Disclaimer: The characters from Fushigi Yuugi are the creations and property of Yuu Watase and related enterprises. The characters from Doctor Who are the property of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). I do not own them and do not make any profit from this fiction other than my enjoyment in spending time with them.
However, the plotline for this story and all original characters do belong to me and may not be used elsewhere without my permission.
Chapter 17. Close Enemies
Casting a brief glance at the pulsating blue light above his console, the Doctor carefully clicked the analog counter to a familiar series of coordinates. The glass column began to rise and fall with its usual accompanying groan—and abruptly stopped, giving a near-human moan of protest.
"Come now, old girl, I know you're not pleased with our destination, but there's no help for it." Putting on his most cajoling tone, he leaned in and purred into a small but ornate grill on the hexagonal console. "I wouldn't even think of attempting this again, if not for your extraordinary proficiency in circumventing the transduction barriers."
"After traveling with you, Doctor, I know better than to write her off as an inanimate object...but if you slip her the tongue, I just might lose it right here and now."
The Doctor leapt back from the console, face flushing red. Joss smirked briefly at his discomfiture, remembering how he'd hated to be caught showing his affection for the TARDIS. To her, it was no big deal; after all, humans openly showed affection for their cars, giving them names and assigning personality traits—and the TARDIS was considerably more sentient than a car.
Probably more sentient than me, thought Joss ruefully as she kicked off her shoes and sprawled across the comfortable sofa. Scented steam rose from the silver teapot on the low table, and Joss spent a moment savoring its fragrance while idly wondering how the Doctor always managed to have a pot on whenever anyone wandered into the console room.
Or maybe she should thank the TARDIS for that.
"You seem lost in thought," the Doctor remarked as he seated himself gracefully beside her, his embarrassment lost in his usual mercurial mood changes. He had shed his frock coat and cravat sometime earlier and was in his 'work clothes' of shirtsleeves and waistcoat, still managing to look as if he'd just stepped off the cover of a men's fashion magazine.
Joss took a moment to compare herself to him: the Doctor's casual elegance contrasting with her schlumpy awkwardness.
"Ah, depressed thoughts at that."
She frowned at him. "Didn't you say that you were going to stop trespassing in people's mental back yards? I thought it was a New Year's Resolution—"
"Of many years ago. I tried to keep it; I failed." He smiled charmingly.
"Don't think that you'll get around me with those baby blues…greens…ah, whatever the hell color your eyes are. You're gonna have to work harder than that." She put her feet up in his lap, and the Doctor obligingly began massaging her ankles.
Joss closed her eyes and sighed in bliss. "That's it; I'm never leaving here. As long as you keep doing that, I'm going to hide out in the TARDIS and travel with you forever. I'll be the companion you can never get rid of."
A brief, sad smile flickered across the Doctor's face. "Promise?" he asked softly.
She regarded him from between slitted eyelids. "Now my mood is bringing you down. Sorry, Doctor; whining stopping right now."
"You must start whining before you can stop. I haven't heard you utter a word of complaint."
"Yeah, but your ears must be ringing from the high-pitched buzz of my mental pity party."
His simple, sympathetic phrase cut through her defenses, and suddenly she was blinking tears out of her eyes. "No, you tell me, Doctor. Tell me how I can wait seven years of my life for one man, then screw it all up inside of thirty minutes."
He didn't reply, merely pressing a spot beneath her left ankle. Oddly, the tense bunching of muscles near her right shoulder blade suddenly relaxed, and she drew in a deep breath.
"It's my fault, I know. I put too much into…I dreamed too long. I made up this entire fantasy of what it would be like if I ever found him again. It wasn't complicated," she laughed ruefully. "Pretty much picking up right where we left off. I forgot that for a fantasy to become real, it has to be shared by both…" she choked up and fell silent.
Suddenly, she felt a touch on her cheek, a soothing caress that calmed her turbulent emotions. Her eyes flew up to meet the Doctor's gaze, but his head was bent over his task, his fingers gently massaging her metatarsals.
It had still been him, though. He couldn't fool her.
"Thanks, Doctor." She leaned forward and caught his hands, swinging her legs down and facing him. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. We've got a mission to complete, right? So I can deal; after all, I've had plenty of practice in the past few years."
"So you're going to give up on him, just like that?" The Doctor's eyes glinted strangely. "He must have done something unforgivable to warrant such immediate abandonment."
"No!" Joss fought back her sudden surge of annoyance. This was going to be one long mission if she kept sniping at both her companions. "No," she repeated quietly. "It wasn't his fault—I already told you that. On the other hand, I can take a hint. It's not a question of abandonment; I just have better things to do than act like a crazed stalker chasing random magicians through the corridors of the TARDIS."
The Doctor's lips trembled, and Joss didn't know whether to be glad or annoyed that she'd amused him. Fortunately, he didn't laugh. "May I take it that you made advances, and he, er, had trouble reciprocating?"
"God, Doctor, you make it sound like we're talking about erectile dysfunction."
The Doctor rubbed his forehead. "I'd almost forgotten your very original way of speaking."
"That's okay, you'll get used to it again. Anyway, to answer your question: yeah, I made advances but never got close enough to suss out erectile dysfunction or lack thereof, because he freaked and made like a rabbit—the running kind, not the other type."
The Doctor's face was completely hidden in his hands and his shoulders were shaking suspiciously, but his voice was normal, if a bit muffled. "Odd behavior, that, coming from a man who's been a monk for the past fourteen years."
"What?" Joss grabbed the Doctor's shoulder and stared into his limpid, innocent gaze. "Do you mean that I've been hitting on a man of the cloth? Oh, God, I'm going to a special hell when I die!"
"Come now, Joss, surely you haven't forgotten the last time the three of us were together—monastery, acolyte robes, and all?"
"I thought that it was a phase or a temporary training thing…He doesn't dress like a monk!" she wailed. "How was I supposed to know that I was trying to corrupt a celibate?"
"First off, his usual clothes are in the wash, so to speak. Next, he's not a Christian monk, nor a Buddhist one for that matter, so rules of celibacy are not a given."
Joss stretched her legs out across the low table, taking care to avoid the tea tray while tapping her feet together moodily. "What difference does it make? Celibate or not, he's not interested in me, so it all comes down to the same thing in the end."
"Are you certain you want to give up on him? Didn't you once say that nothing worth having ever comes easily?"
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "I don't remember talking in such lame clichés."
"Sometimes clichés become clichés because they hold an element of universal truth, Joss."
"What are you saying, then? That I should go stalking him through the corridors of the TARDIS?"
"I'm saying that perhaps you should give him and yourself time to adjust to being together again before demanding an immediate resolution. The truth lies in both your hearts, Joss, if only you'll give it the time and space it needs to come out."
She glanced sideways at him, a reluctant smile quirking her lips. "Who am I to argue with the ultimate authority on Time and Space? So I'm to possess myself with patience, eh? That's what my sisters are always yelling at me."
"They might have a point."
"O-kay, on that note, I think I'll leave you for awhile." She stood up and kissed him on the top of his chestnut waves. "The next thing I know, you'll have me agreeing that my sisters are always right, and that will result in my head exploding from cognitive dissonance. What I need right now is a really good shower, hopefully one with lots of interesting attachments."
The Doctor hid his face in his hands again. "Why must you tell me these things?" He peeked out at her between his fingers, unsuccessfully hiding his smile. "Very well, second corridor on your left, the door nearest the end."
"I was talking about getting myself clean, nothing more, Doctor! You have a filthy mind for a Time Lord!" She was still laughing as she exited the control room.
He remained in place for a few minutes, grinning after her. Savoring the cheerful atmosphere the TARDIS acquired when there were companions aboard, he poured a cup of tea and added a second lump of sugar and a dollop of milk just to celebrate. As he watched the milk swirl into the dark liquid, he became aware of another presence in the control room.
He could feel power thrumming below the surface, the steady pulse of concentrated psychic energy held in check by a dominant will. The TARDIS hummed imperceptibly in response, recognizing the source as friendly—but as always, keeping a quietly alert watch on a being who had the ability to cause substantial damage to even her nearly-indestructible physical form, and whose psychic state was showing signs of faint instability.
The Doctor sent a brief soothing message to her, then patted the sofa cushion beside him. "Sit down, Houjun."
His second human companion crossed the room in a few strides and seated himself beside the Doctor, the controlled movement contrasting with the tense, uncertain look on his face. "Doctor, I…I…" He took a breath, bringing his surface turmoil under control. "How can I wait for one woman for years, and yet manage to ruin it all within five minutes?"
The Doctor bit back a smile, irresistibly reminded of a time fourteen years past, a brief journey fraught with peril and betrayals. Despite the darkness, however, there'd been periods of light and joy, days when his most pressing concern had been how to get two passionate, diverse personalities to overcome their differences long enough to join together.
'La plus ça change,' thought the Doctor and, taking care to shield his amusement and nostalgia from his companion's percipience, placed a comforting hand on his arm.
Joss wandered back into the control room, idly rubbing a towel through her unruly waves and humming an old show tune. She was clad in a black Echo & the Bunnymen tee and loose green cargs bedecked with multiple pockets up and down the legs. "Hey, Doctor," she called, seeing him absorbed in reading the old analog dials on the console, "the TARDIS showed me this room with these really cool retro eighties clothes, so I hope you don't mind that I borrowed—" The words died on her lips as she finally noticed Houjun sitting quietly on the sofa, legs crossed beneath him as he cradled a cup of tea in both hands. He'd obviously cadged his own wardrobe from the TARDIS secondhand shop, his elegant white silk Chinese shirt contrasting with cheap blue cotton drawstring trousers.
"Um, hi." Lame, thought Joss, very lame. But for some reason, words stuck in her throat, and it wasn't only because of the earlier embarrassing scene between them. There was something very different about Houjun—Chichiri—something she'd overlooked during the joy of reunion.
Fourteen years had passed for him since they'd last met, and she could feel the weight of every one of those years. He wasn't the young, unsure magician anymore, nor the vulnerable, pensive young man. Sitting across from her on the couch, he radiated control and quiet power, and Joss suddenly wondered where she'd ever gotten the nerve to seize him by his shirt and try to kiss him.
It was as insane as leaning over the edge of a boat, trying to catch the ocean in her embrace, ignoring the fact that it could take her, pull her under without the slightest effort—
Time to get off the drama llama! Joss scolded herself and deliberately sat down in the armchair closest to him. "So how's tricks?" she enquired cheerfully as she set her towel on the fine brocade.
"Tricks?" asked Chichiri, echoing her thoughts. "Um…the tea is very good."
"Oh, is it? Um, good…that's fine. I'm glad." If this conversation got any lamer, they'd be forced to put it in traction. Help me, Doctor!
The Doctor must have already been on his way to join them, because he suddenly appeared behind Chichiri, leaning against the sofa. "Those clothes were left behind by Ace," he said, answering her earlier question. "The TARDIS must be fond of you if she showed you Ace's old room—or perhaps she notes a certain resemblance. Help yourself to whatever you'd like, Joss; I enjoy the nostalgia of seeing those garments again." Moving around the sofa to seat himself next to Chichiri, he reached for the teapot. "Just like old times, don't you think?" he asked happily.
"Actually, no," said Joss with her usual honesty. "For some reason, my conversational skills seem to have deteriorated over the past seven years; I don't remember being this incompetent at forming a simple sentence before."
"You're not—" started Chichiri.
"Don't be silly," the Doctor interrupted. "We all need to learn to fit together again, so to speak."
Not you two, sulked Joss but decided to keep her thoughts to herself for once. That is, as much as one could while sitting in the presence of two mind-readers.
She searched her companions' expressions, but they both looked innocently confused. She'd bet good money on the Doctor stepping lightly through her mental landscape, at least. Feeling slightly vindictive, she deliberately pictured the most perverse sado-masochistic sexual act she'd ever heard of, leather, whips, and twelve-inch sex toys being applied with enthusiasm. However, the Doctor continued drinking his tea, completely unruffled. Joss finally realized that such acts probably served as royal courting practices on some distant planet. Hard to shock a Time Lord who'd seen everything in the galaxy at least ten times over.
Turning to ask Chichiri a question, she was surprised to see his cheeks flaring bright red.
"Hah!" she cried, pointing at him. "You were snooping!"
"To be fair, Joss," the Doctor said mildly, "you were doing what your people call 'broadcasting' rather loudly. It is difficult to ignore when one mentally, er, shouts such an image."
"Oh shit." Joss buried her face in her hands.
"See? Just like old times," the Doctor grinned. His expression quickly sobered. "However, we have to leave off fun for the time being—"
"Fun. Right," came out muffled from between Joss's hands.
"—and catch everyone up on what's been happening that has triggered this reunion. Houjun?"
Chichiri began talking quietly of the growing threat to the ShiJin, his voice tinged with sadness as he told of the loss of the younger seishi, growing husky as he spoke of Tamahome.
"I remember him," Joss said, lifting her face from her hands and speaking softly into the silence. "He was a good kid; took care of his family and all."
"Yes, he did," said Chichiri, suddenly glad Joss didn't know the fate of Tamahome's original family.
"So at this moment, little Shun'u is running across the ShiJin, trying to protect your priestess from the beasts?" Joss shook her head. "God save them both!"
Chichiri smiled at the implied insult to Tasuki. "He's not so little anymore, Joss. He'll do fine, believe me."
"Just as long as your priestess's ears hold out. Or have his language skills improved as he's aged?"
"Well, improved might be a matter of interpretation, but Miaka is used to him. Very fond of him, in fact. Just like you are."
"Like hell," said Joss, secretly enjoying bantering with Chichiri again. "I don't like that mouthy little red-headed brat at all. Think I'll give him a noogie when we meet up again. We are going after them, right?" She was unable to keep a note of anxiety out of her voice.
Chichiri smiled. "I assume we'll try to track them down, although—"
"No, I'm sorry." The Doctor spoke up for the first time since Chichiri had started his narrative. "We have more pressing problems, and we can't spare the time to search for Shun'u."
"Why not? We have to make sure they're safe!" Joss was outraged, but Chichiri merely waited for the Doctor to explain.
"Joss, there will be no safe place in two worlds—or perhaps anywhere in the galaxy—if we don't deal with the Swarm decisively. I told Houjun we had to assemble the original team, and we have yet to contact our last member."
"Our last member? Who are you—" Joss' eyes went dark. "You've got to be joking."
Chichiri remained silent, although his eye narrowed slightly with thought.
"Listen to me, both of you. There is no being in all of the known universe who knows more about the Swarm than he does—no one who has ever survived direct contact with them, I should say."
"He tried to kill Houjun!" burst out Joss.
"He was ill, not in his right mind. Even his TARDIS was sick; you must remember that, Joss."
"How are we supposed to work with someone we can't trust?"
"You don't know he's untrustworthy. It's been years, and I'd sent him to a healing place; he must've changed in the interim."
"He might've changed for the worse, and you won't admit it until we all wake up dead. This whole mess is his fault—it's his fault so many have died in the ShiJin and now on Earth!"
"So he should be the one to put it right." Chichiri's calm tones cut across the heated argument, effectively silencing both combatants. He smiled at them, wrapped in a cloak of serenity and wisdom—and Joss had never felt further from him in all the time they'd known each other.
He was a monk. He was a celestial warrior. She was nothing special, just a woman with a quick temper and a big mouth.
"This isn't about us," said Chichiri, and Joss wondered if he were addressing her thoughts. "It's about the survival of the universe, and we must accept our allies whoever and wherever they may be."
"I'm scared," whispered Joss. "He hurt you so bad last time—both of you."
"He has no more power over me, Joss, and I doubt he ever had power over the Doctor. We have to talk to him before we can judge whether he'll be a help or hindrance."
"Houjun is right." The Doctor kept his voice low and gentle. "But we must all agree; we can't proceed as a team if you truly object to him, Joss."
Joss's expression crumpled, but she swallowed hard and kept her voice steady. "So if I don't agree, you'll drop me off back on Earth?"
The Doctor moved swiftly to her side at the same time Chichiri seized her hand. "No! Of course not!"
"We three are the core team," insisted the Doctor. "We'll never succeed without you, Joss."
"You're just sayin' that," said Joss, trying not to smile or cry or both.
"It's the truth," insisted Chichiri. "We won't risk losing you, even if it means avoiding…him."
She looked from one man to the other. "So it's my decision, then. The fate of the universe may rest on what he knows about the Swarm, but it's my decision as to whether we even contact him, right?"
Chichiri and the Doctor nodded slowly.
"You guys sure know how to make a girl feel important." Joss broke out in a thousand-watt grin. "What are we waiting for? Let's go get him!"
The Zero Room
"You ever have those dreams about getting away from it all?" Joss stuck her hand out, noticing how its edges seemed to fade into the white nothingness surrounding her.
"Me, too. But this isn't exactly what I had in mind."
"Why not? It seems…ideal. At least as far as being a literal interpretation of 'getting away' and 'from everything'."
"Yeah, well, that's the problem. To get away, you have to have some idea of what you're getting away from. A horizon would be nice; hell, right now, I'd settle for some walls. You know what? To hell with the walls—just a piece of flooring would do!"
"You're starting to panic." Chichiri looked up from his previously meditative pose.
"Nuh-uh. Not me. I'm not one of those stupid emo panicking little—!"
"Okay, maybe I panicked just a little."
"Just a little."
Joss squinted at her companion where he leaned back, managing to look completely relaxed while suspended in…nothing at all. "You're laughing at me."
"No…well, not exactly. Let's just say I'm enjoying your company."
There was a long pause.
Chichiri shot a concerned look at her. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No. To be honest, you said something right. After the way I screwed up earlier—"
"You didn't 'screw up.'"
"Yes, I did, and don't try to bullshit me. After all, I was the one who was left with the view of the back of you as you ran out of the room."
Now he was studying his hands. "You're angry with me. You have every right to be."
"No, I'm not, and no, I don't. Hey, I'm telling the truth here," Joss tugged on Chichiri's arm, forcing him to meet her gaze, "when have you ever known me to lie?"
He gave a wry smile. "…never."
"You got that right. If I'm angry with anyone, it's with myself. I made some assumptions and pulled the wrong move, and now—now I'm going to make it right. So I apologize, and—"
"You don't need to apologize."
Joss gestured sharply into the nothingness. "Yes, I do. Quit arguing with me! I want to get back to that thing you said before, about enjoying my company!" She took a breath. "You know, somehow that was supposed to come out with a lot less hostility."
"I believe you."
"You're laughing at me again."
"No…well, maybe a little."
"Well, good, because that's the way I'd like things to be between us. It's been a long time for me, twice as long for you, but…I miss the way we used to talk to each other. We could tell each other anything! And we laughed a lot, too, in spite of all the crap that was happening around us. I wish we could have that back again. Just that; I'm not asking for more, but still…" she trailed off uncertainly.
"I feel the same way."
"So…you think we could be friends again?"
"I think we never stopped being friends."
"Are you all right?"
"…no. No, I'm fine." Pause. "I'm not one of those—!"
"Stupid eno crying little somethings, right?"
"It's e-mo, not e-no, doof."
"Now you're laughing."
"Oh, God, I really am emo! Strike me down now, Suzaku, before I humiliate myself any further!" Joss raised her arms in exaggerated supplication to the nothingness surrounding her.
"Since when have you started praying to Suzaku?"
"Since I started hanging out with the pro." Joss gave him a slightly watery grin. "Betcha didn't think you'd be such a good influence on me."
"No, but I always knew you were a good influence on me."
"I really missed you, you know."
"And I you."
Joss felt tension hum between them, and smiled. It was the good kind of tension, the type that made you sit up in anticipation of whatever was coming next. No matter what happened between them, she would accept it, even if it was just friendship. She finally felt balanced, in control, certain of where she stood, ready for anything—
The Doctor's head popped up out of nowhere.
"Waah!" whooped Joss.
"Oh, sorry." The Doctor's left shoulder and arm appeared, as if he were leaning around a corner. "I didn't realize you two would still be so close to the door. It's a big room, you know." He smiled vaguely. "I hope I didn't interrupt anything."
"No, of course not," Chichiri replied.
Joss did her best not to scowl. "What he said."
"Excellent." The Doctor still seemed distracted, and Joss noted that he looked paler than usual. "We've landed. It's time for us to go."
His head turned, and the top half of his body began to disappear again. Joss leapt forward and made a grab at the blank white space he had just exited, relieved to feel the hard edge of the door in her grip. "I've got the door, Houj…Chichiri!"
"Thank you, Joss." Chichiri's tone was completely noncommittal as he reached for the space above Joss' head and pulled, revealing the familiar roundels of the TARDIS corridor.
Joss stepped through the doorway, then turned to her companion. "You knew the door was right there all along."
"What makes you say that?" Chichiri turned an innocent eye upon her.
"The way it's taking everything you've got not to bust out laughing at me. You're better than you used to be at keeping a straight face, but you're still lousy at lying." She smirked up at him as they headed towards the console room. "I don't mind; go ahead and laugh. I never had a sense of dignity before, and I'm not about to cultivate one now. Listen, if you don't mind me changing the subject, did you see the Doctor's face? He looks like he's been through the wringer."
"If by 'through the wringer', you mean he's had a hard time—"
"Then you'd be absolutely right." The Doctor smiled wearily at them from where he leaned against the console room doorway. "Tricky business, this, getting past the transduction barriers of a planet that values secrecy above all. We owe our safe arrival here to the old girl, although it was close a few times. Thank goodness for you two agreeing to the Zero Room; otherwise they would've detected your life forces, and we would've been—"
"Captured?" Joss interrupted.
"No, vaporized is the closest Earth term, I believe." Ignoring Joss' surprised whistle, he led the way to the outer door of the TARDIS. "Are you wearing sensible shoes, Joss? Ah, yes, silly question, I realize."
"Yep, always got the gym shoes on. Or as you Brits say, trainers." She grinned at the Doctor's raised eyebrow. "Yeah, yeah, I know, Gallifreyan, not British. Anyway, I am, as they say, ready for Plan B—and after what you just told us, I'm assuming Plan B is necessary."
"Not if we're quick enough. Hopefully our target won't require much persuasion."
"If he does, I've got a set of brass knuckles in my pocket," whispered Joss to Chichiri.
"So how do you even know what brass knuckles are?"
"You're casting mental pictures again. The weapon looks much like a tekko, and –"
"We won't need it," the Doctor interrupted. "Come along, you two, and stop bickering." The tone was admonishing, but a smile played around his lips.
Joss stepped outside the TARDIS and inhaled in surprise. The air was light, easy to breathe—yet strange. It tasted alien, if that made any sense. It reminded her of the time she went scuba diving and had to breathe compressed gases from a tank. That air had also tasted slightly different, a little too dry with a hint of chemical flavor, rasping along her lungs in an unfamiliar way.
This air had nothing chemical about it, but it was different in a way she couldn't put her finger on. It made her realize how Earth-normal the ShiJin was, since that alternate planet hadn't made her senses shiver uneasily, as Gallifrey was currently doing to her. Even the quality of light was different. It was sunset now, but the sky seemed a little too orange for even that time of day, the atmosphere a little too close, giving her the feeling of standing in a low-ceilinged room.
The Doctor and Chichiri were already striding off over the gently rolling hills, so she had to sprint over the slippery, squeaky bluegrass to catch up with them. By the time they reached the crest of the next rise, she was panting, making her realize that Gallifrey had somewhat less oxygen than she was accustomed to. No wonder the Doctor was stronger than he looked; running around Earth-normal planets must feel to him like being in a hyperbaric chamber.
Embarrassed at her shortness of breath, she decided to get a head start on the men by sprinting down the hill ahead of them. She rounded a curve in the path, going a little faster than she could control, and tried to stop short when she spied a figure in the grass ahead of her. Unfortunately, her feet tangled, and she half-tripped, half-skidded into the grass right in front of the Gallifreyan, ending up on her hands and knees.
Looking up into quizzical blue eyes, she gave a self-conscious grimace. "Um, hi. Er, greetings…or whatever. Sorry to drop in on you unannounced."
"Hello," he replied in a deep, soft voice as he rose to his feet, brushing grass from his homespun-type trousers. Throwing aside a cloak made of the same rough material, he extended a hand to her. "May I?"
She took his hand gratefully as she struggled to her feet. "Thanks." He had the type of grip she liked in a man: firm and strong but gentle enough not to crush her bones into powder. In fact, she liked the look of him altogether: long, dark hair streaked with gray, tied back in a ponytail; strong, handsome features dominated by a pair of penetrating blue eyes, sadness and wisdom lurking in their depths. Squeezing the hand that held hers, she smiled at him. "My name is Joss."
He bowed over her hand. "Joss," he murmured softly. "I hadn't remembered."
She frowned at his cryptic statement but was distracted by seeing movement in the corner of her eye. Turning slightly, she saw the Doctor and Chichiri barely ten paces away. "Here are my friends," she said cheerfully, grinning at their expressions upon seeing her hand in hand with a stranger. "This is the—"
"Doctor." Her new friend gave a slight bow in his direction. The Doctor wore the strange, catlike half-smile he displayed when he was reserving judgment. "And Suzaku Shichiseishi Chichiri, I believe. The years have seen your promise fulfilled; you look very well."
"And you. The years have also been kind to you." Chichiri smiled with unexpected warmth as he bowed politely in return. "I am glad to see you looking so well, Magus."
"What—wait! Magus?" Joss yanked her hand from the man's, leaping aside in horror. "This—this can't be Magus! He's too—"
"Sane?" The slight mockery in his tone was gentle, but it was enough to convince her: a distant echo of his strong sarcasm of the past.
"You look so different!" she said, coming straight to the point. "Did you regenerate?"
"Not in the way you mean: not holistically, so to speak. We Gallifreyans also regenerate on a smaller scale, rapid healing of scars and such. To maintain the appearance of when you last saw me, I had to inflict those wounds fresh each day. The Master Hermit has since taught me…not to do that."
Joss was amazed that Magus could speak serenely of those events from her not-so-distant past. She shuddered as she recalled the face behind the black mask: wild, bloodshot eyes; bloody, ragged furrows down each cheek, the marks of fingernails biting into flesh in an agony of self-loathing and self-mutilation. Realizing that he had performed that act every day…she couldn't help it: sympathetic tears rose in her eyes.
"Do not weep for me, young woman…Joss. Those events are far in my past."
She never would've believed his voice could be so gentle. She had a sudden vision of the man he had been—the man he could have been, had the Swarm not invaded his home and torn his life apart. Retreating behind the Doctor to hide her expression, she blinked rapidly to regain control of herself.
The Doctor finally stepped forward, his silent reserve strange in the face of his insistence on finding Magus. "So how is the Master Hermit these days?" he asked, his tone still cool and detached.
"Much the same—and yet probably very different from when you studied with him. He is sorry to have missed you this time."
The Doctor inclined his head. "When I saw you waiting here, I knew he didn't intend to see me. I also see that he'd anticipated my arrival."
"We both had." Magus shrugged under the Doctor's questioning gaze. "I am not an adept, at least not as far as I know. I merely felt the wind changing, so to speak. And so here you are—all of you." He looked at the three travelers before him. "Yet I doubt this is a social call. You haven't been together all this time; your personal timelines are too diverse. So I can only surmise that you've been brought together again by circumstance, a circumstance that requires my presence." His expression darkened. "I believe it's time for me to serve the sentence you imposed upon me, Doctor—to fulfill my destiny, isn't that what you said?"
"Perhaps." The Doctor's expression softened. "We are not a press gang, Magus. If you have at last found peace…if you've found a way to live with your past, I have no desire to take that from you. You can impart your knowledge to us without having to face them again."
"What kind of peace would it be," Magus asked softly, lifting his eyes to address the sunset instead of people before him, "knowing I'd brought my personal hell onto innocent planets, and left their people to deal with the consequences on their own? Perhaps I've learned to sublimate my rage into less destructive channels, but it doesn't mean the rage has ceased to exist." He sent a penetrating stare at the Doctor. "Be honest, Doctor. You're hoping very hard that my rage is still alive; otherwise, you have risked the transduction barriers for nothing."
The Doctor remained silent but met the stare with his own.
"Very well. You can see I'm ready to go; I've brought everything I own with me." He lifted his arms, mockingly revealing his shabby clothing.
"You already know that everything you own is waiting for us at our destination." The Doctor nodded at the flash of fire in Magus' eyes. "After you, Magus." He bowed politely, then followed Magus as he climbed back the way they had come. Chichiri and Joss followed silently in the time lords' wake.
Joss leaned over the control room console, squinting at the grainy image on the small, archaic-looking monitor. "Come on, girl, I'm not asking you to spy on him in his underwear! I just want to make sure—okay, yeah. Still meditating then. Damn, how long can a man spend in a meditative state?"
"It depends on his level of enlightenment."
Joss jumped, realizing she was no longer alone in the control room. Fumbling with the monitor controls, she tried to shut off the incriminating images, all the while knowing it was too late. Finally the TARDIS shut down her own screen, giving an oddly human-sounding electronic sigh.
Turning around, Joss smiled innocently at her companion. "Hey, Chichiri. What's new?"
"Spying on our colleagues, apparently." He raised an eyebrow at her defiant blush. "I don't understand, Joss; I thought you liked him. I believe I even saw you crying for him."
Her chin jutted stubbornly in a way that irresistibly reminded him of Tasuki in his younger days. "Yeah, I'm not going to lie: I cried for him. I cry for a lot of things—you should've seen me at the end of the movie 'Lilo and Stitch'. But my tear ducts aren't directly connected to the Off switch in my brain. Until I know that he can be trusted, me and my buddy here," she patted the TARDIS console, "are going to keep a close eye on him."
"Don't you think the Doctor might have something to say about how you use the TARDIS?"
"Apparently not." The Doctor strolled into the control room, seemingly unperturbed by Joss' commandeering of his loyal vessel. "The TARDIS has always had a mind of her own; she'll do as she thinks best. Although I'm not certain she is completely convinced of Joss' cause." He fussed with arranging place settings on the tea table. "A word of advice, Joss: when you decide to spy on a guest's room again, make sure you specify to the TARDIS that you want the camera and sound pickup to go only one way."
"What? Oh, damn," moaned Joss as Magus entered the room. He had exchanged his peasantlike clothes for a simple but elegant grey suit with a long coat that reminded her of the sherwani suits worn by East Indian men.
"Miss Josselin," he said in a friendly tone, "it's good to see you again so soon. I'd be happy to instruct you in my ways of meditation, since you seem fascinated by the technique."
"Ha, ha, ha," said Joss gloomily. "All the guys, get together and laugh at the girl now."
"I'm not laughing," said the Doctor, gesturing them to join him at the tea table. "I may not agree with your techniques, Joss, but I can't fault the sentiment behind them."
Magus smiled to himself as he picked up a delicate teacup. "An interesting opening salvo, Doctor. You may have sought my help, but you waste no time in letting me know that you don't trust me."
"There is no time to waste," the Doctor replied tersely, his usual humor gone as he poured tea for all of them. "The Swarm is being unusually cautious as they make small forays into the ShiJin and Earth—but once they make their final move, it will be such a decisive blow that there will be no possibility of defending either planet. We have to somehow get ahead of them, and we can only do so if we have your whole-hearted cooperation, Magus. If you have any thoughts of double-crossing us, I need to know before I place the fates of two planets in your hands."
"Why would I double-cross you? What could be my possible motivation? Do you think me bent on revenge for the events in the ShiJin all those years ago?"
"No, I believe that you've learned how empty and petty revenge can be. But there is a treasure waiting for you on the ShiJin, one you could not possibly retrieve without my help. No one on Gallifrey knew you were there, aside from one trustworthy hermit; no one on Gallifrey even knows you are still alive—but if they did, they would immediately execute you. You needed me to come back for you and transport you to the ShiJin, and for that, you might be willing to play any role, pretend any change of heart that would free you from your imprisonment."
Magus sat back against the cushions, inhaling the fragrant tea before taking an experimental sip. He closed his eyes, savoring the taste, as Joss and Chichiri regarded him with worried eyes. The Doctor, however, merely watched him with cautious, catlike attention. "I'm glad," Magus said suddenly. "I'm glad to find the intervening years haven't rendered you a fool, Doctor. What is that old Earth saying: 'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer'? It's a wise piece of advice, not applicable to the Swarm, unfortunately: keeping them close would only result in them biting off your head."
"But you do keep them close, Magus. You think them, breathe them, try to see the universe through their flat, black eyes; at least you had, up until we encountered one another in the ShiJin. This is the reason I've taken the risk of bringing you into this delicate situation."
"And now that the risk has been taken, what is the next step? Do you want verbal reassurance from me as to my trustworthiness? If I were a liar, I would merely lie to you. It seems that you have entered us into a game, a game of chance in which we cannot tell the next move until one of us shows his hand."
"True enough." The Doctor sat back, undisturbed by Magus' refusal to give him a straight answer. "So to begin, I'll show part of my hand first. You won't get your TARDIS back—not right away. If I've been fool enough to cut my own throat by trusting you, at least I can prepare our few allies to defend themselves as best they can. First we travel to each planet, making contact with our friends and finding ways for them to communicate with one another without the Swarm's knowledge. We'll organize a strategy with government leaders, make contingency plans, and communicate what little we know before we even think about taking on the Swarm directly. After that, we can concentrate on battle plans—battle plans that include your TARDIS."
"I disagree." The voice was soft and gentle, and Joss and the Doctor stared in shock at the source. Chichiri stared into his teacup, the concentric circles on the surface betraying his trembling hand. He carefully replaced the bone china cup on the table, keeping his eyes fixed on the tea things. "I haven't said anything before now, Doctor; I've been patient with your plans, delaying my…delaying while we've gathered the core team, as you called it. But I can't wait any longer." He lifted his eyes, meeting the Doctor's questioning gaze with a haunted expression. "I've never had the chance to talk much about my time on the Swarm mothership—"
"He's been on the Swarm mothership?" burst out Magus, shocked. The Doctor impatiently waved him to silence.
"Yes, I've been there, on the surface of it, at least. It was not…a good experience, and I never had the chance to get inside. All the same, the entire time I was stranded there—until the Doctor rescued me—I kept getting this feeling." He shook his head. "Something in the ship was calling to me, something was pulling me to come inside, and it kept scratching at my consciousness like an unbearable itch."
"It's said," said Magus, interrupting gently this time, "it's said the Swarm powers their colony by harnessing the souls—the ki—of those they destroy. It's said the need for this power is what drives the Swarm to rape and harvest planet after planet. Of course, there's never been any independent confirmation of this observation and, considering that it came from a surgically melded being that had been driven half-insane by the procedure, we have no way of knowing if it's true. But if it is true, that's what you might have sensed: billions of souls enslaved and in agony."
Chichiri shook his head, his eye clouded and distant. "I can't explain it, but it seemed more personal than that. It seemed to be calling to me in particular."
"Houjun," the Doctor said gently, "there is no more dangerous place in the universe for you than on that mothership. Believe me, the beasts have picked up and recorded your ki signal, and they'll be especially hungry to harvest you and find out what you know."
"Nevertheless, Doctor, you have to take me back there. More than that, you have to get me inside the ship."
Asteroid Belt, Twenty Degrees Galaxial North of the ShiJinTenChiSho
Darkness. It was the one constant in this existence. He wasn't even certain how he knew there was another type of existence, one that didn't involve long stretches of darkness interspersed with painful bursts of blinding light...but he knew. It was just one of those things he accepted knowing, the same way he accepted knowing that he was in hiding.
He was hiding in the darkness, so deeply buried that he had lost himself. He was hiding without knowing exactly what he was hiding from, nor the urgency and fear of getting caught; he just accepted that getting caught meant the end of this existence. As miserable as this existence was, some strong survival instinct drove him to cling to it, to imagine that things…things had not always been like this, and so might not always continue to be like this (hope? Was this hope?).
He reached out his hand, dully feeling around the all-encompassing darkness. There were six walls surrounding him: six walls and a floor. Walls. Floor. He let the concepts roll around in his mind. There was a small hatch in the ceiling that opened once an interval to deposit food (nutrients…a tasteless, watery substance to place in his mouth and choke down). There was a small chute in the floor that opened three times in the same interval to discard the wastes of his body (why did he care about discarding the waste? He didn't know; he just accepted that he cared). Those openings in the ceiling and floor closed seamlessly after their use. He couldn't open them on his own. He couldn't get out (to where?) through those openings. He couldn't escape.
He was in hiding, but his body couldn't hide. It was subjected to whatever his captors chose to do to it at various intervals. He wasn't quite sure what they did; he made certain his mind was safely tucked away while they did it. He knew it involved sharp things at times, sharp things that caused pain to his body. Sometimes it involved bright lights and shrieking noises. He tried not to dwell on it--he preferred to think about his dreams.
The dreams were becoming more vivid lately, and although his strange inner knowledge warned him that this was a dangerous thing, he couldn't help grasping at the fleeting images. They made him feel something that was very different from pain (pleasure?).
His favorite dream involved green eyes. Green eyes looking at him so softly, so tenderly; he could almost feel their gaze as a physical caress. Green eyes that were not like those others—no, he didn't want to think about those other eyes. Luckily, his times of being dragged out to undergo (torture?) were growing further apart, leaving him more time in the darkness. He wasn't certain how much time passed, but he knew it passed all the same--and with that passage of time, there was a growing feeling (need? want?) making him dimly aware that he was seeking something. It had to do with the green eyes, with what they were looking at. The knowledge came as it always did: absent one moment, in his mind the next.
The eyes were looking at his true self, the one he had lost when he hid it away.
Suddenly he wanted it back. He wanted himself, and he wanted those green eyes, and he wanted both with a fierceness that took his breath away. He closed his own eyes (stupid of him, since he was blind in the darkness anyway); he closed his eyes and reached with his mind, stretching, yearning, pulling the fragmented parts of himself from hiding so that he could join them together.
"I am…" he gasped, his voice rusty and cracking from disuse. "I am…" he tried again, but it wasn't working. He cried a few tears of frustration, feeling salt sting the back of his throat. Throat. Stinging, dry. Carefully, he wetted his lips with his tongue, swallowing his tears. Then he tried once more.
"My name…" and the stronger sound of those (words?) pleased him. Excitement built in his breast, and he took a deep breath, pulling together everything he'd hidden and fragmented in his quest to survive.
It was time to stop hiding and start living again.
"My name," he said, letting the words bounce triumphantly off the walls that surrounded him,
Credits and translations
"a special hell" : This phrase used by Joss was originally written by Joss...Whedon, that is, for his television series "Firefly."
'La plus ça change' : The first half of a French saying that goes, "La plus ça change, la plus c'est la meme chose," which translates as "The more things change, the more they remain the same."
"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." : saying attributed to the ancient Chinese general Sun-Tzu
Author's Note: (1-9-08) Thank you for reading this story—and for those of you who have waited for me to update Hidden Paths for such a long time: my eternal gratitude for your patience and loyalty to this storyline.
I have so much to say, and believe me, I intend to subject you to one of my infamously long author's ramblings (fifteen months worth? –winces-), but for now, I'm trying to beat a personal deadline in getting this chapter posted on this site. So I promise that I will edit in my ramblings sometime during Thursday, for those of you who are interested.
For those of you who are not interested, today's your lucky day! A short note for once!
I'll be back soon!