I don't own anything but a battered, old laptop and an overactive imagination.
A Coward's Story
He looked around the large underground shelter, cursing his luck. His hearts screamed at him to help these people, but he knew he couldn't. The invasion of New Paraguay during the Second Grikk War was a fixed point in time.
Usually the Doctor would leave, as soon as he realised he was dealing with a fixed point. There was no reason to stay, just to witness the inevitable destruction of a once thriving colony planet and all its inhabitants.
But this time he'd got himself trapped. The TARDIS was standing outside on a street corner, less than five minutes away. She might as well stand on a different planet for all the good it did him. He couldn't get to her as long as the Grikk were raining acid down on the planet.
The creaking of the heavy door drew him out of his sombre thoughts. Across the room he watched, as a young soldier ushered a small group of civilians into the shelter. Most of them were covered in chemical burns. The Doctor got to his feet. The laws of time didn't forbid treating their injuries as long as he didn't change any major events.
When he got closer to the group of injured humans, he noticed, that the young soldier – the green emblem on his helmet identified him as a medical officer – was arguing with his superior officer.
"But, sir, there are more out there," the young man said urgently. "I promised them, I'd be back for them."
"Lieutenant Cane," the old soldier barked. "You will stay here."
The young medic saluted stiffly. "Yes sir," he said automatically. The next second he turned and, ignoring the shouts and threats of a firing squad, sprinted up the stairs to the surface.
The Doctor would've whooped with joy – like every time compassion triumphed over military tactics – if it weren't for the danger that soldier had put himself in. It hadn't escaped the Doctor's attention, that the young man's Teflon-coated fatigues were already badly corroded and he had given his gas mask to one of the people he had just brought in. He would pay dearly for his bravery, maybe even with his life.
Shaking his head, as if to rid himself of this unpleasant thought, the Doctor strode purposefully up the commanding officer.
"I'm a doctor," he said, deliberately using the indefinite article. "How can I help?"
Almost an hour later he was standing outside the improvised infirmary, pulling the latex gloves off. He'd done all he could, but at least three of the newly arrived were beyond this century's medical abilities to save. One of them, an old woman, had already died and two others, a toddler and a teenage girl, wouldn't live through the night. The fumes of the chemicals raining from the sky had burned their lungs.
The Doctor sighed. Of course he could rescue all those people. The possibilities of the TARDIS's sick bay were almost limitless. But even if he could somehow manage to get to his ship, he dared not mess with a fixed point in time. Hating himself for it, he accepted their deaths as inevitable.
"Doctor, we need you," one of the nurses called from inside the tent.
"Coming," he shouted and re-entered the makeshift infirmary. Soldiers were just carrying in a middle-aged woman with chemical burns all over her body. He rushed to meet them, appraising her injuries, as he directed the soldiers towards an operating table.
"There's at least three more like her," one of the soldiers told him, before leaving the tent only to return a few minutes later, carrying another critical patient.
The Doctor was trying his best to stabilise his patients with the limited resources he had. He sprinted from one bed to the next, shouting instructions to the nurses and volunteers, frantically working to save the lives of people that he knew were probably doomed to die anyway.
If it hadn't been for the young medical officer who had brought them in, he would've lost at least two more. But the medic, although he had to be injured himself, worked relentlessly alongside him.
Finally they had stabilised all four of the critically injured – no reason to celebrate, they would die anyway, their lungs were too badly damaged – and had patched up all the minor injuries. Now that he no longer had a purpose, the young soldier started to sway on his feet.
Putting on his best do-what-I-say-and-no-discussions-frown, the Doctor led the soldier to an empty bed and made him sit down. "How are you," he asked softly.
The man grimaced. "I'm fine," he said, the tone of his voice belying his words.
"Lieutenant Cane," the Doctor said, letting a bit of authority slip into his voice. "Symptoms. Now."
"Dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain, sir," the soldier rattled off.
Without saying a word the Doctor snatched a medical scanner from a nearby table and ran it over the young man's chest. He schooled his face into a blank mask, trying not to show his anger and desperation.
"It's okay, sir," the young man said quietly. "I know I'm dying. Inhalation of caustic fumes. I'll suffocate slowly, as my lungs dissolve."
"I'm sorry," the Doctor whispered, fighting for composure. "I'm so sorry. You've been so brave…"
"You really don't recognise me, do you," the medic said, his sad chuckle turning into a coughing fit. "You wouldn't call me brave, Doctor, if you knew who I am. I'm a coward, the worst kind of coward."
The Doctor racked his brain, but he couldn't place this man. He was sure he'd remember, if he'd met him. "I'm sorry, I don't think I know you yet. See, I'm a time traveller. Things don't always happen to me in the right order."
The lieutenant seemed to take the time travel bit in stride. "So that's why you don't look a day older. You're even wearing the same suit. So for you that bus ride could have been yesterday, when for me it was almost ten years ago…"
Realisation hit the Doctor like a ton of bricks. It was hard to see the moody teenager in the face of the battle-scarred soldier. "Jethro?"
The soldier lowered his gaze. "Yes," he whispered, as if confessing to a terrible crime.
"What happened to you," the Doctor asked horrified. He still had some difficulties to reconcile his memories of the boy on the bus with the picture of the man who sat before him now.
Jethro opened his mouth to speak but had another coughing fit instead. Painful, hacking coughs shook his body and he doubled over in pain. With worry the Doctor noticed a few specks of blood on the soldier's sleeve, that he had covered his mouth with. With a muttered "back in a jiffy," he sprinted to the next medicine cabinet.
"Take these," he said, offering a few painkillers to Jethro. There was nothing else the Doctor could do for him or any of the severely injured.
But the soldier shook his head. "No, we're almost out of medical supplies," he rasped. "Save them for someone who needs them. I'm fine."
The Doctor could tell by the deep lines on the young human's faces, that he did need them. But he could also tell, that Jethro thought he didn't deserve them. The young man was beating himself up about something – most likely something to do with the war. It was as plain as day to the Doctor –if there was one field he was an expert in, then it was guilt and self-flagellation.
Admitting defeat, he put the pills down on the sheets next to Jethro. "What happened," he asked again. "What are you doing here?"
"It's a war out there and I'm a soldier," Jethro said, sounding almost like the bored teenager again. Silence stretched between them, until the young man suddenly couldn't take it any longer. "You were just gone," he burst out. "I looked for you at the leisure palace and on the shuttle, but you had just vanished."
"Why," the Doctor asked softly.
"I… I… I wanted to… apologise," the human stammered. He hung his head and for a moment it seemed, as if he had nodded off. "I guess it's too late now. But, for what it's worth… I'm really, truly sorry."
"After all these years? It still bothers you?"
Jethro tried to huff, but only succeeded in triggering another coughing fit. When it finally subsided he continued their conversation, as if nothing had happened. "Of course it still bothers me," he admitted freely. "We'd almost killed you and never even apologised."
"It's okay," the Time Lord muttered. "I'm not one to bear grudges."
"It's not okay," Jethro countered. "I learned something that day. I learned, that I'm a coward." He held up his hand to silence any protest. "It is true. I was wiling to let someone else die for me. No, that's too kind. I was willing to kill to safe . I knew we were wrong, but I was so scared."
"So was I," the Doctor admitted. And it was true, the total loss of control, the loss of his greatest weapon – speech – had terrified him. It had given him nightmares for weeks. But in the end it was just another small scar on an already scarred man.
The soldier shook his head. "That's not what I meant. Or yes it is. I was scared of the thing. But that fear faded as we left Midnight. The other fear… that never faded."
"What other fear?"
"The fear of myself," Jethro whispered, his voice barely audible. "The fear of what I'd become. The fear of what I'm capable of. I'm a coward. There's no need to sugar-coat it."
The Doctor was about to say something, when one of the volunteers called for him. "You stay here," he ordered and ran down the aisle between the beds.
When he came back, he tried not to show his emotions on his face. But Jethro was a soldier and a doctor too. He said just one word. "Who?"
"The baby boy you brought in two hours ago. I'm sorry," the Time Lord said. He knew his words sounded as hollow and empty as he felt.
"We're all dying," the young man said, coughing up a little blood, as if to prove it. There was shame and guilt in his eyes.
"You saved them," the Doctor told him. "Maybe not all of them but most. Let me tell you something a very clever girl once told me: Only 'cause you can't save everyone, doesn't mean it's your fault they died."
"Maybe not," Jethro conceded. "But it's all I got. At first, when we came back from Midnight, I tried to prove, to myself mostly, that I'm not a coward. I nearly got myself killed. More than once. Stood on a roof with my toes over the edge, picked a fight with a bunch of criminals, hover-racing, bungee-jumping – I took every stupid risk there is. But I was still afraid."
He coughed, doubling over in apparent pain, but still refusing the painkillers. "I accepted, that I'll always be a coward. But I tried to make up for it," he said, his tone pleading. "I wanted to help people. So I studied medicine and when the war broke out I volunteered as a medic. I've seen much bloodshed and death, Doctor. And it still scares me. It scares me, that I'm still afraid. It scares me that the world is going to the dogs and all I can do is to put sticking plasters on gaping wounds. It scares me that I'm going to die before I've earned forgiveness."
He looked so very young in the Doctor's eyes. A child begging to be forgiven, begging for someone to switch on the light and tell him, that there are no monsters under his bed. The way he was holding himself upright, trying not to show the pain he was in – it was heartbreaking.
"It's okay," the Time Lord said soothingly, helping the young soldier into the bed. "You could never earn anyone's forgiveness. That's not how it works. Forgiveness is given freely, whether you deserve it or not. That's the beauty of it." He took the boy's hand in his. "Is it my forgiveness you want for what happened on that bus?"
Jethro looked ashamed of himself, the blush standing in stark contrast to his pale skin. "Yes," he whispered hoarsely.
"Oh, Jethro. I forgave you a long time ago. You were so young and scared. No one in his right mind would've blamed you for what you did."
The soldier hadn't shed a single tear, when he'd found out, that he was going to die or when they had lost one of their patients. But now he was crying. "Thank you, Doctor," he rasped. "Thank you so very much."
With a pang of guilt the Doctor realised, that these were tears of relief. The poor boy had spent his whole life trying to atone for a sin, that had long since been forgiven. Driven by guilt he had made a living out of helping people. In a desperate attempt to prove, that he was a good man he had given his life away. That was something the Doctor was familiar with and it broke his hearts to know that a human, barely more than a child, had carried that burden.
"I know I don't deserve it," Jethro whispered. "But can you… no, I'm sorry. Can't ask that of you. You're so much better… I'm nothing… sorry." He turned his head away and closed his eyes.
"You're not nothing," the Doctor said with determination, taking the human's hand again. "You're a hero. You went back outside to save a bunch of strangers, knowing full well what price you'd pay. So, anything you need… just tell me."
"Please, can you stay," the young man croaked. "I don't want to… you know… die alone. Can you stay with me?"
And the Doctor stayed with him. He sat by his bedside for hours, watching him deteriorate slowly but constantly. Every pained whimper felt like a knife blow to his hearts as he watched the brave young soldier suffer.
He told stories about his travels to keep Jethro's mind from wandering off to that dark place full of regret and despair. He told him about the wonderful places he had seen and the monsters he had defeated. He told him about joy and wonder and friendship.
Near the end all he could do was hold the boy's hand and listen to his breathless groans and pleas to make it stop. He kept muttering a constant string of meaningless platitudes and reassurances. "You are forgiven," he whispered, his voice braking, as Jethro's searching eyes bored into his before closing one last time.
Four minutes and thirty-four seconds later the bright young human died.
He mourned the boy, whose innocence had been ripped away on an extonic planet. He mourned the hero, who had given his life so that others could live. And he mourned the friend he had never known.
When a soldier came to tell him the acid rain had stopped, the Doctor got up without a word. He straightened the sheet covering the fallen soldier. Without so much as a backwards glance the Doctor fled the underground shelter and back to the TARDIS.