A/N: And here's chapter three! Sorry it took so long, my muse was having a good time darting back and forth between two versions. As usual, nothing you recognize belongs to me! Enjoy! :D
"What do we do?" John asked.
Rose stood. "We go to Ealing."
He frowned. "Ealing? What's in Ealing?"
Rose grinned at him. "Sarah Jane Smith."
It was the first time that (she wasn't Mari, he needed to stop thinking of her as Mari) Rose had mentioned anyone outside of her family. Logically John knew she had to have friends (because she wasn't Sherlock, although she also wasn't who he'd thought she was), but it was still odd hearing her mention one by name. Sarah Jane Smith was, apparently, an investigative reporter for the Times. The name sounded vaguely familiar—perhaps Sherlock had mentioned her. He'd always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the press; they never seemed to pick up on the details he believed to be crucial. Of course, John could see how the consistency of tobacco ash found at the scene of a murder might be filed under minutiae, but then he wasn't Sherlock Holmes.
So they were on their way to Ealing. He'd rented a car because Rose said they would need one and he was driving because she, apparently, hadn't gotten her license. "Not in this universe, anyway," she'd muttered and he really should be concerned about his sanity, because he was taking orders from a woman who had consistently lied to him and proved that she was wrapped up in something extremely dangerous. It was odd—not the danger, he'd been a soldier after all and then Sherlock seemed to attract trouble—no, the driving was odd. Sherlock had always been the one to drive; his compulsive need for control wouldn't allow him to let anyone else dictate the route they took or the speed at which they traveled.
On second thought, John was glad he was the one driving because Rose was asleep. She looked older, he realized, more tired. Worn, although that could be the makeup. She'd caked it on thick. "Disguise," she'd told him when he commented on her new look, "is the art of hiding in plain sight." He'd gotten chills then, because she'd reminded him so strongly of Sherlock (and paintings and assassins who squeezed the life out of you and constellations and children dressed up as bombs). She twitched in her sleep and murmured something under her breath. In her new clothes and makeup, with her dyed hair and strange mannerisms she looked nothing like the woman John knew. But then, he didn't really know her at all.
Rose woke when he turned off the car. Thirteen Bannerman Road, Ealing, looked startlingly normal, but then John had lived with Sherlock long enough to know that extraordinary events often happened in ordinary places—like a community swimming pool, or a hospital, or a basement flat, or an art gallery. She stretched and a huge yawn made her jaw pop.
"We here then?" she asked. He nodded. "Right." She worried her bottom lip with her teeth and stared at the house in front of them. It looked like a nice place. It was a red brick house and different from the others on Bannerman Road, like the rest of the street had been bombed out and it was the only remnant of the original houses. Maybe it was.
John waited for Rose to take the lead. She seemed hesitant, almost nervous as she slid from the car and shut the door behind her. "Is she expecting us?" he asked as they walked to the front door.
"She told me to find her, if I needed to," Rose replied. "I'd only just met her, but then blowing up a school together forms a sort of bond, and anyway, she's more like a—a comrade in arms."
"You blew up a school?" His voice rose, incredulous. "What were you back then, a terrorist?"
That drew a laugh from her, although he was entirely uncertain as to why. "It depends on where they were standing. The aliens who were tryin' to use the children t'solve the God Equation? Yeah, they did, but the kids didn't."
They'd reached the stoop. John frowned at her. "Aliens? What are you on about?" Are you barking? His unspoken question hung in the air between them.
Her face fell back into serious lines. "I know I haven't been entirely honest with you, John."
"Entirely?" he asked, sarcasm thick in his voice.
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, okay, I've lied to you about a lot, but I'm not lying about this: aliens are real. There's a great big universe out there and it's full of life, teeming. Remember Downing Street? That pig-alien the papers said was a hoax?"
"Yeah," he replied. Doubt was creeping in.
"It was as hoax," Rose told him, "but it was put on by real aliens. They were called the Slitheen, and they wanted to start a nuclear war so they could turn the Earth into spaceship fuel."
"So they blew up Ten Downing Street?" he shot back.
She looked a bit embarrassed at that. "No, actually, that was how we stopped them."
"You're mad," he said with a laugh—but it wasn't at all funny. "Christ, you're mad and I'm mad for following you."
"I can prove it!" she snapped and rang the doorbell with more force than strictly necessary. "God, he was right. Humans will believe whatever the people in authority want them to believe, but they won't see what's right in front of their faces!"
"Um, hello?" They both turned back to regard the boy who was standing in the doorway. "Can I help you?" He looked to be about thirteen years old, with mousy brown hair and brown eyes, but there was something vaguely unsettling about him.
Rose blinked at the boy, obviously surprised. "Hi, is Sarah Jane home?"
The boy regarded her suspiciously. "Maybe. Who's looking for her?"
She ran a hand through her hair. It was a nervous gesture, John knew. He'd seen her do it a hundred times before, but it looked odd with her hand in blonde hair instead of brown. "Tell her it's Rose, would you sweetheart?" she asked. The boy nodded and disappeared.
They stood behind the closed door, waiting, in silence. Usually quiet times between them were comfortable, laced with the knowledge that they didn't need to fill the space with unnecessary words, the knowledge that they didn't need to pretend. It was not like that now. The silence stretched out in front of them, a chasm that neither seemed willing to cross.
A voice drifted out from behind the door. "Look," a woman was saying as the lock turned with a metallic groan. "I don't know who you think you are, but that's not funny at all. That's—" and the door was open. A petite brunette woman, perhaps fifty years old, glared at them. But then her gaze shifted to Rose. Her eyes widened and she gasped. "Rose!"
A small smile curved her lips. "Hello Sarah Jane."
Sarah Jane Smith was a force to be reckoned with, John Watson thought as she ushered them inside. She'd gone from shocked to mum-mode in ten seconds flat and all the while she was asking rather penetrating questions. "When did you get back? How did you get back? What's happened? Who's your friend?"
Rose answered them in order as Sarah Jane led them into a cozy kitchen. "About a year ago, it's a long story, it's complicated, John Watson."
"Really?" Sarah Jane held out her hand. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Watson."
She knew who he was, John realized, but she made no snide comments and gave him no looks of pity. He shook her hand. "And you, Ms. Smith."
"Sarah Jane, please," she corrected. "Ms. Smith is so formal, and we're all friends here." Right? She asked with a glance to Rose, who nodded.
"I didn't know you had a son," Rose commented as they sat at the kitchen table.
Sarah Jane smiled. "Yes, Luke. I didn't when I met you—he's adopted. It's a bit of a long story. I sent him over to Rani's house to do homework so we can talk freely."
"Yes," John agreed. "Openly and honestly. Sounds like a plan."
Sarah Jane caught the edge to his voice, he could tell, and the way that Rose's jaw twitched. "Why don't I make us a cuppa?" she suggested and stood. John wondered if making tea was some sort of nervous tic for these people. Ma—Rose did it whenever she was upset.
"That would be lovely," she replied with obvious relief. So a few minutes later John found himself with a steaming mug and three chocolate biscuits. He was British. He enjoyed tea, but Christ, had these two never head of coffee? Sarah Jane set her mug down on the smooth wood of the table and slid into the seat across from Rose, who wrapped her hands around her mug and stared into the amber-colored liquid like it held the secrets of the universe.
"He came to see me," Sarah Jane said as the silence became unbearable. "Just after Canary Wharf; he stopped by." She chuckled. "I knew something was up then, because he never does that, never just stops in." She sipped her tea. "I saw your name on the list of the dead—I suppose I was expecting him."
John didn't miss the catch in Rose's breath, or the way her hands tightened convulsively around her mug. Her voice, when she spoke, was surprisingly level. "How was he?"
"You know how he is," Sarah Jane replied. Her tone was fond but exasperated and perhaps a little sad. "He can talk for England without ever saying anything, well, anything important."
The tea was a good idea, John thought, it gave him something to do with his hands while the women next to him had their infuriatingly vague conversation.
"He was—flat," Sarah Jane continued. "Lost. Sort of drifting. He'd beam and babble but then he'd just stare—at the wall, at the floor, out the window, and he looked like he was never going to smile again." Rose brought the mug to her lips. Sarah Jane glanced at John. There was understanding in her warm brown eyes, and sympathy. She understood, because John thought he might have loved Mari and that maybe he could love this stranger she'd turned into—but he was fairly certain she was already in love with someone else. Sarah Jane, he thought, had been there, perhaps with the other half of this tragic story.
When Rose didn't comment Sarah Jane smiled wistfully. "He asked me to come with him, for old time's sake."
Rose cocked her head to the side and set her mug back down. "Why didn't you? That's the second time he's asked, not many people turn him down twice."
"I've got a life, here," the older woman replied, and it was true. She fit in the house. She belonged. "He's mad and brilliant and wonderful—but I've outgrown him. Besides, can you imagine a child on the TARDIS?"
"I'm sorry," John interrupted. "But who is 'he?'"
"He," Rose said, "is the man we have to find. He's the Doctor, and he isn't a man at all."
John Watson thought of himself as an intelligent, rational person. He'd always been solid and practical and firmly grounded in what he could see and touch. That's what made him a good doctor and a good soldier. He didn't put any faith in superstitions, and he was rather ambivalent to the existence of a higher power. He believed in the people he knew, the people who had his back. He believed in Sherlock Holmes, and until recently he'd believed in Mari Prentice. But now she was someone else and she was asking him to believe in things that sounded, if he was honest, more than a little mad.
She wanted him to believe that aliens were real, that natural disasters and terrorist attacks weren't that at all—they were battles between human forces and extraterrestrials. She wanted him to believe that one of those aliens traveled through space and time in a ship that looked like a police box from the sixties—that he was over nine hundred years old, that he saved the universe on practically a daily basis, and that he was the only one who could save them. From what? John wanted ask, but he didn't.
Instead, he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. Military discipline had always been his fallback, it kept his voice even and soft when he wanted to shout and occasionally prevented him from strangling his flat mate, back when he lived with Sherlock. Now it kept him from laughing in Rose's face, because something told him that wouldn't go over well.
"You don't believe us," Sarah Jane said with a bit of a smile.
"No," John agreed. "No I can't say I do."
She stood. "Come with me. I may have something that will change your mind."
Sarah Jane led them through what looked like a secret passageway and into a spacious attic. Or it would be spacious, if it wasn't crammed full of cardboard boxes.
Rose opened one and held up a few papers. "What is all this?"
"Just some old casefiles from UNIT," Sarah Jane replied as she ran a hand over the tops of the boxes. She appeared to be searching for something. "They went digital a few months back and I managed to convince Alistair to let me have the hard copies."
"A soldier for a soldier," Rose murmured. "No wonder they got on so well."
"Oh." Sarah Jane blinked. "He told you about his time at UNIT?"
A mysterious sort of smile curved Rose's lips. "Not as such."
"What's UNIT?" John asked. He was trailing behind them, looking rather lost and just a bit irritated.
"Unified Intelligence Task Force," Sarah Jane responded. "They're a secret organization designed to handle alien incursions and they answer directly to the United Nations. Aha!" She pulled out several files and handed them to John. He flipped open the first one and froze. It was the Ten Downing Street affair. There'd been a huge to-do over the destruction of the building. It was, after all, where the Prime Minister and the Cabinet conducted much of the daily business of the United Kingdom. The manila folder contained text documents (memos, alerts, interviews), photographs (of prominent people: Harriet Jones, those later determined to be aliens, even Rose and a strange man in a leather jacket), and what looked to be an autopsy of one of the aliens. The next folder was full of what looked to be specs—technology, weapons that couldn't possibly exist, even a space ship. After that it was architectural documents, surveys and blueprints for one Canada Square—Canary Wharf.
John looked up. "What is all this?"
"Proof," Sarah Jane replied and handed him another folder. "Six months ago a hospital was taken to the moon."
"The Royal Hope," John agreed as he automatically took the folder. "Wasn't that some sort of hoax—mass hallucination brought on by exposure to toxic gas?"
Sarah Jane snorted derisively. "You lived with Sherlock Holmes and you believe the official story?"
He was about to reply with something suitably sarcastic when a soft "oh" pulled their attention back to Rose. She was holding a thick binder. It was open and she traced something with one hand, her eyes wide and fixed on what she saw. Her hands were shaking and the rustle of papers was loud in the sudden silence.
Sarah Jane's lips tightened into a thin line. "I'd forgotten about that," she murmured.
"What is it?"
"Those are the records from the Battle of Canary Wharf," she said after a long moment had passed. "I'm sorry, Rose. I forgot I had them."
"S'alright—he just—" her words trailed off into a quivering sigh. "He was always so good at keeping it together, like it would kill him to let anyone know he was hurting. An' here—here there was no one left to see."
It was a photo, John realized, a photo in one of those protector sheaths which was good, because Rose was crying and mascara-laden tears landed on the plastic covering. She didn't seem to notice; her attention was fixed on the picture's subject. It was from CCTV, so it was black and white, but he didn't need colors to know who it was. There was only one person who could affect her like that—the man from the picture, the only picture that didn't feature her family and the only picture she never mentioned. The camera had captured him mid-stride, his back to a smooth pale wall. His hands were shoved into his pockets casually, his shoulders slumped, but it was his face that drew John's attention. It was flat, completely flat—completely empty. He looked like a man who had lost everything. John could relate.
"It was worse sometimes," Rose sighed. John couldn't tell if she was talking to him or herself. "Than dying, I mean. Because he was still out there, and all I had to do was close my eyes and imagine." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them her face had smoothed back into composed lines and her eyes were dry, if bright. "Do you believe me now?"
John knew when he was beaten. Her story was incredible—but the mountains of evidence that Sarah Jane possessed all seemed to agree with her. A sardonic smile tugged one corner of his mouth upwards. "It seems I've got little choice."
Her answering smile was a bit shaky. "Good. Then let's get to the present." She closed the folder and set it down gently. "I'm dying."
"What?" Sarah Jane demanded. John could only stare at her.
Rose waved a hand negligently. "That's not the problem."
"I'm pretty sure your death would be classified as problematic," he disagreed.
She made a face. "Yeah, well, it's a problem—it's not the problem, more like a side effect." One hand slipped into her jacket pocket, and pulled out a slim circle of metal. It was roughly the size of her palm and three inches thick in the center. It tapered out to a blunted point at the edges, a bit like a flying saucer, and it was covered with swirling circular designs. "This," Rose told them, her voice deadly serious, "is the problem."
Sarah Jane's eyes widened. "Is that?"
Rose nodded. "Gallifreyan. It's Time Lord technology, a relic from the War."
John could hear the capital letters in her tone. He really hated when people danced around a subject. Sherlock used to do it constantly, make little remarks, flash that annoying little smirk he got when he knew something you didn't. John's entire world had just been shifted in a course he wasn't entirely comfortable with, he was standing in a stranger's attic with things that he would have sworn yesterday couldn't have existed, and it was well past tea and he hadn't had anything to eat since lunch. He was, to be blunt, not in the best of moods, and he was tired of the ambiguity and drama that seemed to accompany his life as of late.
"Can we just cut to the chase?" he asked with some annoyance. "What is it and what does it have to do with your imminent death?"
"It's something that shouldn't exist," Rose replied. "It's an echo, a leftover, a bit that slipped through the cracks. It's a piece of the War." She ran a hand through her hair, unconsciously mimicking the Doctor. "There have been so many wars—but imagine one so terrible that the only way to end it was to destroy all sides, to cleave it out of Time itself and lock it away before it ripped the universe apart at the seams. Imagine a war when Time itself had turned against you, and your soldiers fought and died only to be brought back and fight and die again, a thousand times, a million times. Imagine that—because if we don't find the Doctor that's what's going to happen. It was the first war, the last war, the war that never was—the war that never ends."
John stared at the disk. It seemed—wrong, somehow. The designs seemed to shift and twist before his eyes. He looked away, nauseas. What she was describing, well, it sounded like the closest thing he could imagine to Hell.
"How does that connect with you?" Sarah Jane inquired. She could feel it to, that there was something Rose wasn't saying.
Rose smiled softly. Her eyes traced the swirling circles without any of the vertigo they seemed to inspire in John. "Did he ever tell you why he regenerated, Sarah?" She didn't wait for the woman to respond. "Because when I met him he didn't look like that—all wild hair an' pinstripes an' pretty. He was different—older, well, older looking, an' he had these ears, daft, he used to call them, an' he favored leather. His people," she explained for John's benefit, "they had this trick. When they were injured fatally they could change, literally change, their entire body. Brand new look, brand new quirks, same person. He killed himself to save me. We were trapped hundreds of thousands of years in the future, trapped with no way out." She laughed softly. "Well, I thought there was no way out. We were going to die—but he tricked me. Put me in his ship and sent me home. Wish I could remember the look on his face when I came back."
"How?" Sarah Jane's eyes were wide. "Don't tell me he taught you how to fly the TARDIS. That's his ship," she clarified. "It stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space."
Rose shook her head. "Oh no, it was much simpler than that. I just wanted to talk to her, to tell her to take me back to him—but it didn't go quite as planned." She frowned. "I dunno how to describe this next part. There's this—this place I guess, called the Time Vortex, but it's more than that. It's the raw power of space and time and nothing in the universe is more powerful than time. It's how the TARDIS travels, how anyone who travels in time moves—she goes into the Vortex. And I had Mickey pull her apart with a tow truck and I absorbed all of it—the entire Vortex. The Doctor took it out of me and he regenerated, because no one's meant to hold that kind of power. Our bodies aren't capable sustaining it—we'd burn like flashpaper."
John fidgeted. It all sounded so unbelievable. If it was any other day—but it wasn't. He almost wanted to laugh, except that it seemed the fate of the world hinged on what Rose was saying.
"So he took it out of me, because he was determined that I would live," she continued. "But I had all of space and time in my head. I knew everything, saw everything. And I didn't want to let go." She smiled at them, but it didn't reach her eyes. "I've got a door to the Vortex inside my head, and this little beauty is breaking down the walls between me an' it. If that happens I'll die. Even the way I am now I can't handle the full force of the Vortex for very long. But worse than that—" She held up the disk. "This is designed to take a person out of history, provided it has enough power. The Vortex is basically unlimited power, and if the wrong person gets their hands on this—we're looking at chaos, or worse, Reapers."
"Reapers?" John asked.
Rose shuddered. "You don't want to know."
"Why would they build something like this?" he continued. "If it would destroy the universe—what possible justification is there for that?"
Sarah Jane shrugged helplessly. "The Doctor didn't speak about his people, not willingly."
"They were old when the universe was young." Rose's voice was soft and dreamy. She had a strange look on her face, like she was somewhere else, as she gazed at the weapon nestled in her hands. "Old and proud, with knowledge but without wisdom, hidden away on their beautiful world—the shining planet of the seven systems. Watching and waiting, ordering the flow of time, bending the laws of physics to their will. The Great Observers, locked in the ivory tower of the Panopticon in the heart of the Citadel." She swayed and John reached out a hand to steady her, but she didn't fall. "Two suns danced in the burnt orange sky as the wind blew soft music through silver trees on the continent of Wild Endeavour. The red grass bowed to the snow-capped hills and those who ruled all that they could see—and never touched it." Something in her tone changed, an edge crept in, an urgency bordering on terror. "And then they came, death machines, engineered to hate and dominate all life. The technology was stolen but not the knowledge—but it didn't matter. They swarmed on the universe like bacteria, devouring all in their path." She was almost shouting and tears dripped down her face unheeded. "The planets fell—dominoes—hate and fear and war, pollution, desperation, madness."
Sarah Jane grabbed the disk from Rose and she fell like a puppet with her strings cut. John caught her, more out of reflex than anything, but very nearly dropped her. She was hot, and not like someone with a fever—like she was burning up from the inside out, like her skin was paper wrapped around fire. Her hands were curled half into fists and she shook in his arms.
"Oh god," she muttered and writhed, struggling to cover her ears. "Oh god oh god oh god oh god."
"Rose?" he called. "Rose, it's John. I need you to tell me what's wrong." He'd never seen her like that, never seen her completely break down. It was unnerving, almost more unnerving than finding out that aliens were real; he got the feeling that she didn't crack under pressure. Even in his flat, discussing how she'd been hunted she'd had a sense of calm, a sense of purpose. Now, though—now she seemed lost.
"Rose?" Sarah Jane echoed. For several long moments there was no response and they could only count the seconds as gradually Rose's breathing evened out and the tremors that wracked through slowed—and stopped.
"He never said," she whispered. "God, he never said it felt like that." She leaned on John's arm and then pulled herself upright.
"Take it slowly," he advised. He studied her as she righted herself. Rose reached out to use one of the boxes for support and gasped. "What is it?"
She flexed her hands and winced. "S nothing. I'll be fine."
A wry smile twisted John's lips. "You're a terrible liar, you know." He took one of her hands and gently pried her fingers back. A muscle in his jaw twitched. "This," he continued sternly, "this is not nothing." Angry red welts covered her palms, and John would bet they matched the designs on that thing.
Rose pulled her hand back. "Just leave it, they'll be fine."
John stared at her. "Rose, those are second degree burns! They'll take weeks to heal and you'll probably have scars."
She shook her head. "They'll be gone in the morning. I heal faster now."
"How fast?" Sarah Jane asked with a calculating look. "As fast as the Doctor?"
"Fast enough," Rose replied softly. "Seriously, John. It's alright. No need to fuss."
He rolled his eyes. "I'm a doctor, Rose. It's my job to fuss, especially when people have strange reactions to alien technology." John made a face. "I can't believe I just said that."
"Give it a few days," Sarah Jane advised. "It takes a bit of getting-used-to."
"So," Rose began when they were once again settled around Sarah Jane's kitchen table. "That's why we need the Doctor." The device was safely out of sight, tucked back in her jacket pocket. John offered to carry it for her but she'd refused. It was her responsibility, she told him, not his.
"Can't you destroy it?" he asked. Finding this man—alien—had already taken far too long, if Rose's episode was evidence.
She laughed incredulously. "Destroy it, me? John, I can't even look at it for too long. I've got no idea how! When Mycroft first brought it to me I tried everything—fire, ice, encasing it in cement—and nothing helped." She worried her bottom lip with her teeth. "It's working at my head like a lockpick and I can feel the tumblers falling into place."
"So you came to me," Sarah Jane added, "in the hopes that I could tell you how to reach the Doctor."
Rose leaned back in her chair. "Pretty well sums it up, yeah."
The older woman shook her head. "I'm sorry, Rose," she said gently, "but I've got no way to contact him, and neither does UNIT. He just shows up when there's trouble and leaves right after. Half the time they only know he's been here thanks to CCTV images of the TARDIS. Well, and the path of destruction he tends to leave behind."
"I know, but I'd hoped—" She sighed. "I was so close when that hospital was taken. If I had been a little quicker—"
Sarah Jane covered the younger girl's hand with her own. "I can't help you find him—but I might know someone who can." She pulled out a slip of paper, squeezed Rose's hand once, and then began to write. "I have a contact in Cardiff, a former member of Torchwood and apparently a former companion as well. He's situated over the Rift and working to get back to the Doctor himself." She folded the paper in half and laid it in front of Rose. "If anyone can help you, he can."