Rita waited beside the TARDIS as the Doctor said his goodbyes to Amy and Rory. He'd given her a handful of change and a mobile and told her to call a taxi home. Rita wanted to follow his instructions. She wanted to go home. She wanted to make a cup of tea with just enough milk. She wanted to sit on her bed with her pillows arranged just so and watch old episodes of Planet Earth on her laptop. She wanted to unroll her rug and pray and believe. She wanted to forget that terrible moment when he'd put his fingers against her temples and abruptly yanked away her foundations and left her floating in the dark.
The mobile hung heavy in her scrub's side pocket. She hadn't used it, and not only because the change the Doctor had given her was insufficient for a fare.
He'd only put his fingers against her forehead because she'd asked. She'd wanted to live, but how could she live without belief?
The blue wood of the TARDIS (not wood, how could it be wood? It was a spaceship) felt good against her back, sturdy and real. The world was going on around her; cars and children and the breeze rustling the soft-scented grass of perfectly mowed lawns. Rory was thanking the Doctor profusely for a flashy red sports car. He hugged the Doctor. Amy hugged the Doctor. Rita felt like, any second now, the other shoe would drop.
They were all acting like everything was fine, but it was so clearly an act.
The world felt like a cardboard set.
The goodbyes finished and the Doctor walked back to his ship, turning his back on his friends. He didn't look surprised to see Rita still standing there. He nodded wearily at the TARDIS.
"I'd give you ride, but she's finicky about short hops. We might end up anywhere. Taking a cab is your best option, really."
Rita put her hands on her hips. She had questions she wanted to ask, and accusations she wanted to make, but instead she said:
"You gave me 40 p. Do you have any conception of money? Because 40 p isn't going to get me a taxi. It isn't going to get me on the tube. It isn't even going to get me on the bus."
"I'm sure Rory will give you a ride if you ask nicely," the Doctor said. His head remained bowed as he put his key into the TARDIS door. Rita could see Amy and Rory watching the proceedings. The Doctor didn't look at them or her.
"You know, this is textbook," Rita said, following the Doctor into the TARDIS. "I don't understand why he hasn't picked up on it, if he is a nurse."
"Picked up on what?"
The Doctor leaned over the central console. Rita did her best to keep her eyes on his back. The vast interior of the ship made her uneasy. She could sense it pulling at the edges of her mind, and even though it was friendly, the feeling was too much like the Doctor's pulling when he'd broken her faith. Both came with good intentions.
"The grand gestures, the noble goodbye, even your speech when we met the beast. I've only known you a few hours and I'm plenty concerned. That house, that car, that wasn't a spontaneous response to one misadventure; you were waiting for an opportunity. If you need to talk about something, I'll listen. I won't pretend to understand, and I'll say up front that I've only had the one training course on —"
"You think that I'm going to kill myself," said the Doctor, annunciating the words carefully. Before Rita could get past her shock that he was stating it so bluntly, he continued, "You wouldn't be entirely wrong. I am going to my death. Amy and Rory know this. They've tried to hide it from me, but I've already prepared the letters. You don't need to give me an intervention, Rita."
"I think I do."
The Doctor sighed and turned around. His eyes travelled over Rita, shoes to face. She tried not to flinch as he looked at her. He was old and powerful, and he had it within his capability to get inside her head, to make her turn around and walk outside, to ask Rory for a ride and go home. To forget. He didn't.
He won't, whispered the TARDIS in her mind. He will never do that again.
It was the "again" that made Rita nervous, because she didn't think it was referring to her. She wanted to run, but she stood her ground. The push of the TARDIS in her mind encouraged her, but it wasn't forcing. This was her own free will, her own belief, and she didn't understand it at all.
"The moment of my death is fixed," the Doctor said. "I can no more avoid it, than you can avoid breathing. I've been running from it, I've been running for a very long time, but the time has coming to stop running and face my responsibilities."
"You think that you've only got this one way out, but —"
"You're working under a misapprehension, Rita. I'm not standing on a ledge waiting to be coaxed down. I've already been pushed. I'm free-falling and soon I will land, and then…" he took a deep breath. "I will end."
"And there's no way I can string up a net to catch you?" Rita asked.
"I've made peace with it," the Doctor said. "All of your human stages of grief, I've passed through them one by one and come to acceptance."
The Doctor's hands went to his throat. For a second, Rita thought that he was choking, that he'd bit down on a poison pill and was about to die in front of her, but no, he only wanted to adjusted his ridiculous bow tie.
"Time is… time is like a bow tie," the Doctor said, "On the one side you have the past, and that's infinite —"
"There are two traumatized people outside that door who love you, and you're meeting my intervention attempts with metaphors about time and regrettable fashion choices."
"Bow ties are cool," the Doctor said reflexively. "Besides which, I am attempting to give you an explanation, because you are a beautiful, intelligent, frightened young woman, Rita, and you deserve a proper explanation. Not —"
"Not fingers against my forehead?" Rita asked.
"No," the Doctor said. He swallowed. "I would apologize for that, in another life, I would have. But I am not sorry about the results."
"I'm not sorry to be alive either," said Rita. She looked at the Doctor. It wasn't just that he was dying, she realized. He didn't believe anything would come after. Rita felt suddenly deeply sorry for him, for this strange, mysterious alien who'd trounced through her mind like it was nothing, but only because he cared. Just like flicking a switch, the world wasn't cardboard anymore.
"I still believe," Rita said, wonderingly.
"Good," said the Doctor.
He smiled. Rita couldn't tell if it was an act or not. In her mind, he had deconstructed everything. He had turned the cosmological arguments backwards on themselves, choking off her faith with an onslaught of cold, implacable logic. He had shown her scorn and made her ashamed. Now, he smiled and it looked genuine.
She watched his eyes to see what his pupils were doing, but he was an alien and really, she berated herself, she was reading too much into his alien body language. How could she possibly know what was and wasn't the same. When he said that he was fine… maybe he was?
The voice of the ship in Rita's mind said that he truly was pleased for her. But he wasn't fine.
"As I was saying about bow ties and time," the Doctor said, "Time can be rewritten, more or less, and even if it can't be, everyone remembers their own version of events. History is personal, and there are as many pasts in the universe as there are people, and that's not even counting the might've beens — and that's only the one side of the bow tie," he stopped, and looked at Rita expectantly.
She played along. "The other side is the future?"
"All of the tomorrows," the Doctor confirmed.
"Infinite as well, I expect?"
"Stretching into eternity."
"And the knot is the present?"
"Tying it all together, yes. But the present is fragile, Rita. Which is why there can be no net for me. Changing a fixed point is like unravelling the knot."
"But you can tie it up again," said Rita. "You take off your tie for the night, but then in the morning you stand in front of the mirror and put it back on again. It's not the end of the world."
"It might be, this time," said the Doctor, "if there is no morning, if the present is cut in two during the unravelling…" he shook his head, "Rita, what do you want from me?"
Rita realized that she was crying. Why was she crying? The Doctor took a step towards her. She didn't take a step back.
"The universe is huge and massive, Rita. It is kind and unkind, beautiful and cruel, and it is always, always changing." The Doctor took Rita's hand and rested it on the knot of his bow tie. "We balance here."
Who are you, Rita? the TARDIS whispered.
I am me, Rita thought back.
Rita thought of her father berating her grades, and the terrible fear of failure that had pursued her all her life. That could be changed, but then she would be changed as well. Alien body language might be different, but it hadn't steered her wrong yet. He was acting calm on the surface, but beneath that he was terrified. He didn't want saving. He only wanted someone to tell him that it would be okay when all of those logical arguments swirling in his mind told him otherwise.
Rita carefully adjusted the Doctor's tie, making the sides as even as she could.
"Faith isn't about facts," Rita said, "It can exist after being disproved, because it is beyond the reach of cynicism. It can be corrupted, and it can cause great harm, but it can also heal. What happened to Howie and Joe wasn't your fault. Amelia and Rory still believe in you, and will continue to believe in you, whatever happens. They're your friends." She took her hands away from the Doctor's neck. She did not touch his skin. "They will remember you."
They stood, facing each other.
"Have a good life, Rita Afzal," the Doctor said.
"I will remember you too," she told him.
Rita went home to her flat. For the first time in her life, she called in sick. She cried. She prayed. She looked out the window at the sky and thought of the sad mad man in his blue box.
A few days later while she was en route to her shift, the forgotten mobile in her pocket vibrated. Rita pulled the phone out and pressed the button to view the new text. She read the eight words and started crying again, right there on the train.
I found a net. Thank you for believing.
Then she pressed reply.