Disclaimer: How I wish I owned them! Anyway, I don't; they're the property of the BBC.

Author's note: Where this is published elsewhere (my website, LJ, Teaspoon) it's called Flying Free. Unfortunately as I've already got a PotC fic with the same name up here, I had to find an alternative title!

Soaring free

Once upon a time, there were three of them. When they'd first left Gallifrey, flying away into the Vortex in a whirl of giggles and adventure, there had been two pairs of hands on her controls. Life wasn't so manic back then, though it was dangerous, and exciting, and new. She hadn't known the Doctor well then; he was as new to her as she was to him. Sometimes they'd argued, and she'd flown them off course deliberately, in a fit of petulance she regretted now. Sometimes Susan would step in, soothe them both, coax him into submission and her into obedience, and then off they'd go again, old hands and young hands steering through time and space. It had been good, back then.

Slowly, she'd grown, and learned; learned of the vastness of the galaxies and the infinity of time. She'd learned about other species – the two humans, picked up by mistake and not dropped off again for a long time. They'd been scared, at the beginning, scared and uncertain, but they'd learned too. By the time they left she'd grown fond of them.

After Susan had gone he'd had to fly her alone, and she grew used to a touch here, another there. It wasn't how she was meant to fly, perhaps, but they worked it out between them. They were becoming more closely entwined, the two of them, anticipating each other's desires.

The first change was something she had dreaded, but it wasn't so bad after all – painful, for a while, but he was still him. The hands felt different, the voice cajoling her or arguing sounded different, but it was the same mind, and that was what truly mattered. And they still had time and space, and company; the soft, questioning minds of other beings. For a while, they seemed to lead a charmed life – nothing went wrong, nobody died and they were happy.

Then, Gallifrey. She did not want to go home, and neither did he. And the homecoming was violent, and unpleasant, and then they were ripped away again. For a while, he did not know her. For a while, she was alone, and though she felt him seeking a solution she could not help him.

But he found it, eventually, and they flew again. Flew through the Vortex, made merry with time and to hell with space. The fourth him was wilder than before, laughed more, loved more fiercely. Their companion stayed longer, and she grew attached to her – to the human's bright, curious intelligence and her loyalty to the Doctor. But when the call came again to return home, she could not come, and it was as a duo they landed on Gallifrey.

And as a trio they left. This was the nearest they'd come to replicating what they'd had at the start, with Susan, and she knew the Doctor felt it too, though they never spoke of it. Romana was a match for him, and a match for her. In the rare moments when the Doctor and Romana were resting, she listened to their heartbeats and felt at home.

On they flew, on and on and on. Romana left, others came; the Doctor changed, and there were vegetables and cricket. And again, and there was anger and seesawing emotions. His instability gave her instability, but still she loved him and was loyal to him, fierce and true. They had been together too long now, and even when they were separated she knew he'd come back to her. He always came back.

Then, the War. He'd been so cheerful, flitting about the universe in his velvet coat, but soon the velvet was tarnished and dusty and his mind tired and hurting. She did her best to soothe him, to help him, but at the end there was nothing to do except leave the burning ruins and the stench of molten metal and charred flesh behind, and take her Time Lord – the only Time Lord, the last of his kind as she was now the last of hers – away. In the Vortex she hung, healing herself, reshaping her own battered form, and watching as he regenerated, again. She was nervous, this time around, not knowing what would wake, who'd be in control.

The regeneration was violent, and he spent the first hours hallucinating. His mind was a mess, broken, unstable, and she put all her effort into sending him soothing thoughts. She tried to close off memories of the War – to lock it away, as it was locked away – but they were too strong.

After a while he had regained enough sense to go to the Wardrobe Room and find new clothes. She quietly moved the old, torn, burned ones away and jettisoned them, even as he went for the sort of sober attire he hadn't worn in centuries. Gone were the days of coloured coats, of fripperies and umbrellas and scarves. The leather and denim and boots were the clothes of a soldier, and the thoughts were the thoughts of a soldier too. This was a different Doctor to the one she'd known; lonelier, tougher. And yet she felt closer to him than before. They had been through the War together, and emerged, together. Always together.

He expressed approval of her healing efforts, and added elements to her console as she completed the process. In the end, they were both proud of the results – the soothing glow of the lighting, and the decent height of the rotor. To celebrate, she picked up a strange signal from his favourite planet and followed it, hurtling headlong through the Vortex.

It was a familiar signal, it turned out, but she thought handling something dangerous yet manageable might help break him out of the mood he had been in since the War. And true enough, it did, but because of the human girl who threw herself in the middle of the danger, and not because of the danger itself. He came on board after her refusal to travel, and set coordinates for the year two billion, but even as he wandered the deserts of Astran she could feel him thinking of the girl he had met. Rose, her name was: the name of a sweet-scented flower, an English flower, something belonging only to Sol Three. For a week she dominated his thoughts, and after a week he stomped back through the doors and took them back to seconds after he'd left her.

Rose. If anyone could get the Doctor through this time, it was Rose. She liked Rose, liked her bravery and her common sense and the way she talked to him. With Rose on board, it felt like a gap had been filled – an Ace-shaped gap, a Jamie-shaped gap, a Sarah Jane-shaped gap. Rose was the sort of person he needed around him. She found herself taking extra care of the pair of them than she ever used to. He chided her gently for it, but she felt he did not really mind.

But the way they were careering about the universe was taking its toll, and she was grateful when he took them – complete with their newest passenger, who flirted with her and touched her in the same way the Doctor himself did – to the Rift in Cardiff. She needed the rest, and she needed the power. What she didn't need, as it turned out, was someone trying to wrest control of the Rift from right inside her. For the first time in a very long time she was angry, the anger exacerbated by the pain of the Rift tearing through her heart. She'd never been this angry, this scared, this determined to eliminate the threat. Afterwards, once the Doctor had closed the Rift and Jack and Rose had gone to tidy up elsewhere, he sat down by her side and spoke to her, calming her in the language only they shared. He did not blame her, or castigate her for her action; he understood her.

And she understood him, enough to know that when he activated the emergency programme on Satellite Five it was because it was the only thing he could do. Their great foe had to be destroyed, for once and for all, and to find the courage for that he needed to know they were safe – his Rose, his ship. She forgave him, even as she and Rose were hurtling towards Earth, both weeping in their own way. Because it was what he wanted and what he needed, she resisted the humans' attempts to open her – but there was only so long she could withstand. For the first time she looked into Rose's soul, and Rose looked into her, and they were one, and everything made sense. Together, they could save the Doctor, defeat the Daleks, end the Time War. For they both wanted the same thing: their Doctor, safe.

She realised the cost only later, as the dust settled on the floor of the satellite and the heat of the Vortex was dissipating. She'd grown to love him more than ever in this body, despite the changed mind – perhaps because of it. Now it would be gone.

He'd had regeneration sickness before, but never like this. He was more than a little bit out of control. Having seen Rose's mind she knew the girl was terrified, uncertain, unwilling to accept this stranger as the Doctor. She tried to tell Rose, but really there were more important things to worry about and getting him to a safe place was one of them. When he asked for more speed, she gave it to him. They crash-landed in the Powell Estates, and when he lost consciousness, so did she.

He got up again. He always got up again, and off they went once more. It seemed nothing could stop them now – parallel universes; being trapped in a drawing; doors into the past – the Doctor and Rose dealt with them all. Once again, it was the Daleks that proved them wrong. Once again, they won and they lost, everything.

In the time between losing Rose and finding Martha Jones on the Moon, they wandered far and wide. He oscillated wildly between sitting in the console room, or the Cloisters, or the library, talking to her in speech and mind; and dashing from planet to planet, crisis to crisis, dealing with everything the universe threw in his way. She tried taking them somewhere quiet, but he knew her too well for that and changed the coordinates. She tried reasoning with him, but that had never been very successful and now was even less so.

She began to hope he'd find someone to keep him occupied when they picked up a signal from Earth. The Doctor had never really been able to resist strange goings-on on Earth, and she set them down by the source of the signal with some optimism. He returned later on with no shoes and a thoughtful look about him, but she had to work to persuade him to return for the medical student he spoke of so enthusiastically.

Later on, when he quizzed her on it, she would admit to having manipulated their destinations a little to try and get Martha to stay. Martha, she felt, was good for him, and in truth it did not take that much pushing to keep her on board. Slowly, he began to brighten again, but part of him was closed off now, even to her.

In the intolerable weeks after he'd used the Chameleon Arch, she slumbered, waiting for him. Martha's brief visits were a comfort to her in her half-conscious state, but she missed him, as though part of her had been torn out. Perhaps it had; his mind was closed off, shielded by the arch. Sometimes, at night, she felt him dreaming, and she could not resist reaching out and touching his mind with hers. When the boy Latimer held the watch that was the Doctor's consciousness, she felt that too – but that was nothing compared to the rush of power and joy and brightness when he finally opened it for himself, and reawoke. She was whole once more.

She didn't imean/i to take them to the end of the universe, but it was instinctive. When Jack Harkness caught hold, she wanted to run as fast and as far as possible. It was not because it was Jack, but because of what he had become. The wrongness was tangible even before he touched her, and when he did it was like a slingshot, flinging them billions of years into the future.

The next thing she was really aware of – apart from the Doctor ferreting around inside her for cables, with his mind flitting from one thing to the other – was invasion. The person who had locked her door, who was deadlocking her Doctor out; this was a hostile mind. She could hear his double heartbeat, racing away, and she was ready for the regeneration when it happened. Outside, the Doctor was shouting, freezing the coordinates so there was only one place she could go when she was forced to dematerialise. She felt him growing fainter, further from her, and instead the mind of the invader was sweeping through her corridors and questing, seeking, trying to make contact with her. So she deliberately shut herself away. She'd run, she'd fly, but she wouldn't let this one take her soul.

It was a long year, the year without her Doctor, and it ended in a blast of pain and bright light. Later, he was back with her, his mind carefully closed off but soothing nonetheless as he and his companions mended her broken circuits, put her back together again.

But really it was him that had broken. He was not shattered any more, not like after Rose; instead he was aware – too aware – of himself as Last Time Lord, of his power, of the chaos he could cause if he let go.

Unsurprisingly, when he finally snapped out of his mood it was Earth he returned to. She, too, felt drawn there, by some inexorable and irresistible force. He was unsettled, but when he came back after the latest escapade with Donna Noble at his side – bright, strong, so human – she felt the cracks in his carefully-constructed armour begin to widen. Soon they were running again, chasing aliens across the universe, laughing over jokes in the console room, spinning through the coloured clouds of the Vortex. It was almost perfection.

And then, everything went out of control. The words Bad Wolf written across the stars, a fold in Time itself, the threat of the Daleks. The return of Rose Tyler, still with the Vortex swirling inside her; the terror as the Doctor went to the brink of regeneration. When she fell, he was not there and she screamed as their connection was stretched and broken. As he hurt, so did she.

But the Daleks had not taken into account Donna Noble, and neither had the Doctor, and neither had she. One touch was all it took. One touch, and then golden light and the wonder of that mind – both minds – thrumming in the air, in her heart.

After that everything moved fast. The Doctor, his solo heartbeat racing; Donna, still half asleep until she woke in a blaze of glory, her mind flying. Suddenly where there had only been the Doctor's mind connected with hers, there were two more, and it was wonderful. She felt like they could do anything; Donna and the new Doctor felt the same way. Her old Doctor iknew/i they could do anything, but there was wariness and cautiousness there too.

As the Daleks exploded, the Doctors ushered their companions inside and closed the door. She took off gladly, happy to escape the carnage, and happier to have them safe. Below, the Earth hung alone in a strange galaxy; she knew he wouldn't leave it there and she rather thought she knew how he'd do it. A moment later the power rushed in, embracing her. The power of the great Rift that she'd fed off several times before. There were six hands at her controls, a buzz of excitement and joy in the air.

iNow!/i he said to her, and she leapt forwards. They were one, all of them, all these people he loved – all these people she loved too, for his sake. Rose the golden; Martha the healer; Jack, forever; Sarah Jane, as sharp as she'd ever been. Mickey, loyal Mickey; and the indefatigable Jackie Tyler. Donna Noble, laughing with joy. And both her Doctors, as familiar to her as Time itself. This was how it was meant to be. All the fumbled materialisations and missed destinations of the past faded, insignificant in the glory of this moment. She flew with their hope, the weight of the Earth nothing with this power driving her. Nothing could stop them now.

But in the end it seemed they could never win everything. She pleaded with him to let the new Doctor stay – to let everyone stay, but he turned from her and took control with the icy certainty that was as much a part of this regeneration as the manic energy. They flew through the gap between universes, and the echo of the Doctor's mind faded. Donna's brain was fizzing with electricity, and she knew the Doctor would have no choice. Moments later, and it was just the two of them again.

It seemed much emptier without Donna there; they had both come to rely on her spark. When the Doctor returned, alone and soaked to the skin, she quietly let him drip on the console. Sometimes, it was simply better to remember. And what memories they had, the two of them – all of time and space, and so much left to see.