Thanks for everything, faithful readers! I've really enjoyed writing this, and you've all given me such lovely feedback. I'm humbled and grateful. What do you think should happen next?
Epilogue: An Unearthly Wheezing
He watched River take the Tenth Doctor's hand, pulling him away from Turlough. The Fifth Doctor was very grateful to see the battered Time Lord smile.
"He'll be all right," said the Eleventh Doctor, approaching him, with Romana and the Eighth at his side.
"Will he really?" the Fifth Doctor replied, mostly to himself.
"We're always all right, remember?" He gave him a sad little smile with a trace of irony.
"Yes, but what about us?" Romana asked, and reached out to hold the Eighth Doctor's hand. "Will we be all right?"
"Spoilers..." the Eleventh replied softly, sounding very heartbroken.
Romana sighed. "Yes. Timelines and all. Well, that's all right, I suppose. Nobody lives forever. And I'm still glad I met you."
The Fifth Doctor took her hand and brought it to his lips, his eyes never leaving hers. "I'm very grateful to finally have had the chance to meet you in person, Romana. I hope you realize how much you mean to me. How much you'll always mean to all of us."
At that moment, Turlough cleared his throat. The Fifth Doctor turned around, a guilty expression on his face.
"Ah, yes. Turlough. I was just about to fetch you," he said, annoyed at himself for feeling so flustered. "I think it's time we left."
"Don't worry," the Eleventh said, watching the Tenth Doctor stroke River's face almost reverently. "River will sort him out. She's good at that."
"I'm sure she is," the Fifth Doctor replied.
They'd all wandered close, letting River and the Tenth Doctor share their moment in relative privacy. The Fifth Doctor looked around his little motley crew, then locked eyes with the Eleventh, and smiled. He remembered what it felt like to have his past come for a visit. He considered himself very lucky to have the chance to experience the reverse. To be able to see all of his future spread out before him. It was comforting to know there was so much still ahead.
"I'm glad to see I'll be in good hands," he said.
"Well, you always were my favorite," John said with a wide, dopey grin.
"Yes," he replied, touched. "Well, modesty forbids."
"It's been lovely," the Eighth Doctor said and warmly shook hands with the Fifth. He gave Turlough a long, lingering hug, then kissed Rose and Amy on the cheek before turning to face John and the Eleventh. "I am sorry, you know. For whatever it is I've done. Or am going to do."
The Eleventh Doctor sighed, and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"You have some bad days ahead of you, Doctor. Some really, really bad days. But we all do what we must, in the end. And we learn to live with the consequences."
He sighed loudly, then nodded. "Yes. I suppose we must."
Romana held out her hand, and he took it, attempting a weary sort of smile. "And now I really think we must be going," Romana said. "Farewell, and thank you."
John, the Eleventh, and the Fifth couldn't let her leave without embracing her one last time, and then the two Time Lords strode off into the darkness.
"We should be getting back," Rose said, giving John a pointed look. "My mum's gonna kill you."
He gave a long-suffering sigh. "Yeah, I sort of figured that. But did you really have to bring up Jackie at the moment? You're making me look uncool in front of the other Doctors!"
She chuckled. "Right, so you all know what to do? We'll contact Ianto, and once he opens the rift, you'll need to follow our signal. Just one chance, yeah?"
River stepped into their midst, looking a little saddened. "He's gone back to his TARDIS. But he won't miss the signal. He'll make it back."
"You know, I'm rather looking forward to getting to know you," the Fifth Doctor said.
River smiled then, and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. "To days to come."
"Shouldn't we be going?" the Eleventh said, sounding just a tad irritable.
"Thank you, Doctor," the Fifth Doctor said, shaking the hand of his latest incarnation.
"I'm very welcome," he replied with a wry grin. "Come along, Pond. River."
"Oh, all right," Amy said with a sigh. She embraced John and Rose in a single huge hug, laughing. "You better come visit, ok?"
She released them, but not a moment later the Eleventh Doctor captured them in yet another embrace.
Amy turned to Turlough, lips pouted. "You know, if things don't work out with this Doctor fellow, you really should look me up."
Before he could reply, Amy grabbed his lapels, pulled him close, and kissed him, rough and passionate. The Fifth Doctor clenched his jaw, somehow managing to refrain himself from yanking them apart.
Turlough blushed beet red as he pulled away, a little breathless.
"You take care of him, ok?" she said with a beguiling smile.
"I think it's the other way around," Turlough replied, backing away from her rather nervously, and glancing at the Fifth Doctor apologetically.
"All right, that's quite enough of that, Pond," the Eleventh Doctor growled, grabbing her hand gruffly and pulling her away.
"Bye!" Amy called out as they left.
"Until next time," River said, and gave them an enigmatic smile before she followed after the other two.
"So..." the Fifth Doctor said, grinning at Rose and John. "Twins."
John bounded up to him and gave him a huge hug, practically lifting him. Laughing.
"I know!" he said as he pulled away, still grasping the Doctor's shoulders. "Oh, you'd love them. Different as can be, but both are absolutely brilliant. Can you imagine? Your own little time tots gallivanting around in an alternate universe."
"Sounds like a lovely adventure," the Fifth Doctor replied, blue eyes shining. "I'm so happy for you. For both of you."
Then Rose hugged him, and something about her felt so perfect, so right. He fell in love with her then, just a little bit. After they separated, the Doctor took Turlough's hand and held it tightly. Suddenly very grateful for his presence.
"Thank you," John said to Turlough, then kissed him lightly on the cheek. "You did take care of me, Turlough. More than you realized."
Turlough smiled, and looked away. Still blushing.
It started the moment they returned to the vortex. The Doctor knew he could be very persuasive, and Romana found herself victim to yet another of his earnest, rambling speeches.
"I need you," he said finally, his voice low and serious.
"Doctor..." Romana said sternly.
"Please?" the Eight Doctor said. "It won't be any trouble, I promise. Let me make things up to you. Just one more trip, Romana. Please, please, please please please?"
"I can't, Doctor. You know that. I've been gone too long already. We're still on Gallifreyan time, after all. It isn't as though the council won't be waiting for me. Probably plotting in my absence at this very moment."
"Please?" he pleaded, his tone turning very desperate.
"You don't want to be alone," she said, moving closer to him.
And the Doctor suddenly seemed very small, and very weak, and very, very vulnerable. "Whatever they know, whatever they've experienced, it's left the universe terribly broken. I can almost feel it, if I concentrate. Can't you? There, at the very edges? An obscene, impossible tangle of complicated fractures in the web of time. And I can't begin to imagine how to stop it. I'm frightened, Romana. More frightened than I've ever been."
As she held him, she began to tremble in his arms. "So am I, Doctor. So am I."
Just outside the subterranean warehouse dedicated to Doctor John Smith's special projects, the Hub was alive with activity. Every single Torchwood 3 employee, not to mention Jackie and the twins, had been waiting for hours. Empty takeout boxes were stacked haphazardly around the room, but Ianto was too preoccupied to bother cleaning them up.
Bright, cheerful Donna, a halo of wild ginger curls surrounding her plump freckled face, chatted energetically with Gwen. Alone in a corner, playing a videogame, sulked her brother Adric, the blue-eyed, dark-haired prodigy who's almost frightening intelligence always left Ianto feeling slightly inadequate.
They were definitely going to hate him for this, if they ever showed up. But Ianto had needed Tosh's help, and there was very little she kept from her snarky husband Owen. And Owen told Gwen, who just had to call the head of Torchwood, and Pete Tyler knew better than to keep any secrets from Jackie, even if he was off-planet, and suddenly everybody had shown up.
"So how can they be late if they've got a time machine?" Owen complained with an exasperated sigh.
Before Ianto could reply, they heard a strange rasping sound and a bright blue light flashed from the cracks around the door to the warehouse.
A moment later, they heard John's voice. "See? What did I tell you? Safe as houses."
Then the door opened, and he and Rose stepped through. Two small blurs dashed across the room, calling out for their parents. He picked both of them up in one enormous hug and spun them around, laughing.
"Aw, did you miss us?" he asked with a wide, beaming smile.
And then all four of them were pressed together in a ludicrous embrace.
"Just where the hell have you been?" Jackie growled, arms crossed, wearing a dangerous expression. "What were you thinking, dragging my Rose off to God knows where without so much as a warning?"
She began an epic tirade.
After setting the TARDIS to drift in the vortex once again, the Doctor released a long, shuddering sigh, scrubbing his face with his hands, feeling gritty dried blood flake away. He collapsed heavily into the jump seat and pulled his knees to his chest.
He ached with weariness. Dark thoughts swirled through his mind, memories of vicious impulses he hoped were not his own, sins he knew too well he could have avoided, and above all a chasm of loneliness he was too afraid to fill. Because if this experience had taught him anything, it was that this incarnation could no longer be trusted. Maybe once, too long ago, it felt, he had been the sort of man who could be trusted to care for others. And it seemed he would be again at some point, as bitterly unfair as that revelation felt at the moment. Just now, however, love and friendship seemed comforts he no longer deserved.
And yet, after everything he'd done, his fifth incarnation had told him to be kinder to himself. Well, he always had been so merciful in that body. So forgiving. If he had met Turlough now, would this Doctor really have allowed him the luxury of making his own choices, when so much hung in the balance? Given Turlough the opportunity to redeem himself, only to betray him yet again? Offering him only forgiveness in return, time after time…
Sadly, he admitted to himself he probably wouldn't. Because he wasn't the sort of man who gave second chances. Not anymore. And so he would have missed out on so much. Love, fierce and brief and unexpected. Too many memories he still cherished. And he would have misjudged a fractured soul, so similar to his own, with so much potential for good hidden under the surface.
Maybe it really was time to change. Time to die. Because if he was quite honest with himself, he couldn't think of any real reason to put his death off any longer. The Tenth Doctor couldn't trust himself to let anyone else in, and no longer felt confident the universe would continue to survive his litany of mistakes.
How could he be kinder to himself when he found it impossible to forgive himself for allowing this life to become a seemingly endless series of mistakes and miscalculations? It was time to stop running. But at the moment, the thought of letting go of this life, as painful as it had become, still absolutely terrified him. And he felt such a coward, realizing that he would continue running. For just a little while longer, at least. If only to feel something besides the torment of doubt and self-loathing that now threatened to subsume him completely. He wanted desperately to lose himself, somewhere, with someone, in some time with as few complications as possible. To run away and hide, like a coward. For just a little while longer. Before transforming into a better man.
The Doctor began to weep, ashamed and broken, full of regrets yet desperately mourning the loss of this one flawed incarnation. Grieving for a single lifetime in which he had felt everything too strongly, clinging to what little he had left with a desperation that only ever seemed to lead to tragedy. A lifetime spent causing as many disasters as he averted. With nobody to comfort him, he wept for a very long time.
They dropped River off on a planet Amy had never heard of, in a solar system an impossible distance from Earth, sometime in the 51st century. The world seemed an enormous city, spread out from horizon to horizon, with flying cars and endless skyscrapers that reached dizzying heights.
Naturally, the Doctor overshot his destination by several thousand miles, and more than a couple of decades, but River didn't seem to mind. They arrived near sunset, landing in a surprisingly green park with fluttering insects that reminded Amy of metallic butterflies.
She and River exchanged warm hugs.
"Until next time," River said.
Amy grinned. "Can't wait!"
Then River turned to the Doctor, and gave him a slow, teasing smile. "Doctor."
"River," he said, with the beginnings of a smirk.
They stepped very close together, and River reached out and stroked his cheek gently. He leaned into her touch almost without realizing it.
"So is this how it'll always be between us?" he asked in a quiet, serious tone.
"Perhaps," she said, her voice full of amusement. "But don't worry. We'll see each other very soon."
"That's what you said last time," he replied, moving even closer to her.
Then she leaned in and whispered in his ear. The Doctor's smile grew very wide, and he chuckled, sounding absolutely charmed.
She pulled away from him, but he leaned forward, as though his body was subconsciously trying to close the gap between them.
"Soon, my love," she said very softly, placing a hand on his chest.
Then she turned and walked away. The Doctor watched her go, looking wistful, and very smitten, and slightly disappointed.
Then he turned to Amy as though he'd forgotten she existed.
"So..." Amy said, crossing her arms across her chest.
"Space Florida?" he said, raising his eyebrows.
"Oh, all right," Amy said, and followed him inside.
With an unearthly wheezing, the last TARDIS in the universe disappeared into the vortex.
Thanks so much for reading, everyone! And for the awesome reviews! This is seriously the longest fanfiction I've ever written, and it's been a little exhilarating. If you like it, please check out my other stories, especially "Hello Doctor, I'm the Doctor," which is actually a sort of prequel. I think I have a couple of more stories to tell in this universe, especially with the **SPOILER ALERT** mention on SJA that the Doctor visited every single companion he'd ever had before he regenerated. I'm thinking of doing a small series. And I have an 8/Romana/Turlough story prickling in my mind that has to do with paradoxes, Trion, and the Time War!