The screw falls from his hand, and he realizes that he’s shaking. In the bright console room, he’s alone, working in what Amy would call the middle of the night. His people counted time differently; he’s never been able to shake the revolutions of Gallifrey from his nights and days and so he works on.
There’s ash in the console, trapped in the crevices and cracks. When he was young he loved the tang of grass set on fire. His planet had a fall, had leaves that smelled of incense when they burned. Now it’s that smell that hangs heavy in his breath, that haunts him in his dreams, that teases him on the long nights he spends here alone. The TARDIS could repair herself a hundred times and the scent would still linger. He unscrews another panel, his hand trembling so violently that he cuts his thumb on the edge. Without thinking, he puts his finger in his mouth and he tastes the blood mixed up with ash. It sticks in his throat, acrid and metallic and sickeningly sweet.
Gallifrey. All that red grass, and the smell of it as it burned. He retches. When the moment passes, he pulls himself up to the console, chest still heaving. He presses his forehead against the cool metal of the rail.
A hand brushes his shoulder. He turns too fast, and his head swims.
“You’re sick,” Amy says.
He doesn’t meet her eyes. “I’m all right, now.”
“You’re not, though. Look at you.” She sticks out her hand, and it’s not so much an invitation as a demand. “You’re coming with me.”
She drags him to the kitchen, nudges him into a chair. The tea she makes him is far too sweet, but he takes cautious little sips of it to please her. Sitting across the table, she watches him raise the mug to his lips. The room is warm and dim. For a moment, he can forget himself, imagine a little girl, fish fingers with custard, and a time that’s already very far away.
“Are you feeling any better?” Her voice is too loud, and it shakes him from his reverie.
“Much. I told you, Amy, I’m really not ill.”
“And I told you, hurling all over the TARDIS isn’t something you normally do. And I would know.”
A small, rueful smile plays on his lips. Oh, Amelia Pond, the things you don’t know. Suddenly he realizes she is waiting for a reply. “Right. Amy, the TARDIS was–is–dirty, and I was cleaning out her panels. Some of the dust–the smell of it made me queasy is all. I’m fine now.” He reaches to tap her on the nose, and she grabs his wrist.
“Your hand. It’s shaking.”
His smile fades.
It’s been days since he’s been able to sleep. Amy feels it, too. He hears her roaming the hallways in the wee hours of the morning.
He takes her home for the night, thinking perhaps she misses her own bed. She runs up the stairs and he settles back in the grass to watch the stars. Time passes so slowly, but he can’t risk another five minutes-twelve years. Besides, he’s always liked looking up at space, seeing the view from another planet.
The moon creeps across the sky. Before its crescent reaches its peak, Amy comes to join him. Guiltily, he wonders how many times she’s done this before, how many nights she’s spent lying in the garden because of him. He shivers, although it could be just the coolness of the grass against his skin.
“There’s Venus.” He points to a particularly bright pinprick with one hand as Amy’s fingers curl around the other.
“I always thought it would be yellow.”
“It is, up close.”
“Can we see it?”
“You mean in the TARDIS? Yes, of course. We’ll do that next, if you like. Can’t visit the surface, of course, but–”
“What color is your planet?”
For a moment, he forgets to breathe. “Red,” he whispers.
A pause. “Is that it?”
Something between his hearts tightens. “No,” he says. “You can’t see it from here.”
“Because it’s too far away?”
It’s an easy lie, and even true in a sense. Yes is poised on the tip of his tongue, but other words spill out on their own, and he can’t stop them. “Because it’s gone.”
She turns to him. “Just you now.”
“Just me.” He shuts his eyes.
He stumbles into his room, toes off his boots, and collapses onto the bed. Everything’s spinning, and he shuts his eyes in an effort to make it stop. His chest hurts. The smell of smoke lingers on his clothes, burning his nose and throat every time he takes a breath.
It was just a bad engine fire, he thinks. All better now. All except for the bitter taste in his mouth and the hot, watery blisters on his palms. Weird colors bloom behind his eyelids: rotten greens and garish purples. Coppery reds. A shudder runs through him. He presses the heels of his hands over his eyes; the colors shift, then darken.
There is a knock at the door. Amy. She came into the engine room during the fire and he shouted at her. Probably she was scared. It’s dreadful of him to ignore her, but providing reassurance is beyond him now. Rolling onto his side, he buries his face in the pillow.
Another knock, and then the door creaks open. “Doctor?” Amy calls softly.
“What is it?” His voice is so hoarse he barely recognizes it.
“Doctor, are you all right?”
“Yes, Amelia, I’m fine.”
He can hear her padding across the floor, and then the bed sags slightly as she climbs onto it from the other side. Her knees press against his back. “But you’re not fine,” she says. “You haven’t been for days.” She moves her hand lightly over his hair, tucking the loose strands behind his ear.
“Are you sick?” she asks.
He can feel her watching him. “No.”
“Are you sad?”
His chest constricts sharply. He coughs, unable to catch his breath and answer her. Amy’s hand travels down to chafe between his shoulder blades, and he tries to concentrate on the movement.
“Yes,” he whispers, when he can breathe again.
She leans very close, so that her mouth is just above his ear. “You miss them.” It isn’t a question.
“Of course.” Hot tears rim his eyes, but he keeps them closed.
She drops onto her back behind him, quiet for a moment. “I don’t have any parents,” she starts.
“My friend Mels didn’t either. It was worse for her–she was in foster care. Never had a family for more than a couple of months. I asked her once how she could stand it. Being all alone.”
Amy laughs sadly. “She said it was thermodynamics. Nothing can be created or destroyed, you know? Only changed. Said whatever happened was just the universe changing, just matter and energy shifting around her. She said it couldn’t take anything away from her–not her parents, say, not when she still remembered them and the universe did, too. When all their atoms were still out there, somewhere.”
She’s crying now; he can hear it in the unevenness of her breathing. “Amy–”
“I was horrible at physics,” she says. “So I don’t know; maybe she was wrong. But that got her through some bad nights. Got us both through, really.”
He moves to face her. She is closer than he expects and he ends with his forehead brushing her temple, his arms folded awkwardly between them. “Thank you, Amelia,” he murmurs. She turns to bury her face in his chest, and he shifts to accommodate her. Amy sobs against his collar. He strokes her hair carefully, more to calm himself than her. His eyes still burn.
When Amy stirs, his blistered fingers are still tangled in her hair. He wakes to the taste of smoke, to a tightness in his chest and a trail of salt skimming down his cheeks. It’s manageable. He takes a breath.
Nothing can be created or destroyed, only transformed. He knows it’s not near as simple as that, but it’s comforting in a way that little else is. Entropy will have its way with the universe yet, and that’s inescapable. But nothing’s ever lost so much as changed beyond recognition, and that he can accept, can understand.