying to sink in. It was better if she was the one who actually said it.
She looked horrified. “You mean, you want to read my mind?”
“No!” She huddled in on herself, drawing the sheet up around her as though it would protect her from him.
He ached to reach out and touch her, but he knew that would just make things worse. “They’re about me, aren’t they?” he said quietly. “They’re about my post-regenerative trauma.”
She stared at him. “How did you know?”
He leaned his head back against the wall, looking up at the ceiling. “How could I not? You jump when I touch your shoulder. You lock your door against me at night.”
“I know it’s not your fault, Doctor. I just–”
“–can’t help it. Your primitive animal brain was saturated with adrenaline during a moment of extreme stress. The circumstances have become imprinted on your unconscious mind, and similar circumstances are likely to trigger the same response. My presence constitutes similar circumstances. Unless we can do something to change that, your nightmares will continue.”
He looked at her. The pain in her eyes echoed the emotion that burned inside his own ribs. “I can think of only two ways to make that change, Peri.”
“What’s the one that doesn’t involve reading my mind?” she asked in a small voice.
“Taking you home.”
* * *
The Doctor made one more small adjustment to the top hinge and swung the door shut. It glided smoothly into place, and the latch caught with a soft click. Perfect. Of course. The day he couldn’t handle so simple a task as rehanging a door...
His self-satisfied grin melted before it had completely formed. He put his tools back in their box grimly. Repairing Peri’s door had distracted him for an hour, but it was of little worth if she decided not to stay.
And he could hardly blame her if she didn’t.
He rolled his shirtsleeves down and fastened his cufflinks. He dreaded what he had to do next, but it would only get more difficult the longer he put it off. With a heavy sigh, he hefted the toolbox. After he put it back in its place under the table in his workshop, he went in search of his companion.
He found her on a bench in the observatory, staring up at an illusory rendering of the late spring sky over Androzani Major. It stung him to see the crumple of light cream wool cradled in her arms, a bit of the dark trim just visible under her hand. He waited by the door, hands in pockets, for her to acknowledge his presence.
“I never told him,” she said quietly. “Not once. I was afraid it would break the spell, I think. End the dream.”
“He... I knew.” He wished, not for the first time, that English had the proper pronouns for conversations like this.
Peri nodded vaguely. She brushed his former self’s jumper across her cheek, sighing, then laid it on the bench beside her and turned to look at him. “How would it work?” His hearts leaped in his chest: she was considering his proposal!
Willing his face calm, he took a couple of tentative steps forward. “You’ll go to sleep. When you begin to dream, I’ll enter your mind and help you change how the dream ends.” She didn’t shrink from him, so he perched on the end of the bench, but he left as much space between them as he could.
“So, you’ll be in my dream with me?”
Her expression darkened. “Making my mind do what you want.”
“No, Peri. My role will be strictly limited. I will be there to help you establish control over your dream.”
“By stepping into the construct of myself that inhabits your nightmare.”
“And stopping yourself from attacking me.”
“That is my intention, yes.”
She searched his eyes for a long time before she spoke again. “Can we do it now?”
Suddenly it seemed as though the oxygen in the room had doubled. The Doctor’s ribs pressed less heavily against his hearts and breathing came more easily. He savored one long, hopeful inhalation before he answered: “Of course.”
He got up, dusting nonexistent grit from the tails of his coat, and took a small, optimistic gamble. He smiled and held his hand out to his companion.
Peri looked at it as though she had no idea what it was. He felt his smile begin to collapse and shored it up as best he could. After a couple of heartsbeats, though, he couldn’t sustain it. He was just about to take his hand back when Peri blinked. She took a deep breath and then reached up.
Her fingers were shockingly warm against his. The last time she had let him hold her hand seemed centuries ago. He tried not to squeeze too hard as he helped her to her feet.
In the corridor, he took both her hands in his — and how long had it been since he’d done that? “Go along to your room. I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.” He turned and started in the opposite direction.
“Where are you going?”
He looked back at her. There was doubt in her eyes, but also the stubborn courage that had endeared her to him right from the moment Turlough had pulled her out of the sea. “There is some equipment in my workshop that we may need. I’ll fetch it and be along directly.”
* * *
“What’s that?” Peri asked him.
“A delta wave augmenter.” He set the device on her nightstand and finished adjusting it. When he looked up, her expression told him she was waiting for elaboration. “It helps induce and sustain sleep. We shouldn’t need it, given how exhausted you are, but since I already had it...”
She shook her head. Was that amusement in her eyes? “I’m not even gonna ask.”
He dragged the wicker chair from the corner alongside the bed. The high, curved back made it almost ideal for the situation. “Lie down, Peri. Get comfortable.” She kicked her shoes off and stretched out on the bed, arms tightly folded across her waist and ankles crossed. He frowned. “I said ‘comfortable.’ Here.” He unfolded a soft blanket from the foot of the bed and draped it over her, perching on the edge of the bed to tuck it up round her shoulders.
“Close your eyes,” he told her gently. He was almost surprised when she did so. “Breathe deeply and evenly. Try to forget I’m here.” He retreated to the chair and waited.
It took awhile. His presence in the room obviously made her tense, but eventually she drifted off. Once he was certain that she was into her first round of delta sleep, he carefully laid his palm across her forehead and opened his mind.
Her dreamless presence washed over him like warm rain. It was a common sensation when dealing with a human mind in delta stage, he knew, but he had never been able to shake the foolish feeling that his companions’ minds — the ones he’d touched like this, anyway — were so much sweeter than others. Jamie’s and Sarah Jane’s had been particularly pleasant. Remarkably, so had Tegan’s.
Sentimentalist, he admonished himself with a wry smile. The object at this stage was to be as unobtrusive as possible, and he would hardly achieve that while reminiscing. Slowly, so as not to disturb Peri more than he already had done, he emptied his mind of all surface thoughts.
He drifted in a semiconscious trance state until Peri’s theta wave activity began to increase. Indistinct shapes began to form in her mind. White walls solidified around him, roundels harshly lit. Before him, the Tardis’s console took shape, but aside from the door control and the time rotor, it was a mishmash of senseless buttons, dials, and levers.
Knowing what was coming, he braced himself. Still, when he turned and saw himself standing in the middle of the room, even he trembled.
The golden curls were in wild disarray, the noble visage a mask of cold hatred. And the eyes... Rassilon’s Seal! He’d seen madness before — there was no species in the universe that did not suffer from some form of it — but never like this. It was as though all the chaos of the Vortex were being channeled through the blue eyes that stared back at him from his own face.
It was of little comfort that the image before him was undoubtedly magnified by Peri’s fear. That he had given her reason to fear him at all had been painful enough in the abstract. This broke his hearts. Oh, Peri, I’m so sorry!
She appeared then, as though his own anguish had called her, a semitransparent ghost of an image that filled as he watched with the essence of her dreaming self. She was already terrified. Already, the Doctor construct was reaching for her throat as the scene was set.
Peri reached full REM state just as the Doctor stepped into his nightmare self.
The cold shock of merging with the thing was almost as piercing as Peri’s scream. He lunged forward, carried by the construct’s imagined momentum, and felt the hands — his hands — close around her throat. She fell under his weight. They crashed to the floor.
Her voice cut off as his fingers tightened.
No! He scrabbled for purchase, concentrating on the hands. Peri’s unconscious mind fought him, but he managed to loosen the grip he had on her. Just a little. Enough to let her breathe, anyway.
As she sputtered and gasped, her control over the construct he inhabited faltered. The Doctor took full advantage of the opportunity and rolled away from her.
Peri’s unconscious will surged back a moment later, but it was weaker this time. Confused by the change in the dream’s narrative, no doubt. He dug his mental heels in, and fought.
Peri’s mind took back the hands and arms and began to push him up off the floor. He shoved against it, and the floor came back up to strike his cheek. She tried next to take possession of the legs, and he drove her back, literally kicking. She made a few more attempts, but despite the strength that came inherently with being the native mind, she was still human. And he was, after all, an Academy-trained Timelord. He pushed her will back until its only influence was an annoying tremor that felt like exhaustion.
Perhaps it was.
When he was sure of his dominance over the construct, he rolled onto his side so that he could see Peri’s dreaming self. She was curled into a ball on the floor under the console, silently shaking.
He got his trembling limbs moving, managed to make it to hands and knees, and crawled the few feet to her side. “Peri.” He touched her shoulder, and she flinched as though struck, whimpering like a beaten child. “Peri, please.” He could hear the tears in his own voice. “You’re dreaming. Remember?”
She huddled in on herself further, shaking her head slowly back and forth. “No. Please.” She spoke into the dark space between her arms and her knees, never once looking at him. “Please, don’t.”
His cheeks were wet. He didn’t care. “Peri, listen to me. I won’t hurt you.” Not anymore. “I won’t let anything hurt you.”
He gathered her into his arms, cradling her against him. She moaned but didn’t resist. And that pained him more than anything else, because it meant that she had given up.
“Peri, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He rocked gently, hoping she would find it soothing. It did nothing for him, for the guilt that tore at his hearts. “I’ve failed you. I was supposed to fix this, to change it, and I’ve failed.” He laid his cheek against her hair and wept, he didn’t know for how long.
Then something changed. Peri’s hair, soft and damp against his face, had up until now been entirely without scent. Suddenly, as though a switch had been thrown on his olfactory sense, it smelled of the honeysuckle shampoo she favored. She had been hugging herself; now she was clinging to him. Could it be?
“It is you,” she said quietly into his shoulder. “You’re really here.” She squeezed him tightly. “Thank you.”
She hadn’t let him hold her like this since before his regeneration. He had begun to think that he would never feel her arms around him again, that he would never again feel her human warmth pressed willingly close. He closed his eyes and savored it for a long moment before he spoke: “I couldn’t do it, Peri. I couldn’t stop it. I’m sorry.”
She stirred in his arms, and he let her go, undoubtedly for the last time. When she woke, he would set the coordinates, take her home. At least, away from him, she might heal, might recover from some of the damage he had done her.
Warm fingers touched his cheek, brushing away his tears. He cracked his eyes open and looked at Peri obliquely through his downcast lashes. There was nothing in her expression but affection and sympathy. When he felt brave enough to look into her dark eyes, there was no fear in them at all.
“You did stop it, Doctor,” she said. He began to protest, but she talked right over him: “Not the beginning, no, but the rest of it. You have no idea what the rest of it was like.
“But it’s changed. I can feel it. I’m in control now.” She gave him a soft smile, one he hadn’t seen in far too long. “This is my dream, and I’m going to make it go the way I want it to from now on.”
He brushed her hair back and pressed a soft kiss to the middle of her forehead. “I’ll leave you to it, then. We’ll talk when you wake.” He loosened his hold on the dream construct that he inhabited, letting himself begin to separate from it.
“Doctor, wait!” He paused, halfway out already. She was looking up at where his shapeless awareness hung above the image she’d created of him. “Don’t go yet. Please.”
The rules that governed telepathic interventions were drilled into every young Timelord from day one at the Academy. The first rule was that once the goal had been accomplished, the visiting mind was to leave, as quickly as possible, so as to minimize the impression made upon the host mind. It was a good rule, a practical rule, and he had already lingered far longer than any of his teachers would ever have allowed. But how could he say no to her?
He slipped back into his dream self.
Her smile came back as he settled in. “I just want to do something before you go.”
He raised an eyebrow at her.
She laughed. It was a sweet sound and he’d missed it terribly. She touched his cheek, softly. Then she leaned forward and kissed him.
For a moment, he was too startled to do anything except marvel at the soft warmth of the lips covering his. Then, with a grateful sigh, he pulled her close.
* * *
Awareness of the real world came back gradually. It wasn’t that he didn’t know it when he came out of his self-induced trance, just that what was happening in reality so closely matched what had been happening in Peri’s dream.
He was on the bed — when had that happened? — holding her in his arms. And she was kissing him sleepily. As though it were the most natural thing in the universe.
Though it took a considerable amount of will, he disengaged his mouth gently from hers. “Peri?”
“Mmm?” She snuggled against him, eyes closed. The heat of her forehead against the bare skin of his neck, the human warmth of her so close along his side, around his waist, was intoxicating.
He was reluctant to speak again, afraid to discover that she was still dreaming and that this miraculously fearless affection would flee the moment she truly woke. But there was no sense in putting off the inevitable. He caressed the silk of her hair, committing the moment to memory. “Peri, wake up.”
“I’m awake,” she said softly. She didn’t stiffen. She didn’t push him away. In fact, she sighed and hugged him tighter.
“How do you feel?”
She lifted her head and kissed his cheek. “Like I’ve just gotten my best friend back.” She gave him a sleepy, contented smile.
He grinned and pressed her head gently back down against him. “Me, too. Now, try and sleep a little more.”