Fandom: Doctor Who
Word count: 8376
Notes: An early version of this idea formed itself about four episodes into the Eccleston season of the new Doctor Who, sat around evolving impatiently whilst I finished the season, and then demanded writing. It is important to note that I have not seen a single old-school episode, and the only Ten episode I've seen is The Christmas Invasion. Thus: this will deviate dramatically from any backstory or canon surrounding the Time Wars and the TARDIS that may exist in seasons other than Nine's, as I pretty much created a backstory of my own based solely on hints dropped and concepts left unexplained.
Along with what I'm sure is the majority of fandom, I bemoaned the fact that we only got a few episodes worth of the Doctor, Rose and Jack running around being big damn (snarky) heroes. So I decided to write them an adventure, set somewhere between 'The Doctor Dances' and 'Boom Town'. And because I have a real problem with nominally harmless fics sprouting emotional complexity and bizarre abstract premises when I'm not looking, it became something a little more than the adventure.
(It also sprouted a) physics and b) medicine, because that's what fics of mine tend to do. Mea culpa. Allow the scientist her quirks.)
ETA: Oops - forgot to publically proclaim my adoration for my betas, liminalliz and schiarire, who were huge amounts of help to me during the writing process. I LOVE YOU BOTH.
This is my first attempt at writing for this fandom, so any concrit will be gratefully received :)
An exact amount of time ago:
You’re running for your life. It’s the single moment that defines the beginning of a lifelong habit. Running for your life and your people’s lives along roads that used to be beautiful, and beside you is the slim form of the eighth horologe, her wrist clenched in your hand. You run and run over ground rendered uneven by explosions and debris and shove her ahead of you through the door of an abandoned ship.
Doctor, the Gei – she’s looking backwards towards her temple with her sightless eyes.
Not safe. They’re focusing fire there.
And so you’re hiding in this strange mess of a spaceship, fighting for your last reserves of breath and strength, trying to listen for ripples through the din of war, and the entire Dalek race is filling the skies above your head and the girl sitting on that overturned table is the single most important thing the Time Lords possess and you are the only thing keeping her from splintering.
Doctor, her face very pale, Doctor, I think the storm is too close.
Please be still, Tavia.
Keep the horologe still: the task sounds simple, but it isn’t. Lightning and local rifts tear their way across your homeworld, everything shaking with the storm that your people are building out of the only materials they have: the minutes and years. Keep the horologe still. Let the shearing, burning force of time-spliced existence swallow the Daleks, and the horologe will open the wormhole that will let the Time Lords escape.
You work faster than you ever have before, weaving time around Tavia as her consciousness travels back and forth, past and future, the spark in her eyes brightening whenever she passes through the present on her way to another place. Somewhere a vortex is boiling in the skies.
Time flows through your hands like slippery cords and there’s too much, you’re losing your grip, something is going very wrong and the horologe is screaming.
You’d like to wake up in an abrupt flash, all the dreams banished and replaced by the present, but things are never quite that easy. Waking is fighting your way through the sluggish afterimages of war, grey fog made out of a girl’s scream, sticky and tangled in your thoughts. Your head aches and the sickening sense of panic lingers in your stomach, but you’re awake and you’re about to bash a button at random and hope that it’s the one that produces coffee when the words fall into your head. Neatly, with a flicker, as though someone has sent electricity shooting down tubes of neon for the first time.
You’re still dreaming.
You strain to wake up properly, but just then the draught from that leaky oxygen filter chills the tips of your fingers and Rose’s sleepy morning laughter creeps into your ears. Pinching the back of your own hand elicits nothing but a jab of pain and you must be awake because nobody remembers to pinch themselves in real dreams.
Silence, for a moment, and you’re about to let yourself believe that you were just imagining it when more words blink into existence.
Novem, they say in that familiar, neon-light voice, things are about to get very bad.
“Turnabout’s fair play.”
“One swallow doesn't make a summer.”
“That one sounds dirty to me.”
Rose rolls her eyes. “Swallow as in bird.”
“Pity.” Jack winks at you, and checks the metal loops on his harness.
“One day, Captain, we’re going to find a sentence that doesn’t sound dirty to you.”
“Doctor, why spoil my fun?” One firm kick and he’s off the floor, rising to the ceiling of the TARDIS with a bag clenched firmly in one hand. “By the way, have you heard the most celebrated proverb of the Da’aih natives? Loosely translated, it says that the smaller a man’s third jaw hinge is, the more –”
“Yes, I have heard that one, and if you finish it then I’m going to tell Rose how to set the sonic screwdriver to release harness safety and let oversexed conmen fall on their arses.”
“Oh, lovely.” Rose giggles and tuts her tongue against her teeth. “Now, boys, we’re just having a nice quiet day doing maintenance, all right? No need for threats.”
“Maintenance,” Jack calls down, not quite disgusted enough to be anything but teasing. “And of course I’m the cleaning lady.” He pours some red liquid onto a bundle of rags and starts to wipe at the grime covering the edges of a ceiling panel.
“You’re the one who wanted to be all Mission Impossible with the harness,” Rose reminds him, her voice muffled and only her legs sticking out as she wiggles her way under the control panel. One of her feet beats gently to a song that only she can hear. “Doctor, was it white-green-red or white-red-green?”
“White-red-green. Careful you don’t cross the wires.”
Her foot stills. “What happens if I cross the wires?”
“Oh, not much. We might explode. Now. Proverbs!” you command into the silence, waving part of an adaptor plug.
“Variety is the spice of life,” Jack says eventually, injecting far more innuendo into it than you would have ever thought possible.
“There's no accounting for taste,” you shoot back.
“Oh, ha ha.”
“A watched kettle never boils.” Rose.
“Let the greenest legs divert their own rivers, that one’s an absolute classic.” The blank silence reminds you to add: “Of course, it only makes sense if you’re familiar with the court rituals of thirtieth-century Herralik society, and – you know what? Never mind.”
“Never mind,” Rose agrees, and you can hear the smile breaking out on her face. “What about this one: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“Was that a hint?” Jack calls. “A stitch in time saves nine.”
“That’s an odd one,” you comment. “Rose, my screwdriver?”
“Here it is.” She crawls out and tosses it over. “How'd you mean, odd?”
“Nine what? Stitches? Minutes? People? Galaxies? Why not eight or ten or fifteen?”
“Thought you approved of cryptic things, Doctor.” Jack kicks away from the curving wall and throws a smile down as he glides across to another panel.
“There’s always calm before a storm,” Rose says, and for just the smallest fraction of a moment the voice doesn’t sound like hers and you pretend to be very absorbed in the plug so that you don’t have to meet her eyes. It’s nothing. Surely, it’s nothing. It’s fine.
“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” you manage.
She laughs and it’s Rose’s unconscious gem of a laugh, echoing off the walls, so everything’s fine. “People who live in a TARDIS don’t need to worry about stones at all.”
You lift your head to grin at her, and then your heart skips a beat.
Tavia. I don’t…why am I dreaming about that?
I’m sorry, it’s the only way. Things are getting –
Bad, yes, I noticed. I need to wake up and deal with them. You have to let me wake up.
“We could try splashing water on him.”
“Don’t be an – oh, hang on, his eyes are opening. Doctor? Are you all right?” Rose’s pink-and-gold face wobbles into focus, wearing a worried expression.
“What – ” The sentence chokes off as you sense the wrongness humming horribly up from the floor. It hurts, every atom in your body hurts, and you close your mouth and try to remember that this body needs things, needs oxygen, needs oh god that hurts.
“It was weird, you just…collapsed. And you look really pale.” Rose’s hand rests briefly on your forehead, and some of the pain abates immediately. “Ow.” She jerks away.
“Don’t.” Quick, and harsher than you intended. “I don’t think you should touch me, Rose.” You struggle into a sitting position. “Your hand might try to exist in two places at once.”
“Ahaha,” she says, managing a flimsy smile. “Er. That wasn’t a joke, was it?”
“No.” You wince, a whole-body wince that’s like being woken up by your muscles spasming of their own accord.
“Doctor? What’s going on?” Jack, his feet now touching the floor, eyes the both of you from the other side of the console.
The ache starts to build up again, an insistent throbbing that makes it difficult to think coherently. Nothing for it. Look, girl, could you help me out here a little? you think, as hard as you can. Turnabout’s fair play.
The engine hiccups, once, twice, and the console flickers. But the pain leaks down through your hands and feet and into the metal and then it’s gone altogether, leaving you stiff but with a clear mind.
Thank you. You take a long breath. Thank you. I’m going to fix this, I promise.
“Right!” You clap your hands together sharply, twice, mustering a mask of enthusiasm. “Jack, get out of that thing and find us somewhere quiet to park for a while. Rose, I need you to look in the junkbin and find me a mauve bag, made of something that’ll feel like leather.”
“Mauve?” she asks uncertainly.
“Mauve. Don’t worry, it’s not an emergency, I just need you to find that bag. I’m going to sit here and –” work out if it’s an emergency “– get my breath back.”
She nods and jogs the short distance over to the junkbin, sliding aside the panel and digging around with her hands. You’re a bit of a packrat when it comes to useful things, but it does pay off. Rose gives an exasperated sigh at the chaos and starts dumping things on the floor around her feet as she rummages: a few spare parts, some cans of food, a broken Ripplezek transformer and oh, that rather nice ceremonial tea set from fifteenth-century China, you were wondering were that had gotten to –
“This it?” She puffs her fringe out of her eyes and hoists the bag, which is smudged with grease.
“Yes! The very thing. Toss it here.”
Nothing’s broken, which is possibly a minor miracle in and of itself. It’s been a while but the shapes are still familiar, the tools still fit your hands, and ah, yes.
“What is that?”
“This?” You grin at her. The stiffness from the horrific ache is receding. “This is my medical bag. And this is my stethoscope.”
“You mean…” Rose stares. “You mean you’re an actual doctor. I thought that was just…cover, or a stupid nickname, or a reference to some joke, and it’s…”
“My job description. Yup. Now shush.” It’s been years but this is still as easy as breathing: the funny little plug things go in the ears, the tube goes around your neck twice (the extra distance amplifies the sound) and then the two pads rest on either side of your chest. You catch sight of yourself in a glass panel and you look, admittedly, ridiculous.
By the look on his face, Jack agrees. “That’s worse than the screwdriver,” he says. “I –”
You listen with your ears and with the sense that this body shouldn’t have, and keeping that inane cheerful smile on your face is almost more effort than you can stand. It’s bad. It hasn’t been this bad since the Wars.
“Doctor, I can’t get a response from the TARDIS. We can’t land.” Jack’s mouth is set. “Do you want to tell us what’s going on now?”
If you’re quite honest with yourself, you don’t want to tell them. You want to lock yourself in a room and deal with it quietly, alone, whatever it is, because if your heart is telling the truth then it’s going to be something too big for them to handle or maybe even comprehend. You’re opening your mouth to fabricate a reassurance when you make the mistake of looking back at Jack, whose eyes are sharper than you’ve ever seen them before, and for a violent moment you wish that things were back the way they were; just you and Rose, who believes. Jack complicates things. He’s seen a lot more than she has, and he’s deceived for a living. Takes one to know one, if you’re still playing at proverbs.
“Ah. Well. We seem to have run into a tad of trouble,” you begin, understating like the professional that you are.
“Are we talking the minor-misjudgement-of-time-at-destinatio
“Nobody is trying to kill us!” Hell, it’s practically a good day, when you look at it that way. The smile breaks out on your face before you can worry too much about mixed messages, and you take the stethoscope off. “We’re…stuck.”
“But we’re still moving.” She looks over at the console, which is as noisy as ever. Noisier, if you know what to listen for. “Aren’t we?”
“A vacuum rift?” Jack raises his eyebrows, and the smile fades all of the way off his face for the first time.
Your eyebrows mirror his. “Now, how do you know that?”
“I picked a danger we haven’t been in yet,” he says, smirking, but there’s a vague lifting of the shoulders that says: I’m just a bit quicker than I look.
“Okay, somebody remember the girl who isn’t a Time Lord or a Time Agent or a time anything,” Rose says; firmly, but with a nervous edge. “Start with the doohickey. How does a stethoscope tell you that we’re stuck?”
“Time Lords don’t just have two hearts because nature decided to give us a spare part, in case the other broke down. Though that would be handy, now that I think of it…anyway, the second heart is a bit like a… a barometer tuned for temporal flux. Making sure that the universe is running along at the right speed. Don’t ask me to explain that last sentence, please.” You raise a hand to forestall questions. “Just understand that my people were responsible for monitoring and repairing glitches in time, and we have a checking mechanism built into us as well as our primary exterior measure of flux.”
A measure, was I?
You’re well aware of what your title means, Tavia. I’m translating.
“Instead of listening to the universe itself, which would be just a little impractical, we’re connected ourselves. So all we have to do…” you hold up the pads and waggle them “…is compare the rhythms.”
“So all of your race could do this…checking trick.” The nervous edge to her voice has increased, if anything.
“Well, not all of us had to. Just the Doctors.” The plural is a bruising shock after all these years. “We were called Doctors to make things simpler, but the proper term is medical horologists.”
Rose makes a teasing face. “Medical horologists. Very lah-dee-dah. All right,” she says, assimilating that with admirable grace, but clearly still ill at ease. “Now. Vacuum rift?”
“I’ll take bizarre cosmological phenomena for five hundred dollars, Doctor!” Jack chimes in, waving his hands.
You give him a blank look. “What?”
“Stupid ape joke,” he says, putting an arm around Rose’s shoulders. She leans in to him and smiles, enjoying the attention and the joke’s-on-the-Doctor novelty; her anxiety entirely gone, for the moment. Your estimation of the man jumps a couple of points. “Now, Rose. A vacuum rift, as I’m sure the Doctor here would take far too long and far too many technical words to tell you –” he taps her on the nose, eliciting a giggle “– is kind of like the normal kind of rift, except that instead of being anchored at a physical location and being a physical doorway, it’s stuck out in the middle of space. It’s like a long, invisible gash in the fabric of time. If we’re caught in one, we’re traveling through the same stretch of space and time over and over again.”
“That’s right.” All this standing still is making your heels itch. You pivot on the spot and then walk over to put your bag back in the junkbin. “They’re very, very rare, and for the most part they’re small enough that the pull is weak and the TARDIS can skirt around them automatically. We’ve managed to find a big one, and my heart’s rhythm changed as soon as we were looped back to the beginning of the rift. The TARDIS responded to it by knocking me out for a moment, so that I didn’t have the Time Lord version of a heart attack.” And that’s true enough, in its way.
“You’re okay now, though?” Rose takes a couple of steps towards you, as though you’re about to keel over again.
“Oh, I’m fine.” Big smile. “Never been better.” Big lie. “I might have a bit of a bruise on my shoulder, but that’s the sum of it.”
“How do you mend a broken heart,” Rose says – sings, out of nowhere – and puts a hand to her mouth. “Oh god, I’m sorry, it’s a song. It’s just a stupid song. I shouldn’t be joking, I’m sorry…”
“Rose.” But Jack is looking at you, looking at you looking at her with a calm question in his face and oh, the geometry is new but already familiar.
“I’m fine.” It’s amazing, she’s amazing. The fear and crazy laughter come bubbling up, hit her cupped hand and are swallowed back down. She takes a deep breath, and then lets it out. “I’m fine. You know what, I’m going to make tea. Who wants tea?”
“Tea would be lovely,” you say with a fervour that surprises even yourself. “Have we got any Irish Breakfast left?”
Jack laughs. “None for me, thanks. You know, Doctor, for a strange alien being with a spare heart aligned to the pulse of the universe, you can be very…British.”
“Nothing wrong with that!” Rose calls over her shoulder, gathering teacups. It seems that every time you visit Jackie, these days, she calls you another sharp name and gives you another teacup for the TARDIS. One day you’ll unravel the meanings inherent in all of it, in her bizarre mixture of disapproval and dowry.
“Never said there was.”
“So what’s the game plan, Doctor? How does one get out of a vacuum rift?” Rose presses a switch for hot water, and you don’t even have to be looking at her to know that she’s making a disapproving face. For some reason she is convinced that waiting for the kettle to boil is an integral part of the whole cultural tea experience, and one of these days you’ll give in to her nagging and let her install one on the TARDIS. Despite the perfectly functional water system.
“I have no idea.” You throw your hands wide. “It’s never happened before. Guess there really is a first time for everything.”
“So what do we do?” She hands you your teacup with a hand that doesn’t shake at all.
“Nothing,” you say. “We stay here carving the same groove in the fabric of the universe, over and over, until the food runs out.” Beat. A sip of tea that’s just too hot for human mouths, but perfect for you. You remember Jack’s expression and add, much against your better judgement, “Or until the recycled time sends us insane. Think of it like a lungful of air. You can live on the same one for a while, but eventually the oxygen does run out.”
The silence takes a long time to break.
“Well, as adventures go, it’s certainly not up to your usual standard, Doctor.” Rose’s smile is two points west of normal, but it’s a brave attempt. She sets her tea down, untouched. “No running, no explosions, and no worlds about to end.”
You laugh. It’s easy enough. “The next one will have explosions, Rose.”
“Promise?” The teasing tone stabilises her expression, and before you know it you’ve taken her hand and everything is abruptly, freakishly normal. Maybe you’re not running in any physical sense of the word, but it’s a danger and you’re the Doctor and Rose Tyler’s fingers are tangled in your own and –
And Jack. The addendum pastes itself on, still brittle with novelty. Jack is smiling at you both.
“No worlds to save, just ourselves. Nice and selfish. I’m feeling more at home already.”
“Oh, you…” Rose punches him in the arm with her free hand. “You can’t fool us, you know, Jack.”
“I don’t know, save a girl hanging from a rope, hijack one bomb and all of a sudden my reputation is entirely shot to pieces. Maybe I should just silence the witnesses.” He makes a sudden lunge for Rose, grabbing her around the waist.
“Stop! Oh, bloody – stop that! Jack!” She releases your hand and shrieks with laughter, doubling over. You leave them to it and sit down with your tea; your free hand pressed to the metal of the TARDIS, feeling out the rift with proper deliberation, letting plans unwind as bright threads in your mind, following each one until you reach a weakness and then discarding it.
“Shit.” You glance up to see Jack gazing balefully at the back of one hand, the other arm still loosely around Rose, who looks smug. “She pinched me.”
You grin at the picture they make. “Behave, children.”
“What about you? Where is a Time Lord ticklish, I wonder?” He raises his eyebrows at you, looking far too ridiculous for it not to be deliberate.
“Don’t go getting ideas, Jack.”
“I’m full of ideas, Doctor.”
Rose giggles. “I’ll bet you are.”
“Now would be a good time to start contributing them, then, because I’m afraid I’m all out.” You jump up, dusting off your hands. “Ever conned your way out of a vacuum rift, Captain?”
His easy flirtation falters. “If I have, it was during the wrong two years of my life. Sorry.”
“Oh, well.” You shrug. “What were we doing? Maintenance! Lovely tea break. Back to work.”
“But –” Rose starts forward again.
“We’re not going anywhere, Rose. Literally. And if we’re going to get out of this rift eventually, we want the TARDIS to be in perfect working order, don’t we? I’m going to check the air filters.”
You turn your back on their surprise and walk out of the control room. Conversation closed, for now. You need to think.
The vortex is upon you and around you, too close, everything out of time and all time inside-out. Leaking through. Tavia’s eyes flashing absurdly, her consciousness flickering, volatile and terrified.
They made it too big it’s too fierce too wide they’re caught they’re oh Doctor they’re dying and I can’t open the hole I can’t be still for long enough –
I’m trying –
You can’t. The storm is everywhere. Your stitches are ripped apart and she screams with a high weird voice that sounds like the cold seasons, like a child’s hand going limp, like empty prophecy, soaring through the din and making you want to cry. The horologe starts to glow and before you can think about it you grab her wrist and the power is almost enough to stop your hearts but you hold on, one hand touching skin that won’t be skin much longer and the other touching this ship because it’s the only thing left.
Get us out. You’re the only one who can.
My people my people I can’t feel them they’re time-shredded gone with the Daleks gone all gone –
Tavia. Use the vortex and get us out. And the harshness hurts you but she has to save herself or the storm will rage without focus and it will rip the universe apart.
It’s slow and it hurts like nothing you’ve ever felt but the blinding glow seeps through you, and leaves a hook in you before it floods out again. Without the regeneration she needs a heartbeat, and yours will have to do.
The girl’s body falls to the ground. Just meat. You stare at it. Just so much meat.
The force that was Tavia, eighth horologe of the Time Lords, twines around the engine and pulls the vortex into itself and you feel a wrenching acceleration as the ship spins away from this moment, this massacre. There are deep scratches on your arms and your soul – you’re never trying to heal again with these hands that have destroyed so much, never again touching time’s fabric so closely, never, never, never.
Your hands are shaking when you wake up this time. You stare at them, at the rhythmic wobble of your fingertips against the sheets, ne-ver-ne-ver-ne-ver-ne-ver.
Oh, very subtle, you throw at her with all the savage sarcasm you can muster.
I can’t help you. You know that. A vortex is nothing if not imprecise.
There has to be another way.
We might even die trying, Novem, and wouldn’t that make you happy?
And now you’re going to break your word.
She’s right. You can feel how right she is in the purpose with which you get dressed, in the spike of anticipatory guilt that is piercing you, in the mental wall that comes up whenever you try to imagine the timeloop insanity in Rose’s eyes. You’ve seen it happen before, through different means, and it’s messy. Beyond frightening.
It’s odd, being confined to the TARDIS for such an extended period when normally it’s only for the transitions. The kind of home you return to, but not one to live your life in. You play card games, you do some more maintenance, you dig around and start organising the junkbin for the first time in years, and you do your level best to ignore the edgy tension; Jack’s laughter just a little too loud, wary confidence in the way Rose sneaks looks at you from out of the corners of her eyes. To their credit, they don’t say anything that isn’t the normal light banter for most of the day; whatever passes for a day. Rose keeps her watch stubbornly set to London time, and it’s as good a standard as any to live by. It’s the right amount of hours, and you eat when you’re hungry.
After the evening meal the atmosphere changes, expectation leaking through the construct of patient normality. You let out a slow breath, looking at your hands, wondering how to begin, but Rose begins for you.
“You’ve got a plan, haven’t you?” It’s not just confidence, you realise, and you probably shouldn’t be surprised. Every day she learns to read you a little better.
You catch her smile and echo it back, feeling the infectious width of it crease your face. “I just might.”
“We’re all ears, Doctor,” Jack drawls, leaning back in his chair.
“All right. Technically, it should be possible for a Time Lord Doctor to surgically close a vacuum rift, just like a normal rift –”
“Surgically?” Jack starts laughing. “No, I’m sorry. Keep going. I just had an image of you attacking a vacuum rift with a needle and thread. Or can the sonic screwdriver handle this one as well?”
“Needle and thread’s closer,” you say, kicking him absently in the ankle, “in the figurative sense, at least. Random local rifts are just a nuisance, and the Time Lords could mend them fairly easily. Vacuum rifts, though…there’s less to hold onto. You have to work faster, and with only a vague outline to go by.” The concepts aren’t translating well, but you plunge onwards. “As I said. Technically, I can repair the rift and get us out of the loop. There are, however, a couple of significant obstacles.”
“There always are,” Rose says, tapping her fingers on the table. She looks down at them and stops, then lifts her chin with a deliberate, cheerful cockiness. “And we’re still here, may I point out.”
“So we are.” It’s just a quick, clichéd statement of comfort, but your spirits lift anyway. “So we are. The obstacles here are the fact that I am one Time Lord, and it’s a very big rift, and also…have you heard of a little thing called the uncertainty principle?”
“That’s the one where you can’t know where something is and how fast it’s going at the same time, right?” Jack says. You and Rose blink in unison, and he shrugs. “I impersonated a quantum physics professor on Trichterania IV as part of a con,” and his poker face is so good that you can tell Rose is about to start asking him about this con. Then he laughs. “Time Agent. We do know some science, strange as it may seem.”
“Right. There are certain conjugate qualities – that’s a kind of pair, Rose – that you can’t know simultaneously. Like the position and the momentum of an object. And it applies to time just as easily it applies to space.” You grab an empty Coke bottle that Jack has left and set it down. “Let’s say this is the TARDIS. I can get us to any single point in time, down to the microsecond –” sweeping the bottle across the metal surface “– but that means I lose control of how fast we’re traveling. Or vice versa. It’s only important when you’re shaving time down to its most exact form,” you add quickly, noticing Rose’s mouth open in a question. Always questioning, and you love her for it. “Normally, of course, it’s fine; I can keep us traveling smoothly and just aim for a particular day, or hour, or even minute. But on the fine level, the surgical level…we have to be exact.”
“So.” Rose rolls the word around her mouth, gently, the tip of her tongue appearing for a moment as it always does when she’s thinking. “Fixing time when you’re moving through it is…difficult?”
“Oh yes.” You pick the bottle up by the neck and turn it in your hand. “Rift repair, like most fiddling with time, is generally done stationary. To do any kind of traveling medical horology, your speed has to be perfect. Which means the location in time is indefinable, and trying to work from an undefined point is like trying to throw a ball through a tiny hoop, blindfolded. It’s a paradox. Very difficult. Lose track of any variable and time just shoots out through the gaps. Bang.”
You bring your hand down sharply near the table edge; the bottle smashes into pieces and they both jump. Not bad, as visual demonstrations go.
“It’s an unquantifiable amount of time. That’s huge,” you say, as serious as you can be. “For a Doctor, that’s unspeakably dangerous.”
You don’t even have to look at Rose to see what her face will be saying: you’re frank, but evasive, and if you’re coming right out with words like unspeakably dangerous then –
“So basically, we’re up shit creek and the only paddle we have may or may not exist in a different dimension half the time,” Jack puts in, with pitch-perfect snark. You could kiss him.
“Basically.” You wince. “By the way, I think I just cut my hand open. Rose, where do we keep the plasters?”
She frowns. “I’ll get one.”
“Are you sure about this, Doctor?” Jack asks you, once she’s out of the room. “All you’ve given us so far are reasons why it might not work.”
“Am I sure? Not in the slightest.” You grimace, kicking the shards of glass into a rough pile. “But it’s the only plan I’ve got.”
“And if it goes wrong?”
You look at him for a long moment. “Are you really all that curious, Captain?”
He doesn’t look away. “Will it be quicker than the alternative?”
Rose trots back into the room and you nod. Jack’s eyes flicker to rest on her for a moment, and then back to you.
“That’s all I wanted to know.”
“Here, let me get that.” Rose fusses over your hand for a while, and you let her. Jack makes a hilarious face over the top of her head, but you manage not to laugh.
“So that’s it, then?” she says, sitting back down. “You sew up the rift, braving the unspeakable danger, despite all obstacles, and we’re free?”
Amazingly simple, when she says it. “That’s it, Rose.”
“And is there anything we can do?”
“Oh, yes. Having you two here will be a great help.” You stand up and find a yawn in your mouth, which is nice because now you don’t have to fake one. “Well, I can feel my bed calling.”
“I thought we needed to…you know, sooner rather than later.” She swallows.
“I’d rather leave it another ten hours then try to do this when I’m tired, Rose.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to get much sleep.”
“Give it a try.” You smile, rest your hand briefly on her shoulder and walk past, away.
Left to your own devices you probably wouldn’t be able to, either, but it’s not like you have a lot of choice.
You’ve said it eight times: one repetition for each of the lives she’s lived, each of the billions of people that, two hours ago, inhabited this planet, and the concept still doesn’t seem real. You have failed, and now you’re the only one left. The only one left.
And that makes ten. You’re still waiting to feel something even close to grief.
Guilt isn’t close enough, Doctor?
Get out of my head, Tavia.
I’m sorry. There aren’t any boundaries. I need…cranial bone, skin, something to keep it all in. It’s hard enough staying in one place and one time.
She’s almost right, almost wrong; the thoughts are guilty, but all you’re feeling is the vortex, the vacuum, the numb pull.
Last of the Time Lords. She sounds fond, through the pain. You’ll be a good example for future ages. And past ages, I suppose. Where shall we go?
I don’t have to, I don’t have to, I can merge –
I won’t let that happen.
Within every part of you, the great and terrible fire. The words in your head. The pendulum in your heart. All saying: keep going, Doctor. For me. Die and I die with you, so I will not let you die. If you will not do it yourself, I can pluck your soul from the very moment before your death and stitch it into a new form.
That’s unfair. Dry mouth and –
Would you kill me twice?
– and no words left, because there is nothing you can say. She was always capable of such cruelty. That light, the colour of bleached fire, molten white gold, spilling out like a fountain. You close your eyes and think surrender.
We will go traveling, you and I.
Such a small space, is all you can think as your hands fix the metal into place and the light is trapped, pulsing, humming, not quite like any dead technology. All the chaos of the vortex and all of her power, in this box of wires at the heart of everything; not skin, not bone, but it’s boundary enough. Such a small space.
Shimmered scrawl across your mind. It takes you a moment to decode. The TARDIS is laughing, even as the acronym takes shape; your Tavia, the ghost in your machine, laughing.
Relative dimensions in space, she says. It’s larger on the inside.
“Have you got it?”
“I think so.” Rose frowns, concentrating. “Adjust the levers as soon as we start to veer off the middle of the screen. A straight trajectory is best.”
“Right! Good. Jack?”
“Keep the speed constant.” He throws a lazy salute. “Got it.”
You nod. “The TARDIS can probably handle the speed by itself, but it’s going to be a shaky ride and having a manual checker as well will be safer. Now, the only way to close the rift entirely is for me to start repairing at one end, as soon as we loop back to the beginning of it, and to make sure I keep up as we travel through. Once I begin, I won’t be able to stop without tearing the rift even wider. It’ll be entirely up to you two to keep an eye on the velocity.”
Rose’s hands curl and uncurl unconsciously around the levers. “That’s all we can do?”
“That’s all,” and you pray that they believe you, that their trust is unquestioning just this once. It’s for their own good, but you’re a dreadful person. You knew that already. Rose catches her lower lip between her teeth and nods, turning away. Jack – again, always, damn him for being, in all his dishonesty, the conscience you’ve never needed – holds your eyes for a moment longer. And when he turns away there is less acceptance in the gesture, more of an agreement to not push further.
You walk over and check the displays one last time, making sure your hand brushes against Rose’s. Contact always soothes her.
All you say, though, is: “This lever tends to stick a bit when you move it left. Be careful that you don’t overcompensate.”
She nods, her eyes wide, the calm before your storm. You lean in and press a brief kiss to her forehead.
“Everything will be fine, Rose. Trust me.”
She does. It hurts more than the rift, but it’s all you can give her. You open your bag, which you spent a blessedly mind-numbing hour this morning cleaning out and wiping down, and take out the bracelets.
“Doctor, when this is over, remind me to have a chat with you about your taste in jewellery.” Jack smiles. It’s free of accusation, and you smile back as you slip them over your wrists.
“Fortified cudilium, the best thing for focusing energy for time repair. This might be the last pair in the universe.”
It’s been so long, but the ability floods backwithout effort. You feel the metal warm to your body temperature almost instantly. You feel out the rift and your heart jumps in response, the tachycardia a painful ache that burrows its way behind your ribcage.
“Keep the course, you two.”
No speeches, no theatrics.
The noise starts on a frequency too low for them to hear and rumbles its way across the spectrum until all three of you are wincing. Arrhythmic vibrations crawl up your legs from the floor of the TARDIS, and the ache in your chest gets tighter, more painful, building up to something.
We’re about to loop, Doctor.
The pain gets worse, and you close your eyes with the effort it takes to keep your hands raised, to not press them against your torso.
“Doctor, are you –”
Your eyes snap open and your voice is the first harmonic of the universe.
“I am the Oncoming Storm.”
Dark invisible energy spiraling outwards and time hurricane, confusion, picoseconds and millennia running through your fingers like quicksilver and folding themselves into a thousand shapes, the patterns made and unmade in every instant.
“I am the boiling clouds of space and the jagged rain of the vacuum and I am the vortex of time. I am the inferno that swallowed the enemy.”
Ashes, ashes, the burning paradox of being split apart and existing in every possible time at once. The dust of eternity, and the single igniting spark. This is how a Time Lord kills, obliterates, exterminates.
This is how a Doctor of the Time Lords heals.
Novem, and it’s only the name that lets Tavia’s words trickle through, the time left to you is short.
Which is a pretty bloody hilarious way of putting it considering the circumstances, but it’s all the same thing, always the same thing: hurry. Running for your life. Your hands clenched into fists and you’re racing as fast as you can, trying not to sacrifice the integrity of the pattern, reweaving the fabric, matching up the edges and picking up the ancient stitches that have fallen into the abyss. You are the Doctor and the Lord and the Oncoming Storm.
And you’re not fast enough.
You know it even before you admit it to yourself – no single Time Lord is meant to hold so much. The cords are slipping, be still, Tavia, déjà vu: I have been here before and I will go here again and again and again until madness and until the end of all things because the rift is sucking you dry. Identity is plasma fluid and you don’t even notice Jack abandoning his controls, walking around the console, until his hands close over your own. The contact is a shock. For the first time you notice that there is an irregular bump on one of his fingers, a remnant of a break that wasn’t set quite right.
“I’ve traveled enough,” he says, his voice pitched too low to carry back across to Rose. “Take what you need.”
Ex-Time Agent or not, he shouldn’t know to do this, but you’re in a bloody telepathic ship and he probably thinks that this is his own idea and it’s so unfair that you could scream. Enough of you is left that you try to pull away. “Jack. No.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” he says, and his knuckles turn white but you can’t feel the pain. “Do it,” and he’s a grand one to be making accusations of idiocy, the stubborn fool.
“No,” you repeat, but you’re falling behind and your eyes say: I won’t refuse again. Last warning, Captain Jack. This is who I am.
He looks straight at you, grim, and takes a step closer. He is all heat and nervousness and the faint scent of breath mints. “My choice. Do it.”
His choice? In the end: yes. Tavia can put the instructions in his head, but she can’t coerce. And so underneath is all, this is who he is. All those hundreds of years and the universe can still surprise you.
“I’ll try not to go too far,” you manage, and then you focus yourself on Jack’s hands and accelerate. Deep in your bones the trajectory is written; constant, blessedly constant, waves of energy whipping you from every side as you reach out and snare the spreading edges of the wrongness in time. You’re terrified, nauseated, swallowing down the doubt to feel the power; and past that, an impossible wild pleasure in the thrill of the race.
“Go too far for what?” Rose is saying, somewhere very far away. “Doctor?” She looks from you to Jack – sweating, gasping, white-faced Jack – and a familiar expression starts to grow in her eyes. You’re hit with the sudden savage knowledge that you don’t deserve these people, these flawed humans who will pour themselves out for you and keep fighting past all hope of restoration. The certainty that some day not very far from this moment you will find yourself explaining to Jackie Tyler that there was nothing you could do and watching her mourn, which will be awful, or discovering that there is nobody left in the universe who will mourn Jack Harkness, which will be worse.
All of this passes in half a millisecond, or maybe five years. It’s becoming harder to keep track, dancing the knife-edge of uncertainty and velocity. The understanding of what you are doing is dawning in Rose’s face, along with the desire to help. Her hands waver on the controls.
You won’t let it happen. Not yet.
“Rose!” you yell. “Keep that course. Whatever happens. Do you understand me?”
She’s as pale as Jack, her face flickering green yellow red orange with the lights of the console, but her voice is steady. “Yes, Doctor.”
The energy is seething under your skin, faster and faster, your stitches more assured. The chemical that in a human would be called adrenalin is curving your lips upwards, flashing glee from your eyes. You’re gaining on the rift itself, but you’re not – quite –
To hell with it. Time enough to apologise to Jack later. Time enough if you survive.
It had damn well better be enough.
One deep breath and then you wrench the temporal flux from every cell of the body of Captain Jack Harkness, every decade he’s ever bypassed, every wormhole he’s ever slipped through. He chokes, soundlessly, his knees buckling and his head falling to rest on your joined hands. The energy surges through you and out again, poured into the chase, ruthlessly channeled to the precise momentum. Faster. Faster. Your heart and the universe’s just off just a little syncopated and between the beats there’s a gap Mind The Gap slip through pulling the thread behind and
“Rose!” you yell. “Keep that course. Whatever happens. Do you understand me?”
She’s as pale as Jack, her face flickering green yellow red orange with the lights of the console, but her voice is steady. “Yes, Doctor.”
Tighter, tighter, evading the paradox, forcing the time loop. You need a knot to finish it and to make a knot you need to make a –
The energy is seething under –
green yellow red orange her face, scared, determined, oh my Rose
your stitches more assured stitches in a stitch in
time enough time enough time through Jack’s hands time enough
to make a knot you –
it had damn well better be –
With every last fragment of your skill and strength you pull the knots tight and you’ve got no idea how much time is passing or what your position is in most of the familiar dimensions, but Jack’s grip is rigid and still warm and anchoring you to the immeasurable present, and you know where you are. Jack’s hands and Rose’s scared eyes and you know where you are.
The sound in your ears rises to a roar and you feel the instant that the pattern is completed. The completion screams in your bones, in the electricity that jumps down every axial nerve, roaring roaring headlong spinning outwards crescendo and pinpoint and a sudden
A broken kind of laughter keeps trying to make it way out of your mouth; sputtering away; trying again; a stalled engine of amusement.
“God, that was fun,” you gasp out instead, words to the heartsong, still drunk on the chemical rush.
A parched mutter that with a little imagination could be the words “Yeah, for you, perhaps,” comes from Jack’s bent head, half a second before a triumphant shudder runs through the TARDIS and the two of you topple to the floor. When it subsides, the thrumming rhythm of the ship is back to normal, and one of your hands is still clasped in Jack’s but you don’t even have to lift the other to your chest to know that one of your hearts is racing, exhausted, and the other is keeping perfect – healthy – time. You’re out. The rift is closed, and you’re out.
“Doctor?” Rose’s arms are shaking with effort. “Can I…?”
“Let it go. The TARDIS can carry us from here.”
She pries her fingers away and gasps as the blood rushes back into them, a sudden and very human sound. “Oh,” she says weakly, and makes it over to your side before her legs give way as well.
“A stitch in time,” you say, “saves…”
The punchline is building inside you as liquid hysteria.
“Nine. Oh. That’s quite funny, actually.”
“Doctor?” Rose is wearing that expression that she saves for when she’s not sure if this time you’ve really snapped the tether, and the laughter bursts out of your mouth like a wave, a pulse, an unstoppable howling force.
“Oh, fantastic,” Jack mumbles, struggling upright. He looks wan, utterly drained, but his eyes are alive and dancing-dark. “I’m glad someone’s finding it funny.” His hand starts to slip out of your own, but you find the strength to tighten your fingers.
“Don’t –” you gasp through the hysterics. “Oh, hell. Don’t. Just…”
“I get it.” Rose moves closer and squeezes your other hand gently. “Doctor?”
The laughter rips out of you again and again and again, laying your throat raw, shaking your shoulders and contorting your face.
“Well, shit.” Jack sighs and moves his free hand up to the back of your neck, a firm warm pressure, massaging with his fingertips.
“Doctor,” Rose clasps your hand in both of hers. “It’s all right now. It’s all right, we’re here,” she says, over and over, and you have no idea what the fuss is about but then the first tear makes it to your chin and you realise that the sounds tearing your chest apart aren’t laughter any more.
An unquantifiable amount of time later:
You’re asleep and yet not quite asleep because there’s Jack’s hand still curled around your own in easy possession and there’s Rose’s head on your lap, her hair spilling down between your legs. Two hearts. It’s never seemed more apt.
The memories are there, fainter than before, never entirely coherent, and then quite suddenly everything clicks into focus. You’re half-lying on the floor of the TARDIS but you’re also standing in the halls of the Gei and Tavia is in front of you, blind and perfect, and you’re both aware of the sleepy human-sized pocket of time that is Rose Tyler.
Tavia smiles and the words appear in your head: I like her.
Yes, you think, with a spinning sense of joy. Me too.
Get some rest, Doctor.
Don’t mind if I do.
All that was and is and will be, all the worlds to be saved, folded neatly and put aside. The TARDIS hums you into oblivion, your breathing deep and sure, your very own heart slowing down until there’s just a single beat tapping away within your chest; just you and the universe, in perfect synch.