John Smith turned the watch over and over in his hand. "I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this," he whispered, a litany against the horror that had suddenly enveloped him. He wanted nothing more than to throw the accursed thing against the wall and watch it dash into thousands of pieces, but his hands wouldn't obey. It was as if it was taking him by inches.
"Please, you must do this," Martha said again. "Please. Open it."
The watch whispered to him. The voice, the Doctor's voice, he supposed, sat heavy in his ears, a constant, wordless clutter beating against his will. He could feel it pulling him down into the black abyss. He dragged his eyes away from the strange symbols on the casing --- how had he never noticed them before? --- and looked at Martha. Every word, every time she'd ever looked at him, it had all been a lie. "I trusted you," he said, and he heard his voice break. There were tears in her eyes, but he knew they were for this Doctor, not for him. "I trusted you, and all this time you've been waiting for the time to kill me."
The voice from the watch echoed like legions of ghosts until he felt his mind begin to crack. Then suddenly a different voice, gruff and Northern, sliced through the noise like a saber. "All right, we're not gettin' anywhere like this."
John let out a hysterical burst of laughter. "Wonderful," he said. "Now I'm going mad."
"You're not goin' mad," the voice said.
"Really?" The faces around him had grown hazy and indistinct, as if he was glimpsing them through smoke. "Is hearing voices not considered madness anymore? And who are you supposed to be?"
"I'm you. Well, I suppose it'd be more accurate to say I'm him."
"No, you're not. I've heard him, he sounds nothing like you."
"Think of me as a prior model."
"I don't understand any of this." John heard Martha's voice beseeching him again. "You all just want him to come back, all of you."
"All except for him."
"Who, the boy? Of course he does."
He heard the voice laugh inside his mind. "Not the boy. The Doctor."
Really, it was bad enough that he was being told that his entire existence was a lie. Having the disagreeable voice laugh at him was a step too far. "I ask you to at least have the courtesy not to mock me."
"You humans. You're so easily offended by everything."
"And I suppose that...that...that whatever the Doctor is, it's so superior, is it? These Time Lords?"
"Now don't snap at me. This wasn't my half-baked plan."
John couldn't suppress the sudden flash of irritation. "Oh, and you would've done so much better."
There was a pause, a change in the voice; almost a smile, if such a thing was possible. "Now you sound more like yourself."
The words sent a chill down though his soul---if he even had a soul, a question he hadn't considered until now. "And to answer your question," the voice continued, "I don't know if it would've been better, but it would've been different, I can tell you that. Even if I couldn't come to some kind of bargain with the Family, even if I'd had to resort to turnin' human, I wouldn't have come here, not where there were people, 'specially not children. Would have gone to ground somewhere isolated, no one to get in the way. Wouldn't have put Rose that position, either. It's too much to ask of someone."
"Rose." The voice wasn't talking sense now. Martha was the Doctor's conspirator, Rose was just a character in his story. "I wrote about a Rose, didn't I.? The blonde girl. I drew her in my journal."
The voice suddenly grew very quiet. John could feel the energy in the watch building, heating the metal in his hands. "I just want this all to stop."
"So does he."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Think about it, now. Why do you think he isn't tryin' harder? Why am I the one talkin' to you, instead of him?"
John didn't have an answer. Even the constant whispering hum in his ears had faded.
"He's been spoilin' to die for a while now. Not to die, really, dyin' doesn't mean the same thing to a Time Lord. He wants to stop. Stop bein' the Doctor, stop all of this. It's a fragile thing, that watch. Thousand things could have happened, 'specially with it bein' out in the open the way he had it, instead of keepin' it safe. A piece of him was hopin' something' would go wrong and he wouldn't have to change back. You were a good excuse, Smith. He could stop bein' the Doctor and it wouldn't even have been like he quit." There was the sensation that if the voice had a body it would be crossing its arms. "You never wondered why Rose just disappeared towards the end? Why you never dreamed what happened there?"
John shook his head. "They were just dreams."
"More than dreams. You didn't dream it because he's been rubbish at dealin' with what happened. He's been rubbish at dealin' with lots of things, lately. I never cared much for the fake names and play-actin', I needed to figure out being me again, but he uses it whenever he can. He's runnin', Smith, and he ran right to you." The voice sighed. "Don't you wonder why he chose to be you? Could have been anyone, after all."
"How should I know what drives this Doctor? I'm an ordinary teacher. There's nothing special about me."
"Exactly." Something grim and hollow crept into the words. "This was the life could've had, ages ago, and we gave it up. Raced off to find something grander, something more important. Now we can't go back. It's all gone. All burned. You were the chance to get a taste of it back."
Bands of tension squeezed John's chest, and he covered his eyes. "Then why should I bring this person back? Why, if even he doesn't want me to?"
"Because there's no one else." The voice had gone cold. "Not anymore. There's no one left who can do what he can do. There's a million little fires in the universe that only the Doctor can put out, ones that if he's not there'll turn into infernos."
More talk about the universe. "I don't understand why I can't just give these creatures what they want. Maybe they'll promise to leave, why can't I do that?"
"They'll destroy the universe."
"I can't care about that! I can't conceive of a threat against the entire universe."
"They'll kill her." John felt a force jerk his head up so that he was looking at Joan. Tears had streaked her face, and her eyes were red from crying. She was so lovely. "They'll kill her," the voice said again, gentle now, and John sensed that whomsever voice this was, he wasn't a person who often bothered with gentleness. "They'll kill her, and they'll make you watch."
"But why? Why would they do that? There's no sense to it!"
"It's what they are. Their nature."
"And why should I believe anything you say? You sound like some sort of ruffian to me."
The voice laughed again. "Never claimed not to be. And you don't have to believe me. Just ask yourself if you're willin' to take the risk."
John looked into Joan's eyes. He imagined those creatures turning their guns on her, all because of him. "Can the Doctor protect her?" he whispered, and he saw her eyes widen.
John bowed his head. He was standing on the very edge of the cliff; he could look down and see the rocks below. "I don't want to die."
"No one does. Not even him, when it comes right down to it. Sometimes it's the only way."
"What do you know? How can you possibly know what you're asking of me?"
"'Cause I've done it. For the same reason you'll do it." The voice sighed again. "There are worse things than dyin', Smith. You let this happen, let the Family win, you might be breathin', your heart might still be beatin', but you'll be dead in all the ways that count. Livin' when you should have died, there's nothin' worse. We're still tryin' to figure that one out ourselves."
"But what will happen to me? If I was a farce all along, do I just end? Is this all there is?"
A sudden cacophony of voices rose from the watch, all sorts, different accents, old voices, young voices, eight or nine distinct ones that he could discern. He heard the Northern one he'd been speaking with struggle back to the top. "It's gettin' crowded in here," it said, "but there's still room. I'm the most recent, that's why you're hearin' me now, but there's more of us in here. My part in all this is over --- like your part'll be over --- but I'm still part. So are you."
John squeezed the watch between his hands. "Will it hurt?" he whispered. He heard Joan gasp and grab his arm. She seemed so very far away.
"For him? Lots," he voice said, and John felt a certain satisfaction in that. "But for you it'll be like breathin'. A light will surround you and you'll just...change. Simple as that. It'll almost be beautiful."
"Is that how it was for you?" John said. "You speak as though you've done this."
He had that odd sensation again that the voice was smiling. "Yeah. That's how it was. Worse ways to go, when you get down to it."
John stared at the watch. It seemed so small a thing to cause so much destruction. "Will you be there?" he asked. He wanted very much for someone to be there.
The voice laughed. "If you want me to be. Just imagine you're takin' my hand." John took several deep breaths. "Oh, and Smith?"
"Yes," he said.
"Make sure you say it. We've done a poor job of rememberin' that bit lately."
The voice suddenly disappeared, and John found himself alone with his thoughts. He put the watch down and cupped Joan's face in his hands. He studied every inch, every line, memorizing her every feature so that he could never forget it. Then he kissed her the way he'd wanted to from the moment he saw her. When he pulled back wiped the tears from her face and stared into her eyes one last time. "I love you, Joan."
He opened the watch and was bathed in light.
The voice was right. It was beautiful.