"You try to imagine how you’ll deal with it. When you know the end’s coming. You have ideas, but... you can’t really know."
"I’ll give you the truth. You saw it through with more grace than you can possibly imagine."
"Don’t tell me anything more than that. I don’t want to know."
The Doctor had promised to be as fast as he could in shutting off the machine, leaving her behind because she wasn't Tegan, after all, with a rare hug and a 'it's not goodbye,' but if those skull faced vody-whatnots were still around, she didn’t want to be out here in the open, even for a few moments. Not in this top and shoes. (It was a fine top, she loved this top, bright and brash reds, yellows and blues, it just... maybe wasn’t the best for hiding in this grey and dun wasteland. And the wind wasn’t helping, the howling uncomfortably like their triumphant cries as the wooden treehouse thing had burned.) "C'mon, Doctor," she whispered, looking up at the roiling clouds, but no great chasm opened up, no world-ending flash. Tegan huffed, disbelieving. Trust the Doctor to flake out when it came to something this important, even if she wasn't the Tegan he was leaving with. The howling increased, and she shivered, suddenly chilled at the reality of the decision she had made in only seconds. But if the Doctor wasn't doing anything out there, well then she had to in here. If you want anything done, after all, ask an air hostess to do it. Bolstered by the thought of having something, however nebulous, to do, Tegan stomped off in search of something to keep her occupied. Never let it be said that she just sat around and waited for things to happen to her. And hey, maybe she wouldn’t notice the world ending if she was busy having a temper about it.
The pitted streets stretched out in every direction, holes blotting the paths, so dark and deep that they could have been drops of ink, some jagged at the edges as if they had splattered when landing, and Tegan skirted them cautiously, unsure if it was the wind echoing or the unhappy calls of creatures robbed of their prey. Just because the Doctor hadn’t seen anything else here didn’t mean there wasn’t any after all. (He hadn’t remembered her before, what if he’d forgotten this version of her existed now too?) But the streets stretched out into nothing but dust and hulking, burnt-out spaceships, even from the vantage point of the top of a mausoleum she had clambered on top of, barefoot but for her tights. Though it hadn’t helped her navigate, a piece of the mausoleum fencing had caught her shirt on the way down, and after she had sworn, long and hard, as she gave an almighty yank to free herself and ended up flat on her back, a cartoonish cloud of dust surrounding her on the ground and still firmly attached to the now loose metal. "Why me?" she groaned to the sky, just in case they were peeking in from outside and had seen her make a fool of herself.
Her balance and shoes restored (and the good old aussie she’ll be right mentality definitely did not apply to how many stones had found their way into her heels, or the dust in her hair and throbbing pain in her head), there was nothing to do but wander back. Her tights may have been irreparably laddered, her shirt now uncomfortably draughty as well as still standing out like a sore thumb, but she was still very much in one piece. Sure, she wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about it, but the heft of the offending mausoleum fencing was a comforting weight in her hand. If only they’d make a decision out there! Tell her she was alive, or let her- her heart shied away from the inevitable word. Let them just… end the programme.
There was a footstep behind her, sharp and distinct amongst the now familiar ebbs and flows of the environment, and she whirled around, heels catching against the uneven ground.
"C’mon, who’s there?" she yelled into the dimness, but only a faint whistle answered her. "I’m not scared," she called out, fingers tight around the piece of fencing. The wind picked that moment to howl with particular ferocity, tossing her short curls across her eyes and, to her left, a pile of rubble finally lost its battle against gravity, crashing down with an almighty racket.
"Cripes," she yelped, whirling around and pointing at the loose masonry, shoulders dropping as she realised it was nothing.
"You tell ‘em, Tegan," she whispered wryly, letting the iron bar fall against her leg.
"I wouldn’t trust you if you didn’t do otherwise," gently made itself heard behind her, and her heart skipped a beat. A break of several beats and she was dropping the bar and spinning around to meet him, his face open and friendly despite the hell that surrounded them, his clothing a bright beacon in the dust.
"Doc?" she whispered incredously, then threw herself at him, tucking her face into the stupid celery on his lapel, and from his surprised grunt, only reflex and luck had kept them from tipping back into the dust. She wasn’t going to cry, there was no need, and she kept her nose tucked into his coat for an extra moment. Just to persuade herself.
"You came back?" and oh, rabbits, her voice was a little husky, and she cleared her throat. It was all this dust in the air, obviously.
She felt his arm tense where she had caught at her side, and remembered, a cold bucket of water over the rush of relief (the real Tegan’s relief, emotions manufactured in her) that came with the Doctor somehow appearing when she truly needed him.
"I’m not me," she said, voice flat, and she tried to draw away from him, an imposter, but he caught her hand and shook his head, ever the painfully earnest look on his open face.
"You are. One Tegan-"
"A copy, I know," she sniffed, the tears threatening again before she remembered why she was here after all, and hit her free hand against his shoulder, "You promised me you’d be quick about it!"
"-two paths," he finished, frowning at her interruption, before his expression softened again, and he ran his thumb over the back of her hand apologetically, "I know, and I’m sorry. But we couldn’t-" he broke off, and there was something he wasn’t telling her that made her scowl, "Volos needs us here." He was hedging, she knew it, and her scowl deepened. "This is his world."
But he was the one who had helped her and Turlough, all cute soft brown eyes and full of determination! "Hang on Doc, he’s just a kid, he’s too sweet for-" she gestured around, the desolate hell around them "this."
"We all have our own demons, Tegan." His fingers tightened around hers, and of course, this would have been the first time he had seen it, actually seen it with all his memories intact, and she didn’t want to know what he was remembering looking at it.
"Too right." She shivered, the wind running cold fingers under the tear in her shirt. " I just wish they weren’t quite like this."
"That’s why we’re here. To stop it happening to the rest of the universe. "
A door, the Doctor had said, as they walked. They were looking for a door and Volos. She still didn’t know how the Vodyani had gotten out of this- fake universe? or even how they had become real monsters out there?- but it was enough that they weren’t here, and that the Doctor had grinned when he told her all she had to worry about now was breaking a heel, and had gently ruffled the dust out of her hair. It wasn’t even that funny, but the relief that she wasn’t alone had made her grumble back at him, to play their game. The streets were still treacherous, and they kept close to edges of shattered buildings, evidence of foundations that had held even if the walls hadn’t. She had kept hold of the Doctor’s hand, an anchor to keep her from tripping, and it wasn’t until the dim light had bounced off a warm shape in the distance, a slice of brightness behind the foreground of dark and damaged masonry and spaceship husks, that they had released each other, the Doctor to rub curious fingers over the bright doorknob and Tegan to rub her own bare arms, chilled by the wind. It wasn’t the TARDIS door this time, and she was glad not to have to see the familiar doors of her home, but the carefully polished numbers and warm yellow paint job spoke of another kind of care that made her ache, a home alien to this landscape.
"So," she said, looking anywhere but the Doctor and his hand on that bright doorknob, "goodbyes, again?" She didn’t know if she was grateful for the brief respite of company, or whether it was worse that he was leaving her again, that she would be waiting for Volos, for the howls of the Vodyani and not just the comfort of pretending the wind was conjuring up imagined monsters. A footstep crunched in the gravel in front of her, his stupid, bright shoes in the dust. She kept her face down, the colour contrasts fascinating (they really weren’t, but she didn’t want to say goodbye again ) but there was a soft cool hand under her chin, nudging it up so she was at least looking at his chest, unwilling to meet his eyes until the shock of his words brought her face up involuntarily.
"I’m not going through the door. Not this time."
She could already feel her mouth open to protest, but he held up a hand to forestall any argument (good bloody luck, she thought viciously) and spoke quickly, the words rushing over her attempts to speak.
"I couldn’t let another friend die alone. Everyone deserves a hand to hold. " He looked over at his hand, still floating in the air in askance to speak, and let it fall, clearing his throat, "Metaphorically, I mean."
Idiot. Tall, blond - her mind stuttered for insults- double-hearted fool! She stabbed a sharp nail into the jersey over his heart… over where his heart would’ve been had he been human, punctuating each word with another jab.
"I’m. not. Adric. I made this choice."
"So did he," he rejoined, eyes on her finger like it was a knife, might cut right through his jersey and into skin.
"But there’s another me, out there in the real world. She’ll go on even when-"
"That doesn’t mean what you feel isn’t real. The you here. You deserve to have someone." He caught her hand in his, pulling it hard away from the now twisted looking cricket jersey, and she shook him off, not in the mood for him trying to be nice, to try and comfort her that at least she wouldn’t be dying alone in this wasteland.
"Well-" she snapped out, "thanks then. Glad I’m taking you down with me."
"I’m not him, Tegan."
Oh. The admission was soft, barely audible over the wind, but she immediately felt stupid. Of course he was an engram. Of course he wouldn’t leave all of them outside in the lurch. But she was still running off anger, and never one to leave well enough alone, she snapped back at the gentle words.
"Well great! I’m not her, you’re not him! No one here is real!"
She threw up her hands and stalked away from him, away from the life and universe neither of them were going back to, encompassed in the promise of one welcoming door of a family home, standing in the bleakness of a graveyard. His sharp sigh of frustration followed her before the wind snatched it away.
Tegan was still fuming long enough later that the warmth of her anger had abandoned her, leaving her cold all over again, and the occasional shiver made the rock she was perched on tilt precariously. She knew she was being stupid about all this, but maybe if she concentrated the tangle of all her frustration and embarrassment and relief on the specific stone atop a pile she had been glaring at, it would burst into flames and keep her warm. Her resolve to be angry at the Doctor when they were the only two people here was wavering, and she gave the rock an extra hard burst of frowning in response to the weakness. It failed to obey her demands, but she was vindicated by the strong gust of wind that howled past as if in response, right up until it dislodged something in the pile and sent the scree of stones tumbling out of sight. Bugger.
She was about to stand, last of the resolve snatched away by that disheartening gust, when she felt something heavy and cool fall about her shoulders. "Bloody-" she yelled out, twisting halfway around on the rock before she recognised the cream cloth laying across her chest, red piping as familiar as her own face.
"Cripes, Doctor," she breathed, and he held up his hands in surrender. He looked contrite, unnervingly vulnerable in only his jersey and trousers, and against her will, Tegan felt what was left of the complicated tangle of feelings evaporate. "You were cold," he said quietly, and offered his hand out to her, cuffs pulling back to show his bare wrist, an olive branch. She took the moment to shuffle the coat around till she could fit her arms through the holes, pushing the too long cuff up past her own wrist so she could take the Doctor’s hand again.
"It should have been long enough for the me out there to finish his plans." He glanced up at the sky, which as far as Tegan could tell, didn’t look any different from when they had first appeared. "We need to be closer to the door."
As he pulled her up, the hem of the coat slipped down past her knees, and she didn't mind that the Doctor dropped her hand, because for the first time in this barren hell she was warm, and she knew that if she tucked her nose into the collar it would smell of the TARDIS, of perfectly brewed tea and warm summer days. Tegan wasn't going to tell him, but… she was glad he was there. She was desperately glad not to be alone for this and as they walked back towards some pre-ordained space the Doctor had staked out, she kept an eye on his quiet but comforting figure.
"So," she said, tucking herself into a hollow made by a wedge of fallen, burnt out spaceship, where a chunk of tossed up masonry made a seat, pulling the warm cloth of the Doctor’s coat fully around herself to protect from the chill of the stone and metal, "this is it, huh? Just waiting for Volos to fall from the sky."
"Mhm," he affirmed, plonking himself down just inside the walls that protected her from the wind, sitting sideways to keep his eyes firmly on the door but fingers busily turning over a chunk of still shiny metal he had conjured up from somewhere, fitting his fingers into the gaps and hollows. Tegan kept her eyes on those long fingers, rather than the door that wouldn’t be saving either of them.
"If neither of us are going back, if we’re dying," and, damn it, there was a hitch in her voice on the word she had been avoiding for all this time, and she spotted out of the corner of her eye the Doctor looking sharply up at her from under his long fringe, but ignored him and pushed gamely through, unwilling to sit in silence for the rest of what remained of her life, "go on then. Tell me something embarrassing about yourself."
That oh-so-concerned face promptly turned affronted, like a cat that had just discovered its humans had shut it out in a storm, and his fingers went still. "I beg your pardon," he huffed, "I have never done anything that could be called ‘embarrassing’ in this incarnation."
Tegan raised her eyebrows and looked up and down his frame, which, even with the ash and dust it had picked up from their tramp through the wasteland, glowed like the setting sun back home. He merely sniffed and abandoned his bit of metal to pull his shirt cuffs neatly up his wrists.
"Perhaps my past incarnations did not have quite such… a developed taste in clothing," he offered, grudgingly.
"Go on, then," she laughed, spirits lifted by his over-exaggerated disdain, "I saw all that maroon."
"Tripped over that scarf a few times, too, I’m afraid." He grinned up at her and ruffled a hand through his hair in an unexpectedly boyish motion, "Not the thing to play cricket in, hm?"
"You would've been laughed off the village green." She rolled the leaves of the celery that lay above her heart between her fingers, crinkling her nose at the smell. "Still would, in Brisbane."
"Not many village greens there in your time, though."
"No," she stretched her legs out, the toes of her heels just brushing the Doctor’s trousers. "Not that you seem to go anywhere but England or Gooble-Gook planet of the slimes." and there was a mischievous tilt to her smile, Tegan could feel it against her will. "Aussie," she proclaimed, "would eat you alive."
"Now look here-" he burst out, and she didn’t have the chance to know if he was really annoyed or was in good bickering humour before he was suddenly falling silent, his head cocked. Tegan couldn’t hear anything different over the wind, but clearly something in the Doctor’s mystic and pretentious Time Lord brain had felt the world change, and she felt a chill in spite of how warmly she was wrapped up.
"It’s time, then?" and at his tight nod, she stood, letting the coat slide down her shoulders and into her hands. She held it out to the Doctor, who was frowning in puzzlement, half an eye on her, the rest on whatever was happening outside their small sheltered haven.
She chuckled wetly. "Can't let him go back and tell her… tell me I was wearing something like this. She'd have to live with the embarrassment, after all."
He took the coat from her outstretched hand and shrugged it on, uncaring of the dust she had left in its previously clean lining, but she could see that his smile was sad, eyes hidden away under his fringe. She pulled back her shoulders, straightened her ripped shirt and ran quick fingers under her eyes to tidy any stray mascara before turning her best hell raising smile towards the Doctor.
"Come on, then. Time to save the universe, Doctor."
"Tegan, I-" and she could see him waver where he was looking back at her, perhaps realising that this time he didn’t actually have the words to make this better, to make a happy ending for them. Instead, he opened his arms, and she hadn’t hugged anyone this much since she had left her parents back in Australia, bound for England, but this one wasn’t for her. Not with the sadness in the Doctor’s eyes at the remembered loss of a companion, and the knowledge that even if they would live on in the outside world, well, they wouldn’t. Not with the same experiences. And well, there was no one else around to know, was there? The Doctor released a long breath as she settled into his arms, ruffling her hair where it lay under his chin, and Tegan closed her eyes, the last fortifying warmth before she did something stupid.
"I never told you," she said, pushing slightly at the Doctor’s chest so she could have space, and the Doctor looked suddenly uncomfortable, like she was going to come out with some dreadful confession of love that he didn’t want to hear. No one was mentioning love.
"Tegan, this is no time for- we need to find Volos," he stammered, bouncing slightly on his heels.
"Ten seconds," she promised, holding up a hand, "most embarrassing thing." And despite himself, the Doctor looked intrigued. So she pulled him down by his lapel and kissed him.
He tasted of dust, ashes of the world falling apart with them in it. Despite never having kissed him before, there was a warm familiarity in the three heartbeats between their tightly pressed chests, his hands falling to settle on her hips to keep her from falling, and her hand reaching up to tangle in his hair. And when she pulled back, he followed, pressing his forehead against hers, breath cool on her lips but not moving for more. If she’d known she could have shut him up like this before, it might’ve been worth the smell of crushed celery on her shirt.
"There," she whispered conspiratorially, a secret in the few scant centimetres between their lips, her nose brushing against his, "that’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. Don’t tell anyone." And she laughed, high and bright, because there was something the Tegan on the other side wouldn’t have had the courage to do, and she was damn well her own person here and it was everything, even if it didn’t seem to matter as much as the Doctor crowded forward to stop her laughter with his lips.
They gazed into the blackness Volos had disappeared into, howls carrying on the wind behind them.
"He didn’t say goodbye."
"Well, for him, it isn’t." They were still out there, it was going to be okay.
"Hold my hand, Doctor?" And she was already pressed against his side, but if she was trembling from anything but the cold, neither of them were acknowledging it.
"Of course." The howls were getting louder, but the Doctor's hand was wrapped around hers, cool and reassuring.
"They’ll be here soon." Come on, Volos. Doctor. Tegan. Hell, she wouldn’t even mind if it was Turlough doing it as long as someone turned it off.
"It’’ll be over before they reach us." His fingers were grasping back as tightly as hers now, and she turned her face into his shoulder, eyes closing. She didn't want to see.
"Doctor?" Desperation laced what was left of her voice, muffled in his shoulder, and she felt his other arm come up around her, pulling her to his chest and turning them, a careful dance, until she was tucked against the doorframe. She could feel his lips moving in her hair.
"Life goes on. It always does-"