A/N: And finally I come up for air. Once again, I apologize for the erratic posting; Peter Pan had it right. Growing up is for suckers. Also: I suddenly got a HUGE spike in hits on this story. Was this or "Into the Fire" put in a fanfic rec somewhere? Did someone or some people do something, or did people suddenly just really want to read this? I'd love to know.
"Impossible," Rose muttered again. "Impossible."
"I've never cared for the word impossible," the man in front of her said. "It has no room for opportunity."
His face was relaxed into a small smile; an expression she could never remember seeing on him before. All her memories of him seemed to be filled with clenched jaws and squinting, and occasional fake smile to hold the dread at bay. He tilted his head at her, eyes glinting with amusement.
Next to her, Merry and Pippin were uncharacteristically silent. The two wore identical expressions of shock, eyes wide and mouths hanging slightly open. Behind her, Treebeard straightened up from dumping them to the forest floor and shifted his weight from his right leg to his left, making a noise like a sapling splintering in half. In front of her was a dead man.
"You're dead," she heard herself say. "You died."
"I did," the man said agreeably.
Rose's brain seemed to be shorting out. "But then… no. No. You've died, you're dead."
The man chuckled, another unfamiliar sound. "Ah. I fell, true. But you of all people should know of the many paths a fall could take, the different ways it can lead. It has led me through fire; through water; and, it seems, to you." He raised his head, smiling at the Ent. "Well-met, my friend." Treebeard let out a low noise from the back of his throat.
Merry pushed himself onto his elbows, an incredulous look spreading over his face. "Gandalf?" he murmured.
The man's face grew distant for a moment; he seemed to be struggling to remember something. "Gandalf… yes. Gandalf the Grey. That was my name. And now…" He trailed off, lowering his eyes to meet hers.
Another faint smile, this time tinged with something… bigger. Something more powerful. "I am Gandalf the White."
Merry dropped his head back to the forest floor, Pippin pressing his down moments later. Rose, however, didn't look away. After a moment she rose to her feet, attempting to ignore the aches and pains shooting through her joints. She took a few shaky breaths. A few more. "Okay."
Gandalf raised an eyebrow at her.
She nodded, slowly. "Okay. I can do this. Regeneration. New body. Fine." A few more deep breaths. "What happens now?"
The wizard smiled at her, and for a moment her joints stopped aching. "Now? The tide begins to turn." He glanced up at Treebeard, and the Ent seemed to straighten up at his gaze. "Treebeard. They must not remain here. The trees have grown too wild; too dark."
"The trees?" Pippin asked quietly, but Rose could feel what he meant. A trickle down her spine; something was watching them. Something all around them, pressing in.
"You must take them; protect them. Deliver them to your home," Gandalf continued. Treebeard paused for a long moment, and Rose saw no outside signs that he had even heard the instructions. But Gandalf turned. "Up," he said simply, and the hobbits pushed themselves to their feet.
Rose, however, turned away from the Ent. "To his home?" she repeated. "But… no. No! You're back, and wonderful, well done all around, but now we need to get back. We need to find our party, we need to find the Doctor." Gandalf gave her a look that brought heat to her face. "And Aragorn. And the rest. All of them," she added hurriedly.
Gandalf's expression didn't change, but a new glint appeared in his eye. "Rest assured, your Doctor is quite alright. He is on his way here."
Rose felt something in her chest tighten. "He's alright? He's coming here? Now? Then we'll wait."
"You cannot," Gandalf said simply. She waited for more. There was none.
"But… that's it. 'You cannot?' What kind of answer is that?" Her voice rose, as she felt her chest tighten further.
Merry and Pippin seemed alarmed. "Miss Rose," the former muttered to her, but she ignored him. Her chest was still getting tighter and tighter.
"'You cannot!' Oh, well perfect, then!" Rose let out a rough, humorless laugh. "Wonderful! I'll just hop back up on your wooden manservant over there and away we'll go!" Treebeard let out a deep growl, but Rose didn't care. Gandalf was still watching her, the same quiet look of apathy on his face, and she wanted to change that. She needed to.
"Because heaven forfend that you allow us to do anything! Oh, no; better we're kept out of the way! Better we're told to hide, or run, or just stay here because we could get hurt! Better we're left somewhere until we're caught and kept captive until you come to rescue us and then the whole thing can start again because well, doesn't that just prove it?! Doesn't that just prove that I can't do anything?"
"Miss Rose," Merry said again, and this time he sounded alarmed. Pippin was staring at her with wide eyes. But Gandalf- he hadn't moved. The same small smile. And at the sight of it, Rose felt something in her chest finally snap.
"No! This is why I hate you- you and him, because you're the same! Acting like you never need help and never asking for it! Acting like you know exactly what's going to happen, until it all gets mucked up! Acting like you know everything! You don't! Because if you did, wouldn't you know what I'm thinking? Wouldn't you know how I wanted to help? And him- he would have known not to leave! He would have known that this would happen, that I'd get carried off again because surprise, surprise, telling me to stay put didn't work! Wouldn't he know by now that I can help him? Wouldn't he know I'm not useless?!"
There was a sudden silence, broken only by some shuffling and creaking in the distance. The hobbits stared at Rose, stunned. Gandalf's expression was still neutral, but his gaze seemed to have hardened. Rose was silent, breathing in and out with deep gasps; she felt as though she'd just ended a sprint. She felt the faint tinges of shame creeping into her head. Her chest felt empty. She lowered her gaze. "I… I'm sorry. I don't… I didn't…"
Gandalf blinked slowly, and said two words: "Bad Wolf."
Rose felt another stirring in her chest. "What?" she asked. Her voice sounded small to her ears.
Gandalf looked at her, gaze piercing. "My fall brought me to the edges of the stars; to the outer reaches of thought and time. Even now I feel the stirrings of it in my mind, though they remain blurred to me. Yet a small part of it seems to have set into place. Rest assured, Rose Tyler; you are not helpless. I believe that you have already done more than you know. There was- is- something within you. Dormant. And before you depart you will meet it again. But now is not the time."
Rose blinked, trying to absorb his speech. "Something within me? But-"
"The flow of time… I have seen it," Gandalf interrupted smoothly. "Not as a line, more as a river. Endless springs and passages, spreading onwards. Twists and turns. Possibilities. But… it all flows together. One way, one tide. And occasionally, only one channel. You will be of vital importance, Rose Tyler. It shall be- it must be."
"Fixed." Rose took a deep breath in and out. "Fixed point. I hate those. And vague warnings too. It must be my birthday."
Gandalf finally smiled again. "Treebeard," he said, and the Ent moved. He scooped up the two hobbits in one hand, then gingerly lifted Rose off the ground; almost as though he was afraid she would bite him. The two hobbits scurried up to Treebeard's head, wrapping themselves around branches, and Rose curled an arm around a stump sticking out of what was probably a shoulder.
"Miss Tyler," Gandalf called to her, eyes twinkling oddly. "Rest assured; you and your Doctor shall meet again soon. Five men will enter this part of the forest in two days' time. I shall meet them, if they shall meet me."
"Five?" Merry called down, brow wrinkling. "No; four. Strider, Gimli, Legolas, and the Doctor."
"Did I not tell you?" Gandalf responded calmly. "The Doctor has brought an old ally. A Captain. I look forward to meeting him."
Rose felt her heart leap in her chest. "A Captain… a Captain? Jack? Jack Harkness is alive? He's here?"
Treebeard began to walk, long steps nearly jarring her out of her place on his shoulder. Gandalf said nothing in farewell; after a moment, his white glow faded from view. All was quiet, except for the shattering sounds of Treebeard's footfalls. Merry seemed to be uncomfortable; he was shifting in his spot. Rose raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you alright Merry?"
The hobbit gave her a look of such surprise that she almost laughed aloud. "Me? Wh- yes. Yes. Are you alright?" Rose tilted her head at him.
"You were… very upset," Pippin added, looking at her out of the corner of his eye.
Rose shook her head, trying to smile at them. "Oh, I'm alright. Believe me, that… well, it was a fit, wasn't it? That had been building up for a while, now. I'm only sorry you had to be here to see it."
"Not at all, Miss Rose," Merry said quickly.
"Yes," Pippin piped up. He paused, and in the dim light it was difficult to see his expression. "And… well, as to… no, what I mean is-"
"If anyone has hurt you-" Merry interjected.
"In any way," Pippin nodded.
"-at all… we'd… er…" Merry fell awkwardly silent.
"Miss Rose," Pippin said suddenly, and Rose could swear she saw a blush on his face. "You know… well, I care for you-"
"We," Merry said hastily. "We care for you."
"Yes, WE," Pippin agreed, voice oddly high-pitched. "Not I. Well, no, wait- I do care for you, but not just I." He paused, but continued quickly after a moment. "Well, that's not to say that we're the only ones who care for you, but you should know that we'd… well, we would-"
"Gentlemen," Rose interrupted, trying to keep her voice level. "I'm honored. Thank you." She bit her cheek, afraid she would laugh.
The hobbits were silent. After a long, awkward pause Merry cleared his throat. "So," he said bracingly. "Who is Jack?"
Rose looked up at the two of them. "How old are you two again? Over eighteen?"
They drew themselves up, clearly affronted. "Almost forty," Merry said haughtily.
Rose grinned. "Then let me tell you about Jack Harkness…"
It wasn't that Aragorn didn't trust his party. On the contrary, he trusted them with his life. It was only that he didn't trust them with theirs. So when, on the first day of their search in Fangorn, the Doctor suggested splitting up, Aragorn was… understandably doubtful.
"I would not have us separated. These woods are treacherous," he cautioned. Legolas and Gimli muttered their assent, glancing around cautiously. They were only one hundred feet inside the bounds of the tree line, and already sunlight had been swallowed up around them. What was left was tinged a sickening green, and each twisted stump had begun to look like a hunched beast, waiting to pounce.
The Doctor and Jack seemed to have no such qualms.
"We don't have to go and scarper off," the Doctor was arguing, hands resting loosely in his pockets. "We'll split off and scan. Rose wouldn't have wandered too far in; stay near the sun and all that."
"We can walk along this line, and then come back," Jack echoed. He was glancing around nonchalantly, just as relaxed as the Doctor. "What could go wrong?" The Doctor's back stiffened, and his head snapped around to glare at Jack. Jack flinched. "Oh- oops. Sorry."
The three remaining members stayed silent. The Doctor cocked and eyebrow and said, "Alright; groups, then. Jack and I, and then you three. We won't go alone."
"And what if something were to go wrong?" Aragorn argued. "We wouldn't know."
"What do you want us to do, then?" The Doctor asked him.
"We could play 'marco polo,'" Jack suggested sarcastically.
The Doctor began to turn to scold him, but Legolas stepped forward. "What is 'marco polo?'" he asked seriously. Jack blinked at him, an odd expression spreading over his face.
The Doctor looked pained. "Jack, don't start-"
"Someone yells 'marco.' Everyone else yells 'polo,'" Jack explained, visibly trying to keep himself from cracking up. "So you know where everyone is."
Gimli snorted. "Sounds like a children's game."
"It is a children's game," the Doctor explained wearily. "Can we just-"
"It may work," Legolas mused. "If only to keep in contact."
"No it may not," the Doctor butted in. "Now, can we…" He trailed off. The three men were looking at him expectantly. Jack looked like Christmas had come early. The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "You really want to conduct a search for victims of a kidnapping by orcs, in a haunted forest, while playing 'marco polo.'"
There was a pause.
The Doctor shrugged and grinned. "Marco."
"Polo," the other four echoed obediently. Jack and the Doctor shared a quick glance, before looking in any direction but each other.
"Right," Jack choked out. He seemed to be biting the inside of his cheek. "Off, then." Without another word, the groups split and began walking in opposite directions.
Aragorn led the way, stepping lightly over fallen twigs and branches. He kept his eyes trained forward, narrowed in an attempt to see through the thick gloom. Behind him, the only noises were the nearly-inaudible footfalls of Legolas and the louder crunches of Gimli. The forest seemed to inhale the noise, and the void was only growing. A shiver ran down Aragorn's spine.
"Marco," he called.
From off in the distance came a few muffled noises (was that laughter?), and then a faint cry of "Polo."
"This is a mistake," Gimli muttered.
Legolas shrugged a shoulder. "Game or no, it's effective."
"Not the blasted game," Gimli snapped at him. "Splitting our party again. Leaving them alone."
"I trust the Doctor," Aragorn countered, speaking softly.
"And Jack?" Legolas asked.
"The Doctor can handle himself," Aragorn continued, ignoring the second question.
"Spare me," Gimli huffed, gripping the handle of his axe. "The man acts like a boy half his age, and the Captain is worse. The two of them are like lads playing soldiers; I trust them to be alone as much as I trust a mountain to move."
Legolas gave him a sideways glance. "Are you worried about them, Gimli?"
Gimli harrumphed. "I'll let you know when I want your advice, elf."
Aragorn turned over his shoulder, locking eyes with the shorter man. "What are you thinking, Gimli?"
Gimli locked eyes with him, and for a moment a look of concern was visible. "I'm thinking… you should call them again."
"Marco." They listened.
"Polo!" It sounded angry.
They walked in silence a while longer. Aragorn tried to convince himself that the stump up ahead was just that, and nothing else.
"What if we do not find them?" Aragorn turned in surprise, to find Legolas staring at him.
"What do you mean?" Aragorn asked, turning back to avoid tripping.
"The Doctor feels much for Rose," Legolas said simply. "If she is lost…"
"He is lost," Gimli finished. "I saw it at the lake. He was… broken."
"You were paying rather close attention to him," Legolas observed innocently. "If I didn't know you better I may assume you cared if he was-"
"Elf," Gimli growled. "I paid attention because I don't want to know what a broken man with his kind of power is capable of."
The others fell silent. Aragorn swallowed hard. "Marco."
They ground to a stop; Aragorn felt his heart rise into his throat. "Marco."
Without another word, the three turned and began to run. Gimli was cursing under his breath.
"Damn them. Foolish lads, damn them."
"I can't believe you," the Doctor hissed, but the smile in his eyes betrayed him.
Jack swung his arms, skipping over a fallen branch. "Can't you?"
"You've taught an ancient civilization of a forgotten realm how to play 'marco polo.'" The Doctor let out a sigh, shaking his head. "Do you ever consider consequences? At all?"
Jack was practically preening. "Technically, we taught them that. And anyway, you can't tell me this is going to severely damage the time line."
"The moment a violent coup is staged and carried out through the weaponization of the hokey pokey, you'll be eating those words."
Jack spread his arms out, stretching and beaming at the dark branches above. "This is your problem; I can't believe this is still your problem. You take things too seriously."
The Doctor's face fell, and he fixed Jack with a hard stare. "Some of us have to."
There was a small pause. No one spoke.
Their eyes met, and they burst out laughing. The Doctor shushed Jack, who was bent double, and called out, "Polo!"
"This is one of the top achievements of my life, I think," Jack mused. "Battlefield usage of 'marco polo.' Maybe they'll name it after me."
"Sorry; a certain explorer of China beat you to it."
They paused, coming a rest on the gnarled roots of an old tree. The Doctor scanned the area, and Jack tilted his head at him. "You know something? I believe this is the longest conversation you and I have had since I got here."
The Doctor hummed in reply, forehead furrowing. He seemed to be listening for something.
"Yeah… at least, longest one that isn't an argument." Jack nodded to himself. "Nice to see this new you is capable of that."
The Doctor closed his eyes, straining his hearing. "Is that bitterness I hear? We were doing so well."
"Sorry," Jack said, narrowing his eyes. "Banishment leaves a bad taste in the mouth."
The Doctor's eyes snapped open. "I thought we discussed this."
Jack seethed. "So? I'm never allowed to mention it again?"
The look on the Doctor's face slipped quickly from guilt to cool disappointment. "I don't think it's appropriate to mention it now. In case you've forgotten, Rose is still missing."
"Oh, but the hokey pokey is an appropriate topic of conversation."
"You are impossible."
"Oh, trust me- you certainly saw to that."
The Doctor winced, and looked away. Jack felt a stab of sick pride, and tried to convince himself that it was stronger than the shame he felt. "Anyway, Mister Time Lord- what are we even doing here? Matter of fact, what am I even doing here? Why not just whip out the screwdriver and find your lost puppy alone?"
The Doctor gave him a hard look, reaching into his pocket and pulling something out. He held it up- a chunk of metal, bright blue at one end. Jack felt his stomach flip.
"Holy hell. What happened to it?"
"It was an accident," the Doctor muttered. "Rose, she… it doesn't matter. I'll be able to fix it if- when we get back to the TARDIS."
Jack grimaced. "And who is 'we,' exactly?" The Doctor gave him a look of confusion, and he laughed out loud. "Oh, I'm sorry- I just didn't want to assume that I was allowed to go with you this time. But of course, Rose is along for the ride. She breaks the sonic, you forgive her. I die trying to help you and she makes me a monster, and suddenly I'm your worst enemy."
"Polo!" Jack spat.
The Doctor was livid. "Don't you talk about her. What are you trying to say?"
Jack smirked. "I'm saying that your little schoolboy crush was cute until it ruined my life."
The Doctor froze.
"Please," Jack spat at him. "You didn't think it was obvious? I knew. I knew from the moment I saw you two dancing. But I really knew when you told me what you did on that hillside. Rose made you, but it was my fault. Bullshit. Bullshit and you know it. But you're afraid to put the blame on her because she might leave you. And wouldn't that be terrible, Doc? Must hurt to be abandoned."
The Doctor's face was so absolutely stunned that at any other point, Jack would have laughed. But not right now. Not now. "I… don't…"
"And you know what? Rose and I are gonna have a long chat." Jack raised his voice to a falsetto. "Oh, Rose! So you broke the sonic and turned me into an abomination, and I tried to save your life! Clearly you're the chosen one! I'll just let myself out!"
"Do not tell her ANYTHING!" The Doctor's shout shocked Jack from his tirade, and in a moment he realized why. Why the Doctor was so reluctant to discuss it, why he had hidden from it- why he was so panicked now.
"Oh, Doc," Jack muttered. "She doesn't know, does she? She doesn't know she did it…"
The Doctor opened his mouth to respond, but suddenly a low groan cut through the air. They both froze, and the Doctor paled. "Jack. Get off the tree."
"What?" The groan grew louder.
"Get off the tree!" The Doctor began to scramble off the roots, but tripped and fell heavily onto his hands. Jack leaned down to help him, only to feel something rough wrap around his waist. He looked down, and his blood ran cold.
When he looked back, Jack couldn't help but admit that it all happened impressively quickly. For a tree, at least. The Doctor was struggling, trying to free his captured feet, as more tendrils snaked their way around his hands. Jack opened his mouth to shout for help, but the root tightened and the air was crushed from his lungs. There was a horrible scraping and crushing sound, a sudden smell of dirt-
And then nothing around them but darkness and silence.