DISCLAIMER: These are not the copyright holders you are looking for.

My very first attempt at shippy Seven/Ace. Thanks to Pers for beta-ing and for keeping my spirits up when I felt like I'd never get this finished. This story was originally posted at my LiveJournal, bewarethespork.

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Growing Pains

By JayTheNerdKid

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"Professor - "

"Doctor!"

"Okay, Doctor - " Ace rolls her eyes behind the Doctor's back -

"I saw that!"

"How'd you manage that, then?" Ace asks, half-indignant and half-curious.

"I could see your reflection - " the flamboyantly rolled 'r' is an affectation that Ace finds at once inordinately amusing and (though she'd never admit it) oddly endearing - "on my view screen." The Doctor's tone is stern, but his lips have quirked into a smile of their own accord, and Ace can't help but smile with him.

"That's cheating, that is," Ace protests mildly, moving closer and peering over his shoulder. She points at a few complex symbols on the screen. "What language is that?" she asks. "Never seen nothing like it on Iceworld."

"It is Old High Gallifreyan - " there's that flourish again, like a drumroll and a fanfare rolled (rrrolled?) into one - "the language of the Time Lords. But never mind that," the Doctor says suddenly, standing up straight, forcing Ace back a couple of steps, and looks her in the eye. Ace has the brief and disconcerting impression that she is staring into the whole of Time. She takes another step back. "You were going to ask me something, I believe, before you started quizzing me on linguistics."

"Well, sorry, Professor - "

"Doctor!"

"Doctor, then - but this scenic route - "

"Hmmm?"

"How long...how long will it take?" Said out loud, the question sounds embarrassingly infantile, and Ace feels her cheeks reddening. She would like nothing more at this moment than for the floor of the TARDIS to open and swallow her up.

But the Professor (in her head, that will always be his title) just looks at her again, really looks at her, top to bottom and all the way through, his head tilted to one side slightly, like a curious cat's. "That depends entirely," he says finally, "on how long you wish it to take."

"And what's that mean, then?" Here, she is on familiar ground - covering up her nervousness with bluster, just like she did on Iceworld, just like she did in Perivale. Never at home, never belonging, always afraid.

She has been trying to find home for such a long time.

"The meaning," the Doctor says, "depends rather a lot on your interpretation."

Every word is a puzzle, a riddle that Ace can't solve, and suddenly that makes her so mad she could scream. "Do you ever talk straight?" she demands. "Just say what you bloody well mean! I'm not a little girl, Professor, so you can stop bloody treating me like one, all right?"

A small part of her mind registers the fact that he doesn't even object when she calls him 'Professor'.

He regards her in silence for a while, as though waiting to see whether her outburst has finished, and all of a sudden, she feels very ashamed of herself and very, very small. "Sorry, Doctor," she mumbles. It is the best apology she can manage, and she hopes it will be enough.

For a few seconds, he is silent, and there is a look in his eyes like he can see something in her that she doesn't even realise is there. Then the look is gone and he is bustling around the console again, checking readings on screens and flicking switches with an easy familiarity that Ace envies. "I think," he says finally, looking back up at her, "that we ought to find you a room in the TARDIS."

It takes Ace a few minutes to realise what the Doctor is talking about. "A...room?" she says, bewildered. "You mean..."

"Well," the Doctor says, and the sparkle is back in his eyes, "I rather think that the scenic route will end up taking quite a while, and you can't exactly sleep in the console room, now, can you?"

Impulsively, Ace throws her arms around the Doctor's waist. Then she springs back, grinning. "Lead the way, Professor - "

"Doctor!"

"Oh, all right, Doctor." Ace has already picked up her bag and is exploring the corridors eagerly. "How big is this place?" she asks, her voice echoing back down a corridor. "And - blimey, is that a mountain range?"

With a sigh, the Doctor hangs his hat on the stand in the console room and goes to find Ace, a tiny smile quirking his lips.

--

The first time Ace goes on an adventure with the Doctor, they end up blowing up an alien planet, but not before Ace has had the chance to play with some seriously impressive technology, including (but not limited to) an anti-tank rocket launcher and what she can't help but think of as a magical baseball bat.

If this is the scenic route, she could stand to stay on it for a few more years, at least.

She is determinedly not thinking about Mike. That way lies madness, or at least a couple of nights spent crying herself to sleep, and she was never really one for that sort of thing.

"So, Professor - "

"Ace - "

"Sorry - Doctor - " she doesn't sound contrite in the slightest - "those Daleks, they're all destroyed now, right?"

"One may certainly hope so," the Doctor says, and because Ace is listening but not really looking at the Doctor, she misses the flash of darkness in his eyes. By the time she looks at him properly, it's gone, to be replaced by that vague, abstracted look that Ace is sure is just another affectation, like the accent and that atrocious pullover. Then, the Doctor seems to remember something, and his eyes narrow slightly. "But never mind all that," he says. "When I say 'stay put', I do not mean 'risk your life in an incredibly foolish attempt to recover a piece of anachronistic Earth technology'! If we had not reached the school on time - "

"I know, I know, 'exterminate', and no more Ace," Ace finishes, rolling her eyes. "I'm not a little girl, Professor, and I'm not stupid. And I won't do it again." Although this last is blatantly untrue, the Doctor seems at least slightly mollified.

"I really liked that tape deck, though," she adds a little despondently.

"I'll build you a new one," the Doctor says, waving a hand dismissively.

Ace's eyes widen. "Really?" she asks. "Oh, Professor - sorry, Doctor - that's brill, thank you!"

Her grin is infectious, and the Doctor can't help but smile back. "All right, all right, no need to get so excited," he says as she hugs him. Gently disentangling her arms from around his waist, he says, "Now, why don't you go and have a bit of a rest, hmmm? It's been a long couple of days."

Ace rolls her eyes again, but can't help but giggle when the Doctor tweaks her nose gently. "Go on, off with you!" he orders mock-sternly, and with a mischievous little grin, Ace obeys.

He watches her go with a sad little smile on his face before turning to the console, preparing to send them back into the Vortex, far away from the echoes of a lone Kaled scientist's pleas for mercy as his planet burns to dust.

--

Predictably, once they get back on board the TARDIS, one of the first things Ace finds is her rucksack, filled with several cans of Nitro-9 she could really have used back at the Psychic Circus.

"Under my bed, where I left it," she says a little sheepishly, and the Doctor tweaks her nose and smiles and she can almost forget the terrible, grinning faces of a legion of robotic clowns with murder in their tin hearts.

"You knew all along, though," she says as the Doctor makes them both tea. "You were going on about talent contests and all that rubbish, but you knew there was something evil inside." She doesn't mean it to come out as an accusation, but it does, a little, and she realises that that's because a part of her does mean it that way.

The Doctor is silent for a moment, and the only noise in the TARDIS kitchen is that of a metal spoon rattling against a mug as the Doctor stirs a few spoons of sugar into the tea. Then, still not even looking at Ace, he says, "Yes, I knew."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"And I didn't tell you."

Ace has been travelling with the Doctor for a while now - though really, it's hard to tell how long it's been in the TARDIS, where things like time and space don't seem to feel the need to stay fixed - but this cavalier admission that the Doctor was hiding something from her still hurts. "Why didn't you tell me?" she demands. "If you knew something was up, if you knew it was dangerous - "

"Would it have made a difference, if I'd told you?" He still has his back turned; he is busying himself with the task of stirring in cream now. "Would you have refused to come with me? Would you, in fact, have behaved any differently if you'd known what was going on?"

Why won't he just turn and look her in the eye? Ace is suddenly inordinately furious. "It doesn't matter!" she says in a voice that is only just not a yell. "I would have - I mean - you should've - " She sighs, because the Doctor is right - it would have made no difference. "It's just - I'm not a little girl, Professor," she says, even though she feels like one at the moment - a little girl in a world she doesn't understand, and all she wants are answers. "I don't expect you to explain all your plans to me in detail or something, but just a hint or two would be nice, you know?" Her tone is conciliatory, apologetic.

The Doctor finally turns, holding the tea tray before him. He gently sets it down on the table and sits opposite Ace, regarding her through stormy blue-grey eyes. "Yes, well, perhaps you're right at that," he says eventually, staring at her over the rim of his mug. Ace feels as though her soul is laid bare beneath that gaze. It's not a comfortable feeling.

And then the Doctor blinks, and the storm is gone from his eyes. He reaches across the table and tweaks Ace's nose, and she laughs, and just like that, all the tension is gone from the room and they're just two friends relaxing over a cup of tea after saving the universe.

Of course, there is one plan whose details the Doctor will never divulge to Ace. She doesn't know that he can see the taint of Fenric on her, a dark, spreading corruption, like tarnish on silver. She doesn't know what she is, or what she could become. And the Doctor intends to keep it that way.

--

Ace has never been to Camelot, but by the time they're back in the TARDIS, she thinks she's probably seen enough of knights in shining armour and damsels in distress for a lifetime - or at least a couple of weeks.

"So, King Arthur and all that," she says later on. The Doctor has taken the TARDIS back into the Vortex, and they are sitting at the kitchen table, now, mugs of tea sitting half-forgotten in front of them. "It's all real, then? Or at least, real in another dimension or something? Like..." She pauses, looking for the right words. "Like a universe...a universe made out of stories? Fairy tales and things, except they're not just kid's stuff, they're true."

"In a manner of speaking, yes," he replies. It is amazing, he thinks, how when they talk like this, he can almost see the gears of cognition whirring in Ace's mind as she connects the dots, making sense of chaos. At times like these, he can almost forget that she's only human. "Morgaine was drawing upon forces from a parallel reality - " the word rolls off his tongue with a flourish, and it makes Ace smile, even after all this time - "in which Arthur was real."

"And Merlin," Ace adds. "Which is you - a possible future you from another universe." She frowns thoughtfully at the concept of two Doctors, then grins cheekily. "Always thought you were like something out of a story, Professor."

He smiles at that, a lopsided quirk of the lips that hopefully hides a sudden wave of bitterness. Names flash across his mind - Destroyer of Worlds, The Oncoming Storm - names that inspire terror, names for monsters that lurk in the dark.

There are so very many stories, and he has not always played the hero.

Ace yawns widely, and the Doctor snaps out of his reverie. "Time for bed," he says, rising to his feet and walking around the table to pull out Ace's chair. "We'll talk more in the morning. For now, you need to get some rest."

Ace rolls her eyes. "Do I get a bedtime story first?" she asks drily.

"Do you want one?" he replies with a straight face.

"I'm not a little girl, Professor," she says, and it has all the familiarity of an old refrain. But she lets him steer her to her room (which has conveniently relocated itself across the hall from the kitchen). The door swings open and Ace walks inside, shedding her jacket as she does so and dropping it onto a convenient chair. "G'night, Professor," she says around another yawn.

"Good night, Ace," he replies as the door swings closed. "Sweet dreams."

--

"I'll distract the guard."

"How?"

"Professor, I'm not a little girl..."

Old words with a new meaning, words that force him to open his eyes - really open his eyes - and look at the girl who has become more than a pet project, more than just a playing piece, more than just a fellow traveller. And when he discovers, to his amazement, that she is no longer the little girl from Perivale but something different, something new, he's not quite sure what to say.

Later on, after he destroys her faith and tries to restore it and just about manages to save the universe in the process, they return to the TARDIS, and the Doctor tries to make sense of a change he had not foreseen.

Not a little girl, she said. Then what is she? What is he, now? And what does that make the two of them together?

She is silent as they sit in the TARDIS kitchen and drink their tea, and the Doctor can tell that she wants to be left alone, so when she mumbles something about needing rest, he lets her go without comment, though it takes all his self-restraint not to go after her. With a sigh, he downs the rest of his tea in one gulp and decides he'd better see about repairing that faulty potentiometer.

An hour later, however, and he's just about exhausted the potential of tinkering with the TARDIS' circuits. The ship, usually quite willing to provide circuits with which he can fiddle for as long as he requires, is - quite contrarily, in his opinion - staying resolutely unbroken.

The TARDIS knows, just as he does, that he cannot escape the inevitable, and she is determined to force him to face it sooner rather than later.

Grumbling to himself, the Doctor wriggles out from underneath the TARDIS console, gets to his feet, and sets off down the corridor to find his...protégé? Friend? Companion? Ace is and has been all of these things before. If things really have changed, what is she now? And where does that leave him?

Time was, he was the one with all the answers. Now that he seems to have nothing but questions, he's starting to realise just how frustrated everyone else must feel.

Now that he's complying with her wishes, the TARDIS is more than happy to be of service. The Doctor notices that the corridor is strangely doorless; he is being led around by the nose by his altogether-too-clever ship, and he resents that. Still, the walk is giving him time to think, time he desperately needs, and for that, the Doctor supposes he ought to be grateful.

In his mind, he sees Ace's face, eyes bright with excitement and a smile like the sun coming up when he took her on board for the first time - "A quick trip around the twelve galaxies, and then back to Perivale in time for tea"? You knew even then that you had no intention of taking her home, you never could lie convincingly, not to yourself - and then, the same eyes dark with the discovery of betrayal, gleaming with triumph, shadowed with fear and defiance, dancing with amusement, warm with affection, sharp and overbright with pain, and each time - and he realises this only now and can't believe he missed it for so long - older and stronger and wiser, until they are no longer the eyes of the child he knew, but something new and different and completely unknown.

Ace was right, and has been right all along. She's not a little girl. Perhaps she never was, and he has been too blind, too caught up in his own brilliance, his grand plans and cunning schemes, to see it. She has been growing up all this time, right under his nose, and fool that he is, he hasn't realised that he's been growing with her.

Strange business, Time. It can fool you into thinking you have its measure, that you can see the way it moves and the way it changes all it touches, and then it comes up behind you and taps you on the shoulder and you realise that it's been deceiving you all along, and all the really important changes are the ones you didn't see coming.

The corridor bends sharply to the right, and suddenly the Doctor is faced with a door. Ignoring the faint thrill of apprehension that rises in his gut, he grasps the handle and turns.

The door swings open to reveal the mountain range. Snow crunches beneath the Doctor's shoes and a slight breeze tugs at his hair and carries with it the scent of winter: frost and pine sap and the clean, sharp smell of fresh snow. Ahead of him, he can see a trail of footprints, still just visible.

The TARDIS can be amazingly unsubtle when she wants to be.

Smiling slightly to himself, the Doctor sets off after the footprints. The breeze becomes a wind that threatens to tear away the scarf tucked under his jacket collar, and the snow whirls and twirls in little flurries and eddies, carried in the air currents like a thousand tiny dancers. The Doctor is suddenly glad of his pullover and jacket. Then, the wind rises to a howling peak, driving snow into the Doctor's face, and just as suddenly ceases, leaving a heavy silence in its wake.

Rounding a corner, the Doctor catches sight of Ace, sitting on a blanket thoughtfully provided by the TARDIS, knees drawn up against her chest, nursing a thermos presumably filled with tea. She is staring off into the distance, as though there is something in the hulking grey peaks dominating the horizon that only she can see. Even from this distance, the Doctor can see a glistening trail of dried tears running down her cheek.

"You might as well sit down," Ace says as the Doctor approaches. She hasn't turned to look at him; other than her words, she has given no indication that she has registered his presence. The Doctor settles himself down next to her, content to stay silent until speech is required of him, and follows her line of sight, out across the horizon and into eternity.

They stay like that for a few minutes, just sitting and staring. Then, Ace takes a long sip from her thermos flask. "When I was a kid," she says, half to herself and half to the Doctor, "my mum took me to see a fireworks show for New Year's. I had to sleep all day so that I could stay up late enough to see the fireworks at midnight, instead of just the next day on the telly. I must have been, what, three at the time, and it was the first time I'd been in such a big crowd. There were just people everywhere, and I felt like I couldn't breathe. I was starting to wish my mum had never brought me, that we could have just watched the repeats the next day like we always did, but I had to stop myself from crying because that would have made my mum mad at me, and I didn't want her to be mad on such a special occasion."

Ace takes another sip from the thermos and shudders slightly as the warmth of its contents spread through her body. "Just as I was ready to give up the whole thing as a bad job, the show started. It was noisy and terrifying, but I didn't care because it was just so amazing, all the lights and colours in the sky. I was sure it had to be magic." She laughs at the recollection.

"But the best bit wasn't all the pretty colours, or the shapes the lights made in the sky. It was the way they made me feel so tiny and so big all at once, like I was part of something bigger and better, me and all those other people there. It didn't matter that there were too many people packed into this tiny space that smelled of dirt and sweat and alcohol - for those few minutes, I was part of something wonderful. That's why I come here." She waves one hand in a sweeping gesture that somehow takes in not only the mountains but the feeling of infinity and enormity and eternity that seems to be an intrinsic part of the very rocks. "Because sometimes there's nothing like feeling small to remind you of how big it all is, and how big you are for being a part of it."

She lapses into silence again, chin resting on her knees, a stray lock of hair caught in the faint tendrils of breeze that still play around them. The Doctor stays silent, waiting for the right moment to speak and the right words to say. When Ace requires speech of him, he will know.

Finally, Ace speaks again. "If you had to do that again," she says, still not looking at him, "if you had to break my faith, would you?" She doesn't sound bitter or hurt at all, merely curious, and the Doctor is not sure if that is a good thing. A million responses flash across his mind, each more of a lie than the next, and he has to stop himself short, because if there is one thing he knows right now, it is that this is not a time for lies.

"I'm not mad or anything, Professor," Ace continues. "I mean, I was mad before, all right, but not any more. Sometimes, you've got to do the hard thing. You don't have a choice. I get all that, I really do, and that's not the problem." She finally turns to look at him, and the Doctor feels like he is being X-rayed under that gaze. "I just want the truth, that's all. I know you're never going to tell me everything," she adds hastily, "and I get that, too - sometimes there's just stuff you can't tell me, or won't tell me, and that's all right, because everyone has a right to a few secrets. But if we're..." She falters, as if looking for the right words, and then seems to rally. "I need to know if you can be straight with me when I need you to be, because otherwise...I think I've had enough of the scenic route."

The Doctor is unprepared for that statement, and even more unprepared for his sharp intake of breath at those words, uttered so casually but with a brutal honesty behind them that has all the force of a physical blow. He doesn't know what to say; he feels like several constants in his universe are changing, and to his intense discomfort, he feels curiously, uncomfortably lost.

"Well, Professor?" Ace prompts, looking up at him expectantly. With a pang of guilt, the Doctor realises that there is already a shadow in Ace's eyes - preemptive disappointment, the expectation that his answer will not be the one she needs to hear.

There is only one thing for it. Honesty has never been a habit in this body, but six lifetimes have taught him that habits can be changed. "Yes," he says, and he wonders at the tone in that voice. It is as though a stranger is speaking through his lips. "It would hurt me more than I can describe, but I would do it again if I thought it was the only way."

Ace's eyes widen slightly, and a flicker of surprise registers there before it disappears to be replaced by - the Doctor can't quite understand what he's seeing - satisfaction. "Good," Ace says, and the Doctor is sure he's misheard.

"Good?" he repeats slowly.

Ace nods. "You were honest with me," she says simply. "That was all I wanted."

The Doctor is aware that he must look incredibly confused, but he doesn't say anything. He's not sure he knows what to say, in any case, a state of being that has become distressingly common lately. He is not used to being the one looking for answers.

Ace smiles crookedly at his astounded expression. "Don't you see, Professor?" she asks. "I get that you sometimes have to do things that hurt. Yeah, sure, I'll shed a couple of tears afterwards, but I usually understand, eventually, once you've taken the time to explain things to me. That's the thing, see?" There is desperation in her eyes, now, willing him to understand."I don't want you to feel like you've got to protect me, like I'm some kid you've got to baby-sit, because I'm not, haven't been for ages. I don't need protecting, not any more - but I do need you to be honest about stuff, because it's when you lie that you hurt me the most. I'm not a little girl, Professor - " there are those words again, like a mantra, words that make him open his eyes, forcing him to see what's been before him all along - "and I don't want you treating me like one."

And with those words, the Doctor thinks he finally understands.

The trouble, he thinks, will be making Ace realise that.

The silence stretches, turns awkward, and Ace looks back up at the Doctor, concern in her eyes. "Professor?" she says uncertainly, and the word is a question unasked.

He meets her gaze with his, and he puts as many unspoken things into his eyes as he can - every time he's felt proud of her, or happy to be with her, or glad that she's around; every adventure they've shared, a life spent out amongst the stars, the Professor and Ace, that amazing, unstoppable team; every time she's pleased him and surprised him and made him see the universe anew, and his amazement at realising how much she's changed, how much he's changed because of her, how they have grown together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. There is nothing more he can do; he can only try his best to make her understand and hope that it is enough.

Ace's eyes widen with surprise, and then amazement, and then with sheer joy, and then her face is buried against his jumper and his arms are around her, holding her close, his wonderful Ace, and he is amazed at how right this feels, the two of them together, friends and companions and maybe other things, too, now that he has opened his eyes and really seen. There is a universe of infinite possibilities ahead of them, the Professor and Ace, a million billion futures just waiting to be explored, and each one of them is better with two. He feels a thrill of anticipation at seeing the universe anew and wonders if Ace feels the same.

When they finally break apart, they are both grinning like fools. The Doctor looks into Ace's eyes and sees a thousand different things there - warmth and affection and love and excitement and happiness and completeness - and lets his eyes mirror hers. There is a promise of a better future in the air, a scent of new beginnings carried on the breeze, clean and sharp like new snow. As they stand together and Ace bundles the blanket back into her bag, that breeze plays around them, tugging playfully at hair and clothes, nipping at Ace's skirt and the Doctor's handkerchief before subsiding. The silence it leaves this time is comfortable, the sort of silence that they can wrap around themselves, the silence of two people who have grown together without even realising it and now need no words because the silence takes all their words and turns them into something bigger that enfolds them both. Ace snakes one arm around the Doctor's waist and leans her head against his shoulder as they walk back towards the door, and the Doctor slings one arm around Ace's shoulders in return, and it all feels so right, like puzzle pieces fitting together.

She is more than a pet project, more than just another playing piece, more than just a fellow traveller. The Doctor might not know precisely what she is now, or what he's become, or what they are together, but he knows that the road to finding out lies ahead of them, and that's a start.