(A/N: Special thanks to superherogrlcat for catching my mistakes. Doctor Who is the property of the BBC)
The Tardis finished materializing with a wheeze and a rattle instead of its customary whoosh. The Doctor, Rose, and Jack opened the doors to find themselves in a dank, industrial-looking corridor. "Oh, lovely," Rose said, appraising the surroundings. The air was thick with dust, and sickly-green vines climbed up over the walls, even though the Tardis readings had said they were hundreds of feet underground. "The places you take me to."
"Oh, hush," the Doctor said. "We're here for parts, not to take in the sights." Rose glanced over at Jack, who just shrugged. "I saw that, you two," the Doctor said, shooting them a look over his shoulder. "If we want to get the Tardis moving again, I need to make a new fluid lock, and I can't do that without something to make it out of. Last time I was here, this was the premier shipyard in the galaxy." He looked around at the streaks of rust working their way down the walls. "'Course, last time I was here, it didn't look abandoned," he admitted.
"When were you here last?" Jack asked.
"Six months ago. Well," he said, "six months by the calendar. Not long enough for it to have gone to seed this badly, at any rate."
The Doctor led them through a labyrinth of corridors; finally, as they made their way further into the complex it opened up into what looked like showrooms. The Doctor knew where to look; he led Jack and Rose into one room off to the right. Tables were littered with parts and bits of machinery; Jack picked up a rectangular piece of metal as they walked by. "Hey, I think this might power up my blaster."
The Doctor rolled his eyes. "Forget the gun and keep looking," Rose saw Jack smile and slide the piece into his pocket.
"Isn't it a bit creepy, though?" she said, looking around. "If it really is abandoned, why would everyone just leave their things?"
The Doctor didn't answer, but he took her hand and squeezed hard. She could see on his face that he'd been thinking the same.
Something cracked underfoot. The Doctor pulled her off to the side and Jack crouched down; he brushed through the debris littering the floor and came up with what looked to Rose unmistakably like a human jawbone. She felt the Doctor tense up beside her; Jack looked up at them. "I don't think they left."
The mood changed immediately. "I want to know what happened here," the Doctor said, quietly. He looked over to Jack, who was still examining the body.
"It's in stage 4 of decomp, at least," Jack said. Rose felt sick just looking at the body; she didn't know how Jack could stand handling it. "Remains are skeletal and dry. I'd say mummified, but there's no flesh left. It's more like something just sucked all the moisture out."
"You ever seen anything like that before, Captain?"
Jack shook his head. "You?"
"Couple times," the Doctor said. "But nothing that should be down here."
Jack got up and brushed the dust off his knees. "By the way, am I the only one who smells that?"
Rose sniffed the air. "It smells like...perfume?"
"Yeah," Jack said. "I smelled it as soon as we got out of the Tardis."
"So the question is," the Doctor said, finishing the thought, "if we're standing in a graveyard, why does everything smell like flowers?"
"Well," Rose said, "there are all these vines everywhere, maybe they..." she trailed off when she saw the look on the Doctor's face. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something rustling up the wall. "Doctor," she said slowly, "did that vine just move?"
The Doctor had a death grip on her hand; she could see in his eyes that whatever conclusion he'd reached, it was very, very bad. "51st century," he whispered. "Jack, have you ever been to Tarsus 5?"
All of the color drained out of Jack's face. "Oh, hell."
All of the vines on all the walls where moving now; pods were opening up and pink and white flowers were unfurling. "Run. Back to the Tardis," the Doctor said. "Now!"
The walls crawled as more and more of the pods and flowers sprouted. The vines shifted over the walls and over each with a dry scratching sound; to Rose it sounded like millions of insects skittering along the corridor. The Doctor was running so fast he was practically dragging her along; she had a stitch in her side already. When she looked up, she saw the vines spreading over the ceiling, the flowers dangling down towards them. Jack was a few feet ahead; he stumbled as the plants started to carpet the floor. "Watch your footing!" he shouted back towards them.
A vine lashed out from the wall and wrapped around her arm; she yelped as it yanked her backwards off her feet. Pain shot up from her ankle, and as soon as she hit the floor the vines started crawling towards her. "Doctor!"
He whirled around, and Rose's fear spiked when she saw the look on his face. The flowers were creeping closer, and the perfume smell was so strong it stung. The Doctor dove to his knees next to her, and Rose heard the whir of the sonic screwdriver as he tried to dislodge the vine from her arm. After a few agonizing seconds the vine let go; he wrapped an arm around her to help her up. "All right?"
She winced; the pain from her ankle increased when she stood up. "My ankle," she said.
"Can you still run?" he asked. "It's not much further, I promise."
Rose tested her leg; she could put weight on it, but she wasn't sure how far she could run. Still, the last thing she wanted was to force him to carry her. "I think so," she said, taking a few steps.
He offered her his hand. "Then we have to keep running."
She bit her lip and followed.
A few minutes later her ankle was in agony but she didn't dare stop. The vines were thick on the walls now, and every so often they had to run through writhing green curtains. The vines kept grabbing at them; one wrapped around the Doctor's leg and tripped him up, and it took almost a minute of Rose fumbling with the screwdriver to get him free. Jack came racing back around a corner during the struggle and helped them fend off the vines, but as soon as the Doctor saw him he waved Jack off. "Go! Keep running! Get back to the Tardis and shut the door the second you're inside! That's an order, Captain!"
Rose saw defiance flash across Jack's face, then his expression closed and he followed the orders without argument. He looked from Rose to the Doctor, then shook his head. "Hurry," he said, then pulled his shirt up over his mouth and nose and disappeared around the corner.
The Doctor got back to his feet slower than Rose would have liked; he'd hit the ground hard. He took a second to catch his breath. "Still with me, Rose?"
Rose squeezed his hand. "Always."
Then they were off again.
About three hundred feet from Tardis Rose tripped over a vine the size of a tree trunk. It pulsed like it had a heartbeat, and Rose watched as smaller, flowered vines rose from it like cobras from a snake charmer's basket. Less then a foot from her the largest of the blooms shuddered; before she could scream, the Doctor clamped one hand over her mouth and nose. "Don't breathe," he whispered in her ear.
The flower spit out a cloud of mist; it looked golden and luminescent floating in the air. The Doctor dragged her to a side corridor and motioned for her to stay low. The pollen cloud slowly spread, until the entire area where they'd just been glistened with gold. Rose could feel her lungs burning for air; a few seconds before she thought she would pass out the cloud suddenly flickered and went out, like someone had switched it off. She looked at the Doctor, who nodded back. She took in an enormous gulp of air.
"The pollen's toxic," he said. "Lucky it doesn't last long."
"It was beautiful," she said. She felt slightly light-headed.
"Deadly, though. So many things in the universe are like that," he mused. He grinned at her. "Is that a sign, do you think?" He took several more deep breaths of air. "We have to keep moving," he said. "If they're starting to pop, we don't have much more time."
He helped her up, and after making sure the way was clear he led her at a dead run. The throbbing in her ankle was dulled by adrenaline; she could see more flowers on the walls and ceilings starting to shudder, and she picked up her pace. One popped right over her head; she had to duck and hold her breath for several painful yards until it was safe. More and more of the flowers popped; Rose noticed that the larger the flower, the longer it took the cloud to disperse. Though the twisting corridors meant they couldn't see it, Rose guessed they must be less than one hundred yards from the Tardis when they stumbled onto a clump of the flowers growing from another of the pulsing vine trunks. "Oh, fantastic," the Doctor said as several of the blossoms began to shake. "Stay out of their range!"
Rose dodged the first few jets of pollen, then the Doctor pushed her head down. "Stay low!" Rose took a breath of air, held it, then dropped to the ground and started to crawl. She turned around to see if the Doctor was following and almost choked on a scream.
One of the vines had him grappled by his wrist; by the time he yanked his arm free, the three small flowers left on the vine were shuddering. He dodged the blasts from the first two, but the last flower was lower, and he was off-balance. Rose watched in horror as the pollen cloud went off in his face.
He took two steps back. Rose's mind raced: He must have been holding his breath. Maybe he's resistant. Maybe he's wrong about how toxic it is.
Then he dropped.
Rose counted off the longest twenty seconds of her life as the pollen clouds shimmered, then flickered and went out. She gasped and crawled to him; he was lying on the floor like a broken doll, and she couldn't tell if he was breathing. She dragged him a few feet further from the vines before her ankle gave way; she knew there was no way she could get him to the Tardis by herself. "Jack!" she screamed. It only hit her then that if Jack had done as the Doctor said, he might be in the Tardis already and wouldn't hear her.
More of the vines were snaking towards them. She imagined Jack coming to look when they didn't come back and finding them dead there, like the bones on the showroom floor, imagined him realizing he was there alone. "Doctor! Doctor, wake up! Please, wake up," she said, shaking him. "I can't carry you, please, you have to wake up." She screamed again for Jack. The vines were coming closer, and she could see more of the flowers unfurling. She fished the sonic screwdriver out of the Doctor's pocket and turned it on. "All right," she said, waving it at the plants. "Come on, then."
Just then she heard the faint thud of boots further along the corridor. "Jack?" She couldn't take her eyes from the swaying flowers.
She heard her name then, and almost fainted with relief. "Rose, where are you?" Jack's voice sounded tinny and distorted in the metal corridors, and Rose thought it was the most beautiful sound she'd ever heard.
"Jack, I'm over here! Help me!" She jammed the screwdriver into the closest of the flowers; it reared back like an injured animal. "Hurry!"
The sound of his boots grew louder; unfortunately, the largest flowers Rose had ever seen were unfurling, and Rose didn't think she was fast enough with the screwdriver to take on them all.
Jack chose exactly the right moment to round the corner. "Rose, duck!" he shouted, just as all the flowers began to shake. Rose dove on top of the Doctor and tried her best to shield his head. She didn't know what Jack was doing, but she'd learned that "duck" usually preceded "boom."
The blast that flew over her head was like something from the sonic screwdriver's angry older brother. She looked behind her to see the vines shrinking and shriveling before the blue sonic wave, and when she looked up she saw Jack striding forward with his blaster drawn like an action movie hero. "Guess the piece worked, then?"
"Not a perfect fit, but I've got enough to do that five or six more times," he said. The shockwave was still traveling down the corridor, but the vines were already growing back along the sides. "Are your ears okay?"
Rose nodded. Her head actually felt like it was about to come off, but she credited that more to panic, terror, and poison than to Jack's blaster. She saw Jack's eyes go wide as he took in the Doctor lying still on the floor. "They got him," she said. She could feel herself edging towards hysteria and firmly told herself she could fall apart once in the Tardis. "There were too many of them, and he was trying to keep me out of their way. One grabbed him, and he couldn't move in time." She could hear the scratch of the flowers growing back. "Help me with him, I can't---"
Jack holstered his blaster and slung one of the Doctor's arms around his neck. "I've got him. No, you go," he said, shaking his head when she tried to support the Doctor from the other side. "I've got him. Get moving; you got him this far, I'll get him the rest of the way."
No, he got me this far. She didn't want to let the Doctor go; all she could think was that if she turned around, she'd be the one left there alone.
Jack seemed to know exactly what she was thinking. "We'll be right behind you," he said, giving her his most roguish smile. It would have been much more reassuring if his eyes hadn't looked so terrified.
There was no time to argue. She ran.
Rose's hair streamed out behind her like a golden flag. Jack kept his eyes locked on her as he dragged the Doctor through the narrow corridor. Even with her bad leg she was out pacing them; the Doctor was dead weight, and both taller and heavier than Jack. It had been a long time since Jack had been forced to drag an unconscious (not dying, Jack wouldn't let himself think dying) teammate. It brought back the memories he'd wished they had erased instead of the missing two years.
The damn things were everywhere, across the floor, hanging from the ceiling, writhing along the walls. Every time he got too close he could feel vines grabbing at his clothes, brushing against his face, and while normally that might sound like his idea of a good time this was all moving a bit too fast.
A vine curtain cut off his view of Rose; Jack could hear her footsteps receding down the corridor. He didn't get away so cleanly. One vine grabbed his right arm; the Doctor's weight made him lurch off-balance and he felt his arm almost wrench out of the socket. A second vine wrapped around his waist and held him like it was made of steel. No flowers yet, but Jack could see the first buds starting to sprout.
He felt his grip on the Doctor slipping. Jack looked over and saw the vines had latched onto him, too, masses of creeping green tendrils trying to pull him down. Jack tightened his hold around the Doctor's waist, but the vines were stronger and the Doctor slipped a little bit more. No, Jack thought, fury giving him a second wind. You can't have him.
He strained his arm against the vine holding it until he felt his fingertips brush against his blaster. With a final surge he reached down the final few inches and yanked out his gun. He had just enough mobility to whirl around on the grasping green curtain. "Not today," he said, and pulled the trigger.
The plants wilted before the sonic energy wave, and Jack staggered forward a step. He checked the blaster and swore; it would be a few minutes at least before it was charged enough to do that again.
He could still just see Rose ahead. He got a firmer grip on the Doctor and got moving.
A minute later, his shoulders and back were starting to scream, but he kept putting one foot in front of the other as fast as he could. He needed to keep Rose in sight; if she turned around and didn't see them following, he knew she'd panic, and that would be it. He didn't know how she'd managed to keep it together as well as she had; he wanted to panic, and he'd been trained for this kind of thing.
Well, not death flowers precisely, but deadly peril, and unless his history was seriously flawed, deadly peril wasn't a normal fact of life in 21st century London. Rose would have made one hell of an Agent; she'd have been giving him orders in no time.
The image of Rose cracking a whip and giving him orders was blessedly distracting for the moment he let it flit through his brain, but reality reasserted itself as the vines started growing back over the walls. And growing fast. Like he'd made them angry. Jack didn't know if plants could be angry, but he allowed that if anyone was capable of making it happen, he was probably the guy.
He plowed through another curtain of the things and saw the Tardis standing at the end of the corridor like a beautiful beacon. He loved that ship so much at that moment that if it had a mouth he would have kissed it, and frankly was tempted to do so anyway. Rose was already fumbling with her key, and he could see the Tardis' interior glow as she threw open the door.
Then he saw the vines growing up and out from the walls, and his heart sank. The flowers were already mature, ready to burst, and coming from all sides. There was no way he'd get past them in time. He glanced down at his blaster, but it was still charging and didn't have enough juice to take them all out.
"Come on! Hurry!" Rose shouted, standing in the doorway.
"Rose, forget it! There's too many, just close the door!"
Rose looked at him like he'd asked her to sprout wings and fly. "No."
The flowers were starting to shake. "Rose, just do it!"
"I'm not stranding you both out there!"
Two of the flowers burst. Jack ducked as low as he could while still dragging the Doctor and managed to stay just in front of the cloud. There were six more in front of him. "Rose..."
"I won't do it, Jack." She suddenly sounded wonderfully calm; Jack recognized the potent mix of terror and certainty, the kind of feeling that you got from looking over the edge of a very high cliff knowing every other escape route's been blocked.
"I don't want to get you killed, too!"
Oh, he was definitely right about her giving orders. "Yes, ma'am," he muttered under his breath. He pumped his legs as fast as they would go; he could hear the pop, pop, pop of the flowers spewing their poison. He was feet away from the Tardis when the final pair of flowers began to shake and could tell he still wasn't moving fast enough. He got a better grip on the Doctor, said a quick prayer to any god who might be passing by, and made a desperate lunge.
He dove through the doorway with less than an inch to spare, twisting as he fell so he would take most of the impact. He saw Rose slam the door shut just as the last flower spit. One more second would have been too late.
Rose's legs failed her and she sank down to the floor; Jack just leaned his head back and tried regain the wind that had been knocked out of him from the fall. The only sounds in the Tardis were the quiet hum of machinery and their breathing.
Rose was the first to break. "Did I really just do that?"
Jack laughed. "Yep, you did," he said. He eased the Doctor off of him and gently rolled him to the floor.
"I yelled at you."
"A little bit." He flashed her what he knew was a charming grin. "Don't apologize. I liked it."
He knelt over the Doctor and started a vitals check. "He's still breathing," Jack said, unable to keep the astonishment out of his voice. Rose flashed him a look that was a combination of Of course he is and Don't you dare say it like that again. She crawled over to them.
"How's your leg?" he asked, measuring the Doctor's pulse as he did. It was stronger than he'd expected, but Jack didn't know how much of that was due to the fact that he'd been running hard a few minutes before. "You were limping."
"Fine, I'm fine," she said. "How's he?"
Jack shook his head. "I don't know what fine is for him."
"What about if he was human?"
"If he was human he'd be dead," Jack said. She winced, but he didn't know how else to put it. "If you or me had taken a shot to the face like he did, we'd be dead before we hit the ground."
She'd taken the Doctor's hand. "But he's not." She looked at Jack. "Does that mean he'll be all right?"
Jack just shook his head again. "Rose, I don't know." He made another pulse check; it was slower, but again, he didn't know if that was good or bad. "Here, help me with his jacket," he said. She held the Doctor steady as Jack eased his arms free; he folded the jacket up and slid it under the Doctor's head.
"So, what do we do now?" Rose asked.
Jack folded his arms as he sat back down. "We wait."
The Doctor opened his eyes. He woke to a burnt orange sky; the soft light gave an amber cast to everything it touched. The grass beneath him gave off a sweet scent; it swept him back to a time when he'd had another name and dodging tedious lectures had been his favorite hobby. He scrambled to his feet and looked around; he was at the gates of a beautiful city. Even from outside he could feel the hum of activity going on inside; he could close his eyes and see people going about their daily business, just as it had always been.
He knew the city of course; he could never mistake it. But he couldn't believe it. "This was all destroyed," he whispered. He'd come back and seen it, forced himself to come back and see it. It had been ruins, rubble. It had burned.
But here it was, whole. And even if he couldn't believe his eyes, he could feel the wind, smell the grass. He could sense the turn of the planet, the exact angle of its axis. It was true.
He was home.
He caught some movement out of the corner of his eye and knew he was being watched. "Who's there?"
A shadow perched in a low-hanging tree limb hopped down and started towards him. He shaded his eyes against sun, but his hand dropped as the silhouette came closer and the realization of who it must be struck him. He touched the gate to steady himself as a petite, dark-haired girl stepped into the light; a young, pretty girl with a pixie haircut and a pixie's features. She looked at him with dark, clever eyes, and for one of the few times in his long life the Doctor found himself completely speechless.
She smiled, and it was like every good memory he'd ever had was happening at once. "Hello, Grandfather."
He took one step towards her and stopped; he was suddenly terrified that if he made any movement she would disappear. "Susan?"
She raised her eyebrows; it was a well-remembered look, one that said he was being a funny old man. He touched her shoulders; they felt solid. "Are you real?"
Before she could answer he swept her off the ground in a bear hug; he hadn't been tall enough or strong enough to hold her like this since she'd been a little girl. "Just tell me you're real."
She laughed and kicked her feet in the air; he felt her arms circle around his neck, and thought that if this moment could just stretch to last forever, he and the universe would be even. "Well, I certainly feel real, don't I?" she said laughing, and the Doctor had to concede the point. "Put me down! I'm not a baby anymore, you know."
He placed her back on the ground. "But what are you doing here?"
"Don't be silly, Grandfather. I'm here because you're here."
That made sense. Of course she was, where else would she be?
"Oh, you've changed!" she said.
He held his arms out. "D'ya like it?"
"I do," she said, giving him an appraising look. She tilted her head to once side. "I'm not sure about the ears, though."
"Hey," he said, mustering up as much mock hurt as he could. "You know I can't control how it works out."
"You know I'm only teasing, Grandfather," she said. "I like it, I do." She fingered his jacket. "Although the leather makes you look like you're spoiling for a fight."
"Maybe I am." He bent down into a boxer's crouch. "It would scandalize you, I bet, seeing your old grandfather in a fight." He shadowboxed her until she smiled, then straightened up again. "Oh, Susan, I've been in so many fights since I saw you last, you'd never believe it."
"Well, maybe I wouldn't," she teased, skipping a few steps ahead. "You always made Ian do all the fighting."
"That's because Chesterton was good at it," he countered. "It made him feel like he was contributing."
"Oh, of course, that's why." She turned back to face him and giggled. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "You just sound so different, I can't get over it!"
The Doctor rolled his eyes. "Look completely different, that's fine, no problem. Little bit of a northern accent, that you can't get over. Lots of planets have a north, you know!"
Susan shook her head. "But Grandfather, you're not from the north," she said, quite reasonably.
He smiled. "But I sound like it." The smile dropped from his face; he's made the "lots of planets have a north" joke before, made it recently, but he couldn't remember where or when or to whom. Normally his memory was impeccable, but this was a hole he couldn't explain. Finally he banished the thought. It couldn't be very important now, could it?
Susan seemed to be looking at him very carefully. "Is there something wrong, Grandfather?"
"No," he said, shaking away the last bit of doubt. "What could be wrong? Here we are, together, home---"
He looked up and the sky was an angry, blighted red. He spun around and saw a pile of rocks and cinder where his city had been. The air was thick with smoke, barely breathable; the ground beneath him was blasted and cracked. All he could smell was burning, burning; worse, he could feel that the axis of the planet had tilted, could feel that down to its core the planet was wrong and empty and dead. Then he blinked and the sky was as it should be, and everything was perfect again.
"Grandfather?" He jumped when she touched his arm. He turned away from her eyes, looked at the sky and tried to stop shaking. "Grandfather, what did you see?"
He looked back at her. "Nothing," he lied. "Trick of the sun. My eyes are older than yours, you know." He told himself this over and over until he believed it, until his heartbeats were back under control and he thought he could walk without collapsing.
He also told himself he didn't see the flash of worry on Susan's face.
The seizure started with no warning, and for a second Rose was terrified it was never going to stop. "Oh God, oh God, oh God," she said, trying to hold him down. "Jack, help him!"
Before she even finished speaking it seemed like Jack just appeared next to her, like he had a teleport. He was cool and calm and Rose absolutely loved him for it, because he was the only thing keeping her from melting into total panic. "Rose," he said, "hold his head, keep him from hitting it on the floor. Watch his airway, make sure it stays open. You can do that?"
Rose nodded and cradled his head; Jack turned the Doctor on his side and wrapped his arms around him. The Doctor seized for two endless, tortuous minutes, then the convulsions stopped just as suddenly as they'd started. When they were sure it was over, Jack gently eased him onto his back again and started looking him over. Rose sobbed into her hands; after a minute she felt Jack massaging the back of her neck. She looked up and saw that Jack was checking the Doctor's pulse, saw that the Doctor's chest was rising and falling, and started sobbing harder. She'd been sure the only reason the seizure had stopped was because he was dead.
It took her a minute to manage words. "How is he?" she finally choked out.
"Not bad," Jack said, and Rose felt like hitting him.
"No, Jack. Don't lie to me, really how is he?"
"No, I mean it," he said. He looked her in the eyes, and she realized he actually did. "His pulse is weaker than before, but it's still not bad, and his breathing's steady."
"Is he dying?" The words came out in a sob, and Rose hated herself for it; she wanted to be handling this as well as Jack.
Jack sat back on his heels and lifted an eyebrow. "Actually, I think the seizure might be a good sign."
"What?" Rose said. "How could that possibly be a good thing?"
Jack sighed and raked a hand through his hair, mussing it up. "If I'm right about what those things are, he got hit with a psionotoxin..."
Rose felt her expression go blank just like when the Doctor was trying to explain things. "A...a psino..."
"Psionotoxion," Jack said, pronouncing it clearly. "It's like...Do you know what a neurotoxin is?"
Rose nodded. "It's a type of poison. Like a snake's poison. And neuro means it works on the nervous system, right?"
"Exactly. A psionotoxin is similar, except that it works on the mind. Not the physical mind, the mental one. That's why it's so good at killing humans, we don't have any defense against it."
Rose processed this. "So, the seizure could mean..."
"It could mean that his mind is trying to fight off whatever the toxin's doing to it." He reached over and brushed her hair away from her face. "He's fighting. That's good."
"'Course he's fighting." She tried to wipe the tears away, but they just seemed to keep coming. "When I was in second year," she said, "there was a girl in my class who had epilepsy. She used to have fits in maths, and it looked just like that. It was horrible; I never knew what to do then, either."
"Well, it's scary. You're better than me; first time I saw something like that I ran."
Rose shook her head. "You are such a liar." She held the Doctor's hand; his skin was cool, and he didn't move. "Is he in pain?" she asked. "Fighting this, do you think it hurts him?"
Jack shook his head. "I don't know."
Rose wrapped her free arm around her knees. "He should've let them have me," she said. She knew she was going to start crying again. "I'd rather that. I'd've rather they'd caught me than he have to go through this."
"Hey." Jack leaned forward and tipped her chin up. "Don't say that. You know full well he wouldn't rather that. You dying is not an option."
Rose leaned her head against the Tardis console. She imagined the thousands of vines growing and waiting just outside the door. "What are those things? Why do they do this?"
"I think," Jack started, "I think they're Adirial vines." He saw this had no meaning to her, and kept going. "In my time, there's a poison called Adirian. It's a psionotoxin, which is very rare; I knew it came from a vine, but I've never seen them until now. It's outlawed in most of the galaxy, obviously, but of course it's still used sometimes. It's quick, it's airborne, and it kills like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "Real useful when you're trying to take out a large number at once, or when you want something done quietly."
Rose shivered. "Did...I mean, when you were an Agent, did you..."
Jack gave her a cold grin. "Don't worry, Rose. I wasn't wetworks." The grin soured. "Though I guess I can't really be sure, can I?"
Rose wished she hadn't asked. "The Doctor mentioned something right before we all started running. Tarsus...?"
"What was Tarsus 5?"
Jack took a deep breath. "Tarsus 5 was a colony moon on the outskirts of civilized space. It hadn't been completely terraformed yet, so most of the inhabitants were packed into a small area." Jack's mouth twisted into a snarl. "Someone decided they weren't happy with the way things were being run."
Rose was starting to think she didn't want to hear the end of this story. "What did they do?"
Jack drummed his fingers against the Tardis floor. "They released Adirian into the air vents. Took out the whole colony. Well," he said, "that's what everyone thought happened. The problem was, no one could figure out where someone could get their hands on that much Adirian; the stuff works fast, but you need a lot of it to do that much damage. Looking at this place, now I'm thinking they may have just planted it. Nothing better than poison that grows more of itself."
"It makes sense, though. Explains why everything was hushed up the way it was, too."
"I don't understand."
"Adirian is usually used by two kinds of people: people who need a job done fast, and those who want to kill the mind but have an intact body. Since there's no damage to any tissues, the body's perfect, and that's the goal for some people."
Rose started to ask who would possibly need that, but Jack cut her off. "Believe me, you don't want to know. I wish I didn't know."
Jack leaned back. "I always thought it was strange that they didn't release any pictures from Tarsus. The only good thing about Adirian is that it leaves you presentable."
"I'm still not following."
Jack's eyes were shadowed. "Think about it, Rose. Why would a plant evolve a psionotoxin? It follows that they must have some use for the body." He looked at Rose. "I think they go in when after the person's dead and suck them dry. That explains why the body we found was so desiccated when, if the Doctor' right, it's only been a few months."
"So...they kill you and use you like fertilizer?"
"That's why they're the only organic things down here. They must have stripped everything else bare."
Every new detail Rose learned just made it all more horrifying. "That's the most appalling thing I've ever heard." And they were all a second away from that. "Oh my God, and he would've still been alive while that happened."
"No, he wouldn't have been." Rose looked up; Jack's eyes were cold. He tapped the gun in his holster. "If I'd known we were trapped, I would have made sure of that. Even if it was the last thing I did."
Oh, Jack. Rose reached out and took his hand. "You didn't have to, though. You saved him." She squeezed his hand, and felt better when he smiled. "So," she said, trying to compose herself, "you've been to Tarsus, you said? Were you there as a Time Agent? Did you catch who did it?"
"Yeah, well..." he trailed off. He ran a hand through his hair again, and his smile turned sheepish. "Er...not exactly."
"I went there to wind up a long con I'd been running," he admitted. "Hey, I put four months of work into that!" he said when she rolled her eyes. "Didn't get my money, you might have guessed."
Rose shook her head. "You have the worst luck."
"Yeah, I guess the universe was trying to tell me something. Still, it wasn't all bad luck; a week earlier and I would've been plant food, too."
"But I don't understand; you said you hadn't seen anything like this."
"I hadn't. Everything had been cleaned up by the time I got there. What I remembered was the smell." Jack got up and started to pace. "The whole colony smelled like a perfume factory. I thought it was just part of the cover-up, but now it's obvious the authorities just hadn't gotten to it yet." He leaned against one of the Tardis control panels; the lights threw his face into shadow. "I noticed it as soon as we stepped out of the Tardis," he said. "The smell. That same perfume smell, I just couldn't place it. It didn't click for me until he mentioned Tarsus."
Rose realized where this was going. "Jack, it's not your fault."
"It bothered me the entire time, but I didn't mention it. If I'd said something as soon as we got out, maybe..."
"Jack, the Doctor didn't realize what was happening, you can't..."
Jack rounded on her. "Rose, it was less than two years ago for me. Two years ago I was standing in a place not that different from this one, smelled the exact same thing, and I still couldn't put it together. We're trained not to make stupid mistakes like that, careless mistakes, because that's what gets people..." He bit off the end of the sentence and covered his face in his hands. "That's what gets people killed."
Oh, Jack. You're just as scared as I am. "Jack, c'mere."
"Rose, if he doesn't..."
"Jack. Come here."
He walked towards her, his steps heavy on the Tardis walkway. She wrapped her arms tight around him; she felt him shaking, felt him press his face against her hair. "I'm sorry..." he whispered.
"Shush." His arms were warm around her. "We'd be dead if you weren't with us, the both of us." He squeezed her but didn't answer. "And you came back for us. You're the only reason we made it back here, and you almost got killed doing it, so stop apologizing." Rose didn't know how long they held each other there, but finally she stepped back and looked into Jack's eyes. "We're gonna be all right. We will. You said yourself he was fighting, and he's not going to give up and leave us. He's not."
Jack nodded. His expression shifted; Rose could almost see the gears turning in his head. "Rose, you sit with him," he said, "keeping talking to him, maybe you'll get through. I'm going to see if I can find something."
"What, something else to soup up your gun?"
"Not quite. You'll see." He kissed her on the top of her head. "And thanks."
He rounded the Tardis console and disappeared into the interior. Rose knelt back beside the Doctor and took his hand. "I hope it's a good plan he has, because I can't think of anything."
She stroked his forehead and his hair. "Doctor," she said. "It's time to wake up now. I'm scared, and I need you. I know it's hard, but I'm right here, so just open your eyes. Please, Doctor."
"Susan, did you hear that?"
They were walking along a garden path; Susan hadn't wanted to go into the city, and frankly the Doctor was happy to have her all to himself for a little while longer. He'd just finished telling her about the Isis II system, where there was an asteroid belt made of solid diamonds, and had begun relating the story of how he'd been mistaken for a spy when he'd landed on Marseis, where half the population lived in underwater cities because no one had told them the war on the surface had ended a thousand years before. Then he'd lost his train of thought; he could've sworn he'd heard something.
"Why, Grandfather? What did you hear?"
"I don't know." For a moment he'd thought it had sounded like his name, like someone calling...but that was impossible, he and Susan were the only ones there. "I must be imagining things."
She linked her arm through his; it felt just like old times, just the two of them against the universe. "Where was I?"
She smiled. "Everyone had mechanical gills."
"Oh, yes, right. Well, they didn't know what to make of me, you can imagine. After I broke out of jail..." A half hour later he'd wound through the story, and they continued the walk in companionable silence. The Doctor didn't think he could ever get tired of this.
Only one small detail bothered him; it nagged at his mind until he couldn't think of anything else. Susan squeezed his hand; she seemed to sense something was wrong. "Susan, can I ask you a question?" he asked, each word dragging out of him. "You don't have to answer, it's not that important."
"Of course, Grandfather. You can ask me anything."
His mouth felt packed full of sawdust. "Why do you look the same?" He turned his head to look at her. "Even if you hadn't regenerated, you should be grown. It's been long enough for that. Why aren't you grown up?" He turned his head away; he thought he'd feel better once the words where out, but he felt like something was sitting on his chest and squeezing. "Forget it," he said, "Forget I said anything. It's not important, I don't care."
He wanted to walk away from the conversation, but she stopped and wouldn't let him go. "I wanted to make sure you recognized me."
He walked back towards her and cupped her chin in his hand. "Susan, I would know you no matter what you looked like. You could regenerate a two heads and I would know you. You know that, right?"
She nodded and kissed his hand. She had tears in her eyes, and he wiped them away when they fell. "Don't cry. I'm sorry, don't cry. It's just," he said. "It's just I never got to see you grown, is all. That's all I mean." Cold shame settled in his stomach. "I promised to come back, but I never...how could I have never..."
"Grandfather," she said, but he cut her off.
"No, no, don't say it's all right, it's not. I always intended to come back, Susan, you have to believe me," he said. "I would come back, and I would look different and maybe you would look different, but it wouldn't matter because we'd just pick up where we left off. You'd tell me everything about your life, then I'd take you everywhere I'd been." He felt hollow; there were no excuses he could make. He hugged his arms and turned away. "That's how it was supposed to be," he whispered. He looked back at her, and his voice broke. "Who ever heard of Time Lords running out of time?
Susan moved in front of him. "Shh," she said. "That's enough of that." She cupped his face in her hands, and he had to close his eyes or he was going to break right there. "Grandfather," she said, and all he could do was shake his head. "Grandfather," she said again, firmly this time, and he forced himself to meet her eyes. "No regrets, no tears, remember?" She sounded so mature he had a sudden flash of all the years he'd missed. "That's what you told me." She brushed her hands down the sleeves of his jacket and straightened his collar. "I took that to heart and didn't have any, and I don't want you to, either."
He laughed, but it was a harsh, bitter sound. "Susan, all I have anymore is regret." He wanted to go back in time and strangle that naïve old man. So self-satisfied, always so sure he was right.
He drew her close, wrapped her tight in his arms. He was making her cry, and that had to stop. He had her back, that was the important thing now. Now he could start making everything different.
"Was he good to you?" he mumbled. She frowned, and he elaborated, "Your man. That rebel boyfriend of yours. Was he good to you?"
Her expression cleared and she smiled. "Yes. Yes, he was very good to me"
Well, that was something. She laced her fingers through his and they continued on. When they came to a wide fence cordoning off a grove of silver-leaf trees, she perched on top and he leaned against one of the beams and watched the sun filter through the leaves. "You think you've very cute up there, don't you."
She kicked her heels against the slats of the fence and didn't take his bait; he'd never been very good at winding her up. The Doctor stood there feeling the sun on his face with his granddaughter at his side and felt something hard and knotted inside him slowly loosen. It had been so long since he'd felt peaceful that it took him a while to recognize the emotion. "This should have been your life," he said, "not spinning about the universe with your daft old grandfather."
"I liked traveling with you."
"It was selfish of me to drag you along like I did. I didn't want to go it alone, and I just uprooted your whole life. I didn't even let you finish school."
"You sent me to school."
"Human school. Big difference, there. And that was your idea, not mine."
"You taught me everything I would have learned at home."
"That's not the point."
She edged over towards him and draped one arm over his shoulder. "Do you remember the night we left?"
He sighed. "You caught me stealing the Tardis."
She giggled. "You climbed out the window! In the middle of the night, like a teenager!"
He actually had forgotten that embarrassing detail. "Well, you followed me," he said, wincing at how childish it sounded.
"I couldn't let that go! I had to see what you were up to."
"Well, you saw. You should have run home and raised the alarm. Saved us both a universe worth of trouble."
"You would just have tried again later."
The Doctor had to admit that was true. "Doesn't mean you should have stowed away, though."
"I couldn't let you just go off on your own. You wouldn't have had anyone to take care of you."
"That's the whole point of it. I should never have let you take that role on. You were a child, it wasn't fair to you."
"I wanted to take care of you."
"Shouldn't have been your job. I stole your life."
She hopped off the fence and gave him a look so fierce he would've taken a step back if he hadn't already been pressed against the fence. "That's not fair to me, either. I wanted to go with you. Did I ever ask you to take me home?"
"Well," he said, "No, but..."
"So listen to me." She took both of his hands in hers. "I saw more, and experienced more, and lived more than most people ten times my age. I wouldn't trade away one second of that time for anything. Not anything."
She pressed two fingers against his lips. "You have to listen now."
He waited for her to continue, but the voice he heard wasn't Susan's.
The voice rushed through him like a shock. He jumped forward, looking around for its source; it seemed like it was coming from the sky. "I know that voice," he said. He looked at Susan. "Who is that? How do I know that voice?"
She squeezed his hand. "Keep trying."
He searched his memories, but none of the faces he called up matched the voice. Each time he was ready to give up and dismiss it he looked down and saw Susan looking at him, nodding at him to continue. He could feel parts of his mind shying away, whole blocks of his memory he couldn't see. He pushed through block after block, tracking down the voice, until he felt something give way. "Rose," he said. At first it was just a name; then he could see her face and it was like a whole section of memory slid back into place and he laughed. "Of course, it's Rose."
Susan smiled up at him. "Is Rose a friend of yours?"
"Oh, yes. Do you know, the day we met I blew up her job and she still talks to me?" He laughed again and led he back down towards the walking path. "Susan, just wait 'till you meet her, you'll love her. Jack, too," he said, as another slice of memories slid where it belonged. "Though I might have to keep a closer eye on Jack, with you coming along."
"Grandfather." He realized she'd stopped following. He turned around to see what was wrong. "Grandfather, I can't meet them."
"Why not?" He put his hands on his hips. "Now, don't act jealous, you've never been like that before..." He trailed off as he looked in her eyes and knew that wasn't it at all. "Susan, what's wrong? Just tell me and I'll fix it."
She took a deep breath. "Grandfather, where are you right now?"
"What do you mean? We're both right..." He stopped. Susan had never been the sort of girl who asked silly questions; she deserved for him to consider the answer seriously. He closed his eyes and stretched out his senses.
He felt the wind and heard the rustle of grass, the call of birds, his blood pulsing through his veins. He pushed past; he could sense there was something underneath the surface impressions, like a painting the artist had decided to sketch over. He held his breath and stretched further until he thought he would fly apart in all directions. Then he caught the faint hum of machinery coming from below and around him; he knew he was lying on something metal, with something softer under his head. "I'm in the Tardis," he said, not quite believing the words even as he said them. "How is that possible?"
He could hear his ship clearly now, hiding just underneath. "Where is the Tardis?" he said, feeling a surge of panic as he looked around. He couldn't remember where he'd landed it, or how he'd gotten here. "I have to find it, Rose'll be worried if we're not back." He looked at Susan and saw another flash of worry; he could feel that he was missing something very important.
Jack finally found what he'd been looking for when he heard Rose scream. Her voice seemed to be coming from everywhere; the inside of the Tardis had a way of messing with the senses. He stopped and cocked his head, listening; he heard her again, this time echoing from below. He didn't know how he'd managed to get over the console room, but he'd wonder about it later; the note of pure panic in Rose's voice sent him running.
Rose's voice followed him as he retraced his steps. He flashed back to trying to find her and the Doctor in the maze of corridors, hearing her call his name and only being able to imagine what was happening. He should have been faster. He'd been one step too slow all day, and everyone around him had been the ones to pay for it.
It was another seizure; he knew that must be it from the way Rose was screaming, but the foreknowledge didn't stop his heart from dropping into his stomach when he rounded the corner into the console room and saw it. The convulsions were bad, worse than before, more violent; Rose heard him coming and shot him a desperate, pleading look. He felt his crisis training rushing back and surrendered to it; the last thing he wanted to do now was think.
Rose scrambled back as he waved her off. He wrapped himself around the Doctor and held tight, making sure to keep the airway clear and preventing him from hurting himself. He could feel the Doctor's double heartbeat pounding as he seized. "Shh," he whispered, his lips next to the Doctor's ear. "It's all right, I have you, I'm right here." Jack didn't know if the Doctor could hear him, but it was all he could think of to do. He forced his voice to stay steady. "I've got you, I'm right here with you, Rose too, we're both here." For the next few minutes he whispered anything soothing that came to mind as the convulsions slowly eased. Finally he was confident the spell had passed, but it was a few minutes before Jack could bring himself to let the Doctor go. First, Jack had to feel him breathing for a while, the Doctor's chest rise and fall in his arms, and get his own breathing under control. He couldn't go to pieces in front of Rose.
Even so, when he finally set the Doctor down and looked him over Jack's hands shook so much he had retake the Doctor's pulse twice before he trusted the result. The pulse felt thready to Jack, but considering that his body had just been trying to shake itself apart for the past five minutes Jack would take what he could get. He still thought he was right, that the seizures meant the Doctor's mind was trying to fight off the toxin, but he had no idea whether them getting worse meant he was winning or losing.
"What's going on in there?" Jack whispered to him, stroking his thumb along the line of the Doctor's jaw. "Whatever you're doing in there, hurry up and come back. You're scaring Rose half to death." His hands were still trembling, but he could control it, could fake calm. He just hoped Rose hadn't heard his voice break halfway through that last sentence, because then his con would be blown.
Rose was crying softly with her forehead pressed against the central control column. Jack padded over to her and didn't bother with words; he just picked her up and sat her in his lap. She clutched onto his shirt and started sobbing harder as he stroked her hair. Finally the tears subsided into sniffles and the hiccups that always followed too much crying. "I think I need a tissue," she said.
Jack fished a hankerchief out of his pocket and handed it over; she looked at it incredulously before using it. "You carry a hankerchief?" she said, her voice muffled. "What are you, eighty?"
Jack shrugged. "Everyone did in the forties. I had to blend in; guess it became a habit."
Rose noticed the monogram on the corner. "So, who's 'C.R.,' then?"
Jack quirked one eyebrow and Rose dropped her head onto his chest. "You're such a pig," she said. "Why am I friends with such a pig? I bet you have a collection."
Jack didn't confirm or deny. She snuggled closer against him; her weight filled some of the hollowness in his chest. "He's not getting better, is he?"
She sounded drained. "I don't know, Rose," he said. "Whether I'm right or not, I don't know if his body can handle another one like that. Was that the only one since I left?"
Rose shook her head. "There was another one, but it was over so quick I didn't even have time to call you. I thought it meant he was getting better, because it wasn't as bad. Then the next one came, and it was so much worse. It was like my brain shut off, I couldn't think, I couldn't do anything." Her voice turned bitter. "I'm so useless. All I do is fall apart."
"Oh, I think you're holding together all right."
She let out a snort of disbelief. "I thought con artists were supposed to be good liars." She eased off of his lap and leaned forward, stroking the Doctor's arm. "He's doesn't look right, somehow."
Jack chuckled. "He's not wearing his armor," he said, pointing his chin towards the folded-up jacket.
Her eyes turned thoughtful. "Never thought of it like that," she said. "I'm so used to seeing him wear it, he's almost a different man without it.."
Jack wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him. "I never," she started, then shook her head. "I never think of him as someone who can get hurt, or get sick. Like he'll always just pop back up fine. Which is stupid, because I've seen him get hurt, I've seen him---" Rose bit off the end of the sentence and turned her head away; Jack remembered the Doctor offhandedly mentioning a "time mishap" that had happened before he met them, something that went wrong when they "went to meet Rose's dad." Something in the Doctor's manner had warned Jack not to bring it up again.
"He's so good, Jack," she said. "You have no idea. It's not right, this happening. It's not fair."
Jack glad was hear some fire back in Rose's voice. What he had planned would be easier if she yelled at him.
Not just yet, though. All he was up for at that moment was Rose's head leaning against his shoulder. For a few minutes he thought she might have fallen asleep; finally, though, she shifted against him. "Didja find what you were looking for?"
"Yep," he said.
She twisted her head around to look at him. "Well, let's see, then. I wanna know what you're up to."
He hissed out a breath between his teeth. "Okay, but you're not gonna like it."
He got up and circled back around the console to where he'd dropped his prize. "You know, I must have searched through thirty rooms. I thought you two gave me the complete tour," he teased.
"Oh, there's no complete tour of the Tardis," Rose said. "I think rooms grow overnight."
He bounded back up the steps, and Rose snatched it out of his hand. "What is it?"
Jack leaned against the railing and crossed his arms. "It's a breather mask." He took it back from her and showed her the dials. "It knew there had to be at least one on board, not every planet has an oxygen atmosphere." He could feel her eyes on him, and kept talking. "It's not a human design, but a breather's a breather, and from what I can make out there's two or three hours on it. Unless he breathes nitrogen or something and never told us, in which case I'm going to have some problems."
"Jack," she said, and he could hear how hard she was trying to stay calm. "Why do you need that?"
Jack didn't answer, but Rose already knew. She backed up a few steps. "You're not going back out there."
"Rose, I have to."
"No." She shook her head. "No, you don't."
"Yeah, I do. Someone has to." He put his hands on her shoulders. "Rose, why did we land here in the first place, hm?" She shook him off and turned away, hugging her arms. He turned her back around to face him. "Rose, look at me." She shook her head no, but he massaged her shoulders until her eyes darted up to him.
"Jack, you'll die," she whispered. "You'll die. Don't go."
"Rose," he said, as tears welled back up in her eyes. Jack knew that if the Doctor was awake he would be kicked out of the Tardis for making Rose cry. "Rose, come on. Please, don't. We're here because he needs parts for the Tardis, right?" She nodded. "Well, we didn't get a chance to find them, but we still need them, or we can't leave. I know what's he's looking for, I can go and get them."
"Those things are still out there," Rose said. "They'll kill you."
"I'm being careful."
"Jack, you said that mask had two hours! What if it takes longer?"
"Jack, you're not making sense. The vines don't just let you walk around! Once they realize you're there, they'll grab you, and then the mask won't do any good. You'll be out there all alone, no one will be able to help you."
Jack smiled and took out his blaster. "That's why I have this."
Rose sighed in exasperation. "You said there was only five or six more shots left in it. Then what?"
"Rose, I don't want to fight."
"Well, we're fighting! I don't understand why you have to do this. Make me understand!"
"Because I have to do something!" He walked away a few steps and tried to compose himself. "Rose, we need these parts to get out of here. If someone doesn't go back out there, that's the same as saying that he's never going to wake up. That it doesn't matter. That's not what you're saying, right?"
Rose flinched back like he'd slapped her. He reached one hand out to her; she rushed forward and wrapped her arms around him. "Hey, hey, it's all right. I'll be all right. We don't what he'll be up for when he wakes up," he said, careful to use "when" instead of "if," "and he needs you to stay with him. He'll kill me if I let you go back out there, anyway."
She laughed, and he knew that if she had the energy she would have hit him. "I can do this," he said, rubbing the nape of her neck. "I'm the one who can do this. If I don't, then we're giving up. You didn't let me give up back in the corridor, and I'm not letting you give up now. Okay?"
She shook her head no, but stepped back. Her face was tear-streaked and red, and Jack needed to remember exactly the way she looked at that moment, because she was the kind of beautiful that inspired men to stupid things. "Rose, you have to promise me something."
"Oh no," she said, wiping her eyes. "I'm not going to like this either, am I?"
"Nope, probably not." He put one hand under her chin. "Like I said, I have two hours on the mask, maybe three. If I'm still gone past that time, do not come looking for me. If he wakes up and manages to get this ship working somehow and I'm past due, just leave. You have to promise not to come after me."
"I'm not going to promise that."
"Stop trying to be charming."
"Are you implying I have to try?" He wound her hair around his fingers. "Seriously, though, you have to promise me. I'd make it an order, but I don't think that would work."
"You're right about that. As if you follow orders, anyway. The Doctor ordered you to get to the Tardis and close the doors. Didn't stop you from playing superhero."
"Hey, I did exactly as ordered. I got back here, closed the doors just like he said." Jack smiled. "Then I fixed my gun and headed back out. He didn't say a word about that." Rose laughed at him, and Jack was glad to hear it. "That's why I'm being clear with you. No heroic rescue. Promise me."
She sniffled and nodded. "Good. Now he and I," Jack said, nodding towards the Doctor, "need to have word before I go." Jack knelt next to the Doctor, watching him breathe. He bent close to his ear. "You still owe me a dance," he whispered to him. "I expect you to be up and around when I get back, so don't disappoint me." He kissed the Doctor's forehead, breathed him in as deeply as he could. Jack wished he knew exactly when he'd gotten so far in over his head. "I was right," he said, half to the Doctor and half to himself. "I never did have a chance, did I?"
He straightened back up and Rose rushed him, wrapping her arms around him so tightly he couldn't breathe for a second. "Keep talking to him," he murmured into her hair as he hugged her off the ground. "Don't stop. Remind him what he has to come back to."
"I'm glad we met you, Captain Jack Harkness," she said. He put her back on the floor, and she poked his shoulder. "If you don't come back I'll never forgive you."
"I'll keep that in mind. Do I get a kiss before I head off to battle?"
"No," she said. Jack blinked in surprise; that always worked, even when he wasn't actually heading off to battle. "My mum loves movies like that, and the hero always dies. You wait until you come back."
He kissed the top of her head instead. "I'll hold you to that. I'm warning you though, next time I won't ask first."
"Go on, then. Before my senses come back and I tie you to the railing."
She was halfway between laughing and crying as she turned away. He lingered by the Tardis doors and watched as she cradled the Doctor's head in her lap. Then he took a deep breath, pulled the mask over his face and opened the door.
The sky was the color of blood. All around was death, death he felt deep into his bones. Everything was rubble; everywhere he looked he saw ruins where something beautiful had been, some treasure older than most civilizations, older than most worlds, reduced to cinders. And always, always the stench of burning. The Doctor knew as long as he lived he would never escape the smell of his world burning.
"I did this," he said, seeing some fresh horror every time he turned his head. "I made this happen. It's all my fault."
"You did what you had to, Grandfather. You always do."
He spun around to look at her. They were the only living things in the blighted landscape; the desolation echoed the horrible silence in his mind. "No. I should have found another way. I'm always able to find another way. I failed. I murdered everyone."
She clutched his arm. "That's not true. This was the only way."
"It wasn't worth it. Nothing is worth this." Closing his eyes didn't help; he could feel deep into the core of his broken planet, and in a way that was worse than the blasted surface. "Why didn't I die?" he whispered. "I was supposed to die. That was the plan. I would never have been able to do it if I'd known it would be this way."
"It wasn't your time."
He rounded on her. "It wasn't yours, either!" He felt a yawning pit open inside him as that moment rushed back. "I felt it happen, you know. When you ---" He couldn't even say the word. He turned away; he couldn't look at her any more and stay in one piece. "I felt everyone. Rushing through my head, all at once. I felt all of them go. Then I felt you. I didn't even know you were on the planet until I felt you."
"Everyone was called back for the War," she said. She took his hand, and he didn't realize how much he was shaking until he tried to squeeze back. "They wouldn't let me see you. They thought it would be too big a distraction."
"I felt all of them," he said, "and it was..." The Doctor trailed off. Words hadn't been developed that could describe it. "All I could think was, well, at least it'll be my turn next. Then I felt you, and I didn't think anymore." He looked at her. "The next thing I knew, I woke up with this face, and everyone was gone. Just gone."
He stroked her cheek. "I should have been better," he said. "There are so many things I should have done."
"I missed you," she said. She leaned against his hand for a moment, her eyes closed. "She's calling you."
"...Doctor, please, wake up. I need you..."
"Rose," he said. "She sounds scared. Why does she sound so scared?"
"She's waiting for you."
"No," he said. "No. I won't go without you."
Susan's eyes were patient and terrible all at once. She held both of his hands and forced him to look at her. "Grandfather, you have to. We're running out of time again."
He shook his head. Thunder ripped apart the sky, but she didn't flinch; she was a fixed point as the world shook. Over everything he heard Rose calling him, brave and terrified the way humans could be. He remembered the poison flowers that had grown up around his Tardis; he couldn't leave Rose there. Susan nodded to him. "It's all right."
"I just got you back. I can't just leave you again."
"Of course you can." He flinched, but her words were calm, and where he expected recrimination he only saw concern. "You have to. If you stay much longer you'll never leave."
The ground shook under their feet. "I can't leave you here."
She gave him an exasperated sigh. "This isn't where I am. This is where you are."
His mind started making connections. "The city," he said, and she raised her eyebrows. "I was about to go into the city when I saw you. You led me away from there. It was a trap." The ground shook again. "You said you were here because I was here."
Tears trailed down her face. "I wanted to take care of my Grandfather," she whispered
He swept her up off the ground. "Will I see you again?"
He felt her nod. "When it's time. I'm still waiting, you know," she said, her arms around his neck and her voice breaking. "Of course you're going to come back. You promised. You always keep your promises. It'll just take a little while longer. When it's your time, I'll be waiting. I'll always wait for you."
He held her as tightly as he could. He needed to make sure he could never forget what this felt like. "Are you real, Susan?"
"I already told you. Now you have to go."
"You have to listen."
He closed his eyes. He ignored everything his senses told him except Rose's voice, her frightened human voice guiding him in the dark. He followed it through a maze like a golden thread, and when he lost his way in the twists and turns he stopped until he felt her pulling him forward.
The Doctor opened his eyes. For a fleeting moment he thought he saw sky spread out above him, but then his vision cleared and he saw the familiar ceiling of his Tardis. His arms where empty; for a moment he could feel Susan's arms still hugging around his neck, then the sensation faded, leaving searing emptiness and a fresh scar to add to the collection. He remembered the other time he'd woken up alone on the floor of his ship, feeling like he'd left the best parts of himself scattered through time burning.
But he wasn't alone. He felt Rose's hand in his, warm and solid and real. She was curled up against him, her hair spread over his chest, and he could still hear the soft, wordless murmur of her voice. He couldn't make his own voice work; he tightened his grip on her hand instead.
She jumped up like she'd been shocked. He didn't know eyes could be so wide; one hand flew to her mouth and with the other she squeezed his hand so hard it hurt. "Doctor?" she whispered, the quaver in her voice making the word fragile. "Doctor, can you hear me?"
He nodded. It was so hard to keep his eyes open; his mind still felt like it was wrapped in cotton, a soft, hazy darkness that beckoned him back even though now he knew now that it caused by the Adirial pollen, by poison. It was a lie.
It was still so tempting.
But it wasn't real. Rose with him, holding his hand, that was real. "Heard you calling," he finally rasped, his voice rough to his ears. "Called me back."
She burst into tears. He managed to sit up---every muscle in his body was stiff, and he couldn't remember ever feeling so exhausted---and cradled her against his chest. "Did I scare you?"
She nodded; she was crying too hard to talk. "Sorry," he said, wrapping his arms tightly around her. "I'm clumsy. I should have warned you."
She clutched onto his jumper like she was afraid he'd melt away. "I thought you were dying," she said, in between sobs. "I thought I was gonna lose you."
He tangled one hand through her hair. "It's all right now," he said. "We're all right."
The door to the Tardis flew open; the Doctor turned his head in time to see Jack rush in with a green tentacle vine reaching in after him. He struggled to close the doors around the vine, until finally the Doctor saw him take out his blaster and pistol whip the thing. The vine drew back, and Jack slammed the door shut. Jack stood with his back to the doors with his eyes closed, sucking down oxygen like he'd never breathed before. He was a mess; the left sleeve of his shirt was hanging off, and blood ran down his arm. The Doctor felt Rose sag against him in relief, and he watched Jack for a minute before speaking. "So, where did you run off to?"
Jack's eyes flew open. He gaped at the two of them for a moment, then a smile lit up his face as he leaned against the doors and let out a long, shaky breath. The Doctor could tell Jack was fighting to keep his legs from giving out. "Well?" he said. "I'm waitin'."
Jack flashed him a triumphant grin. "Here, catch." He tossed the Doctor a small bag; the Doctor pulled out several pieces of machinery. He looked up at Jack, who rested his hands on his knees and gave him another smirking grin. "If those won't work, we're going to need to find some machetes before I'm heading out there again."
The Doctor turned the pieces over in his hands. He could work with these; not only had Jack found what he'd been looking for initially, he'd managed to dig up some parts that the Doctor thought might work even better. Rose rested her head on his shoulder, and he could tell how big her smile was without even turning to look. He caught Jack's eye again. "Not bad."
Three hours later the Doctor had managed to cobble together something that he was reasonably certain wouldn't make the Tardis explode. Rose had wanted to help, but after a half hour or so her head had begun to nod and soon she was asleep in his lap, his jacket spread over her like a blanket. Being careful not to wake her slowed the work down a bit, but it didn't occur to him to move her. She kept his ghosts away.
He heard Jack's boots on the metal floor; he managed to signal Jack to be quiet before he woke Rose. Jack smiled and crouched beside them; he'd changed and cleaned himself up. "How's it coming?" he whispered.
The Doctor switched off the sonic screwdriver and held up his new fluid lock. Jack let out a low whistle of admiration, and the Doctor smiled. It had been forever since he'd traveled with someone with the know-how to appreciate his technical genius. "Shouldn't be too long now until we're ready to move."
"How long has she been out?" Jack asked, inclining his head towards Rose.
"Couple of hours," he said. He turned the screwdriver back on; two of the pieces didn't quite fit together yet, and he needed to make sure everything was perfect.
"Well, she had a rough day," Jack said. "Do you want me to---"
"No," the Doctor said, too quickly. He could feel Jack watching him and tried to ignore it. The closer he came to finishing, the harder he found it to concentrate, and Jack wasn't helping. He needed his focus. If he focused just right, it stopped the burning smell that had followed him back to consciousness. "Rose told me what you did," he said. He nodded over towards the doors. "Out there. Took guts."
Jack laughed. "Rose was the one with the guts, not me. You were fighting off the Adirian, Rose had to watch. Dodging plants was the easy job."
I wasn't fighting to come back. The Doctor didn't speak the thought aloud, but he could tell by how Jack's expression shifted that he'd betrayed it somehow. Jack settled next to him to him on the floor and kept watching.
The Doctor adjusted the setting on the screwdriver and went back to ignoring Jack. All that was left was the fine detail, but his concentration kept flagging. "It felt real," he said, low enough that he wasn't sure Jack even heard. He looked at the part he was making and instead saw a pair of dark, laughing eyes, and suddenly all his could think about was everything he should have said. He knew it was a lie, a trick played on his mind by the poison, but even so he couldn't stop thinking about what he would do for just one more minute.
His hand started trembling; without speaking Jack reached over, gently took the screwdriver, switched it off and placed it on the floor. The Doctor leaned his head back against the console, closed his eyes and started talking about the Time War.
He told Jack details he knew he would never tell Rose, things someone who'd never seen war could never understand. He told Jack about the sky burning, how it was always burning. How every time he landed on a new planet he felt that momentary, illogical lurch of disappointment that it wasn't the right planet.
Then he told Jack about a clever little girl and foolish old man, and the words tumbled out. He didn't go into detail, didn't even use names, but Jack was clever himself. He said enough.
The two stories had the same ending, and it came all too soon. When he finished he let the silence stretch out between them.
"What was her name?"
The Doctor felt himself jump at Jack's voice. He opened his eyes and looked at Jack, his brows knitting up. "The girl," Jack continued. "You didn't say her name."
The Doctor smiled. "Susan. That was the name she liked best." Jack nodded, and the Doctor cocked his head. "Why do you want to know her name?"
A ghost of a smile lifted Jack's lips, but it wasn't his conman's grin; it was the damaged smile of the man with a hole in his mind that terrified him, the smile Rose had glimpsed through the mask that day during the Blitz. "Because now you don't have to be the only one who'll remember it."
The Doctor shut his eyes against the rush of emotion. When it passed he tired to figure what he'd been left with; it wasn't peace, certainly, he knew he'd never have that again, but maybe the ache in his chest had lessened by a degree or two. It was something.
He felt Jack shift from his side; at first he thought Jack was getting up, but when he opened his eyes he saw that Jack had only settled into a crouch in front of him, his dark eyes still watching. When Jack knelt forward, the Doctor didn't stop him.
The touch of Jack's lips was a soft caress. He felt Jack's hand come up to stroke his cheek and he tried to remember the last time he'd been kissed. Before this body. Before the Time War. Lifetimes ago.
The kiss was light, gentle, and the Doctor let it last longer than he'd intended. When he finally pulled back, Jack didn't push for more. "I'm not up for dancing tonight, Jack."
Jack was so close the Doctor felt his smile. "I'll collect on that debt someday." The Doctor felt Jack's breath against his lips, his thumb stroking his cheekbone. "You scared the hell out of me today," he whispered, his voice rough.
"Already apologized to Rose. I'm only good for one of those a day."
Jack didn't kiss him again so much as brush the Doctor's lips with his own, and the Doctor felt it down to his fingertips. Ah, the 51st century.
"You're not alone anymore, Doctor," Jack said. "You're not." Jack drew back like a cat and settled back beside the Doctor. It was a while before either of them spoke again.
The Doctor forced a smile. "So where do you want to go?" he asked, tossing the part from hand to hand.
Jack accepted change of subject with an easy grin. "Well," he said, letting out an exaggerated sigh, "after all this I think you owe me and Rose a nice beach. Without anything trying to kill us," he added quickly, and the Doctor could tell Jack had seen a nice beach holiday ruined that way once or twice.
"Oh, sure, make it difficult." He lifted up a panel on the console and carefully installed the new fluid lock, Jack peering intently over his shoulder.
"And you're sure it's ready?" Jack asked.
"Only one way to find out," the Doctor answered, slamming the panel shut. "Get around the other side and do exactly as I say." Jack circled around, and the Doctor moved Rose off to the side so that if something caught fire she'd be out of its range. "I know the perfect place, it'll be fantastic. The sand changes color when you walk on it, and the whole planet's under a dome so you never have to worry about rain." He looked over at Jack, whose eyes had gone wide trying to figure out what all the buttons and dials on the Tardis could possibly do. "Hold down the lever on the left," the Doctor said, "and push those three buttons on top one right after the other when I say." He entered the coordinates and flipped switches of his own, then held his breath. "Now."
For a few seconds nothing happened. The Doctor flipped more switches, pushed a few more buttons. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," he said. Finally he slammed his fist down on the console and the central column sprang to life. He heard Jack laughing from the other side of the console.
"Best kind," the Doctor answered. The Tardis was operating smoothly---well, some fits and starts, but mostly smoothly---and the Doctor took a step back to watch his ship work.
"I love this ship," Jack said; his face looked like a kid's in the Tardis lights.
"Me too." The Doctor crouched down to check on Rose; she was still fast asleep. He brushed her hair out of her face. "Take Rose, put her in bed," he said as Jack circled around to join them. "Get some sleep yourself. We'll all go exploring when she wakes up."
Jack picked her up; she made small murmur of protest but didn't wake up any further. The Doctor reclaimed his jacket and put it on; just before he left the room with Rose Jack turned back around. "I'm not going to be able to get much sleep," he said---which was a lie, the Doctor could tell Jack was almost out on his feet already---"so if you need me for anything..."
The Doctor had already stepped back to the console. "I'm all right, Jack."
"Didn't say you weren't."
The Doctor drummed his fingers against the console panel. "Fine," he finally said. "I need to make some repairs to the Tardis after that last landing. I could show you how to help me work on her. 'Bout time you started earning your keep." Jack's face lit up, and the Doctor knew that if Jack had a tail it would be wagging. "Tuck Rose in first. And remember, you asked for it."
Jack practically bounded away. "Captain," the Doctor said, bringing him up short. The Doctor met his eyes. "You did good today."
Jack smiled, then disappeared into the Tardis interior.
Rose dreamed. She was walking through the park her mother used to take her to when she was little, before it was paved over for a new parking garage. The scene shifted to the playground and she saw the slide she'd pushed Mickey off of when she was six. He'd been chasing her around all day, trying to pull her hair, and she'd finally had enough. He'd needed four stitches, though, and she'd felt so bad that she'd kissed him on the cheek to make up.
She plopped down in a swing and looked around; the park looked just as it had when she was little, if emptier. There was a girl sitting on the swing beside her, but Rose didn't see anyone else.
The girl turned to her; she was a few years younger than Rose, with a short, cute haircut. "Are you Rose?" the girl asked.
"That's me." She dug her shoes into the gravel and smiled back. Rose didn't recognize her, but she knew she was dreaming and that dreams didn't have to make sense. "Do I know you? Oh!" she said, "I bet we went to school together, didn't we."
The girl smiled. "No, I don't think so."
"Probably just as well. I skipped class so much I don't think I'd recognize half the people I went to school with." She frowned. "I must know you, though, or I wouldn't be dreaming about you."
"That's my fault, actually. It's very difficult, appearing in dreams like this. If you hadn't been exposed to the Adirial pollen I don't know that I'd be able to manage it at all." Rose's alarm must have been obvious on her face, because the girl quickly added, "Oh no, you're perfectly all right. Your mental barriers are just a bit more permeable, that's all. Even so, I'm afraid I can't keep it up for very long."
Rose tried to absorb this. "So...you're in my head, you're saying."
"In a way. We can send messages in dreams, sometimes."
Still, there was something familiar about the girl, not in looks perhaps but...Rose didn't know. Her manner? Rose knew there was something important about this she was missing.
No matter who she was, thought, she'd clearly gone through a great deal of trouble. "Why me, then?"
"I'm actually related to someone you know," she said. Her expression shifted, and there was such a look of sadness in her eyes that it brought Rose up short.
"Is there something wrong?" Rose asked. "Can I help? You're all by yourself here, there must be something I can do."
"I can see why he likes you so much." She leaned back in the swing and closed her eyes. "I'm all right. I'm waiting for someone," she said. "Someone very important to me. And I'm not really here, remember. This is still your dream." She looked at Rose, her eyes twinkling. "That poor boy. I hope you were scolded for it."
Rose snorted. "You wouldn't say that if you heard him bring it up every time we're having a row." The swing chains creaked as she swayed back and forth. "Will you be waiting a long time, do you think?"
"I certainly hope so."
Rose's brows furrowed at such an odd answer, but before she could question the girl something about the girl's eyes struck her. It wasn't her eyes that were familiar, exactly, but the look in them...it was such a very old look.
Rose realized she must have gasped aloud, because the girl turned around on the swing to face her. "Will you do something for me, Rose?"
Rose nodded, her mind still grappling with the connection it had made. Related to someone you know...
"Take care of him, for as long as he'll let you." The sadness crept back, and Rose had to fight down the impulse to hug her. "I can't anymore, and I don't want to think of him being alone. Will you do that?"
It took a moment for Rose to find her voice. "Of course," she finally said. "Of course, I will. Forever, if I can. That's not even something you have to ask."
The girl's nose crinkled when she smiled. "He was right about you." A sudden look of concentration crossed her face, and she shook her head. "And I was right about not being able to do this for very long."
"Wait," Rose said. She touched the girl's arm, and was half-surprised that her hand didn't go right through. "Who were you?" The girl tipped her head to the side, and Rose rambled on, "He mentioned his whole family...were you his daughter?"
She shook her head. "Close. Granddaughter."
It took Rose a second to adjust to that. Well, I suppose he is nine hundred. "God. I'm so sorry."
"I am too. But I'm glad he found you, Rose." And she did look glad. "You probably won't remember most of this, not consciously, but I'm so happy I got to meet you." She sighed then. "You should get back to sleep." A rueful look came into the girl's eyes. "He hasn't landed where he thinks, and I'm afraid you're in for some running tomorrow."
Rose rolled her eyes. "What else is new?"
The girl laughed. "Some things in the universe are constant. The Tardis going wherever it wants is one of them." Rose felt the edges of things start to get blurry. "He needs you, Rose. Stay with him as long as you can." Then the dream faded away.
Rose rolled over in her sleep. She didn't dream anymore the rest of the night.