“I’ll spare Earth! I’ll give it to you as a plaything!”–Sutekh, Pyramids of Mars
“Why didn’t the Gallifreyan save the universe?” His teeth are bared in a manic grin that isn’t a grin. His eyes are empty. “He ran out of time!”
“No, no, you’re right of course, that won’t work! No zip! No zing!” He throws up his hands, paces furiously around the console. “A joke needs a hook, a play on words–”
He whirls around, strides to her in three steps. Grabs her arms. “You saw what he was going to do, didn’t you, Sarah? I had to do it. I did. No time to save the universe, just enough to bind him with the remains of the Eye of Horus before he realized he didn’t need to make any promises.” The Doctor’s face is lost, desperate, pleading. Her skin is blanching white beneath his grip. “You saw, didn’t you?”
For the first time she seems to realize the import of what he is saying. “What did you do?” she whispers.
There are lights popping and sparking in his brain. There is roaring in his ears. He is grinning so hard his face hurts. “What I always do, Sarah. I saved Earth.”
He goes mad, briefly.
He can’t recall choosing to do so, but, as he tells Sarah later, he must’ve done. Time Lords don’t just go mad, they carefully and logically determine when reality has become harmful to their psyches and take a brief vacation from it. A Time Lord brain is an incredibly complex and fine-tuned instrument that said Time Lord maintains controls of at all times, no matter what he’s faced with. No matter what he’s forced to do.
There’s nothing the universe holds that could make it just shatter on impact.
He tries not to notice the way Sarah Jane flinches away from him when he moves too quickly. She swears up and down that he didn’t hurt her, that he only frightened her, a bit.
He wouldn’t know. The only thing he remembers is burning down the priory, watching it blaze. Laughing and laughing and laughing, to think that he was ever afraid of fire.
He puts it out of his mind.
It’s not terribly hard. His mind is stuffed to the brim with a great many fascinating things, like the exact slope of the hill that Summit Drive takes up to the Saint Paul Cathedral, and the average ratio of width to length of butterfly wings (both Terran and non-Terran species), and the effect of Sssrrlk venom on the carbonation of ginger pop when added at fifty degrees Celsius. All sorts of incredibly, wonderfully, unbelievably diverse and fascinating things and churning around and frothing up and over the sides, and as long as he keeps his mind whirring and spinning and turning things over, it’s not terribly hard to put it out of his mind at all.
And, of course, it isn’t as if there isn’t anything to do. They still have the TARDIS, and they still have so many times and places to be: Paris in 1921! California in 1969! The Republica Nueva de Luz in 2343! Birmingham at half past three in the middle of the 18th century when there was this tea shop, Sarah, oh the biscuits that woman could bake, and icing like it belonged in the Louvre…
They go to them all, the Louvre and the bottom of the sea and the peak of Mt. Everest. He takes her hand and pulls her along afterward, and she starts to smile again, sometimes, and she never asks him to take her home.
He does take her home, occasionally, to England in 1980. He knows she needs to see it now and again, to be assured that it is not a barren wasteland, that all their friends there are still alive. That she and he have saved that much, at least.
Since he’s technically still U.N.I.T.’s scientific advisor, 1980 means missions for the Brigadier. Even with all the time the Doctor and Sarah have spent in the earlier decades of the twentieth century trying to head off the worst of the trouble and get some sort of system in place, not everyone has faster than light spacecraft, and Earth is still the number one destination for alien life. There are Rutan invasion forces and Auton deceptions and military incursions from dozens of different species, but there are not nearly as many invaders as there are refugees. Pouring in from the stars, not knowing if they can breathe the atmosphere or eat the vegetation, or that local customs mean you can’t cut a man in half for sneezing in front of your pregnant sister. And of course all this ruckus wakes up the Silurians, who never wanted to share the planet with one other species let alone hundreds, and who have quite a considerable arsenal buried beneath the Earth’s crust. And humans are such a tinderbox of a species at the best of times, and the sudden influx of new residents whips them into a xenophobic frenzy that would do Gallifrey proud (if Gallifrey is still there, he hasn’t received a communication from them in–no, don’t think that, don’t think about that).
The Brigadier’s days are made up of the endless tedium and heartbreak of administrating various refugee camps and ghettoes, broken occasionally by a gunfight or a trip to Geneva to argue some small but crucial facet of the twisted tangle of laws pertaining to the new arrivals.
Sarah Jane makes her up her unpredictable absences to her editors by deluging them in story after story. A mad scientist who wants to use time travel to send all the nonhumans into the past, or possibly the future–anywhere but here. A race riot that results when Geneva refuses to believe that members of two species at war for millennia are not ideally suited for housing in the same complex. An alien child who disappears only for his body to be discovered hung on the fence, ‘GET OUT’ spray-painted onto his chest; a human woman mauled in retaliation.
The Doctor is dispatched to investigate bright lights in the sky and unexplained disappearances. At first he likes the days when it is only illegal fireworks and people getting pissed and passing out in places their mates and family don’t think to look. But as time goes on, they infuriate him–each false alarm is wasted time, time when he could have been reasoning with a paranoid but persuadable Silurian scientist, time he might have spent perfecting a scanner that will detect the cloaks of enemy fleets. He could have argued the Brigadier down from his needlessly militaristic stance against the Bane, he could have demonstrated to the Clothleen that it was not necessary to sanitize their habitat by spraying cyanide everywhere, he could have coaxed a terrified Loklar seedling from the shelter of its parents’ bodies and gotten it to safety before the human mob returned to set their spacecraft on fire.
Some people thank him, some curse his name. He has lost track of how many have tried to kill him. There are so many, and their lives so short, and every day and every face feels like so many grains of sand slipping through his fingers.
He does not forget a single face.
No Gallifreyans make it through. Sutekh seems particularly determined for none of them to survive.
At night, Sarah Jane warms his bed, and after she falls asleep he stares at the ceiling and tries not to hear the Time Lords screaming as they burn.
It would have been different, he thinks, if he had pursued her before. She would have drawn it out and led him a merry chase, smirking and smiling. Turning the tables and pursuing him instead, playing cat and mouse with him. Tangling him in his desires until he didn’t know up from down, and then sweeping him up and away, quick and playful.
But the Sarah Jane that his bargain has shaped yields quickly, gratefully. Is hungry for the reassurance of his touches. Turns to him in her sleep and wraps herself around him, a silent plea for forgiveness.
It is her gratefulness he cannot stand, and her shame. The sudden way her eyes go wide and sad and guilty sometimes, looking at him: I know what you did for Earth.
I know what you did for me.
“It’s simply a varying concentration of melanin, you hide-bound jingoistic dolt, and if you can’t learn to share the planet with phenotypically varying members of your own species, then I wish you the best of luck in trying to find another one!” He slams down the phone.
“We are trying to win these people over to our side, Doctor,” the Brigadier remarks dryly. “Perhaps a tad less fire and a bit more finesse…”
The Doctor explodes.
“Finesse?” he bellows. He reaches for the first thing in his pocket–his yellow yoyo–and hurls it against a filing cabinet. It makes a satisfying clang, and Lethbridge-Stewart is startled back a step. “Finesse?!” He starts snatching other things out of his pockets–a teacup, a tennis ball, a pouch of diamonds–and hurling them at the wall. The teacup shatters near Lethbridge-Stewart’s head. “I have been safeguarding this planet for all of my lives, and you have the gall to–“
“Steady on now,” the Brigadier says calmly. But his hand goes towards his swagger stick.
The Doctor sees. “Going to beat me into submission, are you?” He smashes down the phone again, breaking it in half; sweeps it off the desk along with the stacks upon stacks of paperwork. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you–bunch of suicidally destructive apes playing soldier with your little toy tanks and guns–”
And it is Sarah Jane’s voice, not the Brigadier’s, and all of a sudden Sarah Jane is between them and the Doctor stares at his own hand, halted halfway through the air. It is clenched in a fist. He doesn’t even remember doing it.
There is a cut on the Brigadier’s cheek where one of the shards has struck him.
Sarah Jane centers him. Her laugh brings him to life for another day, and the touch of her little hand on his arm anchors him in the reality of now and holds him in place in this moment when her hands are warm and soft and steady. Her voice is like a bell that calls him out of sleep, reminds him to care about life and death and love and pain and complications when it would be so easy, so simple to just let go…
She grounds him, and he loves her for it.
And he hates her.
He knows it’s not her fault, for being able to be happy, for being able to smile when countless races are being slaughtered every second. She’s only a human, her mind can’t hold that. He wouldn’t want it to; it would kill her.
But the wave of love her smiles raise in his hearts is sometimes overwhelmed by a wave of white-hot fury. Her laughter is lovely and it makes his fists clench, because he can still hear so much screaming; and sometimes she is so happy it makes him forget his choice for a moment too, and when he remembers then his hatred (of her, of him, of humans and Osirans and Time Lords and everything) sears through every cell of his body.
He wants things in bed he doesn’t think he would have wanted, before. Wants her to hurt. He will stop the second she asks him to, but he knows he can do a great deal before Sarah Jane will ask him to stop, and he knows it is not always because she is enjoying the pain.
And then her pain also begins to enrage him. The audacity of her guilt and remorse when she wasn’t even the one who made a choice. The indulgence of her tears for her own sorry aches and losses, little moments that time will not even remember, not when there are planets burning and people dying in more agony than she can ever imagine.
He wants to stop, but he can’t. The only way he knows to protect her is to distance himself from her. He starts to ignore her, brush off her overtures.
He starts taking trips in the TARDIS alone, without telling her. He starts staying gone longer and longer.
He takes the TARDIS as high as it can go without leaving the atmosphere, without breaching the boundary.
The Earth is a blue ball alone in the blackness of space, a toy discarded on the playroom floor.
He wonders if the Eye of Horus has also bound Sutekh from snuffing out the sun, or if someday that light too will flicker away, and it will all have been for nothing.
The Doctor is back for the first time in almost a year, for him, and the first time over four months for Sarah. They attend a party for the Brigadier, some sort of anniversary. Humans and their obsession with marking off another year survived. It’s the kind of thought that might send his mind spiraling down one of any infinitely numbered dark paths, but not tonight. Not tonight when his Sarah Jane is radiant in blue silk, when her eyes sparkle in the light from the chandelier and she tosses her hair and smiles.
He finds himself reaching for her, keeping a hand on her lower back or an arm around her shoulder. Marveling at the warmth of her skin, the softness of her hair.
Oh, Sarah. How could I have kept away so long.
He finds himself suddenly shy as he follows her to the car, keeping several steps behind just to watch her. As she drives them to her flat and he stays silent, listening to the sound of her breathing. Very nearly timid to touch her, to risk breaking the spell.
But her movements become brittle when they reach her room. At first he thinks it’s only the adrenaline, the excitement. But there’s something guarded and tense in the set of her shoulders as she unhooks the clasps of her jewelry, and when he lays a hand tentatively on her shoulder–he means to trace the patterns of Gallifreyan love poems across her skin, and link his name and hers in flowing script–Sarah takes his hand and presses it to her lips as though it is the only thing keeping her from crying. Then she drops it, and the windows in her eyes snap shut and lock tight against whatever was threatening to spill through.
She crosses to the bed and sits on the coverlet. Smooths it down quickly, nervously, and then raises her eyes. “It’s all right if you want someone else."
“What?” She could not have startled him more. “Why would I want anyone else?”
She looks down, and away. Her throat works briefly.
“I got old,” she whispers. As though it is the worst betrayal she could have committed.
“Nonsense,” he says briskly. “You’re in the prime of your life, your first bloom, you–”
And he falters to a stop, because he is looking at her and how has he not seen it till now? The faint wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth, the strands of grey in her dark hair. The years have been kind to her, but they are still there, and he can read them written on her body, their accumulation a rising threat…
He knows how he has not seen them. It is because he has not wanted to.
And now they are before his eyes for the first time, and he is so afraid.
Sarah is talking again. “You always preferred younger... traveling companions.” Her voice is brittle now too. “I can read the signs. You haven’t been back for ages, and when you are... even just now on the drive you couldn't bear to--well. I don’t want you yoked to me out of a sense of obligation.”
“You’re getting it all wrong!”And it terrifies him, that she can think this, that he can have made her think this, and before he knows it he knows it he is in front of her. He is cradling her face in his hands. “You’re wrong, utterly and completely wrong. All my fault, my fault entirely…”
He strokes his thumb over her cheek. A tear slides down to meet it. It shatters him, completely.
“You will never be old to me.” His voice cracking. He covers her face in kisses. “Never old, never, never. Never where it matters. Never not my bright and sharp and shining Sarah Jane.”
Sarah Jane gets old.
He does everything he can. The TARDIS has a library full of medical literature from every civilization that ever existed and a few that didn’t, and he can take Sarah to the finest hospitals in humankind’s future. There are medicines and surgeries and preventative procedures and nights he spends crouched in uncomfortable hospital chairs until she is free to leave. Safe, until time sinks another hook into her flesh, and tries to pull her from him.
Her life is far longer and healthier than nature would have had it, but eventually there is nothing more he can do. Her body has simply worn out.
He prepares to put her in suspended animation. She will be cut off from him, yes, but she will not be dead. He will never let that happen. He will protect her.
It doesn’t go according to plan.
He is explaining everything to her and she is shaking her head and saying that it's her time and that everything ends, and he’s about to explode with anger at her for talking to him about time, he’s forgotten more about time than she’ll ever–
She wrests one hand free of the wires and tubes and rests it on his. So frail, so warm. It startles him into looking directly into her eyes. Clouded green and grey. She is crying.
And she says just one word: “Please.”
He has never been able to deny her anything.
He kisses her once, softly, before he disconnects the machinery.
Her heartbeat fades beneath his fingers, and her timeline curls up to an end in the palm of his hand.
“And what’s your opinion on this whole business, Doctor?”
He blinks. Where is he? He is in a room. He is sitting at a table with humans to each side of him. Another human is at the front of the room; he is the one addressing him.
There is a stack of paper in front of him. He can’t seem to make the text fit together but enough phrases leap out at him. Large hadron collider. Miniature black holes. Very low probability–
“You imbeciles.” The words trip out of his mouth before he even knows they are there. They are flat and rough, and they scrape against his throat. “You complete and utter imbeciles.”
“Steady on now, old chap…”
“No.” He stands, the legs of his chair scraping back against the floor, a harsh metallic shriek of pain. He is too close and too far away, everything is too bright and pressing in but he is watching it all happen on a screen, unreal. The words are coming faster now, volume growing to a growling hiss, his teeth bared: “I will not steady on. Oh, never mind that you have the last piece of real estate in the entire universe, no, go right on ahead and bet it on your Oxford educated brains! It’s all a game, let’s roll the dice and see if the house has rigged this one too!”
“The statistical probability is barely worth–“
“Yes, let’s spin the roulette wheel! Bet the farm, Mabel, baby needs a new pair of shoes! We can always get a do-over if we hit a streak of bad luck!” He is made of words, roaring rock-hard heaving words propelling him forward, rupturing out of him. He is up and out of his chair, he is not himself, he is laughing and laughing, he is an explosion of words driving his body forward and pinning the presenter with his stare. “Is there any danger you think you can’t run from? Any mystery it may have occurred to you for one single second that you shouldn’t stick your nose into, any warning sign you wouldn’t push your way past, any blaring big red button you wouldn’t jab just to see what would happen?”
I’m not going to be able to look after your species forever is what he wants to say, but it comes out, “Do the words ‘Positively No Admittance’ mean nothing to you?”
The presenter has backed up against the wall, his eyes wide. His mouth opens and closes. No words come out.
The Doctor looks at him for seven long seconds.
Then he raises his fist, and punches the wall right next to the human’s head.
The presenter faints.
The Doctor strikes the wall again and again.
He does not stop until long after all the bones in his hand are broken.
They’re so intent on destroying it, these humans. Their world. Not even their world, it was given to him, he saved it. They could at the very least pretend to listen to him. They didn’t even have to listen to the screaming every night in their heads, and every day, and they just go on and on with their nuclear weapons and their pesticides and their wars and their endless, endless breeding and gluttony and it would serve them right if he had let Sutekh take them. Never should have saved them, should’ve fled to Gallifrey and found a way to save his own people, he’d sacrificed everything for a species that wasn’t even his own people…
But he still wants to save them. He does. They don’t listen. Make them listen. Show of force, get them in line. Clean out the rot. Kill some to save the rest, wasn’t that what made sense? Hasn’t he tried everything else?
He is halfway to the console before he realizes he is thinking like the Master.
He programs the TARDIS to avoid all space-time coordinates where he might run into a former companion. Receiving the condolence card from one of Jo’s innumerable daughters was bad enough.
But he knows he needs something to keep him in chechk. He tries to pick up other companions for a time. A flight attendant who can’t stop talking, a delinquent who can’t stop blowing things up. A botanist, a shopgirl, an intern, a programmer. A heart surgeon, a gang member, a temp.
But he yells too much, and they can’t take any constructive criticism of their species, and he can’t stop taking stupid risks or locking them in the TARDIS when there’s danger about, and sometimes they burst into tears and that only makes him want to shout more. He feels tangled in their thoughts and their feelings, strangled and suffocated by their too-short timelines, and everything is jagged and sharp and not as it should be.
They demand to be taken home, and if they don’t, if they decide to “fix” him instead, he dumps them without warning in the wrong cities or countries, with only a spurious explanation.
He never purposefully gets the time coordinates wrong, but he doesn’t triple-check them either.
Oi, Doctor, don’t forget the sun cream!
He wakes with the echo of those words ringing in his ears, light and breezy. The memory of a smile, and the rustle of her dress, red with white polka dots, as she whirled around towards the door. A flash of leg, a flip of her hair, a glint in her eye.
He wanders through the TARDIS and he keeps expecting to hear those words as he enters each empty room, to see her toss them over her shoulder at him as she slips out.
He gazes up at the night sky. There are no more screams.
There are also no more stars.
It is never-ending night and night and night.
It would be so easy to enter the TARDIS and punch in a code just outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
Would Sutekh snuff him out quickly? Or draw out the agony for millennia?
It would be only his pain, then. No one else’s. And then death, an ending, finally.
The night sky is an endless sea of deepest dark, and it would be the easiest thing of all to just fall in.
Not far away, he can hear the engines of automobiles, and a car alarm, and something that might be music. An altercation between two cats. Humans, so many humans–arguing and apologizing, laughing and shouting, whispering, giggling. Stomping clomping clapping slapping pushing shoving shrieking–
There is only silence in the sky. There are no more screams.
He hears them anyway.