The Doctor groaned and opened one eye. Darkness. Hm. Didn't tell him much. He ran his tongue over his teeth. Same teeth. Mole was still there, right in place between his shoulder blades. That had to be a good sign. He hadn't regenerated, at least. And he was still alive. Well, probably. He didn't recall thinking being a part of the short time he'd spent in limbo during his seventh regeneration. Not that he recalled much from that in the first place. So, same body, probably alive, and, judging by his throbbing head, not dreaming. Good signs, then.
Especially since he was still in one piece.
Not quite the original piece, though, as far as he could tell. Because he still remembered everything, both what had originally happened and what had changed. But the cracks were sealed now, the shards fused in place, the splinters smoothed out. He had been healed, more or less, exactly as his other self had predicted.
This was one of those times he really loved being proved wrong.
And one of those times when he realized how much he still had to learn, how much he didn't know, how much of the universe remained a mystery to him.
It was brilliant.
Still, things to sort out. It would be safe for Sam to leap now, but if his other self had read the readings as he should have read the readings, he would also have noticed that he needed to put in a stipulation to delay Sam's leap temporarily and, being as clever as he was, realized that he hadn't actually mentioned that because Ziggy, inhibitor or not, would still be able to hear them and act accordingly; she just couldn't store the information.
But, seeing as the silence told him his counterpart was still out cold, he wouldn't be able to get any confirmation on that. He didn't want to risk specifically delving into his additional knowledge quite yet, seeing as things weren't fully set. Five minutes may do it, though, to let him access it all safely, even if he was better off leaving it as long as possible.
But in the meantime, lights wouldn't be amiss.
The Doctor instinctively reached for his sonic screwdriver, and then he remembered he was still in the Fermi suit. That could be rectified easily enough. Right now, the simplest method was to switch suits with his other self. When it was all said and done, he still wouldn't be back in his suit, but so long as they switched the contents of the pockets back, it wouldn't matter.
Then again, it would probably be easier just to switch back.
He didn't have anything in there he needed, did he? That he'd picked up between then and now? Nothing sprang to mind, but that was never any guarantee. He had a terrible tendency to misplace things these days. Not that he ever let it on to anyone else, if he could help it. Donna would be—
No. She couldn't give him a hard time about getting old, because he'd had to leave her behind and make her forget.
Maybe he needed another minute or so to mentally straighten out his timeline; it was still awfully twisted. Kinked, rather. Like a string once the knot that had been weathered into it was finally removed. Whole, but crooked.
Even with the sonic screwdriver, it took a few minutes to get any lighting in the Waiting Room; until he could get to the source of the problem, the odd light or two he'd managed to route through different paths would have to do. No matter how long his other self had spent fiddling with Ziggy, he hadn't found it necessary to memorize the complete schematics of the Project. Come to it, neither had he. Still. Wasn't like he'd plunged the whole Project into darkness—wouldn't've been able to get any light in here if he had. Though he had a feeling Al wouldn't see that as an accomplishment. Perhaps he oughtn't to even try to explain himself. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes…it didn't.
He switched suits with his other self—seeing as his counterpart would be remaining in the Waiting Room, not him, it did make sense—and nipped out to check on the rest of the Project. He did have a bit of trouble with the door, but managed to get it open eventually, and was pleased to see that he'd only managed to take out the power in the lights in the corridor, which was now lit with a back-up system that had survived the de-splintering process. Hmm. De-splintering wasn't quite the right word. But it would have to do; he didn't fancy delivering a ten-minute explanation that wouldn't be understood, even if he did compact it down to two minutes. Well. Normally he wouldn't mind too much, but he didn't have long before Sam leaped out.
And he probably owed a few other explanations to the staff here, and as much as he might like to skip out on them, he really shouldn't. They had, after all, helped. Even if they were partially the cause of the situation in the first place. Though, he didn't blame them, not really. He couldn't. He actually had half a mind to commend them. They were still pioneering human time travel. Not that anything would be perfected for a good deal more than a couple centuries, but they were curious enough, brave enough, ingenious enough, foolish enough, to start. And he admired that. He wasn't a particular fan of one of the things it would eventually lead to—the Time Agency did just as much harm as good, if not more, as far as he was concerned—but this, here and now, was undeniably brilliant.
He checked in the Control Room first. Gooshie was there, with Tina and Donna—looking for all the world like they were trying to repair whatever damage he'd done. Or at least trying to determine its extent. An extent that was, judging by the glower Tina shot in his direction, rather…extensive. Gooshie looked harried, and Donna looked, well, reserved. She was much quieter than Donna Noble had been, who ranted and raged and rallied against the world. Donna Eleese worried. Constantly. And she wanted to be confident, but sometimes, just for a moment, her faith would waver.
He'd seen what could happen when she wavered, when logic forced its way above hope, but in the combat lost its purpose, forcing reason to illogical action. It was the reason she was avoiding his gaze now, studiously turning back to analyze some printouts. Water under the bridge for him, but she still felt guilty.
About as guilty as he'd feel when he had to refuse doing what she would ask. Granted, he should be expecting it. They thought he was his other self. Someone who might, they hoped, be relieved enough to help them.
Even if he was, he couldn't do it.
He walked up to them, glancing at Ziggy's monitors. He turned to read Donna's notes over her shoulder, sidestepping Tina, who was checking circuits, and dodging Gooshie, who was moving from terminal to terminal, frantically typing away. "You know," he said, slowly pulling a pair of glasses from his pocket and settling them on his nose, "if you reroute the power through that—" and here he pointed to the appropriate section on the prints in front of Donna "—you can still have Ziggy scanning for Sam while you repair the damage. And you've got the parts in the store room. I remember noticing those." That piece didn't quite fit in place, but it wasn't loose. If anything, it was jammed in, larger now than it had been before. Swollen tightly into place. But…he was better for it, really.
"You're right," Donna murmured, double-checking his calculations in her head. She offered him a small, pained smile. "Thank you."
"Ooh, it's…not much." The Doctor hesitated for a moment, and then added, "And, thank you. For believing in me. For trusting me."
Donna looked at him for a moment before quietly replying, "Thank you for letting me." She held his gaze for a few long seconds, as if she was debating asking him something else, and then she turned away. The Doctor, respectful of her silence, turned his attention elsewhere and squinted at the information Ziggy displayed on the terminal nearest to him. He hit a few keys, checking, and nodded, pulling back and removing his glasses. Stipulation in place; Sam wouldn't leap the moment he left the TARDIS. Didn't buy him much time, but it would buy him enough.
And, well, he didn't have much to do here, not really. He'd been expecting questions. Perhaps he would have gotten them, if he hadn't blown half their delicate circuitry to pieces. They looked like they wanted to ask, but they put it off, he could see, because they knew they didn't have time. Or perhaps they did know that even if they asked, he wouldn't be able to help. No matter how much he wanted to. Something was certainly holding them back, and it wasn't just the necessity of repairing Ziggy or the lighting or the air circulation systems. He saw Tina look up at him, swallow back the words that had been on the tip of her tongue, and return to her work. He saw Gooshie pause in his typing and glance at him before something beeped and drew his attention back to his work. He saw Donna's internal debate as she stared at another page of spewed data, sorting things out and yet not really thinking about that at all.
It was just as well, really. He didn't want to answer their questions. He didn't want to disappoint them, not after everything they'd gone through, not with everything they had yet to come. Cowardly, yes. But he'd rather be a coward.
He hated leaving things in pieces, leaving others to clean up behind him, but sometimes he didn't have a choice. Sometimes—most times—he could do something, but his hands were tied in this situation. He couldn't interfere now. No matter how much he wanted to. He'd be unravelling too much. The events were tangled together. If he fixed the retrieval system like they undoubtedly wanted to request of him, he'd be changing history, not keeping it on its proper path. If Sam were to leap back here and stay, if he brought Sam home now…. The consequences of him doing that, at this time….
Corridor was clear. Good. That was good. Besides, he really didn't need to explain. They'd figure things out themselves quickly enough. And he did somehow doubt that Al would be particularly pleased to see the latest havoc he'd wrecked upon the Project. Not that Al would have any doubt who had done it, or why. So he could hope that he'd be forgiven. But…he'd understand if he wasn't. Fixing things…would take them a while.
"Doctor, if I may have a word?"
The Doctor stopped in his tracks. He offered Verbeena Beeks a sheepish grin when he spotted her. "Actually, if you're still going by your earlier differentiation system, you'd be calling me Dr. Smith. But I do prefer just being called the Doctor." Before she could ask, he added, "I—well, my counterpart—disabled Sam's aura. It'll spring back into place with the next leapee, don't you worry."
"Won't that affect Sam?"
"It shouldn't," the Doctor assured her. "No reason to."
"I spoke with Al about—"
"About the last time I was here," the Doctor guessed, "and now you'd like to get some more answers out of me, I take it."
Verbeena offered him a small smile. "I expect that would be quite difficult."
"Oh, there're one or two people out there who seem to manage it without me even realizing it," the Doctor replied, grinning at her. But when her expression shifted to one that rivalled pity, his grin faded. "What is it?"
"You can't run forever, you know."
"Perhaps not," the Doctor agreed, "but there's a certain thrill in trying, isn't there? Getting out and exploring? Seeing what you can see? Experiencing the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, just to live?"
"Are you trying to convince me or yourself?" Verbeena asked wryly. "Perhaps you believe that I can't understand anything about you, but I know that look. And maybe you can hide it from the rest of the world, but you can't hide it from me, because I know that look. I see it every day now. I just need to look at Al, and there it is, clear as day, no matter how he tries to hide it."
"And what look is that?" the Doctor asked, his tone now a good deal more restrained than it had been a moment before.
"You don't want to look behind you," Verbeena pointed out. "You're afraid of what you'll see. Or of what you won't."
The Doctor's mouth quirked into a smile. "Like Orpheus or like Lot's wife?" he asked. They hadn't wanted to look back, not at first, if he was reading his tales correctly. They weren't even supposed to, but they did. The temptation proved too great. And look where it had gotten them. He was better off going on straight ahead. Leaving the past behind. Not looking back.
"Like anyone who has done something that they aren't proud of," Verbeena answered simply, "even if it was necessary at the time."
The Doctor wasn't sure how to reply to that. He couldn't exactly deny it, not completely. He took a measured breath and looked expectantly at Verbeena, waiting for her to continue.
It was a long moment before she spoke again. "I don't suppose," she began softly, "that there is any way for us to convince you to reconsider your previous decision?"
The Doctor didn't need to ask what she meant; he knew. He'd been expecting it. "No," he told her. "I'm sorry, but I can't, not now. You've seen what can happen."
"Not now or not ever?" Verbeena asked carefully.
The Doctor smiled wistfully at her. "I think you know the answer to that."
Verbeena nodded slightly. "All the best to you in your travels then, Doctor."
"And to you in yours," he replied, his smile gentle. He continued to the Waiting Room, slipping back inside. His other self hadn't regained consciousness, but he wasn't alone. Al was there, waiting for him. "I suppose you'd like an explanation?" the Doctor asked, waving an arm at the dim room, injecting perhaps a bit too much cheerfulness into his voice.
"We'll repair the damage," Al informed him simply. "But, yes, I would like an explanation. I'd like to know why, Doctor. Why put us through this, and still refuse to help?"
"It's not intentional," the Doctor reminded him. "I…this…." He trailed off, looking up at the dark ceiling. "It's just a part, Al, of what you risk every day. Sometimes things go wrong, and sometimes you never find out the reason why. Sometimes, it can be fixed. And sometimes...it can't. It nearly went too far this time. I'd thought it had. But I was lucky. Very, very lucky."
"That sort of luck doesn't last," Al pointed out. "And if you force it to, someone else pays the price."
The Doctor had a feeling that he knew exactly what Al was referring to. They'd learned plenty on that leap of Sam's, even if the lesson was hard. Sam carried the brunt of the guilt, though, related to that price. A price that the Doctor knew all too well himself. "I know. I'm not going to let that happen."
"You don't seem to mind that Sam's pushing his luck."
"It's…not as bad as it seems," the Doctor admitted. "You just don't have all the pieces to see that yet."
"And you do."
"And you won't tell us."
"And that's how it's going to be, every time you turn up? You're going to tell us, each time, that you can't help?"
"I'll bet." Al's voice was bitter, and the Doctor didn't blame him.
"I should go," the Doctor said, motioning to the TARDIS. Al stepped aside, and he fished his key out and unlocked the door.
"Doctor," Al added before he could disappear inside, "listen. You can disappoint us, crush our hopes before they have a chance to be realized, but don't do this to Sam. He's been through enough."
The Doctor nodded once, sharply, and closed the door behind him. It didn't take him long to set the coordinates and start the TARDIS on her way. As the grinding, wheezing song of his ship echoed off the arching walls around him, he clutched the sides of the console, staring down at the controls, hoping he wouldn't have to betray what remained of Al's trust.
"So this is the corridor to the library, is it?" Sam asked with a laugh as Martha stared back into the console room.
Martha shook her head, laughing herself. "Worst part is," she confided, "I don't know if I got turned around or if things were shifted on me."
Sam's smile faded as he walked past her and up into the console. "I suppose my time's up, then," he surmised, patting the console fondly. Turning back to her, he gave her one of the Doctor's bittersweet grins, saying, "It's been great, really. Absolutely brilliant. I enjoyed being able to spend some time with you. I…generally don't have a lot of time to talk to someone and laugh like this, not without something hanging over my head that I have to do."
"A rest, then. A brief reprieve." Martha smiled at him. "I think I can understand. I need that, too, after some runs with the Doctor."
Sam enveloped her in a great hug. "Thank you, Martha Jones. For listening, and believing, and sharing your own stories."
She hugged him fiercely in return. "I'm going to try to find you," she said. "When I get back. I mean, I don't know if I can, if your Project is still classified and all, but I'm going to try. And then, maybe, we can just talk. Like we did now. I'm sure we'll both have stories. And…I think it'll be good for us. Both of us." She laughed. "I mean, there aren't a lot of people I can talk to about this. Even my family…."
"I know." Sam gave her one final squeeze before releasing her and stepping back. "You'll be brilliant, Martha Jones. In whatever your future holds for you."
"So will you," she managed, smiling at him. He returned it before heading out of the TARDIS for the last time.
The Doctor was waiting for him, leaning against his own ship, watching as he came out. "It worked," he said simply, answering Sam's question before he could voice it. "All the pieces are in place. Well, more or less. But they're not about to move, so I'm no danger to anyone."
"I thought you—well, your other self—had said that he was going to be the one to come back here."
"Plans change." The Doctor offered Sam a half-smile. "And that's a bit of a bother, isn't it, all that extra travelling? Much easier this way."
"Are you—?" Sam stopped for a moment. "Are you both going to be all right?"
The Doctor gave him a small smile. "I'm always all right, Sam."
He wasn't. Sam could see that on his face. He tried to hide it, but it was there. Perhaps it was his practiced eye that could spot it. Or perhaps it was because he had leaped into the Doctor, and part of him was now part of Sam.
He didn't have to remember his last encounter with the Doctor to guess that things couldn't have been much different. Then, he'd probably left Sam with more questions than he'd answered, just like he was now. Because Sam did have questions—millions of them. But he knew he wouldn't get answers for them, even if he didn't know why. Time was likely the largest constraint—an odd concept, seeing as they were both time travellers. But perhaps that in itself was the reason. If this leap had taught him anything, it was that he was lucky. Lucky, and that whoever or whatever was leaping him around wanted to keep him safe as long as possible, because he was doing the right thing.
He'd seen now some of the consequences of what could happen when things went wrong and didn't need to ask to know that it could have been far worse.
But he still had to ask one question. Even if he could shelve all the rest of his curiosities and concerns, he couldn't ignore this one question. It wasn't who or what was leaping him around. It wasn't even why. Not when it came down to it. He wanted to know, yes, and he suspected that the Doctor knew, and he'd ask anyone else in a shot, but…. But he had to ask this because now, having seen the fragility of time, he needed to know the answer. He was terrified of the truth, but not knowing was far worse.
So he had to ask.
"Doctor, am I ever going to get back home?"
"I can't tell you that." The Doctor looked genuinely contrite, the sorrow clear on his face, but his tone of voice was one that told Sam that he wasn't going to give in. He wouldn't yield.
Still, it wouldn't stop Sam from trying. "Please."
"I can't. I'm sorry, I really am, but I can't."
"I know you know," Sam implored. "Please. Am I going to die on some leap? Am I going to be scattered into atoms? If something happens to Al, or Gooshie, or anyone else, am I going to be left on my own? Am I going to get stuck on a leap somewhere? Are they going to cut the Project's funding and shut us down? Or am I going to get home?"
The Doctor's expression didn't change.
Sam felt cold. He couldn't quell the rising fear he felt, couldn't silence the sickening horror that whispered to him, telling him in teasing words that the Doctor wouldn't tell him because it was all too horrible for Sam to know. And despite himself, he repeated those words, desperate for denial, saying, "I'm going to die, aren't I? And it'll be soon. Maybe even on my next leap. That's why you don't want to tell me."
"You aren't going to die on your next leap, Sam," the Doctor finally divulged, "but no one should know too much about their own future."
"But you know what happens to me."
"If I did get home," Sam theorized, "then I'd have to destroy the Project, wouldn't I? So no one else could control it?"
"If faced with those circumstances," the Doctor replied softly, "you would make the right choice. Like you have before."
"What if I don't?"
"If you didn't, I would have to intervene," the Doctor answered, sounding slightly more cheerful. "But if it comes to it, Sam, you'll make the right choice."
"You really won't tell me, will you?"
Sam felt like he was fighting a losing battle. "Doctor, you told me yourself that you like to keep your promises. Promise me that I'll be safe. If you can't promise me that I'll make it back home safely and that I won't be abandoned in time, at least promise me that I'll be safe while I am leaping. At least give me that piece of mind. Please."
The Doctor's resolve seemed to crumble. "Sam…." He shook his head. "Dr. Samuel Beckett. You leap through time, putting right what once went wrong, and I applaud you for it. You are brave, and you are strong, and, oh, you are so brilliant. Thank you."
Sam waiting, hoping. But the Doctor didn't continue. "Please, Doctor," he begged. "Please."
"You're going to leap," the Doctor pointed out. "Just like I promised. It's over, and you're leaping."
"Just promise me that I'll be safe," Sam pleaded.
The Doctor sighed. "Sam Beckett, I—"
And Sam leaped.
A/N: Well, that's all, folks. And while I will admit I was sorely tempted not to have things work out for Doctor, my chosen (though, I'm sure some would protest, still cruel) ending seemed to fit better this way. And Sam? Well, as the Doctor has said, no one should know too much about their own future. Not even poor Sam, who is desperate for some reassurance. Would the Doctor have relented and said something? I expect so. But there was only so much time, and it finally ran out. Sam leaped on, still not knowing, and the Doctor has to continue on, plagued by his knowledge as much as Sam is plagued by its lack.
Was this a tale worth reading? I certainly hope so. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, even if I did occasionally spend hours going over it or staring at a couple of paragraphs, making sure it made sense in my head (for I knew that if I couldn't make sense of it, no one reading it would have a hope). I wasn't quite sure how it would turn out when I started getting my ideas together, especially since it was a bit of a spontaneous sequel and not one I had planned—or even thought about planning—when I wrote Patchwork. And while I did make sure that I knew where I was going with this tale, I would like to thank my reviewers again for their much appreciated comments—Questfan, Antioch XX, and czarminotaur. Now that this story is finished, I'd like to know what everyone who read it thought of it, in terms of what I'm doing right and what I need to work on and any other comments anyone might have. Thanks to everyone who takes the time to do that.