Summary: The fireplace doesn't turn.
Fandom: Doctor Who
Pairing: Doctor/Reinette, implied Doctor/Rose and possible Doctor/Jack
Spoilers: AU from the end of New Who episode 2x04, "The Girl in the Fireplace"
Warnings: Non-violent character death
Author's notes: Thanks to slightlytookish for the quick and helpful beta, and to claudia603 for encouragement.
Original story: Things Are Broken by aralias
The fireplace didn't turn, just as he had explained it wouldn't, and of course he would be right about this kind of thing (which wasn't to say he wasn't holding out some little hope, right until the last moment, gripping the mantel and pushing off the floor with one foot, like a child on skates, but no, it didn't work like that).
"Nah," he said. "Nice try, but this connection's dead like all the rest."
She stared at him for a moment, puzzled. "Why do you speak English," she asked, and her accent was correct, measured, and very French.
"Forgive me," he answered in her language. "I do it without thinking. I'll pay more attention from now on."
"So you will stay, and walk the slow path with me after all," said Reinette, her hands clasped in front of her chest, a tentative smile on her lips. It reminded him that this disappointment, the end of his hope of getting back, was just the beginning of what she'd hoped for. And that couldn't be all bad.
"Looks like that, doesn't it?" He took her hand and grinned, determined to share her happiness even as he felt his hearts break. She let out the breath she'd been holding, relaxed, and he said, "Would you show me the way?"
The walk turned out to be very slow indeed, but it was also measured and graceful, and he soon found himself enjoying it. Not only for the company, but for the relative peace and comfort of palace life. He tried not to think of himself as stuck, shipwrecked, out of his element. If there was one thing he was good at it was adjusting to change.
He tried very hard not to think of Rose.
But when he did, he often managed to reassure himself that that would work itself out too. Eventually he would find his way back through time, and once he did it shouldn't be any trouble to make his way out to the right coordinates and the right moment of the 51st century, say, two minutes after she'd seen him go. Or perhaps five hours (he'd always told her to wait five hours), or even day or two, enough to give her and Mickey some time to rest on their own before they got on to their next adventure. He doubted she'd even miss him much.
He'd been stranded before, and all things considered he much preferred 1759 Versailles in the company of Madame de Pompadour to, oh, Earth before the evolution of humans, for example. Besides, something was bound to come up. In the meantime, there were salons and conversations to be had with Reinette and Katherine, Diderot and D'Alambert, King Louis and Queen Marie, at all hours of the day and night. France was at war, her colonies in the New World at stake, and Reinette was held responsible by many, but the danger of death and world destruction did not confront him on a daily basis. Whenever a crisis came along she would hold his hand and tell him to sit back, that she would work something out, and somehow she always did. He didn't always know how and he didn't pry behind the doors she chose to shut. It was her place, her time, her subtle rhythm, and while it took some adjustment he eventually found it was a great relief to hold on and let her lead.
At Versailles there were vast gardens of flowers of the kinds he'd never taken the time to admire. There were innovations in the artistry of porcelain and woodwork in which the two of them took part. There were joyous costume balls and there were silent, slow dances in the privacy of Reinette's bedchamber. There was time.
Except that five years turned out not to be very much time at all. Once the sickness took hold she seemed to be running ahead, and him still stuck on the same slow path.
There ought to be a way to get penicillin. Never mind that introducing it early would almost certainly change the course of human history – it was only a couple of centuries, after all. He carried a screwdriver and a mind that didn't belong in this time; if he'd been responsible he would have been carrying a medical supply kit as well, and then he'd be able to save the day, which was what he was used to. He'd be able to say, "Swallow this," and she'd do as he instructed and in a few days she'd be better, and they'd go for another walk in the gardens. He ought to be able to do more than sit by her bedside and hold her hand and listen to her cough.
"I always trusted my Fireplace Man to come to my rescue," she teased. Her voice was weak.
"I'm here," he answered, because presence, company, that was all he could give her.
They all do die, of course. He knows when he meets them they all will die and he'll go on. But he wasn't used to staying with them for so long or staying with them till the end. It hurt, and not like a choice or an idea or a light gone missing from the night sky. It hurt like a limb being torn from your body and he knew it wouldn't regenerate. It would turn from a sharp agony to a dull ache. The most he could hope for now was for it to fade into the rest of the hurt.
He resolved not to let it happen again. He sought out good conversation with people he liked, not adventures and not people he loved. He stayed with Voltaire at Ferney until the old man died, cursing the priests and hypocrites. He got out of France before the Revolution, old memories of Robespierre's reign still enough to fill him with terror. As much as he longed to see Susan and Barbara and Ian again, he knew he wouldn't be able to get out with them on the TARDIS, since he knew it hadn't happened last time.
He found a living as a village physician in Hampshire, and after years of saving individual lives rather than civilisations, he lay down one summer night and died his very first peaceful death.
He hadn't given much thought to coming back, as he'd been so tired by the end, and so settled in the day to day, but the new body was that of a boy barely out of his teens. At first he thought the tingling in his limbs and the rushing in his blood and the mania in his mind was just the lingering effect of the regeneration, but hours passed and days, and he couldn't move enough to satisfy this need. He'd been a fool to waste sixty years in this little village (as stimulating as the conversations with Jane had been). Why avoid risk, when the danger of death only meant the joy of starting all over again?
He traveled. He was a sailor and a stowaway, though never a soldier. He went to Canada and Liberia and Siam, saw discoveries and inventions and even wars, met rulers and writers and railroad workers. He still took time to visit the world's great gardens and tried to look at them with Reinette's critical eye. He saw Versailles brilliant again and turned into a museum. He saw golden cities rise up along the California coast. In a backstreet in Cardiff in 1869 he looked into Rose Tyler's eyes, tipped his hat, and turned away.
He kept thinking that if he hung around major world events long enough he was sure to run into some other time traveler who'd be willing to give him a lift. Maybe he'd even find some future version of himself, since past versions were out. And yet he kept on living, day to day, year to year. He risked death a hundred more times and yet by combination of luck, destiny and (obviously) extreme cleverness, he managed to keep the same body intact until he was an old man again, wrinkled and croaking but still full of energy. The British explorers he was traveling with considered him far too old for climbing mountains but went along with him because of his enthusiasm and his vast knowledge. The Sherpa, in contrast, didn't seem to find him at all remarkable.
"The abominable snowman," he explained to his companions excitedly, "is not a man at all." They continued to stand there and tremble. To the beast he shouted, "Are you?"
The yeti roared.
"Stop that, you don't fool me! You're as capable of communicating in words as any of us." And the Doctor was starved for communication with someone from another world. Never mind that this one had been hanging out in the Himalayas for a thousand years, maybe it could at least give him a clue. "Just let us know what it is you want. You want to stay out here in the snow and leave the humans alone, we'll believe you. Want world domination, we're going to have to have more of a talk."
Snow fell slowly through the thin air. The Doctor lay on the mountainside among rough blankets and smooth new skin. He felt calm.
"Well," he said. "That was unexpected."
He didn't feel up to hiking and no one else felt up to carrying him, so he stayed there for some months.
With Reinette he'd had a few short years of dancing and a human's lifetime full of standing still. His eleventh regeneration had wanted to be running all the time. From now on he reasoned he had better walk. Perhaps he'd have to walk through another hundred lifetimes to make it back to the 51st century, but he hoped it would only be two or three.
"I think I'm done climbing mountains though," he said when he was ready to leave. He did climb down and then took a steamship to Britain.
He was not stranded, not shipwrecked. He was, he told himself, completely in his element. London was crackling with energy, shooting itself forward through time and human knowledge. He made friends with money who helped him publish a book of fantastic adventures, and then he was a friend with money. (He befriended a hungry science teacher in Kensington, for instance, and suggested that "The Chronic Argonauts" could use a more mundane title.) He took pleasure in good food, fine silk, and polite reserve.
He was stranded for a short time, a few years later. Having traveled to Chicago for the World's Fair (because he always found people's visions of the future amusing) and intending to leave once it closed, he was robbed and left penniless. Times were bad and money hard to come by, and then the Pullman workers went on strike. In July of the following year, what was left of the White City caught on fire, and he helped the strikers and hobos who'd taken refuge in its buildings to escape. Then amid so many screams and curses in broken American accents he heard a familiar flat voice that made him grin from ear to ear.
"I can't believe this," it was saying.
"Captain Jack Harkness, I presume."
Jack looked at him warily, probably thinking he was the father of some easily seduced young person.
"Of course you don't recognize me," the Doctor said quickly. "Don't worry, I'm not here to avenge anyone's honor." He paused. "We're old friends, Jack."
"Do you know me from something that hasn't happened yet?"
The Doctor considered. "Hasn't happened yet in 1894, but I think it must be the past for you." He thought about trying to explain some more but instead just pulled out his sonic screwdriver (which, thankfully, the thieves hadn't seen as having any value). "Show me your vortex manipulator, would you?"
At once Jack's face lit up and he pulled the Doctor into a tight hug, so unexpected that he nearly lost his balance. He pulled away as gracefully as he could and Jack continued to smile at him, but sadly, disappointed and without much hope as he took out his own gadget. "It's useless," he said. "Burned, along with everything else. Why, don't you have the TARDIS with you? We do have some way of getting out of here, don't we?"
The Doctor listened while giving most of his attention to the vortex manipulator. He thought about the thousand times he'd dreamed of running into this particular man with this particular device in his pocket, and he wished the man weren't now complaining so much. Still, he couldn't blame him– it must be frightening, what he did, travelling through time without a map. More like clinging to driftwood than a steamship. "How long have you been here?" he asked
"Eight whole days. It's horrible. Of all the places. I mean, if I'm gonna be stuck in the 1890s, can't it at least be in London?"
"Why don't we give that a try first. I'd rather try hopping to the other side of the planet as our first test, rather than jump straight to the 51st century. Did you ever meet Oscar Wilde?"
"I haven't seen him in far too long either, and I'm sure he'll be amused to see me in this get-up." He smiled, pleased with his work, and offered Jack his arm. "Here we are, hold on."
His London friends did indeed laugh at them in their old, shabby and damaged clothes, and then they took them out shopping. And as the Doctor dressed again in the high fashions and brilliant colors he'd now become accustomed to, he understood for the first time that he really was going to leave this century behind, and he would miss its charm when he'd gone.
After a few more test runs, they jumped forward to the 23rd and did some more precise repairs on the vortex manipulator, and when they made it to the SS Madame de Pompadour Jack bounded ahead, calling out Rose and Mickey's names. His voice was warm and happy and casual and the one that answered it was hoarse and muffled and broken. When the Doctor caught up to them he understood they were talking into each other's clothes and hair as they held each other close. He stood back and waited.
Then Jack said something else and let go, went to greet Mickey, while Rose and the Doctor stepped toward each other and then stopped awkwardly. He'd thought of this moment even more often than he'd dreamed of finding Jack, but he found suddenly that he had nothing to say, and after thinking for a few minutes he managed only, "I'm sorry."
Rose stared at him. Behind her Jack was slapping Mickey on the back and then walking inside the TARDIS with him. It pulsed and glowed, as if sensing his presence.
"So, this is, what, your eleventh…twelfth regeneration?" Rose asked.
"Twelfth," he agreed.
She nodded. "How long…" she began, but her voice cracked and she stopped.
"A hundred and thirty five years," said the Doctor, and there it was, just a couple of words. That was how you counted time, not in journeys or in stories or in broken hearts but in numbers: two regenerations and a hundred thirty five years. "There was no one else around with the right technology, so I had to wait for Jack to arrive with his burned out vortex manipulator."
"Oh," said Rose.
"How long were you waiting?"
"Four months." Without Reinette or Dennis or Katherine. Without new governments or ways of getting out, starting over. Four months in and out of a time machine they didn't know how to use, without any knowledge that the future would work itself out and they'd someday make it off this godforsaken hull.
"Ah," he said. "I was aiming for four hours. Sorry."
The TARDIS doors were still open and he could think of nothing more to say, so he simply offered her his arm. She took it silently, without offering her forgiveness, and together they walked back into his ship.