The Doctor stood a bit back on the beach, shading his eyes and peering ahead at the water. An explosion tore up through the sea, a monstrous fireball that signalled both the utter destruction of one of the greatest vessels to ever sail in Earth's oceans and the salvation of so many lives, some of whom had not had even an inkling of the danger. Of course, it also meant that the last of the trapped temporal particles that had been caught in the guise of mere sand and distributed through the nooks and crannies of seaQuest had finally been freed and would be dispersed by the currents. He had no doubt that the good people on board seaQuest had done their very best to clean up all the sand that they'd been able to find, but he'd known they would miss some. The only reason he hadn't worried was because he'd known this would happen, too.
He couldn't name all the figures who were gathered on the beach, and the distance was too great for many of the ones he did suspect were down there to be distinguished anyway, but even from this distance, he could pinpoint the very second fear turned to joy when the launch broke the surface of the water. He was also close enough to sense the moment the mood changed again, the moment it was determined that the life raft did not contain everyone who had remained on the vessel as she dove to her death.
Despite himself, the Doctor grinned. He knew the ending to this, if nothing else. He knew it would turn out all right, even though, right now, it didn't look like it would. He knew Captain Nathan Bridger had made his great escape in spite of the odds.
That wasn't why he'd come, though. It wasn't even to ensure that history hadn't changed and that the sand particles had been distributed. He'd had to come because he'd realized that Lucas had taken his advice to heart and was getting a bit too close to certain doors that needed to remain closed.
As for the timing, well, he was usually either very good or very bad at that.
The Doctor pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket. It was a copy of a message Lucas had sent, one the Doctor had intercepted. He'd been too late, though. It didn't take much to read the letter and see that it had been a reply. At least that he could tell from the reply that the first message hadn't had any horrible effects; Donna had clearly remained ignorant of him. Thankfully.
Why did something that was good have to hurt so much? He knew he couldn't have her remembering, not ever. Yes, he'd prepared for the worst, planted a sort of emergency shut off switch in her mind, but he had a terrible feeling that he'd never have the stroke of brilliance he'd need to be clever enough to work around the effects of the Metacrisis and allow Donna to remember him and their travels without ill effect. He couldn't think of how it would be possible. A Time Lord consciousness in a human mind….
The Doctor shook himself. He couldn't do any more for Donna now than what he was already doing: making sure she remained safe. He needed to check in on Lucas and make sure he didn't try to contact her again, for whatever reason. He wasn't even sure how he'd found her in the first place.
Lucas, however, was brilliant. The Doctor realized he should have been expecting something like this to happen. He'd invited Lucas to try to uncover some of the traces he'd left behind, but, oh, sometimes he needed to make sure things stayed buried. Some things couldn't be touched. Donna Noble was one of them.
The Stinger erupted from the water and ploughed onto the sand, and it was a few seconds before anyone on the beach registered that. Lucas was the first one to start running, the Doctor figured, and he'd bet Kristin Westphalen was the second. A few moments later, Captain Bridger climbed out of the high speed, single seat submersible. He was probably shaken, but he'd be fine, even if his ship was destroyed. One of the first things he was going to do was plan to build another.
The Doctor still hung back, biding his time. Things had been happening very quickly for everyone, and he didn't really want to interfere while they got their bearings as the shock wore off and reality set in. He was just thankful they were all alive; it would have been hard to come here if he'd known some of the people he'd gotten to know in the little time he'd spent aboard seaQuest had lost their lives. It would have been hard to admit that he couldn't, and really shouldn't, change things.
It was the knowledge that he had to get to them before the UEO did that finally drove the Doctor forward. The last thing he needed was to be caught chatting with the seaQuest crew. Who knew the questions he'd get if he stuck around for too long? Who knew how much paperwork he'd have to fill out before he managed to escape? It didn't bear thinking about that dreadful possibility. He had far better ways to spend his time. Like now, for instance. Watching joyful reunions. That was worth more than seaQuest herself had been.
Captain Bridger was the first one to notice him approaching and consequently the first to reach him, though Lucas wasn't far behind. The Doctor smiled at them both. "Beautiful weather we're having, isn't it?" he asked.
Bridger frowned suspiciously. "Did you know," he asked quietly, "what was going to happen today?"
The Doctor hesitated, then nodded.
"And you let it?" Lucas asked. "Why? You've stopped loads of other things. I read about it."
"There are some things," the Doctor answered carefully, "that are for the best. This had to happen, so it did."
"Can be rebuilt," the Doctor interrupted. He glanced up at Bridger. "Isn't that right?"
"Quite," Bridger agreed. "We're thankful our crew survived. That's what's important." He paused, then said, "I have the feeling you're not here just to give us that bit of encouragement."
The Doctor rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, you're right about that. It's actually you, Lucas, that I needed to see. You've been doing your research."
"I was," Lucas said, "but it's gone now."
"What you accumulated, yes, I suppose it is, but the thing is, Lucas, I'm going to have to ask that you don't keep it up. Well, in terms of Donna, at least. Donna Noble. Donna. You…. Don't try contacting her again. You can't." Was it just his imagination, or did Lucas look distinctly paler?
"I don't plan to," Lucas said hollowly.
No, it wasn't his imagination. "I should've warned you," the Doctor said. "I'm sorry. I just didn't think. That's one connection that needs to remain buried."
"Yeah, I figured that out," Lucas said. "Don't worry, Doctor, I learned my lesson: don't make assumptions."
"Did you also learn the answers to some of your questions?" the Doctor asked. He really didn't know how much Lucas would have found, or who he would have found.
"Yeah," Lucas said, and then he added, "about two of them."
Perhaps he hadn't found his search as fruitful as the Doctor had thought.
"I think he learned a bit more than that, Doctor," Bridger said, easily reading the look on the Doctor's face. He glanced at Lucas. "And didn't you make a friend or two along the way?"
"There are a few people I'll probably stay in touch with," Lucas allowed. "But most of them warned me that I probably wouldn't find much of anything else to answer my questions because you've never answered them in the first place."
"Well, there is that," the Doctor said, thinking he'd better change the subject awfully quickly before Lucas decided to start asking him those very questions. "Your father's here, isn't he?"
Lucas smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, he's here."
He's safe, the Doctor translated. He's alive. And probably making promises that the Doctor really hoped he'd have the decency to keep.
"I believe we'll all be put up in a hotel for the night," Bridger said, "if you'd care to join us, Doctor."
"Ooh, I can't say that's not tempting," the Doctor said. It was; he would have enjoyed having a good visit, even if it did mean he'd be answering a few questions before he could change the topic. "But I'd better not, really. I might be a tad too easy for the UEO to spot me if I do, and I can't say I fancy answering any of their questions." He blew out a breath. "I imagine they still have a couple, no matter what you told them."
"I'm sure they do," Bridger agreed. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd better to check in on the rest of my crew."
The Doctor and Lucas watched him go, and then Lucas asked, "Would you have told us, any of us, if you knew we didn't all make it? If you knew the captain wasn't going to make it out or something?"
"That would have been changing things," the Doctor replied quietly.
"But I've read some of the old files," Lucas said. "You always change things."
"Not always," the Doctor corrected. "If I know how something's supposed to go, I have to let it, or do my best to make sure whatever it is happens if something else is trying to interfere."
"Even if you know it means someone's going to die and you could have stopped it?"
The Doctor sighed. "There are different circumstances," he said.
"Some people are more important than others, you mean."
The Doctor shook his head. "No."
"What is it, then?"
"It's complicated," the Doctor said softly. "Very, very complicated. Even I get it wrong sometimes. It's not as easy to read all the connections."
"But if any of us hadn't made it, you would have let us die?"
"That's oversimplifying things," the Doctor reminded him. "Each and every circumstance is different and has to be assessed as such. Sometimes a life has to be taken, and I can't change that. I've tried a few times, and believe me, it's not good. The person I was trying to save usually ends up choosing to make the sacrifice to restore things again."
"So what if things aren't hinged on it? Can you save someone then?"
"More likely," the Doctor said, "but it really does all depend on the circumstances."
Lucas looked out at the crowd on the beach, the gathering of seaQuest's crew. "So if I ask you to promise to look out for us, you won't."
"I know. You can't, because you don't know the circumstances."
"I'm not supposed to interfere with things," the Doctor said.
Lucas snorted. "You always interfere with things."
"Well, yes," the Doctor admitted, "I usually do, but I'm not supposed to."
Lucas was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "When you were showing me your ship and telling me about the fragment, you said that we might experience more strange things in the future, but we haven't."
The Doctor had a feeling he knew where this was leading, but he went along with it anyway. "Yes, I did, but you might recall that I also told you, as I told Captain Bridger, that your next few weeks would be exceedingly ordinary. And they were, weren't they?"
Lucas ignored that comment, instead continuing with, "So it's still coming, then. All those strange things you said we'd be more susceptible to."
"Technically," the Doctor allowed carefully.
"So what if it falls into your jurisdiction?" Lucas asked, turning to face the Doctor again. "If the trouble we get into is a result of aliens or some temporal disaster, will you help us? That's when you usually interfere, isn't it? Will you watch out for us then?"
"Lucas, I still haven't looked up what's in your future," the Doctor said. "I'm working off old memories, and I would think that you have a better idea of just how old some of those memories are now."
"That's not what I asked."
"I know, but—"
"I wanted to know," Lucas interrupted, "if you'd look out for my family. You said it yourself, Doctor. We're not just a crew; we're a family. I know we're going to be losing some people if there's ever another seaQuest, but I just don't want to think about losing them forever. Not because of something that started with that fragment."
"Lucas, I don't want to make a promise that I'm not sure I can keep."
"So look into things, then, and tell me if you can keep it."
"That's not what I mean," the Doctor said. "Even if the circumstances did allow for it, it still doesn't mean that I can do anything."
"Then promise me you'll try."
"You'd try for any of your friends, wouldn't you? Any of the people who've come to feel like family to you?" Lucas asked. "Any of the people you've travelled with? You'd try to save them, to look after them, wouldn't you? You'd do your best. That's all I'm doing, except I can't do it myself, so I'm asking a favour from you."
He shouldn't commit to anything. He really shouldn't. Especially when he knew there was a fair chance that Lucas might want to redeem his favour; seaQuest, once she was rebuilt, would be taken through time at least once, especially judging by that future shift he'd noticed last time. And, well, he wasn't certain she was going to avoid any further alien contact, either. There was something in the back of his mind, something he couldn't quite remember but was certain he should, that made him think that seaQuest might be drawn into something when things should have been left well enough alone, or at the very least dealt with differently. Except he couldn't remember what, or why, or any of that.
He really should have checked his history books before coming back.
He couldn't promise Lucas anything for certain, but then he hadn't demanded certainty, had he? He'd just wanted him to try to help, if needed, because he didn't want to lose the people he cared for as a result of something that wasn't their own battle.
Besides, Lucas did have a point. Nine times out of ten, he was interfering because of aliens or one temporal mess or another. And if seaQuest ran into those things, it wouldn't be entirely her fault. Granted, it certainly wasn't his fault, either, but he still did feel responsible. He ought to have noticed if things were going stale, if certain moments were starting to decay. At the very least, he should have noticed a rough patch in the Vortex when he passed by this time. Mind you, the stabilizers kept going, so he could hardly be blamed for not noticing, could he?
Or maybe he was just looking for excuses.
"All right," the Doctor agreed quietly. "I promise I'll keep an eye on things, and interfere if I can, if it's necessary. But I'm not promising I'll succeed with anything, and I'm not promising that nothing else would ever go wrong, and I'm certainly not promising that if anything does go wrong, everything'll turn out just fine and dandy. There's usually some cost, in the end."
"I know," Lucas said. "I just wanted you to promise to try, because I know you will if you say you will."
And, the Doctor suspected, he didn't want to run the risk of losing anyone unnecessarily if he thought he could find a way to avoid it. The Doctor understood that. He'd skirted death often enough, and seen far too many people to its door. If he could help a few people delay their trip….
Only under the right circumstances, though. He'd tried to be quite clear about that, and he hoped that Lucas understood. He knew the consequences of trying to save a life that shouldn't be saved. He'd dealt with those consequences more than once, even if they were never quite the same twice. He was still reeling a bit from the recent repercussions, even though it wasn't nearly as recent now as it had been before. It was still recent enough.
No one had been there to stop him.
"Thanks," Lucas said, looking back at the crew—his family, even if they weren't a family by blood. "It means a lot to me."
The Doctor swallowed. He could hear the hope in Lucas's voice, the hope that because everything had been fine this time, that everything had worked out now, it always would. It was that wonderful sense of hope that meant he was still a child, however much he may deny it. The Doctor had his suspicions about seaQuest's future, but he couldn't bring himself to rob Lucas of that hope, so he kept his mouth shut. He'd learn to temper that hope appropriately with the necessary preparations for the worst the future could bring if he stayed with Captain Bridger, and the Doctor knew he would. That much, he remembered.
No sense in dawdling. He wanted to. He really did. A moment of peace and quiet conversation, to relax and enjoy the company, the beach, the breeze, the lulling sounds of the waves, the smell of the sea, the salty taste in the air— But he had this urge to keep moving, to do as much as he could in however many days he had left, and it was getting harder and harder to avoid doing what he needed to do, to go anywhere but the Ood-Sphere.
"Take care of yourself, Lucas," the Doctor said, smiling. "And make the best of everything you've got. If you do, you'll realize just how brilliant each individual moment is and how lucky you are to have lived it."
"You're not even going to stay a little while?"
The Doctor shook his head. "No. Best be off. Still have things that need doing."
"You always do," Lucas observed. "Well, good luck. And, maybe…. Doctor, everyone I talked to that you travelled with…. None of them regret it, you know, no matter what happened. So maybe you should find someone else. For, you know, company or something."
"Yes," the Doctor agreed softly, remembering when Donna had stood in the snow and told him much the same, though the reason she had given him had been different. She'd been proven right, though, hadn't she? How he could have forgotten her words so quickly…. "I'll do that." Once the danger was past, once whatever was coming out the dark finally came, and probably, once he'd heard the four knocks that signalled the end.
The end, and the beginning.
Yes. Brand new beginning. Fresh start. He'd find someone to travel with him then, someone to keep him company, help him out, hold him to his words…stop him. Someone to show the universe to. Someone to rely upon, someone he'd grow to love as much as he'd loved any of the other people who had travelled with him in the past—his family, as much as Lucas's family was the seaQuest crew. What had Sarah Jane told him? He had the biggest family on Earth….
"Lucas!" The call came from the crowd on the beach, and one person broke off and started towards them. When he came closer, he said, "Lucas, why don't you join us?" The man, someone the Doctor didn't recognize, looked at him and added, "And you are?"
"The Doctor," the Doctor said, offering his hand.
The man shook it. "I'm Lucas's father, if you haven't guessed. I'm a doctor myself, of the sciences. Lawrence Wolenczak." He paused, then said, "If you'll forgive me, I don't remember seeing you here earlier. Are you part of the crew, Dr.—?""
The Doctor shook his head. "Just a friend," he answered, ignoring the man's implied question of his name. "You have a brilliant son, Dr. Wolenczak. I hope you appreciate that."
The man grinned and ruffled Lucas's hair. "I couldn't be prouder."
"Dad," Lucas said, in the warning tone of a child who felt he was too old to be publicly embarrassed like that.
Dr. Wolenczak laughed. "I just miss you."
"Then you could have made time for me," Lucas said in a rather bitter tone of voice. "At some point in the last few years, you could have made time for me. You didn't have to wait until we almost got killed."
"I think," the Doctor said quietly, taking in the looks on the faces of both Wolenczaks, "that you two still have a long conversation ahead of you." Evidently, the joy of the reunion and of being alive was tainted by years of silence, and that could only be mended by conversation. Sometimes it was too hard to just forget the past; previous actions had to be accounted for. The Doctor knew that quite well. He still had a few things in his past that he hadn't reconciled yet, either. Well, perhaps just a bit more than a few. Well….
Still. Time to be moving on. As the Wolenczaks began their conversation, with the elder making those promises the Doctor had thought he'd have been making earlier, the Doctor slipped away, heading back to the TARDIS. Lucas had turned up a few of the answers he'd so desperately wanted, without any harm to poor Donna through a triggered flash of memory, and now he had the relationship with his father to rebuild. The seaQuest crew was safe. The destruction of seaQuest meant that the last of the sand, the bits of crystallized time that had been trapped on the great vessel herself, were released and distributed. All was well.
And yet, the Doctor still entered the TARDIS with heavy hearts.
No matter. There were a million, billion things to do to distract him. A whole universe to explore, all across the ages. All alone. For as long as he could, until he could put off his trip to the frozen world of the Ood no longer.
But first, well…. First, he needed to brush up on a bit of history. Earth, twenty-first century, specifically the exploration of the oceans by one particular vessel and all that became of her. On and, more specifically, off the official records. Because he didn't like to make promises he couldn't keep, and he wasn't in the habit of breaking them, especially not when they were made to someone who trusted him.
"See if you can turn up anything unusual," the Doctor said to his ship after he'd keyed in the appropriate information. He patted her affectionately. "I'll be in the library. Let me know if you find anything."
The TARDIS hummed, a slightly different hum accompanying her usual comforting tone, likely as much because she knew quite well where he'd be as because she was sensitive to his mood and wanted to let him know she'd do her best. Because, unlike anyone else in the whole wide universe, she knew precisely what he'd gone through, and she always knew how he really felt. She was, after all, his dearest friend. His family. They were just two old relics from a world long ago destroyed in a bitter War, a world that was hardly more than a legend on some planets out there.
He might be lonely, but he'd been wrong to ever think that he'd be truly alone. He wouldn't. Not as long as he had her, and she him. The bond between a Time Lord and his TARDIS might be inexplicable to anyone else, but it was something they would always have, no matter what happened, so long as they both continued on. She'd always accepted him, no matter who he became, and she helped him through his disorientation after each change as best she could. If he'd ever spared the time to listen to her, it would likely have helped substantially in the past.
Still. She knew what he wanted, and, moreover, she knew what he needed, or where he needed to be, and the Doctor trusted her more than anyone else in the entire universe. And he knew that when she finally took it upon herself to deliver him to the Ood, he wouldn't balk anymore, because by then it would be at a point where he could delay the inevitable no longer.
The Doctor thought back to his promise to Lucas. Some things, he knew, couldn't be stopped, couldn't be changed. But others, oh, others could, if he could find just the right loophole. And, if he turned up anything noteworthy in his search of seaQuest's history, he'd try. He'd try his very best, because he'd promised. And that's what really mattered.
A/N: Well, c'est fini, mes amis. Thanks to those who've read this little tale and especially to those who've reviewed it along the way, Questfan, darkin520, and hbruce. I quite appreciated it.